Alaska's Ultimate Wilderness

Paddling the Noatak River
By Buck Tilton
Page 1 of 5   |  
Gates of the Artic History
In 1929 and the early 1930s, the legendary Bob Marshall extensively explored the central Brooks Range and the drainage of the North Fork Koyukuk River east of us. Near the headwaters loom two peaks — Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain — between which the North Fork Koyukuk runs; these he called "The Gates of the Arctic," the name given to this national park and preserve since its establishment in 1980.
The parkland covers approximately 8.5 million acres, a landmass more than four times greater than Yellowstone National Park, all lying north of the Arctic Circle. Just over 7 million acres are managed as federally designated "wilderness," a natural treasure to remain forever, as much as possible, in its pristine condition. Only two wilderness areas are larger, the Wrangell-Saint Elias and the Arctic, both also in Alaska.

Short and mild, summer north of the Arctic Circle nears its end. Ten days of August remain on the calendar. The chill of fall's edge sweetens the air. Dark, thick clouds hang pendulous and threatening, just above the cockpit of the float plane. Beneath us rise the bold, stark, massive, vertical cliffs of the Arrigetch Peaks — a section of the Brooks Range — mountains that stand passive yet forbidding across the east-west length of Gates of the Arctic National Park. The range splits into glacier-carved valleys fed by clear streams, then spreads vastly into open tundra, virtually treeless and dotted with lakes, home of barren-ground caribou, shaggy musk oxen, fox and wolf, and the unpredictable grizzly bear. This is, says the National Park Service brochure, "Alaska's Ultimate Wilderness."

Zachary, my son, face pressed against the window, has moved little during the flight, and only then to direct my attention to a heavily antlered moose or a thin cascade of water hurrying down a mountain ravine. A seasoned veteran at three-and-a-half years of age, this will be Zachary's fourth extended river journey: ten days, this time on the Noatak.

Longest of all rivers federally designated"Wild and Scenic," longest river in a national park, the Noatak drains the largest protected watershed within the United States, a huge basin virtually untrod by human feet. From its birth high in the Brooks Range, the Noatak River tumbles westward through its narrow upper valley, passing briefly through the northwesternmost boreal forest on the continent before broadening and slowing as it winds through a wide plain overgrown with mosses, lichens, and dwarf shrubs, bounded by distant snowcapped peaks. It runs more than 350 miles total — 330 wild and scenic miles — before emptying into Kotzebue Sound, a large inlet of the Bering Strait.

We have flown, more or less, up the wild and scenic Alatna River, over a low pass, and down the Noatak a short distance, more than 150 air miles from Bettles, the nearest settlement. Bettles: an unpaved airstrip, a couple of hangers, a couple of dozen buildings including a lodge. To get to Bettles, we flew almost two hours in a 19-seater, a regularly scheduled flight from Fairbanks. To get to Fairbanks, we flew from Denver. The float plane, last leg of the start of our trip, circles and settles with incredible smoothness onto the still water of Twelve Mile Slough, which seeps into the Noatak. We are not only a long way from home, but one heck of a long way from anything on the map that even bears a name, other than the water.

The second plane landed with the rest of our party and taxied on fat pontoons to the grassy shore of the slough. The chore of unloading, directed by the pilots, went quickly. Then the planes were off, the sound faded, and the sensation of standing near the center of one of the wildest places left in the world crawled pleasantly up my spine.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »