Alaska's Ultimate Wilderness

Weather or Not
By Buck Tilton
Shoving off on the Noatak

August brings the rainy season to the Brooks Range, but mid-June through July are so thick with mosquitoes it's hard to breathe for fear of inhaling so many you choke, and September usually provides the first snows of winter. Rain was more appealing. And rain it did, starting in a drizzle as we set up our bright yellow dome tents and a tarp to cook under.

Rain gear became the wardrobe of choice, protection from the precipitation that fell, from drips to torrents, part of every day. Waterproof parka and pants, not just water-resistant clothing, were essential. Without rubber boots — high, sturdy, rubber boots — travelers are doomed to live in soggy socks, unpleasant at best, unhealthy in the worst of times. After a couple of properly clothed and shod days, the wet was simply a part of life — not good, not bad, just there.

Midday temperatures seldom reached beyond the mid-60s (Fahrenheit), and nights dropped below freezing once or twice, leaving a film of ice within water bottles. The wind blew, sometimes soft and purring, sometimes whipping the tents and tarp into a frenzy, and leading us, in several camps, to stack and tie down our inflatable canoes as a windbreak.

The rain never dampened, and the wind failed to ruffle, Zachary's spirits. He sang often, tossed rocks from the gravel bars into the river, and lay back to doze, now and then, in the bow of our boat as we paddled through squalls, his face buried in his parka's hood. At the time I simply marveled, but, looking back, I think it was because he traveled innocent of expectations. What matter the wind-thrown water when one anticipates nothing else? I can say this about adventuring in the joyful company of a small child: It rubs off on you in many desirable ways.

Not that the clouds never parted. On the ninth night, my journal records — after 48 hours of constant drizzle — I awoke to utter Arctic stillness and crawled out into the short August darkness to stand beneath an array of gleaming stars and the effulgent curtain of the northern lights wavering like a giant ghost.

Expert Advice

"Seek advice and plan carefully," suggested the park brochure. With so many unknowns facing us — how much and what type of cargo, for instance, can a float plane carry? — we chose to journey with an outfitter. Chris and Barb — owners and operators of Mountains and Rivers, based in Wasilla, Alaska — were our guides extraordinaire, along with their son Joseph. Perpetually upbeat and warmly personable, they established and maintained a high level of morale that extended throughout the trip."It's raining," said Chris through a wide grin, "but at least it's not very warm." Over glowing coals near Twelve Mile Slough he grilled steaks that soon proved to taste even better than they smelled — the first of numerous outstanding meals, always served with humor and a sip, should someone be interested, of a worthy scotch or a crisp wine.

After the first dawn and a large hot breakfast, we pumped up the inflatable canoes supplied by Mountains and Rivers. Soar was the brand name. Pigs, Chris called them. Slow to maneuver, but the Noatak requires very little maneuvering. Superbly stable, capable of floating a heavy load, I decided the "pigs" were the ideal boat for the Noatak as Zachary eagerly crawled back and forth between Melissa, his mom, in the bow and me in the stern as we settled into our first day of paddling. Brian and Piper leaned into the paddles of a second canoe, with Tom and Erica in a third. Chris and Barb controlled the lead canoe, and Joseph, alone, brought up the rear in the fifth. Ten people, five boats, and about a month-long walk to the nearest town — if you're lucky and a bear doesn't get you before you starve.

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


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