Noatak River Trip

Summer of 1996

Part 1: Noatak Headwaters

In the winter of 1996 Andrew and I planned big. We decided that we wanted to take a long trip to the wilderness and that canoes would be a great vehicle and that Alaska would be a great location. We soon found that there were a great many rivers and it was difficult to choose. Eventually I came across an outfitter's website which offered a fairly good price for getting us and some canoes into the Noatak. The Noatak is one of the longest untouched artic rivers. It was long, in a wild place, but not too rough, and we could get there:

Map of Alaska showing location of trip
Map of the trip (red region of Alask map).

Pre Trip Preparations

Tom sewing the bug tent.
Sewing the bug tent that became an important part of every camp.

The float plane prepairing to leave us.
Some of our bags were over weight so we had to repack at the airport.

7/22, Monday

The float plane preparing to leave us.

Flew Fairbanks to Bettles to Noatak headwaters.

As the pilot was departing we wished him a good flight back. He said he expected to, the weather was great. This puzzled us because it was overcast and threatening to rain, though it was warm.

5 minutes latter we have the bug tent set up.
The bug tent at our first camp. Pete cooking in the bug tent.

7/23, Tuesday

Arctic start: It's been light for two months, will be light for another day. not sure what time it is now, not sure when we'll get up.

Andrew on the ridge of Mt. Oyakek.

Hiked ridge line toward Mt Oyakek. Andrew and I went ahead but stopped 2000 ft below summit, which was in clouds. Flew kite in arctic winds.

[I Notice that Andrew's camera is sounding a little sluggish and ask when he last replaced the battery. It turns out the battery is dying and in the second half of the trip his camera will only operate when it is warm and sunny. Still, it fairs better than all other cameras.]

Had good talk on way down.

[Back in camp, feeling hungry and impatient for dinner I share one of my large butter bars with Andrew. This is before I realize just how very valuable these things will become.]

Dinner is rice-bean burritos. Pete is napping in the tent when dinner is ready so I go to get him, but he chooses to skip dinner. Good news for us because there is really just enough food here for the three of us.

7/24, Wednesday

Hiking across a side hill.

Hike up Portage Cr., the side drainage toward divide. Showers become rain.

Pete makes us stop for lunch early and wants to eat a lot of the cheese. From now on, no one misses dinner.

Going slow on endless hill side with many stops for group discussion. See 1st grizzle bear, blond, across valley. Descend to creek and walk in water.

The gravel bar where we camped.

Camp on gravel bar.

7/25, Thursday

Breakfast: Oatmeal, 2 packets.

Andrew on ridge above camp.

Andrew & Peter hike while R & I read in tent.

Lunch @ 4PM with Richard. We toasted bagels by placing a small flat rock, some sort of slate, on top of the stove, putting the bagel on that, and covering it all with an upside down pot. Once all the water is driven out of the rock it heats nicely and makes a good toaster. Finish by melting some cheese on top. Meanwhile a fine drizzle finds it way into the bug house.

More rain. Head hurts from sitting inside reading. Feel a need to get on the river and start moving. Feel like this side trip is a delay. Why? 3 weeks left: a daunting amount of time.

Already there have been many discussions about our limited food supply. Are we getting enough calories? Are we eating at a sustainable rate?


Dinner was a dismal affair. Or would have been had we four not been able to find humor in the conditions. Rain more consistently as evening progressed. Mist to light rain mostly. Dinner was good: 620 calories per person. Yum. Counting calories: did I get enough? NOT YET!

Back at the tent Andrew informs me it is 11pm. With out my own watch I am sliding through time with no reference points. Some parts of the day are dimer than others but night never comes. Still, I sleep very well each night. Today was a rest day - time to rest my knee and let my body fight whatever infection has been giving me a sore throat.

7/26, Friday




Stops briefly by 9.

Breakfast on oatmeal in drizzle. Peter sleeps in. Nothing against that but if he misses breakfast he'll chow on lunch.


This evening dinner was a rare treat: I actually felt full after eating. Another burrito meal but with extra beans.

Pete crossing the river.

It was a hard day. After B'fast, packed camp in the rain. Crossed flooded stream 3 times then up ridge line for 2,300 ft. Starts raining half way up. I'm wet and uncomfortable. R. says he feels like a poster child for hypothermia. Looks it too. We all do.

The high country.

As we top out on the ridge the rain stops. Walking down the other ridge line I begin to feel myself dry out. Clouds clear and I see the Noatak valley. At first I think "I don't remember a lake of that shape" then realize it's the Noatak at Flood. Must be up 3 ft +. We left the canoes on a high bank but just how high was it?

Hurry along with foreboding. Finally can see bank where canoes should be. Spot them with Pete's binoculars. Still, We hurry. Won't really feel safe until the food is in hand.

Pete and I end up in a horrible bushwhack getting down to the valley floor. But by the time we are back to the canoes the weather is clearing a little. We nap in tents while socks dry in the sun and wind then get up and cook dinner.

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Page last modified:  Feb 18 17:21 2010  by  Tom Unger