CANOE TRIP ON THE NOATAK RIVER

Our plan for the day was to canoe across the swift river, hike up the mountain that did not look too far away, locate Matcharack Lake, and photograph the Noatak Valley. We dressed in life jackets and rubber boots, and loaded our daytime equipment into the canoe (hiking shoes, cameras, walking poles, raincoats, backpack, water, snacks, the loaded shotgun).

We portaged everything 200 yards upstream, hopped in the canoe, pushed off from the stony shore, and paddled furiously toward the other side against a swift current. Once the canoe was pulled up on a narrow rocky beach with a gurgling stream, we climbed the bank and tied our bright yellow paddle to a willow bush to mark the location of the canoe.

The mountain looked much farther away than when we started. What demented spirit is moving the thing? 50 yards into the walk we found ourselves in a watery bog with tussocks. “Is there anyplace in this whole country without a bog!” I shouted. No answer. We slogged on for half a mile, our knee high rubber boots sucking and gurgling in the marshy ground.

Near the base of the mountain the marsh became a braided stream passing through a dense thicket with tangles of branches twice our height. A few animal trails traversed this arctic jungle.

“I really don’t like going through this tangle. We can’t see ten yards ahead,” said Barb. “Maybe we ought to be singing a song. A very loud song.”

“No need,” I replied. “I can see the rock base of the mountain. It’s just across this last stream and…DAMN!”

Through the last thicket, facing right at me was a cave. A deep cave. A deep bear cave. A wave of terror coursed from the top of my bald head to the bottom of my rubber boots. Barb was right behind me with the shotgun. I hoped that the click I heard was the safety on the gun moving to the off position and not a bear walking on a twig.

I moved left to escape the jumble of rocks that made the mouth of the cave. No way was I going back into a tangle of branches where you couldn’t see ten feet, much less ten yards. Nor was this the time to discuss the folly and unwisdom of the original move into the thicket. This was the time to get the hell out. And that meant climbing up.

Twenty feet up straight the side of the hill, stepping from large stone to large stone and nearly out of the thicket, I encountered another cave in the rocks. We were in the middle of a nightmare movie where the main characters are killed off. Not roles I wanted us to play.

As fast as thieving magpies, we scrambled to a ridge above the thicket and caves. Exhausted, we stopped for granola bars, water and a major regrouping. Barb asked: “Do you want to continue the climb?”

I looked up towards a series of rocky ledges and outcroppings. I imagined hundreds of hungry bears waiting behind each rock. “No. I’m totally spooked. We’re going back down. But not through that thicket!”