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Part four: Saying goodbye to the Noatak River


This is the fourth in a four-part series about kayaking the Noatak River in the Arctic Circle. The river, which anchors the largest undeveloped watershed in North America, flows from its headwaters at the base of Mount Igikpak in the Brooks Range, through the Gates of the Artic National Preserve and the Noatak National Preserve. Combined these two protected areas are nearly seven times larger than Yellowstone National Park. This month Spokesman-Review outdoors editor Eli Francovich kayaked the Noatak River with Spokane natives Chris and Cary Kopczynski and Jim Wood.

Aug. 9 – I caught a chum salmon – its teeth gnashing in protest – standing in the rain at the confluence of the Noatak and Nimiuktuk rivers. Cary Kopczynski took a photo and we released the fish, which was a spawner and nearly returned to its natal stream.

I’ve been thinking about that fish and that catch. I’ve never understood the allure of fishing, never understood the obsessive draw of it. Today I got a taste. The catch was thrilling, but the simple act of casting into the unknown sticks with me. The hook and line carry a bit of my consciousness into another world, a probe into a foreign watery realm that I’ll never really know.

We are approaching the end of this trip, each riverbend bringing us closer to humanity. The signs are everywhere. Yesterday a motorboat passed our camp, powering upriver against the current. This morning we paddled by a ramshackle cabin, an old climbing rope hanging from the porch. The front door boarded shut, nails sticking out (to keep animals away?). Six snowmobiles slowly rotting out back. I feel melancholy. The normal sadness of any adventure ending, certainly, but also a larger and deeper longing.

What have I forgotten? Or more accurately, what have I never known?

Casting into the Noatak River, I realize how little I really know about animals and streams, how rarely I’ve been in a landscape that is not molded to human use. Living as I do in the Pacific Northwest, I’m surrounded by natural beauty – mountains that make my Eastern seaboard friends drool, frothing rivers that look untamed when compared to European waterways – but those mountains are crisscrossed by roads and those rivers dammed and siphoned up and down. A fact easy to forget on a beautiful spring morning in Spokane.

Now as I sit in the tent and listen to the wind rattle the nylon I think about environmental amnesia, a term coined by a University of Washington psychologist hypothesizing that we humans, a famously supple species, get used to what we see regularly and forget what we don’t. Which means by and large we’ve forgotten what a river without dams looks and feels like. We’ve forgotten what a mountain range with no roads sounds like or the smell of a high-altitude desert dotted with sage. In general, I have no patience for environmental hopelessness or for those who act as if humans are somehow separate from the “natural world,” but at this moment I struggle to find any silver lining to our amnesia.

Aug. 10 – Today we pass a small caribou, not a baby but perhaps a yearling. While eating lunch we watch it swim across the river onto the shore we’re on. We shove off and drift by taking photos. It watches us intently and we return the gaze, fixated. In fact, I’m watching it so closely I almost miss the movement, 100 feet behind near where the tundra meets the river rock. I scan the rocks and then I see it, a gray wolf slinking on its belly toward the ungulate.

Almost simultaneously the wolf sees us and stands up, startled. Now both animals are staring at the four humans drifting by. The wolf retreats to the brush and melts away. Written descriptions of wolves always describe them as melting into the woods, a cliché and yet there is no better way to describe it. We pass the caribou and the animal starts picking its way upriver. The wolf, presumably, waits.

Aug. 11 – We pass through the Noatak Canyon, its steep walls revealing geologic time. Chris Kopczynski, a great lover of rocks and geology, is ecstatic. At every bend he cries out in joy, describing the geologic processes that created all this.

“I just love rocks,” he says, perhaps the understatement of the trip. “I really love rocks. They all tell a little story.”

The river runs fast and we make good time, the canyon walls racing by. It’s warmer than it has been the past few days, although still wet with the occasional squall blowing through. We pass more cabins. We figure we have two days until Noatak Village. The village is 60-odd river miles from the Chukchi Sea, but by all accounts, the flow slows dramatically and the prevailing ocean wind makes that final stretch hard and unappealing. Chris and Jim Wood will fly out of Noatak. Cary and I debate whether to push to the sea.

We pass another camp toward the end of the day. A solo paddler. Pulling in we chat and, amazingly, discover that he is from Spokane. His name is Mike Poppin, and this trip has been in his dreams for years. The partner he was going to do it with got hurt and so Mike decided to go solo. He’s going slow and plans to push to the sea as he still has a week left.

Aug. 12 – The final riverbend. A metal structure. The first sighting of Noatak Village. It couldn’t come sooner. I’m soaked. The rain has infiltrated my shell and my down jacket – always a mistake in Alaska, I’m told – is wet and useless. With little fanfare, Cary and I abandon our fantasy of paddling to the sea. But after roughly 400 river miles, Noatak Village looks like a wonderful end point.

We pull our kayaks up onto a gravelly beach, next to other watercraft and at least two snowmobiles waiting for winter and stumble up the hill looking for the general store. Thoughts of cookies and bread fill my head. Under normal circumstances, the store would be nothing special. It’s devoid of produce and there is no milk. But after 16 days outside, any enclosed structure with heat – not to mention food – feels magical.

We stand there, dripping, overwhelmed by the culinary options. Hot dogs! Frozen burgers! Candy bars! Instant noodles! Gathering up a bizarre assortment of things (sausage, Top Ramen, candy, chips, etc). we gather at the cashier and ask if there is some structure in town we can sleep under for the night.

The cashier thinks it over and then starts to call someone, which is when Ricky Ashby interjects. A white-haired native man, he tells us we can stay at his house, which is about a quarter of a mile down the river. It’s blue and near the airport. Give me 10 minutes, he says, and disappears.

And so we go back into the rain and get into the kayaks one last time. As promised, down the river and up on the bank we see the blue house. As we pull in and start to unload a little boy and girl run up to us. The girl is holding a slice of salmon.

“Salmon!” she yells.

The next hour is a blur of activity. Deflating the kayaks, humping our gear up the hill and into Ricky’s small mudroom and then, finally, entering the little house. Ricky has prepared a wood fire and we change into dry clothes. It’s a tiny house and has no electricity or running water but is clean and homey. Ricky makes us coffee and we sit and talk. He’s in his mid-60s and was born in the village. Now he splits his time between the sea, the village, and the deep interior.

“I’m subsistence,” he tells us, meaning he lives primarily off the land. Hunting caribou. Catching salmon. Picking berries. He’s also well-traveled. Rattling off the countries and cities he’s visited.

All of us are feeling accomplished. Proud of our trip. Our success. But as we talk to Ricky we see that we’ve barely sampled this land. His cabin, for instance, is 50 miles up the Noatak River. In the winter, a time of year when there is no sunlight and temperatures are regularly minus-30 degrees, he walks there alone. In fact, he spends most of every winter in that cabin, listening to the world freeze. What about the wolves, someone asks. The wolves make me walk faster, he says.

He tells us about the changes he’s seen in his 64 years. Plants that never grew this far north before. Animals, too. He shows us woolly mammoth bones preserved in the permafrost until the Noatak River eroded the land and exposed these ancient artifacts. He shows us a belt made of bear teeth. Walrus ivory-handled knives. All crafted by him. All gathered or hunted from this land.

“You’ve had some experiences,” Cary says at one point during the evening, to which Ricky responds, “You live your life in the city, and you have experiences, too. It’s no different.”

Eventually, we all sleep, Ricky in his bed and the four of us in sleeping bags scattered across the floor. In the morning, we wake and catch a plane back to Kotzebue and within another day we’re banking toward and then landing in SeaTac, the roads and lights of the Puget Sound overwhelming even from 10,000 feet.

But before all that, in these final hours with Ricky Ashby, my sadness at what I’ve forgotten, what most humans have forgotten, subsides. Certainly, we live in a world that is degraded. One in which rivers are dammed. Waters poisoned. Habitat carved up by roads and subdivisions and wild ecosystems like the Noatak rare.

But Ricky Ashby’s stories fill me with hope. There are people, mainly Indigenous, who haven’t forgotten. I think of the work done by the Colville Tribe, the Nez Perce, the Coeur d’Alenes and the Kalispel. All fighting against environmental amnesia. All pointing to what used to be and what can still.

And like anything worthwhile, those efforts start with connection. Connection to place and to animals and to people. At one point during that last evening, we ask Ricky about another river drainage in Alaska, one farther to the south.

His response is blunt and illustrative, “I don’t know that country,” he says. “I haven’t walked it.”



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