Three Rivers 10.0!

There are these occasional benchmarks by which we gauge our progress through life. Reality checks. Gut checks. Ambushes. Our kids graduating from college, our enrollment in Medicare, the advent of retirement, parents passing, decades rolling past like the rhythmic click of an odometer going a tad too fast for our liking. All leading to those who-is-that-person-in-the-mirror moments.

This Memorial Day weekend was the 10th rendition of the quirky and surprising tradition of 3 Rivers, a long weekend devoted to boating three stretches of water (often notable for their ephemeral, sketchy and improbable availability) and camping out between. What started as an impulsive suggestion with no real expectation of longevity has become a fairly entrenched event that folks plan their calendars around. Participants range in age from 25 to 75 – students, contractors, doctors, artists, lawyers, teachers, nurses, guides . . . Boating skills also vary widely, although the group is quite competent in Class II – III water, and has handled some decidedly exciting moments with barbed wire, diversion dams, more whitewater than expected, less water than expected, low bridges, logjams, lethally thorny vegetation, portages. A good number of the runs have been first descents for all with surprises lurking around every bend.

The key to success and the essential ingredient to group chemistry has been the willingness to show up self-contained and prepared, ready to join in at whatever level is comfortable, and take part without complaint or protracted negotiation. Set the date, time, place and whoever comes appears, remarkably on time and fully prepared to jump into boats and head downstream. A rare group quality.

A decade ago, when this started, most of us still camped out in tents, or threw down in the backs of trucks. These days almost everyone wheels in with camper vans, trailers, slide-ins or other forms of relative comfort. A decade ago most of our kids were still in school. Now most of the kids are on some sort of career path and are behaving remarkably like adults. Some of us are grandparents now. A decade ago hardly any of the conversation was health related. These days, there’s a lot of campfire talk about prostates, joints, kidney stones, friends who have been ambushed by dire emergencies, heart surgeries and the like. So yeah, the wheels of time keep grinding along, reminding us to keep pushing the envelope while we still can.

This year was something of a departure, in several notable ways. First, we decided to extend the weekend into the following week, and recapture a sort of ‘best of’ tour of repeat rivers that stand out in the medley of 30 stretches of water we’ve enjoyed. Second, rather than taking on three different rivers, this time we ran three sections of the same river – the Stillwater River spilling out of the Beartooth Mountains and making a beautiful run to its confluence with the Yellowstone River near Columbus. Third, we were joined by Larry Laba, the founder and owner of SOAR inflatable canoes, who has bequeathed the group with a bevy of his blue boats and played a big part in our continued enjoyment of whitewater and river life. Larry showed up with two good friends, Bob and Ken, joined in for all three days, and brought SOAR tee-shirts for everyone.

This year’s weekend logistics were about as efficient as possible. The usual cadre of roughly 20 folks showed up. We camped in a riverside campground (Castle Rock) that served as the take out for the first day and the put in for the second. On the third day we all broke camp and bumped downstream for the final stint. The Stillwater, it turns out, is not at all still. It cascades out of the mountains and rips along the valley at a stout clip through bouldery stretches. We hit it before the snow came out, so we had a pretty technical, rock-garden time of it. (We ran it at roughly 1,100 cfs, but in the warm week since, it ramped up to 5,000 cfs). Day 1 took us from the picnic spot at Old Nye down to camp, roughly 10 miles of winding, pretty stream that ramped up into a hot stint of maneuvering through rocks for the last couple of miles. Day 2 was the main event, putting in at camp and engaging in pretty non-stop whitewater of a very technical nature for the entire 10 miles down to Cliff Swallow access. A lot of practice with draw and pry strokes, side-slipping, ferrying, punctuated with a few ignoble pinball descents. Then back to camp for the usual gatherings around fires, side conversations in one or another rig, drying and regrouping, taking naps. Day 3 was another 10 mile sluice from Cliff Swallow down to the Absaroka access. Not as demanding as Day 2, but plenty of action, bouncy water, quick maneuvering. All good. Seemed to me pretty clear that one of the other things that has developed over the decade is that the general whitewater skill level has amped up noticeably.

Everyone headed for home and a reset day before taking on the add-on week of rivers. On Wednesday there were 11 of us who showed up for a run down the lower section of Sixteen-Mile Creek from Maudlow to the Missouri. It’s a seldom run section of small river with a rather horrendous shuttle that winds its way though remote and panoramic ranchland, former railroad bed, wildlife-rich country (we saw elk with young calves and several moose). The river has a short window of navigability, but we got down it in style, despite a really dismal weather report (turned out to be not nearly as dire as forecast). At the end of that long day (made doubly long by the shuttle), most of us gathered at the Mavor’s for fish tacos.

Thursday was slated for Belt Creek, in central Montana. A group of 7 of us headed up. As we got close to the put in, we noticed a startling amount of newly downed timber everywhere. That spot had gotten 3-4 feet of snow and high winds the week before and was still working out of the mayhem. Our campsite was still being cleared by Forest Service crews and everyone was adamant that running the Belt was a really bad idea. Bummer.

We decided to take a hike up the lower (Sluice Boxes) section of the run as a consolation. Turned out to be a really nice hike, and along the way we were able to scout the river and actually see a raft go down. Based on new intel, we decided to stay afterall and make the run the next day. That run, from Monarch to Sluice Boxes State Park, might be the best single-day float in the state. We made our way down it on Friday, negotiating a few obstacles along the way, but generally finding it quite runnable and as awesome as ever.

Down to five now, we motored over to a campground along the Missouri River near the confluence with the Dearborn, our next destination. Lucked out with a great, riverside camp at Mid-Canon access, and got an early start the next morning for a run of the Upper Dearborn, from Bean Lake to Highway 200. That flow is unbelievably clear, running through stunning canyons and foothill country, with an occasional bigger rapid, one portage and lots of read-and-run rock garden. All in all, a very sweet day on the river.

And then there were three of us. Randy, Lee and I headed for the upper Boulder River near Basin the next morning. It was running at about 300 cfs and it looked bony as all hell. We questioned whether we could get down it without protracted hang ups, but there we were and off we went, starting near the Bernice exit, running down past Basin and the Merry Widow Mine (another story) and on to Galena Gulch campground where we left our rigs. It was really low, highly technical, but we managed to get down it without many hang ups and in somewhat breathless style. A jumpy, full-on, but very fun run back to camp.

The next morning Randy took off for home while Lee and I indulged a day off in Butte, punctuated by a memorable lunch at Mr. Hot Dogs. On the final morning of our week after, the two of us drove over to Rock Creek, west of Phillipsburg, for the last river in the line up. By this point, warming temperatures were bringing down the snowpack and the river was up to its seasonal norm, which meant it was charging along almost bank-full. We made the 16-mile run from Skalkaho Highway to the Windlass Bridge in roughly two hours, a fast charging cruise with a couple of deadfall pull-arounds, a diversion dam descent, and a side channel or two we shouldn’t have taken.

So, in the books. A reality check in just how quickly a decade slides past, a tribute to stellar group chemistry, another fun-filled slate of water, and a commitment to the next decade, wherever that takes us. 30 river sections in our wake, each memorable for its own character, a span full of comedy, hairball adventure, companionship, goofy antics, awesome moments, and zest for life. Keep bringing it on!

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It always seems slightly miraculous that we can make plans months and even years ahead of an event, and on the appointed day and window of time, with people vectoring in from far and wide, everyone shows up at a pinpoint spot, ready to take part. In this case the pinpoint was Sand Island boat launch on the San Juan River, just outside of Bluff, Utah. Within a couple of hours of each other, on the appointed day, nine of us vectored in from points as disparate as Germany, Texas, New England, Montana, Oregon and Colorado. And the following morning we retooled from cars to boats, met and paid our shuttle driver, packed boats, parked rigs, filled up water jugs, ferried gear, made sure we had spare car keys, and otherwise unplugged from society and slowed down to the pace of the river. Off we went, one raft and four inflatable canoes, on the somewhat tardy but long-awaited inauguration of the 70s iteration of our decade-themed group of friends.

It was my trip to plan and organize . . . so far so good. We had been sporadically corresponding about the details for months, but now we were on the river, for better or worse, and it felt like better. Along the way we’d had collective craven moments of weakness and doubt – what if the weather is shitty? What if my car isn’t up to the shuttle road? What if we need to pull out early if things aren’t going well? All of it was either ignored or placated and to everyone’s credit, once the die was cast, everyone showed up with an ‘all in’ attitude firmly in place.

The San Juan River has looped its way through my life. I first ran it back in the 70s in an aluminum canoe, before permits were required, before I’d developed much in the way of river skills. Since then I’ve been back many times, on various portions of the reach, as early as March and as late as November, at various water levels, in all sorts of weather and watercraft, noting the changing popularity of the float, the increased regulation, the evolution of ripple effects wrought on the river by Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. In that time I’ve slowly gained knowledge – best camps, best runs on Government Rapid, when it’s best to portage or line Government Rapid, side hikes, little known gems of landscape.

For nine days we dawdled our way down the winding course of this magnificent desert tributary of the Colorado. It’s a trip you can complete in 5-6 days, but we adopted the retirement pace, taking side hikes to ruins, up old Mormon trails, up Chinle Creek, rimming out at the top of Honaker Trail. We relaxed in camps, played cards by headlamp, dipped in eddies, found pottery shards and granaries and petroglyphs, endured sand storms, rinsed off in pools, felt the presence of the indigenous people who once thrived there, told stories, listened to canyon wrens, spread a friend’s ashes from the exposed and dramatic platform of Horn Point, coasted through the deeply incised Goosenecks, slapped through rapids, wandered up side canyons.

I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, for the inevitable catastrophe that seems all trips contain at some point, but it never happened. Things kept falling into place. The poop bucket didn’t overfill. We were able to refill water at Mexican Hat. The weather stayed stable and benign. Everyone got along. No one blew it in the whitewater. Day on day the canyon held us in its spell as we beetled along under the dome of desert skies – this gaggle of old farts still finding adventure and camaraderie and health. Blessed with luck and verve and the wherewithal to pull off such exploits.

We aren’t lawn bowling yet!!

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Dots and Circles

I don’t know, maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe it’s the sentimentality of the holiday season . . .

Could be that I turned 71 and am more acutely aware of loose ends, and also of the cycles looping through my life. It’s not a ‘bucket list’ impulse. I’ve never had the cliche urge that seems to infect old people with the fever to jump out of airplanes or walk across beds of red-hot coals.  Not that, but there is something going on, some satisfaction in taking care of unfinished business, and also, the need to pay more intentional tribute to the circular seasons that ebb and flow through the course of a lifetime. It manifests in my attention to connecting the dots along incomplete trails I’ve begun, or left in segments. And in the deepened awareness of the swirling patterns I’ve become incorporated in by nature of my family, my unique history, friendships, quests, quirky traditions, and the steady, inexorable currents of time. Trails completed. Circles closed.

Not that this is something ever done, because just as a box gets checked, a new one opens up. New cycles initiated, new trails begun, fresh awareness, some physical and tangible, others emotional and only vaguely understood. Still, something’s going on, and it seems to have come into particular clarity for me lately.

Like I say, some accomplishments are very tangible and concrete. Fulfilling an ambition to float the Gila River, in New Mexico, last March, for example, which has dangled out there in my imagination since I lived in Santa Fe in the 1970s. Getting around, finally, to running the Rogue River in Oregon, which has been somewhere on my river-running radar for probably forty years. Who knew, after all those failed lottery applications, that you could just show up and score a permit, which I did with my oldest good friend, Grant Herman, in September. Or, in late August, with Marypat still navigating her knee-replacement recovery, the final 100-mile piece of the Clark Fork River between Butte and Paradise, Montana. Somewhere in those four paddling days, a revelation – “Hey, look at me!” she exclaimed, “I’m kneeling!”.

The meaningful return to a summer canoe expedition in the Far North, with a band of six guys, most of them strangers. Those extended, logistically-challenging, expensive expeditions have a poignant flavor, because who knows which will be the last I’m capable of. I had that same pang of uncertainty when we did the Mountain River with the kids, or the Noatak with a band of friends. For a guy who has no history of making the ‘cross’ to mark a blessing, I am tempted by that gesture at the successful conclusion of each one of these journeys. How lucky am I, I think, every time.

In the vein of traditions, we are logging the 10th year of our Three Rivers gathering, that Memorial Day glut of quirky river sections with a boisterous gang of paddling friends. This spring will be a decade-marking week of rivers in celebration of a tradition no one knew would go anywhere or last even one year.

This has been a particularly rich year for family ceremony, as we managed to corral nearly 30 of us for a summer reunion in Maine, where the tapestry of familial fabric came together, created new patterns, and reinforced old ones while cracking lobster tails, walking the trails of Acadia, oogling new family members, and memorializing Aunt Judy on a bluebird day along the Atlantic shore. Most of us also came together to celebrate the long life of my Aunt Noey Congdon, in Denver. She was the last of her generation to pass the torch, and hers is an indelible legacy of fierce integrity and absolute grace.

It struck us this year how our celebrations seem evenly divided between the youthful outbursts of weddings and births, punctuations of exuberance put on by the contemporaries of our kids, and by more somber gatherings to remember those who pass on, mostly our contemporaries and our elders. In that way we teeter at a crux of comings and goings, joy and grief, dancing and comforting. The passing of energy and the anticipation of a future with new and unknowable forces at work.

Here in Butte we remember last winter held fast in the grip of old-time cold and snow. By this time last year we’d already been out skiing probably twenty days, and we were in for a season of minus 40 cold and unrelenting snow. This year, in the final days of November, I climbed a nearby mountain through a skiff of snow in shorts and a tee-shirt. My back is thankful, and anxiety about pipes freezing and whopping heat bills is reduced, but it’s another mark of the cycles we all play our roles in or are forced to live through.

All of it expressions of the great river of existence bearing us along. Headlong descents, quiet pools, swirling eddies and whirlpools, foam-laced drops, serene dawn mists, fearful unknowns, comforting serenity. Another bend left in our wake on this daunting and awesome expedition.

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The Decade Saga

It was Kimmer’s brilliant idea, more than 20 years back. “What if,” she said, “as each of us reaches 50, we propose a trip and everyone else shows up for it?” A novel and intriguing challenge.

Everyone else, in this case, is a group of 8-10 of us (somewhat variable depending on partner participation) who have all been united by a zest for adventure. Some of us have known each other since college. In various combinations we have ventured off together on backcountry jaunts for roughly fifty years. Exploits that range from the epic and serious to the ribald and silly.

We all signed on, but hey, talk is cheap, right? The wreckage of failed brilliant schemes dots the arc of human history, a junkyard full of the skeletons of big talk and not-so-big action.

It turns out that I was first up, back in 2002, and it has earned me the tag of Elder ever since, whatever that means. I have the advantage of being alone in my year, which makes me a dictator free of any obligation to negotiate. And that’s a bigger advantage than you might think.

The 50s decade went largely according to plan. My outing took us down the Continental Divide spine through the Anaconda/Pintler mountains in SW Montana for a week. Over the years, with some fluctuation in group size, we sallied forth through the Kootenai Mountains of British Columbia, made a south-to-north traverse of the La Sal Mountains in Utah, and finished up with a week in Glacier NP in Montana. All more or less on time, with a few wobbly planning moments (notably on the main drag of Moab in 104-degree heat trying to decide where to go). All pretty robust multi-day outings full of goofy games, comical food hanging episodes, unbelievable blooms of Indian Paintbrush, kick-stepping up snow couloirs, morning yoga in mountain meadows, skinny dips, and grizzly bear encounters at 10,000’.

Before I knew it, my turn came around again to kick off the 60s iteration. I picked a hike in Escalante, notable for poison ivy, gobsmacking canyons, and hilarious swims with packs through route-blocking pools. Timing got a little less rigid in the second decade. One team who shall remain nameless dawdled more than five years before finally pulling off a base-camp, day-outing week in the Methow Valley of Washington, a medley of hikes, floats, bike rides, and game nights. Another team put together a moving base camp week in central Utah, featuring petroglyph panels and slot canyons. An eclipse-focused, horse-pack assisted hike and basecamp outing in Wyoming’s Wind River Range rounded out the journeys.

Notice the slippage here, from outright Point A to Point B backpack trips to base camp forays, help with carrying gear, less sleeping on the ground, more vehicular shelter. Sixty may be the new fifty, but still . . . By the end of that decade jokes about trips devoted to shuffleboard and lawn bowling were more prevalent and less far-fetched.

Now, signs of the creep of age haunt us more dramatically as we enter the decade of the 70s. I go first again. There is some wiggle room on timing, spanning both the year you turn 70 and the year following your birthday, before you turn 71. Well, I’m about to turn 71 and I’ve only partially gotten around to my outing. I looked seriously at the year preceding my birthday, but things came up. Namely, for me, a diagnosis of and surgery for prostate cancer. Kind of focused my attention. Also, one of the other participants endured a life-threatening fall on a bike ride that was no picnic to recover from. So, I put it off and blithely turned 70, like it or not. I had another year to get it done, after all.

My plan was to put together a river float and get back to a sustained outing without succumbing to the basecamp routine. There were a lot of logistics to consider – what level of whitewater to accept, who had boats and paddling skills, synchronizing calendars, and the rest. I finally settled on a week-long stretch of the Yellowstone River in Montana. I know it well, even down to the gravel bar campsites. It is upbeat current without being scary. Blah, blah . . . Anyway, everyone agreed, we set a late fall window, and time went on in its inexorable way.

What ambushed the plan was health. First, Marypat had a knee replacement. Her recovery was going well until she developed excruciating back pain that kept her from doing anything remotely rigorous. Then Charlie threw out his back picking up pinecones in his driveway (it’s never something heroic, is it?). Carol reported rotator cuff issues that would keep her from doing any strenuous paddling. Then, Sue, on the first day of a John Muir Trail hike in California, got lambasted by a random rock fall that threw her off the trail where she ended up with a gruesome compound fracture of her lower leg. Long story, highlighted by helicopter evacuation, medivac to Fresno, complicated surgery involving rods and screws, and a long drive back home to recover.

Weeks away from our late-season launch, we were down to a 50% healthy crew, and I was imagining Sue trying to gimp out of her tent on a frigid morning, Marypat cringing in pain trying to paddle, Carol being relegated to hood ornament status, and the rest of us dividing our time between paddling downriver and being assisted-living care-givers. I succumbed to the obvious and pulled the plug.

Only, the gang didn’t want the plug pulled, at least not completely. Plan B would be to meet and camp at a riverside site in Paradise Valley, downstream of Yellowstone Park along the Yellowstone River. At least we’d have a chance to catch up, gather around the fire, take on whatever outings we could, and patch together some kind of substitute.

And we did. In the end there were 8 of us. All but one, by now, had either a trailer or camper van or RV. Carol’s was the last tent standing, but it was quite the boudoir arrangement with carpeting, a chair, a sleeping cot, even a heater (although, to her credit, she says she never turned it on). The rest of us retired to our mobile getaways, complete with luxurious heat, galleys, beds, and tables.

Activities included grizzly watching, some trail walks, hot springs, and two pretty sweet fall paddling days on the Yellowstone with snowclad peaks and brilliant fall cottonwoods for scenic splendor. Not bad, but I asked everyone to promise to hang in there for a river float in April, maybe in Utah somewhere, to complete my 70s commitment. I argued that it really wasn’t my fault that time ran out on me, given the suite of setbacks we’d encountered. Besides, we’ve gotten decidedly less stringent about timing over the years. Not surprisingly, given the crew, everyone agreed. So we’re on for the culmination of my decade trip come spring, when, presumably, everyone will be back to full strength, right?

I mean, what could possibly go wrong?


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Check That Box

On our fridge is a list of stuff we have on our adventure/outing to-do list. Some of it is pretty aspirational (travel to Ireland), but most is quite attainable (local trails, bike rides, paddling). One of them is to finish our top-to-bottom float of the Clark Fork River drainage. It’s a quest years in the making.

Decades ago we paddled Alberton Gorge, downstream of Missoula, a section notable for it’s whitewater quality, but until we moved to Butte our attention had been on other destinations. Then, a couple of years back we got skunked by low water on a Yampa River permit, and ended up paddling nearly 100 miles of the lower Clark Fork from Alberton, through the Alberton Gorge, and all the way down to the confluence with the Flathead River near Paradise, Montana. That, combined with our move to Butte, at the head of the drainage, got us thinking about putting it all together.

A parade of friends in boats in the robust beauty of Alberton Gorge.

A parade of friends in boats in the robust beauty of Alberton Gorge.

Since then we have been nibbling away at it. Over the past couple of summers we’ve been strapping boats on the rig, loading a shuttle bike, and taking on small chunks of the upper drainage – Warm Springs to Racetrack, for example . . . Garrison to Phosphate . . . Gold Creek to Drummond. Day outings with a frontage road or ranch road biking option for our shuttles. We got as far as Drummond, 60 miles downstream of home, where it got more and more difficult to pull off day outings and put together doable bike shuttles.

This past week we committed to the final 100-mile leg, taking the tandem canoe loaded with food and camping gear, and gave ourselves 5 days to pull it off.

Every river has its character – boisterous, sedate, waltzing, full-throated, lethargic – I’d call the Clark Fork a river in recovery (from us!). It runs alongside the interstate and railroad track. It courses through ranches, towns, industry, and rural lands. Most egregiously, it endured the onslaught of mining in upstream Butte, which was punctuated by whopping floods in 1908 that sluiced down unguessable quantities of mine waste and tailings in deposits as much as 10-feet deep, all the way to the Milltown Dam just upstream of Missoula. It was industrial pollution of gobsmacking proportions.

Mining ended in the 1980s and the entire drainage has been recovering (with some remedial help from us) ever since. And yet, paddling it, we often lost that sense of industrial shitshow in the cadence of the flow, in the spreading cottonwoood groves, in the riffles and channels, in the sounds of birds and chattering current. There are, to be sure, moments of confrontation with what we have done. ‘Slickens’, or dead zones, left behind by toxic mine wastes that still persist. Excavations and diversions and riprap and jetties constructed to manage and contain and deflect the river.

This past week we rode down the slide of gravity, heading for the confluence with the Columbia River far downstream in Idaho, past ranches, through Missoula, under highway bridges, camping next to the highway one night, and then serenaded by boisterous coyotes the next. Much like the Yellowstone River, that other Montana great watershed that runs the gauntlet of humanity going east, the Clark Fork perseveres, reasserts itself, finds a way through and around and despite us.

Marypat in Tumbleweed Rapid in Alberton Gorge.

Marypat in Tumbleweed Rapid in Alberton Gorge.

And we rode that watery rail of juxtaposition – wild and untamable, hemmed in and subdued, gritty and pure, frail and robust. Moments of danger, lovely moonrises, the cacophany of humanity, the serenity of purling river, hours of steady paddling, drifting along at the pace of current, under the gaze of bald eagle and osprey, in the company of fox and white-tail and coyote. Whispering past civilization, camping under the noses of motorists, passing college coeds on the riverbank, waving to trains, or ghosting through dawn mists.

From Montana Street in Butte, at the start of Silver Bow Creek, all the way to Paradise, we checked that box. (And yes, I know, the Clark Fork continues on into Idaho and beyond, but below the confluence with the Flathead, it turns into a massive flow, punctuated by dams and reservoirs. No thanks.)

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Far North

Well, if you run a blog, I guess it’s on you to keep it current, which I haven’t been doing lately. It’s not that nothing has happened since spring, it’s just that I haven’t gotten around to posting about it. My fault, but hey, it’s my blog.

I’m just back from a two-week river expedition in the Northwest Territories of Canada on the Elk River, a tributary of the Thelon in the central barrenlands. It was a return to that evocative landscape so reminiscent of our early trips on the Kazan and Dubawnt drainages, that rolling, endless tundra terrain full of whispers of native peoples, wildlife, and horizon after horizon of people-less landscape. It is not as panoramic or stunning as the western Arctic, but there is something stirring and compelling about it that I can’t fully explain.

First, some take-aways:

  • it was my first return to the barrens since 2004, when we pulled off an epic family expedition in honor of Eli’s coming-of-age transition on the Kazan River;
  • it was my first all-male journey in a long time (mostly I’ve gone with family, or just Marypat, or with a group of couples). This trip there were six of us from Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, ranging from 40-something to 70, some with long histories together, others who had never met;
  • the trip was yet another saga of travel snafus – canceled flights, road closures due to forest fires, epic drives;
  • timing was everything – we were lucky to arrive on time because of road closures on the single highway into Yellowknife. Then, after the trip, we made a hasty escape on that same highway, with flames on the side of the road. The other trip members had to contend with another canceled flight, rescheduled itinerary, lost baggage. Then, just days after our escape, the entire city of Yellowknife was under an evacuation order and several communities we had just driven through were burnt to the ground;
  • we indulged a chill pace on the journey – 14 days for an itinerary you could pretty easily paddle in 7. Consequently we enjoyed multiple layover days with lovely hiking along glacial esker ridges, time for contemplation, card games and no hard-and-fast schedule. It was a sweet contrast to earlier trips with a more unbending timeline and the stress of falling behind.

Rather than try to recount a blow-by-blow trip narrative, I’m going to let a few of my journal excerpts speak for the journey. (I’ll try to insert a few photos later, when I get that organized).

Aug. 4 – Day 5: We are in a singularly beautiful spot. A crescent of sand beach, open park-like tundra on a bench above, punctuated with scraggly stands of spruce. The water is mirror calm, the sky faintly cloudy, like gauze. Loons yodel in the distance. I’m inside the tundra tarp unaffected by bugs. Washed out a pair of underwear and a tee shirt. Enjoying another cup of coffee . . .

Had a nice late morning stroll up behind camp on a broad esker plateau. Sweeping views back up river, the lake, other more distant esker systems. On top the glacial litter of boulders and gravel, old musk ox tracks and scat, a few desiccated trees. A whaleback of land from which to glass a vast quadrant of tundra, marsh, lakes, willow. Nothing moving. A quiet tapestry of land under the pale summer northern sky.

Aug. 7 – Day 8: It’s late evening. The setting sun sends its lambent glow across the tundra, under the clouds, flaming this austere scene. Full of quiet water, calling loons, ancient boulders. We put in a solid day of paddling into a light head and cross-wind. Stopped to look for wolf dens without finding any. Stopped again to fish for grayling in a riffle. Spent a long afternoon slogging across wide, lakey miles. Our hoped-for destination turned out to ba a rocky shoreline, but we found an alternative tundra site that has grown on everyone. Reminiscent of many tundra camps along the Kazan and other rivers.

I cooked dinner tonight – African stew with appetizers and a dessert. We listened to the final life story, from Mark. Each one unique and vivid and ultimately personal, shared with emotion and heart, humor and tears. We now have a foundation of meaningful personal history to build from.

Loons flying overhead in the late day sky, a harrier, some willow ptarmigan. Still looking for big mammals – a musk ox, a caribou, a wolf, a bear, some life in the empty space.

Aug. 9 – Day 10: We are officially in base camp mode. We have four days before pick up, and about three miles to paddle. Today is on our own to walk and explore, do chores, take baths, cook bannack, relax. It’s a unique feeling for me, contrasting with so many past trips where we had to keep up a daily mileage average and where weather or wind delays were cause for concern, fretful interludes waiting for a break. These days are more in my friend Lee’s style, taking a month to do a river that you could easily paddle in two weeks. Where you settle into a landscape, let it enfold you, sit and observe it, be fucking quiet for once.

Not that we are necessarily quiet, at least as a group. We also have pretty vociferous discussions and a general hubbub of conversation. That is part of the scene here as a group, and a good part. The morning two-cups-of-coffee debates over climate and population and economy and social ills. The raucous evening rounds of card games. The giving-each-other-shit banter that is a fairly constant undertone, good-natured stuff with a whiff of an edge that comes with personal history, inside jokes, and general comfort with each other. That part is valuable too, and also often absent on a more driven journey, on which everyone is watching to see if they’re lagging on packing up for the day or getting a meal done, or staying up with the other boats.

It is a relief not to feel that daily push. Perhaps a mark of age too, because there is a youthful energy and allure attached to the more goal-oriented style, the heroic days, the epic stories. Call it the retirement pace, or the Lee pace, but I must say that it’s growing on me. It makes me feel more available to northern trips to come in this style. . . .

Something about stripping down naked along the river, washing a few clothes, soaping up armpits and crotch, washing hair while the arctic terns cry in the distance, a sandpiper peeps up the shore, the constant hum of insects becomes a kind of white noise. Then sitting there, pale and clean in the sun, drying out, a slight breeze against the skin. The slowly inching river slides by on its way to the Thelon, over Granite Falls, picking up the pace, an inexorable coalescing of molecules jostling toward the sea. Water molecules our boats have been borne along by, through the miles and storms and winds, corners and pools and riffles and falls – stillness and noise. This symphony of place where time stalls out in the vast ebb and flow that encompasses the coming and going of glaciers, the slow erosion of landscape, the movements of life, including us, all choreographed by chance and fate and change. Here before us, here after we are gone, when we are rendered just another sedimentary layer, remarkable only for its strangeness.

Aug. 11 – Day 12: A passing cumulus dropping rain glanced our camp with gusts of wind. I had to hang on to the tundra tarp for probably twenty minutes as the cloud slowly passed. It lathered up the lake with whitecaps, buffeted the tents, blew my chair around. I guyed out things, put rocks on tent corners, zipped doors shut. Probably would have been okay had I been gone, but maybe not.

These trips as I age have a nostalgic flavor to them. Partly it has to do with the memories sparked as I go, past trips, the energy of youth, former partners, camps and currents and landscapes that I am reminded of. The shards of personal history evoked by whatever.

Also, the question, each journey, of whether it might be my last one to the Far North. I remember paddling the final miles of the Kazan in my fifties, with the boys in the canoe, that river so potent with power and momentum, and thinking with a surge of real grief that it would, in all likelihood, be my last trip there. How I felt so buoyed and exhilarated, and also so stricken, in that last urgent flush of current.

In a quieter way, it is the same here in this rustling camp with the lake sparkling and the clouds in slow parade and the land spreading away so vast. That this might be it. Anything could happen. Cancer. Civil war. Financial ruin. The creep of age finally closing the door. This could be it, today, the final chapter in the minor personal saga that is my dabble in adventure.


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Goldilocks Pick

This Plan B world asserted itself once again on our March getaway to the desert southwest.

To begin, on our departure morning, March 15, 6 am, we crept out of town on icy roads, made it about 5 miles, and confronted a sign on I-15 south informing us that the highway was closed to the Idaho border.  In the few miles before the next exit, we explored alternate routes to get around the closure, all of which seemed ridiculous and riddled with their own fraught possibilities. Turn around, creep back home, spend the day shoveling snow and biding time.

Reboot on the 16th, with better results, arriving at friend’s in St. George, Utah in time for a stroll and dinner. The day delay allowed us to drive the 2-lane across northern Arizona to Lee’s Ferry, (closed the day before due to snow) on the way to Prescott, sighting a couple of condors along the way. All good.

The overarching reason for our journey south was the possibility of floating the Salt River in southern Arizona. It’s a tough permit to get, and even if you score one, the likelihood of having enough water to float is iffy. Our friend, Lee, got the permit, and this year, with all the ‘atmospheric river’ activity going on, looked promising.

Indeed, as we closed in on Prescott, the signs of whopping moisture, snow-capped peaks, and recent flooding were everywhere. Flagstaff was blanketed in snow, Oak Creek canyon was full of flood debris, the Verde River, normally a creek with a couple hundred cfs flowing through it, had boomed to 50,000 cfs in recent days. The Salt got up to 12,000 cfs, and our upper limit for tolerating whitewater anxiety was 5,000.

For the next few days, enjoying Lee and Truly’s good company, going for mountain bike rides and hikes, we kept checking river gauges. There was hope. The Verde dropped back down, the Salt kept moderating. As our launch date approached, it looked promising. Only, another pulse of wet weather was looming on the close horizon, predicted to arrive right around our launch day. The river ranger predicted another spike, possibly even higher than the last one, during our float. “It could go to 20,000,” he said.

We huddled, we pondered, we alternately accused each other of being wimps and cowered at the prospect to raging water and long, scary swims in the event of capsizes. In the end we went to Plan B, picking the Gila River in New Mexico. It has also been on our trip radar for decades. It, too, is a flow often too low to run. And the wet weather was tending to miss that watershed. Longer drive, new shuttle arrangements, different maps, some changes in gear.

We drove out of Prescott in a pounding rain storm. Flagstaff was predicted to get 6 inches of snow, followed by rain, followed by another 10 inches of snow. Another big glut of water looked inevitable. Phoenix, Tucson, and finally Silver City, NM in time for an early dinner in a brew pub. Then a tortuously winding road up and over the continental divide, and steeply down into the valley of the Gila.

We camped at a closed campground near the Grapevine launch site and put in the following morning, along with a slug of other boaters (many of whom had made the same Plan B choice we had – we called ourselves “Salt River Refugees”). After a tour of the Gila cliff dwellings and a recon with the shuttle service, we launched around mid-day on roughly 600 cfs of muddy river sluicing through the intensely beautiful Gila Wilderness.

For the next six days we were held in the spell of that valley and the surrounding landscape – volcanic layers in cliffs and peaks and ridges, stunning sycamore trees shining white in the sun, tributary valleys with ancient graneries and petroglyphs, occasional hot springs, signs of recent flooding. The paddling was engaging. The river is a heads up series of challenges. Every bend is a potential minefield of downed trees or braiding channels. Paddling requires constant vigilance and quick choices. At the same time, it isn’t terrifying or pushy. For hours at a time we paddled along in a challenging, fun rhythm through the winding miles, entertained by the topography, sighting new birds, dealing with obstacles, threading the needle through rock gardens or deadfall.

We had enough time to award ourselves with half-days and a layover day with opportunities for hiking, rock hounding, and letting the landscape sink in. It was cold enough that we had thick ice on the water bucket every morning, and headed to the warmth of sleeping bags before 9 at night. The group chemistry geled. The river entertained. The country seduced. All the way to the end the river challenged and engaged us – walking shallow rapids, hitting narrow slots through deadfall, missing walls on sharp bends.

On Day 6, the warmest day of the journey, we coasted up to Mogollon Creek and the line up of our shuttled vehicles. A Plan B worthy of Plan A status. No one regretted choosing the Gila.

Two days later, back in Prescott, we looked back on the wisdom of our choice. As it turned out, the Salt had indeed peaked at almost 17,000 cfs during our window. That would have been daunting indeed. And the Verde, it had zoomed up to nearly 100,000 cfs, an unprecedented flood level that had us all envisioning the fear and loathing of being caught in such an onslaught of river charging through a broad floodplain without high ground. I’d say that the Gila was just right.

Back in Butte now, regrouping, drying out, shoveling. Winter still has us in its grip here. The snow in our front yard is several feet deep, ski areas are buried, the snowpack is upwards of 100% everywhere, and we aren’t changing out snow tires any time soon. Paddling season in Montana is looking good, but it isn’t happening for a while.


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The Era of Plan Bs . . .

Of course that fickle finger of fate has caused mischief with best-laid plans forever. Just when things are all dialed in, something comes up – a death in the family, a freak blizzard, an economic crash, a vehicle break down, a sudden illness. It has always been so.

Also, it’s true that people of my generation in America have had the incredible good luck to live during a period of comfort, health, economic stability and a general lack of mayhem and tragedy. We’ve had our shaky moments, to be sure, but it’s hard to imagine a better span, or a better location, to have been born into. Pure luck.

That said, it has become clear in recent years that, to an unnerving degree, we have entered more uncertain times, and that being able to count on much of anything to work out as planned is a crapshoot – from taking a trip to counting on retirement, from buying a house to finding half-and-half at the store.

The biggest single culprit in this phenomenon lately has been the advent of Covid. For years now, since early 2020, Covid has laid waste to millions of lives, and impacted the health of millions more who have survived its scourge. For most of us, the round of plague has meant putting life on a prolonged Plan B course correction – stay home, lose jobs, work remotely, miss graduations/weddings/reunions/birthdays, skip school, don’t travel, deal with solitude, deal with scarcity, deal with grief, deal with masks, deal with boredom. Deal. From missed concerts to missed deaths, Covid made us all cope with profound uncertainty. It required us to make judgement calls on behavior. It made us miss out on things both profound and trivial.

But something more insidious and wide-ranging seems also to be going on here. In addition to the wallop of Covid on life, there appears to be a rising confluence of issues weighing in on those best-laid plans and creating havoc of our intentions. The tributary streams creating this river of unpredictability include the myriad effects of climate change, the alarming and global phenomenon of political unrest, the intrusion of health issues, and what seems to be a frail infrastructure struggling to hold everything together and failing with distressing frequency.

In my small and privileged sphere I’ve had to reschedule the last three months of canoe expeditions in my year of monthly journeys due to Covid; had to call off a Yampa River trip due to a lack of water; missed a Hamilton performance because I tested positive for Covid; had to call off a solstice cabin outing because of -40 winter temperatures; dealt with two cancelled flights on one trip; called off a family reunion because of Covid and travel logistics; and I’m forgetting/repressing a good deal. Many of my friends have had similar problems – wilderness trip permits canceled due to fires or floods or drought, trips thrown into chaos due to illness or political unrest, important transitions unmarked; careers derailed, school put on hold, deaths unattended. Others have had far more trying ordeals. Consider the millions of travelers this past Christmas season dealing with a week of horrific weather and airline failures. Consider all the people who lost jobs and still haven’t recovered. Consider those with lingering and debilitating symptoms of Covid. Consider travelers caught up in the post-election riots in Peru recently, never mind those rotting in foreign jails for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and becoming political pawns.

All that doesn’t even touch the true misery of crises gripping so much of humanity. My experience is superficial and trivial compared to war and famine and political tyranny and societal dysfunction. I speak from a privileged vantage, enjoying the comfort and security so many crave. I have no business complaining, and yet, my inconveniences speak to a wider phenomenon. What manifests in my life as a need to be nimble and flexible, open to change, resourceful with options, the challenge to make lemonade of lemons, is a much more profound and ominous trend in the wider world. The confluence of political turmoil, health threats, environmental upheaval, and our fraying ability to juggle it all may lead to a reality in which Plan Bs will be a necessary survival tool, and the stakes won’t be as benign as an altered trip itinerary, but life and health and happiness itself.

More than anything, I hope I’m wrong.




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Affirmation Journey

Less than a month after we returned from our Alaskan adventure, we left home again, this time for Peru. I’m not much of a world traveler, but our family friend Liz has been working in Peru this past year on a Fulbright Scholarship. Sawyer spent a morning with us on the computer and was able to finagle three round trip tickets to Lima for something like a total of $200 using credit card miles and the like. Liz’s time in Peru is winding up in a couple of months, and her invitation to come and see the country was compelling.

So, in mid-October, off we went. It was a little complicated. Ruby decided to join us, and was traveling separately. The deal we were able to work out through Sawyer was a tad convoluted – our tickets involved us driving to Seattle, flying to Washington DC where we would endure a 7 hour layover, then flying to Bogota and on to Lima. Then, after a day in Lima, another flight on to see Liz in the northern highland city of Chachapoyas.

We talked ourselves into this gambit because Sawyer had friends in Seattle he wanted to visit before we left. We decided we could use the DC layover to take public transport and visit the Washington Mall. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, from afar it all seemed plausible, if a bit challenging.

Now we’re back and everything has settled back down to its normal routine. And I’ve had a chance to ruminate on our journey and reach some conclusions. Two of them, in fact, that affirm attitudinal leanings I’ve harbored for a while now. They are no longer ‘leanings’. They are now firm beliefs.

First, that modern air travel is an absolute shitshow. This is particularly true, if you, like me, have a long enough arc to remember how chill and pleasant air travel once was. Back when you could stroll with your companion to the gate and see them off, and come to the gate and wave a welcome when they returned. Back when invasive, humiliating searches weren’t the status quo. Back when you actually conferred with humans to negotiate travel plans rather then computer screens demanding login information.Back when you actually got meals on flights rather than tiny packets of dry pretzels.

Everything, these days, is complicated, onerous, uncomfortable, and stressful. Even when things go according to plan, we are subjected to snaking long lines while the clock ticks down toward our departure time, obnoxious searches of our luggage and person, demanding computer kiosks, crowded and uncomfortable seating from waiting areas to plane seats . . . you get the picture. We’ve all been there. And that’s when things go well.

When things don’t go well. . . In our case the layover in DC went more or less according to plan. We figured out public transport and spent a drizzly half-day wandering the national mall, touring the Botanical Gardens and the Art Museum, reflecting on the Reflecting Pool, gazing at the Monument. A bit bleary, and a little damp, but definitely worth it. We got to Lima late at night, 24 hours after leaving Seattle, and booked an AirBnB, slept in, toured Lima on foot the next day, enjoyed local food, reckoned with travel lag. The next morning our flight to Chachapoyas was inexplicably delayed and we hung out with fellow travelers at the gate for hours, waiting for explanations, which finally came via a bus that pulled up, loaded us up, took us back to reclaim our bags, and explained that due to weather, the flight had been cancelled.

Marypat and Sawyer sleeping off airport frustration

Marypat and Sawyer sleeping off airport frustration

Another day in Lima, another night in an AirBnB, another Uber ride or two, more exploring of a city we’d really rather not be in. None of it compensated for or assisted in by the tiny airline that serviced our destination. Only the next day did we manage to fly out and make it to see Liz, and Ruby, who had actually managed to match her itinerary.

Ten days later, when we returned, our flight back from Chachapoyas to Lima was inexplicably delayed by several hours, but did eventually fly. Another afternoon in Lima with the kids, spent nicely enough, and then back to the airport for flights out. Through baggage claim, through TSA, through Customs, off to our gates. We said goodbye to Ruby and boarded our plane, which then sat at the gate for an extra hour before explaining that a dashboard switch had to be repaired. Fine, we eventually pushed off, only to sit, unmoving on the tarmac for another unexplained hour, before the pilot came on the say that one engine wasn’t firing. We sat for another couple of hours in our uncomfortable seats while they tried to fix the plane, before finally declaring that the flight was cancelled. Off the plane, onto a bus, back to baggage to reclaim our luggage, back through customs, and then into a long, glacial line of disgruntled passengers who proceeded to go up to the desk and plead their particular travel distress to the agent and try to work things out. Several hours later we finally got our hotel and meal vouchers, went to a waiting bus, before taking an interminable route to the hotel where we would have to spend yet another day in Lima before taking the replacement flight back home. All in all, that debacle at the airport lasted from 8:30 at night until 5 am the following morning.

Having fun while anticipating another flight cancellation.

Having fun while anticipating another flight cancellation.

Thankfully, 24-hours later we finally boarded a plane that managed to successfully get airborne and deliver us back to Seattle, where we immediately got into our car and drove back to Montana. Sorry for the long-winded delivery, but you have to admit, that was a shitshow of gigantic proportions.

Air travel is no longer anything but an ordeal to hopefully survive. And hopefully the travel travail is made worth it by the quality of the time in the destination.

Which brings me to conclusion number two (a much more pleasant one!). When traveling to a foreign place, and especially one in which you don’t speak the language, it is an incalculable advantage to have an ambassador in place who can help facilitate your visit. Either that, or book a tour that will take all the logistical challenges off your shoulders. (The tour is a poor second choice to having an ambassador – more money, less freedom, less authentic . . .).

In our case, once we got to Chachapoyas, we were in Lizzie’s hands and our visit proceeded in very rewarding style. Liz speaks the language fluently. She has been in place for the better part of a year and has developed friends, knows out of the way restaurants, has established relationships with vendors at the market, and has explored the region. As such, she was able to put together a string of wonderful days with us, packed with sights and experiences that delivered a true sense of Peru – the people, the customs, the food, the geography.

Ruby and Sawyer p\overlooking Chachapoyas

Ruby and Sawyer p\overlooking Chachapoyas

Before our trip, we juggled the decision of whether to try and fabricate our own top ten things to do in Peru – backpacking to Machu Picchu, going to hummingbird hotspots, visiting the Amazon headwaters, traveling to the high peaks of the Andes . . . It was that, or concentrate on the part of Peru where Liz lives and dive more deeply. I’m relieved to say we chose the latter option, and are very grateful to have done so.

Typical Peruvian valley in the highlands.

Typical Peruvian valley in the highlands.

With her guidance and in her company, we stayed at sweet, off-the-radar places with home-cooked meals for less than $20/night. We walked trails through jungle vegetation to a stunning series of waterfalls. We sat at a little coffee shop and watched hummingbirds. We walked back roads up panoramic, cliff-walled valleys with flocks of green parrots flying by. We toured local ruins from pre-Inca civilizations. We had a zany day of rafting on a local river, all to ourselves. We got invited to a friend’s house who provided a memorable Peruvian lunch. And we became comfortable in a town, through Liz, where we conversed with local shop owners, wandered the streets, took in local events, watched funeral processions, bird-watched, petted dogs, and enjoyed meals via Liz’s connections and facility with the language.

Marypat embraced by a tree on a jungley, waterfall-studded hike.

Marypat embraced by a tree on a jungley, waterfall-studded hike.

Our ten days in country, with Liz as our guide and translator, more than made up for the agony of the air travel. Still, I think I’d consider driving all the damn way to Peru next time, just to avoid that shitshow!!!

Not on the tourist circuit!

Not on the tourist circuit!

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Alaska’s Noatak River: A Month of Near Misses

To begin with, that all ten of us, and our literal ton of gear, made it to Kotzebue, Alaska at the same time and in good shape is a small miracle. Arriving from Montana, Washington, Arizona, Texas, each coping with long drives, airport snafus, elderly parents at death’s door, monstrous and unwieldy baggage, everyone coalesced at the correct gate in the Anchorage airport to board the final leg to the edge of wilderness near the Arctic Circle. It is also a statement of the times that not one of us came down with Covid on the eve of departure, an eventuality that seemed entirely likely, and that would have thrown plans into a state of turmoil.

On the ground the next morning, ready to fly in to the gravel bar on the high reaches of the Noatak, inside the Gates of the Arctic National Park, weather looked decidedly iffy. Rain in town, clouds down to the deck. But the bush pilots bustled around getting us ready, weighing everything, arranging planes. I was skeptical enough that I didn’t change into my trip clothes until they started loading gear into planes. Sure enough, off we flew into the gray skies, flying low enough to look for wildlife up the Kobuk River, up the Ambler drainage, over high mountain passes so close to the ground it seemed like we could have handed an energy bar off to a hiker. Finally, into the broad valley of the Noatak, bounded by rugged peaks, and bouncing down a rough gravel bar where the weather was actually pretty sweet.

“It’s a different world up here,” the pilot said. He got that right.

That sweet window of weather lasted for an afternoon. Long enough for us to fabricate our folding canoes, get camp set up, and enjoy the surroundings. Organizing our gear on the gravel bar, we discovered the careless treatment of our baggage by airport TSA – bags of dried food opened and not properly reclosed, an essential piece of one of the folding canoes misplaced, baggage that we had carefully sealed up left undone . . . another dodged bullet.

That night it started to rain. It rained, off and on, for the next 15 days. We hoped to linger in the most accessible high mountains for the first part of the trip, and we did, but wet weather limited our views of the jagged peaks to fleeting glimpses. Our gravel bar dwindled to the point that we had to abandon camp. On our second morning Lee Lantzen’s tent was surrounded by a moat of rising river and the teepee tent had a stream running through the middle of it. If our flight in had been delayed by a day, who knows when we would have gotten in, or where they would have found a place to land, because our landing zone was under water.

It didn’t rain constantly. We were usually able to find windows in the weather to break camp and set up camp. Everyone was adequately equipped and competent enough to stay dry and warm, but hikes were rubber boot and rain gear affairs, hopping through miles of tussocks to reach low, cloud-shrouded ridges and slopes, sweating from the inside and leaking from the outside. Once or twice we got hammered by pelting storms in the boats, or mistimed breaking camp so that everything got packed away soaked and gritty. Layers of long underwear and bulky puff coats were the standard ensemble. Mega-mids and the teepee tent were essential shelters for cook groups. Zippers kept getting more and more gritty. Most days, tents went up wet and came down wet.

No one wanted to be the weak link when it came to attitude, so while we each had our internal dialog that want something like, “Holy shit, is this the weather we’re going to have for a month?!”, nobody said it out loud. Everyone bucked up, made the best of it, kept the humor going. During breaks in the rain we walked to high points to take in the vast tapestry of arctic land going into a mosaic of fall color. Paddling the long bends of river, ridges and valleys, high peaks and side canyons spread to the horizon, truly immense country on a scale that allows wildlife to live as they are meant to live. Mile after mile of wild terrain, each view full of hidden gems – lakes, canyons, pingos, rocky cliffs, broad tundra expanses, side streams full of evocative promises of what’s around the bend.

Days slid by like the bends of river, then weeks. Every boat had at least one set of binoculars and we ticked off a satisfying list of wildlife sightings – a handful of musk ox, dozens of Dall sheep, regular sightings of wolves, small herds of caribou, and more grizzly than anyone wanted to see. Every shoreline we stopped at, whether for lunch, a hike, or to camp, was adorned with fresh tracks of the big bears. We saw maybe a dozen of them, beautiful and scary, and several were more pushy than was comfortable about being near camp. More than once we woke to find fresh tracks within a few yards of our tents. Both Marypat and I adopted a form of bear-fear denial based on the assumption that no bear was going to mess with a group of ten people. Seemed to work, whether or not the theory holds water.

The Noatak kept rising with all the rain during the first half of the trip. For several days the river was the consistency  and color of wet clay, whispering against the boat bottoms as we paddled. It is a remarkable river. It flows more than 400 miles from the high peaks to the ocean, and has not a single portage, essentially no rapids of consequence, but maintains a steady current that allowed us to knock off 25-30 miles in an easy day. Along the way it covers a span of geography from jagged high peaks to broad tundra plains to boreal forest. Salmon jumped up river much of the month. Anglers in the group pulled out Dolly Varden, grayling, and salmon to add to our diet. On one of the few clear nights we all got to witness a stunning display of northern lights – green and pink and white sheets roiling through the cold sky.

As we left the high peaks in our wakes, the weather settled into a more reasonable pattern, still often gray, but not as consistently wet. On several days we enjoyed brilliant sun that brought out the true beauty of boreal fall (“All the colors of New England, only six inches tall,” noted Lee James). We settled into the rhythm as a group as well. Days off to hike and fish and enjoy camp. Making rounds of bannack bread over fires. Playing cards after dinner in the teepee tent. An occasional round of yoga-stretches before getting into the boats. Bend after bend of country unfurling as the river grew, braiding through miles of gravel bar.

Gyrfalcon and peregrine calling from cliffs. The slap of jumping salmon punctuating the long nights. A hike to a high bank above the Grand Canyon of the Noatak into a rustling grove of poplar, a sanctuary grove if ever there was one. The night, after weeks of gray, when a cold front swooped in, sweeping the sky clean and bathing the valley in tawny, lambent light. The feel of untethered river bearing our boats along. Fragments that stick fast in my memory.

As much as 150 miles upstream of the village of Noatak we started seeing native people in motor boats, coming upriver to hunt caribou and be on the land. At first it seemed like an intrusion, but they are part of this landscape, and they were out getting food for the winter. It is part of the scene. We had several nice conversations with people who stopped to share stories, give us smoked salmon or beluga, or share “Eskimo ice cream” made from caribou fat and berries (surprisingly delicious).

On the morning of Day 33, in mid-September, we pulled into shore near the airstrip in Noatak, hoping our bush flight would show up to take us out to ‘Kotz’. Locals immediately came around to help us ferry gear from the river to the edge of the strip. Our flight kept being delayed, or being put in doubt, by bad weather conditions where the pilots were coming from, so we had an entire day to spend in town or waiting along the gravel strip. “Welcome to Noatak!” residents kept saying. Regular visitors swung by on four-wheelers to visit, tell stories, show us carvings. One woman brought us fresh-baked scones.

Finally, as evening approached, our pilots were able to get in, and we flew over the final miles of winding river and coastal plane, and then across the short ocean stretch between the mouth of the Noatak and the town of Kotzebue. The next evening, after a day touring the tiny northern outpost, we caught our scheduled flight back to Anchorage and on to points south.

Good thing, because the morning after our escape, a Pacific typhoon hit that section of Alaskan coastline with 100 mile winds and a ten-foot storm surge. If we hadn’t made our flight, who knows when we would have gotten out?


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