THE FIRST THING I SEE IS A FOREST OF ANTLERS ABOVE THE NEXT BEND. As we drift downstream, tracking from right to left in the current, the plane of view that contains the caribou shifts above the shoreline, bringing their bodies into sight. There are about a dozen--brown with blunt snouts and white throats and rumps, each head equipped with an enormous rack. Some of the antlers are bleeding--the natural result of shedding their velvet, which is hanging off in strips.
The animals freeze for a few seconds, looking at us. Then they take off running, hooves swishing in the sand and gravel, the sound augmented by a curious clicking of their heel tendons. In a great cacophony, the group splashes into the river and ferries en masse to the other side, heads and backs above the water. When they reach shore, they explode in spray and bound up over the bank into the tundra.
The river is the Noatak, in northwestern Alaska. Four hundred miles long, and draining most of the central Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle, it is the main artery of the largest undisturbed riparian system in America. Dividing the spruce forests of the Alaskan interior from the North Slope tundra, the Brooks Range is the last great wilderness in North America. The river’s source is in the very heart of the region, on Mt. Igikpak in Gates of the Arctic National Park. The name Noatak, appropriately enough, means “from deep within” in the local Inupiat language.
My previous experience of Alaska had been limited to the southeastern part of the state, which--being largely defined by glaciers--is confined by snow and ice even in late summer. North of the Arctic Circle, surprisingly, the land remains free of both until early fall. It is thus good country for hiking and canoeing, which is why I’m here. And it has the added attraction of migrating caribou, one of the great spectacles in the natural world.
The caribou-- Rangifer tarandus granti , the New World version of reindeer--is the most common large herbivorous mammal in northern Alaska. Like the grizzly bear and the wolf, it was once abundant throughout North America--even as far south as Nevada and New Mexico--but retreated before the advance of civilization. About 30 subgroups of the species now inhabit the Arctic, with the largest concentration, about 300,000 animals, in the western-central portion of the region. They winter on the fringes of forests in the southern valleys of the Brooks Range and travel north in spring to their calving grounds on the tundra, moving in immense herds of thousands that have been likened to invading armies or encroaching weather fronts. They summer on the North Slope and begin moving south again in August, just before the return of winter. No one can predict which routes the animals will follow from year to year. The Noatak is, however, one of the rivers the caribou most often cross.
I VISITED THE NOATAK LAST AUGUST IN A GROUP OF ABOUT 15, ORGANIZED by a California-based outfitter specializing in such expeditions. Our embarkation point was the town of Bettles (population 51), about 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks. From Bettles we took a floatplane into the Noatak basin. As we approached the river’s headwaters, we saw snow on the higher peaks. The landscape below was green and yellow, though that would change before the end of our two-week trip. Late August is fall in the Brooks Range, the one window of climatic serenity in the Arctic year.
From November through February, of course, the Arctic is lightless and covered with snow. Temperatures reach as low as 50 degrees below zero. Spring and summer, on the other hand, are insect hell. Humans worry about mosquitoes, but caribou are more concerned with flies, two types in particular--the bumblebee-like warble fly and the nostril fly (so named because it leaves its larvae in the caribou’s nose). In July, the height of the fly season, caribou basically go berserk. They shake their heads, stamp their feet, bury their noses, plunge into lakes and stampede across mountains, seeking out wind-swept spots where bugs have a hard time flying. By mid-August, when shortening days bring falling temperatures, along with the first frosts and snows, the insects disappear. And this was when we humans appeared with our tents and canoes.
On our first day, however, we didn’t paddle at all. We set out on foot across the tundra, that unique Arctic ecosystem whose name derives from a Lappish word meaning treeless plain. There is little precipitation here and the growing season is brief. Permafrost, frozen earth underlying the shallow topsoil, blocks the seepage of water into the soil below, preventing plants from growing deep roots and turning the Arctic into one vast bog. Plants on the tundra rarely grow higher than one’s knee. A spruce takes 30 years to reach shoulder level; a miniature willow may be a century old.
We made our way in rubber boots through yellow net-leaf willow, white reindeer lichen, low-bush cranberries with red leaves, and tiny, semisweet blueberries, their sugars concentrated by recent frosts. Mushrooms sprouted among microcosmic bonsai arrangements, many of whose plants were hairy or waxy, to retain heat and retard evaporation. The turf underfoot was mossy-- soft and springy, yielding and benevolent.
We came to a cliff and continued to climb, hand-over-hand, up a rocky watercourse, pulling ourselves up by way of willow branches. At the top we found trails worn smooth by Dall sheep, which we could see as distant white dots making their way across nearby slopes. Closer at hand, alpine lichens clung to the rocks, growing at their deliberate pace of a 16th of an inch per year.
From the cliff, we could look out over the immense Noatak basin and the shining river snaking west.The permafrost in the tundra appeared as a honeycomb pattern--a kind of terrestrial drainage diagram reaching toward the river. Behind us, scores of unnamed peaks receded to infinity.
Even though it was only midday, the landscape was bathed in late-afternoon light. August days are long in the Arctic, but the sun is never very far from the horizon. The actual sunset, occurring at about 11 p.m., seems to last forever. By the time the sun did go down, of course, we were back in camp, tottering around on legs punished by the strain of the descent.
THE NEXT MORNING, WE LOADED OUR BOATS AND PUSHED OFF INTO THE river. The Noatak is eminently navigable by canoe, as almost nothing resembling a rapid exists along its length. The river was green in its deeper sections, gray in its frequent shallows; in many places, the water wasn’t even waist-high. Frequently an aluminum hull would hit bottom, detonating a dynamite-like boom, at which point the occupants of the craft in question had to get out and push. Other than the boom, and the faint sound of an occasional bush plane or gust of wind, calm ruled.
Occasionally, streams would meet the Noatak from the side, their progress downhill observable on the surrounding slopes. Distant, Y-shaped, willow-choked watercourses streamed down the dark green mountainsides like sets of light green antlers; a succession of tiny creeks tinkled over the banks, bearing cheerful tidings. By contrast, bigger streams--those that emerged from major drainages, qualifying as rivers in their own right--carried urgent news.
I’m not just being metaphorical here. Descending an Alaskan river, one repeatedly passes tributary valleys that have rarely, if ever, been explored. These realms of terra incognita are intoxicating in their mystery, and water emerging from their mouths seems filled with wild energy, like some cryptic messenger from a savage kingdom. At every confluence, the river widens and the current quickens, racing over gravel bars and riffling in the breeze. James Katz, our guide and nature guru, told us that in India, altars are often stationed at such river intersections, marking the merger of two spirits. If one could only decipher the terms of the arrangement in the Arctic! But a wilderness on the order of the Brooks Range is no quick study; the way to approach it is on foot, penetrating its secret canyons at a pilgrim’s--that is, a snail’s--pace. Visitors from modern civilization, we didn’t have that kind of time.
On the other hand, we did have ample opportunity to--as Katz described it--"lick around its edges.” One rainy evening at dusk, I hiked along a tributary away from the main river. I hadn’t meant to go very far, but the water kept drawing me on. It soon divided into several branches, and with each diminution in stream size, the world grew quieter. After a while I wandered away from the water, passing holes dug by grizzly bears in search of burrowing rodents. Vole mounds and moose and caribou tracks were everywhere among the shrubs and grasses. I glimpsed something like a cross between a cat and a dog trotting across the tundra; suddenly it broke into a run and disappeared behind a bush. I heard a squeal and it reappeared--a fox with a ground squirrel in its jaws. A little while later I heard a loon. Aside from these isolated cries, the tundra was hushed.
Alaska is rare--by which I mean raw, or at least minimally heated and hence underdone. The place has only recently emerged from under ice, so its geographic character is still being formed. Watching a glacial river tear at its own banks, you realize that its present location isn’t etched in stone--that within a few years it may have forged a new course. Vegetation is just being established, so plants are pioneers. Even animals are in a state of flux, their populations booming and crashing, seeking evolutionary balance.
“The coming and going of the animals during the short summer gives the Arctic a unique rhythmic shape,” writes Barry Lopez in his book “Arctic Dreams.” He also notes “the serene Arctic light that (comes) down over the land like breath, like breathing.” And indeed, the Arctic does exude a sense of respiration. Winter might be thought of as a period of suffocation, whereas spring is literally “inspiring"--drawing warm air and animals to the land. Summer is a briefly held gasp, a moment of life-extending agitation; following that, fall comes as a sigh of relief.
And it was now fall. As we floated down the river, the landscape steadily grew more autumnal. What had been green and yellow when we arrived became red, pink, maroon, crimson, copper, ocher and vermilion. The change was imperceptible day by day, but by the time the bush planes picked us up, it was all-encompassing: Entire mountains had been painted scarlet; the veins of their watercourses were gleaming gold. Within a few weeks it would all be white. This is a cycle we undergo every second of every season. But in the Brooks Range, where change is both protracted and abrupt, it seems to be illustrated in an enormous book with vivid colors. It’s a volume available only in Alaska, legible in the long light of an Arctic autumn.
Attacking the Noatak
Travel arrangements: A number of tour operators offer hiking and canoe trips along the Noatak River. Companies with the most trips include Abec’s Alaska Adventures, 1551 Alpine Vita Court, Fairbanks, Alaska 99712; (907) 457-8907; Colorado Outward Bound School, 945 Pennsylvania St., Denver, Colo. 80203; (303) 837-0880, and Sourdough Outfitters Inc., P.O. Box 90, Bettles, Alaska 99726; (907) 692-5252. The author booked his own trip through James Henry River Journeys, P.O. Box 807, Bolinas, Calif. 94924; (800) 786-1830 or (415) 868-1836. This year, the trip is scheduled for Aug. 21 through Sept. 4, at $2,690 per person, including meals, hotels in Fairbanks and charter flights to and from Bettles. Transportation to and from Fairbanks is not included. (Delta and Alaska Airlines each offer a daily connecting flight from Los Angeles to Fairbanks, and Alaska also flies once daily from Long Beach.)
Park brochures and a list of Alaska-based air taxi services, guides and commercial tour operators may be obtained by writing to the Bettles Ranger Station, Gates of the Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 26030, Bettles, Alaska 99726, or calling (907) 692-5494. For information on travel in Alaska in general, contact Alaska Division of Tourism, P.O. Box 110801, Juneau, Alaska 99811-0801; (907) 465-2010.