“Wild Alaska” on the Noatak River

Boating on the Noatak River, Alaska

The Alaska vehicle license plate has the motto “The Frontier State”. They aren’t joking.
 

A Simple Boat Trip
 

Monday night in Kotzebue I was lucky to be invited on a boat ride by a couple fellas, who wanted to head up the Noatak river for sightseeing & wood gathering. Apparently it’s allowed for native folks to harvest standing deadwood.
 

We cruised across a long shallow sound with a channel until coming into the mouth of the Noatak. Commercial fishermen had their nets out all along the way, marked with their orange ending buoys. No trawlers here.
 

We took one fork & hiked about briefly scoping trees. Next we went on the other fork towards the Aggie River, another channel of the Noatak. My boat hosts knew a lot of other folks, and we stopped to visit with a family who had a super fancy motorboat, while refueling.

 
The river was pristine, pure, and virtually untouched except for fish camps and cabins dotting the shoreline. The further up river we went, the less fish camps we saw. River seals poked their heads up & splashed around while fishing. Cranes & seagulls landed and flew. Bald hills became more plentiful the further upriver we motored. The Captain had climbed many hills, often 3000-4000 ft in elevation. But when you start at sea level, that’s pretty steep! Some lovely bluffs lined the river, as the setting sunlight turned the tundra grasses to shimmering gold.

 
Since the sun doesn’t set til 10:30PM, there was still plenty of warm sunlight as we drifted along by the mouth of the Aggie. Although the Captain took his boat up the Aggie two weeks prior, it was too low now for the flat-bottomed river boat. It didn’t matter. Drifting along was just fine for us.

 
One more forage for wood lead us to some steep hills & crags right by the river. While the men took to their chainsaws, I took to the hills. I hiked almost to the top of a bluff, climbing on small granite rocks alternating with spongey tundra. Seeing the sunset shadow line, I kept hiking, until bathed in pink sunset glow. Turning around produced an awesome site of Alaska beauty! The sun set beyond the bluffs on the opposite side of the river. Pink loveliness washed over barren hills all around, and clouds picked up shards of light holding pinks, mauves, taupes, and lavenders up like flags for all to see in the sky. Later on my hosts said sunsets like this happen every day. It’s mind-blowing.

 
After completely being mesmerized by the changing light all around me, the salmon, pink, and lavender hues blanketing the grassy hillside, the bluffs, the bushes, I heard the call to return to the boat. The whine of the chainsaw had faded, and the logs were already loaded.
 

Magnum P.I.
 

Before I even got back on-board, one of the guys asked me for my camera, then handed me a pistol. (For those City Folk who are shocked– it’s quite common practice for people in wilder, rural areas to carry guns at all times to deal with mountain lions, bears, etc.) He asked me if I ever shot one before, and after replying no, he said, “Great! There’s a first time for everything.” After receiving the gun, I looked at the engraving on the side.

 
.44 Magnum

 
Shouldn’t I be wearing ear protection?” I said.

 
Just shoot it like we showed you”, was the response.

 
I knew something was up when when I took my stance and giggling came from the sidelines.
 

Hmm.”, I thought. “Well, they seem to know what they’re doing, despite having several beers behind them. Here goes…”

 
The deafening roar after the first shot completely caught me by surprise. It was like the air had been sucked out in a vacuum, especially on my right ear, and then replaced with a high-pitched tinny bell. I recall shouting some expletives about now being deaf, and again asked for ear protection.
 

Just shoot! Keep pulling the trigger!”, was all that I heard.
 

So, I did. There were three more rounds left. When completed, the dude with the camera came up to my face & asked me how it was, how I felt, and did I feel the power. Now I know what celebrities feel like. I will have more compassion when sticking a camera in people’s faces.
 

After my hearing somewhat returned, I could finally process what I just did & how it felt. The sound of the pistol was really the thing that impacted me the most. I didn’t get my rocks off on “the power”. But, what I did realize was guns are incredibly explosive powerful weapons, that can do a lot of damage, both to shooter & shoot-ee. I learned that if ever someone points a gun at me, that it is truly a dangerous situation.

 
When asked if I wanted to shoot another few rounds, I accepted. But this time, I ran to the boat & got earphones. The fellas also coached me on stance, and how better to hold the pistol.

 
The second time was much more enjoyable. Muting the insane noise helped calm my nerves a lot. The recoil on my arms was really something else. By the last round, I was gritting my teeth, hoping I had the strength to keep the butt of the pistol from hitting my forehead.

 
It was the second to last shot that really got under my skin, though. However I had aimed, I hit the water, only about 20 yards out in front of us. It dawned on me that I could have killed a river seal or fish or something. This made me really sad. I was glad to stop.
 

It’s awesome that there are so many native people here who hunt for their food still, and enjoy being one with the land in that way. But for a city slicker like me, who had little exposure to hunting, it’s pretty disheartening. I’m just too much of a softy to kill anything. I don’t even kill spiders anymore…
 

When I asked the boat captain why he wanted me to shoot his pistol, he said, “We just wanted to pop your cherry.” Although we all laughed, I must admit I think the boys enjoyed watching more than I enjoyed shooting. Even so, my willingness to try & success at the trigger earned their respect. And so, my cachè was increased.
 

Little did we know how much we’d all need to tap into that cachè
 

Adit (Inupiat word meaning “why” or “why me” or “why is this happening” or “shucks” or “not again” or “noooooooooooo!” kinda thing)
 

On the way back, tired, worn out, but happy, we cruised quickly, hot pink sunset strips poking through the trees along the riverbank. Upon entering the channel, I was chatting with the First Mate, while El Capitan hunkered over the wheel with GPS in hand, navigating the shallow waters. The canvas was all zipped up, nightfall having brought a damp chill, and rain-bearing clouds threatening in the distance.

 
Finally our course was set, and the Captain handed over the reigns so he could go use the little captain’s room. A few minutes in, the First Mate, asked me if I wanted to drive. Having just tackled firing a weapon for the first time, I thought, “Why not? I’m here for an adventure.”
 

Sometimes there is such as thing as “too much” adventure.
 

Within about 30 seconds of me taking over the wheel, and steering for the two red lights on the Kotzebue control towers like instructed, the boat came to a screeching halt like it had hit a brick wall, and we all tumbled forward like bowling pins.
 

Frantically, I put the engine into neutral, and as the Captain finished buttoning his trousers, he grabbed for the key & cut the engine. “Holy <expletive>, <expletive>, <expletive>, what <expletive> happened?” I thought.
 

What came out was, “What happened?”

 
We ran aground”, the Captain said.
 

OMG, I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed.  Of all my luck! My boating inexperience just turned our nice trip into disaster!
 

Thankfully, the two guys were good friends, and no cross words were exchanged, while trying to sort out what happened, and how it happened. In the end, the Captain admitted he must not have put us on the right course. No matter who was commandeering the boat, we would have run aground. Boy, was I thankful for his maturity. The next day when he rescued his boat, he learned he was 250 feet off course from the channel. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
 

Since I was trying to overcome the guilt of being responsible for this mess, I shut-up quickly, and waited for instructions from the two men. An attempt was made to flag down some other boats that were also coming in to Kotzebue late, but somehow that didn’t work out. Although First Mate & I cajoled Captain to call some buddies for help (I was told there is no Coast Guard in Kotzebue; but <look here>), he decided he didn’t want to. It was unclear why, but I’ll revisit that later. It was agreed that we’d try to push the boat to deeper waters. That required removing all the logs in the boat.
 

Although there were only 2 pairs of rubber boats, I jumped in risking getting wet, to help. I had all my gore-tex clothing on by then.

 
Oh yeah. Did I mention it started raining?

 
We tried in vain to move the boat, but it was just embedded in the sandbar. The guys didn’t have rainwear on, and got really wet & cold. We all decided to warm up inside the boat tarp thingy, and re-group.

 
After dozing off while the fellas were outside trying to work a winch that might help pull the boat easier, they came back in & we all tried to get it to work. By then, though, whether it was the fatigue, shock, coldness, or attempt at sobering up that delayed brain function, none of us could figure it out.
 

Then, I heard a boat pass by us. I jumped out & tried to wave it down, but nothing happened. Then I looked down with my headlamp. Oooohh, <expletive>.

 
Sand surrounded the boat. Sand. The tide had gone out.

 
15 minutes later a voice called from the blackness. The guys ran out, and our rescuer had arrived. “Carl”, a fisherman from Kianna who was heading back there, had seen our lights, and asked if we needed help. After the men poked around, weighed all the options, they agreed that Carl would take us back to Kotzebue. This was heavily influenced by the bottle of hooch discovered onboard, and handed to Carl. Despite my misgivings, I was grateful for the help even with these means.

 
Oh, yeah. Did I mention we had to put the logs back in the boat?

 

Despite the circumstances, the two dudes were quite gracious, and expressed concern about my well-fare, especially since my socks & shoes got wet pushing the boat. First Mate insisted trading my soaking socks for his somewhat dry ones, which helped a lot. Once Carl came onto the scene, Team Runaground refused to let me step into the water again, even though my shoes were still soaked. I took off the semi-dry socks, and simply put my shoes on, stuffing the socks into my goretex jacket, Snowcamping Style. After all the logs were put back into our boat, the Captain handed the rifle and backpack to First Mate, and piggy backed me across the channel to Carl the Rescuers boat. All things considered, that was a little extra Alaskan hospitality, much of what I’ve been experiencing every day here. Sure, they may have been gun-toting, chainsaw-weilding, beer-guzzling knuckleheads, but they were gentlemenly knuckleheads.

 

But, their true character showed when First Mate picked up Captain’s dog to carry her the last part of the way to Carl’s boat, in the deepening water. Captain didn’t want her to get soaked & therefore super cold. Awwwwww… See? Even Alaskan Inupiaq lumberjacks have a soft spot.
 

(Personally, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the pooch being elevated to the same queenly status as me, but since she cuddled up against me in the bumpy fisherman’s boat bracing against the same ocean spray I was bracing against, I’ll let it slide.)
 
When we got to Carl’s boat, it was merely an outboard motor and a boat, no other luxuries. As each wave splashed over the side, I gave thanks. I’d take a life raft & paddle at that point.

 
Because it was so dark, Carl took us around to a different landing in Kotzebue than where the trucks were. Did I kiss the ground when we got back!

 
Then came the Walk of Shame through town. Thankfully, it was 5AM and nobody was really around, so we weren’t seen.
 

Now that we were on our way to safety & dryness, I began to laugh, inwardly, to myself. What a crazy day! I didn’t want to laugh out loud, because I knew it was hard on the guys. The Captain had to abandon his boat, which wasn’t easy. He felt badly about miscalculating the channel. I was a guest, and he hadn’t wanted to show me such a tough time. Still, the whole episode was pretty funny.
 

Fortunately, I’ve been through enough mishaps in the backcountry to know that these things can happen. Taking the WFR course in May also greatly helped me to stay calm.

 
Through it all, my camera equipment stayed dry & safe. And, truth be told, as I reviewed the photos to select one for this blog post, I did have fun. It was really a blast in fact!  I’m grateful to have been invited out, despite the lengthy return.  I can’t wait to edit this one…
 

***

 
It took several days to recover from the incident, as I had an interview the next morning at 9AM.
 

That being said, everyone I met in Kotzebue was delightful. Overall, people are really taking the bull by the horns to keep the native Inupiaq language and culture alive. The town is small enough to feel small, but big enough to have a little more privacy than a village.
 

Admittedly, the noise of the airplanes coming in and out, and all the vehicles on the paved roads was too jarring for me. I guess I need to take a break from “city” life for a while. I’ll always have a fondness for the Bay Area, and cities like Chicago, my hometown. But, the peace, tranquility, and solitude of Alaskan village life is a welcome respite.

 
The other aspect I noticed about Kotzebue right away though, was the prosperity. The houses are really nice, well-built, and many are well maintained. There are quite a few local businesses, besides the native village and native corporation. Although native folks also receive dividends from the native corporation due to the Red Dog mine, it seems like there is more of a drive to work & establish a good life, than in some of the villages.

 
My two boating friends are great examples of this. They are both young men who went to college, and now have great jobs in the local area. They both own their own homes, and have invested in their upkeep, as well as their hunting and fishing equipment. Given all the obstacles for Inupiaq young people to overcome in these parts (low quality education and health care, alcohol, drugs, unemployment), these young fellows are successfully living a balanced life of native subsistence activity, and a cash-based career path. It’s pretty impressive.
 

Kotzebue has a pulse to it; it’s a happening place. There seems to be a lot of opportunity there.

 
After wrapping up Kotzebue, I’ll begin on Wales, where I’m currently staying at the Kingikmuit School. Thanks for reading!

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