Floating the Noatak

For the second time in as many years I did a long float trip on the Noatak River in Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. This time my brother and I flew into the headwaters of the Noatak and spent 25 days floating 385 miles of this wilderness river.

Gravel bar just down from Tupic Creek

A float trip is an experience like no other. You bring with you everything you will need except drinking water. Because you’re not packing everything on your back, but putting it in a boat, you can take what you want up to the limit of the boat’s capacity. For boats on this trip we chose the Innova Baraka. The Baraka is an inflatable canoe, with plenty of room for gear and supplies, very stable, shallow draft, easy to paddle with a kayak paddle; a perfect boat for the trip.

The length of the Noatak makes it suitable for trips of differing lengths depending on the time available. The river is effectively divided up by the ability of bush planes to drop off and pick up people. The headwaters to Lake Matcharak is the first section, some 50 miles depending on where you start your journey. The second section is the stretch between Matcharak and Cutler River, a distance of just over 100 miles. The third section goes from the Cutler River to the village of Noatak. This is about 230 miles. The final section is from Noatak to the ocean at Kotzebue Sound, 65 miles of slow-moving river subject to head winds. We elected not to paddle this last section, but rather to take out at Noatak village.

Our trip began when our Cessna 206 landed on a gravel bar below Tupik Creek. We spent several days setting up the boats and tents, doing a little hiking, then paddling down to Lake Matcharak, a popular take out spot for those on a shorter trip.

The headwaters of the Noatak lie in the mountains of the western Brooks Range. The river is narrow and shallow, with peaks on either side. There are no trees on the tundra, short willows only, so you can see for miles. The country seems wild, often empty, silent. You feel small, but substantial, moving through the wilderness.

The Noatak’s presence is one of unlimited space - and emptiness. The river flows, the hills and flats surround you. For the most part, there is an absence, of animals, people, and noise. It brings you to yourself. Here, now.

Because of the high latitude, during the summer months there is no full dark. You don’t need a headlamp. The weather is usually mild, typically between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although we did experience hail one afternoon during a rainstorm. It can snow at any time.

Rapids below Lake Matcharak kept us busy for a day or two. Class II rapids, nothing death defying, but enough to keep us on our toes. I had capsized on my earlier trip, and it was an experience I did not care to repeat.

After Matcharak it rained off and on for four days, often accompanied by winds. The combination made travel a hard slog. The river rose with the rain and became full of silt. The rising river twice caused us to leave our camp, once at 10:30 PM. We paddled through the night, an interesting experience in the semi-dark.

As the days go on, eventually you get your routines down. Setting up and breaking camp is routine, being on the river seems normal. This is the true wonder of a longer trip. Less need for djectives to describe the surroundings, a simple awareness suffices, the daily activities of camp life are familiar. Conversation is minimal. Quiet laughter at a remark.




A fine thing the river offers at times is the opportunity simply to drift. Letting the river carry the boats, in whatever orientation that happens to be. Sometimes looking forward, sometimes backwards, or to the side. Not much effort is needed, an occasional paddle dipped in the water to adjust. Thoughts can take any direction in the open sky above, disappearing in the quiet.

Wildlife appears without warning. A muskox wandering into our camp one morning. A grizzly bear ambling along the other side of the river, pausing at the salmon carcasses. A wolf, quickly seen, or one who followed us down the river for a quarter mile. Foxes. Caribou. Fish in the feeder streams and in the river. We ate arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, and chum salmon. We saw 30 species of birds.

The countryside below Lake Matcharak opens out as you head toward Cutler River. There is less opportunity to hike, the terrain is flat, with low ridges. The river curves constantly, typically with cut banks on the outside of a bend and gravel bars on the inside. I spent lots of time looking at the marvelous assortment of stones on the gravel bars. They’re a riot of color and shape.

After Cutler River and the flats comes the Grand Canyon of the Noatak and Noatak Canyon. Mountains appear in the distance and cliffs appear on the sides of the river. Upstream of the Canyons lies a stretch of country where the Nimiuktuk River enters the Noatak and the river itself reaches its northernmost point, above latitude 68 degrees. It was in this stretch we saw herds of caribou crossing the river. Below the Canyons the spruce forest starts, and occasional hunting and fishing camps appear on the riverbank.

Our trip came to a close with another four day stretch of rain. We spent most of two days in our tents at the mouth of the Kelly River, prior to paddling on for the last days to the village of Noatak. The trip was long enough that we were glad to be finished, richer for having gone.

Image gallery

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  • Denby with his boat on our first day’s paddle.
  • Our camp at Lake Matcharak.
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  • The countryside around the Nakolik River
  • Drifting the river between the Canyons
  • Denby after 23 days on the river
  • This is me. (Tod)
  • Denby waiting for the plane. Coffee stove still up after our morning brew.


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