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Thread: Paddling among grizzly bears above the Arctic circle - Noatak river

  1. #1
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    Default Paddling among grizzly bears above the Arctic circle - Noatak river

    Preparation

    Some years ago we met some new paddling friends and made a trip together in the Northern Yukon. We got on so well we agreed that we would try and paddle together again in 2015.

    Last winter we started mailing back and forth and planning Skype sessions. We discovered that the Noatak river had been on all our bucket lists for years.

    We had met a Norwegian back in 1994 who had recommended the river to us. This was now the ideal opportunity to see if we could get a trip organised to this distant river.

    The Noatak river flows for all its length above the Arctic circle in North West Alaska starting in the Endicott and Schwatka Mountains in the Gates of the Arctic National Park of the Brooks Range and flows in a westerly direction for 300 miles and then 100 miles south until it comes out in the Arctic ocean just north of the Bering Strait.

    The river is technically easy, described as grade 1 to II, but we balked in the beginning of our planning concerning the logistics of how to get there and how to get back. An added difficulty is that the trip starts in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and it is required to use heavy steel barrels to store food. The Noatak preserve has one of the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the world.

    We used the guide book "Rivers of Alaska" which has a 3 page description of the river including the remarks “strong winds can impede downstream travel” as the basis for our trip planning.
    July is the best month but one of our party is a school teacher and school only broke up for her 23rd July. We therefore paddled the river the first 3 weeks of august, which has the advantage that the mosquito populations have decreased but the temperature high is somewhere between 7 and 15C in the afternoon. Most days it did not get above 11C.

    The US Geological Service has a web site which permits download of free topographic maps. This allowed us to print a set of maps on scales 1:250000 and 1:50000 of the whole river.

    After months of planning, we finally left home 23rd July and via a train to Frankfurt and Condor flight to Anchorage and on to Fairbanks where we spent 3 nights and 2 full days shopping for food, fuel, bear spray and bangers, fire grid, fire lighters etc.


    Gates of the Arctic National Park

    On 28th July we took our final two flights, first to the village of Bettles, population 50 and then with a water plane to Nelson Walker lake close to the river.

    The flight into the river was breath-taking as was the lake where we landed.

    We spent two nights here, enjoying the scenery and at the same time putting our Ally canoes together.

    The scenery in the first section of the river is so wonderful we took our time paddling this section.

    The recommended time for the trip is 14 – 21 days and we planned 23 days. The first few days we had extremely strong winds and began to doubt if we would make it in 23 days. Fortunately the wind decreased later in the trip and this gave us plenty of time to take the occasional rest day. Eventually we spent 22 days on the river until we reached Noatak village, our end stop.

    We paddled during the salmon season. In the beginning we were all a little frightened for bear encounters and the park ranger had warned us from camping by the creeks, telling us that bears were fishing in them.

    On our fourth day we woke to see our first grizzly bear ambling along the embankment on the opposite side of the river. He did not seem interested in us. We all felt calmer and thereafter we enjoyed seeing a total of 13 grizzly bears during the trip, twice a mother with 2 cubs. It is amazing to see the bears walking around in the wild.























































    Noatak preserve and Arctic Tundra

    I was prepared for 4 -5 days paddling through a flat uninteresting landscape and was pleasantly surprised how fantastic and interesting the landscapes were. Further they were full of life. You heard bird song everywhere.

    We spotted two herds of muskox, grizzly bears, red fox, wolverine, ermin and ground hogs. The river was full of salmon and we continually saw fish jumping out of the water.

    The only downside was the wind which never stopped and the day time temperatures. Many days the thermometer managed to register 7C in the afternoon and on a warm day 11C. We were prepared and had enough warm clothing with us.

    The river in this stretch sometimes slows down to walking pace and then picks up speed again with the occasional small rapids. The water is still crystal clear.





















    WILDLIFE
















    Grand Canyon and Noatak Canyon

    While paddling though the tundra there are always distant views of mountains and hills, the mountains we have left behind and the hills we are paddling towards.

    The river cuts a small canyon through these hills, grandly called the Grand Canyon and then a short stretch named the Noatak canyon.






















    Lowlands

    Around 60 miles upstream from Noatak village, we saw the first spruce trees. Slowly the concentration of trees increased.

    Again surprisingly after nearly 400 miles from the source, the river water was still crystal clear and carrying no sediment. The river starts to braid and become very wide. On approaching Noatak village we cautiously started making our way over to the right hand bank about 10 km above the village and did succeed in landing in the tiny stream in front of the village.













    COOKING

    The river flows through a treeless landscape. During our preparations we had made contact with some Swiss paddlers who paddled the river a few years ago and in answer to our question if there was enough wood for fires, they had responded with a yes. We did not know if they just use instant freeze-dried food of actually spent some time cooking.

    Up in the mountains where we landed at Nelson-Walker lake, we cooked on stoves using coleman fuel.

    Thereafter, when we portaged from the lake over into the river, we were surprised that by every camping spot we were always able to find enough wood to cook on a fire. It usually took some time to gather enough wood, small pieces left above the flood line or caught up in small scrub after the yearly spring floods.

    There are no trees along the river until the last 40 miles or so above Noatak, yet small willows and alders grow on small islands and this wood gets carried into the river, has probably rotted there for years and burns quickly. Our cooking fires were not so controllable as when paddling in an area full of pine trees but we even managed to do some baking. Every second day we baked bread, and also managed a birthday cake and cinnamon buns.























    Bear Barrels

    We were concerned back home at the idea of carrying unwieldy heavy steel barrels with us for food storage. As there is no portaging on this trip except from the river to a suitable camp spot each evening, it was not really a hassle.
    We discovered more uses for them which helped around camp.

    They made an ideal saw horse, useful for sitting, a worktop for the washing up, holding guy ropes of the tarp in place, cooking preparation surface, small drinks table.

    We rented them for free from a ranger station in the Gates of the Arctic National park and returned them using the US Postal Service from Noatak village.


















    Inupiat Hospitality

    From Noatak village, it is another 60 miles to the sea and then a short stretch across the sea in Kotzebue sound to the village of Kotzebue. Theoretically it is possible to paddle from here to Kotzebue but the river description warns for high winds in Kotzebue sound which can capsize small boats. We had therefore planned to stop in Noatak and see if we could find a local who could motor boat us to Kotzebue.

    After asking around in the village, we were pointed to a guy who could maybe help us.
    He invited us to stay 2 nights in his home and then took us to Kotzebue just for the price of the fuel.

    We could not believe our luck. He went out of his way to make us feel at home and proudly showed us around his village and the local school. All the inhabitants were extremely friendly and we were also invited to drink coffee in another residents house. The Inupiat still live in a traditional way, harvesting seals, whales, caribou, salmon and berries for the mainstay of their diet. At the same time the village has electricity and satellite communications to the outside world so that every house has television and Internet.

    It was fascinating to stay for 2 days in this community and observe the Inupiat way of life. This was really a high point on which to end the trip.












    Conclusion

    The trip could not have been better!

    The scenery and surroundings are so fantastic it was a privilege to be able to paddle this river and experience this Arctic region and the clear magnificent river and the wildlife so close to hand.

  2. #2
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    Wow - wonderful trip! Enjoyed the blog and summary format.
    Some of the photos could almost be in the UK with the roads, pylons, wind turbines etc. just out of shot! It looks a beautiful place and I imagine the scale of the landscape is difficult to capture in photos.

    I'd love to venture out into to such wilderness even with the steel bear barrels!

    Thanks for posting.

  3. #3
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    Utterly wonderful, what a place to paddle. And yet another example of Ally canoes being used for a real adventure.
    Covering as many malmiles as possible before being distracted by the pub!

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  4. #4
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    Well there's something you don't see often. Incredible trip which I'm sure will live long in the memory.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mal Grey View Post
    Utterly wonderful, what a place to paddle. And yet another example of Ally canoes being used for a real adventure.
    Yeah, I was thinking that. Fancy going halves ?
    MarkL
    www.canoemassifcentral.com
    Canoe outfitting packages in the Massif Central


  5. #5
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    A fabulous adventure, thanks for sharing
    Cheers
    Tim


    Paddles a Prospector

  6. #6
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    Brilliant adventure. Well done to you all

    Andy
    The river flows, flows to the sea
    Wherever that river flows, that's where I want to be

  7. #7
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    Fantastic adventure. Well planned, well executed. I could see others making that into an ordeal with less prep.
    "I'm not getting in a boat which is DESIGNED to go upside down."

  8. #8
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    Wow! Not jealous, honest. Mind you wouldn't fancy one of those bears creeping into camp in the middle of the night.

  9. #9
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    Fantastic real adventure. That really is remote! Thanks for showing what's possible.
    "Thus we lead a life of pleasure
    Thus we while the hours away"

    from Thoreau, Voyager's Song

  10. #10
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    Magnificent. Now that is a trip of a lifetime. True wilderness adventure.

  11. #11
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    Brilliant stuff. Thanks for taking the trouble to post

    "I'm very good at hearing badly but very good with my bad eyesight"

  12. #12

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    Really nice trip. That is just the right natural habitat of Ally Canoes!

    Could you please specify the costs?

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Spartaner View Post
    Really nice trip. That is just the right natural habitat of Ally Canoes!

    Could you please specify the costs?
    It depends where you live and what time you go and what the dollar exchange rate is. Flying end of july to Anchorage is more expensive than early july. 50% of our total budget was spent on getting from our house to Frankfurt by train, hotel overnight, flight Frankfurt- Anchorage - Fairbanks, return from Kotzebue - Anchorage - Frankfurt and train back to home. Including all excess baggage fees (canoe, paddle bag and an extra bag) on the Condor flights that cost GBP 1250 (Eur 1700) per person. We spent the same again on 3 nights stay in a motel in Fairbanks (we shared one room with the 4 of us), meals and taxis in Fairbanks, flights (Fairbanks -Bettles and water plane into the park) and excess baggage fees to Bettles (we sent some as freight in advance), motorboat ride to Kotzebue, bed and breakfast in Kotzebue and an Airbnb overnight in Anchorage and meals in Kotzebue and Anchorage plus food for the trip, bear spray, bear bangers, duck tape, postal costs for returning the barrels etc

  14. #14
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    wow, thanks for sharing, very impressive.

  15. #15
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    Astounding.
    ...Sometimes it's good to put the paddle down and just let the canoe glide...


  16. #16
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    Halo,
    I have no other words as FANTASTIC!
    But I have a question / entreaty. I have read in some book about bannock. I find some recipes on net, but I feel that my products have far to perfection. As I red in your post about bred, you have made each second day, I get feeling, that you have to be expert in it (and same feeling give me the picture of your bred). Canst du please publish your recipe and technique? If it’s not secret, naturally
    Thanks lot
    Mroz

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mroz View Post
    Halo,
    I have no other words as FANTASTIC!
    But I have a question / entreaty. I have read in some book about bannock. I find some recipes on net, but I feel that my products have far to perfection. As I red in your post about bred, you have made each second day, I get feeling, that you have to be expert in it (and same feeling give me the picture of your bred). Canst du please publish your recipe and technique? If it’s not secret, naturally
    Thanks lot
    Hallo Mroz,

    I am sure there are lots of forums about Outdoor Cooking and Bushcraft where far more expert advice is given about cooking bread.

    For me the two important factors are
    . the consistency of the dough
    . keeping the pan warm with a hot fire which does not produce large flames to avoid burning

    The first is not a problem once you are familiar with mixing the flour and getting the consistency right. A hot fire was this holiday much more problematical as it was always windy and the wood (willow or alder, rotten and often damp) does not burn well and does not produce any nice red coals.
    To keep the wind off the fire, we place stones around the fireplace if available or dig into the sand. We also use foldable aluminium wind shields to keep the heat concentrated.

    I do not have a recipe with amounts.

    I use 2/3 white flour (a few handfuls), 1/3 whole meal flour (less handfuls), baking powder, some oil, some milk power, pinch of salt and water. When the air temperature is warm (not this holiday) I use yeast instead of baking powder as I prefer the taste.
    Before starting I wash my hands and then only knead the dough with one hand, so that if you need to add more water or flour as you go along, one hand is always clean. If takes me about 10 minutes to knead the dough into a ball which is quite elastic , has some air in it and no longer sticks to your hand or the pan.
    I grease the frying pan with a bit of oil and use either a lid if we have one with us or aluminium foil to spread over the dough.
    I bake it for 20 minutes, then turn it over and bake for another 20 minutes while always tending the fire to make sure it stays hot but does not produce huge flames.

    Variations including making a fruit cake by adding some egg power, sugar and dried fruit to the flour mix. Another variation is cinnamon buns by rolling the dough out very thin, spreading butter on it and adding a mix of cinnamon, sugar and dried fruit and then rolling the dough and cutting into bun size shapes.

    Good luck.

  18. #18
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    Amazing!! Thanks for sharing this ( blog, not recipe)

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by paddler.nl View Post
    Hallo Mroz,

    I am sure there are lots of forums about Outdoor Cooking and Bushcraft where far more expert advice is given about cooking bread.
    Thanks :-) you seems to be very skillful in outdoor baking.
    Mroz

  20. #20
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    What a brilliant thread and what a great adventure.
    Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
    I think we should all do at least one of these in our canoeing life.
    Thank
    ming
    Canada 2011, Wales 2012, France 2013, Ireland 2014, Scotland 2015 England (Thames) 2016 - ( Thames again 2017)

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    Ho Valerie... Another amazing trip of you two. Respect for you and Geoff who take the challange to live your dreams.
    Regards, Michel

  22. #22
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    Some amazing adventures being blogged just now. This has to be one of the best . Thanks for posting .
    Good to hear that the traditional ways still prevail among the Inupiat people in the face of the internet and tele
    Regards,
    Stravaiger
    Everyone must believe in something. I believe I will go Canoeing. H. D. Thoreau.


    "Waste of time reasoning with the morally demented"

  23. #23
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    Looks like a fantastic journey. Thanks for posting.

    Bushcraft Survival and First Aid Training.

  24. #24
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    Well done guys and thank you for taking your time to blog your account of your trip. What makes it even more special is that the trip was paddled in Allys.

    Fred

  25. #25
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    If ever I get chance to catch my breath once again this evening after this blog...then there'll always be the famous 'firewater across the water' as far as I'm concerned!

    With Johnnie Walker and the wee Grouse leading the way!
    Keep yer paddles wet, and powder dry....

    MB

    ´¯`·.¸¸.·´¯`·.¸ ><(((( ((º>
    `·.¸¸.·´¯`·.¸¸.·´¯`·.¸ ><((((º>

  26. #26
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    Talking

    EPIC!


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    WOW! By the third picture I wanted to be there. Absolutely stunning scenery and what an amazing trip.

    *wonders off dreaming*

  28. #28
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    A great blog for a fantastic trip.

    Those Ally's can certainly cope well.

    Doug
    When there's trouble on shore, there's peace on the wave,
    Afloat in the White Canoe.
    Alan Sullivan


  29. #29
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    Looks like an amazing place and a great trip.
    Thanks for blogging it.
    I noticed one of the Allys has lacing around the outside of the hull about half way down. What is that for and how is it attached please?

  30. #30
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    Quote Originally Posted by firedfromthecircus View Post
    I noticed one of the Allys has lacing around the outside of the hull about half way down. What is that for and how is it attached please?
    The Ally with lacing is our friends. It is possible to use an Ally with a spray deck. Ally sells a kit of spray deck and a roll of material made of the same stuff as the skin which you glue to the boat in order to be able to fix the spray deck. You can see an example of Ally with spray deck in the video of the blog by Spartaner http://www.songofthepaddle.co.uk/for...es-August-2015 .

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