Last month, Kotzebue had its wettest month on record, with more than 5 inches of total precipitation. As rain drenched Northwest Alaska, a small group from Minnesota floated the Noatak River in a canoe, with a toddler in tow.
The Noatak River runs for about 425 miles, winding from Gates of the Arctic National Park through the Noatak National Preserve before flowing into Kotzebue Sound.
Bear Paulsen of Minnesota heard from friends it’d be a beautiful canoe trip, filled with gorgeous scenery and some nice hiking.
“There’s a lot of canoeists in Minnesota because of the Boundary Waters and what have you,” Paulsen said. “And really, what we’ve got is a network of people that’ve paddled various rivers all throughout Canada and Alaska. And so we talked to friends of ours, and they said the Noatak’s a great river. We have other friends that actually took a two-year-old down it.”
With no portages and some nice whitewater, Paulsen felt comfortable bringing along his son Dashwa, who’s just under three. Dashwa’s mother Claire Porter and friend Dan Cooke rounded out the group, who arrived in Kotzebue on July 11.
“We had 12 days of sun — felt like the desert, absolutely gorgeous,” Paulsen said. “We put in up as high as we could; Lucky Six is the name of the area.”
Lucky Six Creek is near the mouth of the Noatak, up by Ambler and Kobuk. Paulsen and company spent most of the time taking in hikes as they slowly moved along the river.
As they decided to pick up their pace along the Noatak, rain clouds above started to have the same idea.
“A few days after we started to move along was when the rain started. We heard 250 percent of average of rainfall, somewhere in that neighborhood,” Paulsen said. “We were deluged.”
Paulsen said adjusting to the rainfall meant monitoring to make sure the water level didn’t reach the group or their gear as they camped.
“We were putting marks and cairns, sticks in the shore, cairns on the shore to measure how far up the river was coming each night,” Paulsen said. “Making sure we didn’t get sunk. And we were continuously wet.”
Paulsen said while he didn’t expect the level of rainfall his group encountered, they had prepared for less than dry conditions.
“It’s something that you always are aware of that might happen,” Paulsen said. “We didn’t expect … it was pretty surprising to get ten straight days of rain. But we have nice tents, we have a nice bug shelter that keeps us out of the rain when we need to.”
Paulsen said they adjusted their approach slightly, considering they had Dashwa with them. Paulsen said he felt the Noatak was a mellow, more predictable river than others he’d paddled.
“Beyond that, we don’t paddle long days, because otherwise he goes nuts,” Paulsen said. “He starts hitting his mother because he shares the bow with her. He lasts about three hours at a stretch.”
The rainfall made one last strong push at the end of July, before the skies started to part and sunshine fell on the Northwest Arctic. For Paulsen, it was the optimal time to power back to town.
“We were about 20 miles up the Noatak and saying, ‘OK. Do we think we can cross today or tomorrow morning?’ We kept looking at the forecast saying, ‘I’m pretty sure we can do it,’” Paulsen said. “So, total reprieve, I mean, to be able to paddle up to the hotel.”
The expedition concluded last Thursday as Paulsen and company pulled up to shore from the Kotzebue Sound, right in front of the Nullaġvik Hotel. Looking back, Paulsen said his trip up the Noatak — his first in Alaska — was a little too wet, but the bugs weren’t that bad and he loved it.