Interview: A Trip of Several Lifetimes on Alaska’s Noatak River

Nate Ptacek’s group had only one day of significant rain while spending three weeks descending the Noatak, which also happened to be their biggest day of rapids. All photos courtesy Nate Ptacek.

Separated by 50 years in age, six paddlers were brought together this August by three weeks canoeing Alaska’s remote Noatak River.

By Greg Seitz

One of Nate Ptacek’s most vivid memories of his canoe trip on Alaska’s Noatak River this August was coming around a bend and seeing a pack of wolves. There were about as many wolves on the gravel bar as there were men in the canoes. Most of the wolves melted away into the brush as the canoes approached, but a black one and one white one stood their ground and watched the paddlers pass.

Later, people they met at the end of their trip in Noatak Village told them a black and white wolf in the same pack was unusual.

The wolf encounter came near the end of the crew’s three-week trip, which also included sightings of musk ox and ever-present bears. The Noatak lived up to its reputation as one of the great wild rivers of North America.

Not only is most of the Noatak’s length protected as Wild & Scenic, but almost its entire watershed is in one of three big federally-protected areas. It’s the largest protected watershed in the United States (if Wikipedia is to be believed).

All told, the group brought 2,400 lbs of gear, canoes, food, and people. This was the third (and last) Beaver departing from the drop off at the headwaters.

As Nate discusses below, the trip was about more than just canoeing. The ages of the paddlers ranged from Nate and Andrew Spaeth, in their late 20s, to the legendary Bob O’Hara, who has explored the Arctic every summer since 1969. The intergenerational aspect seems to have been rewarding for everyone involved.

Read on for more about this Alaskan adventure.

GS: Can you give a brief introduction of you and your companions?

NP: We were certainly a diverse group, with skills and expertise covering all the bases for a successful canoe expedition:

Lee Sessions – Portland, OR
Our expedition leader, Lee has been traveling in the Far North every summer for a few decades now and did a ton of work on the front end to make certain the crew, gear, and everything else came together for the trip. We wouldn’t have been able to pull off the trip without him.

Jon Stagnitti – Banks, OR
An avid fisherman and drift boater, this was Jon’s first time in the Arctic and it was really interesting to watch him observe and adapt to fishing new water. He kept us well fed with a daily catch of Grayling, seasoned with a dash of philosophy on the river and life. He also put in a ton of work growing, preparing, and dehydrating about half of the food we ate for the trip.

Andrew Spaeth – Corvallis, OR
I first met Andrew while working on the Gunflint Trail in the BWCA during college. He later went on to paddle from Grand Portage to York Factory in 2011, which is how he became involved in expedition canoeing. He is a great guy and a hard worker – on the trip he did a lot of fishing and also helped to coordinate our bush flights and logistics on the front end. He is currently working on his masters in Public Policy at Oregon State, and I think about half of his personal pack was filled with books.

Andrew Spaeth fillets a morning catch of Grayling.

Nate Ptacek – Ventura, CA
Originally from Wisconsin and Minnesota, I moved to California three years ago for a job with Patagonia, but still make it a priority to canoe every summer. On the trip I served the roles of photographer, filmmaker, and [often-time] navigator.

Jeff Creed – Vancouver, BC
A retired fire captain from Vancouver, Jeff was our designated first responder and bear safety specialist. He was definitely the hardest working member of the crew, and kept all of our spirits high with his eternal optimism.

Bob O’Hara – St. Louis Park, MN
At 72 years old, Bob is a true living legend with 44 years of experience canoeing in the Far North. During that time he has paddled and pioneered many routes in the Canadian Arctic, including a number of first descents. His experience, guidance, and wisdom proved invaluable on the trip. As a retired biology teacher, he also served as our expert on Arctic flora and fauna.

GS: How was the Noatak River chosen?

NP: If I recall correctly, Bob had looked into the Noatak in the 1980’s, so it was always on the radar. Some of Lee’s friends had paddled it a year or two previous so there was fresh beta on the logistics and conditions, which made planning a little easier. And then there are always the twin factors of time and money: relative to Canada, bush flights are a little less expensive in Alaska, and the river is the perfect length to fit into busy schedules. It was also a great destination for us to experience together, since none of the crew had every canoed in Alaska before.

GS: How long was the trip?

NP: The Noatak (proper) is about 450 river miles from source to sea. We paddled from the headwaters to Noatak Village, a small Inupiat settlement about 50 miles inland. So all told, we paddled somewhere near 400 miles over 21 days out, including a zero day at the start of the trip and one right near the end. Overall our pace was leisurely, but we also had impeccable weather the entire way and a very swift current for the last hundred miles or so. We spent a few days after the trip in Noatak Village, staggering our flights to ensure all the gear made it out as well.

A sow grizzly and her three cubs came to fish near the group’s camp one day, about 75 feet away.

GS: Explain the logistics of getting yourselves and your gear to the river.

NP: By far the largest challenge was simply getting everything up there. All told, we were 2,400 lbs of gear, food, canoes, and people – every ounce of which needed to make it to the headwaters before we could even begin to paddle.

We first shipped all of our dry food, group equipment, canoes, and personal gear to our charter in Bettles, a remote airstrip in the interior. We sent everything about 8 or 9 weeks in advance just to be certain. Everything travels on a space-available basis in the north, first on a barge from Seattle to Anchorage, then by air the rest of the way – so you have to account for that. Some of it arrived in 2-3 weeks, but my personal gear took about 6 weeks. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous.

After confirming everything made it safe and sound, travel north was a breeze in comparison. I flew overnight LAX>ANC>FAI, where I met up with the rest of the crew. Next up was a short charter from Fairbanks to Bettles in a Cessna Caravan. After reuniting with our gear and a quick repack/weigh-in, we took off on the final leg, this time in a de Havilland Beaver on floats – the legendary workhorse of the north. The flight was exhilarating. We hit some rain and layered air; at times we were only 50 feet off the deck flying over passes through the heart of the Brooks Range.

After landing near the headwaters it was all a blur – at that point I was running on 36 hours with no sleep and don’t remember much. Basically the second and third Beaver flights landed and we unloaded, set up camp, and I went to bed. I recall waking up in the middle of the night to rain and wind, totally disoriented and trying to figure out how it could still be so bright out. Welcome to the Arctic!

GS: You took pretty extensive bear precautions. Tell us what you did and why?

NP: I read somewhere that the Western Arctic, and particularly the Noatak, contains one of the highest concentrations of Grizzlies in the world. I can’t confirm the statistic validity of that statement, but what I do know is that we saw tracks at quite literally every single place we stopped on the river. Bears were everywhere. I think our total count was 22 bears, including a sow with three cubs that came to fish about 75 feet from our camp on the third or fourth night of the trip.

After shooting rapids in the rain all day, a thoroughly soaked Andrew Spaeth rigs the nightly bear defenses at Fort Noatak.

Taking into account a very aggressive polar bear encounter by two of our crew on the Lorillard River in 2011, we came to the Noatak well prepared, complete with bear spray, an electric fence, and two motion detecting alarms for a bit of advanced warning. Jeff Creed was our go-to guy for rigging the fence around camp every night. It was a hilarious sight – six guys all hemmed in, practically stepping on each other despite no shortage of wide open space for miles around. We jokingly referred to it as “Fort Noatak”, or the “Noatak Correctional Facility for Wayward Boys”. Whatever you call it, there were times when we were happy to have it.

GS: The ages of your crew were pretty well spread out. What was it like in a group with such a generational divide?

NP: Expedition canoeing is pretty unique in that it’s really a lifelong pursuit, where age can actually be to an advantage simply due to the sheer amount of experience and knowledge needed to successfully travel in the north. The time commitment also prohibits a lot of folks during their adult years, leaving only the young and the retired with enough space in their schedule to pull off the really big trips.

On this trip, we ranged from members in their 20’s, 40’s, and 50’s, all the way to Bob O’Hara, who at 72 years old is still at it every single summer. This was his 44th consecutive year in the Far North, which makes it safe to say that he is one of the most well-traveled wilderness canoeists alive today. It was nothing short of an honor for me to travel with him on the Noatak.

As one of the young guys, it was fascinating to watch and learn from the more experienced members of our crew. I took notes in my journal every day. Ultimately it’s the little things, only gained from years of trial and error, that can turn a good trip into a great trip:

  1. Travel and eat on a strict schedule.
  2. Don’t stop paddling.
  3. Change up your food rations a little every day.
  4. Face the wind when the bugs are out.
  5. Don’t take any chances after 3pm.
  6. Follow the water, not the map.

I could go on and on… Basically, I realized that I still have a lot to learn, and a whole lifetime of trips ahead of me if I play my cards right.

Andrew Spaeth and Lee Sessions explore atop a Pingo, a unique type of conical mound with a core of ice, found only in the Arctic. Wolf sign was everywhere and we found a recently active den at the top.

GS: Considering the Noatak’s vast protected watershed, describe the solitude you experienced.

NP: This was without a doubt the most vast, remote landscape I have ever experienced. We saw two people on the third or fourth day – a couple from New Hampshire who were floating the upper section of the river. After that, we were totally alone until we approached Noatak Village almost 3 weeks later and met some of the elders, Ben and Rachel, who were out for the day to pick berries and have a picnic at their camp. We saw bush planes every few days, but other than that, nothing at all.

I had anticipated feeling somewhat vulnerable and afraid in such a remote setting, but I was surprisingly comfortable, and felt quite at home every night in camp. I think part of that came from the dynamics of a six-man crew, where you always have someone to talk to, or something to do.

GS: How was the photography? What kind of camera setup did you use?

NP: As can be expected, the Noatak was a stunningly beautiful river and made for some great photographic opportunities. I try to take a photojournalistic approach to my work, documenting the intersection of humans and the environment. But I also have a very real appreciation for aesthetics in photography – sweeping compositions, moody lighting, bold colors. So this trip presented a unique opportunity to really immerse myself in a subject I love for weeks on end, approach it from different angles, and see what happens.

But shooting the trip wasn’t without some challenges. Water is a threat at all times, so you really need to strike a balance between ease of access to your gear and protection from the elements. I was also shooting video, so that added a layer of complexity and weight to the whole rig.

Overall, my system worked pretty well: one DSLR body and lens lived in a padded insert in my waterproof daypack, under my seat for easy access. A second DSLR body, my other lenses, audio equipment, etc. was all in my Pelican box, which I stashed away in the stern except for at stops or in camp. I also had a tripod in a padded bag, stowed under the spray decking but quick at the draw in case I needed it. Powering it all was a solar kit from Goal Zero, which worked fantastically with all that Arctic daylight.

GS: Summer in the Arctic usually means swarms of flies. What were the bugs like?

NP: The bugs actually weren’t too bad. I’ve heard horror stories from the Arctic and came prepared to do battle, complete with an Original Bug Shirt and bug spray, which is something I don’t normally use. We also had a bug tent to cook under if it got real bad. But I think it was late enough in the season that they were only a real issue on a few days of the trip, when the wind was down and the temps were right.

GS: How did your collapsible PakBoats canoes do in the rapids and fast water?

NP: The PakBoats were absolutely fantastic. We had three 17’ boats with Cooke Custom Sewing O’Hara model spray decking, which made for a really comfortable, dry ride. I have to admit that I was a skeptic when I first heard we were bringing collapsible canoes, but after running our first rapid in them I was sold. The boats handle almost exactly like a hard shell in flat water, but flex a little bit when you run rapids.

Bob and Lee scout the first of many rapids on the group’s biggest whitewater day. Combined with the ease and low cost of getting them to and from the Arctic, I am a firm believer that there is no better canoe for the Far North.

 

GS: Do you think you might paddle with this crew again? Discuss any future trips?

NP: Absolutely. The crew was fantastic and we meshed really well, which was pretty amazing considering half of us didn’t know each other before we boarded the flight up. We haven’t laid any real plans yet, but there was some talk of heading back to the same region next summer, or perhaps the year after. The Colville and Kobuk rivers look pretty interesting.

I’m also very interested in the central Canadian Arctic, and even some of the historic fur trade routes below tree line in Ontario and Manitoba. If only I had all my summers off, and a lot of money to burn!

GS: Anything you wished you’d known before paddling the Noatak? Or just something you might have done different on an Arctic canoe trip?

NP: Paddling in the Far North is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. When I lived at the end of the Gunflint Trail, I used to stand on this one rock facing northwest to Canada and just dream and dream about all of the routes I could take. So when the opportunity finally came I feel like I was totally prepared.

If I had to do anything at all differently, my first instinct would be to pack less. But looking back, I really did use just about everything I brought. It’s amazing how much your needs for clothing and equipment can change over the course of 4 weeks.

***

While the trip was a lot about the solitude and the scenery, Ptacek also says a couple of his favorite memories involved the social aspects. These included cocktail hour and a few days spent at the village of Noatak at the end of the trip.

“Bob has a tradition of cocktail hour around the wanigan every night,” Nate says. “Without deviation (he is very specific in everything he does), we have a salty snack and a jug of precisely mixed rum lemonade – Lamb’s 151 with powdered lemonade, garnished with a key lime. A guaranteed crowd pleaser.” Noatak village had a population of 514 people at the last census, about 90 percent of whom are Native. The crew ended their trip there and had a few days to get to know the village while they waited for their plane out.

Bob O’Hara shares some stories – and some laughs – from 45 years of expeditions in the north.

“I hadn’t anticipated the extent to which our stay there would factor in my overall experience on the trip. We camped on the edge of town by the airstrip, and quickly made a lot of friends. Everyone wanted to hear about the river, and if we had seen any caribou. The generosity and kindness of the people, the quirks and pace of life in a remote community – it all added up to a fascinating and unexpected cultural experience.”

See more of Nate’s photos on his website.

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