National Geographic : 1977 Jul
toward shore. Then we too are caught. We dodge a rock and plunge into the tossing white mass of water. The first wave slams gallons over our gunwale, and we are whirled around as the cur rent grabs our stern. We sweep on, backward. As the force slackens, we turn and glide to a gravel bar. We find Kip dolefully searching his sodden gear for a lost fishing rod. Ted holds a soggy sleeping bag and a dripping bag of snacks, his entire supply. AS WE JOURNEY ON, we sense a scenic rhythm-from mountains to open plain to ruggedness again when highlands close in ahead to frame the big handsome valley called the Grand Canyon of the Noatak. At New Cottonwood Creek we fish in a pool full of sail-finned, iridescent gray ling. We glide through a scenic narrows, autumn bright, where the riverbed is inlaid with veins of quartz over which we see the big dark shapes of salmon running. The Grand Canyon offers us a beau tiful two-day float: caribou on the mountainsides, golden eagles overhead, storms and rainbows alternately threat ening and promising, sunset-fired cloud formations. Then we come at last to spruce trees. A welcome sight after so much tundra, this small grove repre sents the northwesternmost extension of boreal forest in North America. Wolf tracks dint the shore, and swans call as they wing southward. Now we canoe for six spectacular miles through Noatak Canyon. This is truly a cut, its sheer cliffs rising more than 200 feet above the water. It par ticularly impressed the river's first white explorers, who in 1885 paddled and dragged a hide-covered boat up the flooding Noatak for hundreds of miles. With our modern equipment we and the Eskimo family motoring upriver have it easier. "Seen any moose?" asks a young man, as the family swings in for a chat. They are seeking winter food supplies, fishing and hunting out of a camp a few miles below. We have come to an important subsistence area for the people of Kotzebue and Noatak village. Under provisions of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, much of this region, with its broad forested valley and ponds important to swans and other waterfowl, will henceforth be under Eskimo stewardship. Sleet spattering on our tents awak ens us next morning. Mittened and gloved, we paddle through a blinding storm to camp in a sheltering spruce grove. In a nearby river pool young Eric fishes for arctic char. One four-pounder nearly doubles up his light spinning rod, but soon five char lie gleaming on the shore. Cousins of the brook trout, they make a delicious dinner. On the last day of our journey motor boats ply the river and, ahead, the roofs of Noatak village gleam atop a high bank. Eskimos' fish racks hung with drying salmon line the strand. Children are casting for char. We stop to chat, and a young Eskimo couple say, "Come up for supper." Soon we are enjoying caribou stew, fresh-caught salmon, good stories, good songs. Pleasant as it is to be among folks once more, to feel the warm touch of civilization after nearly three weeks of wilderness travel, we all share a wistful regret for what we have left behind. We have glimpsed original America and tasted a first sacrament of the New World. As we make our last camp, on a river bar, cloud banners glow with moonlight, geese call, and the Noatak flows by "from deep within"-the meaning of its ancient name. We feel its purity and strength, its constant re newal, and we know that deep within us the Noatak now also flows. [ Arctic heiress, Amelia Sherman greets visitors at Noatak - the river's only village. Thanks to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, she and the state's other native peoples can now profit from their wilderness legacy.