We are making our way down the Noatak, now more than 150 river miles from its head waters. Along the way, we passed a grizzly sow lounging with her cub on the river bank, saw dozens of Dahl sheep grazing on rocky knolls, and woke a sleeping musk ox with a startled snort. Harriers and rough-legged hawks float above the tundra and flocks of snow geese pass noisily overhead. On a rare clear night, we heard wolves yapping under a nearly full moon as shadows danced on our frosty tent.
The boxes we packed half a year ago contained most of what we remembered and we’re loving the luxuries of a stove and plenty of food. The only intruder on an otherwise pleasant river trip is the weather. It has now been three weeks since we’ve seen a day without significant precipitation – mostly rain, sometimes sleet, snow or hail. On the few occasions when the sun peeks out, it’s often raining at the same time. Where is all this moisture coming from?! It’s tough to stay warm while paddling, even with our many layers – insulated jacket, fleece tights, two hats, three hoods, rain gear, garbage bag poncho for when the jacket gets saturated. The wind seems to blow mostly upriver, adding to the chill. With so much rain, the river is high, its sod banks collapsing into the muddy water, gravel bars fully submerged. The upside of the wet weather is that the current is flushing us swiftly downriver towards the coast. We’ve managed to stay just ahead of the snow so far, but it is creeping ever closer down the mountainside, reminding us that winter in the arctic is not far behind.