Anthony Bourdain once said he was drawn to travel because “food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.” That may explain why my foodie blog wanders so much. I’ve written about places ranging from the Faroe Islands to Belize to the Yukon, and past topics have included history, hurricanes, and hockey. It’s a big span, for sure, but there’s most certainly a common thread.
That opening quote was food for thought on my recent visit to Gates of the Arctic National Park, where I just did back-to-back float trips. The first one was a seven day Alpacka packraft adventure (ultralight, by my standards) with friends Kai, Aaron, and Reto on an upper section of the Noatak River. I followed that with an eight day trip in a 12-foot raft down a lower stretch of the Noatak with Souzz. These were fly-in trips deep into the Alaskan Arctic, with lots to discover–but there was something reassuringly familiar. I’ll get to that in a bit.
First, I’ll share a bit of background on our group, which came together from all over: Kai from upstate New York, Aaron from Colorado, Reto from Switzerland, and Souzz and me from Virginia. I know Kai through Souzz, Aaron through Kai (they are brothers), and Reto through dogsledding. Oh, and I know Souzz through our wedding (24 years ago today, actually).
As you might expect, Arctic trips involve a lot of logistics. That included Zoom calls to plan, river “training” trips ahead of time, lots of gear sorting, countless hours pouring over maps, and a combined 17,000 miles of travel across 10 time zones.
We also had to get all our gear up the Haul Road (Dalton Highway) to our jumpoff point with the fabulous folks at Coyote Air in Coldfoot.
As for the food, fly-in trips don’t generally lend themselves to fancy meals–but we still ate well. Our breakfast menus included pancakes, eggs, hash browns, and pre-cooked bacon. Lunches were mostly bagels, peanut butter, nuts, honey, dried meats and cheese. Dinner ranged from the usual boil-in-bag entrees to burritos, smoked salmon, quesadillas, and (very) fresh trout (thanks to Aaron, Kai, and Suzy on the trout!). All our fare was lightweight, relatively healthy, and easy enough to cook in a rainstorm.
The name “Noatak” means ‘inland river’ in Inuit, and that’s accurate…but it’s so much more than that! The Noatak valley is just astounding, rimmed by lush mountains, and the views spanned 40 miles or more. The scale is enormous. There were times we could see three weather systems at once. And it feels untouched up there, because it is. I hope it stays that way.
With 24 hours of sun, there were also wildflowers popping all over. Aaron did a great job of capturing the amazing color (phenomenal pics, Aaron!).
I love the low angle sun, and the sounds are amazing, too. All one can hear are the birds and the wind and the water. Wolves also howled from time to time in the distance, reminding us that we were far from home.
I guess there were a few sounds from us, too, as camp was filled with lively conversation. We riffed on each other’s stove techniques, played scissors-rock-paper to get first pick on meals, and mused about Alaska lingo like muskeg and skookum. We also spent a good chunk of time arguing about how to pronounce “Arctic,” and wondering what ever happened to various 1980s celebrity heartthrobs. Heady stuff.
Over the course of two trips, we covered more than a hundred miles of river. We saw amazing landscapes in all sorts of weather, hiked, discovered, and enjoyed the kind of camaraderie that only comes from shared experience. There’s something about the wonder and challenge of wilderness tripping that accelerates connections. New friendships form, familiar ones refresh, and Souzz is reminded again why she travels with ear plugs.
As usual, Anthony Bourdain was right. Food, some culture, and splendid landscapes all came together through the people, through all of us. Whether huddling in our cook tent in the rain, dusting sand off a bagel, or swatting mosquitoes, we were building and sharing community. Even in this remote wilderness–especially in this remote wilderness–that part felt familiar, in a beautiful way.
It’s always a privilege to see this land, and even better to share it. I always hope I can get back, even as I know I’m lucky to have gotten there at all. Now if I could just learn how to properly pronounce “Arctic.”