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Backpacker Magazine – August 2000

River Floating: A Current Affair

Why huff and puff to get to an isolated campsite? Simply grab a paddle, then let the current carry you to a secluded riverside trailhead.

by: Larry Rice and Alan Kesselheim and Jeff Rennicke, BACKPACKER Midwest Editor and Buck Tilton, BACKPACKER Contributing Editor

Photo by Wyatt Ogilvy

Noatak River, Alaska
Noatak River, Alaska

The water: Its name means "deep within," and the Noatak does indeed flow from deep within Gates of the Arctic National Park in the heart of the western Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle. It's a clear, cold, shallow, winding river ringed near its headwaters by ice-castle peaks like 8,510-foot Mt. Igikpak, and on other sections by the immense, seemingly endless horizons of open tundra. Its length (227 miles) and its easy waters (Classes I and II) make it one of the premier wilderness rivers on the continent. Start at Portage Lake and you can float for 4 to 6 days down to Lake Matcharak (25 miles) or 16 days to Noatak Village (225 miles) for a longer trip, with many options in between.

The hike: Don't expect trail signs in this wilderness. Just tie off the canoe and hike in the tracks of grizzlies, wolves, caribou, even musk oxen. The best hikes head for the high ridges away from the bugs or follow the solid ground up one of the major tributaries. Head up the east side of the Kugrak River and search for warm springs. For a more ambitious overnight hike, have half your party hike 12 miles up the Kugrak over a nameless pass into the Igning River valley and return to the Noatak to be picked up by the others, who meanwhile have drifted downstream in the boats.

Experience level: Easy rapids; hikes require route-finding, map reading, moderate scrambling, and bear safety skills.

The season: Arctic summers are short. Ice-out may be as late as June; by September, snow is in the air. June and July are drier, but the mosquitoes are thicker. August is wet, with fewer bugs.

Logistics: This is a "fly in/fly out" river. Check bush flights out of Bettles, Alaska (try Brooks Range Aviation, 800-692-5443). Portage Lake makes a good landing spot for a float plane and put-in for a canoe. Canoes can be rented, but all craft must be flown in; Kleppers or other "break-down" boats make a good choice. For guide services or trip consultation, contact Arctic Treks (907-455-6502; or Mountains and Rivers (907-373-5221;

Guides: USGS topos Survey Pass (C-5, C-6) and Ambler River (C-1, D-1, D-2, D-3, D-4, D-5, D-6) cover the Noatak from its headwaters to where it leaves the national park. The Alaska River Guide, by Karen Jettmar (Alaska Northwest Books, 800-452-3032; $16.95) describes the trip.

Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, (907) 456-0281;

-Jeff Rennicke

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