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Tundra Tales

Straight from the Guide – Noatak River & Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

Words and photographs by Haley Johnston

2015 was my sixth year of guiding for Alaska Alpine Adventures. After almost 50 trips and well over 400 days in the field, there were very few trips on AAA’s menu of adventures that I had not yet guided. Our combination Noatak River & Great Kobuk Dunes trip was one of these few and I lobbied pretty hard to get the opportunity to guide it.

Paddling the Noatak River on a sunny, arctic day.

This trip is a really unique combination of experiences, but rather complicated from a logistical standpoint. As the guide I drove from Anchorage to Fairbanks with my assistant guide. There we met our clients and filled them in on what was to come for the next 12 days. The following morning we all hopped on the mail plane from Fairbanks to the small community of Bettles, just south of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Once in Bettles we checked in with Brooks Range Aviation who shepherded us through the Arrigetch Peaks and past Mt. Igikpak of the Brooks Range, all the way to Pingo Lake near the headwaters of the Noatak River.

Hiking along the upper Noatak River

For the next week we navigated our way down the river until we were out of the big mountains and into the undulatory foot hills of the lower stretches of the Noatak River. There, we were picked up by the talented pilots of Golden Eagle Outfitters. They whisked us the low hills to the other worldly Kobuk Valley National Park. After four days of exploring the dunes, the pilots of Golden Eagle returned to bring us to Kotzebue on the Kotzebue Sound on the east side of the Chukchi Sea. One final flight brought us from Kotzebue back to Anchorage to conclude our journey!

One of our many modes of transportation.

Despite all the hustle and bustle of air travel to accomplish our itinerary, our time on the water and exploring the dunes was an incredible and peaceful immersion in Alaska’s arctic environment. While truly remote, the Noatak River is relatively easy paddling. It is a great river for novice paddlers; in fact, due to relatively low water, we paddled through the biggest feature on the river without even noticing it! Ecologically the Noatak River drainage is remarkable, the Noatak basin is the largest unadulterated watershed in the United States flowing 425 miles from below Mt. Igikpak (the tallest mountain in the western Brooks Range) to Kotzebue sound. Wildlife was relatively sparse along the river, but we were rewarded with sightings of red fox at the river put-in, caribou near our take-out, tons of bird life and many grizzly bears feeding on chum salmon at the Kugrak River.

The wind-sculpted dunes of Kobuk Valley National Park.

Upon reaching our take-out, poor weather had us pacing the air strip in the rain while we waited an entire day for our pilots to be able to fly through the mountains to pick us up. Once we were finally delivered to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes we were rewarded with incredibly sunny weather for leisurely days strolling across the dunes, searching for animal tracks and soaking in the novelty of this desert environment well above the arctic circle!

The Brooks Range spans the northern horizon while walking the dunes.

Fortunately we had enough time in Kotzebue before catching our final flight to explore this seaside village and soak up the unique character of this northwest Alaskan town. My clients were shocked to see gas at over $7 per gallon and were amused by the coexistence of freshly tanned caribou hides draped over satellite dishes – welcome to bush Alaska! It was a really unique, culturally enlightening ending to a great trip!

This post originally appeared on Tundra Travels

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