PHOTO: Robbie Everett
Floating Rivers without Bridges in Northwest Alaska
Stepping out of the boat onto the rugged riverbanks of Alaska is an immersive experience that engages not just the senses but also the soul. The resonating sound and tactile sensation of the aluminum hull settling onto the ancient sands evoke a deep connection with the land, a place where time seems to stand still. The fine grains beneath my feet offer a moment of respite, a chance to stretch my legs in the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness, under the canopy of dull gray overcast skies.
Yet, this tranquility is swiftly disrupted by the persistent hum of mosquitoes, an infamous presence in Alaskan lore. Despite my upbringing in mosquito-prone Montana, the realization of their relentlessness compels me to reach for a head net—a small but humbling act in the face of nature's tiny warriors.
The journey from the river to the Sand Dunes, initially perceived as a mere short hike, unfolds into an unexpected adventure. The seemingly straightforward path on the map transforms into a bear tunnel, a natural trail shaped by decades of wildlife traversing the same route. Beyond bears, I like to envision the occasional passage of moose and caribou, contributing to the rich tapestry of this untamed wilderness.
As we distance ourselves from the river, the boreal forest reveals its secrets—a landscape of dense woods, muskeg openings, and spruce trees standing defiantly in every conceivable angle. Climbing a ridge offers a change in perspective, granting us a bird's eye view of the Kobuk Valley. It's a welcomed shift from the riverbank scenery, a moment to appreciate the untouched beauty of Alaska—no fences, roads, power lines, or wind turbines to disrupt the natural panorama, only the ever-present head net and mosquitoes.
Approaching the Sand Dunes, a surreal spectacle unfolds. Peering through thick spruce, a formidable wall of sand emerges, overtaking the forest in a display of nature's raw power. The struggle to ascend this sandy barrier becomes a physical testament to the forces that shape the Alaskan landscape. Finally conquering the wall, we step onto a vast expanse of sand hills, where a cool breeze provides relief from the humid trek through the spruce forest. With gratitude, I remove my head net as the breeze keeps the mosquitoes at bay.
Taking in the panoramic view, I notice peculiar trails of caribou scat etched into the sand. These tracks, formed during winter migrations when the dunes were covered in snow, evoke images of resilient caribou facing harsh conditions. The absence of human tracks adds to the allure, allowing me to immerse myself in the imagination of a time long ago, untouched by human interference.
The fleeting moments at the Sand Dunes include a simple reprieve, savoring pieces of pilot bread and cheese, before heading back to the river. After the trek back to the boats from the mesmerizing dunes, our attention turned to the prospect of dinner, generously supplied by the river. The fishing rods, still prepared from the previous day's pike expedition in a secluded slough merging into the Kobuk, were our tools of the evening. The memory of the previous night's feast lingered, despite the unexpected visit from a curious young grizzly that had ventured into camp inquisitively eyeing our fish.
Tonight, however, our culinary aspirations aimed higher — a Sheefish, also known as Tarpon of the North, was the desired catch for dinner. With anticipation, I casted numerous spoons of varied colors into the main current, eagerly awaiting the exhilarating strike of a sheefish on the line. Despite my sincere efforts and eager anticipation, the fishing adage resounded: it's called fishing, not catching, for a reason. My attempts were met with no success; the sheefish seemed elusive and uninterested in my deceptive offerings.
Undeterred, we decided to explore further up the river, walking several hundred yards along the opposite bank of the dunes. There, we stumbled upon a tannin-colored slough that teemed with pike, ensuring dinner for all of us. In Alaska, one learns to embrace what the land provides. Some days it's the elusive sheefish, while on others, it might be pike, char, or burbot. The ever-changing landscape presents a myriad of opportunities and a breathtaking tapestry of natural beauty to immerse oneself in.
The hope lingers that one day, I can share this untamed adventure with my children—a week-long journey from Kotzebue to the dunes. The landscape's beauty and wildness defy description, and I yearn for its safeguarding, leaving only traces of scat as the testament to nature's untamed majesty.
PHOTOS: Robbie Everett