Hello paddlers of the world. In this month's blog post we have our very own Jillian Brown and amazing adventure photographer on her Noatak River Expedition. The adventure began in the gates of the Arctic and finished in the Noatak preserve, Alaska in August. The journey of 600kms took 18 days part of a 50 day expedition . . .
My voice quivered, "need to stop for the day." As I pulled into the small eddy and my (kokopelli) packraft brushed the sandy beach. I slowly slid out and my legs stiffly hauled boat and myself onto shore. My hands swollen, cracked, peeling and a deep red, with a hue of purple cast across them. I worried at the thought of looking at my soaking wet, frozen toes. As we quickly began setting up our tent poles and fly
to sit under and get a hot drink in us, we both realized how cold we had allowed ourselves to get. Neither of us able to clasp snaps, use zippers and barely making out speech. The hurriedness we were already feeling, picked up pace. We both fumbled with the lighter, our fingers unable to grasp the small line to life, our movements too
slow for the small flick of a finger required. I held back my tears, the pain, the cold, it was beginning to overwhelm me.
I woke to the sounds of rain once again beating down upon the tent. As if in the lungs of a great beast, the walls would concave into our small home, then with a pop, filled again. I snuggled back deep into my (therm-a-rest) sleeping bag and let out an, "awe." Cozy and as I drift in and out of sleep with the rhythm of the wind, I feel only how I imagine a newborn cub feels. Curled up within a dark winter den, the warmth
of her mother trapped, soft, safe and content. As Sid Marty put it in Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek,"mother dark." I have no idea how long I had been laying there, but finally I stirred again and clambered from my tightly sealed bag. I pulled a layer of jackets on and my splash pants before I unzipped the tent. The cool air nipped my cheeks already and as I unzipped the fly a dramatic gust burst through and the fly door whipped up and flapped about. It was a cautious walk to the rivers edge on the large, rain soaked rocks that blanketed the shore. I stiffly stretched out all the sores from a hard trip and the most uncomfortable of camps thus far.
Although much of the previous days gorgeous views were now masked by the thick, low clouds, I still found my eyes enjoying the beauty that managed to sneak through. As our morning water began to boil so too the wind. It gusted across the tundra and crashed into us. Hunched over, we ate quickly and began gathering our gear and suiting up. Already close to shivers as I put on my gear, still soaked from the previous few day's heavy rains. Tear down of camp, packing the boats and inflating, I had down to an intricate science to which my body now had embedded into its memory. Barely having to think as I slid dry bags into the tizip area of my packraft and strapped my portage pack and Pelicase atop the boat. Roughly an hour and the beach looked back to its pristine, untouched by anything but the wild look. Stepping into the frigid waters, I immediately feel the cold seeping in my well loved, no longer dry, dry suite and like a creeping spider, the cold slowly skulks down my leg, ankle and into my toes, still frozen from 16 previous days of being wet. The spider bites and I shiver with the sudden frosty nip.
One last push from the slick rocks and I'm within my snug packraft. The river has consistently been growing with the heavy rains that have accompanied this trip.. I can feel the power of the water under my raft as we rounded the first bed and saw the last of our beach drift away behind us. With every stroke of the paddle, the rain, the wind and the frigid temperatures seemed to intensify. Unlike all other days of paddling (in my life), I just felt colder and colder even when trying to work harder and harder. Our world had seemed so vast the past days, now enclosed upon us and I felt Closter phobic within the cumbersome clouds. The rolling waves of the river mimicked in the weather as heavy rains washed over us. Normally stopping to stretch hourly, replenish with a quick nibble of food, we opted to push on. My muscles tight and clenched from the cold, I did not want to move. As afternoon arrived my hands were barely able to unclench my paddle. Trying to move each finger took all my strength and I felt my flesh slowly peel its
way off the icy shaft. We paddled on. 20 kilometers came and went, we kept going, with a wince, "I don't think I can go much more." D-"Me either." But we didn't want to stop. With the knowledge we were immersed in a violent windstorm that was not to end for the next few days and knowing the river was only going to continue gathering strength, growing, and soon dispersing, fingering off into confusing
channels. We wanted to try to make as much progress as our bodies would allow.
5 more kilometers and my shivering picked up strength. My eyes now bulged as they scoured the banks for a camp area. Only sandy cliffs and thick brush littered the shores. Another 5 kilometers. I can feel my body tensing with panic as my body begins to become almost unbearably cold. As we round a bend, finally beach on both
banks and barely having any strength, drained from a day full of shivers, I allow the current to carry me towards an eddy.
Now here I sit, under my tent fly both of us looking at the other, hands
clenched to our mouths, in the hopes one of us will regain enough feeling in the next few crucial minutes to get the lighter to catch and bring life back into us. Moments later, with a flicker the lighter catches and quickly our water begins to boil. Just as the first step of the day had brought a cold spider, now the warmth radiated out from my core like a hunting snake, slithering out into each limb and chasing the bite
away. I felt alive again. Within the small cup of heat, I now had energy enough to finish camp set up and eat. As if on queue, Mother Nature seemed to feel our need for life and out walked two young male grizzles across the river from us and all my hurt, all my frustration, was instantly forgotten and I found myself sitting out in the wind and rain absorbing it all once again.
What had seemed to take all the passion out of me all day, now brought life and I smiled. This is why I'm here. As I crawl into
my cozy den for the night, I smile and laugh under my tired breath,"this will only add to the story and teach us how much we can truly with stand." As just as it had woke me that morning, the breathing beast lulls me off the sleep with in 'er to soon wake to another day immersed in the wild.
Wow!!! Jill we are proud to have you with us and to support you in your future adventure. What an epic account of your journey to the Noatak River.
Follow Jillian Brown @jillianabrownphotography
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