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Sports >  Outdoors

Francovich: Kayaking in the ‘big wilderness’ of far north Alaska will provide a glimpse of what was

July 24, 2022 Updated Sun., July 24, 2022 at 6:42 a.m.

A small herd of caribou swims across the Noatak River.  (Julia Schock/NPS)
A small herd of caribou swims across the Noatak River. (Julia Schock/NPS)

Stand on many high points in Washington, say perhaps on the Selkirk Crest looking north toward Canada, squint your eyes just so and it’s possible to pretend this landscape is an untouched wilderness, pristine and pure of human hands.

Open your eyes a tad, however, and this fantasy evaporates as Forest Service roads come to focus, or clear cuts, or any other innumerable facts of humanity’s collective footprint imprinted over thousands of years.

Still, we love to imagine wild untouched lands. Words tossed about casually by gear companies, superimposed over glossy photos. Inaccurate, ahistorical, yet compelling. Humans, after all, are part of nature, just as much of the Earth and its tangled web of life as caribou. We’ve just developed a bigger footprint, and finding places in this world where that footprint is less visible becomes harder each year.

On Monday, I will fly to one such place and spend several weeks kayaking through the 6.5 -million acre Noatak National Preserve.

“I think out of any place, humans have impacted it the least,” Raime Fronstin, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service told me. He was speaking of the Noatak National Preserve and the 425-mile -long Noatak River, which is in the Arctic Circle. “You will probably not see anyone else when you get dropped off. Which is really amazing.”

Fronstin, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, was fresh off five days of field work on the Noatak documenting wolves and their pups. He sang the river’s – and region’s – praises, listing machine-gun-like the birds and animals we may see: caribou, wolves, chickadees, ground squirrels, red foxes, lynx and more. Although he made the point that because it is so far north and has many of the characteristics of a desert (little precipitation), the “density of mammals is super low.”

Either way it’s a wild land, one far from any road or city; a land ruled by the metronome of sun, rain, clouds and wind.

“You just have to be flexible up here,” Fronstin said. “Because you never know. Last year we couldn’t get in on time because the water was too high.”

For me, it will be the most remote, most committing wilderness trip on which I’ve embarked. Yet writing this just days before I’m scheduled to leave, I don’t feel particularly nervous. That’s partly my psychology, I will get nervous exactly 24 hours prior to my flight, those jitters propelling me into a manic spree of last-minute packing and preparation. But it’s partly because my traveling companions have more than 220 years of combined experience adventuring and exploring some of the earth’s more remote areas.

I’m going to Alaska with Chris Kopczynski, 74, one of the pre-eminent alpinists of his generation and a man accustomed to long committing expeditions. While Chris has the climbing pedigree, his brother Cary Kopczynski, 71, has the river knowledge, a 30-year veteran of many a backcountry kayaking trip and the inspiration behind this particular trip.

“The beauty of it is you can roll these things up, put them in a duffel bag, throw them in a bush plane and go anywhere you want,” Cary said of our 52-pound Advanced Elements inflatable kayaks.

The Noatak has been on Cary’s list for several years.

“You hear these stories about these rivers that are farther north, that are even more remote and wild,” he said. “The Noatak came onto my radar a number of years ago as being one of the pre-eminent wilderness trips.”

The third member of the team is Jim Wood, 75, a former mountaineering guide on Rainier and a 1990 Iditarod finisher, who like the Kopczynski brothers, has had a decadelong love affair with remote places.

“I looked at my wife Jo, and she just nodded her head,” he said about deciding to join this trip when Carry called him earlier this year.

Finally, there is me, Eli Francovich, 32, with a whopping five years of more-focused outdoor adventures under my belt and exactly zero expedition experience. Sometime at the beginning of the year Chris, whom I’d come to know through my job as the outdoors editor at The Spokesman-Review, called me up and asked if I’d like to spend weeks kayaking a river I’d never heard of.

“Yes,” I responded instantly, knowing that this sort of opportunity may never come again. “But I really haven’t kayaked much.”

Chris assured me this wouldn’t be an issue. The Noatak is long and wild, but it’s not a fast-moving river. Still, I wondered, why invite me? Aside from healthy knees, which aren’t so important on a river trip, what do I bring to this all-star cast? Chris had a simple and thoughtful answer.

“I just thought you should see Alaska,” he said, adding that he wanted to introduce a younger outdoor enthusiast to “big wilderness.”

Put another way?

“I thought, ‘Man, you’re a good guinea pig,’ ” Chris said.

So the process started, one that will culminate, all things willing, with us flying Monday morning to Anchorage and on to Kotzebue. On Tuesday, we will load into a bush plane and fly as far up the river as our pilot dares. Then we will start the voyage downstream, back toward the Chukchi Sea, winding our way through the Brooks Range and into open alpine tundra, the northern sun illuminating a landscape lightly touched by humanity.

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