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Alaska waterways

Noatak River

Date: 11/1/73
From: David Dapkus, Outdoor Recreation Planner
Subject: Trip Report, Noatak River, July 28 - August 15, 1972

NOTE: These reports may not contain important information about: 1) safety, 2) land management and ownership, 3) fishing and other regulations and 4) possible errors > READ MORE

Purpose of the trip:
An interagency task force consisting of staff from the National Park Service, Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, and a National Park Service consultant from the University of Alaska conducted this trip. The NPS organized and led the task force. The task force consisted of people with "expertise" in several fields.

BOR purpose was to conduct an on-the-ground reconnaissance of the river and its environment. As an information gathering trip it will be part of the basis for making further recommendations on the Noatak River's qualifications and desirability for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Our reconnaissance was done with attention given to determining boundaries, resource availability and use (present and future), relation of the various resources to recreation types of recreation use and development present and/or desirable, aesthetics and quality of the environment. Basic data concerning river size, water quality, accessibility, and hazards to river travel were also noted.

Personnel Attending:



David Dapkus BOR: Alaska Task Force Outdoor Recreation Planner
John N. Kauffmann Task Force Leader, NPS
Paul F. McCrary Interpretive Planner, NPS
James La Rock Landscape Architect, NPS
Robert Nichols Archeologist, NPS
Thomas D. Hamilton Professor Geology, UA and NPS Collaborator
A.R. (Dick) Weisbrod Research Biologist, UW and NPS
David Cline Biologist, DSF&W

Daily Account:

As a 7-man group, we flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Wien jet. Dr. Hamilton met us at Fairbanks and then we flew a chartered Wien Twin Otter to Bettles. Spent Friday night, July 28 in Bettles. Saturday the 29th, John, Tom, Dick and Dave Cline flew into a small lake about 20 miles from the headwaters of the Noatak River. Sunday, the 30th, the remaining four joined them. We had four Grumman aluminum canoes: light weight, standard, and heavy weight 17” and a standard 18”. Started floating the river about 9:30 on Monday, July 31. Distances traveled each day varied from a short 12-mile day to 30-31-33 mile days. Estimated we could have traveled consistently 20-25 miles per day in an 8-hour day. Bent the 18” canoe on rock in heavy rapids on the 2nd river day, repaired it enough to finish trip. On the 10th day, a plane was called in from Kotzebue and airlifted two NPS men out. We made the Kelly River (tributary to the Noatak) on the late afternoon of the 13th river day. On the 14th river day, Davie Cline and Dick Weisbrod took the 18’ canoe and floated ahead to the village of Noatak. Here they purchased additional supplies and were towed the remaining 60+ miles down to the river’s mouth and 5_ miles across Kotzebue Sound to Kotzebue. Dick and Dave’s purpose was to view the delta area, which provides habitat for a variety of bird life. Late afternoon of the 15th river day found the main party camping about two miles from the village of Noatak. Floated into the village about 11:00 am on the 16th river day (August 15). Looked around the village and spoke with the Eskimo villagers, then were picked up by Wien Twin Otter at 12:10 pm. Flew to Kivalina (Eskimo village to west of Noatak) and Kotzebue. Left Kotzebue via a Wien 737 at 1:30 pm and arrived at Anchorage at 6:00 pm. Total miles floated were 332.


The Noatak River is approximately 425 miles long. After having seen it by air and floated Ύ of its length, I would divide it into approximate quarters. The headwaters (1st quarter) lies in a narrow valley formed by the Schwatka Mountains. Peaks are from 5,000 to 8,500 feet high. The valley averages about 3 miles in width. The 2nd quarter starts at Lake Matcharak and goes to the Grand Canyon of the Noatak. The valley widens from 4 miles to an average of about 35 miles with the Baird Mountains to the south and Howard Hills and the Delong Mountains to the north. The valley is of a rolling nature.

The 3rd quarter is made up by the Grand Canyon of the Noatak and Noatak Canyon. The Grand Canyon is about 50 river miles long and is not a bluff type (straight up and down wall) canyon, but is a narrower valley averaging about 4 miles in width. Noatak Canyon is a typical bluff type canyon with sheer rock walls rising perpendicular from the water for 300 – 400 feet. It is about 4-5 miles in length. The last quarter consisted of typical delta land with the Noatak River being a broad, shallow braided river. The following observations on the overall conditions of the river will be by river quarters. All river quarters were floated at least in part.

River description:

The 1st quarter of the river is shallow, from 4” to 3’ in depth, approximately 75’ wide, and flows about 3 m.p.h. There are few rapids, although this is where we smashed the 18’ canoe, with the main hazard being shallow water. This quarter is an old glaciated area resulting in rock fist-to-volleyball-to 4’ diameter boulder size covering the entire river width. The river was temporarily tea colored (silt) because of rainstorms in the mountains during the previous 3-4 days. The rains raised the water level just enough to float a canoe. Earlier in the summer the water is probably high enough due to winter runoff to float a canoe. By late July-August-September, a rain is needed to create sufficient depth. The river follows the valley with little meandering. The few tributaries were intermittent streams or the size of roadside ditches and carried little water. It is accessible only by floatplane.

The 2nd quarter deepens to average about 2’ with some “holes”, varies from 75’ to 250’ in width and continuous about a 3 M.P.H. flow. The river began to clear in this quarter and eventually the river bottom was visible. Began to traverse rapids with up to 3’ standing water and spent 1.5 days lining canoes in shallow water and extensive rock areas. River began to meander with average of six meanders to a (sand) section. The tributaries increased in size, number and flow; however, are still small compared to other river areas in Alaska. Because of tundra, access is best by floatplane.

The 3rd quarter has water depths of 4' – 8’ with a 2’ average, varies from 75' – 200’ in width, with flow increasing to about 4 M.P.H. The water was crystal clear and remained so for the rest of the entire river even in depths of 12' – 15’. The number and size (standing water to 6’) of rapids doubled in this area of the Noatak River. However, a route through was generally easily found. The rapids required zigzagging to transverse. Rapids were the only hazard. Fewer, but larger tributaries are in this quarter. The Cutler River is the largest and is a beautiful stream with a good campsite. The river became straighter, meandering only about twice to a (land) section. Accessibility is both by float and wheel plane.

The 4th quarter varied in depth consistently from 3” to 15’, channels varied from 50’ to 500’ in width, and flow increased to 5 – 6 M.P.H. There are no rapids. Hazards are in the form of sweepers and large sod masses, which are washed towards the deepest part of the channels. The Noatak River from Noatak Canyon to the Kelly River meanders little; then becomes extremely braided to its mouth. The Kelly is the main tributary; it’s about 75’ wide and 2" - 3” deep at its mouth. The river is navigable to the Kelly River by riverboat and Vee-hull powerboats. Accessibility is by float and wheel plane (at least one landing strip near the Kelly) as well as powerboats.

Views – Geology – Fauna – Flora:

Floating down the 1st quarter of the Noatak, we had a view (based on eye level from a floating canoe) of the mountains, etc., about 85% of the time. Gravel and/or sand bars were plentiful throughout the length (332 miles) of the river floated. They became larger as we went along. There are many small (50 – 300+ acre) lakes within ½ mile of the river. The mountains are rugged and bare. We saw some sheep when we flew in. the lakes were mostly clear and supported lake trout. I saw my first grizzly at about 50’ along the bank and we also saw a moose and smaller animals like weasels and Arctic ground squirrel. A variety of small birds (sparrow size) were caught in a mist-net and many ruff leg hawks and some eagles were also found nesting along the bluffs. There are no large trees along the area. Cottonwood brush to 6 feet in height is plentiful both on the riverbanks and up the lower mountain slopes. Fireweed and tundra make up most of the vegetative growth. Blueberries are present in small quantities.

The 2nd quarter affords a view (from canoe) of the distant mountains and valley floor away from the riverbanks an estimated 505 of the time. There are many low (50’) bluffs and high banks (10 – 20’), which cut the view in a regulated manner (equal periods of view – no view). There continue to be many small clear lakes near the river. We saw tow moose, tow caribou and a wolf, as well as the smaller animals previously seen. We also continued to see eagles, hawks and began to encounter sea gulls. This quarter of the river lies entirely within tundra country. The cottonwoods remain thick along the riverbanks, especially where tributaries enter the Noatak. Cottonwood brush attains to a 10’ height in this area. Arctic cotton, wild rose and blueberries are in abundance. Blueberry bushes are up to 10” tall.

The 3rd quarter affords a view (from canoe) of the mountains, canyons and valley floor about 85% of the time. The mountains are close and very scenic through the Grand Canyon we found a 100’ high bluff running 1000’ along the river that Dr. Hamilton said best depicted the geologic history of much of the area transversed on the trip. Noatak Canyon is a “true” canyon with sheer rock walls 300' – 400” high half the distance and steep, loose rock walls the remainder. Occasionally, a cut in the walls reveals the distant, high Delong Mountains. We saw an interesting triple S compressed rock formation in mid-canyon. Tundra remains as the dominant vegetation type up to the Noatak Canyon. About 0.5 miles before Noatak Canyon we camped in the edge of the boreal forest. The white spruce was up to 30” high and covered a 5-acre area. Blueberries were plentiful, large and juicy. Many hawks and eagles were seen nesting along the canyon walls. We saw another grizzly and a caribou. Fishing had been poor in the 1st half of the river, but markedly improved in this quarter. Grayling were caught most often. Also, four Dolly Varden trout (3 of 25” and 5 lbs. Apiece), and three salmon were caught.

Floating down the last quarter of the Noatak we had a view of the surrounding flat land and distant Delong Mountains about 60% of the time. The Delong’s were beautiful, variously red and deep purple in coloration. The dog salmon were running heavy up to the Kelly River. Several were caught as well as grayling. We ceased to see hawks and eagles but we saw evidence of moose and small animals including the largest porcupine ever. The boreal forest is the dominant vegetative type. Cottonwoods, alder and willow reach heights of 25’ to 30’, while the spruce are 40’ tall.

Recreation Us in Area-Recreation Potential:

The main recreation use of the river and surrounding area is hunting. We found two small hunting camps. One included a 10’ X 12’ plywood shack along the river. Animals hunted are probably: sheep in the 1st quarter, perhaps grizzly in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarters, moose throughout and caribou in the 2nd quarter. We found out that one, perhaps two, Sierra Club groups followed us down the river by float boat. We were the first group to float the river in 75+ years. There are no developed recreation sites of any kind except for the two hunting camps.

Campsites were plentiful along the 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarter; brush and trees were thick along the 4th quarter, making it difficult to find even a poor site. All the potential development sites along the entire river were small in respect to tent site area and boat beaching areas. Gravel bars are plentiful and large; they make good campsites. Fresh water was plentiful. Potential exists for present use for limited float boating, for hunting, for short or long distant hiking and for excellent fishing.

General Comments:

The only detrimental items about the river and river area are: (1) the long distances with the same view, same river character and same vegetation, (2) the very strong winds blowing upstream requiring able men or breaks in river travel (a day in camp).

The Noatak River flows through pristine fragile country. Man’s influence is barely noticed. We saw three cabins from the headwaters to the Kelly River, one of which was a closed-up BSF&W predator control cabin. These cabins could be easily removed. The Natives hunting caribou along the middle Noatak haven’t left scars on the land.

The Noatak River qualifies, in my opinion, for wild river status. Although the river is long and scenery does not change for long stretches, there is still much variety. Wildlife and birds are varied and plentiful. 90% of the river is easily floatable by intermediate canoeists. Only one rapid on the 1st quarter requires portage and that is short and easy. The remaining rapids also have easy portages if desired. The overriding factor for including this river as a wild river is the unspoiled nature of the river and surrounding area.

I feel the Noatak River, from its headwaters to the confluence of the Kelly River, including up to 5 miles of the Cutler River upstream from its mouth, should be recommended for wild river status.

Noatak River – December 1973 Proposal:

The Noatak River rises from Mt. Igipak in the Schwatka Mountains of the west-central Brooks Range. Mount Igipak is one of the higher and better-known mountains of the Brooks Range. The Noatak River flows westward approximately 325 miles then turns south for approximately 100 miles before entering Kotzebue Sound. Headwaters of the Noatak lie approximately 200 air miles east-northeast of Kotzebue, Alaska and 280 air miles northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska.

This river is one of the longest in Alaska proposed for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and partially as a result of its length, it can be divided into four discernable sections. Starting at its headwaters and continuing to Lake Matcharak, it flows through a narrow glacier valley with steep 3,000 foot – 4,000 foot walls. This section lies within the proposed Gates of the Arctic National Park. From Lake Matcharak to the Grand Canyon of the Noatak, the river flows through an extremely wide tundra covered valley basin. The Grand Canyon of the Noatak is a narrow valley much like the river’s headwaters, only without the immediate adjacent towering mountains and culminates in the spectacular 4.5 mile long Noatak Canyon. Noatak Canyon is a perpendicular 300 foot – 400 foot high walled gorge of deformed metamorphic rocks, which exhibit complex folds, most notable the giant Z fold located in mid-canyon. The last river section extends from Noatak Canyon to Kotzebue Sound. This lower portion meanders in several channels through boreal forest and finally into the lake dotted flats near the sound.

Scenic values are varied in the river area. It flows through the Schwatka, Baird and Delong Mountains, all western extensions of the Brooks Range. The narrow glacial valley with snowcapped peaks gives way to a broad, pristine, tundra wilderness, which in turn gives way to canyon ruggedness, and then finally to boreal forest and lake covered lowlands. Wildlife is plentiful, but in the broad expanses is not always easily seen. A portion of the Arctic caribou herd passes along the river. Dall sheep live in the headwaters area and grizzly bears are found throughout the river area. Arctic ground squirrels are abundant, easily seen and heard, and serve as a prey species of carnivorous mammals and raptorial birds. Raptorial species seen in the river area including the rough-legged hawk, golden eagle, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon.

Geologic values are high in the river area with most of it having undergone Pleistocene glaciations. Several overlapping glacier periods can be noted in various areas. Cut banks along the river intermittently expose in detail these glaciations. Noatak Canyon offers large expanses of bedrock colored from red to yellow to brown and a variety of rock forms.

Archeologists believe that the Noatak River valley has been used as a transportation route by Natives beginning approximately 12,000 years ago. Numerous archeological sites have been found, particularly along the middle reaches of the river. Use was apparently heaviest during the Arctic Small Tool Tradition and Late Prehistoric/Historic periods.

The upper 65 miles of the Noatak River are proposed for inclusion in the N.W.&S.R.S and also lies within the proposed Gates of the Arctic NP, from there to the confluences of the Kelly River, the river is also proposed for inclusion in the N.W.&S.R.S. and also lies within the proposed Noatak National Arctic Range. The lower river lies within Native withdrawal lands. The only other river within the region proposed for inclusion in the N.W.&S.R.S is the Salmon River. The Salmon River differs from the Noatak in that it flows south into the Kobuk River and is quite different in physical character and scenery. The primary difference is the much smaller flow and narrow, heavily forested valleys of the Salmon. The Killik and Alatna Rivers also start in the proposed Gates of the Arctic NP with their headwaters relatively close to the headwaters of the Noatak. The Killik, however, flows north to the Colville River and the Arctic Ocean; the Alatna meanwhile flows southeast to the Koyukuk River; while the Noatak flows west to the Chuchi Sea.



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