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In the Footsteps of Philip Smith



Journal Entry 7: Saturday, July 5, 2008, 10:30 AM

NOATAK RIVER, BROOKS RANGE, ALASKA– Yesterday we floated through Noatak Canyon, but not before stopping on several occasions to relocate and rephotograph old Philip Smith photos. I added these excursions partly out of curiosity, but partly to extend the record of vegetation further into the past than the 1940’s photos permitted. The great advantage nowadays is that you can use Google Earth to find the general location of the old photos, saving hours and miles of guesswork in the field. Alas, some stumbling around is still unavoidable, particularly when the landscape has changed so profoundly in the intervening 97 years since the original photos were taken. The most obvious change that we saw upon relocating the old photos is a shift from low-growing alpine vegetation to tall shrubs.


Philip Smith photo from 1911, and my photo from the same location, yesterday.

The last repeated photo was actually a 360 degree panorama, and upon finishing it and reentering the boats, a voice came from the shore. He seemed an apparition at first, with grey pants blending into grey river stones, and a green jacket blending into the shrubs on the bank. We hadn’t seen another person since the bush pilot dropped us 10 days earlier, so we were unaccustomed to hearing any voice outside that of our party. As our brains slowly regained functionality, the obvious question punctuated our collective inner monologue: “Where did this guy come from?”


Ricky sitting in his homemade chair, underneath his guiding light.

Ricky Ashby has a cabin where a clearwater creek enters the Noatak River. It just so happens that the old Philip Smith photo is practically in his backyard, given the broad definition of “backyard” used by those living remotely. He noticed our incompetence at fishing, and directed us to the good fishing hole down near his cabin and the creek. We made our way downriver in the boats, and after about fifty unsuccessful casts, Mark relinquished the pole to Ricky, who landed an Arctic char on his second cast. But not before Greta broke her pole on a stuck lure, so I couldn’t help chuckling at how well we were representing white man ineptitude in the wilderness. Ricky had us for dinner, told us his story, asked of ours, and then we sauna-ed and swam in the river.

It is presently a beautiful and breezy morning on the shores of the Noatak, and with the science now complete, I can relax a bit and enjoy the last couple days of the trip.



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One Response »

  1. Helpful guy to hapless travelers that Ricky Ashby! When my brother and I did the Noatak in August 2006, we likely would have floated right past if it weren’t for Ricky on the bank issuing instructions on how to line the boat back up the side channel to the village. He then hosted us for the evening and let us use his shed to hang our caribou…then prepared us dinner all the while serving up steaming mugs of coffee and great helpings of good conversation… Pretty much the most helpful human we encountered in 400 miles of river!