Noatak River starts from several small cirque glaciers on the northeast flank of Mount lgikpak in the Schwatka Mountains and flows generally west for 425 miles (684 km) to Hotham Inlet in Kotzebue Sound, about 75 miles (121 km) southeast of Kivalina and 6 miles (10 km) north-northeast of Kotzebue, Alaska. In 1853, the river was named ‘Inland River’ on a map by surgeon John Simpson of the Royal Navy, and appears to be a general translation of the Iñupiat word ‘Nunulak’ which could also mean ‘new land’ or ‘belonging to the land’. The Noatak River drains a watershed of about 8,062,073 acres (3,262,608 ha) south of the Brooks Range continental divide and north of the Arctic Circle. Mount Igikpak is in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and has a summit elevation of 8,510 feet (2,594 m). The source glaciers have elevations above 4,000 feet (1,219 m), and from there, the river flows generally northwest for 50 miles (80 km) through the Central Brooks Range, and then westward for about 200 miles (322 km) through the Aniuk Lowlands and the Cutler River Uplands in the Noatak National Preserve, passing through Grand and Noatak Canyons, and draining the De Long Mountains to the north and the Baird Mountains to the south. The Noatak then turns southwestward and flows for about 105 miles (169 km) to the only permanent village on the river, also called Noatak, and then 70 miles (113 km) through the Mission Lowlands to Hotham Inlet, named in 1826 by Captain Frederick William Beechey after Sir Henry Hotham, one of the lords of the British Admiralty. The basin is the largest undeveloped watershed in the United States, and transportation is by boat in summer, snow machines in winter, and aircraft year-round. There are no roads although there are numerous winter trails. In 1980, 330 miles (531 km) of the upper Noatak were designated part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
During the Last Glacial Maximum of the late Pleistocene, glaciers entered the Noatak River valley from the east, north, and south. Glaciers flowed down the upper Noatak River valley from the rugged peaks at its head, merging with tributary glaciers that issued from cirque-headed valleys along its southern flank. Farther down the valley, small glaciers flowed northward from the Baird Mountains, and much larger glaciers issued from the De Long Mountains. The De Long Mountains glaciers expanded southward to cover parts of the Noatak valley floor. They dammed the Noatak River during successive advances, creating a series of glacial lakes. The more extensive glacial advances dammed huge lakes that filled the Aniuk Lowland to overflowing. At various times, overflow waters spilled northward through Howard Pass, southward via Hunt River into the Kobuk River system, and westward down a series of channels that skirted south of the glacier margins. The upper Noatak River valley is dominated by a massive terminal moraine near Douglas Creek that was deposited about 25,000-15,000 years ago. More ancient end moraines farther down the valley are buried beneath lake deposits of the Aniuk Lowland but are visible as arc-shaped drainage divides. The Cutler River area was occupied by glacial lakes and the oldest of these was probably dammed by the Cutler moraine which crosses the Noatak valley floor near the mouth of Cutler River. The western Aniuk Lowland, which extends westward from the Cutler River mouth to the lower course of Nimiuktuk River, is dominated by a series of large end moraines deposited by glaciers from the De Long Mountains and that flowed southeastward down the Nimiuktuk valley system and then up the Noatak River valley. Downvalley from Nimiuktuk River, glaciers in the De Long Mountains flowed southward through the Kalaktavik, Kugururok, and Kelly drainage systems, deflecting the Noatak River into a more southerly position against the north flank of the Baird Mountains. These glaciers dammed the Noatak drainage near the mouths of their valleys, and glacial lakes subsequently expanded northward up each valley when the glaciers receded. Today, all the glacier ice is gone except for the remnant cirques in the headwaters, but the entire watershed is underlain by continuous permafrost possibly to depths of 600-800 feet (183-244 m).
Archaeological investigations of the Noatak Valley have found artifacts dated 11,700 years before the present. The historical Iñupiat inhabitants of the Noatak drainage considered themselves two culturally distinct groups, the lower river Naupaktomiut, meaning people of the trees, and the upper river Noatagmiut, meaning people of the inland river. Relationships between these Naupaktomiut and Noatagmiut were close. The Noatagmiut spent much of their lives hunting inland caribou, and they traveled after breakup in the early summer to Sheshalik on the coast to hunt seals, beluga whales, and to trade. The Naupaktomiut, usually traveled westward during spring westward to the area south of Kivalina and only later in summer from there south to Sheshalik to hunt seals and belugas. They remained with the Noatagmiut at Sheshalik only a short time before both groups again ascended the river. Immediately upon reaching their inland settlements, the Naupaktomiut began fishing for dog (chum) and humpback (pink) salmon. The Noatagmiut fished mainly while ascending the river, and when they reached their settlements on the upper reaches of the river they began caribou hunting. Historically, Iñupiat from the middle and upper Kobuk also traveled to the upper Noatak during fall to hunt sheep and caribou before rejoining their wives at the fishing camps along the Kobuk River. Archaeological remains indicate the presence of villages on lakeshores of the Noatak dating to the 1600s. These settlements were likely disrupted, if not decimated, by diseases introduced by Europeans. In 1850, the lower Noatak was first explored by men from HMS Plover commanded by William Pullen during one of the many unsuccessful expeditions to rescue Sir John Franklin and explore the Northwest Passage. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, more exploratory surveys occurred and in 1898, prospectors arrived as a consequence of the Klondike Gold Rush. The village of Noatak was first established as a fishing and hunting camp in the 1800s. In the early 1900s, the missionaries Robert and Carrie Samms had settled at Noatak and nearly all of the remaining people in the valley were concentrated there. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Noatak and Kotzebue Sound here: