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Wilderness canoeing. What better way to observe wildlife than from a wild river?

WOLVES are prowling at water's edge - three grays and a larger white. They stop pacing as the canoes round the bend. Mark Skok, a long-time Alaskan and veteran of the outdoors, cups his hands to his mouth, leans back, and howls. It seems a fine imitation, but the wolves do not answer. There are no believers among the pack, and only silence follows.

Then, like smoke vanishing among the trees, they are gone.

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Floating down a wild river offers the best chance of seeing wildlife here, not only because many animals seek out the river for food and drink, but because you can approach them silently.

For a quartet of backpackers at the end of a 30-mile trek over tangled tundra, the prospect of drifting idly down river in canoes held great appeal. We were ready to watch the scenery move by us.

The John River twists for more than 150 miles through northwest Alaska. Much of it is located in the Gates of the Arctic National Park, 8 million acres of pristine mountains, valleys, and rivers. It is the last great wilderness in the United States.

Although it is sometimes only inches deep, the John can be a very challenging stretch of water. Washing down from its headwaters at Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range, this river alternates between roiling rapids and languid meanders.

We had arranged with an outfitter to fly in a pair of canoes at Hunt Lake, a patch of water near the confluence of the John and its Hunt Fork. This is a favorite rendezvous, not only for humans but for thousands of caribou as well.

The river promises plenty of other wildlife: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, foxes, and assorted geese, ducks, and loons.

Grizzlies are a primary topic of conversation. They are still plentiful here, and stories abound. However, the bears rarely, if ever, see men, and so tend to avoid us. Instead, they prefer local delicacies: small rodents, salmon, and berries. In the summer months, grizzlies spend up to 22 hours a day foraging for meals and storing up fat for hibernation.

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It is well past 8 p.m. when the pilot dips his float plane over the campsite and splashes down in Hunt Lake. He unlashes the canoes from the plane's pontoons and unloads an eagerly awaited supply of eggs, bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Although we are itching to start and the Arctic sun is still high, we opt for one more night at Hunt Lake. There was, after all, the question of whether we really knew what we were doing.

Among the four of us - two San Diego reporters, a city planner from Montana, and an Alaskan free-lance photojournalist - we have little experience with canoes. That soon becomes evident when Bill Klubben (the city planner) and Mark Ragan decide to test their skill that night. Their theory is to run the shallow rapids just below Hunt Lake and then pull the canoe back upstream to camp. This is supposed to give us an idea of what we would face in the morning.

It doesn't work that way. Moments after pushing off, Klubben and Ragan paddle broadside into converging rapids and tip over. The grand adventure lasts less than five minutes, most of it spent dragging the 15-foot aluminum canoe back to shore. We spend the rest of the night shuddering: Klubben and Ragan from the cold, all of us from thinking about the next day.

In truth, there really isn't much to canoeing the John after it converges with Hunt Fork. According to Nancy Simmerman, who wrote the authoritative book ``Alaska Parklands,'' it's relatively easy floating to the town of Bettles and the confluence of the John and Koyakuk rivers.

Given our first experience with the river, however, we weren't so sure, it proved smoother after the first rapids. This is perhaps its greatest gift. The river allows you long moments to drift quietly on a 5-mile-per-hour current and observe the changing panorama.

We watch a young moose swim across the river, only its head bobbing above the surface. Two baby loons, somehow separated from their mother, drift past our canoes, only a paddle's length away. Later, a pair of great horned owls skirmish in the branches above the water.

Such scenes have a timeless quality, exaggerated even more by the long arctic days. In midsummer the sun never sets, and time can lose its meaning. The joke around camp is that we awake at the break of noon. Dinner is often at midnight. We eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired.

The endless light, most often golden in the wee, clear hours of the morning, makes the changing scenery even more beautiful.

Near Hunt Lake, the river often swooshes through canyons. Mountains of schist and limestone tower over us. Eventually, the mountains give way to broader valleys. In air miles, the John is perhaps 60 miles from Hunt Lake to its junction with the Koyakuk. In miles paddled, however, it's more than 100.

The river constantly changes course, cutting new channels for no apparent reason.

Perhaps more than the river itself, the thing to watch is the weather. It can change as often as the water, moving from sunny, calm mornings to blustery, cold afternoons, and then back again. There is no accounting for it.

One evening, Mark Skok notes long, wispy cirrusclouds stretching over the northern mountains. ``Mare's-tails,'' he calls them. They're supposed to portend a storm. But no storm comes - at least from the north. The wind changes the next day, and rain-heavy cumulus clouds, moving in from the southern coast, drench us. Summer rain in the Brooks Range is a common occurrence. The deluge can happen quickly and then simply blow away. Sturdy rain jacket and pants are recommended.

For much of two days, the weather isn't kind. When it's not raining, it's blowing or cold - not numbing cold but the temperature, we guess, dips into the low 40s at night. During the day, the wind slows us considerably. When it blows straight into our faces, it seems as if our paddles aren't pushing us forward at all. The river's current seems nonexistent.

As a result, we are forced to spend 20 of the next 48 hours in canoes trying to make our final rendezvous. It is grueling work, but on the last day, the sun breaks through, and the deep green valleys, streaked with white aspens and dark spruce, come alive with color.

A mother duck with four babies paddles across our bows, noisily quacking to her charges. A pair of long-necked geese race by, and a hawk circles overhead. This is Alaska at its best, a wonderful wilderness in which we are only visitors. If we have done this right, we will leave nothing of ourselves behind and take with us only memories.

A light rain, seeming to fall from the bright sun, cools us and then evaporates. Paddling out of a slow curve, we marvel at a double rainbow appearing to rise from the rivers' confluence. It marks the end of the rain and an unforgettable trip.

If you go

For more details about an Alaska vacation, send for the free ``Alaska and Canada's Yukon 1987 Official Vacation Planner.'' Alaska Division of Tourism, PO Box E-007, Juneau, AK 99811.

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