Photo Spot 58: Kobuk Valley National Park – Great Sand Dunes
Kobuk Valley National Park is located in Northwestern Arctic Alaska, entirely above the Arctic Circle. It has the distinction of being the least visited of the 58 US National Parks.
Following our summer 2001 trip to Lake Clark National Park, the expedition to Kobuk Valley National park in 2002 was the first wilderness trip that Lanchi and I undertook after our wedding. This started by driving to Healdsburg, a town near the Russian River which is one of the most popular river rafting runs in California. There, we rented an inflatable canoe from SOAR. Their boats have the reputation of being rugged – you don’t want to get a leak in the middle of the Alaska wilderness – yet, when deflated they collapse to a small size, making them transportable by plane.
Armed with the SOAR boat, we flew (using again Alaska Air miles) to Kotzebue, the largest Eskimo community in Alaska, situated just north of the Arctic circle, on the coast of the Bering sea. From there, we boarded the mail plane to the Eskimo village of Ambler, situated East of the park. A kind villager offered us a four-wheeler ride from the airstrip to his family’s stand of drying white fish (see here) next to the river. We inflated our boat, and soon we were off for a week-long, hundred miles river journey down the wide Kobuk River through Kobuk Valley National Park, to the Eskimo village of Kiana, West of the park.
Floating downstream, we were hoping for an easy and relaxing trip, but the river was so placid that we ended up having to paddle all the time a boat that wasn’t tracking particularly well, probably because it is rudderless. Mid-way through this journey, as the night was approaching, a torrential shower came out of nowhere. We debated pulling to shore to seek shelter, but instead opted to continue, since we thought we were close to our objective. As we were getting soaked to the bone, we felt relieved to reach a characteristic wide bend of the river. As the rain started to ease, we set up camp on a bluff, planning to hike the next day. The next morning started by building a fire. After a few hours, all of our clothes, that we held up to the fire, were dry.
We hiked for a couple of miles, and at last set foot on the Great Sand Dunes, the most distinctive feature of the park. The unexpected sight is the largest dune system in the Arctic, a relic of the last ice age, when glaciers deposited sand there. The huge dune field was reminiscent of the deserts, but many clues pointed to its Arctic location.
I set up the large format camera. I looked for an angle where the ripples of the dunes would have the most contrast, eventually settling for a composition with a diagonal ridge line pointing to a group of black spruce trees, balanced by a more distant group of spruce trees – one of the clues we were in the Arctic. Because of the cloudy skies, the light wasn’t the best. Nevertheless I clicked the shutter in a celebratory mood. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
Next, I focused on the caribou tracks – another of the Arctic clues – that were crossing the dunes. There was still one element of the Arctic dune environment that I almost missed, the curious “reverse oasis” experience, where I was standing on a huge island of sand surrounded by lush vegetation in fall color as far as I could see – we had timed our trip on the last week of August for the foliage, as well as for the beginning of the caribou migration. Wandering near the edge, I found a spot where the two elements merged gracefully. At this point I had only one unexposed sheet of film left with me, so despite of all these years of experience, I proceeded even more slowly than usual, taking extra precautions not to make a technical mistake that would ruin the film.
Once I exposed it, and although the trip was far from being over, I felt that the last item on a decade-long to-do list could finally be checked off. Kobuk Valley National Park was the last of the 58 National Parks that I needed to visit in order to complete my project to photograph all of them in large format. The goal had been attained, but what I cherished the most was the journey. It continues to this day.
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