Terra Galleria Photography

A Backpacking trip into the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park

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Continuing the Alaska dreaming and remembering started with the springtime backpacking trip in Lake Clark National Park, I am re-publishing here a longer account of a more arduous autumn backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park, illustrated with photographs all captured on 5×7 large format film. It was one of my wildest and most memorable experiences.

We took off from Bettles during a short weather break in the evening. As vast expanses of tundra and taiga rolled beneath, a circular double rainbow began to follow us. The beauty was incredible, but the flight in the four-seater plane was so bumpy that we were glad to reach our destination, a narrow circular band of water known as Circle Lake – and AI-based deblurring was necessary to salvage photos. The pilot helped us unload our backpacks to the grassy shore, instructed us to come back one week later to the same point to be picked up, and was quickly on his way. Still dazzled by the flight, we waved to the plane. A few minutes later, the noise of the engine disappeared to leave place to absolute silence. The sense of isolation was powerful. We were told by the rangers that you must be totally self-sufficient here, that there would be no help to be expected. You might not even be found.

Gates of the Arctic National Park, covering much of the Brooks range in northern Alaska, is one of the finest wilderness areas of the world. With a surface area of 8.4 million acres (336 thousand squares kilometers), it is four times the size of Yellowstone, twice the size of Connecticut, and only slightly smaller than Switzerland. What is remarkable is that such a large chunk of land has remained one of the most remote and unspoiled places in the world. No roads lead into the park, and it is a hard trek to get from the Dalton highway (a rough unpaved road opened to access the oil fields of the arctic coast) into the park interior. Most people charter a plane to fly into the park, either a floatplane or a plane equipped with oversized tires for landing on gravel bars. The main transportation center for the Brooks range is Bettles, which can be reached in summer only by flight, usually from Fairbanks. After landing on the gravel airstrip in Bettles, it is easy to understand why Alaska is America’s last frontier. Although the town is incorporated, it is no more than an airfield surrounded by a few dozen buildings. There is a lodge, a general store, and the National Park Service visitor center. The ranger gave us a briefing about bear encounters but declined to provide trip planning information. The main purpose of the NPS was to keep the park a wilderness, and they wanted each person to discover their own path, rather than ending up all in the same spot. With only 8,000 visitors in the year 1999 prior to our visit (as opposed to 386,000 for Denali and more than 3 million for Yosemite or Yellowstone), and no facilities such as marked trails or campsites, it is indeed still possible to have the feeling of being the first humans ever to set foot in the park. It is still possible to be the first person to expose a large format sheet of film of some of the views there. During our week-long trek, we would meet only two other hiking groups, yet we backpacked in one of the most frequented areas of the park. One of them was composed of two guides and a photographer. He had hired both of them so that he would have to carry only his photographic gear. I found that this would have been unnecessary for me: in spite of carrying about half my body weight (my friend, Shosh, was a small woman and couldn’t take more than her normal share), after a couple of days I would adjust to the load and the terrain.

The place strikes you immediately as being a most wild and natural place. From where we stood, past the lakeshore, we saw no tracks in the tundra. I proceeded to put my backpack on. I couldn’t lift it with my hands high enough to shoulder it. I had to find a mound of vegetation high enough for me to sit underneath it. At the beginning of the trip, the backpack weighed about 67lbs (30 kg). There was about 25lbs of camera gear and film, 28 lbs of gear to survive in harsh conditions, and nine days of food. Before the trip, I was wondering how I would fare in those conditions. The other backpacking trips where I carried the large format camera were only four days long, in the mild and dry climate of the Sierras or the Plateau, and on-trail. I began to learn the harshest aspect of Arctic hiking. Most of the ground in Arctic regions is permanently frozen as permafrost. During the summer, there will be a layer of thawed soil at the surface, allowing plant growth. In the moist areas, found in low-lying terrain such as the valley were we landed, the permafrost is close to the surface, and the melting creates an ocean of mud among which tufted mounds of grass called tussocks provide a more solid footing. Walking is done by hopping from one wobbly tussock to another, trying to avoid missing and spraining your ankle or sinking in the mud when a tussock gives way under your feet. We understood why one shouldn’t plan to cover more than one mile per hour. On such a terrain, it is also difficult to find a good campsite.

However, despite the late hour, I was not too worried about getting to one before the nightfall. The park is situated well above the Arctic circle. For a period of about a month in mid-summer, the sun never sets. We were already in mid-August, which in the Arctic is already the fall season, but there was still daylight past 11 pm. There was a sense of freedom in being able to forget the clock. One more aspect of modern life had become irrelevant. We found in the boreal forest a spot carpeted by thick moss, and set-up the tent.

The term “arctic” sometimes evokes the idea of a white wasteland roamed by polar bears. While it is true that for most of the year temperatures averaging -20F (-30F) at lower elevations freeze the landscape, during the short warm seasons, the tundra puts a display of color unlike anything I saw before. In the eastern hardwood forests of America, the colors are in the trees. Here the color is just everywhere. The next day, a bright sun highlighted the fall colors. Pockets of willows and aspens dotted the landscape with yellow patches, while the unforested hills around us were vibrant with a variety of red hues. These brilliant reds were the tiny leaves of berry plants. After a few days of freeze-dried food, we became very fond of the fresh and sweet taste of the blueberries, which were found in abundance at the lower elevations. Unlike in the mountains I was used to, there was no bare dirt at all. Every patch of ground was alive, covered with cottongrass and sedges, mosses, or a variety of other dwarf plants. They kept getting tinier and tinier, as we gained elevation, but never lost of their diversity. Looking at my feet while hiking, I’d marvel at the beauty of the small patterns. It was a bit tiring because you’d sink at every step into what feels like a sponge rubber, yet the softness felt nice. Tripod stability was another matter. The limiting factor in rigidity would be the sponginess of the ground, regardless of how flimsy your camera or tripod is. While making an exposure, you wouldn’t dare to breathe, for fear of not standing perfectly still, and causing the ground to shift. We became more proficient at recognizing dry tundra from moist tundra. Dry tundra is dominated by mat-forming shrubs and is often found on higher, well-drained terraces. Walking on dry tundra was much more pleasant than hoping on tussocks, and we made faster progress. Every hour or so, when I saw an interesting place to photograph, we would put our packs down, my partner would relax for a while, while I would expose a few images. On a road trip, I just tend to drive around and rush to be at the right place with the right light (if predictions were to be accurate). Here, there was a sense that I’d just have to photograph what was there and now, and be content with it. At most, we could wait a little for conditions to change, and I would use that time to unload my three film holders and reload them. There was less pressure to find an image, it would have to come naturally.

After reaching the Arrigetch creek, we found some faint and intermittent trails. We wondered which ones were made by animals and which ones were made by previous hikers. Sometimes, it was comforting to recognize a footprint made by a boot in the mud, but usually the footprints all belonged to animals. One day, as we struggled through thick willows, we found a relatively unobstructed path where branches had been broken by something bigger and stronger than a human. Instants later, we saw a very large dark-furred animal. Shosh panicked, as she thought it was a huge black bear, but soon, we were reassured by the sight of antlers. It was a moose. We stayed away, as they can become aggressive at this time of the year which is their rutting season. Almost every day, we would see big sharp-clawed tracks and wonder where the maker of those tracks was.

Like all of Alaska, the park is home to a number of bears, both black and brown. The brown bear, or grizzly, is among the earth’s largest predators, but in the Brooks Range, they are largely, although not exclusively, vegetarians, eating berries, sedges, and other plants. Not exclusively. When they’re hungry, grizzlies will try anything. Fortunately, because of the resources needed to sustain life are so sparse, there is only an average of one brown bear for every 100 square miles of habitat in the Arctic. Moreover, man’s presence in the park is so minimal that none of the wildlife is accustomed to man, so that a bear, whiffling something as foreign as humanity would likely turn tail. However, in order to avoid surprising a bear, Shosh kept yelling and talking, and we were careful to use proper food storage methods.

Two days after our landing, we arrived at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks. The park covers much of the Brooks Range, which is the northernmost major mountain range in the world. The range is so vast that each of its mountains has a different character, however, the Arrigetch Peaks area is considered by many to be the most spectacular part. Arrigetch means in Athabascan “fingers of a hand outstretched”. We were surrounded by gothic black granite spires and pinnacles reaching haphazardly into the clouds. There was a feeling of being at the beginning of the earth. The ice-rimmed sheer walls gave us the impression of being in Yosemite before the dawn of humanity. An Eskimo legend relates that when their creator Aiyagomahala died, he stuck his frozen mitten to the ground at the head of the Alatna Valley; the frozen fingers turned into granite spires to remind his people of their creator.

We set up a base camp and planned to spend the next few days doing day hikes into three of the valleys surrounding the peaks. This would be much easier on my back since I would just have to carry the camera gear. Each of the valleys had a different character. In the first one, we hoped onto steep boulder fields. In the image I made looking down the valley, the overcast sky and the thin layer of fresh snow, contrasting with the dark walls and the lichen-covered rocks, contributed to create a most severe and frigid atmosphere. The highlight of the second valley was turquoise lakes whose deep colors stood out against the dark surrounding rocks. In the third valley, we saw beautiful high tundra vegetation. The weather remained overcast all the time, and while this helped bring out the colors of the tundra, I wished the summits of the peaks would clear out. There was a mystery in all those steep peaks disappearing into the clouds, but I think I captured this feeling only in one image, a difficult exposure made at the end of a long day when I had only one sheet of film left in my pack.

As we were cooking dinner at dusk next to a stream, we saw one caribou running down on the other side of the stream, then another one, then several others. Soon we witnessed for several minutes an almost continual flow of animals. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them. It was too dark to take a picture, and on this trip, I had decided to concentrate on landscape photography and therefore left behind my telephoto lens, so I just savored the moment. The park is crossed by the Caribou of the western arctic herd estimated to be 200,000 animals, as it migrates through the park from wintering grounds south and west of the park to calving areas northwest of the park and to summer range north of the park. The weather was constantly changing, and rainbows seemed to appear and disappear everywhere. This was at times frustrating with the large format camera since the conditions would often change in the eight minutes it takes me to set-up the camera and be ready to expose the film. Although we were merely at 3000 feet (1000 meters) elevation, an overnight storm brought a layer of fresh snow. Since we were camped at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks, the view was only a few steps from the tent. I had the luxury to wait for hours for the summit of the mountains to come in view. This never happened completely during the three days we were there. When I saw a possible clearing, I gave up breakfast, hurrying to set up the camera with excitement, and waited. Half an hour later, in a brief window that lasted only minutes, the clouds lifted enough for an evocative monochromatic image of the black vertical walls entirely plastered with snow. I thought of how lonely this range was. So few of these thrilling mountains had been visited by people, fewer still had been climbed to their summits. Only a few had names.

It’s a wild place, Gates of the Artic National Park.

2 Comments

  1. Rita (Reeta) says:

    The photos are absolutely divine….Love the Autumn season …American Autumn is breathtakingly beautiful ,the images you have captured are a testament to the glorious and resplendent foliage.
    While reading the build up to the scenes, a beautiful and succinct delineation of the scenic surroundings and the adventurous journey, I could visualize them which is a beautiful art of depiction.I love when the reader is transported to a visual realm and journey.

    The part where you wrote that sitting near a stream and cooking with the sight of the caribou running evokes an essence of beautiful adventure …made me yearn for these spaces , you are doing a superbly fabulous job through your photography and articles.

    The fog hovering over the peaks is stunning.

    Absolutely loved all of the outstanding scenes ,images and the writeup.
    Thank you for sharing your work.Truly appreciate.

    Have a wonderful trip.
    Glad the fire has subsided.

    Autumn Greetings
    Rita

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