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Gates of the Artic 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 artic 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 air strip 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 8000 visitors in 1999 (as opposed to 386000 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. 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.
The place strikes you immediately as being a most wild and natural place. From where we stood, past the lake shore, we saw no tracks in the tundra. With my agility burdened by a 65 pound (30kg) backpack, 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 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 Artic circle. For a period of about in month in mid-summer, the sun never sets. We were already in mid-August, which in the Artic is already the fall season, but there was still daylight past 11pm. 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 "artic" 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 you could see elsewhere. The next day, a bright sun highlighted the fall colors. Pocket 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 the what feels like a sponge rubber, yet the softness felt nice. 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.
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 unobtructed 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 each 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 have 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. 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, so I just savored the moment. The park is crossed by the Caribou of the western arctic herd (estimated to be 200000 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 constanly changing, and rainbows seemed to appear and disappear everywhere. Although we were merely at 3000 feet (1000 meters) elevation, an overnight storm brought a layer of fresh snow. The sight of the black vertical walls entirely plastered with snow reminded me of the harshness of the environment. It is said that in Alaska, there are four seasons: June, July, August, and winter. Although the climbing possibilities were immense, I was glad to be on the ground. The overcast sky brought a severe atmosphere to the landscape of lichen-covered black boulders and turquoise lakes, with the summit of the mountains hidden from view. 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.
A popular more economical alternative is to hike between the North Fork of the Koyukuk River starting between the Boreal Mountains and the Frigid Crags, two peaks described by explorer Robert Marshall as the "Gates of the Artic" from Alaska central Brooks range into the artic regions of the far north, and arriving at the Eskimo village of Anaktuvuk Pass (where a schedule flight is available) or vice-versa. Sourdough Outfitters uses a smaller plane which holds two passengers, and charges $350 for the drop-off. The only way to avoid flying is to backpack from the Dalton highway, starting around Wiseman, but several river crossings are necessary, and it is a long way to the more scenic interior of the park.
The park features six designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Consider combining a backpacking trip with a float trip (rafts and inflatable canoes are cheaper to fly in than rigid crafts). The Alatna rivier offers a relaxing cruise to Allalaket from Circle Lake, while the North Fork of the Koyukuk runs to Bettles from the Gates for a more challenging whitewater excursion. Inflatable boats can be rented locally.