Wandering the West
February 16, 2010
Maybe it’s not the best time to be thinking about places far colder than the Wasatch in February, but for some reason I’ve been recalling one of my favorite adventures to the far north, and its not too early to plan a trip for summer. Gates of the Arctic National Park lies entirely north of the Arctic Circle, north of Fairbanks in Alaska’s Brooks Range. Much of Alaska is pretty much a de facto wilderness because it’s so inaccessible, but the Gates is a huge tract of land (nearly 12,000 square miles) that is officially designated as wilderness within the National Park system.
My arctic adventure was in 1984, but because of its wilderness status, not much, in fact hopefully nothing has changed. I was inspired to go by the fact that it was a big roadless expanse of Alaska, and by the fact that I was then working on wilderness legislation in Washington, D.C., during a hiatus from the news business.
Back then about the only way into the Gates was by bush plane, landing on water. The outfitter-led group I joined all loaded into a DeHavilland Beaver single-engine plane that accelerated on the Koyukuk River until lift off at Bettles, the most logical jumping-off point. Now you can enter the park less expensively, by driving, or hitching up the Dalton Highway and hopping out at the right spot and hiking in. The Dalton Highway is the haul road to the North Slope oil fields, and it was not open to the public when I went.
We landed smoothly on a glassy lake surface, taxied to shore and started a three-week adventure. Right away we understood why hikes here are taken at a leisurely pace. Here grass grows in patches, called tussocks, which are elevated about a foot off the ground, growing out of old tussocks. Around each tussock there’s bare ground. If you tried to step from one tussock to the next, you’d eventually lose your balance and fall over, pack and all. If you tried to walk in the flat channels between tussocks, you’d spend all your time zigzagging. Plan on only making seven or eight miles a day on this miserable surface, and hike up gravel streambeds wherever you find them.
Our route followed part of a journey described by Bob Marshall in his book, "Arctic Wilderness." And if you have to ask who Bob Marshall is, you need to brush up on wilderness history. He was kicking around here and every other roadless place he could find in the ’20s and ’30s, and is responsible for much of what is now legally declared to be wilderness. (The largest officially declared wilderness area in the lower 48 is the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or "the Bob," in Montana.)
Our trip included a circumnavigation of Mount Doonerak, celebrated by Marshall in his book. I carried a copy and read his terrain descriptions as we went. Everything matched up no bulldozers or subdivisions here. In the Gates you can spot most of the trophy animals of the North. We saw Dall sheep, moose, caribou and bears. The biggest thrill was our encounter with a barren-ground grizzly bear. It’s called "barren-ground" because that that’s what the Arctic is. There are no trees here, so when we walked over a ridge to find a grizz feeding on a caribou carcass, we had nowhere to escape a good place for the old joke: "I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun the slowest guy." We made some noise and backed off, and got some dandy photos in the process. Fortunately, dead caribou meat looked more attractive to him.
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It’s a free country so anybody can head into the Gates, but you really have to prepare and know what you’re getting into. There is no rescue here if you screw up not even any way to summon a rescue. You absolutely have to practice food safety and I don’t mean refrigerating your chicken. There are no trees to hang food out of a bear’s reach so you need to cook and eat away from your tent in one set of clothes and then cache them away from your tent so you don’t smell like dinner.
The reward is seeing the extremes of nature on its terms. No road, no hiking trails, no sign really of humans anywhere. The valleys are lined with gray granite mountains with knife-edge ridges. Basins have clear blue lakes, and if you hike quietly you’ll see arctic wildlife, see birds and revel in wildflower meadows.
The Gates of the Arctic is wild adventure, and it’s reassuring to know that, thanks to Bob, it always will be.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: With near 24 hours sunlight in summer, set up camp and day-hike nearby, especially up the drainages.