Gates of the Arctic has stood in our minds as the last frontier, the end of the earth, since we started this trip—actually, for David, that idea of Gates began much sooner, in his childhood when he first read the name “Gates of the Arctic” on a map and thought to himself, “That is where the real wilderness is.”
Far above the Arctic Circle, Gates encompasses part of the enormous Brooks Range and a swath of the treeless North Slope tundra. Incredible to think about? Definitely. Intimidating to plan? OH MY, YES.
There are no maintained trails here and little information for someone planning a visit—the NPS actively avoids giving advice in order to keep any location from getting trammeled. In the months leading up to our visit, we brainstormed all kinds of ways to get into the park’s boundaries, from hiking in off the Dalton Highway to packrafting on one of the rivers. When we teamed up with Lake and Pen Air to fly us into the park, we decided to base ourselves in Anaktuvuk Pass, where we could land on an airstrip and have hiking access to the wilderness. Anaktuvuk is a small native settlement in the northernmost part of the park where the last nomadic people in the Americas—the Eskimos of the North Slope—settled. The town lies right on the Continental Divide, in a valley between enormous, stark mountains, a bit menacing in gloomy weather but also incredibly beautiful.
We flew into Anaktuvuk from Bettles, where we’d stopped to fuel up and spend the night before heading farther north. Bettles is the major gateway city for Gates of the Arctic and has the park’s visitor center and many of its rangers, so we got to do our normal (and comforting 🙂 ) routine of watching the park movie, getting pamphlets and jr. ranger books, and chatting with the park rangers.
Flying into Gates was absolutely jaw-dropping. The name of the park refers to the two mountains—Boreal Mountain and the Frigid Crags—that form a sort of division between ecosystems: before the Gates, there is spruce forest, beyond them there is only tundra. We flew right between the Gates on our way to Anaktuvuk Pass, and though it was still August, the autumn colors were out in force and the braided Koyukuk River ran steely blue below us.
While most of Gates is designated wilderness—meaning there are no trails, roads or maintained spaces—the part around Anaktuvuk Pass is set aside for the corporation of the natives who live there. One of the traditional uses that’s protected on the corporation land is the use of ATVs, which the natives have used since the 60s, long before Gates was a park. It was strange flying over the wilderness area, where there was no sign of any habitation or use, and then crossing into the corporation space and seeing the muddy scars of ATV tracks. Another instance of the complicated relationship between access and preservation—and in this case, we’re so glad there are provisions for the natives to use vehicles to get their main food source, caribou, back to town from the hunting grounds.
In planning to stay in Anaktuvuk, we’d heard that we needed to be very careful not to bother the locals and that we wouldn’t be able to camp within corporation land. Our first stop upon landing in town was the ranger station to sort out these guidelines. The ranger wouldn’t give us a firm “yes” about camping in town, but Lyle (our pilot) was also wary of leaving the plane if we were going to be camping in the backcountry. So ultimately, we set up camp right on the airstrip next to the plane and the locals were beyond kind about it. Several drove out to say hi while we were hanging around camp, and some of the workers at the power plant across the street invited us to the use their bathroom and shower and left the doors open for us all night.
Bush plane camping (a.k.a. Alaskan car camping) is the greatest thing ever. We love backpacking with the kids and we planned to do it here, but given a choice between hauling two kids, all our stuff (including rain gear for everyone and enough protection from the below-freezing temps), and bear canisters for our food over rough Arctic terrain with no trail . . . or setting up camp right on the runway and storing all bear temptations safe inside the plane, we chose the latter.
Basing ourselves in Anaktuvuk gave us a chance to learn much more about the native history than we otherwise would have, too. The town maintains an excellent (and surprising, considering the remote location) museum, which we visited on our second day. The museum is small, but does a beautiful job of recounting the Eskimo’s history, from how they survived the winter, to how they hunted caribou, to how they ended up in Anaktuvuk Pass. On our first day, we happened to run into the woman who started the museum, Vera. She was out picking berries and approached us because she was worried about our lack of protection from bears (meaning that we weren’t carrying a gun.) Vera showed us which berries we could eat, gave us some Labrador plant to make tea with, and told us about her family and her work collecting personal histories of the tribe’s elders. She also gave us a ride across the river on her four-wheeler so we wouldn’t have to ford it on foot :). One of our favorite things about Alaska’s parks is the recentness of their native histories and the close relationship so many of the public lands have with their traditional inhabitants. There is tremendous power in seeing these natives as our contemporaries and in experiencing the land through the lens of the people who call it home.
Part of that view is learning to base our behavior in a place on a moral standard, to be wise and careful and as sustainable as possible rather than being exploitative. Since we’ve gotten back from the Arctic, we’ve talked to several people who thought of it as a completely desolate wasteland. One guy told us that his dad went to northern Alaska and said it was basically a field of gravel—nothing to see. But though it’s not always obvious, the Arctic is really teeming with life—it’s a crucial habitat for hundreds of species, especially birds that spend their summers in the north before migrating to North and South America, Asia and all over the Pacific. The birds that fill our woods at home with song are fed by the Brooks Range. Caribou fill the tundra of the North Slope and are a hugely elemental part of the food chain that extends from Alaska down through the Americas. When we mess with one part of that chain it may seem inconsequential, but the effects ripple—we may be surprised to find, some years from now, that a plant or animal that seemed unimportant was actually a vital part of a vital ecosystem we humans depend on. I’m humbled in the face of the complexity of life, and I think we should be awfully careful when we consider development to also consider how much we depend on a stable environment to sustain us.
Being in a true wilderness meant we were acutely aware of our effect on it. While in the park, we took day hikes out onto the tundra; hiking on tundra is a lot like hiking on a bed of memory foam and we never got as far as we thought we would. But we loved being out there, loved the stark range towering ahead of us, loved picking blueberries and crowberries to snack on mid-hike, loved the awareness of each tussock and divot underfoot. Graham and Bones were the best of buddies, playing ninjas and making up nicknames for Bones’ baby sister Maggie, and having each other made hiking so much more fun for them.
There at the end of the Earth, we felt enormously grateful for many things. Some of our strongest bits of gratitude were for the Wilders, our pilot and his family, who took a chance on working with us last summer to get into Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, and who were willing to jump in with us this year too, and include the whole family. We’ve talked about him before on here, but Lyle is just an utterly mind-blowing pilot. Super skilled and confident, but also so passionate about Alaska, its history and land and people, and we learn so much every time we fly with him. His wife Heidi is the actual coolest person on the planet, and their kids were so fun. We loved getting to fly with them and hang out with them, but we were mostly grateful because last year, we had absolutely no clue how we were going to make it up here.
I remember early on in our trip, just before we went to Alaska the first time, I was trying to figure out how we’d get into some of the fly-in parks (more to the point, how we’d afford it) and I was in tears, realizing that maybe there was no way we could make this work. We didn’t quit, though sometimes we thought that would have been smarter, but there were a lot of times when we had to take things one step at a time, with no idea how any of it would work out. Which is exactly how life always is anyway. The main feeling we’ve come away with is humble confidence (oxymoronic as that may sound) because we realized that even if we hadn’t found a way to get to some of these places, we learned and grew so much in the attempt. It would have been worth it, even if we hadn’t finished, to try.
***This post and our visit to Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley National Parks were sponsored by Keen, whose shoes we have used and loved since the beginning of our trip, and long before! We are enormously grateful to them for their support :).
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