Kobuk Valley National Park

National Park Number: 59 of 59***


It would be hard to overstate our giddiness on the day we visited Kobuk Valley National Park. I had expected a feeling of finality or completion, but there was none of that; instead we were filled with the sense that we were exactly where we wanted to be, doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. It was a heightened awareness, a broader perspective, and a swelling of gratitude. It was perfect.

It was also one of the most physically uncomfortable days of our lives—but a thrilling discomfort. We started our visit the night before at the closest airstrip to the national park, in the town of Ambler. We landed in the evening, set up camp on the airstrip, and walked the mile or so into town for some fries and Gatorades at Ambler’s combination grocery store/munitions dealer/diner. 

Just after we arrived, we were met by the man who was supposed to be taking us by boat into the park the next day. Lyle had arranged a deal with him to exchange barrels of fuel for the boat ride, and all our plans for getting into the actual boundaries of the park depended on this man. The first thing he said after greeting us was, “So, I guess you don’t check your voicemails. I cancelled.”

I would have had a brief coronary except that I thought he was kidding. We were already there, after all, and had carted his fuel barrels all that way. He was not, in fact, kidding, but he’d somewhat buried the lede: he’d arranged for another boat owner to take us instead, and our new captain, Floyd, would accept the same fuel exchange.

So all was well, except we had no idea if Floyd would actually be there. We got up and ready in a hurry and hiked down to the river, where we were, thankfully, met by Floyd and his very small, “4 Passengers Maximum” (according to the sign on the bow) fishing boat. Undeterred, the nine of us loaded up (four of the nine were very small, after all) and took off.

We motored several hours up the Kobuk River, and though I was perched on a narrow wooden bench with no backrest, limbs folded uncomfortably beneath me, holding up two children, frozen by the wind and intermittent rain, unable to move and desperate to pee, I was thrilled to be there. The river was wide and still, the leaves were crisp and yellow, and we were doing a thing we’d had no idea if we could do. Discomfort aside, it felt good.

We stopped mid-way through the ride (a great relief to my bladder) for a break on a little beach, where we refueled, found fresh bear and wolf tracks, and picked a bunch of blueberries. Then we set off again toward another beach, the launching point for our hike into the Kobuk sand dunes.

Floyd dropped us off on a sandy strip along the bank lined by thickets of alders. We plunged up the bank and into the branches and thus began the most intense hike we’ve ever done. Though it was only 4 miles round trip without much elevation gain, large chunks of it involved bushwhacking in its truest sense, straight through the thickest of thickets—no trail unless we could find a bear trail to follow, pockets of swamp that took us by surprise and soaked us up to our knees, few points of reference to navigate by, and clouds of bugs so thick that you couldn’t breathe without inhaling at least a few. It was solid Type 2 fun—super uncomfortable while it was happening but we could tell, even while we were being scratched and whipped in the face by branches, that we’d look back on the whole thing super fondly.

After an hour of hiking and a scant half mile under our boots, we climbed up a rise and were finally out of the thickets and into a wonderland of birches and spruce trees. The colors of the leaves and moss were brilliant, the blueberries were abundant, and we kept coming across caribou sheds and other signs of wildlife. We followed Lyle, our fearless leader, and kept up a quick pace so we could make it to the dunes and back to the boat before the pickup time we’d scheduled with Floyd. 

After traversing the mossy forest, sliding down and scrambling up three ravines, and eating one hundred thousand blueberries, we saw looming ahead of us a wall of sand—the dunes at last! 

Formed 28,000 years ago as glaciers ground the surrounding mountains down and the resulting sand piled into the ice-free Kobuk Valley, the dunes used to cover 200,000 acres in this area. Now, vegetation has taken back most of the land; the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, the dune field we hiked to, is 25 square miles. It is a totally unexpected and stunningly beautiful landscape, and arriving there after the intensity of our hike was maybe the most satisfying moment of our entire trip.

We didn’t have long to spend on the dunes, but the time we did spend was glorious. We shed our layers and sank into the sand, the kids raced off to play, and I traced a big 59/59 to serve as our final sign picture. Soon it was time to head back and we started our bushwhacking return.

The way back to Floyd was, if anything, tougher than our way out. We overshot our walk through the forest a bit and wound up deeper in the swamp and alders than we’d been before. Lyle went ahead to catch Floyd because we were already an hour late and worried he’d take off without us; we were so thick in brambles and bog that each step had to be forced, and we kept coming across warm bear scat, recent tracks and, at one point, the sour, slightly rotten stench of a bear who must have been very near. We made as much noise as we could and prayed we wouldn’t come across anything, yelled “Marco” and “Polo” to find each other and, after what felt like eons, we heard Lyle yelling “Polo” back to us. Then we tumbled our of the alders onto the beach, where Floyd was still waiting for us, and unceremoniously we piled back into the tiny boat for the long ride back up the river. 

We originally hoped to make Gates of the Arctic our final park; it was a place David had dreamed about since childhood and felt like the end of the Earth. We ended up switching Gates for Kobuk because of the weather in both parks the week we were there; if we’d done Kobuk first and Gates last, we’d have been in pouring rain for both parks. But in the end, we were so glad things worked out the way they did. Nothing could have felt more satisfying than that bushwhack into the dunes. It was intense and beautiful and extremely fun, and it was a perfect ending.

It does feel artificial, though, to talk of an ending. For one thing, we’ve decided to extend our goal to include all 417 of the NPS-managed sites in the U.S., so we’ll be going for a while yet. More than that, we don’t feel like we really checked off any of the parks; David and I were talking about this and realized that we feel much more as though we’re in a relationship with the national parks. We’d never say of a friend, “Oh, we visited Bob. We checked him off, we’re done. No need to see him again.” We feel instead like we’ve met a group of 59 wonderful people we want to see again and again and learn more and more about. 

We got back to Ambler in the growing dusk and hitched a ride back to the plane on a local’s four-wheeler (all nine of us on one quad, just to paint the picture for you), then rushed to take down camp and get our flight back to Anchorage underway before it got any later. We flew out of the Kobuk area as the sun went down, the kids immediately asleep on our laps, and I can’t remember a time we’ve felt more exhausted or more satisfied. We will never feel “done” with the national parks. But that day of hiking in Kobuk Valley was as close to a finale as we could hope for.

***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 :).

All flights and friendships were provided by the inimitable Lake and Pen Air. If you’re going to Alaska, go visit Lake Clark National Park and fly with these guys—we guarantee you won’t regret it!

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