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Gates of the Arctic

Willows, rain, bugs, rivers, snowfields, and steep mountain passes.
By Steve Howe - March 5th, 2004

Day 3,5 p.m.

Like the wolves, Melanie and I ended up on this ledge because it sits high above the tangled alders and willows, offering the only view up canyon. For the wolves, it's perfect. Migrating caribou must climb a steep, tangled hillside before popping suddenly onto this open shelf and the last surprise of their life. For us, it's merely a breezy, bug-free spot to shed our packs and take stock of our progress.

We've been thrashing for two days through Gates of the Arctic National Park, but the thickets of Kaluluktok Creek still have not released us. Funny, it didn't look this big on the map back when we were hatching plans, just a couple quad sheets between fly-in and fly-out, with 15 whole days budgeted to get from Walker Lake to the Arrigetch Peaks, a mere 40 miles away. But now we're getting a close look at all those hundred foot contour lines, and our smug vacation plans loom large before us, as do our loads. Melanie's packing 60 pounds. I'm hauling 95.

That's what happens when you daydream about endless wilderness, while your imagination glosses over the troublesome details. Now, from here, Gates of the Arctic looks like big, bad, beautiful Alaska wilderness, 8.4 million acres of it, and it obviously doesn't care how tired we are. The bush plane left. We've got no choice. A swamp? We swamp it. A river? We cross it. A thicket? We whack on through it.

After an appalling number of calories we've almost clawed our way to the freedom of timberline, but our little expedition still labors under what might be called a "morale challenge." Nobody in the gateway bush burg of Bettles, be they pilots, guides or Park Service, thinks we can cross the main spine of the Arrigetch Range, which separates us from our flyout at Circle Lake.

Faced with this lack of expert sanction, we put our faith in map contours. It's a simple matter of wishful thinking and denial. If we can't cross the Arrigetch, we'll have a week of bushwhacking just like this in order to circle the range to Circle Lake.

For the moment, we simply ignore the problem. First we've got to wrestle a couple million alders. Then we've got to cross the Continental Divide, here at the northern limits of the Rocky Mountains. Then we can worry about the Arrigetch. Anxious for mileage we hike, sleep, wake, move on, regardless of the hour, pushing through the midnight sun of arctic summer.

Day 4,7 p.m.

By noon we've voted and it's unanimous, this unnamed side creek contains the most heinous bushwhacking on earth, no question. No visible route either, just a dense green lattice slanting outward across a forty degree side hill. We swim through the tangle for hours, hooting back and forth to maintain contact, each ensconced in our own personal cloud of mosquitos.

Then suddenly we're on open tundra sprinkled with wildflowers and lichen covered boulders. Hallelujah, and it'll take a lot to coax us below 2,500 feet again. Ahead, multilane caribou trails arrow their way up a broad glacial valley. At its far end, the spectacular granite tusk of Point 6,333 looms like a signpost above our intended pass.

Day 5, 2:30 a.m.

Midnight sun. Alpenglow on the peaks. I sit on a boulder above camp, staring west across the Kaluluktok valley toward the craggy bulk of 8,276foot Mt. Igikpak, monarch of the western Brooks Range. Huge even at this distance, Igikpak floats above its black talus foothills like an impregnable sorcerer's castle, striated by gleaming white snowfields and bathed pink by the midnight alpenglow.

Originally we'd planned to visit Igikpak before steering east toward the Arrigetch, but uncertainty about the divide crossing condensed our itinerary. Gazing at this improbable pile of stacked cliffs and turrets, regrets lie heavy, but a mountain so beautiful makes a fine excuse to return.

I notice the roar of swift rivers has accompanied us even up here. We've never been out of earshot of running water, like a deep background chord filling a symphony hall. Nights are colder at these elevations. When the chill finally penetrates, I amble back to camp, leaving my soul on a boulder looking west.

Day 6, 2 p.m.

Surprise! Hours later a storm moves in, and we've been tent bound ever since listening to shotgun rain blasts spatter the canopy. After seeing how far the barometer plunges, Mel and I cut a paperback in half and hunker down, thankful for a well-sealed rainfly and an ample schedule.

During brief lulls we dash outside into the rain-washed air. Dark curtains of rain drift across the ridges. Clouds rise from the tangled valleys to dissipate as they reach the meadows beneath our tent. The huge tusk of Point 6,333 rears overhead, parting clouds like a ship's prow in pack ice. Beneath it, a ramp of boulders and snowfields disappears into the bruised cloud ceiling, our route over the Continental Divide. We could sure use better weather, but this being Alaska, we can't count
on it.

Day 7, 2 p.m.

Clouds lift. The barometer climbs. We go. Inevitably the sucker hole closes and rain catches us near the pass. Fogbound, we slip over lichen-covered boulders and scramble up cracked granite slabs sheeted with running water. Our view from the saddle is magnificent but discouraging. Rain drives into our faces. Steep cliffs and sodden snowfields disappear into the mists above and below.

Scouting around, Mel finds a twisting ramp that descends into Awlingyak Creek over slick talus and snowfields soft as mashed potatoes. On one snowpatch she breaks through so deep only her pack stops her from disappearing. Then we regain the caribou freeways, running straight and clean across the tundra. There's a deep, primal satisfaction to being footloose in this committing, remote wilderness, following the same migration routes that led primitive reindeer hunters to the New World.

Ahead, a wild jumble of sculpted spires, graceful ridges, and swooping granite aprons rises athwa our compass heading, the Arrigetch Peaks. Through binoculars our map passage appears nonexistent. Uncertainty, the staple of adventure, sharpens our senses. The beauty of these remote valleys feels heightened, if such a thing is possible, by the bittersweet possibility we may be screwed.

Day 8, Midnight.

A long night's trek takes us north across Awlingyak Creek's headwater forks. After eight hours we unharness gratefully and pitch camp amid a high, rocky cirque, as the rains return with a vengeance.

I reconnoiter briefly into the upper valley, which hopefully leads over the Arrigetch divide. Clouds boil in the space where our pass should be. We've been worried for days that the backside of this notch might fall off too steeply, but it's our only option. Next to the saddle, Point 7,160, an immense granite tower rain-streaked in black, lofts through the clouds and into blinding sunlight. The storm is clearing. We'll get our answer soon.

Day 10, 6:30 p.m.

Jagged spires and ripsaw pinnacles rear arrogantly around us as we crest the divide overlooking Arrigetch Creek. Howling winds dance the webbing around our packs. We scramble back and forth along the ridge, trying to gain a stereoscopic view down into the gullies and slabs that roll out of sight toward the glacial moraines far below.

Well, there is a thready little dall sheep trail switchbacking into some detached balconies of sod, but we can't see all the way down it. Fortunately, after a dry spring, the snow's melted off this slope. Otherwise it'd be out of the question. It's hairy enough as is, but the thought of a week-long detour overcomes our hesitance, and we mince-step heavily laden over the rim.

Day 13, 11 a.m.

For three days we wander amid windswept lakes and massive granite towers, hopping endless boulder fields and poking our way onto high tundra meadows. Enroute we encounter the typical private treasures of a thoughtful wilderness

Journey; emerging fireweed, a massive pair of caribou antlers shed on the tundra, a grizzly den round and dark in a gravel sidehill.

We've been surrounded by the fresh tracks of caribou, dall sheep, wolf, grizzly and black bear ever since Walker Lake. There were even sheep tracks outside the tent this morning. But we haven't sighted anything larger than a hawk the entire trip. We saw some boot prints two days ago. Yesterday while traversing around a high buttress, we spotted a tent in the timberline spruce far below.

I was puttering around camp this morning when it's owner popped up. Bob is tall, tanned and soft spoken, the only full-time backcountry ranger for the park. He's been here six years, longer than any other park personnel.
"The average is about three years," he comments. "If you're not really into wilderness, there's not much reason to stay."

Bob's really into wilderness. He spends eight months a year, seven days on, four days off, in the backcountry here. He's got possibly the best job in the park service, and he knows it. Bob's surprised we've come from Walker Lake. "I've always wanted to do that," he reflects.

We tell him about the route, while he tells us about the park.
Gates of the Arctic sees an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 "visits" a year, that's everyone; scenic flights, inholders, backpackers,

rIver runners, WInter
dogsledders, and native subsistence. Most use is concentrated at fly-in points on the popular Noatak River, the area immediately surrounding Anaktuvuk Pass, and
the Arrigetch.

Bob considers the Arrigetch "crowded." That's news to us. He's here doing a vegetative survey of impacted campsites. We tell him we've seen one or two. We talk on, then Bob departs to tend a tent-bound co-worker, sick with the flu.

Mel and I hike up our unnamed valley past lakes set in bare granite bedrock, finally ending at the toe of a glacier. The setting is perfect, a flat ledge, a waterfall on one hand, a turquoise glacial pond on the other. The Arrigetch spreads before us. Foothills rank north toward the coastal plain, undulating into the distance beneath a luminous evening sky. Tomorrow we hike out, regretfully. We linger for hours, saying our silent goodbyes to the high peaks.

Day 14, 2:00 a.m.

What an unbelievable bushwhack out! The bottom three miles was hell. No wonder so many backpacking parties never make it into the Arrigetch valleys. Up higher there's a trail, just a game trail really, but at least it's penetrable. By looking closely on our trek out, we managed to spot two sites identifiable as used camps. Otherwise Arrigetch Creek seems as wild as anywhere we've seen.

Now we're camped in a grove of incongruously tall spruce in the broad Alatna River valley. Circle Lake lies a quarter mile off. It's two a.m., the most beautiful hour of the day. I was asleep, but something pulled me out of it. I prop up groggily and twist open a water bottle. Pink clouds shift along the horizons. Low sunbeams filter through the spruce spires overhead. Mosquitos hover in silhouette. Then I hear it, rising plaintively from the riverside marshes, a wolf howl. I shake Mel awake.

"Sshhh. Listen."
The howl rises again. A chorus answers from across the valley. Melanie gasps lightly and sighs. Then we fall back asleep, content to be cradled, one last night, by this magnificent arctic wilderness.


Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska

When to Go: Backpacking conditions are best between mid-June and late September. Most visitors arrive in July and early August.

Permits: None required. The Park Service has a voluntary sign-in for safety and to help them monitor use.

Getting There: Commercial flights to Fairbanks (approximately $760) begin any journey to Gates of the Arctic. From Fairbanks, regularly scheduled flights ($105) by Wright Air (907) 474-0502 or Frontier Flying (907) 474-0014 take you to Bettles (south of the park) or Anaktuvuk Pass (in the northeast quadrant of the park). At Anaktuvuk Pass you hike right from the airport. From Bettles, bush plane services such as Brooks Range Aviation (907) 692-5444 can take you to various landing lakes. Some visitors access southeastern regions of the park by flying from airstrips located along the Trans-Alaska pipeline haul road.

Management: Gates of the Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 74680, Fairbanks, AK 99707 (907) 456-0281 --or-- P.O. Box 26030, Bettles, Alaska 99726 (907) 692-5494.

Bush Pilots, The Easy Way

"Fire Extinguisher's behind my seat. First aid kit's under yours. Pry bar's under here. The rear bulkhead zips out and the survival gear's in there, sleeping bags, tent, food, gun. Got that? O.K. We're outta here."

From the safety spiel to the roller coaster ride with cliffs just off your wingtip, the first time you take a bush plane flight, it's obvious you're not on a normal airline. Yet these entertaining, and occasionally alarming, flights are often the most efficient way to access remote wilderness locations. In a place like Gates of the Arctic, they're about the only way.

National Park and Forest Service offices keep lists of permitted air carriers, so contact the relevant land managing agency once you've determined your destination. Then call the various air carriers and ask questions, not just about planes and rates, but your proposed trip also. Particularly in Alaska, where the land is vast and the agencies understaffed, local pilots are often the best source for current conditions.

Plane fares are charged by the hour. Prices are fairly standardized for a given plane model, but rise the further one gets from cities like Anchorage, because operating expenses are higher in remote bush communities. Keep in mind you'll pay for round-trip time, not just your flight in.

And finally, remember that airplanes are a very effective way to access magnificent wilderness, but once you're there, it's for real.

Typical Bush Planes:

  • Piper Super Cub $185-$225/hr. The smallest plane, with room for one passenger and modest gear. Usually mounted on tundra tires or skis.
  • Cessna 185 $225-$250/hr. The most common bush plane, suitable for two passengers with backpacking gear, available on floats, skis or wheels.
  • Helio Courier $275-$300/hr. Suitable for three passengers and gear. With a stall speed of only 35 mph, Helio Couriers can land and take off with little space. Usually on wheels or skis.
  • DeHavilland Beaver $360-$460/hr. A powerful float plane that can carry three to five passengers and gear, depending on cabin arrangement. Beavers are the only planes specifically engineered to carry external loads, like canoes, lashed to the floats. FAA regulations require other planes to transport passengers and external cargo separately.

Bush Planes the Easy Way:

  • Make reservations early. Some services require a deposit.
  • Always call to confirm your reservation as fly-in day nears.
  • Let the pilot know when you'll be arriving. Most provide shuttle service from larger airports to their facilities.
  • Make arrangements to have stove fuel on hand. You cannot carry stove fuel on commercial airline flights, and most bush pilots are used to obtaining kerosene or white gas for backcountry parties.
  • Ask about a place you can store excess gear and travel luggage until you come out again.
  • Be very clear on flyout dates and rendezvous points. Make absolutely sure you and the pilot are in agreement.
  • Always have extra food and fuel available at trip's end, in case weather delays your pick-up.



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