Pyramid Creek,
Gates of the Arctic

Gates of the Arctic 2005

In June 2005, Kara attended a conference in Fairbanks, AK. We used this opportunity to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park. We were in the wilderness by ourselves for ten days, first hiking in the upper parts of the Koyukuk River drainage, then paddling about 110 miles downstream to the small settlement of Bettles.

We saw almost no sign of people. For five days after Jay Jespersen's Helio took off in a stinging cloud of grit and left us on the gravel bank of the Koyukuk River, we saw no other hikers, no trails, no shelters, no footprints, no airplanes, not even vapor trails from high-altitude jets: nothing at all to break the illusion that we were the first people to walk this land, except, incongruously, for a single old Band-Aid, half-buried in sand, at the first spot suitable for camping that we found after a full day's hike along Pyramid Creek.

Gates of the Arctic is America's second-largest national park. At 8.4 million acres, it is about the size of Switzerland, or almost three times bigger than Connecticut. Most of it is designated wilderness, allocated by Congress to provide "opportunities for visitors to experience solitude and ... wilderness recreational activities." Just a couple thousand people visit its interior each year. Yellowstone, an area four times smaller, hosts three million visitors a year.

The park protects a wide swath of the Brooks Range, the final, westernmost outpost of the Rocky Mountains before they end on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It is a place for which I struggle to find adequate adjectives. Grand, vast, austere: all these come to mind, but they are trite and do not do the land justice. John Kauffmann, a National Park Service planner who helped create the park, put it like this:

The strange beauty of the Gates of the Arctic country is not easily described, nor are its effects upon the human spirit. The land seems forbidding at first; but as the body toughens and spirits rise, time stops, space expands, humility and confidence grow together. The Arctic's ever-changing suffusion of light bathes solitudes that once seemed ominous.

In the Brooks Range, the natural world is sovereign. Man goes on its terms, acknowledging allegiance to the Earth. One reward is that sense of adventure, without which Robert Marshall maintained, life would be a dreary game.

Gates of the Arctic has its share of sheer cliffs and rushing rivers. But it does not stand out because of its individual features. It does not have an El Capitan or an Old Faithful. Its greatest treasure is its vast, untouched space: space to roam, to discover the land, to be alone, and to think.

Much of the Park's beauty is subtle. Lichens and mosses cover rocks with mottled reds and dark greens. Purple lousewort dots mountain sides. Stunted Arctic willows, two centuries old and barely ten feet tall, glow orange in the midnight sun. Rainstorms materialize suddenly and disappear just as quickly, blown away by strong winds. From a distance, the storms are gauzy curtains that dip into the valleys and pull apart to reveal rainbows and beams of sunlight. Animal tracks and droppings indicate the presence of black and grizzly bears, caribou, moose, musk ox, sheep, wolves.

The lack of trails makes for some tough travel. Hikers have three options: to follow river beds; to struggle through soggy patches of tussocks or thickets of willow, alder, and birch; or to climb above the Arctic bush and walk along ridges and exposed mountain sides. For Kara and me, at the peak snowmelt season, river beds were not an option. And we soon discovered that Kara fares poorly on steep, exposed rock. So we did more than our share of bushwhacking through thickets and tussocks and big blueberry patches, all the while ringing our bear bells and calling out, "Hello bear! Good bear! Just passin' through, little bear!"

More than any other place, Gates of the Arctic made me feel small, even irrelevant, in the grand scheme of Nature. Without a gun, we were no longer at the top of the food chain. A hundred miles from the nearest village, and with no means of communication, we had to keep out of trouble with our own wits. We became squirrels—"I'm cooking. Are you being a squirrel?"—on the lookout for bears, treacherous currents, and sudden squalls. One day a black bear entered our camp while we were relaxing in our tent. We made loud noises and waved our tent's rain fly, but he continued to probe our camp from all sides and made disconcerting licking motions. When he finally left, it was clear that he did so because he had lost interest, and not because we had scared him. Some days later, when we came across a moose and her baby, it only took a glance to understand that we should move no closer.

For me, our days in Gates of the Arctic were more than just another hiking adventure. For the first time, I experienced the physical and spiritual value of real wilderness, of a place that is untouched, with no trails and no signposts, where every traveler can explore the land as if for the first time, and thereby maybe also discover a bit of him or herself. It is one thing to read about trail-less wanderings in the writings of John Muir or Robert Marshall, and quite another to experience the freedom and exhilaration for oneself.

These have been difficult times for US National Parks. At Gates of the Arctic, the park budget decreased 5% from 2002 to 2004, even as visitation almost doubled. There is pressure to privatize park services, to exploit underground resources in national parks, and to prioritize "public enjoyment" over conservation. Few other countries have had the foresight and historical opportunity to create a national heritage comparable to the park system of the United States. I fear that the current political climate, with its emphasis on resource extraction and "business friendliness," may permanently deprive America of its treasure.

I especially hope that Gates of the Arctic will always remain as it is, unspoilt and empty. Preserving current conditions will almost certainly require visitation quotas. I hope that the Park Service will have the courage to implement them, favoring its traditional conservation role even at the cost of being labeled "anti-enjoyment" by some politicians. I certainly want to go back, but I would prefer to not be allowed to go because of quota limits, and know that this place is still as we saw it, rather than return to see footpaths across the tundra.

If you like the photos on this page, you can take a look at the entire album.

To learn more about Alaska and Gates of the Arctic, I recommend these books:

UPDATE, January 2007. When I wrote this page, in the fall of 2005, I ended it with the following text (most of the links no longer work):

The newly proposed National Park Service management policy is available for review through February 18, 2006. The annotated comparison does not take long to skim; a helpful press release highlights some of the key points. Please take a few minutes to submit your comments to the Park Service. If you search Google News for "national park service policy Hoffman" you may find articles about what happens when a partisan hack and former head of the Chamber of Commerce of Cody, WY (not coincidentally, Dick Cheney's home state) is put in charge of national park policy.

I also submitted a letter to the Park Service criticizing the new, development-friendly management policy, and encouraged friends to do so as well.

Thankfully, it appears that the Department of the Interior heard the voices of the 50,000 people like us who wrote in, and of organizations such as the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. The 2006 Management Policies document (also available here) reverts essentially all the harmful language in the 2005 Hoffman draft, and like the previous (2001) policies, makes conservation the National Park Service's foremost responsibility. The Wilderness Society put together a brief analysis of a draft of the revised policies, and then issued a press release when the new policies were finalized, in August 2006.