Wednesday, December 16, 2015

National Park of American Samoa

The National Park of American Samoa welcomes you into the heart of the South Pacific with sights, sounds, and experiences that you will find in no other national park in the United States. The Samoa Archipelago is a chain of inhabited Pacific islands located 14º south of the equator. It is divided into two political entities, the United States Territory of American Samoa and the neighboring independent country of Western Samoa.

The park was established in 1988, but the National Park Service could not buy the land because of the local traditional communal land system. This was resolved in 1993 when the National Park Service entered into a 50-year lease for the park land from the Samoan village councils. In 2002, Congress approved a thirty percent expansion onto two islands, so now The National Park of American Samoa is really three parks on three separate islands -- Ta'u, Ofu, and Tutuila -- and is our sole park located in the Southern Hemisphere (near the International Date Line.)

The United States Government was unable to acquire the necessary park lands outright as has been done in most other United States national parks, because American Samoa retains many longstanding cultural traits relatively unchanged over time. Among them, Samoans retain their ways of communal ownership of land, an oral tradition of boundaries rather than written or surveyed boundaries, and a fierce protection of land and the status land provides a family.

The deeds of cession that the United States signed when making American Samoa a United States territory in 1900, and the American Samoan constitution, both provide the Samoan people a guarantee for this cultural tradition to continue. Thus it was impossible for the United States to acquire and own the lands for a national park. Instead, the law that established the park stipulated, "The Secretary of the Interior shall establish the park only when the Governor of American Samoa has entered into a lease of the lands and waters for a period of 50 years. All lease payments made by the United States under the lease may be disbursed only by the Governor, in amounts determined by the High Court of American Samoa, to those villages and families located within the boundaries of the park. The High Court of American Samoa shall have exclusive jurisdiction to determine the amount to be disbursed under this section to any person."

Samoa, the only U.S. territory south of the Equator, consists of 10 rugged, highly eroded volcanic islands (five inhabited) and two coral atolls (one inhabited). The land area of the territory is 76 square miles.  The five volcanic islands are Tutuila, Aunu'u, Ofu, Olosega, and Ta'u, and the two remote atolls are Rose and Swains Islands. The park preserves and protects coral reefs, tropical rainforests, fruit bats, and the Samoan culture, which is Polynesia's oldest. It is believed that the first people on the Samoan Islands came by sea from southwest Asia some 3,000 years ago.

American Samoa's population is about 70,000, with most of the people on Tutuila. Except for perhaps a few thousand individuals, nearly all inhabitants of American Samoa are indigenous Samoans of Polynesian ancestry. More than any other U.S. or Polynesian people, Samoans are tradition-oriented and closely follow social customs and hierarchies from long before the arrival of the first Europeans. This Samoan way (called fa'asamoa) is still deeply ingrained in American Samoa culture. The most apparent characteristic is the Samoan matai system of organization and philosophy. In general each village is made up of a group of alga (extended families) which include as many relatives as can be claimed.

The United States' National Park System protects and preserves outstanding locations representing our country's finest natural, scenic, cultural, and scientific heritage. American Samoa National Park adds to the National Park System the finest examples of paleo-tropical rainforest, superb Pacific island scenery, and outstanding coral reef ecosystems .

The park is popular for hiking and snorkeling. Popular destinations include the Maugaloa Ridge, the Amalau Valley, Craggy Point, Tafeu Cove, and the islands of Pola and Manofa. Only part of the park is accessible by car and that section attracts the vast majority of visitors. The entire park has steep terrain and unstable volcanic soils due to its tropical rainfall climate and it is very hard to build and maintain trails in this environment. Though the park is new and has a very small staff, some short to moderate trails have been completed, including a trail to the top of Mount Alava (1610 feet) and its historic World War II gun emplacement sites at Breakers Point and Blunt's Point. The trail runs along the ridge in dense forest, north of which the land slopes steeply away to the ocean.

The coral fringing reefs of the park shelter the greatest marine biodiversity in the U.S. and its possessions. The 80-plus native fish and 200-plus coral species of the park are bewildering and awesome. Except for a few wide-ranging seabirds and marine fishes, most of Samoa’s biota is strikingly different from that of all other U.S. National Parks. The only native land mammals are three bat species. For a newcomer from the mainland, this national park will likely present a bewildering array of paleo-tropical plants, forest birds, reef fishes, and corals.  991 fish species representing 113 families are also found in or near the park, about twice the number occurring in Hawaii, but half the number in the Indo-Pacific region.

Drinking unfiltered and unpurified stream waters, or swimming in freshwater streams with open sores or cuts, may expose you to typical tropical maladies -- diarrhea, giardiasis, dysentery, hepatitis, and leptospirosis.

There are numerous archeological sites found within the national park boundaries. Below is an old grave site.

Although there is no official code, dress is very modest in American Samoa. Men and women should wear clothes that cover the shoulders and knees, and when swimming or snorkeling, you must cover your bathing suit with shirt and shorts.

Plant communities of the park, from the mountaintops down to the ocean, are largely tropical rainforest. It is an evergreen forest with the vegetation of the equatorial climate. Unlike the temperate forests of North America dominated by one or only a few tree species, tropical rainforests have high species diversity and the climax forest (a forest community that is stable and mature and no longer evolving) is dominated by many species. Samoa, as a geologically young ocean island, lacks any earlier land connection to continental land masses. Because its native species got here by chance, its species diversity is not as rich as Southeast Asia, the main source of the islands' plant dispersals.

During northern summers, three shorebirds -- plover, turnstone, and tattler -- nest in Alaska and northern Canada. After nesting, they fly non-stop over 3,000 miles of open ocean to Hawaii, and after briefly resting there, they continue another 2,500 miles to American Samoa. The round-trip journey each year is 11,000 miles!

There are two fruit bat species in American Samoa representing the only native mammals. They are important pollinators and seed distributors in the tropical rainforests. The animal life of the National Park of American Samoa is unique among the U.S. National Parks. Key animal forms, from the flying foxes or fruit bats in the mountains to the massive coral reefs along the shorelines, shape all natural ecosystems here. Flying foxes are important terrestrial pollinators and thus this rain forest is dominated by fruit-bearing species, in contrast to Hawaii where the native forests are pollinated largely by nectar seeking birds and insects.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park

Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park  began as a national monument in 1978 and was elevated to national park status on December 2, 1980. It is named after the Kobuk River valley which runs through its center. "Kobuk" is an Inupiaq Eskimo word meaning "big river."

The park includes 1,750,716 acres (2,735 square miles) which is approximately the size of the state of Delaware. Much of the southern portion of the park south of the Kobuk River is managed as the Kobuk Valley Wilderness which contains 174,545 acres. The Selawik Wilderness lies to the south in the adjoining Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve lies 32 miles to the east. The tallest mountain in the park is Mount Angayukaqsraq at 4760 feet in height.

The park consists of the broad wetlands valley of the Kobuk River which runs along the southern edge of the western Brooks Range known as the Baird Mountains. The boundary of the park runs along the Baird Mountains in the north and the shorter Waring Mountains in the south that form a ring enclosing the Kobuk Valley. The middle two-thirds of the Kobuk River from just above Kiana to just below Ambler is included in the park, as are several of its major tributaries such as the Salmon River and the Hunt River. The valley floor is mainly covered by glacial drift.

While no glaciers currently exist within the park, at least five major glaciations have been identified.  Sand created by the grinding action of the ancient glaciers has been carried to the Kobuk Valley by wind and water and thus dunes that are naturally stabilized by vegetation now cover much of the southern portion of the valley. River bluffs composed of sand and standing as high as 150 feet hold permafrost ice wedges and the fossils of Ice Age mammals.

Three sets of sand dune fields are located on the south side of the Kobuk River. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Little Kobuk Sand Dunes, and the Hunt River Dunes are remnants of dunefields that covered as much as 200,000 acres immediately after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciation. A combination of outwash deposits from the glaciers and strong winds created the dunes which are now mostly covered by forest and tundra.

Active dune fields currently cover about 20,500 acres. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes comprise the largest active Arctic dune field in North America. NASA has funded a study of the dunes as an analog for Martian polar dunes. The Kobuk River on the north side of the dunes meanders roughly 61 miles through the park providing a means of travel for people and wildlife.

Weather in the park is subject to extremes. The average low temperature in January is −8 °F and can reach nighttime lows of −50°F. Summer temperatures average around 65°F and can reach 85°F. Since the park is north of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set from June 3 to July 9, and the sun is visible for only one and a half hours on the winter solstice, with long periods of twilight on either side of sunrise and sunset. As is the case over all of northern Alaska, the aurora borealis is often visible on winter nights when solar activity is high. Snow can happen at any time of the year, and wind and rain are common in summer. The park lies in a transition zone between boreal forest and tundra.

Human habitation in Kobuk Valley is believed to extend back at least 12,500 years. The present inhabitants of the valley are the Inupiat people who subsist on hunting and fishing. The first inhabitants of the Kobuk Valley were people of the Paleo-Arctic Tradition who hunted caribou at Onion Portage. The region was apparently deserted for about 2,000 years until people of the Archaic tradition appeared in the valley from the south and east. By about 4,000 years ago, people of the Arctic Small Tool tradition arrived but departed between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago, again leaving the valley unoccupied.

New people arrived by about 1200 AD as documented by the Ahteut site 25 miles downriver from Onion Portage. People remained in the valley until the mid-19th century when the caribou population declined and people moved closer to the coast. These people were the Akunirmiut and Kuuvaum Kangiamirnuit. One of their villages was located in the present park at the mouth of the Hunt River. Their descendents, now known as the Kuuvangmiit, have mostly moved out of park lands. About 32 prospectors' camps were established during a short gold rush in 1899 and 1900. Surveys have not yet located their camps, although debris associated with the miners' boats has been found. The park's headquarters are at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue about 100 miles west of the park on the Bering Sea coast.

The Kobuk River is a low gradient, slow-moving river. Starting in the village of Ambler, boating through the park and ending in the village of Kiana will take five to seven days. The best time to float the Kobuk River is July through early September. Be cautious about ice beginning to form on the river in September. Ice break-up and freeze-up times can vary, so pay close attention to weather data before and during your trip.

The park does not have an entrance gate, nor does it collect any fees to travel or camp in the park. There are no designated trails, roads, accommodations, or public facilities within the park, and backcountry camping is the only way to spend the night. Visitors can find minimal supplies in the villages of Ambler and Kiana. Many “visitors” are local residents traveling through the park from village to village or entering for subsistence activities.

The most visible animals are the 400,000 caribou of the Western Arctic herd which migrates annually through the park twice a year – north in the spring and south in the fall - between their winter breeding grounds south of the Waring Mountains and their summer calving grounds north of the Baird Mountains. The herd's annual crossing of the Kobuk River is central to the Inupiaq people's subsistence hunting. Caribou tracks crisscross the 25 square miles of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. While hunting is not usually associated with national parks, local area residents are allowed to hunt and trap in Kobuk Valley National Park and local Alaskan residents still feed their families with caribou from the river crossing in the fall.

The fish and wildlife in the park are typical of arctic and subarctic fauna. River drainages on the north side of the Kobuk River support a healthy chum salmon run. River drainages on the south side of the Kobuk are better suited for whitefish species such as sheefish that can weigh 60 pounds.  Fish species include chum salmon, Pink salmon, sockeye salmon, with other salmonids including Dolly Varden, Arctic char, lake trout, and Arctic grayling.

Large mammals in the park include caribou, moose, gray wolf, black bear, brown bear, and Dall's sheep. Smaller mammals include wolverines, mink, porcupine, snowshoe hares, and voles.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Pine Dunes Forest Preserve

The Lake County Forest Preserve District (of Illinois) opened their newest preserve this week, Pine Dunes Forest Preserve located in the northernmost section of the county in Antioch and near the Wisconsin border. The main entrance and paved parking lot is on Hunt Club Road just north of Edwards Road. A separate second entrance is located on Edwards Road just west of Hunt Club Road. Follow entry drive to grass parking area.

The preserve encompasses 867 acres of prairie, savanna and oak-hickory woodlands, as well as scenic streams, marshes, sedge meadows, vernal ponds and other wetland communities. The map below shows the 2.2 mile loop trail (yellow) and three pedestrian/bike entrances (white). The LCFPD has constructed four boardwalks to protect the fragile areas as well as three scenic overlooks for visitors to enjoy the views. The trails are open to hikers, bikers, cross country skiers, and equestrians.

Talk about having a heart for the environment. The property was formerly the McClure family homestead and featured well-maintained woodlands, wetlands, and prairie. The property is special because of its diverse topography and the fact that the former owners, Ilse and Michal McClure, consciously improved the natural features while they owned the property from 1977 to 2010, and it was the family's stated desire to preserve the property as a forest preserve that could be enjoyed for years to come by all people.

The land is described by the forest preserve district's natural resource experts as “some of the finest rolling topography found in Lake County.” Approximately 70 percent of the land is upland habitat, while the remaining 30 percent is wetland communities.

The Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Chicago Wilderness, and the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation have all identified the preserve's habitats as critical nesting and foraging areas for a variety of birds and other wildlife species.

Eventually, the preserve will be connected to the nearby Des Plaines River Trail and neighboring Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve, and also to the Millennium Trail.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Virgin Islands National Park

Virgin Islands National Park is comprised of 7,259 acres of terrestrial habitat on St. John and 5,650 acres of adjacent submerged lands, providing protection and preservation for tropical and migrating birds, fish, corals, and other marine life, as well as some 800 species of plants. The park also protects 122 acres (90%) of Hassel Island.

The park dates to about 60 years ago when Laurence Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began acquiring land on this 20-square mile island including most of the sandy beaches of the North Shore. Laurence followed in his father's footsteps in conservation efforts as he was also instrumental in enlarging Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park as well as parks in California, Maine, and Hawaii.

In 1956, Congress passed the bill creating Virgin Islands National Park and an additional 5,000 acres were added in 1962. Hassel Island was added in 1978. Before leaving office in 2001, President Bill Clinton signed an act protecting a large area of submerged land off the island’s East End, thus creating the Coral Reef National Monument.

There are seven species of corals found in the Caribbean that are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. Corals are critical to the health of the marine ecosystems and provide protection for coastal communities as well as habitats for a multitude of other species. Threats to corals include ocean warming, ocean acidification, dredging, coastal development, pollution, disease, reef fishing, damage from boats and anchors, marine debris, and aquatic invasive species.

There are no airports on St. John so you must fly to St. Thomas and travel by car or taxi to Redhook at the west end of St. Thomas. From there you can take a car barge or the people ferry to St. John.

Virgin Islands National Park contains examples of most western tropical Atlantic terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems. These include various types of subtropical dry to moist forest, salt ponds, beaches, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and algal plains. Terrestrial topography is quite dramatic with average slopes being 30 percent. The highest mountain peak plunges sharply to the sea over a distance of three quarters of a mile.

World famous Trunk Bay beach was named as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Its underwater snorkel trail is an excellent place for beginners or anyone wanting to learn about marine life. Plaques along the trail describe the various species of fish and provide information about the coral reefs. Below is a Gliding green turtle.

Virgin Islands National Park’s hills, valleys, and beaches are breath-taking. However, within its 7,000 plus acres on the island of St. John is the complex history of civilizations - both free and enslaved - dating back more than a thousand years, all of whom utilized the land and the sea for survival.

Significant prehistoric sites are present on almost every beach and in every bay within the park. These archeological sites date from as early as 840 BC to the arrival of Columbus. There are early nomadic hunter-gatherer Archaic Period sites, followed by early chiefdom villages, then complex ceremonial sites, and all have their own burial grounds. These sites have given us a greater understanding of this Caribbean region’s pre-history as well as the religious and social development of the Taino culture that greeted Columbus.

These sites have also dramatically increased our understanding of the ancient rock art that is found throughout the Caribbean islands, such as when it was carved, why they were carved in specific areas such as at Reef Bay, their purpose, any religious meaning, and how they reflect cultural development.

After Columbus’ arrival, the Virgin Islands' became one of the first melting pots made up of many cultures from around the world. European powers competed for strategic and economic control and brought enslaved workers from Africa.

Historic landscapes and architectural remains of hundreds of structures from plantation estates are found throughout the park. Ruins include windmills, animal mills, factories, great houses, terrace walls, and warehouses. In addition to plantations, there are at least two thousand house sites that had been occupied by the enslaved workers, and also their graveyards. Below is the sugar mill at Annaberg Plantation.

Hiking is one of the most popular activities so Virgin Islands National Park provides a wide variety of hiking experiences and more than 20 trails to choose from. Some offer accessible boardwalks that meander through historic ruins or take you to a bird viewing deck on lovely salt ponds.

For the adventurous, Reef Bay Trail is the most difficult and is considered a backcountry trail as it is extremely steep and rocky. The elevation of the trail drops from about 900 feet at the trailhead to sea level in two miles, and of course the return trip is all uphill. If you attempt this trail be sure to bring bug spray, lots of water, and wear sturdy shoes.

Lind Point trails are a good choice for those only here for a day or so. They begin at the Visitor Center and wrap around the Lind Point to Honeymoon or Salomon Beach.

There are three species of lizards found on St. John. The iguana, which is not a true lizard, is vegetarian and is often found in trees. When threatened, they escape by dropping to the ground or into water. They can fall 40-50 feet to a hard surface without injuring themselves.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve

Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve began in 1918 as Katmai National Monument, established to protect the area around the major 1912 eruption of Novarupta which formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a 40-square-mile 100-to-700-foot-deep pyroclastic flow. Following its designation, the monument was left undeveloped and largely unvisited until the 1950s. Below is the namesake Mt. Katmai.

The park includes as many as 18 individual volcanoes, seven of which have been active since 1900, but it also protects 9,000 years of human history as well as important habitat for sockeye salmon and thousands of brown (grizzly) bears. After a series of boundary expansions, the present national park and preserve was established in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It encompasses 4,093,077 acres, most of which (3,922,000 acres) is designated wilderness area. Unlike most ANILCA parks, the legislation for Katmai did not grant subsistence hunting in the national park portion, only within the preserve.

The 1912 eruption was the largest eruption by volume in the 20th century, erupting about 3.1 cubic miles of material. Novarupta generated as many as 14 major earthquakes with magnitudes of six and seven, a level of energy release virtually unprecedented during volcanic eruptions in modern memory, and over 100 earthquakes greater than magnitude five. Following the eruption, the summit of Mount Katmai collapsed about 3,900 square feet, forming the central caldera which has filled with water.

Below is the lake that has formed in the Kaguak Crater.

Initially designated because of its violent volcanic history, the monument and surrounding lands became appreciated for their abundance of sockeye salmon, the grizzly bears that fed upon them, and a wide variety of other Alaskan wildlife and marine life, including 29 mammal species, 137 bird species, 24 freshwater fish species, and four anadromous fish species (fish that migrate up rivers from the sea to spawn.) Specifically, Katmai NP has moose, gray wolves, beavers, porcupines, martens, and other mammals, including caribou which occasionally winter within the park. Marine mammals include hair seals, sea lions, and sea otters. Cetaceans include beluga whales, orcas, and gray whales.

The most important fish in the park are sockeye salmon, a mainstay for the diet of the bears, but also an important food source for bald eagles and others during the spawning runs in the park's rivers. Salmon enter the Naknek River drainage from Bristol Bay in June and July and spawn from August to October.

Katmai occupies the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaska Peninsula, south and west of Homer, south of Lake Clark National Park, and opposite Kodiak Island. The park's chief features are its 497 mile coast on Cook Inlet, the Aleutian Range with its chain of fifteen volcanic mountains across the coastal southeastern part of the park, and a series of large lakes in the flatter western part of the park.

The closest significant town is King Salmon west of the park where the park's headquarters is located, about five miles down the Naknek River from the park entrance. The Alaska Peninsula Highway runs from Naknek Lake near the entrance to King Salmon to the mouth of the river at Naknek but is not connected to the Alaska road system. Access to the park's interior is by boat on Naknek Lake. Another road runs from Brooks Camp to Three Forks which overlooks the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The mountains of the Aleutian Range are about 15 miles inland and run from southwest to northeast.

The most significant volcanic event in historical times was the simultaneous eruption of Mount Katmai and Novarupta in June of 1912. Novarupta's eruption produced a pyroclastic flow that covered a nearby valley with ash as much as 300 feet thick. As the valley deposits cooled, they emitted steam from fissures and fumaroles, earning the name "Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes," a name coined by Robert Fiske Griggs who explored the volcanos' aftermath for the National Geographic Society in 1916: "The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally, tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor."

The steam vents have subsided, the valley has been eroded, and streams have cut canyons as deep as 100 feet, but often only five to ten feet wide.

The 1989 grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound produced extensive contamination of the Katmai coastline. By early April, oil had reached Kenai Fjords National Park and then Cape Douglas in Katmai and points southwards in the following weeks, and 90% of the Katmai coastline had been polluted by the oil. The worst-hit areas were Cape Cjiniak and Chiniak Lagoon, Hallo Bay Beach and its lagoon, Cape Gull and Kaflia Bay, and Cape Douglas. Casualties in birds alone were estimated at 8,400 dead birds. Work resumed in 1990 to catch the last oil, with smaller efforts later in 1990s.

Weather at Katmai is variable, though reliably rainy or drizzly. Summer high temperatures average about 63 F. and winter lows range between −4 and 40. Fall is somewhat drier than the rest of the year and warm days can occur year round. Rainfall is heaviest near the coast with up to 60 inches, and lighter to the west.

Unlike most national parks in the United States, Katmai is almost exclusively accessed by plane or boat. You can not drive to Katmai, Brooks Camp, or King Salmon from Anchorage, Alaska. Most destinations in Katmai National Park Preserve are directly accessed via air taxi flights from Anchorage, Dillingham, Homer, King Salmon, Kodiak, and other nearby Alaska towns and villages.

The Pacific coast of Katmai offers a combination of amazing scenery, wilderness, and wildlife viewing opportunities. Most people who visit this area of the park go to watch bears, but there are many opportunities for sport fishing and wilderness trekking too.

Situated at the mouth of the Brooks River and the shore of Naknek Lake, Brooks Camp attracts people from all over the world to enjoy world-class fishing and learn about the long human history of the area. It is also a starting point for many backcountry adventures. Daily bus tours from Brooks Camp provide easy access to the geologic splendor of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

From June 1 to September 18, the National Park Service operates a visitor center, ranger station, campground, and auditorium with daily ranger-led programs. The park concessioner, Katmailand, Inc. provides additional services and amenities including meals and lodging at Brooks Lodge.

The world's largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay, Alaska, each summer. Part of that salmon run moves into Katmai National Park and Preserve through the Naknek and Alagnak rivers. In July and September, bears are everywhere at Brooks Camp. They can be found walking trails, fishing in the river, and even napping on the beach. During July, many bears can be seen fishing at Brooks Falls which is about 1.2 miles from the Brooks Camp Visitor Center. In September, most bears are seen at the mouth of the Brooks River. 

There are three viewing platforms located in Brooks Camp along the south side of Brooks River. The Falls Platform is located immediately adjacent to Brooks Falls, the Riffles Platform is located about 100 yards downstream of Brooks Falls, and the Lower River Platform is at the mouth of the Brooks River near Brooks Lodge.

The Falls Platform has a limited capacity of 40 people. When the Falls Platform is at maximum capacity, rangers maintain a waiting list and everyone is limited to one hour at a time on the platform. 

This system helps to provide equal access to the Falls Platform during peak days of visitation. If you visit Brooks Camp in July, expect crowded conditions at Brooks Falls when sights as seen below are common.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park

Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park lies north of the Arctic Circle and is an unusual national park because it offers visitors no roads, no trails, no established campsites, and no visitor center. It was created in 1980 to protect 8.4 million acres and maintain its wild and undeveloped character, provide opportunities to experience solitude, protect its environmental integrity, and offer wilderness recreation. Fish and wildlife, arctic habitats, cultural resources, and traditional subsistence uses are also protected. Together with neighboring Noatak National Preserve (6.5 million acres) and Kobuk Valley National Park (1.7 million acres), Gates of the Arctic comprises part of one of the world's largest contiguous protected areas.

The park's name came from legendary wilderness advocate Robert Marshall who traveled the North Fork Koyukuk country frequently from 1929 to 1939. Marshall called two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, the "gates" through which one traveled from Alaska's central Brooks Range into the far north Arctic.

The park and preserve contains tundra plains, mountain ridges and ranges, wild scenic rivers, forests, glacially formed lakes, arctic and subarctic climates, and well over 10,000 years of human history.

In fact, humans have lived on and off the land in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve for more than 12,500 years. Nomadic hunters and gatherers traveled between the mountains' forested southern slopes and the Arctic Coast. Now their descendants, living in ten small communities with about 1,500 residents depend upon and use park and preserve resources for their subsistence lifestyle and thus maintain their cultural traditions. A Nunamiut Inupiat village called Anaktuvuk Pass lies inside the park.

The earliest people in the area of the Brooks Range were among the first to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia in the migrations that over time populated the Americas. Although humans have occupied this area for thousands of years, little evidence remains to provide clues about their lifestyles, habits, and identities. While the archeological evidence is limited, 800 archeological sites have been identified throughout the park which provide some clues about those who lived here.

As early as 11,500 years ago, peoples of the Paleoarctic tradition subsisted by hunting in small, mobile groups. Remnants of glacial ice would have dotted the valleys while these peoples moved throughout the land in harmonious rhythms with the seasons. The Paleo-Eskimos, the ancient ancestors of modern Eskimos, appeared around 4,500 years ago.

More broadly, these people are part of the Arctic Small Tool Tradition which includes the Denbigh, Choris, Norton, and Ipiutak traditions. These people made finely crafted miniature tools and successfully utilized arctic coastal resources, including sea mammals and caribou.

Gates of the Arctic is a wilderness park with no roads or trails so visitors must fly or hike into the park. Access to the park begins in Fairbanks, Alaska, which has several small airlines that provide daily flights into the gateway communities of Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass, and Coldfoot, using small aircraft equipped with floats or tundra tires.

Another option for accessing the park is to hike in from the Dalton Highway or from the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. There are no trails into the park and preserve from any location, and river crossings are necessary from both Anaktuvuk Pass and the Dalton Highway.

In 2004, I took a flight from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where a van and guide picked us up and drove us back to Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway, also known as the haul road used to build the adjacent Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At this point we were on the eastern edge of the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Weather rules in the wilderness, so visitors need to be prepared for all types of conditions. Rain and snowmelt can cause rivers to rise, making some routes impassable. Visitors should have enough food to stay extra days in the park and try to have flexible travel plans in case flights into the park are delayed.

The terrain is beyond challenging Since there are no established trails but plenty of dense vegetation, clumps of grassy tussocks, boggy ground, and frequent stream and river crossings, you can only progress slowly across the landscape, with six miles being a good day's progress by even the most experienced hikers.

There are no established services within the park boundaries and only limited means of communication to contact anyone for assistance. Cell phones don’t work here. Visitors to the park should be proficient in outdoor survival skills and be prepared to care for their own life if an emergency arises.

If visitors are not proficient in wilderness back country skills, they should contact an outfitter, guide service, or air taxi operator for assistance. For those visitors who don’t have the time or the backcountry skills to mount an expedition into the park, there are other options. Local air taxis provide flight-seeing trips, day trips, and overnight campouts at remote locations. Imagine a day spent fishing at an alpine lake, or watching the caribou up in the northern valleys, or sitting alongside a wild river listening to the wind in the boreal forest.

Few landmarks bear names on topographic maps here. Wind, water, temperature, and glacial and tectonic actions sculpted wildly varied landscapes in this east-west trending part of the Rocky Mountains. Southerly foothills precede mountains rising to elevations of 4,000 feet that culminate in limestone or granite peaks over 7,000 feet. Then the ranks reverse at the Arctic Divide and lead down to Tundra that stretches to the Arctic Ocean. Six national wild rivers -- Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk -- as well as other waterways cross the park.

From November to March, most activity ceases while -20ºF to -50ºF temperatures persist. The dry interior climate sees little snow, but it can get below freezing and snow during any month, even in July. As the sun starts its warming in March, dogsledders come out. Backpackers and river runners arrive in mid-June as the rivers become free of ice. Winter is long and summer is active. Plants and animals move through life cycles quickly before winter again sets in.