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.

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