As so many have found before me, it’s easy to fall in love with Alaska. She is seductively beautiful. A vast land ruled by the laws of nature, she has endured and survived many a tumultuous season. Her majestic mountains, powerful glaciers, rolling tundra, and abundance of wildlife continue to lure us in. You fall under a spell here. You think no matter what, this beauty will last forever. And then suddenly, shit gets real.
I freeze halfway emerged from the tent as I hear the thundering footsteps growing closer and closer. Suddenly, a loud crash as the bear breaks through the icy puddles at the back of our tents. Then, silence. Heather and I stare at each other, both frozen with fear.
“Will?” she calls out hesitantly.
I emerge from the tent to see Will running up towards us from the river.
“Did you see that,” he screams excitedly. “A huge bear just ran right through camp!”
You don’t say.
A few days earlier, five of us had set out to packraft a section of the Alatna River located within Gates of the Arctic National Park. We went in search of adventure, wildlife, solitude, and a hopeful glimpse or two of the Northern Lights.
Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost park in the U.S. (the entirety of the park lies north of the Arctic Circle), established in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter to preserve and protect 8.4 million acres of the diverse arctic ecosystem of Alaska’s central Brooks Range. It is considered the premier wilderness park in the national park system and home to six wild rivers -- the Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk.
Our journey began earlier in the week driving the Dalton Highway, following the Alyeska Pipeline above the Arctic Circle -- for anyone who has ever driven this stretch of road, in good weather or bad, knows it can be an adventure in itself. It will eat up your car.
We spent the night next to the airstrip at Pump Station 5 where early the next morning, a Brooks Range Aviation air taxi picked us up and flew us into the town of Bettles -- a seasonal town of around 12 permanent inhabitants built up around an old World War II airstrip.
Before heading into the park, all visitors must pay the ranger a visit to get schooled on bear safety, the dangers of fox stealing your salty shoes in the night, and to make sure you understand that while the park provides wonderful opportunities for solitude and challenging wilderness adventures within a remote and vast arctic landscape, it demands that you are self-reliant and able to execute self-extraction and communication, should an emergency situation arise. You're on your own here. There is no cell phone service, lodges, restaurants, or flushing toilets in the preserve. You may not see another person until your return to civilization or your pilot comes to pick you up.
Where do I sign?
Stressed about weight restrictions, we were happy when all our gear was safely loaded onto our de Havilland Beaver and we took off towards Circle Lake -- our drop off point. Once pilot Dan safely offloaded us on the muddy shore, we all stood silently as the iconic bush plane flew away, our only connection to civilization and one we would not see until Malamute Fork, 60 miles down river and 7 days later.
The arctic tundra can be slow and difficult for hiking, with the deep alder forest and willows creating a tenacious barrier. The majority of people explore the park by river, whether it be rafting whitewater or following a gentle flow. As novice paddlers, we obviously chose the latter.
The Alatna mellows near Circle Lake, becoming deep and wide, with a slow current and large meandering oxbow-like features -- perfect for our group. The scenery turns from the rugged Arrigetch Peaks Range into the boreal forest of the Helpmejack Hills. Wilderness and wildlife abound, with numerous gravel bars that make great campsites.
Brimming with overconfidence (or one could say Arctic-inexperience), we thought it should be relatively easy to portage around the lake and over to the river. After all, Dan said it was maybe 10 minutes to the river from the opposite side of this ironically J-shaped lake. We had hoped to cover quite a few miles on our first day since the weather was calm and sunny.
As I hoisted my heavy pack on my back and took one step forward, I immediately sunk knee deep into the boggy tundra. OK. Let’s try further up the hill. Same thing, this time losing a shoe in the mud.
“Umm, guys? “ I said. “I think we need to inflate our packrafts and paddle to the opposite side of the lake.”
Like a scene out of National Lampoon’s Vacation, it took us all afternoon just to GET to river. Lesson learned -- everything takes longer in the Arctic.
A bit deflated, we decided to set up camp and get ourselves organized to push off on the river first thing in the morning. Drew and Shannon got to work eating all the extra food that would not fit in their bear canisters. Nothing like a little caloric front loading.
Despite our lack of progress that day, we were extremely excited, some could say too keen, to catch a glimpse of the Aurora. So much so that we pulled out our sleeping bags and nestled into our packrafts, ready for the show. It was 7:00 p.m. Even in September the sun wouldn’t set for a few more hours. We were all in our tents before it even got dark.
Don’t worry, we got our act together the next day and quickly settled into a routine of paddling for the majority of daylight, breaking for lunch on a nice looking sandbar, armed with bear spray and shouts of “Hey, bear!” to let them know we were coming.
Bears are common in the area so you need to be vigilant if choose to venture off into the thick brush. We saw bear prints all over the shore and they always looked fresh. And menacing.
Even the persistent wind and rain no longer phased us -- you resign yourself to being wet most of the day, changing into warm dry clothes at camp each night. It is a river trip in the Arctic, after all.
The park is a place of profound quiet, where soundscapes are dominated by natural sounds. Sure you can find peace in the Northwoods or even in the backcountry of Yosemite, but there is always a plane going overhead or some far off city lights to remind you that you remain close to civilization. Not so here. It’s quiet to the point your ears start ringing and you start to pick up the tiny nuances of leaves rustling in the trees. The river itself barely makes a sound as it slowly flows past and apart from the occasional bald eagle sighting, there is distinct lack of birdsong.
Apart from our morning bear encounter and a moose in the lake our first day, we hadn’t encountered a ton of wildlife. On our last day into Malamute Fork, however, I rounded a corner to see a white wolf curled up on shore. He lifted his head to look at me as I passed, but didn’t seemed bothered or startled at my presence. I will never forget that moment.
By the time we reached the big gravel bar of the fork, we were tired, fingers peeling from being constantly wet, and arms locked in a T-rex-like paddling position. But we were also proud of ourselves for what we had accomplished and overcome the past week, even if we didn’t see the Northern Lights.
That night, I crept out of the tent for a quick trip to the bathroom, something always fraught with danger in bear country. As I looked up, I saw it. Faint wisps of light that looked like clouds streaking through the night sky. The Northern Lights.