Grand Scale at Gates of the Arctic National Park

Another great travel article from Nancy Bandley today, this time to Gates of the Arctic, one of the most massive parkslands in all of America. If you are wanting to know a little more about this park after reading this piece, I found this "radio expedition" to the park from National Public Radio recorded a couple years ago that may be of interest to you. The radio piece is just over 8 minutes long. Their website includes a couple other photos of this amazing place. Enjoy! ~jersu

Gates of the Arctic National Park : NPS PhotoGates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is truly a giant wilderness area. Encompassing a total of 8.2 million acres, it compares in size to the whole country of Switzerland, or half of the size of the state of Maine. Since there are only 1,500 persons living in 10 small villages within this park, it is very much an uninhabited wilderness ( at least by humans ). There are no trails in the park ( needless to say there are no roads either), and all transportation is by bush plane. The local Nunamiut natives have been grandfathered in to the park with local ownership of some lands completely within the park boundaries. They have also been given rights to continue their subsistence living in fishing, hunting, and use of ATV's. Their ancestors probably wandered into the region after crossing the Bering Land Bridge, and for thousands of years ( guesses vary from 8,000 to 12,500 ) have followed the Caribou, which make up much of their diet. Three Caribou herds cross through the park, twice a year, in the spring and fall, roughly in the area of Anaktuvuk Pass. This is the location of one of the larger native settlements, it also has a runway for bush planes, and it has one of the two campgrounds near the park boundaries. The other campground is located near the Dalton Highway, about 5 miles north of Coldfoot. There is an NPS ranger station at Anaktuvuk and a combined BLM/NPS facility in Coldfoot. Neither is located within park boundaries. Both require a river crossing in order to actually "step foot" into the parkland in case you wanted to hike into the park, which is the only other park access method besides bush plane.

The park is mostly Arctic tundra, meaning a continuous permafrost just inches below the surface. This results in very short rooted plant growth. In lower elevations, under 2,100 foot, the trees form a "taiga" or tundra forest, characterized by short stunted growth. Any higher elevations, and this park has a very large amount of that, is above the tree line. In the winter, snow covers most of it. The Brooks Mountain Range is the central core of the park. On it's south slopes the snowfall is around 60-80 inches a year and it can snow in every single month. On the north slopes, it is drier, resulting in less rain and snowfall, only 45 inches of snow yearly average. The park, as you fly over it, shows you just how much of it is continuous mountain peaks, with either U shaped valleys ( from glacier activity ) or V-shaped valleys ( from river activity ). There are a total of six (6) National Wild and Scenic Rivers within the park ranging from 42 miles to 110 miles long -- the Noatak is longer, but only 65 miles of it is within the park as designated a national wild river. The other rivers are the Alatna, John, Kobuk, north folk of the Koyakuk, and the Tinayguk. They provide an opportunity for canoe travel. Fishing is popular on these rivers. Before you cast a line, know that it requires an Alaskan State Fishing License and you need to check that you are not interfering with any of the native settlements. The most common fish is the grayling. Salmon are found in the Kobuk and Koyukuk. There is no hunting allowed within the park ( except local population ), however, carrying a firearm for protection is allowed. The highest peak in the park is only 8,510 feet, Mt Igikpak, but most of the ground around is near to the same altitude -- it's just one peak after another.

There are 36 types of mammals in the park, ranging from the brown (grizzly) bear to the tiny voles and hares. You can, of course, find Caribou. Then Moose, Lemmings, Marten, Beaver, both red and Arctic Fox, otter, ground squirrels, wolverines and wolfs, Dall sheep, Lynx and muskox. In the summer, despite the chill in the air, the hills come alive with mountain flowers and grasses, making it an excellent feeding ground for a number of animals. This, in turn, brings the hunters (animal ones) like bear, wolf, fox and lynx. 133 different bird species either live or pass through here. The high valleys abound with alpine lakes, attracting a large quantity of waterfowl or water related species. Lower elevation forests also attract black bear. Plenty of raptors call this home too, including eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and shrikes.

Since there is no lodging in the park, you can plan on wilderness camping or bush plane day trips. The nearest jumping off points for day trips are Bettles in the south (just north of Anchorage) with lodging, a ranger station and airfield (which is actually IFR equipped). Coldfoot, on the Dalton Highway, also has an airstrip, the combined Visitor Center and lodging. Anaktuvuk has an airstrip, a ranger station, but no lodging. The weather in the park can change on a dime, and you can be stranded for hours or days, so plan accordingly. Despite it's size, this park receives only about 4,000 visitors per year. I am sure that is due to the degree of difficulty in actually visiting here. With the glaciers, blue alpine lakes, bright green valleys and lots of wildlife, even having the chance to fly over it (at low altitude of course) is a delight to the eyes. You acquire a real appreciation of the glacial landscape with miles and miles of mountain peaks and glaciers stretching before you - a true "Gate to the Arctic".


This description brought back my first trip to Alaska, which included a one-day flight to Anaktuvuk Pass via Frontier Flying Service from Fairbanks. What a stunner! The village is the only inland Inupiat settlement. Most of the Inupiats are coastal people who traditionally have gone inland only occasionally to hunt. I asked a group of older women what "Anaktuvuk" means. They started giggling, and one finally told me "caribou droppings." Migrating caribou funneled through pass, making easier for hunters to pick off, so enough people stayed to create a settlement.

Until oil money made their lives a bit easier, the Anaktunkans (or whatever they call themselves) lived in soddies. Now they mostly live in manufactured homes (all components flown in) with electricity, running water, composting toilets and satellite TV. No one I spoke to was nostalgic for "the old days."
I debated putting in the meaning of Anaktuvuk or not and no place in the article seemed appropriate, so I left it out. However, I cannot ever think of it without visualizing the true meaning- and with that many Caribou passing through you can understand it quite well.