Exploring America's Last Frontier: Gates of the Arctic National Park #NPS100
There are no roads leading into this park nor are there maintained trails to guide you once you are there. Gates of the Arctic offers unparalleled wilderness opportunities and reigns supreme as a backcountry destination.
The tiny float plane suddenly lurched from side to side, I instinctively grabbed the arm rests and sucked in air. The plane steadied itself again, just a bit of turbulence. It was my first time in a small aircraft and I was still getting used to the exaggerated bumps. I looked out the window at my surroundings: a braided green river carved through the valley floor below and sun rays pierced the clouds and illuminated the mountain slopes. Our plane probably looked like a fly in the endless Alaskan landscape, soaring over Gates of the Arctic National Park. Finally the reality of my situation was sinking in: I was on a float plane bound for Circle Lake, where I was to deplane with the four other occupants who were still strangers to me. Our group would spend the next ten days backpacking and packrafting through Gates of the Arctic National Park. I grinned at the thought of the adventurous days that lay ahead of me and also questioned my sanity.
Gates of the Arctic National Park is located predominantly in the Brooks Range of Alaska and is entirely north of the Arctic Circle. Covering a staggering 8.4 million acres it is the second largest national park, only Wrangell-St. Elias is larger. It is also the second least visited national park, in 2013 Gates saw just 11,000 visitors. This remoteness and unparalleled beauty are the main reasons I was drawn to a trip in Gates of the Arctic. The idea of being flown into an untouched wilderness and forging my own path (there are also no signs or maintained trails in the park) allows for a person to feel as if they are discovering the place for the first time, which is quite a novel experience in this day and age where untouched pieces of land are nearly impossible to come by. So I researched guiding companies that toured through Gates and found Expeditions Alaska. The company had great reviews so I decided to book my trip!
Gates of the Arctic was named by the famed wilderness advocate Robert Marshall. He was exploring the Brooks Range when he found himself at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River where two towering mountains appeared to usher him into the arctic and thus the park earned its name.
As you can probably guess judging by it's location Gates of the Arctic is not an easy place to reach. First, I had to get myself to Fairbanks, AK where I met my group. Together we took an hour and a half flight on Wrights Air to Bettles where we then boarded a float plane and flew another 45 minutes to Circle Lake. Including an overnight stay in Fairbanks and a weather delay from Bettles, the journey to Circle Lake took 29 hours. By the time the pilot expertly set the plane down on the lake I could barely contain my excitement. Finally, after months of anticipation and preparation I was standing on the shores of Circle Lake with my group, surrounded by our gear, and waving to our pilot as he disappeared into the sky. As soon as the faint hum of the plane propeller faded I was struck by a silence that held in the air. Everything was perfectly still. Our adventure was beginning.
After a brief safety talk we shouldered our packs and walked along the shore until we found a nice camping spot. Because of the weather delay in Bettles we weren’t going to make much ground the first night, which is something I gladly accepted since my pack weighed a hefty 47 pounds. I wanted to start eating some of the food and lighten the load!
It rained off and on for most of the first night. We awoke to a wet ground and a sky full of heavy clouds that looked as if they could burst at any moment. We ate a leisurely breakfast and kept an eye on the sky. The clouds were moving through and it appeared we might luck out and begin our hike dry so we packed up and set out. I was disappointed to discover that despite eating two full meals my pack did not feel any lighter.
We made our way to the end of Circle Lake and began bushwhacking our way through tussocks. I knew this trip would consist of a great deal of bushwhacking and I had read up on what bushwhacking entailed prior to the trip but nothing prepared me for how difficult the task was. Our first hurdle was the tussocks, which are giant knee-high balls of soil with gaps between them and grass on their top. Some of the grass on their top folds over and creates the illusion of solid ground between the tussocks, but then you put your foot down only to find that solid ground is nearly 12 inches below and you slowly tumble into the grass. You get up only to repeat the process again within a few steps. After about an hour we took our first break and our guide informed us we had gone a third of a mile. A third of a mile! In my research I read that a mile an hour is considered a decent pace in the Alaskan bush so I was prepared for some slow-going, but not this slow!
After our break we muscled on through the remainder of tussocks and then we ran into willow and alder tree patches. When we reached the edge of the first dense alder patch I thought our guide was surely going to try to find a way around it, it looked completely impassable! But, just as soon as she arrived at the threshold she threw herself, headfirst, into it and just like that was gone! I surveyed the gnarly, intertwined branches and tried to discern the least dense section of foliage and then I stuck out my hands, closed my eyes, and forced my way through the branches. I fought my way through the alder and the alder fought back. Finally, the whole group emerged on the other side, with a few scrapes and tousled hair, but standing, and that was the important part.
By afternoon we reached a social trail that follows Arrigetch Creek from the Arrigetch Peaks all the way to the Alatna River. Walking along a trail, albeit an almost imperceivable one, was easy going compared to the morning’s trek. We were finally making some headway! By late afternoon we made it to our camping spot for the evening: The Terraces. Our guide had talked about this camping spot all the day, informing us that it was what she called an "REI site”, meaning it was picturesque and #tentview worthy and she was not kidding. The Terraces are two large outcrops from the trail, about 100 yards apart, that sit high above the Arrigetch Creek rushing by below, and offer the first glimpses of our destination, the Arrigetch Peaks, in the distance. One makes a perfect tent site and the other makes a perfect kitchen. We set up camp at the first Terrace and then headed to the other for dinner. I quickly picked the heaviest looking meal from my bear canister and began heating up some water. As I sat on The Terrace and ate my dehydrated dinner out of a bag I admired the mountains on the horizon. They were sharp, angular, rock faces jutting up into the sky. To me they resembled glass shards but to the native Inupiat they resembled a hand and thus they named the peaks "Arrigetch" which translates to "fingers of the outstretched hand".
Our first day was tough, much tougher than I anticipated. On more than one occasion I cursed myself for choosing such an arduous trip over a lazy beach vacation, but when I looked at the peaks in the distance I was instantly reminded of why I made my choice: solitude, adventure, and awesome mountains!
Our second day was another strenuous one, although we had a few game trails to follow, which was a relief. Throughout the day we were graced with views of the Arrigetch Peaks ever so slowly growing larger on the horizon and that helped boost our morale as we continued to bushwhack. However, bushwhacking was not going to be the most challenging task of the day, the most challenging task proved to be crossing the Arrigetch Creek. While the term "creek" doesn't bring to mind images of rushing water this "creek" was strong. We exchanged our hiking boots for water shoes, unbuckled our packs, and one by one forged on across the rushing water. Not only was the current fast, but the water was cold. So cold that it was painful. I grimaced with each step I took, trying to ignore the pain and focus all my energy on staying upright. It took less than a minute to cross the creek but it felt much longer.
We arrived to basecamp at 7pm. We set up our tents in the shadows of the Maidens, a pair of prominent double peaks. We were spent. Luckily, this spot was going to act as our base camp for the next three days. There were three valleys that lay under the Arrigetch Peaks and we had three days scheduled at basecamp, so we planned to spend a full day exploring each valley. Finally the fun was beginning!
The third day of our trip we ventured up into the valley directly below The Maidens. East and West Maiden are massive granite slabs that shoot up from the valley floor and tower over the creek below. They are so massive that from base camp they looked as if they were a short leisurely hike away but it took us half an hour just to reach their base.
Since we had all day to explore the area one of my fellow group members and I decided that we would scramble up a large rock pile near the end of the valley. From below, this rock pile looked like it flattened out under a cirque and had a waterfall streaming down from it. It looked like the perfect place for a lake to form and if such a lake existed we were determined to see it. So we climbed and climbed and climbed and each time we made it over a crest of rocks we were just presented with yet another pile of rocks. There was no lake in sight. Feeling defeated, we turned around and headed back down and sat at the shores of the creek just watching the clouds pass over the mountaintops, a perfectly fine alternative to the non-existent alpine lake.
The fourth day was the day I was looking forward to most. It was the day we were going to explore Aquarius Valley. While researching Gates of the Arctic, Aquarius Valley popped up multiple times and I learned this valley certainly had lakes, three of them in fact, in differing shades of glacial blue. Going to bed the night before I was anxious the weather would turn. Besides the first night of rain our days were full of clear, blue skies. It was a streak of luck, our guide told us, that would soon run out in typical Alaska-fashion, but we awoke on the fourth day to more sunny weather. My disposition matched the sky and I was eager to get going!
We left basecamp early, crossed the stream, and immediately began climbing a steep valley wall. Eventually it leveled out and we were presented with a large boulder field. This day would turn out to be almost entirely boulder walking. The three tarns in Aquarius Valley are completely surrounded by boulders that tumbled down from the mountain faces surrounding them. In fact while we were hiking we heard a few rocks fall, a disconcerting event to witness as you are hiking among nothing but rocks for miles.
By late morning we found ourselves on the shore of a beautiful aquamarine tarn. The water was so calm it looked like a mirror perfectly reflecting the mountains surrounding it. We decided it was a prime spot to stop for lunch. We sat on the rocky shore of the tarn and admired the scene. So far we had only seen a handful of other groups on our journey so we had all these idyllic locations to ourselves, which was a treat. If this park were located in the lower 48 we would likely be sharing the shoreline with countless others. I was grateful we were in the heart of Alaska.
After we ate we continued on. The first tarn was the largest and most difficult to circumvent. The other side wasn't far away distance-wise but the going was tricky. We had to carefully consider where to put our feet down with each step and be ready to catch ourselves if the rock we decided to step on was loose. It was not only physically exhausting it was mentally taxing as well. Finally, we reached the second tarn. It was another brilliant shade of glacial blue. We paused to take a few photos and then pushed on. The third tarn was my favorite. It sat beneath jagged mountain peaks and sparkled like a diamond in the bright sun.
The rest of the group took another break here but I decided to scramble to the other side of the tarn to get a less obstructed view of the Arrigetch Peaks and see the tarns lined up in a row. I was able to scramble high enough to see two of the tarns but the second remained hidden. I know I could have gotten higher but I didn’t want to hold up the group so I retraced my steps back to the lakeshore and we all headed back to camp. Later we met a group who told us if I had continued up the rock pile I would have seen a glacier and all three tarns lined up in a row. The fact that I was so close and missed out on that view is still gnawing at me.
Our fifth day and our final day at basecamp we followed the Arrigetch Creek up through a lush valley. We again scored with a beautiful day and again we spent a majority of the day traversing precarious boulders. We continued to follow the river until we reached a stopping place with a sweeping view of Ariel Peak, Caliban, and Xanadu. We ate lunch and spent the afternoon at that spot talking about life and beautiful moments. Finally, we made our way back to base camp.
Our time in the Arrigetch region went so fast. The fact that we were there for three whole days seemed preposterous, surely the trip couldn't be going by that fast! I was also not looking forward to the hike back down. Our guide gave us the option to hike back down in one or two days, but warned us that no matter what our decision was we were going to have one extremely long day ahead of us. If we chose to hike down in two days we would once again camp at the Terraces and then head back down to Circle Lake. Then we would set up the packrafting gear and paddle for the remainder of the second day. Our group was leaning towards hiking all the way from the Arrigetch Peaks back to Circle Lake in one day. I also wanted to finish the hike that way but was nervous how my body would hold up. The boulders were really doing a number on my ankles and I was worried what another full day of bushwhacking would do to them. I popped a few ibuprofen and hoped I would hold up.
The sixth day turned out to be the end of our fair-weather streak. We knew we were destined for a rainy day sooner or later and here it was to accompany us all the way back down to Circle Lake. We packed up, put on our rain gear and began the hike down in silence. Our guide kept a breakneck pace. I hiked behind her and trying to keep up with her was exhausting. She looked so agile and swift muscling her way through the brush and I felt like I was more falling down the mountain than hiking down it. I lost track at about 10 tumbles, but this day was full of falls for me. The water made the trail slick and that coupled with the uneven terrain made for a difficult hike.
Our guide’s quick pace allowed us to reach The Terraces in just five hours. We ate lunch in silence as cold rain fell on our hoods and trickled down our jacket sleeves. The guide asked us if we would like to continue on or camp there. It was a unanimous “continue on”. We all felt as if we had already endured so much pain we might as well get it over with. I regretted this decision about a half an hour later when we were back in the tussocks and I kept misjudging what was solid ground and what was grass. The unfortunate thing about this region is that there are very few suitable places to camp for one tent, let alone, four. Now we had no choice but to continue on to what we dubbed the “Spruce Camp”, which was an open flat expanse of boreal forest floor under some spruce trees we passed on our first hike. It was the perfect spot and we were determined to make it there. As we hiked the skies cleared up and we were graced with a view of the sun for the first time all day. We took another break and just let the sun wash over us.
Finally we made it to Spruce Camp and set up our tents. We then ventured over to a creek about one hundred yards away and set up a kitchen and prepared dinner. At this point I was running out of food options. I had one dehydrated dinner left (mac ’n cheese) but I was saving that for the last night so I was left eating a tuna tortilla, a meal that sounded much more appealing when I was shoving it into my bear canister in the comfort of my home and congratulating myself for thinking of such a compact but “delicious” meal. I shoveled the tortilla into my mouth and picked a handful of M&M’s out of my trail mix for dessert and retired to my tent. This was the first night I slept the entirety without waking up. I was exhausted.
The next morning we set out for Circle Lake. By this point my ankles were screaming with every step I took. Falling off the tussocks the previous day caused my ankles to turn at uncomfortable angles, often. Thankfully the hike to Circle Lake only took fifteen minutes. The hiking portion of the trip was over. My legs had done their job, it was now my upper body’s turn!
This trip was the first time that I tried packrafting. One of the many reasons I chose this Gates of the Arctic guided trip was actually because of the two day packrafting extension. I thought it would be a great introduction to the sport and I was right, it ended up being my favorite part of the entire trip! Our guide provided us with Alpacka Rafts and gave us a tutorial on how to set them up and before long we were all catching and siphoning air into our own rafts. It was another beautiful, calm day and I took the opportunity (multiple times) to capture the mountain reflections in Circle Lake.
Once we were all ready the guide showed us how to enter the water and paddle and then we were on our way! We were destined for the Alatna River, a curving river that carves its way from the central Brooks Range, through the Endicott Mountains and Gates of the Arctic before flowing into the Koyukuk River near Allakaket. We would spend two full days on the Alatna, but in order to get there we would need to overcome a few obstacles. First, we paddled to the end of Circle Lake where we had to complete a very long and extremely muddy portage to a beaver pond. Then we paddled across the beaver pond and had to portage yet again. Thankfully this portage was easier than the first. There was a social trail leading from the pond to the river and it was completely dry. By the time we were actually paddling on the river it was late afternoon and we were all incredibly thankful we didn’t choose to do this after hiking down from The Terraces. We shuddered at the thought of that potential day.
We paddled just three miles and decided to call it a day. We found a beautiful stretch of the gravel bar that was large enough to accommodate our tents, a kitchen, and food storage area.
It was during dinner on this night that a member of my group suddenly stood up and pointed at the gravel bar across the river and downstream from us and said “that looks like a huge coyote or a wolf!”. We all looked. The animal was quite a distance away and I could only make out a large black form, it was looking at us. It appeared as if it might have been a bear but then it turned and trotted in a way only canines do. Just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Another group member got a photo of it and we had to zoom in quite a ways but we could see a very distinct lupine-form. Still we weren't positive it was a wolf. Wolves are such elusive creatures and we thought we couldn't have possibly seen one so we showed the picture to the park rangers when we returned to Bettles and they confirmed it was a wolf. It was another reminder of how we aren’t alone at all in the wilderness. We might have gone the entire trip barely even spotting a ground squirrel, but the wildlife was there. Our guide told us numerous times "you probably won't see them, but they will definitely see you".
The next day we lazily paddled 17 miles down the Alatna as it slowly took us past the mountain we had been admiring from the shores of Circle Lake since the very first day and then past new mountains came into and disappeared from view. The shore was lined with trees and thick foliage and after the previous night’s encounter I tried to will the animals to show their faces, if only for another brief moment. They didn’t. We didn’t see another group of people either. We had the Alatna and the mountainous landscape that surrounded it entirely to ourselves, only sharing it with the shy animals that probably emerged from the woods only after we rounded the river bend. This was the most peaceful day of the trip. There were many times I stopped paddling and just let the current slowly carry me so I could stare off into the distance.
Our final campsite was once again on the gravel bar. We chose to camp a quarter of a mile walk away from Takahula Lake, our take-out point. Takahula Lake is a popular lake for people to get dropped off and picked up at so there was already another group on the gravel bar. They made some room for us and we set up camp and prepared dinner for the final time. I finally took out the mac 'n cheese meal and fired up the JetBoil. I don't think a dehydrated meal has ever tasted as good as it did that night. After multiple nights of tuna tortillas I was desperately craving a warm meal.
The final night I woke up around 3am. Initially I thought I woke up because my shoulder had grown sore and I needed to change sleeping positions again but then I heard what sounded like an animal moaning in the distance. Then another chimed in, followed by more low moans and then a higher pitched howl. Wolves. They howled for maybe a minute and then went silent. It was eerie and I wasn’t sure what I was hearing was real. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. The next morning I asked the group if they heard the animals the night before and only two others had. Even though I never saw the howling wolves it is one of my favorite wildlife experiences to date. Hearing a pack of wolves howl in the wilderness of Alaska is bone-chilling and magical at the same time.
Our final day was spent cleaning and airing out the packrafts and packing everything back up. Our take-out time was scheduled for 2pm so we had an easy morning. At 1:30pm we made the quarter mile walk to the shores of Takahula Lake and eagerly waited for our plane to pick us up.
Finally we heard the sound of a plane in the distance, the quiet hum grew to a roar as it passed low overhead and landed on the lake and then began puttering towards us. It was our ride!!
We loaded our packs into the plane and piled in. I sat in the back, alone, and stared out at the same landscape I had just over one week earlier. The landscape remained exactly the same, as it had for hundreds of years, but I felt like a new person. I successfully spent ten days and nine nights in the Alaskan wilderness, I bushwhacked, I carried a pack that was nearly half my weight, I ate more tuna tortillas than any person should, I saw views few others have, and I conquered my fear of the unknown.
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.