Exploring The Gates of the Arctic National Park
There are few places left on the planet as wild and untamed as Gates of the Arctic National Park located in the northern interior of the state of Alaska above the arctic circle. The Gates is the 2nd largest and least visited national park in the U.S. National Park system comprising of vast swaths of untouched wilderness spanning over 8 million acres. Wild and scenic rivers ramble through glacier-carved valleys, jagged granite peaks reach impossibly for the sky. Wolves, bears, caribou, moose and more roam its ancient and mountainous landscape. The pristine Gates are a gem -- truly a spectacle of nature. It’s good to know Mother Nature still has a few holdouts like the Gates where the impact of man is a still a minor threat, and not an omnipresent reality. Having just returned from a 9-day micro-adventure in the Gates of the Arctic National park with a focus on landscape photography, I can confirm “wild” is alive and well!
After a busy summer of 1% for the Planet photography projects, I was eager to get off grid and experience the freedom and challenge of a wilderness photography adventure. I decided to explore the Gates of the Arctic thanks to the advice of friend and former Alaskan resident Sacha Gros. Sacha currently resides in Colorado with his wife Emily and three children and he decided to join me for this epic adventure. A former US Ski Team world cup ski racer and member of Vail Mountain Rescue Group, Sacha provided me ample opportunities to watch his agile feet and stellar balance in action as we hiked through tussock laden bogs or boulder hopped our way up high alpine passes. A humbling experience for sure, but Sacha was the perfect companion for this off-grid adventure.
Sacha Gros, on our way up to the Arrigetch Valley
We planned our trip to hit a late August early September window, which fit both of our life schedules, enhanced the opportunity for fall colors, and helped avoid July’s swarm of mosquitos. I was eager to explore this landscape with camera and lens and it did not disappoint. The colors were peaking with vibrant yellows and deep rust reds on the higher tundra-like terrain. In general, we really lucked out with the weather during our trip with only a few wet and rainy days.
Getting to the Gates does take some effort and once you make it into the park the real effort begins. There are no trails or supporting infrastructure in the Gates -- pretty much all travel is on BMW paths (that is Bear, Moose, and Wolf trails) with a few social trails available that tend to fade in and fade out. Staying focused and noisy while hiking in the Gates is important. Not only to avoid a surprise encounter with a Momma bear in the brushy alder-ridden terrain, but also to avoid the simple ankle sprain that can easily become a more serious issue when this deep in the backcountry. You’re on your own in the Gates, and you better feel comfortable and prepared for a true backcountry experience.
For us getting into the park required two bush plane flights each roughly an hour long. The first from Fairbanks to the small outpost of Bettles, AK (population under 20), and the second from Bettles northwest into the Gates landing on a small lake near the Alatna River.
Once we off loaded our gear, and as the drum of the departing plane faded away into the sky, I distinctly recall the immediate big and beautiful silence of the Gates. Out there in the vast wilderness of the Gates it suddenly felt as if we had been transported back a million years ago to experience the planet as it was before the mark of man.
There is no bigger or more peaceful quiet than the quiet and stillness of an untamed wilderness. No overhead jets or vapor trails, no sounds other than that of the wind, the rushing waters and elements of nature in action. For me the “big quiet” is big medicine, and one of the reasons I love landscape photography.
After soaking up the “big quiet” for a few moments, we got our gear sorted and started off towards our destination of the Arrigetch Creek some three miles away across “swampy” bushwhack terrain. It was heavy lifting for the first leg of our trip, a true “swampfest” with wet feet incurred after less than five steps. We both decided on non-waterproof trail running shoes versus heavy hiking boots or Gore-Tex sneakers that never dry out. This proved to be a smart strategic choice because getting wet feet is inevitable. On day two I tried out some Gore-Tex socks and they were actually pretty helpful. I would suggest them for anyone headed into this type of terrain – but would consider sizing up one size to allow for more stretch and strain on seams. Gore-Tex socks will not keep you 100% dry, but they seemed to be a bit warmer and kept out a lot of the cold wetness.
Speaking of gear, our Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 5400 backpacks were amazing. They were heavily loaded at close to 65 lbs with pack rafts, food, camera equipment and other gear, but we both loved the backpacks for their versatility and ability to comfortably carry a load.
The trek from the drop off was a true bushwhack through tussocks, boggy, and brushy scrub. There is no easy way through this type of terrain, and you really have to adopt a positive – go with the flow mindset. After a good three plus hours we finally made it to our destination of Arrigetch Creek. We stashed our pack rafts and some extra food in a bear canister near the confluence of the Arrigetch Creek and the Alatna River by hoisting them up into trees to protect them from curious wildlife. We needed the pack rafts later in our journey as our extract plan was to float out on the Alatna River to a pickup location a good 15 miles or so down river. Marking the location on our Garmin units and with our GAIA GPS apps on our phones we set off on the long bushwhack up to the Arrigetch Valley. If you are not familiar with GAIA GPS, I cannot recommend a better off-line mapping app that can be used with a smartphone in the field. It is an amazing tool in the backcountry and we used it often to route plan or mark important waypoints, camp sites, target vistas, etc..
The Arrigetch Peaks
The hike up into the amazing Arrigetch Valley following the Arrigetch Creek was much easier as we were able to pick up a social trail, which clearly was being used by wildlife as well the limited hikers or mountaineers that come to this area. Over the next day we worked our way roughly six miles or so miles up into the Arrigetch Valley where we set up a base camp at the foot of the majestic Arrigetch Peaks. Arrigetch is a native word meaning “fingers stretched to the sky” and this is an accurate description of these amazing mountains. Jagged peaks with sharp teeth-like formations are some of the more dramatic and inspiring mountains I have seen.
I can understand how this area would be a mecca for hardcore mountaineers seeking to climb Arrigetch spires and peaks. It reminded me in some ways of the Fitzroy Range in Patagonia although the rock color was a darker and more forbidding granite color. Over the next 6 days we hiked up many of the valleys and up through passes exploring the Arrigetch Peaks area. We moved base camp a few times to make our exploration of the area more efficient.
Our first camp site on the Alatna River
For those seeking a real “off-grid,” wilderness experience, I strongly suggest you check out Gates of the Arctic. Here you will find nature behaving as it was designed to behave -- healthy ecosystems with wildlife thriving – all connected to each other in a symbiotic circle of life without the brash disruptive influences of mankind and civilization. The Gates require good physical conditioning, backcountry and wilderness camping experience and definitely awareness of bear prevention techniques and tactics. Grizzly bears are abundant in the area and much of the hiking is done in brushy “bear ambush” terrain until one gets above roughly 2,500 ft or so in elevation. Once above 3,000 ft, the valleys really open up and its more of a classic tundra feel with massive granite and majestic peaks exploding skywards on all sides. This opening is a relief because it allows one to not only see the incredible majestic views, but also spot wildlife off in the distance.
I hope you enjoy some of my pictures from this recent trip!