Last month I spent 10 days and 9 nights backpacking through Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. Covering a staggering 8.4 million acres, it has the unique distinction of being both the second largest national park (only Wrangell-St. Elias is larger) and the second least visited national park (only seeing 11,000 visitors in 2013). It is located entirely above the Arctic Circle, has no roads leading into it and no trails to guide you once you are there. This remoteness and rugged 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 your own path allows for a person to feel as if they are discovering a 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 of the Arctic and found Expeditions Alaska. The company had great reviews so I eagerly booked my trip!
It would prove to be the most physically challenging 10 days of my life but also the most rewarding.
When I told most people I was going to go backpacking in the depths of the Alaskan wilderness they gave me a wide-eyed look of shock. Some followed up with “Are you going to be staying in cabins?” or “So is it kind of like glamping?” to which I responded “Not even the slightest”. Here is what I experienced instead…
Almost all of the trip consisted of bushwhacking. There are no trails in Gates of the Arctic National Park so visitors are able to blaze their own path which is both a blessing and a curse. Our guide would put the coordinates of our destination in her GPS and then we would just push on through the rough terrain until the GPS indicated that we made it.
I did quite a bit of research before the trip so I knew it would consist of a great deal of bushwhacking 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 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 of hiking through tussocks we took a break and our guide informed us we had gone a third of a mile. A third of a mile! In my research on bushwhacking I read that a mile an hour is considered a decent pace in the bush so I was prepared for some slow-going, but not that slow!
After we muscled through the tussocks we reached the willow and alder patches. When we reached the edge of a dense alder patch I thought our guide was definitely going to try to find a way around it, it looked completely impassable! But, just as soon as we arrived 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 my hands out, closed my eyes, and forced my way through the branches. The foliage was so thick that if you weren’t within five feet of the person in front of you, you would lose them. I fought my way through the alder and the alder fought back. Finally, we emerged on the other side, a few scrapes, and tousled hair, but standing, and that was the important part.
Exploring the Arrigetch Peaks
The Arrigetch Peaks are the whole reason I chose this particular trip. While researching different Alaska guided trips I found myself repeatedly looking at pictures of the Arrigetch Peaks and being mesmerized by their sharp, angular, rock faces jutting up into the sky. To me, they resembled glass shards- but to the native Inupiat, they resembled a hand, sparking the name, “Arrigetch,” which translates to “fingers of the outstretched hand”.
We set up base camp under the Arrigetch Peaks after two full days of bushwhacking. Within the peaks, valleys cut deep into the mountainsides, which for us, is where we’d spend the duration of our three days basecamping and exploring. The highlight of the valleys was Aquarius Valley – it winds its way back through the peaks and has three lakes in differing shades of glacial blue. The lakes were not easy to reach as each one was completely surrounded by massive boulders. We cautiously crossed, and I was able to see the most beautiful spot I had ever seen. If this park was located in the lower 48 it would most certainly be full of eager hikers trying to claim a sliver of shoreline on one of these glacial lakes, but since we were in the Alaskan arctic we didn’t have to share with a single other group. It was incredibly peaceful and I was thankful I was able to experience that moment.
Packrafting down the Alatna
During this trip I also tried packrafting for the first time. I had been wanting to try out the sport for awhile but it is expensive, and I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to try it. Turns out I love it. We spent two days lazily paddling down the Class 1 Alatna River, a sinuous 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. The packrafting portion of my trip ended up being my favorite days, partially because they didn’t involve falling on rocks and getting whipped by tree branches, but also because it opened my eyes to an entirely new way of exploring. Before this trip I had only ever hiked, which often involves miles of trail under the cover of a forest; but paddling down the river, I was completely exposed and able to see my surroundings for miles in all directions.
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 portion of the trip. There were many times I stopped paddling and just let the current slowly carry me so I could stare off at a distant mountain peak.
While we consistently ran into signs of nearby wildlife, like the prints and scat of bears, moose, deer, and wolves, we hardly saw any. This was partially on purpose; we were hiking and yelling out “HEY-OOOO” to warn bears of our presence, so if we were near a bear (or any other creature for that matter) they probably ran off well before we saw them. Despite all our hooting and hollering, some wildlife encounters were inevitable. The first instance of which was watching a mother moose and her calf traipse around on the opposite shore of a lake while we were packrafting. But by far, the coolest animal encounter of this trip, or any other, were the wolves we saw and heard.
It was during our second-to-last dinner, when suddenly a group member stood up and pointed at the gravel bar across the river downstream from us and said “that looks like a huge coyote or a wolf!” Curiously enough, that same person had spotted the moose earlier, they have a knack for spotting wildlife! We all got up to take a look. It was quite a distance away and although I could only make out a large black form, it was clear that whatever it was was looking right at us. It appeared as if it might have been a bear but then it turned and trotted in a way only canines do. It was gone just as quickly as it appeared. Another group member captured an image of it and after zooming in we could see it was unmistakably a wolf, but we were still doubting ourselves because wolves are such elusive creatures. 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 days without seeing even a ground squirrel but the wildlife is everywhere. You won’t see them, but they will definitely see you.
During the final night I woke up at 3am. Initially I thought I woke up because my shoulder had grown sore and I needed to change 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 after all this time away from civilization. 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 them 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.
Flying over Alaska is a reminder of how little reach humans have in the area, which is refreshing in a time when it feels as if we have claimed every small parcel of land. On my two bush flights across just a sliver of the state I hardly saw anything manmade, except for the pipeline and famous Dalton Highway. Each time I thought I spied a small house in the distance it turned out to be the sun bouncing off a rock; and every time I swore I spotted a road it was just another bend in a river.
While there were some moments on the trip that I was cursing myself for choosing such a strenuous trip instead of a relaxing beach vacation, I had the experience of a lifetime. The remoteness, rugged beauty, and pristine wilderness are unlike anything I have ever seen before, and likely won’t see again until I return. Alaska is incredible and has well earned its reputation as a beautiful beast. I’m already trying to plan a winter trip to see it in a whole other light, or lack thereof. Happy adventuring!
Sonja is an adventurer based out of Madison, WI. She has a passion for exploring the great outdoors and her favorite way to get outside is by hiking and camping. She loves the challenge of walking miles through the wilderness to find hard-to-reach spots that others may not make the time or effort to explore. You can follow her writings, adventures, and photography at her blog, The National Parks Girl; and follow her on Instagram at @thenationalparksgirl.