Arctic Loneliness -- Gates, Part 1

“Quick!  Everyone get down!”  Diane hissed the words and the four of us dropped to the ground.  I did not know what was happening, or why, but her tone brooked no dissent.

It was August 2002.  An hour earlier, we had been dropped off by a bush pilot out of Bettles, a small Alaskan village on the Koyukuk River.  Nestled in the foothills of the Brooks Range, the little town consisted of not much more than a general store, a frontier-style hotel, the landing strip and air taxi service, and a handful of houses.  Bettles seemed pretty much the same when I visited it earlier this year, in August 2014, once again on the way into the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The “Gates” is the second largest national park in the United States and, taken together with the adjoining Noatak Wilderness Area, constitutes our country’s largest contiguous wilderness area.  Yet, the Gates is one of the very least visited of all the national parks, just possibly because the entire park lies north of the Arctic Circle.

On that first trip, the de Havilland Beaver had landed on Chandler Lake, in the heart of the Gates.  We jumped from plane to shore and then the pilot stood on a float by the rear hatch, hauling out our backpacks and handing them off to a fire brigade formed by my then teen-age son Tom, me, and our friends and guides, Brian and Diane Okonek.  Soon, all the packs and gear had been relayed safely to dry ground.  The pilot then climbed back into the front seat, fired up the radial engine and roared off into the sky with a farewell waggle of his wings.

There is something undeniably compelling about the shape-shifting devices that allow humans to take flight, cover vast distances through the air, then land on water and taxi over to land, only to return once again to the sky.  Aptly, Roderick Nash has said that the “bush plane is Alaska’s covered wagon,” condensing distances and opening the land.  In this case, our quick flight from Bettles was a far cry from the nomadic treks that indigenous peoples had made in this land since time immemorial or even from the long-distance hikes that Bob Marshall made through this region in the 1920s and 1930s. 

In addition to being a forester, writer and prominent wilderness advocate, Marshall was a peripatetic wanderer through arctic lands, especially in the central Brooks Range.  His narrative reports of the wild country provided inspiration that eventually culminated in the designation of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, by virtue of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. 

As impressive as it was, the mechanical presence of the floatplane was ephemeral.  Within minutes of takeoff, it had passed out of sight, the whining drone soon fading beyond the range of hearing.  I reflected that we were about as alone as it is possible to be anywhere in North America.    

I thought about a remark that William O. Douglas, a great 20th century conservationist who also happened to be a Supreme Court Justice, had made after being dropped off in the Sheenjek Valley to visit Olaus and Mardy Murie in 1956.  “The arctic has a strange stillness that no other wilderness knows.  It has loneliness too – a feeling of isolation and remoteness born of vast spaces.  This is a loneliness that is joyous and exhilarating.”  It was in pursuit of just that type of loneliness that we were visiting the Gates, and we were not to be disappointed.

Our plan was to hike from Chandler Lake through a long river valley that would then dog-leg to the town of Anaktuvuk Pass, about 25 air miles to our southeast, maybe just under 40 by the route we would take.  The trek would take us over the continental divide, but we were already at a high elevation and the contour lines on the topo map were not so close as to indicate really steep or difficult climbs.  An air service ran scheduled flights from Anaktuvuk Pass to Fairbanks three days a week, and we had tickets on a plane a week hence, which should allow plenty of time for our overland journey and for leisurely camping and day hikes along the way.

Next week, I will explain the urgency of Diane’s command to get down.

This is the first post in a series about a 2002 hike from Chandler Lake to Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park.