Let me close out this series about the Gates of the Arctic with some thoughts about a return trip that I made there in late August 2014. Our group of seven close friends, including Nels and my longstanding Alaska travel companion Jerry, set up a week-long camp on the north shore of Agiak Lake, using it as a base from which to explore the surrounding hills, valleys and rolling tundra.
Agiak Lake lies at high elevation, about a mile from the continental divide of the Brooks Range. The outlet of the lake drains southward, ultimately into the Yukon River and then west to the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the divide, the waters flow north into the Colville River and eventually to the Arctic Ocean. When we hiked over the divide, we could see Chandler Lake in the distance -- which is where our 2002 group had enjoyed the sighting of the wolf described in the second installment in this series.
We had chosen Agiak for our basecamp because it sits astride one of the major corridors used by the Western Arctic and other caribou herds on their annual fall migration: from the summer habitat of the arctic coastal plain to the wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. The Western Arctic herd alone is about 400,000 head, so with some luck of timing we had a chance of finding ourselves surrounded by tens or even hundreds of thousands of animals.
As it happened, the main body of the migration had not yet moved to the area where we were camped, or perhaps they used another corridor this year. We saw lots of caribou, intermittently all day in every direction, but in smaller groups and clusters. Timing is everything, notwithstanding Jerry's ironic suggestion to "cue the caribou." And, of course, other wildlife examples were also much in evidence, including several grizzly bears, one of which saw fit to satisfy his curiosity by closely approaching our camp. The birders in our group were also well entertained, providing lots of opportunity for carping on my part. (See the previous post on Birds and Birders.)
Caribou have passed this way since the dawn of time. This was well known to humans of the distant past, who established tent settlements and caribou drivelines on the shores of Agiak Lake dating to about 4200-4800 years ago.
The National Park Service website on Agiak quotes a 2006 report by archaeologist Aaron Wilson:
"Perhaps the most fascinating story to be told at Agiak Lake revolves around the hundreds of sentinel-like inuksuit that stand watch over the lake. The rock cairns, positioned in complexes on either side of a valley, each totaling nearly a mile in long and remarkably straight segments, were used like fences or scarecrows to skillfully direct herds of caribou along the length of the line and into Agiak Lake itself. Once in the lake, the caribou were deftly pursued by kayaking hunters and dispatched with long wooden lances tipped with razor-sharp stone spear points. ... What's more, archeological survey indicates that the caribou drivelines were repaired and modified for centuries, providing a stable caribou hunting technique for generations, perhaps millennia."
It takes some searching, and a fair amount of imagination, to see the remnants of the hunters' tent rings today, interspersed as they are with the natural topography. But the lines of inuksuit (plural of inuksuk) are clearly visible and it is easy to see how they would have funneled the herds towards the waiting hunters.
Agiak Lake Tent Ring
Line of inuksuit near Agiak Lake
Compared to the thousands of years of human encampment and use of this area, the twelve years separating my first and most recent visits to the Gates of the Arctic is but the blink of an eye. We are privileged today not only to enjoy this wild land on its own terms but also to catch a glimpse of its use by ancestral humans of long ago. It is an amazing and deeply humbling experience to be a small link in this unbroken chain.
With all the threats to arctic habitats, and existential challenges to our species, not the least of which is climate change, can we dare to hope that our descendants will bear witness to the Agiak Lake inuksuit hundreds, or even thousands, of years hence? What would prevent that? Is it anyone's choice but ours?
This is the 50th Northern Passages blog post! It is also the 5th, and final, post in the current series about the Gates of the Arctic National Park. For the related posts, click on these links or use the navigation tabs at the Northern Passages website.