Read an overview of what it is like to spend a week backpacking in (and traveling to/from) the Gates of the Arctic National Park along the Brooks Range in northern Alaska.
I am back home now and debriefing from my experience after a week backpacking in the Gates of the Arctic National Park with Andrew Skurka Adventures. I am not sure my words or photos can ever do it justice. I have tried to summarize my trip "week in a life" style, with mostly photos and videos, to provide some context on the key experiences. Most photos and videos are my own, but I have included a few additional images shared by my group members and given them credit where due. In the near future, I plan to also write a detailed, day by day narrative on the Trip Report section of the website.
Before the trip, I knew that the Gates of the Artic was incredibly wild and remote, unlike anything most have (or will ever) experience. I knew it was quite possibly a once in a lifetime experience or certainly memories for a lifetime. I knew it would be great physical and mental challenge, but I also knew I would get something back from the wilderness in return. Having made it safely there and back now - I can say this is all true and more.
Gates of the Arctic is surely one of the most vast, wild, and pristine places remaining in the world. I felt small and insignificant, yet deeply connected to the wilderness in a way I had not experienced before. The place was certainly not our own - I felt privileged to live and elegantly travel through the pure, wild landscape just as any other animal (no roads, trails, or people). In the end, this was not simply a group backpacking trip. Rather, it was a deeply moving and connecting experience with the wilderness and with a few very special people who I got to share it with.
Fairbanks to Bettles, Alaska
In order to travel to/from the Gates of the Arctic our trip plan required 4 flights from Fairbanks, Alaska. The first step was a Wright Air flight (Cessna) from Fairbanks to Bettles, a remote outpost on the edge of the Gates of the Arctic. The runway in Bettles is a dirt strip, but our Cessna had no problem. Small planes land multiple times per day bringing backpackers, hunters, rafters, and importantly gear and supplies up from Fairbanks (there is no road to Bettles). The outpost of Bettles consists of a ranger station, a lodge, a restaurant, a few cabins, and a Brooks Range Aviation hanger. We checked in with Brooks Range Aviation, the float plane operator for our second flight into the bush. After lunch, a few hours wait, and a visit to the ranger station, we were ready to head out on our second flight into the Gates of the Arctic! On our return trip we reversed this flight itinerary back to Fairbanks.
Float Plane - Drop Off in the Bush
The Gates of the Arctic National Park is not accessible by road. The best way in is by bush plane - either a wheeled plane landing on a gravel strip or a float plane landing on a lake. In our case, we used Brooks Range Aviation float planes from Bettles, AK to our Gates of the Arctic bush drop off location on Chimney Lake. Our group split up into separate 5 passenger de Havilland Canada Beaver float planes for the inbound journey. The de Havilland Beaver (and the larger 9 passenger Otter) float planes were built in the 1950s and have been the "work horse" of backcountry and bush travel across Canada and Alaska since that time. The planes had rebuilt motors, but everything else was 1950s authentic. It was an experience to watch the pilot manipulate the manual controls and bring us in for a picturesque water landing. To see more pictures and videos of the float plane experience check out my separate blog post To and From the Alaskan Bush - The Float Plane Experience.
A great way to quickly create a bond with people is to be dropped off by a plane in the remote wilderness together! Our group, 7 clients and 2 guides, easily hit it off and formed a strong team. The group members ranged from age 29 to 63 with 3 females and 6 males. Everyone had really dialed in gear and strong backpacking experience. We travelled at about the same pace and worked together as a team to navigate the terrain and make important decisions. In the end, I think we were all surprised at the depth of our conversations and the connections made as the days went on. It is amazing how you can really get to know someone (and their true authentic self) when all other distractions and social constructs are removed. Thanks to my groupmates (David, Harrison, Lane, Melodie, Richard, and Tim) and our guides (Alan and Jessica) for making the trip an experience of a lifetime!
One of the many interesting aspects of Alaska is the variety of terrain and modes of travel required. During our trip we hiked on or across tussocks, sponga, moss, lichen, mud, game trails, gravel bars, dense brush (alder, dwarf birch, willow), hardpan tundra with permafrost, aufeis, and many freezing cold river crossings. We averaged 1-2 miles per hour average hiking pace, much slower than would be expected if travelling on-trail with no impediments. The terrain changes fast and frequently, so you have to be prepared for anything at any time. In a matter of 15 minutes we could be walking on a game trail, fighting through dense brush, accessing a gravel bar, crossing a river, picking through tussocks and wet sponga, and then finally locating a piece of dry hardpan tundra for easier walking. Travel in Alaska repeats in that manner all day, every day. The art of navigation is to read the map and terrain to find the path of least resistance across the landscape. Also, Alaska is wet! Within a few minutes of leaving camp each morning our shoes and socks were soaking wet from a river crossing or soggy sponga and mud. My shoes and socks never fully dried out at any point during the entire trip (as expected and was not as bad as it sounds).
On the first day, shortly after stepping out of our float plane, we saw multiple sets of animal tracks. Wolf, bear, moose, and caribou. One of the primary modes of travel in Alaska (and elsewhere) is to follow game trails or paths created as the result of frequent animal travel. Animals know how to take the best route across a landscape and we would be silly not to follow their lead! Some of our easiest and best travel came on game trails and it was fun to notice the footprints of the animals who frequented our same path. Despite following in the steps of many animals, we actually did not see much wildlife. We saw one caribou, two bear grizzly bear cubs (at a distance), a ptarmigan, and several arctic sea birds. Apparently, most of the wildlife has already migrated further north towards the Arctic Ocean for summer (large caribou herds migrate north and the predators follow).
Antler Shed and Bones
If there was such a thing as "litter" in Gates of the Artic it would be antler shed and animal bones. Each day we ran across multiple interesting artifacts of the animals who had come before us. Most commonly we saw caribou antler shed, but also a few moose antlers and sheep horns. Real excitement occurred when we stumbled across a full skull with intact antlers! I did not find these bones to be gruesome, as one might possibly think. Rather, it was a great reminder of nature's lifecycle and respect for the wilderness we were walking through. It is a place where the big animals live and we were just visitors.
There are no shortage of views in the Gates of the Artic. It is a place of huge (and old) glacial carved mountains and river valleys that offer endless opportunities to explore. The scale of the landscape is hard to comprehend. It is larger and more expansive than you could ever imagine. It feels many, many times bigger than any National Park I have visited in the lower 48 states. Being there in person I felt small. I would say that the experience does a good job of putting you into your place in the universe.
24 Hours of Sunlight
That's right, the sun did not set for the entirety of our backpacking trip! Gates of the Arctic is above the Arctic Circle and receives 24 hours of sunlight for 2-3 months during the Northern Hemisphere summer. During the overnight hours, the sun dips low in the sky to the west and then kind of just moves around to the east. The overnight sun was mild (it felt about like early dusk all night long), but a sleeping mask was definitely required to have full darkness! On many occasions I woke up in the night and pulled off the sleeping mask only to be blinded by the light for a few seconds!
24 hours of sunlight equals unlimited hiking time! Well, not quite, but the sunlight did give us flexibility. Due to the tedious Alaskan terrain we hiked slow and steady each day, sometimes up to 10-12 hours, because we were not in a rush to get to camp before dark. On our first two nights we camped on gravel banks alongside a river. On the remainder of the nights we camped on hardpan tundra which is a dry, firm surface over the Alaskan permafrost (permanently frozen ground). Of interest, I took each of these camp photos around (or after) 10pm at night.
Float Plane - Pick Up in the Bush
On the morning of our targeted exit it was cloudy and we were not sure if our float plane would have enough visibility to fly in to pick us up. Around mid-day the clouds cleared and we communicated with the float plane company via satellite messages to confirm conditions and pick up. We hiked over to our departure point at Oolah Lake and waited by the lake for a couple of hours. We finally heard the faint hum of an engine in the distance, an unusual sound after the week away from civilization. On the return flight we rode in a 1950s de Havilland Canada Otter Float Plane (9 seat capacity versus the 5 seat capacity of the Beaver planes we took inbound). We returned to Bettles and spent the night in cabins before our next day's scheduled flight back to Fairbanks to officially close out our journey.
As we flew out of the Gates of the Arctic that day, over the huge river valleys and past the giant peaks, it hit me once again what a special place I had just visited. I wondered if I would ever see it again. And I decided right then - yes, I will be back.