This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
GATES OF THE ARCTIC NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE — It didn't sink in until after our pilot dropped us off on a gravel bar, the buzz of his plane fading into the steady current of the Alatna River: We were here, in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. This trip was actually happening. We wouldn't be back in civilization for another 11 days. And there was no turning back.
I and three friends — Andi Schweers, Jussi Ruottinen and Steven Claggett — had set out to explore the Arrigetch Peaks, a cluster of sleek, jagged granite mountains in the Brooks Range. Andi and Steven wanted to climb with an eye toward Caliban, a peak on which three Alaska climbers completed a new route earlier this summer. Jussi brought his camera gear to add to his portfolio of spectacular mountain images.
As for me, I wasn't sure what I wanted to get out of our trip. But I was happy to be part of the Arrigetch crew.
It's not easy to get to Gates of the Arctic, a wilderness park that encompasses 8.4 million acres. With no roads or trails offering access into the park, visitors must hike in or fly in, the main gateway communities being Anaktuvuk Pass, Coldfoot and Bettles. And while 8,000 to 12,000 people stop at the park's visitors centers each year, in reality, just a fraction of that number will actually set foot in the park.
We left Anchorage around 4 a.m. in the quiet darkness of a Sunday morning, settling into the 12-plus-hour drive to Coldfoot. We dodged potholes on the Dalton Highway, at which point it dawned on us: This was the farthest north any of us had ever been.
The next day, by the time we had loaded everything into Coyote Air's 1953 de Havilland Beaver named Pumpkin, we were fidgety with anticipation. After an hourlong flight over winding rivers and rolling mountains, pilot Dirk Nickisch left us at the gravel bar. Then it was just the four of us, our packs and an Arctic wilderness none of us had previously explored.
Soggy days, cozy nights
After crossing two creeks and skirting around boggy flats, we hiked among alders that clawed at our arms and legs, occasionally thwacking our faces and snagging on gear. Our path took us over ankle-rolling tussocks and waterlogged tundra. Under normal circumstances, the hike would have been easy. With bulky 80-pound packs on, it was a tiresome slog through beautiful country.
Eight miles in, we reached a clearing suitable for establishing a base camp and squeezed the four of us into my three-person mountaineering tent. (If we weren't already comfortable with one another before, we were after several nights of dogpiling into that tent.)
Since Andi and Steven were focusing on climbing objectives, Jussi and I ventured off on scouting missions and set up satellite camps deeper into Arrigetch Valley and in the Aquarius Valley nearby. The autumn colors were a marvel, vibrant with the flaming reds and eye-popping oranges of autumn.
Weather moved quickly in and out of the valleys, and on rainy days, we were enveloped in a mist and fog that played hide-and-seek with the mountains. When temperatures dropped, graupel pelted us from the sky. We’d wake up to frosty tents and, for some, frozen hiking boots. It rained often enough to where, as soon as we’d managed to dry our clothes during bouts of sunshine, the skies would pour down on us once more.
We started to reek of sweat, muck and perpetually damp socks. But at least the tundra smelled sweeter when the sun shined.
One of my favorite campsites was near the banks of Arrigetch Creek, which slows to a near-standstill in spots and picks up swiftly in others. I'd fill a bottle with frigid water where the creek runs fast and clear. Dwarfed by the peaks and surrounded by golden foliage, I took long, slow sips in a communion with nature — feeling more in, and of, the world.
One morning, I was taking the last bite of my breakfast — instant mashed potatoes gussied up with cheddar and salami — when I looked up and saw a hulking brown mass on the hill close by. A moose? I squinted in the sunlight.
Definitely not a moose.
The sow brown bear trailed by two cubs took a moment to evaluate the scene. I looked in their direction. They looked in my direction. I started shouting "Hey bear!" in low, authoritative tones, waving my arms just in case they had somehow managed to miss me standing in front of them.
They weren't impressed. Once they sauntered toward our cook site, I sidestepped and backed away slowly, trying not to trip on rocks while also scanning the terrain for Jussi, who had strayed while photographing the morning light on the peaks and left his bear spray near the tent.
At last, I saw a small blue dot moving far into the valley.
He could barely hear me, but he turned in my direction and replied with a loud, "What?"
"Bear! BEAR! Three of them!" I did my best pantomime of the situation, shouting and using language too colorful to publish to send him my way.
Eventually, he got the message, and we watched as the sow rolled around on the tundra and the cubs frolicked behind. They'd gotten their paws on Jussi's pack and shredded a dry bag before lumbering down the berry-rich valley — about the best-case scenario we could've hoped for, all things considered.
Over the course of 12 days, we roamed amid the stark beauty of the Brooks Range. We scrambled on boulders sculpted by water, ice and time. Lichen the color of paprika peppered fields of rock, giving the landscape a Martian feel. Quartz of pristine white littered creek beds and scree slopes like strewn treasure.
Through the course of a day, the sun would sweep through the sky in a long, low curve, arcing from ridge to ridge. At sunset, alpenglow set peaks ablaze with pinkish-orange light, as clouds streaming past gave the impression of smoke.
At one point, Jussi woke us up in the middle of the night to alert us to the aurora, which had stayed hidden until now. The northern lights filled the open sky as we emerged from the tent into the frozen cold. Pulsing in green with a hint of purple, the aurora shimmered, danced, swirled and wavered in all directions, every view brilliant.
Thrilled and captivated, we watched the display in hushed silence. Then, slowly, the lights receded into the night.
Approaching the end of our trip, Jussi and I hiked up tundra and talus to gain a ridge that leads to the Maidens, mirrored peaks that point into the sky with almost perfect symmetry. From the top we could peer into a valley we hadn't explored, and gained a new vantage point to appreciate the areas we had.
The landscape lay outstretched before us, presenting the streams and mountains in a showcase of nature's glory. An evening sunray pierced the clouds above Caliban to spotlight a swath of tundra below.
I felt a familiar sense of what I call mountain delirium: a moment of exultant joy when I'm overwhelmed with awe and gratitude for life, for the opportunity to be in this place at this time.
That was when I realized: I may not have known earlier what I had come to the Arrigetch for. But whatever it was, at the top of that ridge, I found it.