Fred’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Visiting national park numbers 54 and 55 would be the most adventurous excursion that we had undertaken since we left on this trip over two years ago. Granted, our backcountry trip into Denali last year was certainly Out There, as we camped for four days near a glacier about 20 miles into the park. But this was a whole different level of Out There. On this trip Laura and I would end up spending 10 days in the backcountry of Alaska above the Arctic Circle experiencing the extreme wildness of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park. Further, this was not a case where we simply established a base camp and then worked from this post over the 10 days exploring and doing hikes. While our exploration of a portion of Kobuk Valley NP was centered in a base camp at the edge of its great sand dunes, our time in this park was preceded by a six-day trip traveling over 80 miles down the Noakak River through Gates of the Arctic NP on an inflatable two-person kayak, making camp each night along the river. In this post and my next I will provide a collection of photos that chronicle our visits to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park. Normally, I would only feature a group of select photos from each of these parks, but for these two national parks I have decided to share a more comprehensive perspective on what life was like making our way down the Noatak and then amongst the dunes.


In many ways, this was a trip of firsts. To start things off, it was the first time that we ever had to make an emergency landing in a plane, which was a bit unsettling to say the least. For a description of the circumstances surrounding the need to land our bush plane in the middle of the Arctic wilderness, I’ll refer you to Laura’s previous post where she vividly describes the events surrounding the experience. Moving on, this was also the first time that Laura and I had spent an extended time above the Arctic Circle. Granted, we had fairly recently made our way to Barrow, Alaska, the northern most town in North America, but that had only been an overnight trip, and we stayed in a hotel and ate in restaurant where we could sit at a table and did not have to take our meals on the ground. In the backcountry, our bathroom facilities amounted to a trip into the bush where we would dig a hole and do our business as we swatted away mosquitoes and kept our head on a swivel always on the lookout for grizzly bears that might wander into the general area. While traveling on the river, our longest trip of this kind on water, we saw around 20 grizzlies and every place that we set up camp along the Noatak there were large paw prints made by large bears in the sand. In fact, one morning as we were loading up our boats, a grizzly came out of the brush and walked right through the area where our tents had been not more than twenty minutes previously. That caused a bit of a stir.


Over the course of our trip there were no showers and if you wanted to bathe, a frigid river was your only choice. While we did not take the polar plunge, on a couple of occasions I did strip to the waist and quickly sponged off. The river was also the perfect place for a little fishing, and even though I did not have any fishing equipment, Nate, a fellow explorer, did have his fly reel and was kind enough one evening to give me a lesson. This was actually my second lesson, but far better than the first one that occurred in the alley behind the Orvis store just off Michigan Avenue in Chicago. On that occasion the only thing that I caught was a Starbucks grande coffee cup. With Nate in the Arctic, I only got the lure caught in the bushes a couple of times and ended up catching three or four small graylings, which we then released after a picture or two.

We traveled with a group of eight wonderful fellow adventurers and two great guides. Coincidentally, each of the others in our group were on a similar quest to see all 59 national parks. As such, we were all kindred spirits on this journey, all looking to take away memories that would be indelibly pressed on our minds, as opposed to the way that others generally experience these parks by simply flying into them, setting down briefly for a quick look around, and then heading back to civilization. How fortunate we all were to be able to immerse ourselves in this grand, wild land above the Arctic Circle where summer days are chilly and the sun never really sets.

Photos from our time in Kobuk Valley NP will be in my next post.