- Ken Ilgunas
Our three-seated Cessna 185 tightly circled around a couple of wolves lounging in the sun. If we were circling around them thirty years ago, before their home—the Gates of the Arctic National Park—was established, they likely would have been running for their lives, worried that we might be the pelt-peeling mercenaries who killed their kind.
On our spin around the wolves, my stomach’s contents sloshed like a half-filled paint bucket, and I squirmed to retrieve the plastic bag out of my back pocket. Beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I tried to divert all attention to the meandering Alatna River below us. Jay, our pilot, spotted a potential gravel bar to land on.
He dropped the plane just feet above the rocky bar, but it seemed he didn’t get low enough, fast enough, so, at the last second, when it appeared we were bound to belly-flop into the icy-clear Alatna, he flicked up the wings, increased speed, and sought a better landing site. He repeated this a few times more. Between the nausea and horror, I gripped my plastic bag and nervously chanted, “happy, happy, happy, happy.”
Finally, on about our fifth landing attempt, the plane’s tundra tires thundered into the gravel. We unloaded our gear and commenced our hike to the Arrigetch Peaks.
The Brooks Range is the most northern east-to-west range in the world, entirely above the Arctic Circle, spanning 700 miles across Alaska and Canada. There are a few peaks that rise as high as 9,000 feet, but the mostly 4,000 to 6,000-foot mountains with stony, treeless tops, look—in comparison to the cluster of jagged, thorny Arrigetch Peaks—as unimposing as a few bald retirees playing cards.
The Arrigetch are a tight assemblage of granite spires that look like the razored fingernails of a vampire. Too disturbing for motivational posters on classroom walls, these mountains are better suited for dragons looking for proper entrances to lairs.
We stashed our extra food in bear-resistant food containers and our boat in a copse of trees before ascending up Arrigetch Creek. The air was cool, but the sun was veiled behind a murky grey film of smoke that stripped the colors off the mountains and alerted us to unchecked forest fires in the distance.
From the plane, the lush verdure of the tundra plain looks fitting for picnics and pick-up football games, but once on the ground, these plains present an unpleasant medley of hiking obstacles: knee-high swamps, spongy sphagnum moss, and the ubiquitous tussocks.
Tussocks are clumps of grass the size of upright watermelons that twist from side to side if stepped on. Hikers sometimes elect to place their feet in the shin-high cavity of muck between the hairy green basketballs for fear of spraining an ankle by leaping from top to top.
Walking atop the spongy sphagnum moss feels at first like a heavenly romp through neon green fields of posturepedic mattresses. But the novelty soon wears when you realize the moss, which dips under the weight of your body, has no intention of trampolining you back level. Instead, it’s like walking on a flat staircase, each step costing you the energy of two.
Fortuitously, we found a well-plod game-trail next to the creek that was occasionally marked with wolf prints and bear scat. The blueberries were in season and I plucked clumps of two and three in mid-stride. The creek, to our right, was wild and unruly, spewing a water-staircase of rabies froth
As we weaved under birch branches and put a few miles behind us, underneath our tightly-wrapped, 40-pound packs, we found ourselves hiking. Not straining up steep scree slopes. Not leisurely strolling through the village of Bettles. But hiking.
Thighs and calves stretched and heaved in a happy engagement between body and ground. Oh the joys of hiking! How I wished to tilt my head back and howl.
There are moments on a hike when all conscious thought comes to a halt. Chaotic reflection and chronic neuroses vanish, as if they never existed. Instead, you’re engaged in a constant state of sensory distractedness: the lucid gust of Labrador tea, the brisk wind drying sweat from forehead, the steady concentration of placing feet on boulders. With distraction comes peace. In these rare moments, I forget that I’m no longer thinking about living; I simply am.
A squadron of mosquitoes trailed in our wake as if we were shedding pixie dust. Nettlesome horseflies and regal dragonflies sometimes join the fray. No longer am I a solo hiker, but the lead ship in a flotilla of biomass.
The spruce trees that the trail winds around appear weak and wizened. Tired of brief, fleeting summers and winter dynasties, they look ready for the retirement home. These stubborn, irascible old-timers rise haggard and crooked, sprouting branches that look less like the elegant wings of its distance cousin, the fir tree, and more like embarrassingly small sets of sulking T-rex claws.
With the sun’s twilight still glowing in the early hours of the morning, we continued on towards the peaks. The raging white stream flattened into a placid blue lagoon-like pool. Giant boulders that once surfed along glaciers sat alone—the crumbled remains of mountain castles that stood high and mighty eons before.
The narrow valley expanded into a meadow of bright green grass. The eden-like greenery and glacier-blue water contrasted with the sharp peaks looming ahead that were swirled in forest fire haze and thunderclouds.
The Arrigetch do not just rise upwards like the bumbling robust hills around them; they careen and tilt wildly like warped spearheads. In sculpting the Brooks, God must have left for the john to be relieved by some suicide-bound, schizo-artist who projected the shuddersome voices in his head into the haunting, serrated cliffs.
From the glaciers—packed into a pocket between mountains—I scanned what seemed like hundreds, what felt like thousands of miles of untrammeled wilderness. My imagination stretched to encompass the whole Brooks Range and beyond. How unfortunate (and impossible) it would be to have this moment amidst photo-snapping tourists on roads that give access to all, as they do in most any other national park.
I thought of climate change, the unemployment rate—the clusterfuck we call our world—and was reminded of my job—a protector of these wild, sacred places.
How foresighted we can be! What potential lies within us as a people! Perhaps things aren’t as gloomy as we tend to think.
Despite all the war, pollution, natural calamities, I wondered, might this be our finest hour as a people? With the power to tame and to domesticate, to build roads and to exterminate the fanged animals, we’ve—in this small but meaningful gesture—chosen to take the high-minded and rarely-traveled route of restraint.
How exciting it is to be part of a generation—perhaps the first—that consciously elects to salvage rather than exploit; that allows mountains like the Arrigetch to exist unperturbed; that gives hikers the chance to see primitive vistas like the first fur-clad explorers and lets others—who’ll never gaze upon them—dream of the unconquered, unknown.