- Ken Ilgunas
This is my second summer as a backcountry ranger and my fourth living in the arctic. I work at the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Even though the Gates is the second largest park in the nation (about the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined), I am one of only five backcountry rangers who paddle its rivers and climb its mountains.
I’m not sure exactly why I left New York to come to the arctic. I think it had something to do my complete and utter disconnection with nature as an adolescent. Alaska was less a venue for mindless sightseeing and more a fundamental need, a burning desire that had gone unfulfilled for far too long. Suburbia and its schools and roads and commercial sprawls; its safety; its immaculate homes and protective roofs—all of it: the hegemony of order that had kept me in check for far too long, called to be undermined with one desperate and extreme blow. Driving to Alaska would become my ultimate goal.
Alaska beckoned me like a pair of moonlit thighs and a shadowy set of curves. Oh how I dreamt of mountain summits, and charging grizzlies. I wanted pain and glory. Something real, damnit. That’s why I drove up here five years ago and that’s why I’ve returned again and again.
But I’m getting off topic. I really only wanted to mention my training this past week.
Six of us rangers drove up the Haul Rd to Galbraith Lake which is situated at the northern, treeless edge of the Brooks Range. Just a few miles to the north, the mountains level out into endless flatlands of muskeg, ponds, and insufferable tussocks. But here the mountains are still prodigous and intimidating; the sort of mountains that deserve to be introduced with the sounding of a Chinese gong.
We drove through the Brooks Range to give us scope of the variegated landscape that we’ll traverse over this summer.
I’ve driven the road hundreds of times as a tour guide and I’ve found that even the most awe-inspiring scenery can get tiring after a while, especially when you’re herding around a few heifers from Louisiana. But there are still moments that snap you back into wakefulness, when appreciation for the land is rightfully restored.
Just a mile outside of Coldfoot, seconds into our trip, I had one of those moments when we caught sight of a Moose cow and her calf idling next to the road. She was likely biding her time close to town because she knows predators like wolves and grizzlies won’t bother her offspring here, who’s still just gaining his footing. We paused to take pictures but the grumble of a semi sent them off into the woods. The moose lurched and lumbered to the forest coverings as gracelessly as the semi that thundered down the road.
I was struck by its incalculable body mass. The cow’s bulky brown muscles heaved to and fro while her young trotted alongside.
At Galbraith, we practiced stream crossings and learned the intricacies of our communication devices. Afterwards we went on a day-hike above a river that still held remnants of winter in the form of aufice, which is layers of snow and ice frozen above moving water.
The triangle method.
And so begins another summer in Alaska, the home of my dreams.