by Larry Volpe, '95
I spent the summer of 1995 in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve as an SCA volunteer. There’s no place I have ever been that better represents wilderness as it should be than this incredible park. Everything about the place is wildness as it was before Europeans stepped foot on this continent.
The park is about 8 million plus acres that straddles the Arctic Circle as well as the Central Brooks Range. The northern edge of the park rolls down into the Northern Slope…rolling tundra habitat of treeless plains that stretch hundreds of miles to the Arctic Ocean.
The park’s eastern edge is bounded by the ‘haul road’ or the Dalton Highway, which heads to the Arctic Ocean and parallels the Alaskan Pipeline…a great source of controversy when it comes to economy versus wildlife. This road is about the only access point for those hardy enough to venture into the park on foot. Along this road, in Coldfoot, is a joint visitor center maintained by the NPS, BLM and FWS. There was also an office/visitor center in Bettles. This town on the southern edge of the park, accessible only by plane or snow mobile in the winter, has joint headquarters between the NPS and FWS. The Fish and Wildlife Service has the Noatak Preserve that borders the western edge of Gates.
The northern edge of the park contains the Indigenous town of Anaktuvuk Pass, home to the Nunamiut Eskimos. While most Eskimos live on the ocean and depend on it for sustenance, these folks settled inland because, among other reasons, of the Pass’s proximity to the caribou migration. The ‘Preserve’ part of the park is dedicated to limited hunting by locals and outfitters, but if I remember correctly, the native peoples get access to any part of the park for hunting and traditional sustenance use. This is another ongoing point of contention as the Nunamiut lived upon this land long before it was established as a park in 1981 or thereabouts.
I was fortunate enough to be in the native village when the caribou migration came through. What a sight it was! In hours about a half dozen camps were set up on the shelf above the village. Although they were only a few hundred yards from their home doorsteps, the caribou would not venture in the streets so the people sat and waited for them to walk by from their camps. I can’t say how many were shot, but in no time at all there was meat hanging and drying on wooden structures outside the wall tent doors. A vigilant watch had to be kept because the smell could be detected for miles by the grizzlies. This was some cultural experience!
Although this is the only park I have ever been to in Alaska, it struck me as being vastly different in so many ways from the dozens of other national parks I have visited in the continental U.S. and Hawaii. I guess when a place is as wild as Alaska it brings a set of challenges that no other place can match. When I was there the annual visitation was about 4,000. Visitors are allowed to carry guns for protection from grizzlies and rangers can do so as well.
I worked with two different backcountry rangers for the summer and we chose not to carry any guns. Our job was mainly to find visitors (a tough task in such a vast place) and talk about backcountry safety practices. We also had to visit places frequented by outfitters and make sure they were doing their part to keep the park wild and clean. Flying in with outfitters was about the only way to get into this untamed backcountry.
A typical day on a nine-day patrol went like this: up at 9 am, fish for breakfast (the grayling were quite tasty!) and hit the river, paddle and float a few hours…stop for lunch and take an hour or so hike to look for wildlife or visit a “heavy use” site to survey and clean up if necessary, eat lunch and then back on the river. About 5 pm we’d start to look for a peak we wanted to climb. We then pulled off the river, set up camp and set out for the peak. Several hours later, atop a mountain we’d see wolves, sheep, or grizzlies every time. From the top we would trace a new route back to the tent via an oxbow lake with moose hiding out in the water from mosquitoes. We saw those guys almost daily.
Once we got back to camp at midnight (nothing like a “day hike” in the land of the sun that never sets) we’d get the fishing poles and go back to that oxbow to catch a northern pike for dinner. We always had to throw back several before we had one small enough for us to eat in one sitting without having to waste any. If we were lucky, we found a lake with lake trout. These beautiful creatures have an orange underbelly added to the silvery sides. While the pike was yummy, nothing beat the lake trout.
Most days we saw a plethora of wildlife, including countless birds we would scramble to ID, ducks, loons, beavers, ptarmigans, jaegers, massive predacious diving beetles and long-horned wood boring beetles….I could go on for another paragraph. The bush flights that we took in and out of the park, (which were daily occurrences and really no big deal) and were quite intimidating at initially. My first flight was in a 2-seater Piper cub. The balloon tires allowed for landing on a gravel bar covered with huge rocks and the runway was probably less than 200 feet long. It took 3 trips to get me, my partner and all our gear out there. This is a dream job for someone who loves wild places.
The park contains no permanent roads to my recollection and very few established trails. The few roads that exist are for snow vehicles and they melt away with the summer thaw. To backpack around the park takes a tough soul…often dealing with soggy feet, jumping from tussock to tussock, and dealing with clouds of mosquitoes thick enough to block out the sun.
The preferred mode of travel is by the arteries of the Arctic, its rivers. Starting with the rangers and biologists, the place is wild to the core. My backcountry supervisor brushed his teeth right in the sediment laden river, ate crackers and trail mix, and spent days alone in the backcountry. He was a man of few words, yet you could tell that artic wildness is what gave this man life. The head biologist did not allow any invasive studies that would alter the animals’ habits in anyway. The only animals that were tagged that I was aware of were fish and maybe some ducks. This was done in conjunction with the USFWS. From the head ranger down, everyone was onboard for the approach of keeping the place as wild as it could be.
This experience made me an even stronger advocate for keeping our wild places as they were before this land became America. The best way I can help do this is to take my 5th grade students on wilderness outings and showing them that these kinds of places need to be preserved at all costs. My only regret of the summer was losing contact with some of the most incredible people I have ever met…fellow SCA volunteers, rangers, biologists..even one who I track when she runs the Iditarod. If anyone who was there that summer reads this…please email Larry Volpe.
See http://www.nps.gov/archive/gaar/home.htm to read more about a park that keep America wild as no other place I have ever been.
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