Once you’re out in the country, the National Park Service bluntly tells you, You’re on your own. If you get hurt or sick or lost, it’s up to you to rescue yourself. Cell service? Not so much. Even along the main river corridors, travelers are few. The people you do meet are likely to be local villagers, hunting and gathering on their ancestral grounds. In fact, the park service’s management plans for Kobuk, Noatak, and Gates stress that local subsistence use gets preference over tourism. In other words, don’t freak out if you paddle toward a crackle of gunfire as Inupiat hunters whack a moose on the riverbank or if you pass a cabin on a private inholding that’s surrounded by a bit more rubble than seems wilderness-appropriate. But those moments are swallowed by the echoing silence beyond.
“I’ve become resigned to the fact that I’ll run out of time before I run out of new country. It keeps going—one nameless peak or wide tundra flat after another, into a blue, aching distance. “
A dedicated wilderness bum could spend decades exploring here and barely scratch the surface. I started in 1979 with a 700-plusmile canoe trip that traversed parts of all three of these wildlands and have made dozens of journeys in the decades since. Despite the tens of thousands of miles on foot, snowmobile, outboard skiff, canoe, and ski, and knowing some big stretches well enough to navigate without a map, I’ve become resigned to the fact that I’ll run out of time before I run out of new country. It keeps going—one nameless peak or wide tundra flat after another, into a blue, aching distance. Two full lifetimes might barely be enough to know it all.
When these Alaska federal lands, and far more beyond that, were first established in 1978 by Jimmy Carter’s bold presidential proclamation, many Alaskans howled their outrage at what they called a land grab that excluded progress—mines, roads, lodges, and so on. Some applauded; others shrugged and went on with their lives—what difference did it make? Nearly four decades later, we have our answer. The country’s still there, as wild as it ever was: a legacy to the world, one of the last large-scale tracts of true wilderness on a shrinking planet—an unbounded place where caribou, wolves, grizzlies, and Native hunters still roam, as they have for centuries. Would it have stayed the same, without Carter’s bold, protective sweep? Hell no. A perfect solution? Perhaps not—but all good. Far and wild is the bottom line.
Nick Jans has been writing for Alaska for 28 years. His book, The Giant’s Hand, is available at nickjans.com.