A journey through one of the nation’s last wildernesses
By Michael Engelhard
Around one in the morning, eerie moaning, like a woman in pain, wakes me. I pop out of my tent, bear spray in hand, and there, slightly downhill, silver-gray against green spruce, under a single, orange-lit anvil cloud: my first wolf of the trip. He sees me but keeps on howling, head titled back, imploring the heavens. Giving it my best, I join in, and our voices entwine. Not your typical wolf dirge, neither his nor mine, though suggesting shared creaturehood, an understanding. An eighteen-wheeler droning past less than a quarter mile away adds its bass note to our duet.
It’s day 31, about half-time on my traverse from the Canada border to the Bering Strait, and I’m camped near the tree line, vanguard of boreal forest, west of the Haul Road. I waded the Dietrich River last night, racing a witches’ cauldron of weather boiling blackly to the north. At the only level spot, astride a ridge, I set up my tent in record time and flung gear and myself inside while thunder salvos cracked the sky. I crouched inside theflapping shelter pelted by rain, praying the fabric and stakes would hold. Happy Fourth of July! It had not gone as expected. No cache at the Chandalar Shelf airstrip—the outfitter chose not to place resupply #4 there before my arrival because hunters might disturb the barrel. I’d waited instead for his office help to truck it up from Coldfoot after my unhappy call from the DOT depot where, however, I was offered coffee cake.
Still buzzing from last night’s serenade, I cross into Gates of the Arctic, the northernmost and second largest U.S. national park—bigger than Belgium—under a leaden and squally sky. No entrance or camping fees charged. Mountains without tollbooths or handrails, land free and undeveloped, as some of it should be.
We owe much of this to Robert “Bob” Marshall, a twentieth-century John Muir and advocate of the central Brooks Range. “Let’s keep Alaska largely a wilderness,” he’d urged Congress in 1938.
The New York forester with the boyish face and goofy smile arrived in the uncharted territory he’d selected from his atlas months before the Great Depression and began to study tree growth at the northern timberline for a thesis about the effects of climate on political history. He already was larger than life—and brimming with it. He’d summited his first Adirondack peak at 15; decades later he still loved running down slopes. Frugal and modest despite being wealthy, shy except during dances and parties, Marshall was a romantic, an admirer of Lewis and Clark who felt he’d been born too late. He sometimes portaged in tennis shoes or subsisted only on raisins and cheese. He planned to take a 30-mile day hike in every U.S. state. His sense of humor favored the absurd. He once entered a room somersaulting through the doorway, change flying from his pockets, crowing, “I just rolled in.” Another time he daubed shoe polish onto his underwear to keep the holes that mice had nibbled into his tux from showing at a formal dinner. An activist who cared about the working class, he shared royalties from his 1930 memoir Arctic Village with the Wiseman folks it so lovingly portrayed. He stayed a bachelor his entire, truncated life. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was co-founding and funding the Wilderness Society, which focused the movement for protecting what is now Gates of the Arctic National Park.
I camp early, at Oolah Pass, unable to resist. An emerald lake rimmed with perfect, flat shingle beaches and velvet-green moss banks lights up this mountain bowl. It’s truly alpine, this Continental Divide nook, not the bug-ridden bog of lower saddles I’ve scaled. I’ll be traversing to the north side three times before my next resupply in Anaktuvuk, which also straddles the line. The lake by my tent duplicates snow patches on the mountain flanks into Rorschach blots. A curved, naked, saw-tooth range blocks the view down the valley I’ll be descending tomorrow toward the Itkillik River—perhaps it’s the one Marshall named for its resemblance to an Eskimo skin-scraper. In his days, North Slope
Inupiat traveled this pass to work or trade in Wiseman. Tips of distant peaks at my back, where I entered the bowl from Kuyuktuvuk Creek, spur “top of the world” feelings, a well-earned euphoria. Gulls and charcoal-collared, white-bellied plovers wail poised on the tarn’s crystal surface, the only sounds besides whispers of a rill spilling from the amphitheater’s heights.
One month into my journey, I’m falling apart. Enjoying the luxury of afternoon coffee under a tentative sun, I just lost a filling chomping on salmon jerky. My right shoulder throbs from previous dislocations, and an Achilles tendon troubles me—my pack is too heavy for mid-weight boots, which don’t give enough ankle support. I console myself with the thought that Marshall, famous for 40-mile days, schlepped a 70-pound pack with a tumpline along nearby Ernie Creek, forced to rest three times each mile.
I hiked past bleached caribou skulls and racks yesterday, signs of Inupiaq hunters pursuing the Central Arctic herd. Farther on, an angelic, white wing with its shoulder joint, the bird’s blood spattered on lichen, declared unsubtly that I, too, was meat. The carnage triggered unease. We are not used to landscapes strewn with body parts. But life enfolded me also, and death is integral to it. Shrieking jaegers strafed me, defending their nest—elegant fliers these, with hook-bills and stinger-tails. I’d roused a ptarmigan hen and her brood; seeking cover, the unfledged chicks scattered like struck billiard balls. The one closest to me pressed itself into a hollow, perfectly camouflaged, as the hen stood by, clucking. Theirs is a hard country.
Marshall learned this early in his Wiseman-based explorations. “Gaily daring the unknown,” he’d set out with one companion on his first probe of the Arctic Divide in July 1929. The pair almost drowned when the Koyukuk’s rain-swollen North Fork flooded their island camp. The experience energized Marshall. Here was a place, finally, where nature had not yet been neutered.
Two days beyond Oolah, I top out at Peregrine Pass, a notch amid whalebacks. Landmarks that Marshall named crowd around me: Cockedhat, Snowheel, Inclined, Alapah (Inupiaq for “cold”), and square-jawed Limestack Mountain, each beheaded by clouds. An obsessive list-maker and timekeeper and the first white man to map this region, the East Coast visitor bestowed 164 place names on it, among them Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, a gateway for the Koyukuk’s North Fork that became this
park’s tag line.
Marshall and his prospector friends also christened Grizzly Creek, which now flares below me. On my heels I glissade, down a black shale ramp splotched with buttercup-yellow poppies, all the way to the valley bottom.
A self-diagnosed “ursa-phobe,” Marshall, who once climbed a tree to escape a grizzly, admitted getting panicky facing another, “11 miles from the closest gun, 106 from the first potential stretcher bearers, and 300 air-line from the nearest hospital.” At his camp near the mouth of Grizzly Creek, “an immense, whitishbrown humped mass” spooked and stampeded the pack stock.