8/21/19. Back Home, Questa, NM
I was born in Casper, Wyoming and went to high school in Denver, Colorado, both cities nestled in the exceptional beauty of the Rocky Mountains. I learned to appreciate the stark drama that rugged mountains offer, the challenge of navigating their vertical geometry, and the tranquil quiet of a mountain forest. I’ve always considered myself a child of the ‘mountain west’ even if I don’t exhibit all of the normally-associated ‘cowboy’ personality traits.
So it was with eager interest that I awaited our opportunities in Alaska. That state, too, has its mountainous moments. From the volcanic cones that dot the coasts of the Alaskan Peninsula, to the snow-covered peaks, teaming with glaciers that populate Denali, or Wrangell St. Elias or Glacier Bay National Parks. Flying through their peaks was full of drama and a heartfelt appreciation, based on native understanding. Alaska is full of stunning peaks and gorgeous mountain valleys and the density of the experience certainly challenges my understanding of the Rockies as the premier mountain experience in our country.
But I can’t say that any of that prepared me for the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. I’ve already posted on my initial reactions when we flew a small-plane, commercial flight from Fairbanks to the Inuit village of Anaktuvuk Pass. I was mystified, then, by these mountains that are so different from my experience. Simply put, Gates of the Arctic National Park was so very different from my experience of what a ‘mountain’ is that I am still trying to understand what feelings are being stimulated. In many ways, not all understood yet, this park stands out if not as my favorite park in Alaska, then certainly as the one that had the most impact.
Statistically, there are lots of ways to characterize this park. At 8.5 million acres, Gates of the Arctic is second only to Wrangell-St. Elias (also in Alaska) in total number of protected acres. Including the acreage protected in Noatak National Preserve which is adjacent to the park on the western border, it is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States. Located entirely above the Arctic Circle, it is the most northern park on the continent (and possibly the world!).
Because of its location, north of the Arctic Circle and 200-300 miles from any ocean with nothing but tundra surrounding it, there are no roads into this park. There are four or five native Inuit villages near its southern border and one native village, Anaktuvuk Pass (population around 250) located inside the park near its northern border. Some of these small villages have gravel air strips which provide the only transportation with the outside world. As a result, Gates of the Arctic National Park has the least number of recreational visitors (around 10,000/year) of any of the 61 National Parks. (Note: Aniakchak National Monument, also in Alaska, and a site we visited, has the least number of visitors of any unit in the NPS system, at less than 20 visitors per year.)
Gates of the Arctic got its name from a pass that runs between two mountain peaks in the eastern portion of the park which channels a river down onto the Arctic plain, thus serving as a sort of gateway to the arctic coastal region. Those two peaks are just two of many mountains that form the portion of the Brooks Range that is within the park boundaries. The Brooks range itself is considered the northernmost part of the Rocky Mountains and was formed at about the same time as the rest of the Rockies, around 70 million years ago. The geology of the Brooks Range mountains is exceedingly complex – so much so that geologists aren’t in full agreement as to how these mountains were formed. They contain metamorphic and sedimentary rocks that originated in very different parts of the world and, according to the terrane theory of Alaska’s formation, attached themselves to that part of the North American original continental mass by being scraped off the top of the Pacific plate as it subducted under the North American plate. The forces of that ongoing collision accumulated to raise the Brooks Mountains in ways similar to how the rest of the Rockies were formed.
After being pushed up, erosional forces began their work. The mountains were highly glaciated during the ice ages which accounts for a lot of the U-shaped valleys and the glacier-eroded mountain peaks. Glacier remains are evident now in small glacial cirque lakes and in a very small number of minor glaciers. Unlike the southern Alaska mountains, snowfall in the Brooks mountains is minimal – the area is really an arctic desert with insufficient precipitation to sustain glaciers. So they have essentially disappeared except in small little pockets.
But the reason is not lack of cold. There is only one weather station in the entire Brooks Range and that is at Anaktuvuk Pass. In the summertime the average high temperature is around 60 degrees with a low of 40. But in the winter, the high temp averages -7 while the low averages -20 degrees. The record low is a staggering -47 degrees, which is cold any way you measure it. Still, it only receives 11 inches of precipitation a year, most of that in snow, but still qualifies it as a desert. Add to that, intense polar winds which can reach sustained speeds of 50 mph, and you have a rather inhospitable environment.
All of which explains why these mountains appear so naked. Of course, most mountains, including the rest of the Rockies, are unable to support much life above a certain altitude, called the tree-line. The difference up here, is that, because of the climate and the sunlight patterns, the tree-line is very low. At some of the southern edges of the park, we can see open forests of black spruce and maybe some poplar trees. But you don’t have to travel very far north before these scraggly black spruce trees thin out to nothing, replaced by first what is called ‘moist tundra’ and then ‘alpine tundra’. Moist tundra might find sedges in tussocks, and scattered willows and dwarf birch. At higher elevations, alpine tundra takes over dominated by mountain avens, heath shrubs, dwarf herbs, and prostrate willows. These are all very small, hearty plants. But it takes such plants to survive under these conditions.
Strangely, this sparse vegetation is still able to support some animals, including occasional moose. But the region is especially noted for caribou migrations. In the western mountains, the herd has, in past years, been estimated at half-a-million animals. They find their way back and forth across the Brooks Range, spending the summer on the Arctic coastal plain and their winters south of the mountains in the more forested river valleys.
Native Inuit primarily followed the caribou. Since the 1930s, white man’s government has ‘strongly encouraged’ abandoning their nomadic life style and building permanent settlements, such as Anaktuvuk Pass. (After spending some time in that town, it isn’t clear that this ‘modernization’ is working real well for them.). Archaeological finds show nomadic humans pursuing caribou herds as far back as 8500 years ago.
So that summarizes the ecology and recent history of this place. Still, though, it is difficult to explain the impact of these mountains. On our flightsee out of Kotzebue, and after our stop at the sand dunes of Kobuk Valley, we headed east into the Brooks Mountains of Gates of the Arctic. Where tundra has managed to fill in primarily on south-facing slopes, there is a soft coating of green. The further north we went, though, the tundra fell away to raw, naked mountains. They seemed to be totally oblivious to our presence, like they knew they would outlast us.
We landed on a gravel bar in the middle of the braided Ambler river. The rocks and pebbles here were ground off the surrounding mountains by glaciers and wind eons ago. But there was obviously a lot more where they came from. As we walked up and down the gravel spit, it dawned on me just how few other people have had this experience. This is certainly not the same as walking alongside the Yellowstone River – very few humans have enjoyed the sounds of this pure river rushing past us. This is a unique place, full of mystery, and the unspoken power of nature at its rawest.