Gates of the Arctic – Part I

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7/17/19  Bridgewater Hotel, Fairbanks, Alaska

Sometimes you stumble onto a real treasure.  Other times friends can alert you to little known possibilities.  The latter is the case for us and resulted in one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.

Pete Crider is a new-found friend of ours in Questa.  He is also known as ‘Arctic Pete’ because he spent a long period of time working in Bettles, Alaska and points beyond and became a resident expert on how things work in northern Alaska, especially north of the arctic circle.

We weren’t exactly sure what to expect when he told us that we absolutely must do a certain day trip if we were going to Fairbanks, which of course we were as part of the ‘road trip’ portion of the Odyssey.  He told us that it was one of the best, and least known, bargains as a ‘flightsee’ over The Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.  Having already booked at least three ‘flightsees’, I was skeptical that we would actually see something at the price he was talking about – flightsees cost thousands of dollars, don’t they?

Our Wright Air Airplane

Well, they do if you are chartering a private airplane to take you somewhere.  But what if you can travel a regularly scheduled airline trip that just happens to fly over some of the most stunning scenery in all of Alaska? And, since it is a regular booking on a commercial flight, it doesn’t cost anywhere near the ‘thousands of dollars’ we had become used to.  Such was the case with Pete’s suggestion, and after a couple of phone calls, we decided to try it.  We are certainly glad we did and owe Pete a big thanks for the tip.

The YukonRiver
Brooks Range Mountains

Here are the details for folks who might want to add this to their Alaskan itinerary.  Wright Air Services is a small ‘airline’ operating a fleet of Cessna Grand Caravan turboprops in and around the northwestern corner of Alaska.  You don’t board these planes through the normal TSA security at the main airport.  Instead you go to the other side of the airport, known as The East Ramp, where Wright Air is one of several commuter and cargo carriers operating.  They offer daily flights to and from multiple locations and since each plane carries between six and fourteen passengers, they can operate like a regular carrier and still make money (they’ve been doing it for decades.). You can book these flights on-line, just like a regular airline.

Gates of the Arctic from the air

So we did that, booking a flight to the town Pete recommended, Anaktuvuk Pass.  As he suggested, we booked a round trip flight, all on the same day.  The total cost for both of us came to less than $600, well below any other ‘flightsee’ we had arranged.  Your flight is dependent on the weather, but if canceled for that reason, you will receive a full refund.

Fairbanks is the most northern city of its size in the country.  But there are smaller towns and villages that are further north.  Anaktuvuk Pass is one of them.  It is located inside the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and is located ninety miles north of the Arctic Circle.  The village is on a ‘pass’ that forms part of a caribou path that threads through the Brooks Range.  In one sense, it is truly a ‘gate to the arctic’ since not too far north is where the North Slope begins, stretching 300 miles further north to the Arctic Ocean with nothing but frozen tundra.

More Gates of the Arctic

I will talk some more about the village itself.  But first, I have to share my thoughts, and some pictures, of the Brooks Range, as we flew over it.  I simply was not prepared for the staggering primitive beauty of these mountains, unlike anything I’ve seen.  Simply put, these are naked mountains showing off their own natural forms without benefit of any covering or adornment.  This is the world of permafrost where trees, even shrubs, don’t grow – they can’t grow.  Instead the mountains, in some places, are sheathed in a thin cover of lichen and moss – the vegetation of the tundra.  The bare ribs of these rugged rocks are starkly framed, as if on the naked body of an athlete in prime physical shape.  The sinews and muscles bulge and ripple over the earth beneath you, expressing a raw physicality, even a powerful sensuality.  

Not a tree anywhere

I didn’t know much about the Brooks Range.  Apparently they were formed about the time the Rockies were formed and, even though they run more-or-less East/West, they are considered part of the Rockies chain.  So formed about 65 million years ago, they are relatively young.  It is also dry up there.  There are streams and rivers threading through these mountains, but they are largely ice fed.  Rain is not common, but snow is.  So are winds which blow southward from the Arctic, or eastward from the Bering Sea, and can reach sustained speeds of over 100 mph.  (Planes don’t fly in those conditions!) The result of their youth and the erosion patterns of this area, as seen in these pictures – these are mountains in an almost primal form – I wasn’t expecting that.

Anaktuvuk Pass Air strip

The plane flies between the mountain peaks and through the valleys.  As in other flightsees, I think I could touch the valley walls.  After almost two hours, a spot of civilization emerges on the valley floor, and the plane enters into a spiral pattern descending towards the primitive gravel airstrip.  Landing is relatively smooth and we start to look around at this village in the middle of land that, really,  seems uninhabitable.

View of part of the village from the airstrip
Masks made from Caribou skin

Anaktuvuk Pass is an Alaskan Native village.  Although historically, eskimos established temporary caribou hunting sites here, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Nunamiut group of ‘eskimos’, after being decimated by European diseases, and with the help of the Alaskan and federal governments, decided to abandon their nomadic ways, as well as their tribal differences, and band together into a permanent settlement, here, of all places.  The Nunamiut people are considered the ‘inland’ population of Inupiat, or northern Alaska eskimos.  The ocean, or sea, group established their own permanent villages in coastal cities like Barrow and Point Hope.  Today’s population of Anaktuvuk Pass, representing nearly all the remaining Nunamiut people, totals about 450 souls.

Another view from the village

We met and chatted with several of them.  And if you do what we do, you should do that too.  Part of the beauty of this area is to also understand what remains of the culture of the people who have, over centuries, found a living in this harsh land.  These people have an understandable hesitancy about having visitors walk through the streets of their small town, but they aren’t unfriendly.  Several of them waved as they drove by on their ATV’s (there are a few trucks here, but ATV’s are clearly the preferred mode of transportation.  I have no idea how vehicles get here since there are clearly no roads here.). And we ate lunch at the only ‘restaurant’ in town. The man there was not only polite, and eager to serve us, but he grilled up a very good cheeseburger.

You can stay the night there, but it is well over $200 for accommodations that are primitive at best.  Instead stay just the few hours before catching the return flight to Fairbanks.  In several hours you have plenty of time to observe the town, get a burger, and reach your own conclusions about how these people live now and whether it is better or worse than what they had before.

To really appreciate that question, the must-see stop here is the Simon Paneak Museum, the most northerly museum in the world (90 miles north of the Arctic Circle.).  There is a series of well-done exhibits which trace the culture of the Nunamiut especially before they were more, or less, forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and settle into Anaktuvuk Pass into a ‘civilized’ world.  I was impressed by how well these people had adapted to such a harsh world – their historical culture worked for them and they at least seemed happy.  Today, many of them live in plywood shacks and are subsisting on snack packages of cheese and crackers, and Hot Pockets from a microwave. Yes, they smile and wave, but I wonder if that is a forced response to ‘civilized outsiders’.  

I spent some time with one ‘elder’ there, Hugo (surname), Saul.  The work this man has done to preserve his culture is already worthy of a doctoral dissertation and he himself believes he has at least five more years to go.  Working with help from the museum  and the National Park Service, he has acquired huge 14-foot relief maps of the entire north slope and Brooks Range – his native homeland.  On these maps, in minute detail, he is recording the oral history of his people.  He is assigning names and dates to things like caribou migrations, battles with Athabaskan Indians from the South, trade fairs with the sea coast Eskimo groups, and all kinds of events to physical locations on the maps.  Where we see a mountain, he sees a source of Dall sheep.  Where the map shows a river valley, he sees a camp his grandfather established to hunt caribou.  He showed us several 14 by 6 feet sections of the map that were literally covered by red, black, and yellow marker comments.  Each one told a story that reflected his peoples’ history, a history that, until now, has never been recorded.

I admired Saul’s tenacity and his enthusiasm for his mission so much that I said I had to shake his hand and encouraged him to finish this work.  I also told him, and truly believe, that there will be publishers anxious to do something with these maps.  This is high-level academic work coming from a man who used to be a nomad.

Raw mountain

The relationship between the Brooks mountains and the Nunamiut people in Anaktuvuk is  remarkably strong.  You need to understand both to fully appreciate either.  I know that I’ve just scratched the surface, but in this one day, special adventure, I feel I’ve just cracked open the Gates of the Arctic.  (I also got my passport stamp from another place that most people never see!)