Kobuk and Krusenstern

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7/31/19  Nugget Inn, Nome, Alaska

8/1/19  My Place Hotel, Anchorage, Alaska

I mentioned in an earlier post that there are three parks above the Arctic Circle on my bucket list and that we had done a flightsee out of Kotzebue to see those three parks.  The flightsee landed in all three parks, we spent time in all three, and, the next day, I stamped my passport book for all three.  But I’m only going to talk about two of them in this post because the third one, Gates of the Arctic, is still spinning in my head and until it stops I’m not quite sure what I want to say about it.  Rather than wait until that happens, I’m going to talk about the other two, Cape Krusenstern National Monument and Kobuk Valley National Park.

Sand Dunes in Kobuk Valley go on for more than 100 miles

Both of these parks are wilderness parks which means there are no developed facilities inside either one of them.  The visitor center is in Kotzebue and I’m not even sure there are ranger stations out in these parks.  There are some park service structures, but they are for maintenance and patrolling purposes, not for use by park visitors.  According to Jason, our flightsee pilot, there are some private cabins scattered around the countryside and I guess some of them are available for use by trekkers through the wilderness.

But the lack of development means there are just two ways to see these parks – on foot as a wilderness camper or backpacker, or from the air in a ‘flightsee’ of some kind.  Most of us elderly ‘park collectors’ will be using the latter option, although I was surprised at how many hikers we saw getting on and off Alaska Airline airplanes at the Kotzebue airport, some of them sporting white hair and whiskers!

Joan in the sand above the Arctic Circle

Kobuk Valley National Park is a small park, by Alaskan standards, at just 1.7 million acres.  It was created to protect the Kobuk River Valley as it meanders out of the  Brooks Range mountains and down into Kotzebue sound.  Flying over the river valley, I see my first sights of pure tundra landscape.  Although I am still trying to understand the difference between tundra and taiga, one of the main characteristics is that taiga still has rich enough soil to support at least a few dwarf trees.  They might be sparse but they are there, especially black spruce.  Tundra, on the other hand, has permafrost closer to the surface, so tree roots are almost impossible to extend deep enough to support trees.  That doesn’t mean you won’t see a tree at all, but you find them only near river beds where alluvial soil, and enough moisture, exist to actually support tree growth.

The Kobuk River is one of several rivers north of the arctic circle.  One of its prime claims to fame is that it divides the countryside into the winter and summer grounds for the massive caribou herds.  They ‘summer’ north of the river and on up into the north slope tundra, and winter south of the river more into the taiga interior.  At ‘Onion Portage’ there is an important archaeological site where Inupiat people took the advantage of the river crossing as a place to hunt caribou.  Remains from that site date back at least 9000 years.

Mountains near Kobuk

The other oddity that marks this park is the presence of two areas of massive sand dunes.  Yep, that’s right – sand dunes north of the arctic circle.  They are packed into two locations, named ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ for their relative sizes.  They were formed from the grating action of glaciers in the Brooks Mountains, and then blown and shaped  into dunes by arctic winds blowing down through the mountain passes and piling the sand up near the Waring Mountains which form the southern boundary of the park.

Our plane on the dunes

On our first stop on our flightsee, Jason landed the plane right on a flatter portion of the larger dune field.  We got out and, like little kids, played in the sand.  It isn’t uncommon for families to come out here and slide down the hills and into the streams, just like they would on regular beach sand.  Even in the height of the summer season, in July, though, the temperature doesn’t get much above 60 – bikinis are rare!

After about twenty minutes of pictures in the sand, we got back into the plane and Jason throttled her up and we easily took off.  Our next stop was in Gates of the Arctic and, as mentioned above, I’m saving that for a separate post.  But after that we navigated back through Kobuk Valley, across Noatak Preserve (a park that’s not on my bucket list) and on into Cape Krusenstern National Monument.

Lagoons protected at Cape Krusenstern

Cape Krusenstern is a really small park, by Alaska standards, at about 675,000 acres.  It was designated  to protect several things, but among them are two large lagoons which serve as waypoints for major bird migrations.  We tend to think that little goes on biologically up here in the arctic country, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The arctic circle serves as a summer breeding place for lots of bird species and, apparently, they stop here in Cape Krusenstern.

The Bering Sea from Cape Krusenstern

Located on the shores of the Bering Sea, the cape is also a very active archaeological site where scientists are working hard to determine just when the crossing from Asia might have been.  Actually, the most recent theories are that there were multiple crossings and that they occurred in both directions and potentially date back as far as 40,000 years.  

Dark Sand Beaches at Krusenstern

We didn’t get to see any digging sites on our flightsee, but Jason landed the plane on a ridge not far from the beach, so we were able to walk over and dip our feet and hands into the waters of the Bering Sea.  One geographic feature that is visible from the air and quite obvious when you walk across the tundra, is that different sea levels have almost become frozen into the beach structure, creating a series of ridges in the tundra.  These ridges make very clear where historical beach edges have been in the past, during times of more water.  Cape Krusenstern isn’t a spectacular park, like Gates of the Arctic, or Kobuk Valley, but it is a special place and it was definitely thrilling to say that we’ve walked where ancient native ancestors have walked in times past.

Golden Eagle Outfitters, the people who did our flightsee, provided us with a custom map of the area and a plot of where we flew and where we landed.  It is pretty cool, so I’ve added it to this post.

Our Arctic Circle Flightsee!

With these two parks, we have completed our Alaskan National Parks bucket list – 12 parks altogether over a two month odyssey.  We are getting towards the end of the trip and, in fact, we are flying back to Denver tomorrow.  I still have a couple more posts in mind, including some terrific pictures, so stay tuned.