“Keith, I think we should look at the
declare during a break on the river bar late on the
fifth day. “We have quite a few miles left,
and it looks pretty flat and full of bends.” Studying
the map, we recognize the flatness of the land translates
to less current and more paddling. Keith replies, “Well,
at least we don’t have to worry about paddling
in the dark.” We hesitate long enough to let
the reality sink in, then load up and start back
down the river.
Accepting the long paddling hours ahead, I slowly
concede as I start to breathe deeply and enjoy the
A sense of elation enters me as I’m finally
floating a river instead of slowly hiking along its
uneven banks. In contrast to looking down at each
step, my eyes are free to gaze around at the austere
grand peaks surrounding us. Completely in the moment,
I regain the smile I had before we looked at the
map. Now my smile reflects the landscape. It stretches
my face just as the mountains stretch towards the
boreal forest on the horizon. I am smiling at the
the world, the Gates of the Arctic National Park,
Sixty more miles of the Alatna River stand before
us. Our trip has been a personal expedition of friends
seeking to experience a secluded place without distractions
or a schedule. Keith, Darin, and I have four more
to finish the paddle from our starting point in the
heart of the Brooks Range to Allakaket, a native
village just north of the Arctic Circle.
This is my second visit to the Arctic. My first experience
was earlier in the summer, hiking through the tundra
a couple hundred miles to the northeast of where
we are now paddling. It is mid August and the early
fall is beginning to grasp the landscape. The days
grow shorter and termination dust blankets the tops
of the peaks around us.
We are all inexperienced river paddlers. Keith and
I are from the flatlands of Nebraska and Colorado,
and Darin, who recently graduated from the Merchant
Marine Academy, has been on ocean liners, but has
never been in a canoe. Our risk is not the river,
as it is
classified as a tame Class II, but the remoteness
of our journey. The Gates of the Arctic National
has no roads or established trails in its 7.2 million-acre
expanse. We need to take care of ourselves and one
another, as a relatively minor injury has potentially
great consequences. We have a sense in the back of
our minds that although we are vacationing, we are
in an unforgiving land. How long would it take to
get one of us out with a serious injury? How fast
we get help in a life threatening situation? Our
relaxation only goes so far and I begin to question
whether the rewards of this place are worth the remoteness.
Our feeling of seclusion is overshadowed by a thousand
years of human presence and survival. Athabaskans
and Eskimoes existed in this area with simple equipment,
a tradition of subsistence, and a greater understanding
of the sub-arctic than we will ever possess. Their
ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge beginning
12,500 years ago, establishing a relationship to
land based on endurance, cleverness and respect.
This relationship still exists today as the terrain
through is land natives still depend on for subsistence.
Because of my comfortable upbringing it is hard to
imagine the arduous life of past peoples. What has
drawn me to this harsh land?
After five days surrounded by mountains, we are now
drifting through the taiga, a Native word meaning “short
twigs”. The spruce trees constantly battle the
permafrost and wind: some grow horizontally from the
cut-banks; some fight for their survival. The views
are no longer grand, but the simple beauty of water,
reflection, forest, and the vivid blue sky of the arctic
captures our eyes. Our days in the taiga are long,
as we make up for our nonchalant style the first few
days. We paddle till midnight and then we are back
to paddling after a short night’s sleep.
Paddling, we are in awe we have seen no sign of
human passing. No campfire rings and no trash are
that few people visit this area of the arctic.
I feel like
an explorer although I know I’m not. I have
spent years of my life in wilderness settings,
but the Gates
of the Arctic redefines pristine wilderness. As
we near Allakaket the wilderness subsides as we
salmon nets, tarps, and small cabins periodically
As we float into the current of the Koyokuk River,
we are comforted to see houses along the banks downstream.
Sore arms and shoulders are relieved after our long
paddle as the current of the river takes us to a
landing at the banks of Allakaket.
In Allakaket we meet an Athabaskan elder that helps
us ferry our equipment from the river to the airport.
He has one of the few vehicles in Allakaket as any
vehicle has to be flown in from Fairbanks. We spend
a few hours with the elder, learning about life in
Allakaket. We interview him about his 75 years in
the village and the arduous lifestyle the arctic
He remembers boating up the Alatna as a child on
hunting trips. No one had raingear, sleeping bags,
or a tent.
They slept out during the night, on the ground without
pad or sleeping bag, simply surviving any weather.
He gives us a tour of his smoke shack where hundreds
of salmon fillets are hanging in preparation for
the winter. Lifestyles have changed slightly in Allakaket,
modern conveniences are present, but the rigors of
life in the arctic still exist.
Although our existence is wholly different from the
natives in Allakaket, we do share one common interest—the
Gates of the Arctic. Our expedition is over and the
question remains, is it worth it? Is this place worth
the risk of remoteness? The answer is clear to me.
As many regions in Alaska are being opened to oil
drilling, foresting, and development, the Gates of
National Park remains protected. While our society
has expanded into every corner of the United States,
it is comforting to know that some public lands are
protected for their intrinsic value. I am eternally
grateful for the Gates of the Arctic National Park,
the Alatna River, and the opportunity to experience
its stark beauty, harshness, and solitude.
Matt Deines, a NOLS Instructor since 1999, has taught
courses in Alaska, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. This
fall, he's attending graduate school to study landscape