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Spring 2004 Issue
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Wilderness Facts
Leaders in Wilderness Preservation
Tebenkof Bay
Tribute to a True Wilderness Leader
Paddling at the Edge of the World
Alaskan Rain & the Rivine River
Rising
The Way It Was…
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Paddling at the Edge of the World
By Matt Deines


“Keith, I think we should look at the map,” I 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 landscape. A sense of elation enters me as I’m finally floating a river instead of slowly hiking along its rocky and uneven banks. In contrast to looking down at each step, my eyes are free to gaze around at the austere and 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 across my face just as the mountains stretch towards the boreal forest on the horizon. I am smiling at the edge of the world, the Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska.

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 days 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 sub-arctic 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 Park 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 could 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 the land based on endurance, cleverness and respect. This relationship still exists today as the terrain we pass 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 signs 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 see salmon nets, tarps, and small cabins periodically along the river.

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 demands. 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 the Arctic 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 architecture.

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