The ‘Gates of the Arctic’ gained their name from Bob Marshall, a forester, writer and wilderness activist in the early 1900’s. The actual ‘Gates’ are named for two peaks Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags (pictured above) that Marshall named as the ‘Gates of the Arctic’. Most people visiting the park elect to fly in and go on a rafting trip or hike into the backcountry. Without having infinite finances at our disposal we opted for a less traditional method. I think Bob Marshall, would have approved.
Wiseman marks mile 189 of the 414-mile Dalton Highway, it is also famous for being the setting of Bob Marshall’s book Arctic Village. Just north of Wiseman, though, is a little road called the Nolan Mining Road. It leads back to a gold mine and just where it trails off to the right it places you a short 2-mile walk from the boundary of Gates of the Arctic National Park.
This would be how we would enter the park. The weather was only moderately miserable. It had been raining the day before and it had rained when we got up in the morning. We began our hike and were lucky that there was a break in the rain. We were warned about hiking in the area, they said that you could assume to travel about half as far as you would expect on normal terrain and the tussocks that covered the ground were described as bowling balls covered with grass. It was the perfect combination for breaking an ankle; we avoided all injury as we were only hiking with daypacks.
Most of the hike was relatively uneventful. We hiked past a lake that was just outside the boundary of the park. Trevor and I were conflicted; one of our goals was to get into a body of water in every National Park. We made a concession; we would jump in the Arctic Ocean to satisfy the goal. The park has Arctic in its name, so it seems to fit. We also figured that the Arctic Ocean would be sufficiently frigid to overcome any doubt that we had half-assed anything. As we hiked my eyes were glued to Google Maps. Were we in the park yet? I kept checking to make sure that we officially set foot in Gates of the Arctic.
We crossed the park boundary. On one hand I was happy and excited, we had made it into the park. We were north of the Arctic Circle, we had driven up one of the craziest roads in the world and we had hiked into one of the most secluded National Parks in the country. On the other hand, it was over just as quickly as it happened. We didn’t get to spend a night, we didn’t get to raft down the Koyukuk, and we simply set foot, took a picture and were done. I will have to come back; it’s the only way. Hopefully my return will include a raft, some friends and a damn good time.
The weather was liable to turn at any moment so we started hiking back to the car; we opted to hike around the lake so that we could cross some new terrain. Keep in mind that there are no trails; we were just carving our own path through spruce trees and keeping our eyes peeled for any wild things. As we hiked around the other side of the lake we moved out of spruce trees and muskeg to a riverbed that was surrounded by thick alder. The thing about the alder that we were hiking in is that it was chest height or higher and difficult to see.
At one point I stopped to take some pictures. Lindsy took the lead, with Trevor five yards behind her, and me five yards behind Trevor. As I was putting my camera into my pocket I looked up to see Lindsy sprinting towards us screaming ‘BEAR BEAR BEAR!!!’
Shit, shit shit!!!! In the next half a second my mind went into overdrive. Do I turn and run as well? Do I hold my ground and ready my hiking poles? Bear spray? Will it work? Can I get it ready to spray in time? Trevor and I both responded by telling her to stop running. My heart rate went from 55-60 to a pulsing 180 in two seconds. It felt like a bass drum being played at a snare drum pace. I told myself. Be calm. You have to be calm. My heart raced and my adrenaline rushed through my veins, BE COOL! Miraculously the bear had run off to our left, in a 90-degree direction from where we were. We stood and quickly discussed what to do. The bear was obviously just as scared as we were. Let’s not wait around for it to get curious and come back. Stay close together, make noise and get back to the car. We were all a little shaken up, we were also very lucky. You are not supposed to run from bears, that’s what prey does. Bears chase prey. We got lucky because the bear probably didn’t hear, see or smell us until Lindsy was right up on it. When the bear finally saw her it was so spooked that it didn’t even try and figure out if we were prey.
We hiked back, and were quite happy when we made it to the car. You can prepare for any situation, but you never know how you will react until it actually happens. We didn’t do everything perfectly, but nothing bad happened and we learned a little bit about ourselves. Let’s try and make sure we don’t have to learn something about ourselves again, at least when it comes to bears.