Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
In the far northern reaches of our nation, there rest vast tracts of pristine wilderness; remote, accessible only with great effort and devoid of all but a few people. This is truly the last frontier, just as primeval as were the Rocky Mountain states two centuries ago. Here, far above the Arctic Circle, people are few and roads are nonexistent.
Where & When
At more than 13,000 square miles, Gates of the Arctic is America’s second largest national park—larger than the entire state of Maryland. One of seven Alaskan parks created in 1980, it is also our farthest north. This means that for several weeks in June, around the time of the summer solstice when the North Pole is closest to the sun, daylight lasts for 24 hours. The sun skims across the mountaintops but never really sets. Depending upon atmospherics, some of the best light on the mountains can even occur as late as 11:00 p.m. This makes for lots of great photo opportunities and a real sleep deficit.
If going in June, be prepared to share your visit with hordes of thirsty mosquitoes. This makes one realize that we humans are not as high on the food chain as we would like to believe. August is more hospitable. While the days are not as long, the light is beautiful, fall color is already on its way, and the biting insects are far fewer.
Among the best spots in Gates of the Arctic are the spectacular and sharply serrated Arrigetch Peaks, the Brooks Range with its countless cirques and several national wild and scenic river drainages.
For the most part, the wildlife in Gates of the Arctic include grizzlies (brown bears), wolves, foxes and falcons. Tens of thousands of caribou traverse huge tracts of Gates of the Arctic during their regular migrations. If you can catch a sighting, enjoy it. Their prancing gait is really something to behold.
Be careful around bears and very quiet with the often skittish caribou. You need a good bit of luck to bring home good images of these mammals. They are camera shy, and glimpses are usually fleeting.
The available logistical options will have a great impact on your ability to get around and, therefore, your choice of subjects. To get into Gates of the Arctic, start from Bettles, Alaska.
Getting to Bettles requires some planning. You can either drive several hundred miles up the Dalton Highway from Anchorage to the Coldfoot area and then fly in via pre-arranged air taxi. It might be easier to fly or drive to Fairbanks where a few commercial flights to Bettles are available. This tiny hamlet consists of just a few buildings hugging the edges of a bush landing strip. These include two small inns, a coffee shop, flight offices and a National Park Service visitor center. The village makes a great jumping off point and an even better place to rest up on your return.
Planning Pays Off
Once in Bettles, you have two very different choices to explore the heart of the Gates of the Arctic, and both require advance planning. An air taxi can fly you and your gear into a pre-selected spot within the park where you can begin backpacking to your heart’s desire. Alternatively, a rafting or kayaking trip might be your preferred ticket to exploring the Alaskan bush. A raft will move you and your gear down a river—such as the John, Alatna or the North Fork Koyukuk—flowing through some of the most phenomenal scenery in all of North America. It’s easy enough to beach your craft and hike for a while.
In addition to your camping and cooking gear and food, make sure to take a large can of bear spray. Many people also choose to carry a firearm, which is allowed here. Coupled with your photo gear, the weight can add up quickly.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the ultimate wilderness. You will be completely on your own. Do not attempt an adventure like this unless you have the highly developed wilderness and survival skills needed to stay safe.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was an artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. E mail: email@example.com.