Winter Wonderings

December 7th, 2015 by

Barbara & Ray Dog Team Trip N. Frk.

The Brooks Range adorns the brow of Alaska stretching in a shallow arc from east to west entirely north of the arctic circle. The jewels of this spiked crown include Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, the Arregich Peaks and Mt. Iggigpak. For nine months of the year it is a true winter wilderness of austere beauty. Temperatures can plunge well below minus sixty degree F. and fierce storms frequently lash the spare and rugged landscape. Only the hardiest wildlife remains active during the Long Cold. Caribou, wolves, moose, Dall sheep and the occasional wolverine make up the majority of larger winter active residents. Most other wild creatures either flee south to more temperate climes or literally bury themselves alive to conserve energy until the summer briefly returns.

These frigid mountains and lonely valleys have a haunting beauty that some find irresistible. Streams become solid pathways that explorers can follow into the most intimate recesses of the mountains. With the exception of Dall sheep, snowy hare and ptarmigan, winter active wildlife becomes more visible against a white backdrop. Bands of caribou walk single file along the lower Barbara Next to Citabria on Is. L. in Wintermountain slopes seeking spare patches of lichen and moss hidden beneath the snow. Wolves trot along the frozen streams following the path of least resistance in their constant search for prey.

Barbara and I began to probe the Brooks Range during the winter months when we moved to the Koyukuk River area in 1967. By this time we had our own small airplane which we equipped with skis for winter flying. In the early spring when the days grew longer we would occasionally fly to villages along the southern slopes of the Brooks Range and to the Nunamuit (lit. “Land People”)community of Anaktuvuk Pass on the northern edge of the range becoming acquainted with Inupiat and Koyukon residents. We did aerial tours among the mountains sometimes landing on frozen lakes for brief day visits. By 1970, we had a winter tent camp established on a small lake in the upper Alatna Valley of the Brooks Range where we spent occasional weekends.

We first crossed the extreme western terminus of the Brooks Range by dog team in 1974. In early 1976, I drove our team from the Koyukuk River village of Hughes northward through the villages of Alakaket and Bettles and then ascended the ice locked John River to the Inupiat Eskimo village of Anuktuvuk Pass effectively transiting the width of the central Brooks Range. This trip was part of a research project to document the subsistence uses of the central Brooks Range by local residents. The return trip crossed into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River and then descended southward to return home.

There were several other extended winter trips into the Gates of the Arctic over the following years. One of these took place in early 1981, when I flew Barbara, a team of seven huskies and sled and winter camping equipment to a frozen lake in the upper Noatak Valley. We spent ten days carrying out winter explorations of the upper Noatak region documenting our findings for park management. During this time we broke trail the length of the Kugurak River Valley and ascended the Noatak to its extreme headwaters on the eastern flanks of Iggikpak Mountain. For three days we camped next to an enchanting cluster of artesian warm springs with spouts of crystal clear water rising up to twelve inches in height. The subzero temperatures did not seem to affect their flow.

In March of 1982, we led a National Park Service expedition consisting of NPS employees and four dog teams on a winter ascent of the North Fork of the Koyukuk. The route extended over Ernie Creek Pass and down the Anaktuvuk River into the village of Anaktuvuk. It was necessary to break trail through deep snow the entire length of the North Fork. While visiting Anaktuvuk a late winter storm swept into the mountains and covered the land in more than a foot of fresh, wet snow that set off extensive overflow flooding of the North Fork and other streams. All surface traffic, including dog teams and snowmachines, was brought to a standstill. We were forced to fly personnel, dogs and equipment back to Bettles.

We truly loved the winter wilderness of the Brooks Range and other regions of northern Alaska. Over a period of twenty-five years our dog team pulled us across thousands of miles of often unbroken snow during. We expressed our gratitude to these faithful friends in the Acknowledgements of, Our Perfect Wild.

Ray Bane