Expedition Planner: Wild Alaska
ANILCA set aside a lot of wild land. Here are a few choice options:
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
No trails. No visitor center. No designated campsites. Gates is pure and undiluted wilderness, more than 7.5 million acres of it. Caribou outnumber human visitors 100 to 1. Park boundaries take in the western portion of the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in the United States, including such peaks as the 8,510-foot Mt. Igikpak and the pair of swooping peaks (Frigid Crags, 5,501 feet, and Boreal Mountain, 6,654 feet) that form the namesake “gates.” Popular hikes include routes through the granite spires of Arrigetch Peaks and stream hopping along the North Fork of the Koyukuk River from Summit Lake down through the “gates.” But with more than 7 million acres to choose from, this is one place where you can pick a point on the map and go.
Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, (907) 456-0281; www.nps.gov/gaar.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Squint your eyes. Feel the chilled wind blowing down off the glacier. Listen closely to the fizzing and popping of melting icebergs, and the sudden “slap!” as a humpback whale leaps from the water and crashes down. Glacier Bay is a place where time can seem as frozen as the ice in the 17 tidewater glaciers. If you could hit fast-forward, you’d see the long, ice-blue fingers of those glaciers pulling back, exposing land hidden under thousands of feet of ice until a few decades ago. Although it may seem still to our eyes, Glacier Bay is in the midst of a geologic dance, and the best way to join in is by water. Sea-kayak up the lesser-traveled Muir Inlet and its maze of other inlets (Adams, Wachusett, and others) and find a trackless beach to camp on. From there, you have 3.2 million acres to hike, or you can just sit and listen to the slow, unending passage of time.
Contact: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, (907) 697-2230; www.nps.gov/glba.
Tongass National Forest
More than 90 percent of southeastern Alaska is Tongass National Forest. At almost 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country. It includes two national monuments (Misty Fjords and Admiralty Island) and 20 designated wilderness areas totaling
5.7 million acres. Here you will find the greatest concentration of bald eagles and grizzlies anywhere in the world. There are many short, developed trails and a scattering of longer ones like the Deer Mountain Trail near Ketchikan, or the 63-mile Honker Divide Canoe Route in the Thorne Bay Ranger District. But one of the best ways to experience the Tongass is by reserving one of the 160 backcountry recreation cabins, some of which can be accessed only by foot or bush plane. Many offer endless off-trail hiking opportunities.
Contact: Tongass National Forest, (907) 586-8751.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
This is a place where the summer sun doesn’t set between May and August, where 17 species of fish dart like flashes of light in six major rivers and countless side streams, where musk ox sweep the tundra like runaway dust mops, and wolves howl to the northern lights in winter. With such wildlife riches plus the 160,000-animal Porcupine caribou herd, no wonder the Refuge has been called “America’s Serengeti” (its 19 million acres make it the nation’s second-largest national wildlife refuge). Despite its expansion by ANILCA in 1980, the Refuge remains threatened by the potential of oil and gas drilling on its 1.5-million-acre coastal plain. See what still needs to be preserved by hiking the trail-less shoulders of the Romanzof Mountains, through Caribou Pass, or rafting rivers like the Hulahula and Kongakut. Then, come home and join the fight to preserve the “biological heart” of the refuge, the coastal plain.
Contact: Refuge Manager, (907) 456-0250; www.r7.fws.gov/nwr/arctic/arctic.html.
Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve’s 2.5 million acres protect 115 miles of the Yukon and all 106 miles of the Charley, as well as its entire 1.1-million-acre watershed. Peregrine falcons dart overhead like feathered arrows, black bear stalk among the shadows, and moose high-step through the bogs. Human history is preserved here, too. The Yukon was a primary thoroughfare during the gold rush of the late 1800s. Gold fever has long since passed, but the Yukon flows on. Canoes can be rented upstream in Eagle, then dropped off 100 miles downstream in Circle for a good weeklong paddle. Access to the Charley requires a bush flight, but this is considered by many to be one of the premiere wilderness rivers in Alaska.
Contact: Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, (907) 547-2234; www.nps.gov/yuch.