Dawn. The zipper on the tent is stiff with frost. Outside, the light seems as brittle and cold as the ice on the edges of the Noatak River where we are camped. A blanket of fresh snow powders the shoulders of Mt. Igikpak, pink now against the sunrise. I stretch stiffly and turn in a slow circle, inspecting the new snow on each of the peaks that surround the river, before moving toward the campfire near its bank.
The mound that was last night's fire is still warm. I bury my hands in the soft, white ashes to work the stiffness from my fingers before rekindling the fire for coffee. There is no movement from the other tents. No wind. Just the soft sounds of the river moving quietly along. It's morning in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Twenty years ago, several thousand miles away, something happened to ensure that mornings would still be like this in wild Alaska. On December 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the most sweeping conservation initiative in this country's history. The bill itself was just 186 pages. A printed copy of it would be invisible against the arcing sweep of any one of the mountains holding up the sky this morning. But its effect was immense: 12 national parks and monuments and 11 national wildlife refuges were created, 26 rivers were added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system, and 56 million new acres of federally protected wilderness were designated. In all, the act set aside 104.3 million acres of wild land in Alaska-places like this stretch of riverbank in Gates of the Arctic.
It's difficult to think of laws on a morning like this, beside a wild river, with the metal coffeepot scraping against ice as I dip it full of water. The water is as clear as air, so cold it makes your teeth ache. I blow on my hands to warm them before returning to the fire to start the coffee.
Halfway back to the fire, I stop. Pressed into the mud between the river and the tents is a fresh grizzly track. I kneel next to it, the mud soaking through the knee of my pants, and place my hand inside the great track. A place like Gates, where it's still possible to come upon a line of fresh grizzly prints on the shore, was wild long before the passage of ANILCA. This is old-fashioned wilderness, echo-swallowing, border-defying, leave-you-weak-in-the-knees wilderness. It's a place where space is as much a part of the landscape as are the caribou or the wind.
No law created it. In fact, nothing we do can ever "create" more wilderness. We can only destroy it. Or preserve it. ANILCA simply said that these places should not be destroyed.
That concept, even when it bears the full legal weight of an act of Congress, can seem as thin and fragile as new morning ice when your palm is pressed into the track of a grizzly. But the truth of the matter is that if there are going to be places where grizz and wolf tracks still stitch along a riverbank, where tens of thousands of caribou pull the winter down from the mountains behind them, if we are going to have any wild places left, it will only be by a conscious human choice. Jimmy Carter made that choice for us 20 years ago, and we're 100 million acres-100 million wild Alaskan acres-richer for it.
It is not a perfect law. The compromises and political wrangling necessary to get it passed left open the possibility of oil and gas development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Although ANILCA set aside 5.4 million acres of wilderness in the Tongass National Forest, it also mandated federal funding for logging quotas of 4.5 billion board feet every decade, exposing vast stands of old-growth timber to chainsaws. Other gaping loopholes allow miners to gouge streambeds in search of gold.
"The act is not an end," said one conservationist who helped shape its passage, "but a beginning." And what a beginning it was.
On a morning like this, you can dwell on what the act didn't do, or you can listen to the whistle of wings as a half-million pintails stir the air over the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, or to the white thunder of glaciers calving in Glacier Bay National Park. You can sit and imagine how the sunlight looks just now, pink and gold, reflecting off the ice columns of Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, or try to name the colors in the plumage of puffins gathering on the cliffs of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. You can watch ribbons of mist thread through the treetops of Misty Fjords National Monument, or look for ancient footprints on the beaches of Cape Krusenstern. All of these areas were either initially preserved or enlarged by the passage of ANILCA.
"The mountains," said President Carter when he signed the bill, "the rivers and lakes that harbor salmon and trout, the game trails of caribou and grizzly in the Brooks Range, the marshes where our waterfowl spent summer, all these are now preserved, now and I pray, for all time to come."
But I'm not thinking any of those things. Instead, I'm following the grizzly's tracks on the beach, stepping where it stepped, matching its gait in a kind of dance, imagining the animal at the end of those tracks still moving, backlit, perhaps, by the morning sun, heading into some nameless mountain range. The only thing I'm thinking about is President Carter's words as he signed ANILCA into law:
"Let us celebrate."
My awkward dance in the tracks of a grizzly seems an appropriate way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of such a landmark piece of conservation legislation. As I head back to camp, the mountains all around me are bathed in a wild light, almost glowing at the start of another wild day in a still-wild place. It is morning in wild Alaska.
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.