The Last Frontier: Gates of the Arctic National Park - Part 3 of 3
On my trip through Gates of the Arctic I had the opportunity to try packrafting for the first time. In fact, one of the reasons I went with this Gates of the Arctic guided trip over others was because of the two day packrafting extension. I thought it would be a great introduction to the sport as it is relatively expensive and I wanted to make sure I liked it before investing any money into it. Turns out I love it!
Our guide provided us with Alpacka Rafts and gave us a tutorial on how to set them up and before long we were all catching and siphoning air into our own rafts! It was another beautiful, calm day and I took the opportunity (multiple times) to capture the mountain that has no name perfectly reflected in Circle Lake.
Once we were all ready the guide showed us how to enter the water and paddle and just like that we were on our way! To get to the Alatna River, our rafting destination, we would need to paddle to the end of Circle Lake and then follow small streams to a beaver pond and then portage about a half a mile due to a beaver damming the pond. However, that is when the water level is high, the water level happened to be low during my visit so we were in for a rude awakening at the end of Circle Lake. While the previous year it was possible to paddle through the swamp-like grassy section to get to the pond this year the water level was not high enough to allow for that. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean the grass was dry. It was submerged in a few inches of standing water and we were going to have to haul our Alpacka rafts and backpacks through the swampy terrain. Every step I took my foot sank into the water and then made a horrible suctioning sound. The smell was also rancid and the stinky mud was now covering us up to our knees.
It was at this point one of my group members pointed out a large moose and her calf at the shores of Circle Lake not more than 50 yards from us. Our guide had a few nasty run-ins with moose so the second she saw the mama moose she urged us to pick up the pace, something that was tricky when my feet were sinking fast in the mud. Finally, after much struggling and cursing, we made it to the beaver pond. We boarded our rafts again and paddled to the end of the pond where we once again got out and portaged our boats. This portage was much easier. There was a social trail leading from the pond to the river and it was completely dry. By the time we were actually paddling on the river it was late afternoon and we were all incredibly thankful we didn’t choose to do this after hiking down from The Terraces. We shuddered at the thought of that potential day.
We paddled just three miles and decided to call it a day. We found a beautiful stretch of gravel bar that was large enough to accommodate our tents and a kitchen and food storage area.
It was during dinner on this night that the group member who pointed out the moose earlier in the day stood up and pointed at the gravel bar across the river and downstream from us and said “that looks like a huge coyote or a wolf!”. We all looked. It was quite a distance away and I could only make our a large black form, it was looking at us. It appeared as if it might have been a bear but then it turned and trotted in a way only canines do. Just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Another group member got a photo of it and we had to zoom in quite a ways but we could see the creature resembled, quite unmistakably, a wolf. Still, we doubted ourselves because wolves are such elusive creatures, so we showed the picture to the park rangers when we returned to Bettles and they confirmed it was a wolf. It was another reminder of how we aren’t alone at all in the wilderness. We may have gone days without seeing even a ground squirrel but the wildlife is there. You won’t see them but they will definitely see you.
The next day we lazily paddled 17 miles down the Alatna as it slowly passed the no-named mountain and new mountains came into view. The shore was lined with trees and thick foliage and after the previous night’s encounter I tried to will the animals to show their faces, if only for another brief moment. They didn’t. We didn’t see another group of people either. We had the Alatna and the mountainous landscape that surrounded it entirely to ourselves, only sharing it with the shy animals that probably emerged from the woods only after we rounded the river bend. This was the most peaceful day. There were many times I stopped paddling and just let the current slowly carry me so I could stare off into the distance.
Our final campsite was once again on a gravel bar. We chose to camp a quarter of a mile walk away from Takahula Lake, our take-out point. Takahula Lake is a popular lake for people to get dropped off and picked up at so there was already another group on the gravel bar, they made room for us and we set up camp, made dinner, and then retired to the tent for the last time.
I suddenly woke up around 3am. Initially I thought I woke up because my shoulder had grown sore and I needed to change positions again but then I heard what sounded like an animal moaning in the distance. Then another chimed in, followed by more low moans and then a higher pitched howl. Wolves. They howled for about a minute and then went silent. It was eerie and I wasn’t sure what I was hearing was real. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me after spending so many days in the wilderness. The next morning I asked the group if they heard the animals the night before and only two others had. Even though I never saw the wolves it is one of my favorite wildlife experiences to date. Hearing a pack of wolves howl in the wilderness of Alaska is bone-chilling and magical at the same time.
Our final day was spent cleaning and airing out the packrafts and packing everything back up. Our take-out time was scheduled for 2pm so we had an easy morning. At 1:30pm we made the quarter mile walk to the shores of Takahula Lake and eagerly waited for our plane to pick us up. 2 o'clock passed, and then it was 2:30, then 3:00. Our guide assured us that this was typical for bush flights. But then 3:30 arrived and she used her sat phone to call the lodge and ask if our pilot had left for us yet. The lodge told us that our pilot was on a flightsee tour until 5 and then he would head over to get us. Somehow there was a miscommunication along the line so our 2pm take-out time suddenly turned to 7pm. It’s funny how you can spend over a week in the backcountry and have the time of your life but if you extend the trip an extra five hours everyone is agitated and anxious. We were mentally prepared to already be back at the Bettles Lodge by this point. We should have been showered, used a real toilet, eaten a hearty meal, and emailed our loved ones but instead we were sitting on the shore of a lake being attacked by bugs and we were just ready to be picked up.
Finally we heard a plane in the distance, we tried not to get our hopes up because a few planes had already passed and turned out to not be our ride, but this one passed low overhead, landed on the lake and then began puttering towards us. It was our ride!!
We loaded our packs into the plane and piled in. I sat in the back, alone, and stared out at the same landscape I had just days earlier. The landscape remained exactly the same, as it has for hundreds of years, but I felt like a new person. I had successfully spent ten days and nine nights in the Alaskan wilderness, I bushwhacked, I saw views few others have and I conquered my fear of the unknown.