Hiking in the Arctic Refuge

A Week to Wander
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Sunset in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Afterglow on the Aichilik

Our first morning we hike to a gray, nameless, cone-shaped mountain overlooking the coastal plain. Leaving the river, we cut across lowland tundra. From a distance, it appears smooth and monotonous, a green rolling carpet spread between gray and brown hills. Up close, that monotone green is transformed into a complex mix of grasses, shrubs, mosses, lichens, and wildflowers. And it's anything but smooth.

We pick our way through a maze of sedge tussocks, mushroom-shaped grass mounds that are the stuff of arctic legend. Narrow at the base and wide on top, the tussocks are unstable to walk upon; any step slightly off center makes them lean this way or that. It's possible to walk between the tussocks, but the boggy ground between them quickly soaks boots. There's no easy solution, but at least we don't have heavy packs to balance.

Life at the Top
We gradually ascend and the tussocks give way to alpine tundra; this is pleasant, like walking on a dry, spongy cushion. We stop for lunch—the usual mix of nuts, fruit, cheese, chocolate—on a windswept knoll, then jump across a clearwater creek and leave tundra for talus. Forty minutes of strenuous rock-scrambling brings us to the hilltop, where we look upon an immense landscape of lakes, tundra plains, braided rivers, and craggy peaks. It's a wild and ancient land, one that inspires reverence.

Our ridgetop reverie ends too soon, replaced by a picture-taking frenzy. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Posing for group photos, we're transformed from wilderness explorers into grinning tourists.

On our way back to camp, we spot two golden eagles soaring above the ridge we've just left. Later in the week we'll see Dall sheep, red foxes, songbirds, ptarmigan, a couple of caribou—Porcupine herd stragglers, we figure—and a grizzly bear sow with two cubs. And we'll catch grayling and arctic char in the Aichilik's cold waters.

A Hike with a View
Continued hot weather prompts some of us to switch from daytime to evening walkabouts our last few days in the refuge; temperatures here may drop 10, 20, or more degrees at night. Our final evening, two of us ascend a 2,500-foot limestone hill southwest of camp and we're again rewarded with expansive views in all directions. To the north, beyond a series of humpbacked hills, is the coastal plain stretching to the arctic coast, where earth and sky meet in a white line: the ice-covered Beaufort Sea. To the east, across the Aichilik, are lowland plains that grade gently into tundra-covered knobs. To the south and west are row after row of rugged ridges, culminating in the snowcapped tops of 8,000- and 9,000-foot peaks, 30 miles away. The landscape invites further exploration; I wonder what's over the next pass, and the pass beyond it.

We descend as the sun drops behind the mountains. Above the darkening landscape a twilight glow paints the northern sky yellow, then orange and crimson. Even at midnight, in mid-August, the heavens remain too bright for stars. For much of the summer, the sun never leaves the arctic sky, though it may briefly hide behind high peaks.

Our pilot arrives on schedule and too quickly we're headed south, back to pavement and restaurants and hot showers. In seven days we've seen no other humans. The solitude and wildness have been a blessing.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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