Alaska's Ultimate Wilderness

Leave No Trace
By Buck Tilton
Exploring the tundra

A spruce tree in the Arctic, although we saw none along the Noatak, may have reached only inches in diameter yet may have lived hundreds of years. The tundra, despite its durability in the face of extreme weather, contains numerous fragile species. A crushed lichen may not recover in many lifetimes of man.

We hiked on trails, the few that existed, and spread out to lighten our impact when there were no trails. Our feces we buried individually, at least 200 feet from river or lake, packing out or burning our toilet paper. Campsites were selected with care, gravel bars sustaining use well, and mossy flats above the river bouncing back fairly well after being camped on. We built no fires, cooking on a propane stove or on charcoal in a small grill. We carried in the charcoal, and carried out the ashes, removing as well, when we broke camp, all signs that we had been visitors.

Land and Form

Permafrost — permanently frozen ground underlying all tundra — occasionally forces up a low hill or mound called a"pingo," and we set one camp near Pingo Lake, near the largest pingo in this region. The hike to the pingo crossed the tundra, an experience, this time of year, that combined wading in shallow water with striding from one clump of brush or grass to another.

From the top of the mound, the view across the plain to the river offered a teasing sample of what must be visible from the ridge that rose behind us. So we marched on, off the pingo, up the ridge, through the most lush patch of blueberries I've ever seen. A good time for a break, we agreed, finding the berries as delightful to the tongue as they were to the eye. "I yove'em," Zachary, squatting in the midst of the bushes, mumbled from a stuffed mouth.

From the ridge, the immensity of this area began to take up residence in the heart. The rounded tops of the mountains near the river give way to the ragged peaks of the higher Brooks Range looming east and south. To the north, vision blurred past the peaks to where the huge Arctic Coastal Plain rolled away to the distant sea. To the west, the river's valley widened as the river itself dug deeper into the earth, sometimes flanked by vertical walls, its course sometimes altered slightly by wide crescents of gravel extending from shore. Rock, wind, tundra, and water. Not a tree in sight. Not the slightest evidence that another human has been anywhere near, ever.

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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