Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

On Some Basecamp Trips - Unexplained Stone Walls (Neal Bograd, Arctic Treks)

Northern Alaska is not the trackless wilderness that many people perceive it to be. Humans have continuously explored and lived in the region and used its resources for more than 12,500 years.

It has been well established that the great continental glaciers of the last ice age locked up vast amounts of water as ice, and consequently lowered sea levels, creating a large land mass between Alaska and Siberia, called the Bering Land Bridge or Beringia. This land mass, more than 1,000 miles wide at one point, was above sea level from 25,000 to 14,000 years ago. Even though the rising seas broke through this land mass about 14,000 years ago, the present sea levels were not reached until 4,500 years ago. It was across the Bering Land Bridge and later across the strait itself that groups of people entered northwest Alaska. As successive waves of immigrants arrived in the Arctic, earlier immigrants moved southward across North America. Other groups stayed to explore, settle, and adapt to Alaska and the Arctic.

The earliest traces of human occupation in the central Brooks Range are still somewhat controversial. Artifacts from the Brooks Range, similar to those found in Paleo-Indian sites of temperate North America, which contain the remains of extinct mammoths and bison, have led some to argue for an ancient Indian tradition over 12,000 years in age. Other archaeologists believe these finds to be later in time, or only about 8,000 years old. The Putu site, located just northeast of the park and estimated to be over 11,000 years old, may be an example of a Paleo-Indian site in the vicinity of the park and preserve.

This controversy aside, the first demonstrable use of the area is by people of the American Paleo-Arctic tradition, which probably has its origins in northern Asia. They were nomadic hunters and gatherers, living off the land and traveling in small groups. Unlike many later groups, these early people did not depend on sea mammal hunting for their subsistence, but hunted caribou and other land animals. Northern Alaskan examples of this tradition include the Akmak and Kobuk assemblages from the Onion Portage site on the Kobuk River that are between 7,800 and 9,600 years old, and an assemblage from the Gallagher Flint Station, just northeast of the park that is 10,500 years old.

The next wave of people apparently moved into northern Alaska from the forested regions to the south and east. These Northern Archaic people arriving about 6,500 years ago, had a distinctively different material culture, and apparently depended on caribou and fishing in rivers and streams for their livelihood, staying inland and near the trees most of the time. Many archeologists believe that these people represent an Indian culture rather than an Eskimo culture.

At Onion Portage the Northern Archaic tradition persists from 6,000 to 4,200 years ago. Within the park the Tuktu-Naiyuksite (near Anaktuvuk Pass), with radiocarbon dates from 6,500 years ago, is a site from this time. Elsewhere within the unit, undated sites relating to the Northern Archaic tradition have been found along the upper Kobuk and the North Fork of the Koyukuk rivers, Kurupa Lake, and others.

About 4,200 years ago, arctic-oriented cultures again appeared in northern Alaska. Either a new wave of people or new ideas came into Alaska from Asia. The Arctic Small Tool tradition, so named because of their finely made stone tools, was a dynamic one, adapting to make efficient use of a wide range of arctic resources. The earliest culture of this tradition spread as far south as Bristol Bay and as far east as Greenland, occupying interior and coastal areas. These people moved throughout the Arctic over a long time span (the tradition lasted over 1,000 years). They were adept at the use of both the coast and the interior.

The earliest of these cultures, the Denbigh Flint complex, lasted at Onion Portage from 4,200 to 3,800 years ago, while at Mosquito Lake, just northeast of the park, it has been dated at about 2,200 years. The Ipiutak complex, the last complex of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, is represented at sites at Itkillik Lake and near Anaktuvuk Pass and continued until about 1,500 years ago.

By about 1,000 years ago, with the development of the Western Thule culture, the beginnings of modern Eskimo culture became visible in the archaeological record. Over the centuries, these people learned to fully exploit both the resources of the coast and the interior. They spread across the Arctic, eventually reaching as far east as Greenland and Labrador and as far south as the Alaska Peninsula. Local specializations developed. The people who lived along the coast of the Arctic Ocean were the Northern Maritime culture, while those who lived along the Noatak and Kobuk rivers are named the Arctic Woodland culture. The group that lived mostly in the interior part of the northern Alaska—in the Brooks Range and on the North Slope —are called the Arctic Tundra culture.

Within the park area, the historic Nunamiut Eskimos were the descendants of these groups. They spent most of their time in the mountains and on the tundra. However, they maintained cultural ties, through extensive travel and trading, with other groups in northern Alaska.

The south side of the Brooks Range and central Alaska has been inhabited by Athabaskan peoples for at least a thousand years. Several times in those centuries Athabaskan groups have moved into the Brooks Range. In historic times, such groups as the Dihai Kutchin also lived in the central Brooks Range and on its southern flanks.

Thus, the park and preserve contain archaeological sites representative of every cultural tradition known in northern Alaska. This important record will be expanded in the coming years, providing a more complete understanding of the complicated history of human use of the region.

In 1850 the central Brooks Range was still largely isolated from influences from European and Euro-American culture. Kobuk Eskimos and Koyukon and Kutchin Athabaskans made seasonal journeys into the area from the Kobuk, Koyukuk, and Chandalar River basins. Principal native activities within the area were hunting and fishing, which followed the seasonal movement of game and fish. Trading among these coastal people along travel routes allowed cultural exchange and the exchange of inland and coastal products, particularly caribou skins and seal oil. What is now Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve was an area of shifting cultural boundaries and periodic migrations to richer riverine and coastal environments when game concentrations shifted.

In the mid-1880s American explorers began probing the central Brooks Range. In 1885 and 1886, Lt. G.M. Stoney's and the U.S. Navy's expedition ascended the Kobuk River and explored the western and central Brooks Range, traveling near Anaktuvuk Pass. Lt. John Cantwell's Revenue Marine Service expedition explored the region via the Kobuk and Noatak rivers at the same time. The first white men to enter the Koyukuk River drainage north of the Arctic Circle were Lt. Henry Allen and Pvt. Fred Fickett of the U.S. Army in 1885. In some cases, native people guided these explorers. Allen's expedition resulted in the beginning of prospecting on the Upper Koyukuk River. Gold was discovered in paying quantities at Tramway Bar on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River in 1893. Trading posts and riverboats began to appear on the mid-reaches of the Koyukuk, and the stage was set for the gold rushes of 1898, which overflowed from the Klondike to the Kobuk and Koyukuk rivers. In sequence, "Old" Bettles, Coldfoot, and Wiseman became established mining and trading camps. For the next three decades miners scoured the southern flanks of the central Brooks Range with varying success. A marginal lobe of mining activity centered around the North Fork of the Koyukuk and its tributary Glacier River within the southeastern sector of what is now the national park. These placer workings were relatively unimportant compared to those on the Middle and South Forks of the Koyukuk and the upper Chandalar just to the east.

Also, around the turn of the century, prospectors reached the area of the Noatak River headwaters. Records of miners are left in place names of the region, such as Midas and Lucky Six creeks. These names were based on hope rather than results because no worthwhile gold strikes were ever made in the area.

Cabins from the various waves of miners and trappers who followed provide the few tangible historic resources of the park area. Most have been rendered to ruins by time and weather. To date, numerous ruins have been identified as well as two standing cabins, the Yale cabin on the Glacier River built by a prospector and the Vincent Knorr cabin on Mascot Creek, a carefully constructed early miner's cabin.

The flurry of mining activity triggered a series of significant U.S. Geological Survey expeditions. Beginning with the F.C. Schrader and T.G. Gerdine expedition in the Chandalar/Koyukuk region in 1899, a heroic tradition of surface transits of the central Brooks Range was established by the leading field men of the Geological Survey. Mendenhall, Maddren, Mertie, and P.S. Smith are only a few of those who, with Schrader and Gerdine, mark this period of scientific exploration. Paralleling the geographic, geologic, and mineral studies and mapping of the Geological Survey, the work of noted biologists, such as the Murie brothers, and later anthropological studies furthered the scientific tradition in this vast mountain laboratory.

A profound event in the Brooks Range was the exploratory saga of Robert Marshall. Beginning in 1929 he joined some of the old hands in extensive explorations into the North Fork country and, at the mountain portal leading to the inner recesses of the range, bestowed the name Gates of the Arctic. Based largely on information gathered from local informants, he wrote popular books about his sojourns and about the social structures in this isolated region. More than this, Marshall established a philosophy and a literature of ultimate wilderness for the central Brooks Range. His work and perceptions over an intense decade before his early death influenced the development of wilderness preservation ideals in America and the creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Throughout the historic period, native and nonnative people mingled in cultural and social dynamics shaped by isolation and interdependence. Mining, transportation, trapping, and trading patterns were, in turn, shaped by this integration of people and economic interests in the evolving communities of the region. This is a major theme of social history on the brink of the Gates wilderness.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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