In the far north of Alaska where the sun circles the June sky and trees seem like a distant memory, the Brooks Range rises from the coastal plain with ridge after rocky ridge.
We start our trip near the northern edge of the Brooks Range where colorful ridges and cliffs of folded marine sediments tower above our camp. These are amongst the oldest rocks in the region, fossil-rich, and fascinating. With plenty of time to reach our final destination we can dawdle a bit here and learn about the natural history of the Arctic.
Soon enough we will shoulder packs, following caribou trails heading northwest towards the famed coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. We follow the caribou trails etched into blooming hillsides and walk along the cobble bars crossing the creek and crossing again in search of the best footing. Dall sheep and bears are common in the high country and we may see small bands of caribou, mostly bulls following the same trails we walk upon.
Hiking west, we emerge from the mountains and get our first views of the coastal plain stretching to the Arctic Ocean beyond. From this new vantage we can climb a ridge and if the weather is right we can see the gleaming ice on the ocean to the north.
Then we descend into a new and lovely river valley. Once we find a place to ford and are safely on the other side, we find long sandbars where the hiking is good and skirt the willow thickets where the walking is more challenging. Moose winter in these valleys and their sign is abundant. We may also see ptarmigan, red fox, wolf and if very lucky, wolverine. The area is very rarely visited by hikers. The only tracks we see are left by wildlife.
Eventually we climb out of the wildlife rich valley back onto the ridges where the vistas are endless and we can again see the coastal plain and the sky yawns in all directions. The combination of endless daylight and seemingly endless space is intoxicating.
The further north we get the more likely we are to see large groups of caribou feeding on the greening tundra, nursing young calves, and always walking and bleating. Many years they favor areas at the edge of the mountains so we will plan to spend a few days here among the last hills looking and hoping to see caribou.
Where there are caribou, there are those animals who live from their unwariness: wolves and grizzly bears. And where the two join, there are scavengers like fox, wolverine, and ravens. This is a trip with excellent potential for wildlife encounters. It is a great hike with or without caribou, but we will keep our fingers crossed and our eyes peeled.
Hiking in the arctic is an “off trail” experience, so a six mile day can take as long and be as taxing as ten miles in other parts of the world. The footing is a mix of dry tundra benches and gravel bars with various kinds of wet tundra mixed in. We will have to contend with some tussock fields but mostly the walking is flat and gravely. There is a single mountain pass to cross and several stream crossings so expect tired legs and wet boots daily.
This is a good trip for both experienced backpackers and newcomers to Alaska in good shape who are willing to push themselves. Experience with overnight backpacking prior to the trip is highly recommended. Each hiker will get 15-20 pounds of food and community gear to carry. Due to the small party size and the trip’s duration, expect to start the trip with a pack weighing no less than 45 pounds.