In the far north of Alaska where the sun circles the sky in June and trees seem like a distant memory, the Brooks Range rises from the coastal plain with ridge after rocky ridge after rocky ridge.
We start our trip in the mountains, the geologic basement of the Brooks Range where colorful ridges and cliffs of folded marine sediment tower above our camp. These are amongst the oldest rocks in the region. With plenty of time to reach our final destination we can dawdle a bit here where the topography is dramatic and we will take time to climb long ridges and dramatic peaks in search of ever more spectacular vistas.
Soon enough we will shoulder packs and head down the creek following eons worth of caribou trails heading north 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 north, we climb a 2,000 ft pass and cross into the Egaksrak watershed. While we are at our highest elevation in the trip, we might as well drop packs and climb a peak with views back into the higher peaks and towards the coastal plain. Then we descend.
Beyond the headwaters, the valley grows broad. 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.
As we approach the coastal plain, the mountains turn to foothills 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 might see large groups of caribou feeding on the greening tundra, nursing young calves, 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.
Near the end of the trip we intend to climb a small mountain at the very northern edge of the Brooks Range. From the top there are views of the coastal plain stretching to the Arctic Coast beyond with sea ice glittering in the Arctic sun. It is a highlight of the trip!
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.