Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gates of the Arctic National Park

Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park was on the list of places to try see, during my off time while working at Denali. So, with an afternoon and 3 rest days, headed north to the park. For those that read this blog on a regular basis, you know I am primarily a wildlife photographer. The scenes at Gates were so inspiring and wildlife so scarce, that I primarily concentrated on landscape images on this trip.
Never being above the arctic circle before, I had no idea what to expect, other than knowing that there would be different looking tundra there and a mountain range.

My concern before leaving was that there would be smoke from forest fires potentially blocking the Dalton Highway/Haul road to Gates. Fires are a regular occurrence in a boreal forest. Fires are actually a good thing because it helps to rejuvenate the forest. Fortunate for me, the fires were just about out. The one fire scene pictured above was one of the few that I incurred along the road.

Traveling on the first part of the road north of Fairbanks, you see a mix of taiga and arctic tundra. Much to my surprise, the landscape was spectacular and much different than what is seen in Denali. During the first section of the road, you see rolling country like what is pictured above. The fireweed was just finishing up for the season, but viable enough to provide some dynamic color to the land.

The oil pipeline also follows the Dalton Highway/Haul road. This pipeline runs 800 miles from Valdez at Prince William Sound to Prudoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. After seeing the pipeline cross this vast land, I am amazed at what a feat this was to accomplish considering the harsh Alaska landscape and environment.

The tractor trailer trucks have the right of way on the road. After meeting some on the road you know who rules. I was lucky after having two rocks hit my windshield from passing trucks and not have a running windshield crack. The road does have some paved areas, but is mostly packed hard earth.

Continuing north you begin to enter an ecotone, leaving the taiga or boreal forest into rolling arctic tundra. Some of the rock formations sticking out of the tundra provided some interesting looking landscape photos.

Further north the Brooks Range started to appear. These were jagged odd shaped mountains, different than those I was used to seeing growing up in the east.

After crossing the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range had plenty of snow. There was a nice campground/visitor location when you officially crossed the Arctic Circle. A BLM (Bureau of Land Management) volunteer was on hand to provide you with a certificate. He also took my picture.

My plans were to have a plane drop me off into the Gates of the Arctic bush for a two night stay. After checking with a fellow park ranger at the park visitor center, I realized that a flight would be cost prohibitive. We discussed potential hikes into the park. This is a truly wild park, with no roads or maintained trails. To backpack in, you just pick a spot and start hiking. I chose the foothills of one of the mountains on the north side of the range. To get there, I had to drive over Antigun pass, which had plenty of snow and ice. The roads were hazardous and I was glad to make it to the north side of the range. After arriving and backpacking in for about 4.5 miles, I found a decent campsite. The scene you see is what I witnessed late that evening after it stopped snowing.

It was allot colder than I expected. Snow and ice were on the tent in the morning. On the second morning it was so cold when getting ready to leave, I had to put my boots into my sleeping bag to thaw them out so I could put them on. When I arrived at the truck and checked the temperature it was 16 degrees! I learned later that the temps hit 12 degrees that night. Man, was I glad to get back to the truck and turn on the heater.

I only discovered a limited number of species during my two day hike and trip. The Arctic Ground Squirrel and the Rock Ptarmigan are pictured above.

I left early in the morning (3:30 AM) so I could see the sunrise and also have time to supply up in Fairbanks before headed back into Denali. I was fortunate to see the sun touch the top of the mountains like the very top image and what is directly above. These images do not truly capture the beauty of seeing the unique blues in the sky and the vibrant color as the first sun light basked the mountains.

Back on the south side of the range on the way back, the mist in the mountains looked nice.

Also on the way back I photographed a Spruce Grouse and a cow Moose crossing the tundra. The tundra almost had a Monet type look with the fireweed and plants.

The park exceeded my expectations, even with the weather conditions. I was certainly glad to experience another unique part of the world and realize how lucky I am to be able to see and do these things.

Blue Skies.


Willard said...

What a great experience. That is truly amazing country.

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

Spectacular does not adequately describe the first photograph Ken nor does 'stunning'. WOW!!

These are places I would never see if it were not for you and the beauty of the area is awesome. I am not sure I would like the cold though as I am used to these wonderful hot temps of ours.

Thanks once again for sharing this wonderful experience with us.

Qiper said...

WOW This blog is better then reading an adventure novel - please document this great trip. Almost didn't recognise that young guy with the white beard - Santa?

Marka said...

Excellent photographs! I'm especially partial to the first picture, with the sunlight gracing the distant snow-covered peaks.

Elaine said...

Gorgeous photos! My husband used to do building maintainence for DOT on the Dalton. I have never went to the Gates of the Arctic but have been up the Dalton and over Atigun Pass. There is some beautiful country along the haul road and you have captured some striking images. A few weeks ago the Fireweed would have been spectacular, but no matter when you go someplace you are always going to miss something.

If you get a chance in the next week or so to get to Fairbanks, the Sandhill Cranes are congregating at Creamer's Field as they prepare to make their way south. Of course there's lots of Canada Geese and various other migrating birds, but the Cranes take center stage. It really is a beautiful sight and you are able to get quite close to them.

Juan C. Aguero said...

Very good history and excellent photos.

Andor Marton said...

That was an interesting adventure. At least you had some proper equipment ... not like me in Turkey in t-shirt and one morning we had ice in the tent. Brrr.
The reflection of the mountain in the lake is fantastic, but I think the ground squirrel is the best shot of this series.

Coy said...

Awesome photography Ken!

You may be primarily a wildlife photographer but you certainly did a bang up job here on this stunning scenery!

Bradley Myers said...

Ken, what a fantastic adventure. You seem to be making the best of your time in Alaska.

T and S said...

This is surely paradise on earth Ken. And your landscape images have showcased its beauty stunningly. The first one is top notch photography for sure.

Faye Pekas said...

Oh wow...... I have just spent some time looking through your photography and I am in awe. I love your wildlife shots especially.

This Is My Blog - fishing guy said...

Ken: I have to admit that shot makes me very jealous. You were able to capture such a neat reflection. You should frame it for sure.

Twisted Fencepost said...

Absolutely breathtaking pictures, Ken. I can only imagine how beautiful it was in person.
Yes, you are very luck to be able to experience the far north. Some of us will only experience what you share with us here.

Tim Rucci said...

Simply amazing, Ken. What a wonderful trip it must have been. As I was reading it I realized that you had quite a walk back to the truck in those cold boots.

I think you might have to break the "no boots inside the tent" rule next time you camp in subfreezing temperatures. Perhaps a lightweight boot bag with a zipper might be a good way to take the boots inside without getting the tent dirty.

gidje said...

what a lucky person you are indeed! great post. looking forward to the next one. ;o)

Adrian_O said...

That's spectacular! WOW.

kjpweb said...

Simply Gorgeous!

Fish Whisperer said...

Ken, you certainly have the wow factor. Great images.

jeannette stgermain said...

Breathtaking landscape! Am glad you took this pic. I never can see enough of planet earth!

Angel Gruev ( aG ) said...

Stunning shot !

check these pictures :)