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.