The call of the Alaskan wild

Travel Destinations — By on February 12, 2008 at 7:25 am

Ever fantasized about getting far away from it all? It’s hard to get much further away than a 10-day rafting trip above the Arctic Circle through the remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, so that’s where Paula Stone recently headed with her husband. She wrote about their experiences for the Washington Post.

But my biggest source of worry was the ANWR’s remoteness, at once one of this trip’s biggest draws and greatest risks. I tried not to think about the fact that our journey would begin 175 miles above the Arctic Circle, 175 miles from the nearest (dirt) road and 350 miles from comprehensive medical care in Fairbanks, or that we’d be pretty much completely out of contact with the rest of the world. I took some comfort in knowing we’d have a ground-to-air radio for an emergency — until I learned that using it would depend on an aircraft’s being within our line of sight. (Lots of luck!)

So why was I putting myself through this angst? Because I wanted the chance to witness one of North America’s last remaining — and one of the planet’s most remote and pristine — wild expanses, home to a huge diversity of flora and fauna, a place with no roads, no campgrounds, no hiking trails, not a single trace of human disturbance anywhere. Everything I had read about the ANWR enticed me: “the last great wilderness,” a sacred “little portion of our planet left alone.” If my brain ever started to churn with anxious what-ifs, I just hoped I could remember: Don’t anticipate. Enjoy each moment. What will be will be.

Leaving Fairbanks, we flew north in a single-engine commercial plane, crossing the Arctic Circle and landing on a gravel strip at Arctic Village (population 150), an isolated community of Gwich’in Athabascan Indians (“People of the Caribou”). From there we boarded an even smaller plane for the last hundred miles north over the mountains of the Brooks Range. I distracted myself from our impending abandonment by volunteering to sit next to the bush pilot as he threaded us through the remarkably precipitous terrain. With my nose pressed to the window, I watched no-name peaks, valleys and rivers pass below me. All looked so majestic, rugged, barren and, well, okay, maybe a tad desolate. My fears begged for attention: You are nowhere! And you’re about to land here! …

Our first full day in the refuge brought clear skies — and a sigh of temporary relief — and we spent it hiking. No amount of reading could have prepared me for the beauty of this treeless place. I kept kneeling on the tundra to inspect gorgeous wildflowers, grasses clinging to fragile soils, swelling berries and tiny spiders, while Seth clambered on the rocks. Overhead, chattering birds — most of which had migrated thousands of miles to breed here — raced the clock to raise their young during the short summer season. The vistas were enormous, stunning: a distant mountainside was awash in pink; another bloomed wispy white. We walked along ancient animal trails, over spongy tussocks, across shivery streams, in the wake of bear, wolf and caribou tracks. A rainbow halo encircled the sun.

And then I witnessed something equally wonderful — my husband on the top of a hillock in the full throes of exhilaration: “I have fantasized about taking the perfect hike here for 25 years. Today my fantasy came true.”

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