Among the Caribou in the Wilderness

Tue Apr 19 2016


After more than an hour of flying, our destination is finally in sight – the headwaters of the Alatna River. As we glide over the land, I notice a crisscrossing pattern in the tall grasses where the lake became river. The lines reflect trails left by caribou as they crossed this pass for untold centuries. I know immediately that I have chosen this location well.

When I was selected to serve as the first photographer to be the Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I was given the opportunity to go wherever I wanted to go in the park. Unlike most national park resident artists, I would not be staying at any facilities because there are none. Gates of the Arctic was the first national park to have wilderness as one of its core values. Hence, there were no roads or other visitor amenities in the park. My artist residency would consist of a two-week backcountry patrol with one of the park rangers. Except this backcountry patrol would occur where I desired, and with whatever mode of travel I wanted: floating, base camping, backpacking.

I decided to design a two-part trip involving the Alatna River, one of the four wild and scenic rivers in Gates of the Arctic. The first part of the trip would be a base camp at the headwaters of the Alatna River, whose valley is one of the primary migratory routes of the Western Arctic Caribou herd. The Western Arctic Herd is Alaska’s largest caribou herd, numbering nearly 348,000 according to a 2011 estimate by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. It is one of the most important animals to the culture and subsistence way of life for Alaska’s indigenous arctic people, ranging from the Nunamiut community of Anaktuvik Pass to the Yup’ik communities of the lower Yukon River.

I had never observed migrating caribou before, so choosing a location that would allow me to do so was a primary goal. I examined maps of the park, Fish & Game survey data, and relied on a hunch (looking at the terrain and the migratory patterns over the years) in selecting the Alatna headwaters as a location for my camp. I envisioned large numbers of migrating caribou would move based on photos I had seen taken in the arctic; thousands of caribou, moving across the land like a school of fish, twisting and turning to move with the changes in topography, completing massive crossings of rivers in an unending, instinct-driven stream of hide and hoof toward their wintering grounds.

Upon landing at the headwaters, we taxi to a shallow part of the lake with some relatively dry shoreline. Across the lake, where the river begins, there is no place to land, merely grassy wetlands. This is my first dismount from a float plane into the wilderness of Alaska. We step off the plane into water, as the lake is too shallow to allow the plane to put the floats up against the shore. The pilot hands gear to me and my traveling companion, park ranger Tracie Pendergrast, and we ferry it to shore. I have two loads: one the camping equipment, the other the photo gear. Since we would be base camping, I brought more than I normally would on a backcountry trip. Before long, our pilot, Kevin, has fired up the “Pumpkin,” an orange and white National Park Service Cessna 185 on floats, and taxis for take-off.

With our pilot on his way back to Bettles, Tracie and I are alone in the wilderness. The park’s director of interpretation, Tracie also coordinates the Artist-in-Residence program, so she does not normally go on backcountry patrols. But she is certainly comfortable in the backcountry, and familiar with this territory. She and her husband Don, also a park ranger, are well-known in the community and have deep connections to the park. I, too, am generally comfortable in the backcountry, but this is my first time in the arctic and I am using unfamiliar equipment. Most of our camping gear is Park Service owned. This creates problems later when we realize that our camp stove does not work, and our water filter breaks during our first effort to pump fresh water.

But we are not yet at the location where we will set camp; the place we landed is not suitable for camping. It is way too brushy, falling quickly away into a field of tussocks, bowling-ball sized and shaped islands of grass surrounded by water or saturated ground. While they are the only dry surface to step on in such wetlands environments, they are also incredibly unstable to walk on. We eye a ledge about a mile away and 200 feet higher that should provide a good location for our base camp.

We make four trips to get all our gear up to the ledge, carrying approximately fifty pounds each. During the first trip, I make the mistake of leaving my camera gear behind. Along the way, the sun breaks through the clouds, casting a golden light upon nearby mountains. Then a brilliant rainbow comes alive, adding its spectrum of colors to the light display. By the time we set up camp and eat dinner, it is 1:00 in the morning. Still it is light enough that I do not need my headlamp. I settle into my tent and set the alarm for 4:30 to catch first light. Waking up early in the backcountry is different than when I am home. There, I do not arise immediately; rather, I struggle to achieve consciousness and slowly work my way into my morning routine. Out in the backcountry, when I am arising to photograph the land, I spring awake and quickly get into action. In this case, I poke my head outside the tent to see what is happening with the weather – and I’m greeted by a wall of white. Fog has completely shrouded the landscape. I zip the door shut, set my alarm for 7:30, and go back to sleep.

I play a cat-and-mouse game with the weather and sleep, but awake for good at 8:30, upon hearing Tracie rustling about and making her morning report. All park rangers are required to take a satellite phone on their backcountry patrols and call in no later than 8:30 to report on the weather conditions: wind direction and speed, visibility, precipitation, and temperature. Such information is essential in a 9-million are wilderness that has are no weather stations. Backcountry travelers and outfitters who fly people into the park can contact the Bettles ranger station to get the most recent weather reports. Even then, there is still inadequate information for most of that wilderness on any given day.

Given the cloudy and drizzly weather, we decide to explore the Alatna’s headwaters, so that Tracie can perform some of her backcountry ranger duties. There is a private inholding on the eastern shore of the lake where we landed, informally named Geadeke Lake after the family who owns the land, cabin and two outbuildings. One of the compromises built into the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which established Gates of the Arctic as a national park, is that all private lands and structures within the park could remain. The Geadeke family has two inholdings in the Alatna valley, one at the headwaters and one downriver. Whenever park rangers encounter such inholdings, they conduct a “welfare check” on the property to ensure nothing has been damaged by bears or the weather.

It takes us almost two hours to get down to the Geadeke property, approximately three miles from our campsite, while slogging our way through sprawling networks of clumpy tussocks and soggy wetlands. The Geadeke’s propery includes a main residential cabin, a storage structure known as a “cache,” and an outhouse. The Geadeke family also set up a small windmill and solar panel to power the electric fencing that surrounds their main cabin. The fence is intended to deter any bears that may want to investigate the structure or use any of its parts as a chew toy. Everything looks good, so we head south toward to the beginning of the river to investigate a BRIM (Brooks Range Impact) site.

BRIM sites are places that have experienced such repeated visitor use that they are visibly worn. They are marked by GPS and identified in reports filed and supplemented after each trip. In contrast to high-volume visitation parks, where camping is allowed in designated locations only in order to minimize impact, the objective in wilderness camping is to discourage repeated use of a location in order to minimize impact.

Both approaches make sense to me. In places with high visitation – for instance, Great Smokey Mountain National Park with its nine million annual visitors or Yellowstone National Park with its three million visitors – you certainly would not want people to pitch a tent wherever they like. Otherwise, you would probably see something more like Woodstock or a Civil War battle field, with seas of tents or encampments scattered across the landscape. The repeated use of areas without any control would leave a vast, lasting and ugly scar on the land. We could almost call that the locust approach to camping. By restricting camping locations, you maximize the opportunity for people to have an undisturbed wilderness experience.

In contrast, in a wilderness area like Gates of the Arctic with its one thousand annual visitors, where vast wilderness expanses and the absence of people are the norm, any trace of previous human encampments is a distraction and intrusion. Gates of the Arctic is unique in the national park system in that primary value is wilderness, comprised almost entirely of designated wilderness. In Alaska’s Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains, John Kauffmann notes that this wild country is not for the casual recreationist, but requires “black belt” wilderness skills to traverse.

I caught a glimpse of what John Kauffman talked about during our visit to the Geadeke cabin, catching a glimpse of the lifestyle that would include staying at such a remote cabin. After checking their cabin and the BRIM site – which merely showed signs of wear on the ground – we made contact with some campers who waited near the south end of the lake for their ride out of the park. Making contact with visitors is another regular part of backcountry ranger duties. The goal is to make sure that campers have the correct bear-proof food containers, determine if they received proper orientation before entering the park, inquire into any wildlife observations, and generally learn about their trip in the park. This information is later included in a backcountry patrol field report.

After making contact, we start making our way back to our camp. Not interested in retracing our steps, we agree to cross over the Alatna River and follow the west side of the lake back to camp. Nestled against the lower slope of a ridge, the higher land on that side appeared to be easier to traverse than the tussocks mine field we crossed on the way here. The mouth of the river is too wide and too wet to consider crossing; it would require fifty yards of slogging through reeds and water before we reached the other side. Instead, we hiked downriver until we found a relatively shallow and narrow channel. Still too wide to jump over, it requires only a few quick, cold steps through the water to put us on the other side. From a nearby patch of willows, a few American kestrels dart away and squawk at us to get away from their territory. I have never seen kestrels in the wild before that moment. And while I want to get out of their territory, I want to savor the moment and enjoy watching and listening to them. My desire to not disturb them and to squeeze the water out of my socks win over, and I move away.

We ascend the slope of the ridge to escape the wet areas and find dry passage back to camp. At one point, a white and red Cessna 185 flies into our airspace, and we stop so that Tracie can make radio contact. Sure enough, it is our replacement water filter and camp stove. When deciding what sort of transportation they would allow in the new park, personnel in the park service and other agencies determined that in order to preserve wilderness values but allow access there would be a compromise: no motorized land vehicles would be permitted but aircraft would be. I was happy they came to that conclusion – my trip out here took an hour, not a week, and our replacement gear made its way out to us quickly.

Shortly after the plane left, a group of about seventy caribou seemed to appear out of nowhere and cross right where the lake fed the Alatna River. They crossed single-file, moving purposefully through the waters until they reached the other side. It was not the type of river crossing that I had seen in photos before, but it was in so many ways much better. Photos can inspire, they can illustrate, they can document; they can even invoke controversy. But in so many ways, they are merely a sampling of a moment in time. They can be a shallow substitute for being in the moment, seeing the act of survival and instinct reflected in the migration of a group of caribou, following trails and patterns set forth in the many generations that preceded them. And yet, for so many people, a photo is the closest they will ever get to natural events like watching a group of caribou cross a river in a vast wilderness.

I arise the next morning to more fog, but by 8:30, the weather seems to be improving. It is no longer drizzling, so I decide to stake out a spot and watch and photograph caribou as they migrate south. I located a nice dry patch of ground featuring caribou lichen and bearberries about 300 feet below camp. While waiting for caribou to come through, I photograph the tundra vegetation, rich in reds and oranges and textured like leather or bristles. Soon, a group of thirty caribou approach, including six large bulls. They are still farther away than I would like, so I move down to the edge of the lowlands. Another group passes, this time much closer. It consists entirely of cows and spring calves. Their fur is patchy, but soon they will be growing out their coats for the harsh Brooks Range winter.

The skies continue to open, allowing more sun to shine upon the vast landscape. Elated, I remove my socks and boots, which have not fully dried since our arrival two days earlier. The land is quiet, with no planes and no caribou moving through. The dry air, the warm sun, and the lazy, relaxed nature of the day’s activities lull me into drowsiness. I cannot think of a better time or location for a nap.

The midday nap is part of a nature photographer’s routine. Most days, when the sunlight permits, I will stay up late and arise early. Usually midday light is the worst for photography, with harsh shadows and washed-out colors. If you can’t be taking pictures, you might as well be napping.

About a half hour later, Tracie wakes me up. A group of eight bull caribou are working their way up the ridge behind us. I manage to capture a few images of them before they disappear. The photo is what I have come to think of as the classic caribou-in-the-landscape image for this area – wild caribou with their dry, white antlers rising up to the open sky, the only interruptions of a wide open, treeless land.

The next morning, we move camp to minimize our impact on the land. By moving our tents after only a few days, we increase the likelihood that no one who comes after us will ever notice our brief presence. It is the epitome of “leave no trace” camping. The goal of minimal impact goes beyond my presence in the park. Tracie has asked me to not clearly identify any places where I take my photos. The Park Service does not want anyone to see my images and decide, “ Wow, what a beautiful spot. I want to go there.” Identifying a place would likely contribute to its overuse. There are examples in Gates to justify this concern, for example, the Arrigetch Peaks. Visitors hardly paid that area any attention until it was given a name. Then climbers began their visits to the Arrigetch Peaks, and climbers generally are not low-impact users.

Another prime example is what I call the Bob Marshall phenomenon. An explorer and founding member of the Wilderness Society, Robert Marshall traveled extensively in the Brooks Range, especially areas that would later become Gates of the Arctic National Park. He even gave the name “Gates of the Arctic” to two mountains that straddle the North Fork of the Koyukuk River: Frigid Crags and Mount Boreal. Marshall later documented his travels in the book, Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range. Updated later by his brother George, the book provides detailed accounts of Bob Marshall’s explorations. Over time, it has become something of an unintended travel guide; people use it to plan trips into the park, while emulating the routes that Bob Marshall followed eighty years ago. Such repeated travel along particular routes is exactly the kind of impact the Park Service hopes to avoid.

While it would be tough to overuse the entire park, it is clear there are popular areas. During our time at the Alatna headwaters, we have seen four other groups. While three of them have moved on, one rather elaborate setup remains. Located about two miles away on a lake north of the headwaters, the camp has three sleeping tents and a kitchen tent; the latter is only 30 feet from the nearest sleeping tent. This is not consistent with the “best practice” of placing food at least a hundred feet away. This “best practice” is a guideline, not a formal rule warranting enforcement. The group was here when we arrived and seems likely to be here when we depart in a couple of days.

We have decided to take advantage of a beautiful day, replete with scattered, puffy clouds and sunshine, to hike north to a spot where we can gaze upon the three valleys that converge in this area: the Nigu, Killik and Alatna Valleys. While the Alatna drains to the south, the Nigu flows to the northwest and the Killik straight to the north. It takes about three hours to reach our destination, a rocky ledge overlooking a vast arctic expanse. Winding from a ridge to my immediate left, past some lakes below, lies the continental divide. Each of the three river valleys is lined by ridges dominated by pyramid-shaped peaks, colored in golden brown and red hues. As I take in some of the scenery through my lens, movement catches my attention out of the corner of my eye. I barely have the chance to see a collared pika, a small mouse-like creature with large ears, before it disappears into a cluster of rocks.

Sitting, resting, and enjoying the view, Tracie and I are ready for dinner. We pull out some dehydrated meals, set up the stove, and boil some water. As I sit enjoying dinner, I notice that the ground all around us is marked with long grooves that run along the length of the hillside. Thousands of caribou have passed through this very location, following routes that are as much a part of their DNA as the urge to mate in autumn.

While I consider the caribou’s mark on the land, Tracie hikes up the ridge behind me to look for other evidence of their role here. Instead of looking for tracks, she is looking for Inuksuk, a sort of Scare Crow placed on the ridge tops by Inupiaq or Nunamiut hunters. Piles of rocks with sticks inserted to mimic arms, they were placed in locations that would spook the caribou and drive them toward other waiting hunters. Several high areas in the park near traditional migratory caribou routes sometimes provide evidence of these past hunting practices and their camps. I find a lone caribou antler on the edge of the precipice; photographing it with the land allows me to make yet another connection between the location and this magnificent animal.

We start back toward camp at around 8 p.m. Along the way, we find a gully that we follow to a seep. Because the water is coming straight out of the ground, we don’t worry about contamination, so we fill up our water bottles without filtering. We continue our hike along a ledge that is high above our camp. The lakes below reflect the deep golden brown color of neighboring mountains as they catch the low evening light. The result is a vivid, deep glow of gold that shines like a spotlight across the land. It is a spectacular light display, rivaling some of the best sunsets I have ever viewed. When we finally reach camp, we have second dinner and I stay up late hoping for the aurora. But at 11:30, it is still too light and I retire to my tent.

At 4 a.m. two mornings later, I notice a faint yellow light to the northeast. It is light enough that only four stars show in the sky. A short while later, a vivid red starts to build in the sky as sunrise approaches. A low fog rolls in from the Nigu valley, skimming over the surface of low rolling hills, still blackened by shadow. I photograph furiously with three cameras, doing what I can to preserve the moment, waiting for the full sunrise to wash the land with color. But the sunrise I anticipate is thwarted by high-altitude, wispy clouds that have rolled in to mute the sun’s appearance. Still, the rich colors are enough reward for the early rising.

After sleeping a few more hours, I arise to another thick wall of fog. This delays our departure, as the pilot cannot land in such low visibility. We take the down time to strike camp and hike our gear down to the lake. As we conduct our chores, the caribou continue their steady stream below us on the valley floor; ten at a time, sometimes thirty, once in a while sixty or more. In between, solo caribou and small groups fill in the gaps. This is how it has been during our stay at the Alatna headwaters; a steady stream of caribou working their way to their wintering grounds. Our unofficial guess places the numbers over five days at around 1,300.

As we fly over the lake one last time before heading down river, I look down at the land below us, unmarred by our presence, only showing the continuing natural processes that have persisted for thousands of years. I catch one last look at the network of caribou trails, showing that the caribou continue on, oblivious to our presence. That is the way it is meant to be – the caribou keep on progressing as they have for thousands of years, and we leave the land without any trace. And while they may have migrated through with little concern about us, I know that I have benefited from their presence.

Alatna headwaters, Brooks Range
migrating caribou
autumn alpine tundra
colors of dawn
group of bulls
lone caribou