What Is Gates of the Arctic?
Few landmarks bear names on topographic maps here. The park name came from wilderness advocate Robert Marshall, who traveled the North Fork Koyukuk country frequently from 1929 to 1939. Marshall called two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, the gates from Alaska's central Brooks Range into the far north Arctic. Wind, water, temperature, and glacial and tectonic actions sculpted wildly varied landscapes in this east-west trending part of the Rocky Mountains. Southerly foothills step into waves of mountains rising to elevations of 4,000 feet that culminate in limestone or granite peaks over 7,000 feet in elevation. Then the ranks reverse at the Arctic Divide: tundra stretches to the Arctic Ocean. Six national wild rivers-Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk-and other waterways cross the park. Many people seek remote wilderness and solitude here. A primary goal of park management is to protect these opportunities.
People have been a part of the ecosystem here for 10,000 years. Nomadic hunters and gatherers traveled between the mountains' forested southern slopes and the Arctic Coast. Now their descendants depend on and use park and preserve resources. A Nunamiut Eskimo village, Anaktuvuk Pass, lies inside the park. Winter is long, and summer is active. Plants and animals move through life cycles quickly before winter sets in.
From November to March, most activity ceases while -20˚F to -50˚F temperatures persist. The dry interior climate sees little snow, but what falls stays to wrap land and rivers in ice and silence. As a low-riding Sun starts its warming ascent in April, dogsledders come out. Backpackers and river runners arrive in mid-June, as the rivers become free of ice. No trails or visitor services exist in the park. You must be self-sufficient.
Created to ensure the arctic environment's integrity, the park contains major parts of the range and habitat of the Western Arctic caribou herd. Grizzly and black bear, wolf, moose, Dall sheep, wolverine, muskox, and fox also live here. At spring breakup the few resident bird species are joined by migratory species from Europe, South America, Asia, tropical archipelagos, and the contiguous United States. Wildlife is varied but widely dispersed-because large areas are needed to sustain life in the Arctic. Wildlife sightings may be greatly affected by your party size, travel patterns, and the weather.
Sparse black-spruce forests called taiga (Russian for "land of little sticks") dot north-facing slopes and poorly drained lowland. Boreal forests of white spruce, aspen, and birch typically are found on south-facing slopes. Near tree line, the shrub-thicket community of dwarf and resin birch, alder, and willow appears. Heath, moss, and fragile lichen make up the understory. Alpine tundra communities occur in mountainous areas and along well-drained, rocky ridges. Alder thickets and tussocks in valleys and on slopes often impede hiking in the Arctic. Backpackers often only make five miles per day. Take your time: don't try to squeeze a 21-day arctic trip into a 14-day "lower-48" trip.
The 1980 legislation that created the park and the preserve protected 8.4 million acres. It mandated that the area be managed to maintain its wild and undeveloped character, opportunities for solitude, and the environmental integrity of its natural features and to provide for wilderness recreation. Fish and wildlife, arctic habitats, cultural resources, and traditional subsistence uses also were protected. With the adjacent Noatak National Preserve and Kobuk valley National Park, Gates of the Arctic comprises one of the world's largest parkland areas.