No Roads, No Regrets

Alaska's remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has soul-stirring sights, sun-filled nights, a wild river -- and, it turns out, nothing to worry about.

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The Kongakut is lined with gravel bars where summer rafters can pitch their tents.
The Kongakut is lined with gravel bars where summer rafters can pitch their tents. (By Seth Goldstein)
Dall sheep are among the animals that can be encountered along the river.
Dall sheep are among the animals that can be encountered along the river. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The author's party waits at the gravel airstrip at Arctic Village.
The author's party waits at the gravel airstrip at Arctic Village. (Seth Goldstein)
By Paula Stone
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 10, 2008; Page P01

Do you remember driving by that couple in Bethesda last summer, the ones frantically putting up and taking down a tent in their front yard, then putting it up and taking it down again?

That was my husband and I, imagining we were in a torrential downpour and then a blinding snowstorm. We were practicing for a trip we were taking in July to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where we figured the rapid-pitch-and-strike skill might come in handy. It was about then that I acknowledged my anxiety about the trip.

Seth and I had long dreamed of going to the ANWR, but doing so felt daunting because of its far-flung location. Indeed, only about 1,000 intrepid souls visit the refuge each year, almost all during its short summer. After we retired, and while our bodies were still willing, we decided to wait no longer.

We settled on a 10-day rafting trip down the ANWR's Kongakut River, which we'd heard was one of the refuge's most dramatic rides. Our outfitter's itinerary called for floating the river's upper reaches on the north slope of the range's steep divide, before sliding down to where the foothills meet the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean. We would camp along the way on the river's gravelly shores and hike adjacent tundra meadows, river valleys and low peaks. We'd be joined by two guides and six other travelers and probably see no other people.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? You obviously haven't seen the three-page equipment list, the one requesting a year-round wardrobe for the Arctic's vagaries, where summer days can quickly switch from sweltering to abysmally chilly, windy and soaking wet with rain or snow. We were warned about the river: It could be frigid, swift and still covered with dangerous ice formations left over from winter. And did I mention the possibility of becoming fodder for both ends of the food chain? At the top of the chain were grizzly bears, and although we'd take all the standard precautions to avoid them, a close encounter would be an ever-present danger. Near the bottom of the chain was the legendary Alaskan mosquito: huge, hungry and ubiquitous. That's when a head net would come in handy, and DEET repellent. A mesh anorak would help there, too.

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.

Welcome to Nature

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!

The plane banked steeply, descended ever-so-closely over a ridge, and then I saw it, a nameless gravel-bar landing strip about the size of a football field alongside our river. My heart raced. At that point, everything happened fast. Within minutes of unloading our gear, the plane's engines had restarted. As I watched it fly away, I saw thunderheads mushrooming in the sky. I heard that inner voice of angst again: You're at Nature's mercy now.

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."

But even as I rejoiced in the awesome landscape surrounding me, my eyes were continually drawn to gathering thunderheads and distant rainstorms. As it turned out, we were pelted with only one brief half-hour burst during our entire stay, a freakish spell of dry weather unheard of in the ANWR. But of course I had no way of knowing this in advance, so my anxieties persisted. It was the Kongakut that finally put them into perspective.

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