We started the trip with several flights, the first of which was to Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city, where we packed and organized gear into drybags. A nine-passenger flight took us to Bettles, a small town of several dozen just outside the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. After a visit with a ranger, we took another hour-long four-passenger float plane ride in the park, and we were dropped at a small lake next to the river.
As the hum of the departing float plane faded into the distance, the solitude began to sink in. We would only have each other and the wildlife for company over the next 10 days, hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital and two plane rides from the road system, with only satellite contact in case of emergency.
Over 10 days, we covered about 50 river miles in canoes. Hike days alternated with river days, offering a chance to explore the tundra and rocky ridges. On Day 3, we picked a route on an unnamed ridge leading toward the summit of Oyukak Mountain. We encountered caribou and moose antlers, wildflowers and cracks in the tundra that opened up views of permafrost beneath our feet.
Since we were north of the Arctic Circle during the summer solstice, the sun dipped behind the mountains between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., but never fully set below the horizon. The constant light added to the surreal nature of the landscape. I stayed up in the evenings after everyone else went to sleep, when the light turned golden. One evening, I found a stunning double rainbow sweeping across the valley, shimmering in the warm light.
On Day 8, we portaged our canoes to Lake Matcharak, where we spent two nights at our last campsite and fished for lake trout. I caught a big fish with a bloated belly, which turned out to be dozens of quarter-sized snails sitting like rocks in the stomach. After cooking the trout over the fire in tin foil, we sat back on the shore and enjoyed the fresh fish.
Leaving the river was bittersweet, though I looked forward to a hot shower after enduring a few chilly dips in the river to bathe. I had relished the time in the pristine river landscape and the break from technology. My attention had fully shifted from screens, smartphones and emails to the natural world in front of me: the weather, wildlife and the seemingly infinite wilderness without another human in sight.