Gates of the Arctic: Adventures in Northern Alaska

Tyler calls out the names of the pinnacles as we bank around them: “The Albatross … Pyramid … Shot Tower … Battleship.” The names sound straight out of a Star Wars – like movie in which good battles evil, and stone damsels with names like East Maiden (yet another of the peaks) face down hulking, white-cloaked villains.

The late afternoon sunlight is turning the granite and limestone faces a warm golden color with tinges of rosy pink as our plane banks southward, toward the village of Bettles, where I’m staying on this expedition of wintry wonder. As we leave the mountains behind, we follow the broad Alatna River valley. Below, the snow-capped river twines like old-fashioned ribbon candy in loops so tight that, in places, it seems to form figure-eights.

“We’re only 600 feet (183 m) above sea level here, so there’s not much gravity acting on the rivers,” says Tyler. “They meander around and get pretty ropey.”

Frozen lakes pock the surface, bright-white circles on the dark surface of white spruce and birch forests. Tyler flies low over the treetops. “See those heavy-looking tracks?” he asks, motioning to a dark line in the snow alongside a frozen stream. “Those are moose. Caribou make lighter-looking tracks.” Moments later, the plane turns in a slow arc over a moose cow and calf standing in hip-deep snow, before we descend to the Bettles airstrip.

Bettles is alongside the Koyukuk River, at the southern end of the Brooks Range. It’s 180 miles (290 km) northwest of Fairbanks and 35 miles (56 km) north of the Arctic Circle, in Alaska’s expansive interior.

I’ve come here in the middle of winter to experience Alaska in its mantle of powdery-soft snow, its threadlike frozen rivers winding through patches of boreal forest, capped by a dome of robin’s-egg-blue sky. I’ve never been to Alaska in the winter, and my imagination has embroidered a landscape of deep snow drifts and extreme cold. Yet, when our plane from Fairbanks settles down onto the runway outside Bettles Lodge, I’m surprised to find just knee-deep snow, as fine as sand.

Bettles is a small village of a few dozen houses, a weather station, post office, ranger station and two lodges run by Dan and Lynda Klaes (our pilot, Tyler, is their son): Bettles Lodge, a rough-hewn log structure built in 1948 that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Aurora Lodge, a simple, comfortable inn built in 1994.

The town is accessible only by aircraft much of the year. (In winter, villagers build “The Ice Road,” a temporary link to the nearest highway by packing down the snow along an old trail; the “highway” crosses two rivers.) Bettles is populated by Athabascans and Inupiats who have lived on the land for many generations, as well as other hardy souls who have drifted to this remote outpost to provide services to visitors.

Despite being a tiny community, Bettles looms large as a base camp for adventure. As many as 90 percent of the Gates of the Arctic backcountry visitors use Bettles as their transportation hub into northern Alaska. Summertime options for outdoors enthusiasts abound, ranging from float trips down the region’s untamed rivers to hiking, fishing, camping, rock climbing, wildlife viewing and bird watching.

The mountains transform in summer, with lakes turning into emerald pools, brilliant glaciers on nearby granite precipices reflecting in their surface. Summer’s round-the-clock daylight gives visitors the chance to enjoy exceptionally long days of activity.

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