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Brooks Range

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The Bitter Winter Wind Chills of Howard Pass Weather gauges that scientists installed in 2011 have recorded phenomenally cold wind chills at Howard Pass (called Akutuq in Inupiaq) in the far western Brooks Range. The pass, which sits at 1,647 feet, forms a tundra plateau between the sprawling Colville and Noatak watersheds. It lies within the Noatak National Preserve over 100 miles north of the villages of Ambler and Kobuk. Early on February 7, 2022, the weather station reported an air temperature of 43 degrees below zero and a 52-mph sustained wind speed, for a ridiculously cold wind chill of 91 below. In February 2013, the wind chill was 99.8 below. Nearly every year, scientists record wind chills colder than minus 70 at the pass. Wind speeds at Howard Pass can exceed 100 mph, especially when atmospheric pressure differences set up between Alaska’s North Slope and the state’s interior. Wind…

Following the old timers’ trail I pulled alongside my traveling partner Clarence Wood. Following his lead, I tapped my snowmachine’s kill switch. Break time. As I unscrewed the cap of my thermos and poured steaming cups of coffee for us both, melting snow hissed on our mufflers. The upper Redstone valley stretched northward into a blue-white ache. Ahead lay Iviisaq Pass, known for its terrain-driven winds; and beyond, an expanse of treeless, unpeopled country, not so much as an inhabited cabin until the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, 200 more miles to the northeast. Our laden sleds, the sort once pulled by dogs, bore gas, food, and gear to sustain us for nearly double that distance. This was our first break since we’d set out from our village of Ambler, on the upper Kobuk, outward bound on a great loop that would carry us to Anaktuvuk, south to the Koyukuk, then…

Meet the Rodney Dangerfield of Alaskan wildlife I’m casting for a dinner along a cut bank across from camp, evening colors reflected in the Nuna’s clear, purling current. The arctic stillness is broken by a wet, resounding crash, as if a rock had just been chucked from the sky. Though startled, I’m hardly surprised by my noisy company. Floating 30 feet away, a pair of unblinking eyes set in a wet, furry head regard me, radiating curiosity-tinged indignation. I can practically hear a Disneyfied, bucktooth nasal voice: Hey buddy, what the hell you doin’ in my yard?  Another tail slap followed by a shallow dive, and the head pops up closer. I’m again fixed by that beady-eyed stare. I said, beat it! and with a final slap and a swirl, it vanishes. I track the bubble trail a few dozen yards down the bank to a mound of peeled, interlocked…

An Arctic Miracle on Hold Seth Kantner and I sat, leaning into our binoculars. The sandy knoll commanded a huge sweep of autumn-bright country—rolling tundra banded with willow and spruce, framed by the ragged, snow-dusted heave of the western Brooks Range. Working near to far, we scanned each crease and hummock, studied clumps of brush and jumbles of rock, searching the blue-tinted distance for shimmers of movement, anything that stood out or reflected light a bit differently. This place was far more than a fine view in a landscape defined by countless others. Half a lifetime had passed since I’d first looked out from this crest, and I’d returned more times than I could count. Seth’s attachment lay deeper still. He’d been born just a few miles to the east and knew this place from childhood. Each of us, together and alone, and in varying company, had spent time here…

One woman’s stand-off with a persistent grizzly I am drifting off to sleep in my tent in the Ray Mountains, a little-known mountain range north of Fairbanks and south of the Brooks Range. My 12-year-old Australian sheepdog, Blumli, sleeps at my feet. The arctic sun, still above the horizon, casts a soft evening glow on the surrounding peaks. The wilderness is pleasant and peaceful. After a long day’s walk, I drift into sweet slumber, knowing the next 10 days will feed my soul in a way that only wild country can. I don’t know what awakens me, a slight motion from Blumli, or that internal messenger that says, “Wake up, there is a bear 15 feet from your head.” I am not excessively worried. I’ve seen hundreds of bears, and never had anything you would call a bear encounter. Bears, except possibly polar bears, don’t habitually hunt humans. Our troubles…