Wandering the Brooks Range

[by Floris van Breugel]

The sun was shining brightly through the morning clouds as our de Havilland Beaver floatplane weaved between the seemingly endless peaks of the Brooks Range. I watched as countless trees, rocks, and alpine streams whizzed by a few hundred feet below us. We were headed for the Arrigetch Peaks, a cluster of rugged granite spires in the Endicott Mountains of the central Brooks Range, located in Gates of the Arctic National park—a 45-minute flight from Bettles, the nearest settlement (pop. 12). After safely landing on a tiny lake, my girlfriend, Aubrey, and I strapped on our eighty-pound packs, filled with two weeks of food, and stepped out into the tundra.

We watched our pilot take off, and breathed a sigh of relief. We were completely alone, away from everything, surrounded by one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States, 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 100 miles from the nearest road, and 250 miles from what most would consider the closest point of civilization. There weren’t even any trails to follow. There are none in the entire 13,238 square mile park.

We set off into the mushy ankletwisting tundra, following game trails through the rainbow colored bushes. It was late August, and the plants were already hurriedly preparing for the cold and dark winter ahead. It took us two full days of hiking to reach the base of the peaks we had come to explore.

“We were completely alone, away from everything, surrounded by one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States.”

The following morning, as we ate our cheesy bacon grits and sipped steaming instant mochas, Aubrey whispered with a nervous voice, “Look up, Floris.” There, not twenty feet from our camp, was a grizzly. We instinctively reached for the bear spray and told it to move along, as calmly as we could manage. But this was no Lower 48 bruin. It was a truly wild Alaskan grizzly, and he had not yet acquired a taste for bacon. He had probably never even smelled it. Still, after the bear wandered off, we decided it was time to move camp to a new location.

We pored over the maps and found a nearby valley containing a chain of five small lakes. We spent the day crawling over granite boulders with our heavy packs to reach the end of the valley. As we rounded the last bend, the towering granite peaks of the Arrigetch rose up before us.

Setting up camp in the chill of an autumn evening, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The temperatures dropped as the sun set. We could see our breath rising in the freezing air. It wasn’t even September yet, but winter was already taking hold. As we put on our down parkas, we looked up to the night sky, hoping to see what we had come to see—the aurora borealis.

The Brooks Range lies within the belt of strongest aurora activity on the planet, and on just about every clear, moonless night the skies come alive with vivid displays of vibrant greens and, occasionally, reds and yellows. The trick is getting lucky with a clear night. Clouds were rolling in over the mountains. By nightfall, it was snowing.

I set my watch alarm for 1:00 a.m., knowing that weather moves quickly in the mountains—both in and out. When the alarm sounded, I poked my head out of the tent. The air was crisp and cold. The clouds had parted, and looking up at the twinkling stars, I could see the northern lights dancing over our heads. I woke up Aubrey and we sat, mesmerized, until the light of dawn started to creep in.

We spent four more beautiful, frigid nights in the alpine. Then the cold started getting to us. There’s only so many times you can wriggle your feet into solid-frozen boots before you start dreaming of warm places. It was time to descend to tree line to thaw out, and to start making our way to Takahula Lake, our pickup point, 20 miles away.

We tried to choose the path of least resistance, but for the most part, we simply fought our way through the birch bushes and alder. It became strangely enjoyable to plunge headfirst into the brush. We started feeling somewhat akin to the bears whose paths we were trying to follow. Three days later, after arriving at the lake to await our pilot, part of me hoped that he would never show up. I wanted to stay. Then, I realized we were almost out of food. It was time to go, I knew—but seeing that plane land wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as it had been watching it leave.

If You Go

  • Access: The easiest way to get to the Arrigetch Peaks is to charter a floatplane out of Bettles to and from Circle Lake with Brooks Range Aviation (brooksrange.com). Bettles can only be reached by plane during the summer months, and Wright Air Service (wrightairservice.com) offers daily scheduled flights between Bettles and Fairbanks.
  • Timing: Most visitors come in mid-August, when the mosquito populations are lower (but not gone), and the risk of snowstorms is minimal. For a chance to see the northern lights, plan your trip for after Aug 25, but expect snow and temperatures as low as 5-10° F.
  • Duration: 7-14 days
  • Don’t forget: You need to know how to navigate with a compass and a map—there are no trails. Winter clothes are key, even in late summer. Also, bring a satellite phone (there’s no cell service).

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