(photography by Nick Jans)

Three parks, 17 million acres, as wild as it ever was.

CARIBOU BULLS STREAMED across the autumn-red tundra, shouldered through the willows, then splashed into the Kobuk River. Lifting my camera, I framed and  red, hoping to capture the moment: caribou, river, fall colors, snow-dusted peaks, and a wide, cirrus-streaked sky. 

The day before, just twenty miles downstream, I’d hiked across a startlingly different landscape: the great Kobuk Sand Dunes, a rolling expanse that seemed to have been teleported from Saudi Arabia. At its fringes, an open forest of birch and spruce fell away to a maze of shallow lakes and sloughs where moose browsed. Flinty, canyon-laced uplands and ragged, unnamed mountains stretched to the north, and upriver to the east lay several massive alpine lakes, carved by glaciers and hundreds of feet deep.

Welcome to my extended backyard. For more than half my adult life, I lived on the edge of Kobuk Valley National Park and two adjoining preserves—Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Noatak National Preserve—and return there each year. When you imagine these protected areas, just a fraction of Alaska’s federal lands, don’t just think big—think crazy big.  The three total about seventeen million acres—an area roughly the size of New Jersey, Maryland, and New Hampshire combined.

“A dedicated wilderness bum could spend decades exploring here and barely scratch the surface. “

In addition to enfolding an improbable variety of ultra-wild and gorgeous landscapes, these parklands are defined by latitude, lying entirely above the Arctic Circle; lack infrastructure such as trails, ranger stations, and campgrounds; and stretch hundreds of miles beyond the road grid. The Dalton Highway ( formerly known as the Alaska pipeline Haul Road) grazes the far eastern edge of Gates of the Arctic, but access to all but that minuscule fraction of these parks is strictly fly-in via bush plane. You can either charter one to drop you off in the area of your choosing or jump on a mail run to one of the few Native villages that lie scattered across a sea of land.

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