By Ned Vasquez
For many years, dating back even to my childhood, I have dreamed of spending time in the Alaskan wilderness. In August, 2019 this dream became a reality when my middle daughter and I spent 9 days rafting the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Our trip was organized through a guiding company based in Fairbanks. Our group consisted of 6 clients and 2 guides and we were fortunate to have a highly compatible group. The guiding company did an excellent job of orienting us to the nature of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ensured that we were as minimally impactful as possible.
The immensity of Alaska was quickly apparent as we journeyed to our put-in point, as it required a flight of more than 3 hours in a small bush plane from Fairbanks, initially flying over a seemingly endless expanse of rolling, open land and then navigating a narrow Brooks Range valley above the Kongakut. Once we unloaded our gear on a gravel bar and the plane departed, the isolation of the Arctic Refuge became palpable. For the next 9 days we saw no one except for 2 caribou hunters that camped near us on the first night. It was quickly apparent that we were very much on our own, especially if the weather should become adverse or one of our party was injured. Fortunately, neither of those things occurred.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the “fall” is notable for wonderful colors as the tundra vegetation turns many shades of red and yellow. Our days were chilly, with highs in the 40s to low 50s and with intermittent light rain and cold winds blowing south from the Arctic Ocean; the sun made only occasional brief appearances. We rafted north for 4-5 hours per day and had many opportunities to wander the tundra and abrupt mountains surrounding the Kongakut. Apart from game trails, the landscape is devoid of paths and hiking can be very challenging due to wet ground and ankle-wrenching tussocks. Once one starts to climb, however, the terrain is a bit smoother and easier to navigate. Gaining higher ground provided beautiful vistas of snowy peaks above and the braided river valley below.
Although our human contacts were minimal during our Arctic adventure, we were far from isolated from other life, which included easily caught and delicious Dolly Varden, golden eagles, a few caribou, a great bull moose, Dall sheep, large Grizzly bears, a massive musk ox, and evidence of wolves. On our last night, as we celebrated in camp, an immense bear settled down on the mountain above us and appeared to be scrutinizing our festivities! The bruin’s tracks were present near our take-out point the next morning.
Our last hike of the trip occurred on a wet, foggy day. As we crested our high point, the horizon cleared just long enough for us to see the coastal plain and the Arctic Ocean, a wonderful reward for our exertions.
As readers are undoubtedly aware, last month President Biden issued an executive order temporarily halting the Trump Administration’s oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain of the Artic Refuge. Hopefully the Refuge will ultimately be protected.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an unparalleled national treasure and it is incumbent on all of us to learn about it and do everything possible to protect it for future generations. Our country became the globe’s leading producer of oil in 2019 and we now produce more than we consume. Especially in that context (not to mention the myriad of other reasons), why would we desecrate the last best wilderness that our country possesses? I learned about “stewardship” from Aldo Leopold and that is what is required now for Arctic Refuge to remain in perpetuity. Now is the time for humility rather than hubris!
Ned Vasquez was born in Seattle but grew up in Kansas and Iowa. He moved to Montana in 1986, in part to fulfill boyhood dreams of wilderness, mountains, hiking, and backpacking that simply never went away. While practicing family medicine for nearly 35 years, Ned took every possible opportunity to explore Montana wildernesses (large and small case W) and continues to do so today. He has also been blessed to visit and hike in Alaska, Patagonia, New Zealand, Bhutan, and Nepal. Ned has 3 daughters and 5 grandchildren and delights in getting all of them into Montana’s beautiful landscapes. Ned retired from family medicine in 2019 and is applying some of his greatly appreciated flexible time to Wilderness Watch projects.
“Wilderness Experienced” is our shared stories and musings about recent experiences in our nation's Wildernesses. Stories focus on the virtues of Wilderness and/or challenges facing the National Wilderness Preservation System. We want to hear your story! Learn more and submit a story.
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Thank you, Ned, for highlighting the critical nature of protecting the Arctic from drilling. I'm speaking to my choir when I say that without places like the Arctic, humanity will lose much of its reason for being. Aldo Leopold and his book Sand County Almanac describes how it can happen. I'm happy to know that others have similar feelings about his writing. I'm also inspired by the fact that you and your daughter experienced the Arctic together. Perhaps she - as our next generation - will impact others in ways similar to how I was affected by Aldo Leopold.
Keep sharing your story!
Sounds very nice. Very descriptive. Definitely want to visit. Thank you. Warm Regards Julie Stinchcomb
What a adventure, Ned! I've only been to AK once (Denali, Katmai - bears, etc.) and I am definitely going back! On my bucket list is the Kobuk NP, and Gates of the Arctic. Ned have you been to those two parks, also up north? What an amazing experience you had, and I thank you for sharing your story.
I am VERY envious of your experience. Thank you for this wonderful article! I am 76 and too disabled at this time to even contemplate such an adventure. Next life, I guess I watch many documentaries about the Alaskan wilderness and sign every petition I can get my hands on to support saving all of it.
I have wrote a couple letters to the the White House in years past about protecting the Arctic NWR This is an on going struggle which has been going on for years and years. I do hope that it does finally get protected forever someday. Thank You Ned for all that you do to protect Wild places. I am employed by the National Park Service and believe in this preservation and protection of such places before its too late.
Wonderful account. I spent 2 months in Arctic Village in 1972 among the Gwich'in and would love to spend time in ANWR. Would also love to visit Bhutan. My first backpacking trip was in Glacier Park, Montana in 1964. You have lived a wonderful life. Enjoy your retirement, as I am.
Great trip! And you are so right about saving what we have left of wilderness from the fossil fuel industry. Cope Smoak, Bonita Springs, FL
iI there is to be real, permanent change towardx support of our "being a part of our natural environment, we must find ways to be inclusive of those whose beliefs are different than ours ie utilizing jobs, money that comes from current Fossil Fuel extraction !!!! Idealized love of the wild
places and wildlife are NOT ENOUGH. Be realistic and walk in their shoes, in order to know how to foment positive change.
Who of us has benefited, and continues to, from Big Oil??? How much of our lives is dependent on Big Oil? etc etc etc
Very well written article about the Alaskan Wilderness. Natural outdoor should always be protected when possible for future human beings and their future generations of families to visit respectfully and enjoy visiting beautiful national park areas.
UK National Treasure & champion of the Natural World Sir David Attenborough ,sums up the Climate Crisis at UN Climate & Security conference with a stark warning if we want beautiful wilderness like this & many others across the world to survive https://youtu.be/u7I5Ala6KYc
Arctic Dreams is the title of a very famous book by Barry Holsten Lopez, acclaimed journalist and environmentalist.
I don't think the same name should be used.
Gotta go to the ends of the Earth for the once in a lifetime adventure in the most inhospitable place imaginable, where no human can survive. Like Mars. But with a growing season of six days...
In my dreams, I see myself walking through Central Valley, California with a thousand miles of wildflowers in every direction and all I need to survive is a loaf of bread.
Rewild the land so we can have real wilderness for everyone, close to home.
What a wonderful experience you had. I am hoping you find a way to get your story to the high schools and colleges. All of the things that beg for youthful passion the environment, conservation sometimes never reaches their age groups.
It is my hope that someone will find away to reach them. They are the conservers of their own future. Your story should be told to them. Many
will dream just like yourself. I hope you and people like you will find those dreamers. Share your story widely, it is beautiful.
I really enjoyed this article. It makes me want to travel here in the near future. Thanks for sharing.
Having loved the outdoors my entire life, I've been fortunate enough to travel to places I've longed dream about. I must comment on something that in my advance years, I have noticed as a problem that is becoming more widespread. Too many people are disconnected from a natural environment, an environment from which they could learn so much about themselves and others, an environment that speaks if only if they would listen. I know people who are unwilling to even go on a hike. I question how to get people such people to care enough to do something about an environment which to them seems so alien. Any ideas?