Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic: my most agonizing park visits
I agonized for a long time over how to visit both Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks. They are above the Arctic Circle in Northern Alaska and are arguably the two most remote National Parks in the NPS. They don’t have roads leading to them, trails running through them or any kind of infrastructure built in the park. But I was not willing to accept the only option was booking charter flights at $600 per hour. We did have this thing called a budget after all. And Alaska-at an estimated one third of our $20,000 budget goal-was already straining it to the breaking point.
I explored lots of possibilities, both realistic and not so realistic. Paddling into Kobuk Valley from the nearest town you could fly Alaska Air to, Kotzebue, was one of those unrealistic ones. What about getting dropped off by plane in the middle of Kobuk and float down the Kobuk River back to civilization? Flying in on the mail plane to Anaktuvuk Pass? Driving hundreds of miles up the Dalton Highway, parking on the side of the road and bushwhacking 4 miles to reach Gates of the Arctic? All deemed “unrealistic.” Well, at least according to Elizabeth. That’s the way a lot of our park planning goes. I think up some crazy scheme and fervently defend how it wouldn’t really get us maimed, robbed or killed until she puts the foot down (or “speaks the voice of reason” as some would say).
After lots of research and Google mapping, I came to terms with our limiting factors. Time: We only had a bit over a month to cover the 8 Alaska National Parks because we couldn’t leave until after a wedding in Kansas City on June 25th and we had to return to St. Louis by August 3rd for my MBA orientation (I originally forgot about orientation and we were planning to have until classes started mid-August). Money: the parks are far away and huge and bush planes that travel to them are stinkin’ expensive. Plus, chartering the plane to drop us off and then come pick us up after a few days doubles the cost.
If you read our Alaska travel itinerary, you may already know we decided to book a combo tour with Golden Eagle Outfitters that leaves from Kotzebue and lands for a half hour in Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic. The price for the 3.5 hour flight was $1,800. Since that number represents 9% of our year’s budget, it was a hard price tag to swallow. Although, $900/park was the cheapest we’d found and that may have been a merciful quote because the administrator we paid said the flight usually costs $2,100. So maybe we should count ourselves lucky.
Still, it was super tough for me to give up our traditional #SwitchbackStyle visit of going beyond the overlooks and getting off-the-beaten path of the parks. Usually we get to spend 3-6 days exploring a park. These would be the only two parks where we didn’t spend at least two days. As I battled internally with our practical choice – and, frankly, my pride – I remembered something. Something that the NPS Centennial is trying to tell people all year…
There’s no wrong way to visit a National Park.
We believe that’s a true statement. It also appears to be a simple statement. But the catch is that little word “visit.” To visit a park means different things to different people. To some, it’s getting lost in the backcountry. To others, it’s driving through. To one guy we met in Glacier Bay, who bragged he had just visited all the NPS units in Alaska, it was looking into the distance and seeing the park from a bush plane window and then getting the stamp at the regional park group Visitor Center (ok, maybe that is one wrong way 😉 ). To us, the nonnegotiable, base requirement is to set foot in the park. We prefer to camp in the park and go deep into the backcountry when we can, but feeling the ground beneath your feet is a must.
A flyover doesn’t quite cut it, even if it’s a flightseeing tour specifically of the park. A stop in the Visitor Center that is separate from the park land (e.g. Kobuk and Gates, Channel Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Kenai Fjords) doesn’t cut it. What I would say is in the gray area is people who visit by cruise. This question is especially relevant in Glacier Bay where 90% of visitors go see the glaciers because it’s included on the cruise route. But if it introduces people to the wonder of America’s protected beauty and gets them appreciating National Parks, I’m all for it.
That said, after our combo flight tour I got thinking. When we flew across the length of Kobuk Valley, we saw way more of the landscape than we did from the sliver of road we traveled in 13.2 million acre Wrangell-St.Elias or even the limited area we hiked and kayaked at Glacier Bay. Did this give us a better picture of the park? How much of did we miss in the sounds and touches of those places? Who’s to say.
I will say that getting a bird’s eye view of Kobuk Valley’s mind-bendingly braided and coiled streams, flat expanse of the valley rising to mountains on either side of us, and sand dunes sticking out like a biker gang at a Bieber concert was really cool. Walking over the sand feeling it hit your skin and touching the hearty plant inhabitants (something you can’t do from the air) after the pilot landed straight on the dune field was also really cool.
Did coming into the western edge of Gates of the Arctic, seeing mountains and a few lakes stretch to the horizon, flying down among the peaks and watching miles of river gush through the gorgeous gorge below us give us a better experience of the park than bushwhacking through punishingly thick alder to the camp at the very edge? Impossible to tell.
I will tell you that rolling to a stop on the bumpy, rattling rocks of a sandbar, stepping into a beautifully steep valley, hearing the gurgle of the vestal clear water and dipping our hands into the freezing headwaters of the Ambler River was pretty awesome.
So when you can put your finger in the pulse of the land and breathe in its beauty, there’s no wrong way to visit your National Park.