Then the idea—impossible! Absurd!—to visit that place. To see the mountains, to ford the rivers, to fight the tussocks. (To stay far, far away from the bears.)
Wholly impossible? Entirely absurd?
The dream begins to take shape. You study the maps more carefully. There are airports, roads, your own two feet. Oolah Pass, Peregrine Pass, Ernie Pass. Anaktuvuk, Naqsraq, a pass, a river, a “place with no mountain” nestled in the heart of the Brooks Range, opening to the vast North Slope. You can envision yourself climbing the ridges and camping by the creeks. Mile after mile of tundra and rocks; day after day of rain, snow, ice. Mosquitoes. That glorious midsummer light.
Before long, it doesn’t just seem possible, but necessary. Yes, you must visit this place, you need to feel the cold pull of the rivers, the cold push of the rain. You need to spend a week or more alone with the caribou and the wolves. More than anything, you need the 7.2 million acres of wilderness through which they roam.
|A different sub-Arctic wilderness--the Alaska Range, Denali National Park|
You’re not sure why you need this place—what is it you seek there? What is it you’ll find? It’s a pilgrimage without a destination, a quest without a task. It’s a Snow Leopard without a Crystal Monastery. And without a snow leopard, for that matter. (“Have you seen the snow leopard?” asks Peter Matthiessen, “No! Isn’t that wonderful?”) It’s a Mount Analogue without a ship or a crew. (“And you, what are you looking for?” was to be the last chapter of Rene Daumal’s allegory.) It’s not at all an Into the Wild. (Dangerous, yes, but not foolhardy, not reckless. You’ll bring maps and food; you'll follow all Leave No Trace principles; you’ve backpacked in Alaska before, just not this far north, this big, alone.)
Maybe you're just trying to escape from your daily routine, to find something more pressing and real than your life of quiet desperation. Rather than sitting here comfortably under a sturdy roof, you'd prefer to be out there, packing up a tent in the pouring rain. You'd rather be crossing a river vs. crossing the street. Facing bears vs. watching squirrels. Eating oatmeal, more oatmeal, only oatmeal vs. frying eggs and bacon. You know you’ll later regret saying it, but--you claim now--you’d rather be walking over tussocks than skipping down sidewalks. (You've never fared well in places with sidewalks.)
Or maybe you're searching for something bigger, wilder, more meaningful. Something you've glimpsed in other wilderness areas--a sense of a world that is, for all of its cities and farms, dams and fences, still dominated by non-human forces. In his thrilling account of his first trip up the North Fork of the Koyukuk, Bob Marshall--the man who put "Gates of the Arctic" and more than a hundred other toponyms on the map (and who was the first to explore the area and draw the maps, for that matter); also a "peripatetic ecologist" who devoted his life to exploring and fighting to preserve big, wild places; co-founder of the Wilderness Society; author of Arctic Village and Arctic Wilderness; eponym of the Adirondacks' Mt. Marshall and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness; and, it seems, an all-around adventurous, indefatigable guy--wrote of the landforms and the landscape, the wildlife and the weather, the experience of being in such a truly wild place. Perhaps his most important discovery / realization: "Man may be taming nature, but no one standing on the bank of the North Fork of the Koyukuk on this gray morning would have claimed that nature is conquered."
|McKinley River, Denali National Park|
Now it's your turn to see this, to remember this. Your turn to splash your way across the Koyukuk (hopefully under more favorable conditions), your turn to (try to? maybe?) clamber up to the summit of Alapah, for what Marshall promises is a glorious view of "fog, and, for an instant, two barren, snow-clad peaks in the shifting mist." Finally, after years and years of perusing a now very tattered, scribbled-in and dog-eared old copy of Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, you're going to go “walk...slowly over the land with an appreciation of its immediacy to the senses and in anticipation of what lies hidden in it.” You'll “listen…to what the land is saying.” You'll experience a “beauty you feel in your flesh," even if or perhaps because "it is sometimes terrifying to approach.”
If all goes well, you may just find yourself sitting high on a ridge one day, far from the sea, in miserable weather, amid swarms of mosquitoes, with miles of tussock ahead, and you'll think to yourself: ahh, Gates of the Arctic. This place is real. With that knowledge comes “the familiar sense of expansiveness, of deep exhilaration…quviannikumut, ‘to feel deeply happy.’”