Above the Arctic Circle

One of the most stunning sights in Gates of the Arctic, the sharply serrated Arrigetch Peaks shown here in the warmth of late evening light. © Jerry Ginsberg

Story & Photography by Jerry Ginsberg

 

While it may often go unnoticed, two of our fifty-nine National Parks are actually north of the Arctic Circle. Kobuk Valley and virtually contiguous Gates of the Arctic National Parks are way up there in the Arctic.

As children in grade school, we learned enough about the globe to understand the locations of the Equator, the Tropics and the Arctic and Antarctic circles. Those two circles seemed so very far away. They are. Crossing either requires embarking on a real journey. Let’s focus on the Arctic for now.

As the Arctic Circle girdles the northern end of our little planet, it pays no attention to the national boundaries superficially drawn by transient two-legged creatures. Instead, it is the climate that created and radially distributed features such as the taiga forest, the tundra and the polar ice cap that can be found at every point of longitude above the circle.

While many Alaskan glaciers are receding, an equal number may also be advancing. © Jerry Ginsberg

When heading north from Anchorage, Alaska, Route 3 first passes the entrance to vast Denali National Park (NANPA eNews Feb. 2014), then Fairbanks and the little village of Livengood, Alaska (population 200). There the pavement finally yields to the gravel that continues north all the way up to “the Slope” and Prudhoe Bay. While it is passable with an ordinary sedan, it always seems to be the stones with the very sharpest edges that manage to find and chip your windshield when kicked up by huge tanker trucks as they barrel past you on the narrow track.

The vast Brooks Range stretches through Gates of the Arctic National Park north of the Arctic Circle. © Jerry Ginsberg

After a while, the road crosses the mighty and fabled Yukon River. Keep driving. Eventually, you will notice a small sign on the right heralding your arrival at the Arctic Circle. It’s a pleasant, but not a particularly scenic spot; definitely worth a stop and a short stroll to take in the experience of nearing the top of the planet.

Driving still further north, in the real Arctic now, you will want to park at a pump station along the Alaska oil pipeline, Coldfoot or other location as pre-arranged with an air taxi service that can get you and your gear to the tiny village of Bettles, gateway to Gates of the Arctic National Park (NANPA eNews April, 2016), where you can launch your exploration of this vast park by raft, small plane or on foot.

There is another and very different option available to you as well. Taking a flight on efficient Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to northerly Kotzebue is the best way to start a trip to Kobuk Valley National Park. Once you arrive in downtown Kotzebue, you’ll immediately know that you are in a very different environment. Here, along the very edge of the Bering Sea, the buildings are uniquely designed to face the bitterly cold Arctic winters head-on.

As remote as it is, Kotzebue boasts one of the most modern and attractive National Park Service visitor centers anywhere. Your tax dollars at work!  The real goal in journeying to Kotzebue is to kick off your backcountry exploration of wild and empty Kobuk Valley National Park.

While we don’t often think of Alaska as a place for spectacular sand dunes, they’re here in Kobuk Valley National Park. © Jerry Ginsberg

 

In the rarefied light here above the Arctic Circle, serendipity can offer great light at any time. Always be ready. © Jerry Ginsberg

The primary ways of getting around this 2,800 square mile park are snow machine, air taxi combined with backpacking and the ever popular float adventure on the Kobuk River.  Highlighted by the fascinating Great Kobuk Sand Dunes and hundreds of thousands of often shy caribou whose prancing gait can fairly be described as poetic, exploring Kobuk Valley National Park is only for the hardy souls with the wilderness and survival skills that are truly up to the challenge.

Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.
Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.