Getting to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic takes some effort. The two National Parks sit in the middle of northern Alaska’s vast wilderness, with no roads and no facilities. Most visitors fly there in small planes, and I’d been lucky enough to find an extra seat on a Brooks Range Aviation flight that would land briefly in both parks. The plane, with seats for three passengers, had already been chartered by a husband and wife, and it worked out well for everyone that I could take the third seat and share the cost.
My flight to the parks left from the tiny town of Bettles, which was also unreachable by road, so I had to fly to Bettles before I could fly to the parks. Small planes make regular runs from Fairbanks to Bettles, and – after an afternoon spent hiking the Angel Rocks Trail at the Chena River State Recreation Area near Fairbanks – I hopped on an early morning flight and arrived in Bettles before noon. It was the farthest north I’d ever been and my first time crossing the Arctic Circle.
Tom, one of the other passengers on the plane to Bettles, said he’s also trying to visit every U.S. National Park. He only had three more to go, putting him ahead of me by one. “See this?” Tom asked, pointing to some swelling on the left side of his face. “Cancer.” In his mid-60s and battling aggressive cancer, Tom was feeling a sense of urgency to complete his collection of park experiences. He’d gone to Kotzebue last summer as a launching point for a flight to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, but bad weather kept his plane grounded until he’d missed his window and had to go back home. He hoped he’d have better luck this year in Bettles.
Wow, I hoped so too! The weather looked like it might be a problem. I’d been rained on every day of my trip so far, and dark clouds had completely blanketed our flight from Fairbanks to Bettles. But encouraging hints of blue began to appear in the sky after lunch, and our pilot eventually decided it was clear enough to fly. Tom was on a different plane but he made it to the parks, too. At dinner that night he couldn’t stop smiling.
Our landing in Bettles had been on a dirt runway, but for our flight to the parks we headed to a nearby lake and climbed aboard a floatplane, a four-seat Cessna. My fellow passengers – a middle-aged married couple from Virginia – were also trying to visit all the U.S. National Parks. I wondered if there was anyone in Bettles who wasn’t trying to visit all the parks.
Against a heavy headwind our pilot took us first to Kobuk Valley, a flight of about two hours over consistently amazing scenery. Eventually we caught our first glimpse of one of the park’s unique features: the only sand dunes in the world north of the Arctic Circle. After flying over the dunes our pilot dropped down and landed the plane on the Kobuk River, where we got out to stretch our legs and look around.
The scenery along the river wasn’t especially impressive, but it was fun to see bear and moose tracks in the mud next to the river, and at one point a golden eagle took flight from a nearby clump of trees and soared right past me.
Strong winds had blown our plane into the mud at river’s edge, and I had to roll up my pants, take off the high rubber boots I’d borrowed, and wade into the river to help our pilot push us back into deeper water. After taking off we buzzed the dunes again and then continued on for about an hour to Gates of the Arctic.
We landed on a small lake inside Gates of the Arctic and had another chance to put our feet on the ground.
About two hours later we touched back down on the lake near Bettles. The flight had been amazing and it felt great to check off two more National Parks, #56 and #57, leaving only Glacier Bay and American Samoa on my list.
I spent the night at the historic Bettles Lodge, where after a late dinner I had a chance to talk with Eric and his wife Heather, the owners, who just over a year ago decided to leave their more traditional jobs in the lower 48, buy the lodge, and move to Bettles, where they now live year-round. “Incredibly steep learning curve,” said Eric with a laugh. His favorite season is winter, when the lodge is full of guests braving the extreme cold to witness the Northern Lights.
The next afternoon on my flight back to Fairbanks we first went farther north to drop off a passenger at Anaktuvuk Pass, giving me a chance to see a native Alaskan village within the borders of Gates of the Arctic. It was a perfect way to end my time above the Arctic Circle.
As we turned back south the clouds darkened again, and by the time we reached Fairbanks we’d entered a steady rain that would follow me for the rest of my time in Alaska.