Welcome to one of the nation’s largest and most-remote national parks
I heard the footsteps before the loud knocking. My colleagues and I were in Bettles, Alaska, staying at a historic lodge. We had asked the innkeeper to wake us for the northern lights. When he did, we dressed quickly and hurried into the cold night. It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the waxing and waning waves of the greenish light, ever-changing in form. I was awed when the auroras shifted to resemble a giant bird of prey — claws outstretched.
Bettles is a gateway to the nation’s second largest national park: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. It’s one of the most remote national parks in the country, with no way of getting there other than hiking or flying.
We’d been in Bettles waiting for a chartered flight to Walker Lake — a national natural landmark inside the park. When the pilot finally arrived, he told us it still wasn’t clear enough to get to the lake. We’d have to go somewhere else.
Sometimes you have to travel in the wrong direction to get to the right place — especially in Alaska, where weather rules, which is how we landed at Long Lake.
The pilot had arranged for us to spend the night on a parcel of private land with a dock, a boat and a small shelter so we had time to explore.
On the ground, I found a landscape for elves (and curious photographers). Bright foliage erupted from soil blackened by an accidental fire; moss, toadstools and caribou grass created another world. On the water, loons called and big drops of rain bounced on the surface. From a canoe in the middle of the lake, I was soothed by the sounds and the silence.
As I tried to climb ashore, I unintentionally pushed the canoe away from the dock — and fell in — wet to my waist. I was cold, but surprisingly not miserable. In September, the water has some remnants of summer warmth.
Walker Lake was still on our agenda. The pilots — a husband and wife team — were unable to get us there the next day. Instead, we flew to Coldfoot, where they lived. They let us sleep in their office, and we divvied up the comfort. Bishop Sand, the audio producer, got a couple cushions from a love seat and settled on the floor. Lillian Cunningham, the writer, turned a giant stuffed bear into a cushion and snuggled with it on the now-barren love seat. As a gift for being the oldest, I got the other love seat that was just long enough for my head and torso.
By the time we landed at Walker Lake, more foul weather obscured that which should have been magnificent. But that changed on the way to tiny Anaktuvuk Pass, the only village inside the park’s more than 8 million acres of wilderness.
Flying there was spectacular. Autumn’s fiery oranges and yellows dotted the landscape — screaming for attention. A sinuous river idly zigged and zagged, while the snowcapped Brooks Range dazzled from every angle. I didn’t want it to end.
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