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Dialogue With Wolf in Alaskan Wilderness

May 22, 1988|JAMES E. STEELE | Steele is a free-lance writer living in Boston

BETTLESFIELD, Alaska — "If I see one wolf, it will be worth the trip." Those were my first words as the DeHavilland Beaver skimmed off Oolah Lake and disappeared into the lowering clouds of the Brooks Range, leaving us very much alone.

Three days later, while stripping down to wade the icy Itkillik River, my brother, Richard, laid a hand on my shoulder.

"There's your wolf," he whispered, nodding at the far bank. Dark eyes in white, an arctic wolf peered at us, almost invisible behind a rise sprinkled with the colors of the summer tundra.

"And a second," I whispered, pointing to the knoll beyond. "And a third and fourth."

We had come upon a pack standing guard around a den, the first of two packs we would encounter and watch on a 10-day trek through the deepest wilderness possible on the North American continent.

The Brooks Range is the only mountain range in the world north of the Arctic Circle; a land of soul-chilling rivers, taiga and tundra, grizzly, moose, caribou and wolf. In its midst, like an uncut jewel in a rough setting, lies Gates of the Arctic National Park, a vast expanse, 8 million acres of total wilderness.

Range of Rewards

It is wild. There are no amenities. But for those willing, it has rewards. Mine were wolves; for others, perhaps solitude, the chance to fish a nameless river, climb one of a thousand unclimbed peaks, experience the Arctic, stand upon the land that the first humans to cross into this unknown continent stood upon.

The bulk of the Alaskan interior, about 200,000 square miles, is accessible only by plane. The jumping-off point for Gates to the Arctic is Bettlesfield just north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of 80, a lodge, trading post, national park headquarters and several outfitters for rafting, hiking and winter snowmobile and dog sled trips.

Several small commercial carriers make the flight from Fairbanks to Bettlesfield.

I flew Frontier on recommendation, and on further advice made sure I was the first passenger on the plane, a sleek Piper Navaho Chieftain. First passenger on gets the co-pilot's seat and an unforgettable introduction to the vastness of the Alaskan interior.

Beneath the cloud cover the evergreen forest, studded with countless emerald pools and lakes and laced with glistening braids of river and stream, stretches off to the edge of imagination, a vision of trackless abundance.

Great Mountain

Before we crossed the Yukon the pilot lifted us through the cloud cover and leveled off at 8,000 feet, just skimming the sun-bleached vapor.

To the southwest, in awesome grandeur, stood the mountain the Indians call Denali, "the great one"--Mt. McKinley, more than 100 miles away, and at that distance still towering majestically 14,000 feet above us.

August is the best time of year for a visit to the Arctic. By the first or second week, due to the cooling weather, most of the infamous Alaskan mosquitoes have gone to their reward, along with the warm-weather assortment of deerflies, moose flies, no-see-ums and other biting insects for which the only names I've heard are unprintable.

By mid-month the North Slope is well into fall. The days are still quite long, never really passing completely into the pitch of night. Hikers have a tendency to go on "Eskimo time," sleeping late into the morning until the distant sun warms the air and then hiking as late as midnight before making camp again.

Carpet of Colors

The fall colors, deep russets and golds, are as severe as the landscape. They are laid out in an ankle-deep carpet that stretches mottled to the horizon, broken only by jutting canyon walls and the sinuous braided paths of pristine rivers.

Flora on the north slope rarely grows higher than a foot, diminishing proportionately as you progress down toward the Arctic Sea. Near the divide, where we spent some of our time, willows would grow to just above waist height in protected areas close to the streams.

Autumn wildflowers abound, but always, it seems, in hidden folds or tucked in along cool rivulets as though purposely to be stumbled upon, delighting the discoverer. Adding to that delight is the discovery that wide areas of the drier tundra are carpeted with blueberries.

You are reminded also by occasional patches of bright blue bear droppings that the August blueberries are the favorite of another inhabitant of the Brooks Range, the grizzly.

August also is the time of the yearly caribou migration. If lucky, and you travel in or below Oolah Pass, it is possible to waken in the twilight of the night amid a sea of thousands of the animals moving in anticipation of the coming winter.

Watery Landscape

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