In March of 2012, I stepped off a small plane in Bettles as the wind piled snowdrifts against a wall of spindly black spruce. At the Aurora Lodge, a wiener dog wearing a Christmas sweater greeted me with a wagging tail. Folks who had flown thousands of miles to view northern lights and ride in dog sleds sat quietly conversing.
I bought a couple of gallons of white gas from a friendly lady and asked if she knew of any trails leading north.
“You’ll want to talk to Sven. He’s a musher and knows all the trails around here,” she said, gesturing out the window to a man fiddling with an old pickup.
When I said hello, Sven looked at me skeptically and tried to run away. I pursued him. Soon, we were swapping stories about grizzlies, wolves, and our shared appreciation of the Arctic wilderness.
“Trail leading north? Well, there’s the Hickel Highway. Hop in my truck; I’ll take you there,” he offered.
Ptarmigan pecked at willows lining the icy road and sled dogs stretched outside their little houses as we drove to the outskirts of town.
“I came here three years ago. I was guiding clients down the Koyukuk River. When I got to Bettles I saw this girl jogging along the road. I said, ‘hmm?’ Now she’s my girlfriend and I’ve been training my dogs here since. Here it is. Goes for 40 miles and then it’ll be river travel,” Sven said, gesturing to a narrow swath cut through spindly spruce and willows.
This “road” was one of eighth governor of Alaska Walter Hickel’s many bold plans to develop the state. In 1968, shortly after the Prudhoe Bay oilfield was discovered — at the time it was the largest known reservoir on our country’s history — Hickel set out to build a road linking the oil field to the road system. Underlying permafrost melted, leaving the route an impassable mess, and the project was deemed an economic and environmental disaster. Hickel was ridiculed but, from the quagmire, scientists and engineers learned enough to make good on Hickel’s dream of a road with the completion of the James Dalton Highway in 1974.
After Sven dropped me off, the north wind came to life and the sun burned orange through a horizon of spindly black spruce. Far to the north, the snowy mountains of the Brooks Range shone in the deepening dusk. I stopped skiing for a moment and the sled I was hauling, laden with three weeks of supplies, slid against my heels. A wave of nostalgia washed over. Ten years prior I had first visited these mountains. The kid I’d been then was a different person from who I was now. I wondered if I was I trying to relive the journeys of my younger years, adventures that had shaken me to the core with their beauty, wildness and challenges. Like Alaska, time was exploiting and changing me more with each passing year.
I was about to turn thirty and, the way I figured it, it would be best to be as far from people as possible in case I started acting weird. My hope was to make it to the Arrigetch Peaks and, then, loop back to Anaktuvuk Pass.
The taiga thinned into open tundra. A sea of strastugi, ice waves formed by gale force winds and underlying tussocks, stretched for miles. A golden eagle altered its course to give me a good looking over. Deep in the night, green streams of the northern lights spread across the dark blur of the sky. The island of trees I was camped in moaned in the wind.
Time unfolded in a cold, solitary procession, the monotony broken by encounters with wildlife. I investigated the carcass of a giant moose lying near an old trapper‘s cabin. A menagerie of wolf, fox and wolverine tracks trampled the blood-flecked snow. In a nearby tree hung a giant, rusted wolf trap. A few days later, a large wolverine and I nearly blundered into each other along the windblown ice of the John River. The wolverine took off towards the mountains as I tore through my pack trying to find my camera.
Through deep snow, overflow and open water, I followed a wolf trail up Wolverine Creek to the base of an alpine pass leading to the Arrigetch Peaks. In the morning, fresh wolverine tracks wound around my tent and into the gray pallor of a limestone canyon. By late afternoon, spooked by increasingly nasty conditions, I gave up on the Arrigetch Peaks. I choked down my delusions of grandeur and skied through the twilight back towards the John River. A ptarmigan chased by a falcon surrendered and dropped to the snow.
My ensuing melancholy felt petty as I stood high above the John River watching caribou moving across the bluish expanse of snow. I turned up Ekopuk Valley, where two falls ago I’d encountered thousands of caribou. Now, only the occasional tracks left from foxes and ptarmigan disturbed the silence of the deep snow. I climbed into the great, jagged mountains. Alpenglow and shadows crept down, reminding me why I wanted to be in this place.
I followed fresh wolf tracks through the mountains and into a valley so ghost-like, I felt like I’d been transported back to the Pleistocene epoch. A giant, rusted oil drum rose from Chandler Lake’s southern shore, and black mountains stripped bare from horrendous winds rose on three sides. Snowmachine tracks cut the top of the strastugi. The Nunamiut, inland Inupiaq people, had fished, hunted and lived here for centuries, perhaps even millennia. Until the late 1950s they’d moved across the country, harvesting with the seasons, cut off from and mostly unknown to the rest of the world. Faced with inevitable change, they settled fifty miles away in Anaktuvuk Pass.
I followed a well-worn snowmachine trail into the mountains. Two friendly Anaktuvuk women, rifles strapped to their backs, stopped to check on me. They’d been ice-fishing at Chandler Lake and questioned me until I convinced them I didn’t need to be rescued. The trail turned to overflow, and I waterskied for miles as caribou began to appear on the low ridges. A herd of a hundred clambered down to the valley and stood in the steaming overflow as alpenglow crept down the blue mountains.
I sat with the caribou for two days, watching as they dug through snow for lichens, lay resting in beds or wandered slowly in different directions. I thought about getting older. I thought about Alaska representing the last chapter of America’s west and wilderness. I thought how there were only a few pages left before that book would be finished. Late on the second day, while sitting atop a knoll, I heard caribou exhaling nearby. I lay on my back, smiling at the blue sky, as two yearlings and their moms stood just feet away. Slowly they trudged off, paused and swirled back. A massive golden eagle swung in circles above and willow ptarmigan croaked in a drainage below. Soon the world became silent again, undisturbed except for the trails of caribou cutting across the mountains.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer and pens this column, “Off the Beaten Path.” His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” Contact or follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.