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Alaska's wild and even wilder parks.

Alaska's wild and even wilder parks

The small Cessna skips across the river on silver floats, then lifts quickly from the water in a storm of wind and spray. Anchored to the bank by heavy packs, hikers watch as the plane circles, wags its wings, then points down the valley, a dark speck quickly lost in a blue sky.

It is suddenly quiet. Looking down the wide Arctic valley stretching far to the north, among the tall mountains stacked in snowy pinnacles to the south, and even along the gravel braids edging the river, the hikers are alone: no campground, no signpost, no trail . . . not even a footprint.

The plane, sole link to the outside world, is gone, and only the river speaks.

This is the Alaska dream: to stand alone in country so wild and so pure it feels like the edge of creation.

Until recently, most Alaska visitors could only fantasize this scene as they looked over the rail of a cruise ship or peered through the window of a tour bus. But in 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created 13 magnificent new or enlarged national parks and preserves--so grand in vision and scale that taken together they doubled the size of our national park system. What are these lands? And where are they? To most Alaskans, the ANILCA parks are simply "the bush." Indeed, to most Americans the new parks are still just blanks on an unfamiliar map.

But to the few who've actually visited the new parks, these lands are the most spectacular remnants of complete wilderness left in North America.

The new parks are finally opening up

Considered remote, expensive to get to, and demanding once you get there, Alaska's parks may be easier to visit than you think. As interest has grown, so has the number of air taxi and guide services offering access and guided trips. This summer most of these parks will be more accessible than ever before.

Your commitment of time--and money-- depends on difficulty of access and on the type of experience you're looking for.

A spectacular day boat tour of Kenai Fjords (a 3-hour drive from Anchorage) is a bargain at $70 per person. You can spend from $220 to $3,750 (from Anchorage) for a week of fishing in Lake Clark, depending on whether you want to camp by yourself by the lake or stay in a deluxe lodge with a guide who flies you to a different fishing hole every day.

Similarly, those seeking a week of reote roughing it can fly into Gates of the Arctic (from Fairbanks) and spend from $230 for solo backpacking to $1,500 for a guided, all-inclusive eight-day canoe trip on the Noatak.

A nine-year brawl in Congress

The fight over ownership and management of Alaska's lands has raged since the gold rush, but not until the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 did the issue come to a head. Under that act, the Secretary of the Interior was to identify lands for national park, wildlife refuge, and wild and scenic river status. Selecting these lands became the focus of a nine-year battle.

On December 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed ANILCA, and a California-size chunk of the state, 97 million acres, was dedicated to parks and wildlife.

Our map tells the story. ANILCA designated 43 million acres as new or expanded national parks and 54 million additional acres as national wildlife refuge lands (more than half the 97-million-acre total is wilderness). The act also named 25 new wild and scenic rivers and created two new national monuments on Forest Service lands.

ANILCA broke ground in many ways. For the first time, deliberate efforts were made to protect entire ecosystems.

It also reflects an unprecedented concern for native cultures and Alaska's unique wilderness life style. In a land where "getting your moose" is still a way of life, most new parks have provisions for subsistence hunting and fishing. Some areas are designated as preserves, where sport hunting is permitted. And, because of their size and remoteness, most of the new areas allow back-country access by plane.

Looking in on four parks and a refuge

Last summer a Sunset editor and photographer visited many of these new national parks and several wildlife refuges. Here we report on four very different places, describing experiences awaiting in each.

On page 62, we help you plan an independent adventure, choose a guided trip, and effectively use air taxi services. There are also suggestions on special equipment you'll want to bring along on any back-country trip in Alaska.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve: empty expanses to explore by backpack, canoe, or raft

Flying from Bettles into Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, you wonder that everything seems larger than expected. The mountains appear higher and steeper, the rivers wider and faster, and the broad, treeless valleys seem to stretch forever. Nothing you read prepares you for the sheer immensity of this 8-million-acre wilderness in the Brooks Range.

"This isn't your normal national park," mused ranger Mary Karraker last summer. "Our top priority is to preserv ethe wilderness essence. This is one of the last places on earth where each visitor can still be a genuine explorer. We want you to make your own discoveries. There are good maps, but we have discouraged publication of specific guidebooks that would make the park a known quantity."

While this can be frustrating to trip planners spreading topographic maps over the living room floor, it makes ample sense once you arirve. The adrenaline-pumping essence of the park--at once awesome and just a little terrifying--is the magnitude of its wildness.

The park surrounds the main spine of the Endicott Mountains about a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Spruce forests fill river valleys on the southern flanks. North of the mountain crest, thickets of willow and alder preferred by moose and brown bear edge the rivers, then give way to broad, sloping ridges of flower-dotted brown tundra.

Survival here depends on the fragile landscape, and wildlife is widely scattered. Don't expect the concentrations you'll see in Denali. Most encounters with moose, caribou, bear, or wolf will be along rivers. Look for Dall sheep along the high ridges.

Above the rivers, the tussocks and bogs of alpine tundra make for tough cross-country hiking (there are no trails); plan on no more than 4 to 6 miles per day. You can also hike or wade up the gravel braids of smaller creeks during low water. Best camping is generally on gravel bars.

Most guided back-country travel here is by raft or canoe. Six wild and scenic rivers--Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork of the Koyukuk, and Tinay-guk --act as highways through spectacularly different types of park terrain.

Fishing is typically best for grayling in the clear side creeks feeding the main rivers; Arctic char can be found in bigger clear streams. A few big lakes have trophy lake trout and Northern pike: "Fish so big that in winter they bust up through the ice to grab wandering caribou," insists one veteran bush pilot with a wink. Low productivity and slow growth rates in Arctic waters mandate catch-and-release fishing for all species.

Weather is extremely changeable. Most summer days warm to the mid-50s, but freezing temperatures and snow can occur at any time. Mid-June through July, beware the mosquitoes. Rain is always a possibility; in August persistent drizzle with driving rains can set in for days.

Access is only by plane, with the primary gateway being Bettles; a few backpackers hike from the Eskimo village of Anaktuvuk Pass. Both communities are served by scheduled service from Fairbanks.

Costs vary with your requirements. A seven-day unguided canoe trip on the North Fork of the Koyukuk can cost as little as $500 per person, including air fare from Fairbanks and a canoe. A guided 10-day backpack and canoe trip on the Noatak, including some gear, all meals, and air from Fairbanks, runs around $2,200.

Transportation is much of your expense. But as one backpacker we met observed, "Where else can you have a wilderness larger than California's Central Valley essentially all to yourself?"

Denali National Park: easier access, varied lodging, abundant wildlife, and (if you're lucky) views of Mount McKinley

Conveniently sandwiched between Anchorage and Fairbanks in Alaska's dry interior, Denali National Park and Preserve has it all--including visitors. Some 575,000 came last year, mostly in summer, and planners are openly wondering how many will be too many.

Access is already limited, for good reason. In the early 1970s, auto traffic on the park's only access road--an 86-mile-long washboard of dusty gravel--had reached a point where wildlife was being driven away. In 1972, Denali became one of the nation's first national parks to operate a free shuttle-bus system (summer only). Today only a set number of campers with special permits may drive in.

While the ANILCA settlement nearly tripled Denali's acreage, it hasn't changed the way most visitors see the park.

You can drive or take a bus from Anchorage (240 miles) or Fairbanks (120). Or take the train from either city. Most lodging, campgrounds, and services are within a few miles of the park's railroad station, next to Riley Creek Information Center. Park campsites fill fast on a first-come basis; registration at the information center starts at 8 A.M.

(For details on Denali access and accommodations, see the June 1987 Sunset, or write to the address on page 123.)

Early risers here may see moose in the headquarters area, but for the best chance to see caribou, Dall sheep, and grizzlies-- and Mount McKinley's snowy slopes-- you must get deep into the park ($3 entry fee per person).

One option is a 6-hour narrated bus tour ($36, $16 for children, lunch included). If your schedule allows it, a better bet is the free shuttle, which runs from 6 A.M. to 5 P.M. (last round trip) in summer, from the main visitor center out to Eielson Visitor Center with its view of McKinley across a broad tundra valley (8-hour round trip). Midsummer waits for outbound shuttles can be several hours. Shuttle trips aren't narrated, but drivers stop briefly to allow wildlife viewing from the bus. Pack rain gear, lunch, water.

We suggest first-timers ride all the way to Eielson, noting potential stops. On the return ride, pick one spot for a few hours of hiking, picnicking, mountain-watching, or tundra-botanizing. If wildlife-watching is a priority, get off when good situations happen and catch a later bus.

Except for a few trails in the headequarters area, park hiking is all cross-country, and mostly over tundra. Once you cross the first ridge, civilization disappears.

Passengers at a tour bus stop in Denali National Park ponder the same thing.

Wonder Lake campers scan for ptarmigan and other birds in field of pink fireweed

Climbers have only one thing on their minds: the arduous ascent to McKinley's 20,320-foot summit. The Park Service authorizes seven guide services to lead expeditions on McKinley and other peaks in the park; write to Talkeetna Ranger Station, Box 327, Talkeetna 99676.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve: fishing for salmon and trout from wilderness lodges

Unlike most of Alaska's other great wilderness parks, the scale of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve seems somehow comprehensible. Anchored by the jagged spine of the Chigmit Mountains, this is where the high peaks of the Alaska Range collide with the steaming volcanoes of the Aleutian Range. The result is a dramatic backdrop of rugged, snowcapped peaks, icy blue glaciers, tight valleys hung with streaming waterfalls, and tangled forests of spruce and alder.

Within this 3.6-million-acre park are three floatable wild and scenic rivers, dozens of mountain-rimmed lakes, and ample opportunity for high-country backpacking or coastal kayaking.

But as spectacular as the county is, most visitors come here for one reason: fish.

The fishing scene. Despite the tremendous commercial fishery, the sockeye still turn rivers red on spawning runs from Bristol Bay each July. In fact, the park was created specifically to help protect salmon spawning areas. But depending on where you fish, you'll also catch rainbow, lake trout (50-pound lunkers have been reported in Lake Clark), Northern pike, and grayling.

Anglers who've come this far to fish usually opt for one of the dozen lodges in the park to maximize casting time. A bunk and meals at The Farm in Port Alsworth (home of five lodges) starts at about $100 per day. A week of fly-out fishing from deluxe Angler's Island Lodge costs $3,750 from Anchorage.

Since few lodges have conistently great fishing right outside their doors, guided fly-outs (weather permitting) get you to different waters where chances are better. For variety, late June into August is best.

Some stories you've heard are true. When the salmon are in, you can catch 8- to 12-pound sockeye until your arms are tired. Most lodges will freeze a couple of salmon for you to take home.

But most guides now advocate catch and release of all species of fish. Years of overfishing have depleted populations of huge rainbow trout that once seemed as plentiful as salmon. To help protect remaining stocks, the state has recently included most of the region's rivers in the new Bristol Bay Wild Trout Preserve. Anglers can still take trophy trout, but guides are encouraging pictures instead.

Plan for rainy or windy weather. Collisions of moist marine air from the gulf and dry air from Alaska's interior account for an annual average of just 81 blue-sky days at Iliamna, near the park's southern edge. Weather is generally clearer in the northeastern part of the park. Late June and July tend to be best, with weather changing almost daily; in August rain can settle in for days.

While rain seldom affects fishing, it can limit flying. Socked-in passes may cause delays of Anchorage flights.

Some lodges will pick you up at the airport in Anchorage, but one alternative to regular charters is a nonscheduled "seat fare"--for example, $220 per person round trip from Anchorage to Port Alsworth on Lake Clark Air. Ultimate savings over a charter depends on your gear, size of party, and destination.

Kenai Fjords National Park: the most spectacularly diverse stretch of accessible coastline in the West

Where else can you boat to a bird-filled grotto, watch eagles wheel above wispy waterfalls streaming over black cliffs, slip silently past rocky heads layered with dozing sea lions, and ease up to the cracked blue face of a tidewater glacier-- and all before lunch?

Gateway to the park is Seward (reserve lodging), a 3-hour drive south of Anchorage. There's scheduled bus and air service to Seward, and rail package trips over summer weekends, but for families the best option is to rent a car in Anchorage for at least two days. Arrive in Seward in time to stop at the park visitor center on Fourth Avenue (8 to 5 daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day), for a map and details on hiking or camping opportunities.

Coastal tours are all by boat. Half-day tours of Resurrection Bay fronting Seward cost $45, $23 for children under 12, but these only skirt the edge of the park.

Recommended 9-hour day tours ($70 and $35) leave at 88 reach deep into its heart.

Day tour details. Itineraries vary according to weather and distribution of wildlife, but most tourst stop at Holgate Glacier and the Chiswell Islands. This is bird heaven: bring binoculars for a close look at horned and tufted puffins, speckled murrelets, and rhinocerous auklets. Humpback and killer whales are often sighted, as are sea otters.

Sunshine is rare; count yourself lucky if the day is just gray. Warm layers, full rainsuit, wool cap and gloves, and boots will keep you comfortable on deck. Motion sickness remedies are good insurance.

Reservations are essential. Two companies operate similar programs aboard excursion boats with viewing cabins: Kenai Fjords Tours (Box 1889, Seward 99664) and Quest Charters (319 W. Fifth Ave., Anchorage 99501). Quest also offers packages with Alaska Railroad. Both have drop-off services for ocean kayakers.

Landlubbers can get a feeling for the park without leaving shore by driving 9 miles up the gravel Exit Glacier Road, then walking to Exit Glacier. It's an easy 1/2 mile to a view point, a rougher 1/4 mile more over moraine heaps right to the glacier's snout. Heed warnings not to climb on the glacier or stand under overhanging ice to get your picture taken: last year a woman was killed by falling ice.

On the rare clear day, consider a flight-seeing tour over spectacular Harding Icefield, with a loop back along the coast. An hour charter from Seward (about $200 for a four-passenger plan) will do it.

Photo: Skimming across the still surface of Lake Clark, floatplane takes off for a day of fishing in the snow-streaked mountains

Photo: Clicking cameras on viewing platform don't bother grizzly bear at Katmai's Brooks Falls

Photo: They're off: Eskimo girls in remote bush village race in parkas ruffed by furs their fathers trapped (legally) in new park

Photo: Brassy serenade rouses lodge guests in Lake Clark for hearty family-style breakfast, then a fly-out for a day of fishing (bottom) with guide who has a net for salmon, a pistol to scare hungry bears

Photo: Paddling lazily beneath unusually clear skies, canoeists on the Noatak River have a view back to 8,510-foot Mount Igikpak, highest peak in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Caribou entler is handy towel rack during a quick after-dinner dip in the icy river

Photo: Why did the bear cross the road?

Photo: Tortured ice face of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is an easy hike from parking area

Photo: Dressed for weather, "bow people" on day cruise in Kenai Fjords brave cold mist for view of Steller's sea lions (top) and birds
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1988
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