Arctic Alaska is one of the greatest wilderness areas in the world. It is a delicate balance of tundra, boreal forest, coastal plains, and mountains. It’s vastness is deceiving because the Arctic ecosystem is extremely fragile and is easily impacted by man’s activities. The Arctic climate produces permafrost and marginal growth conditions for vegetation. Land that has been damaged may take years to regenerate, or it may never recover. (See the Travel and Tour Operators list for information on guides and outfitters that can arrange hiking/backpacking trips in the area.)
Generally defined, tundra means “rolling treeless plain”. A short growing season followed by snow, low light, and melt-freeze cycles combine to force tundra plants and animals to adapt to a rigorous environment.
Much of the ground in Arctic regions is permanently frozen as permafrost. During the summer, in most areas, there will be an “active layer” of thawed soil at the surface, allowing plant growth.
Arctic tundra can be divided into two main groups, dry and moist. Dry tundra is dominated by mat-forming shrubs, and is commonly found on higher, well drained “terraces”. These areas can attract significant recreation since they provide easier walking and better camping than the heavily tussocked moist tundra. While showing reasonable resistance to recreational use, dry tundra is still considered fragile, and susceptible to damage with moderate use.
Moist tundra is found in low-lying, poorly drained areas where the permafrost is close to the surface. Moist tundra is often dominated by a variety of sedges such as tussock cottongrass. The soils underlying moist tundra are easily reduced to muck by foot or vehicle traffic.
Travellers to the tundra regions of the Brooks Range will also encounter other plant communities, such as spruce, alder, and willows. An important characteristic of these plant communities is the slow growth rate of trees, which effects the land’s ability to rebound from wood harvesting for fires.
The practice of Leave No Trace principles is essential to minimizing impacts to the tundra regions of northern Alaska.
The principles of leave no trace are:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces
- Pack it in, Pack it out
- Properly Dispose of What You Cannnot Pack Out
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Use and Impact of Fires
- Respect Private Land and Subsistence Users
Selection of a campsite is probably the most critical decision you will make in trying to minimize your impact. Gravel bars make excellent campsites because they are durable and well-drained, often have fewer mosquitoes than other sites, and high water will erase signs of your presence. Remember that high water can occur at any time so locate your camp well above current water levels.
If you must choose a vegetated site, select a location with hardier vegetation such as grasses and sedges, rather than more fragile lichens and mosses. Move camp every 2-3 days or before signs of your presence become noticeable. Wearing soft-soled shoes around camp will minimize impacts. Trenching for tents is unnecessary as is using branches for
The cumulative impact of large groups on the environment is especially noticeable and lasting in Arctic eco-systems. A group of 4 to 6 people strikes a good balance between safety and environmental concerns.
Tree growth in the Arctic is very slow; a spruce tree only inches in diameter may be hundreds of years old. In some areas wood may be scarce or nonexistent. Because of this, gas or propane stoves for cooking are strongly recommended. A gas or propane stove is also good for emergencies since it is easy to light.
If you need an open fire, it should be built on exposed inorganic soil. Fire at other locations will kill the vegetation and create long-lasting scars. Only dead and downed wood should be burned. Avoid using rocks to construct fire rings.
All traces of the fire should be erased before you leave. Remove all bits of foil, wire and other unburned materials from the ashes and pack them out. All ashes and charcoal should be deposited in the main current of a river if possible. A fire pan can be easily carried and it will prevent fire scars. If these steps are taken, others will not be attracted to camp repeatedly at the same location, allowing the site to recover.
Hike on existing trails to minimize disturbance to soil and vegetation. Avoid multiple trail formation. If no trails exist, a group should travel in a fan pattern whenever possible. Above all, leave your trail unmarked.
Human feces carry harmful micro-organisms. Bury feces at least 200 feet from all potential water sources. To promote decomposition, choose a site in organic soil. Dig a small hole 6 to 8 inches deep. After use, bury completely and replace the tundra. Mosses, leaves, and snow make for natural toilet papers. All paper products, including feminine hygiene products should be packed out or burned. If you burn your toilet paper be cautious not to ignite any wildfires.
If you pack it in, pack it out. Land managers need your help to maintain these areas in a pristine condition. If you find litter, carry it out whenever possible. Buried garbage will only resurface due to frost action or curious animals. If a bear digs up garbage and begins associating people with food you may be creating a dangerous situation. Check with local residents before disposing of garbage at a rural community.
Private land and cabins are scattered throughout Alaskan parks and refuges. Though travel may be through remote country, you may encounter private property. Cabins, caches, traplines and fishnets should be respected and not disturbed. Check with the land manager of the area you are visiting for land status.
You may also encounter prehistoric or historic sites. These sites usually hold great significance for the local Native people. Respect their heritage and leave the site undisturbed.
During you trip in the Arctic, you will most likely visit rural communities. Invasion of
Carry a collapsible water jug to cut down on trips for water, thereby reducing trail formation. Bathe and wash dishes at least 100 feet from sources of drinking water and use biodegradable soaps. Water may contain Giardia lamblia, or other intestinal parasites. It is recommended that you drink only boiled, filtered or chemically treated water.
Make certain that your equipment is sturdy and functional, and that you have adequate field repair kits. First aid knowledge and supplies are a must. Signaling devices such as smoke flares, mirrors, strobes, or signal cloths should be carried for emergencies. If you carry a ground to air radio or personal emergency locating device, realize that they are to be used in serious emergencies only.
Planning for contigencies
Leave your itinerary with a dependable person and make firm arrangements with an air taxi operator. Air taxis may be delayed several days due to bad weather, so carry extra food.
Leave natural objects and cultural artifacts
Natural objects of beauty or interest, such as antlers or fossils, should be left for others to discover and enjoy. Antlers also provide an important calcium source for small mammals. It is illegal to remove any natural objects, including plants and flowers from all National Park Service lands.
Plan by choosing a careful route and a good technique. Stream currents are swift and cold, and the water level can rise significantly within a few hours, making a slow stream an impassable torrent. Silt carried in the rivers can prevent a clear view of the obstacles along the bottom.
Pick a route through the widest channels or where there are many channels instead of just one. As water disperses it’ll run more slowly and shallow out. Spend time walking up and downstream, or climbing to a high point, in order to find a crossing site suitable for the entire group.
Watch the water’s surface while choosing a route, since this may offer the most reliable information about depth and riverbed composition. Don’t cross through standing waves. There the bottom is uneven and water is deep. Do cross where there are small, closely spaced ripples. There the water is shallow over a smooth bottom. Keep in mind that Brooks Range rivers are often deeper after the warmest part of the day due to melting of snowpack high in the mountains.
Check your choice by throwing big rocks into the water. A hollow”ka-thump” sounds in deep water. If the rock moves downstream before sinking to the bottom, or if submerged rocks can be heard rolling downstream, the current may be too swift to cross at that point.
Finally, always include an option for a retreat back to shore should the crossing become too difficult. Never over commit yourself to one route. Plan, pick, watch, check . . .
Before you cross, remember: Seal all essential items, such as dry clothing and sleeping bags, in watertight, plastic bags. Do not cross barefoot or in socks alone. Shoes protect your feet from rocks, and allow you to hop along with the current. Release the waist and sternum belts of your pack. Should you fall, you must be able to jettison the pack before it fills up with water and drags you down.
As you cross, keep your eyes on the far shore. You may become dizzy if you look down at the water. Solo crossings are not recommended; however, if you have no other options, cross downstream at an angle using a long, sturdy stick for support.
Although an un-bridged river presents many challenges, it is also part of true wilderness hiking.