Where Mountains Aren’t Nameless

What can you learn from a 1,000-mile solo trek through the Alaskan wilderness?

Excerpted from Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-Mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range.

Day 35 (8 miles)

Map Quad: Chandler Lake

Clouds creeping up the valley obscure the pass and I’m glad I have my Magellan GPS, even though it is on its last leg. I crest a ridge, not the pass proper, and therefore descend to it. From this notch among whalebacks, I see an inkwell of a lake at the bottom of Grizzly Creek, twin to the one I camped at last night. The view, clear below an overcast canopy, is one of the best so far. The conservation icon Bob Marshall in time-honored tradition peppered alleged terra incognita with his own coinages, as if he’d built the ice-clad peaks crowding around me: Cockedhat, Snowheel, Inclined, Alapah (Inupiaq for “cold”), Doonerak — his “Matterhorn of the Koyukuk” — and square-jawed Limestack Mountain, each summit clipped by the bruised sky’s blade. Many indeed had never been climbed. Foragers had no reason to. Summits, promising neither game nor raw materials, did not figure into subsistence rounds.

Arrigetch Peaks

Situated within the Brooks Range, the Arrigetch Peaks rise thousands of feet above the surrounding landscape in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Photo by Sean Tevebaugh / NPS.

Over a month into my solo traverse from Canada’s Yukon border to the Bering Strait, I find myself in Gates of the Arctic east of the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. The northernmost and second-largest US national park — bigger than Belgium — unrolls before my boots under a leaden, squally sky. These are mountains without tollbooths or handrails. It is land free and undeveloped, as some of it should be, land each person should enjoy according to his or her abilities.

We owe so much besides place names to Robert “Bob” Marshall, a twentieth-century John Muir and advocate of the Central Brooks Range. “Let’s keep Alaska largely a wilderness,” he urged Congress in 1938. The New York forester with the boyish face and goofy smile arrived in the uncharted territory he’d selected from his atlas months before the Great Depression and began to study tree growth at the northern timberline for a thesis about the effects of climate on political history. He was also searching for a rumored tree with pine needles and the bark of a cottonwood, a Douglas fir he thought based on the description, which he never found.

He already was larger than life, and brimming with it. He’d summited his first Adirondack peak at fifteen; decades later he still loved running down slopes. Frugal and modest despite being wealthy, shy except during dances and parties, Marshall was a romantic, an admirer of Lewis and Clark who felt he’d been born too late. He sometimes portaged in tennis shoes or subsisted only on raisins and cheese. He planned to take a 30-mile day hike in every US state. His sense of humor favored the absurd. He once entered a room somersaulting through the doorway, change flying from his pockets, crowing, “I just rolled in.” Another time he daubed shoe polish onto his underwear to keep the holes that mice had nibbled into his tux from showing at a formal dinner.

“There is just one hope,” Marshall intoned in a seminal article, in a graver mood, “of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.” In November 1939, when he was 38, the dynamo heart that had propelled him up countless mountains gave out on a midnight train ride from Washington, DC, to New York.

book cover thumbnail

An obsessive list maker and timekeeper and the first to map this region, the East Coast visitor bestowed 164 place-names on the central Brooks Range, including Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, a gateway for the Koyukuk’s North Fork that became this national park’s tagline. The US Geological Survey, denying that the “so-called exploring expeditions” of adventurers, mountain climbers, and newspapermen contributed usable map information, stuffily credits Marshall’s headwaters sketch as the “exception to the unimportance of individual exploration in Alaska.”

My right shoulder throbs from dislocations suffered years ago, and the Achilles tendon on my left foot pinches; my pack is too heavy again after the last resupply at the Dalton Highway for midweight boots that do not give enough ankle support. I console myself with the thought that Marshall, famous for 40-mile days, schlepped a seventy-pound pack with a tumpline along nearby Ernie Creek and was forced to rest three times along each mile. This is a hard country.

“Gaily daring the unknown,” he’d set out with one companion on his first probe of the Arctic Divide in July 1929. The pair almost drowned when the Koyukuk’s rain-swollen North Fork flooded their island camp. The experience energized Marshall. Here was a place, finally, where nature had not yet been neutered.

To the inland-Eskimo Inupiat and Koyukon Athabaskan Indians, the central range long had been home, with most prominent features named in their languages. Indigenous travelers tuned in to a landscape and accessed a mindscape — information ingrained in those names and their elders’ tales, unwritten history, of events that had taken place at such sites.

Nowadays, few new names in official wildernesses are approved and only after thorough review by the respective land-managing agency. The Board on Geographic Names, the USGS branch responsible, wants to minimize the human touch in these areas, be it ever so slight, in accordance with the spirit of the Wilderness Act. “Although wilderness designations are a modern invention,” the board insists, “a fundamental characteristic of elemental wilderness is that the cultural overlay of civilization is absent. Place-names in a wilderness area might diminish the sense of discovery that those who visit ought to be able to experience.” Of course, too many visitors also diminish that sense — and the physical integrity of a place — but zoning and permits, let alone carrying capacities, for Brooks Range wildernesses, parks, and preserves have never been established, for better or worse. Embracing both solitude and discovery, Marshall could not have foreseen crowding or serious human impact in his beloved mountains. Even his naming mania might have relented had he lived long enough for his zeal to mellow.

Marshall and a Fairbanks prospector friend also christened Grizzly Creek, which flares below me. On my heels I glissade down a black shale ramp splotched with arctic poppies, all the way to the valley bottom.

A self-diagnosed “ursa-phobe” who once escaped a grizzly by climbing a tree, Marshall admitted panicking faced with another, “11 miles from the closest gun, 106 from the first potential stretcher bearers, and 300 air-line from the nearest hospital.” At his camp near the mouth of Grizzly Creek, “an immense, whitish-brown humped mass” spooked and stampeded the pack stock. Dragged behind one crazed nag, he shot at the bear from the hip and, after letting go of the halter, managed to wound it. He then chased the runaway horses on foot. The next day a cold rain soaked him, and he saw little, as fog mantled the “ragged giants” bracing this glen. A soggy slope crashing into the creek two miles below camp caused more excitement, with horses spooked once again.

I do it again: I outrace ominous clouds, chugging up the Valley of Precipices, Marshall’s “great gorge of the north” with its pillars Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, forming the “Gates,” and last up a slope stubbly with tussocks to a small Ernie Pass tundra lake — Ernie Johnson being one of Marshall’s Wiseman companions. As Marshall often did, I go unarmed and on this marbled day at the very head of the Koyukuk’s North Fork don’t meet any wildlife. Bathed in theatrical light, I take five hasty minutes to floor the marginal site with fistfuls of moss and pitch my tent by the lake before the sky’s floodgates sunder with booming claps.

Now, against the advice of bear experts, coffee is brewing in the vestibule while I sit snug in the pitter-patter and thunder. You can’t beat that. It reminds me of rainy Sundays on the couch, and my notes show it indeed is that day of the week.

Open and unimpressive Ernie Pass is yet another iteration of the Continental Divide, and I shall walk on the north side tomorrow again.

I saw bladder campion today, a less showy relative of moss campion. Its white, purple-ribbed “bladder,” a calyx like a Japanese paper lantern, is a greenhouse for the reproductive organs. This campion has been called “a strikingly unflowerlike flower,” since its tiny petals are tucked inside the bladder. It also is said to be “nodding when young.” Isn’t that how we’d prefer youth to be, always agreeable? Now, taking to the streets, they’re accusing us, justly, of having damaged the planet.

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