/ May 21, 2020
Understanding Freedom by Way of Three Magazines and Two Little Bells
Words & photos by Tina Currin
It was only three months into our grand living-in-a-van experiment when my husband, Grayson, and I decided that it was high time to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. After years spent languishing at our desk jobs and shoving a handful of repetitive running routes into the small slots of daylight we had left after work, there was finally room in our lives to find our way as proleptic explorers.
With 8.4 million acres of vast and rugged arctic wilderness in Alaska’s central Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic is a place that attracts superlatives, if not minted adventurers. It’s the second-largest park in the National Park System, as well as the least visited.
With no roads or trails, there are only two ways to visit: Charter a plane or hike in. Given that I was a recent ex-pat of full-time employment, my private jet account was bone dry. Hiking, it would have to be. Would bushwhacking my way into one of the most remote places on earth give me some greater perspective on the natural order of things? Or, put another way, would I survive?
Here’s the thing; my prospects were not good. Not long before I sold my house in North Carolina, I considered car camping a pretty major adventure. Sure, my cooler has wheels, but I still had to haul these beers in a half-mile, man!
As Grayson and I drove north along the jagged spine of the Rockies, we did some climbing, first on the snowcapped peaks of the Tetons, then in Montana’s stunning Big Sky country and Canada’s Central Front Range, which towers above the mighty Athabasca Glacier. But I was still a green-horn, and each new adventure felt like hopping aboard a Ferris wheel, butterflies in my stomach, wondering if this would be the time that I would get bucked from the cart or stuck on the pinnacle.
The trip began in earnest in Fairbanks, where we rented an expedition vehicle equipped with a CB, stout tires, and a hefty emergency kit. We’d be following the 414-mile Dalton Highway, a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt made famous by the reality show Ice Road Truckers and an adventure in its own right. Our destination was Wiseman, a small arctic community along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, 189 miles down the Dalton.
A bustling mining town in the early 1900s, Wiseman is now home to barely a dozen people. At the peak of the gold rush, though, the outpost received 400 tons of freight, including 60 tons of booze (that’s 400 pounds of liquor for each person living there at the time.) It’s this history—in the form of a jumbled-up mining road, and maybe a nip to steel your nerves—that eventually leads into the park.
The drive took all day. The road kicked up enough grime to cover our punchy little Ford like a jacket, and we spent hours waiting for pilot cars to guide us through particularly treacherous sections. When we finally arrived at the ranger station, it had the stale air of abandonment. After nearly twelve hours in the car, we had naively counted on a ranger for hiking beta–and for a map.
Grayson and I spent the next twenty minutes idly traveling the back roads, considering the depth of our predicament when we spied movement near an old maintenance shed. We hadn’t seen any signs of life all day, and this guy was sporting olive green and khaki. Eureka!
Call it mother nature’s uncanny sense of humor or just plain old luck, but we managed to cross paths with a solitary NPS employee. What’s more, he had keys to a storage shed full of office equipment and seasonal merchandise, all thrown together as if in a hasty exit. He couldn’t help us with route-finding—given the remote nature of the park, it’s apparently good policy to evade questioning—but he did lend a hand slicing open cardboard boxes until we finally struck our version of Alaskan gold: two NPS brochures, the kind with the black stripe, which would guide us on our way.
A few miles down the road, we parked our (very expensive, very unsecured) rental car next to a dilapidated silver mine, crossed our fingers, and hoisted up our packs. We only made three miles before dusk, and its attendant sidekick, a frigid arctic wind, forced us to set camp. I pitched our Echo II in a small clearing next to a stream while Grayson studied the map. The bank was dotted with scat, and most of the soil had been turned by geologic reconnaissance related to the mine.
We slept lightly and woke early, motivated by that vulnerable night-in-unknown-terrain feeling. We forged ahead and up, up, up, leaving the mine and finally (finally!) crossing into the park. I was thrilled to navigate nearly every form of alpine environment I’d ever seen, furrowing through dense thickets of willow and alder, carefully picking my way across boulders and through scree, and maneuvering through dark spruce forests, all while making as much noise as possible in this notoriously hungry country. There wasn’t a soul to be seen.
All-day long, we cut a meandering path toward the maze of mountains in the distance, a long stack of grayish-brown stone that surrounded us like a fortress. The majority of our time was spent in the boggy muskeg and drier tundra, carefully traversing what felt like an eternity of tussocks. Hiking over the rounded chunks of grass felt like dancing atop a field of bowling balls. It was slow going.
With no trails, there was no real destination. Unadulterated exploration was the end-goal, and I became suddenly aware of the rarity and value of such a feeling—one that came so naturally in childhood, which I had unknowingly lost somewhere along the way. That night, we set up camp in a spongey section of tundra where the aurora was so electric, it felt like sitting directly under a neon sign. I stayed out of the tent until my toes went numb.
Looking back at the pictures, I can’t help but chuckle at myself. There’s the little hydration hose sticking out my pack like a bright blue tell, illuminating how little I knew about collecting water from permafrost. The three—three! —magazines, as though I were going to layout at the beach, or something. The two little bear bells that I inexplicably attached to the front of the tent. And the climbing harness? The hatchet?
What I did know was my tent and my pack, the stuff that I feverishly scrutinized and saved up for and bought, the stuff that gave me the confidence—for better or worse—to be out there in the first place. I may not have had firsthand experience in the Arctic backcountry, and I may have slightly overpacked, but I had done my research, goddamnit.
And in the end, isn’t that what exploration is all about? Preparing as best you can for the unknowable, and then giving it a go? That’s how I discovered something that I had long lost, something that can probably most accurately be described as freedom, without any of the troubling political or nationalistic connotations attached. This was something lighter, something pure. It was the chimera of fear and joy found in the unplanned and unfamiliar. It used to exist in abundance within the scraggly forests of my back yard, but it took going to the ends of the earth to capture it again. Only this time, I haven’t let it go.