In July of 2006 my wife and I completed an east to west traverse of the remote Philip Smith Mountains in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the most remote areas in the United States. The route was well above the Arctic Circle and the tree line lending to terrain that was steep and rocky.
We crossed seven passes in about 100 miles; passes were broad and consisted of steep scree slopes. The travel was difficult. Our route took us across the continental divide several times and of course all of the hiking was cross-country travel.
We were dropped off and picked up in Dirk Nickisch’s Beaver. Dirk flies out of Coldfoot Alaska and owns two de Havilland Beaver airplanes, the quintessential bush plane.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is more than 19 million acres in area, making it about the size of South Carolina. Eight million acres are designated wilderness. It stretches from the Dalton Highway to the Canadian boarder in North East Alaska. Because of the remoteness of the refuge, few people visit. We didn’t see anyone or any sign of people during our weeklong traverse.
We were dropped off on the Marsh fork of the Canning river just north ease of Mt. Annette. The Canning River is a typical braided arctic river nested in a broad valley bordered by 7,000-foot peaks.
The Junjik River flows south from the Philip Smith Mountains. This is a land still waiting to be fully discovered. The season for travel is short and the access is difficult in ANWR, ensuring that remoteness will endure.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or ANWR is one of America’s most remarkable landscapes. It supports a greater variety of plant and animal life than any other protected area above the Arctic Circle. The vegetation is low-lying tundra species and while we saw Grizzly Bears, Wolves and Moose, much of the wildlife surrounds the migration of the Caribou.
We shared this river with schools of Arctic Grayling.
Wilderness traverses are always a little stressful from the vantage that you need to overcome every obstacle to arrive at a designated pick up location. While we had topographic maps, a few of the passes and river crossings were surprisingly difficult. We had no means to communicate and only one extra day of food making our arrival on the designated day an imperative.