Gates of the Arctic: Photography, Backpacking & Packrafting

Those of you who know me understand my passion for pairing photography with adventure trips to remote areas. The “iconic shot” is great, but my drive is towards capturing scenes in areas not photographed much, or at all. 

One of those places is Gates of the Arctic National Park, located in extreme remote northern Alaska. This spot has been on my ‘life-list’ for years and years. Actually, it seems as if all of my so-called ‘bucket list’ trips are in Alaska. It’s my favorite place in the world for photography, and with good reason, as within its immensity lie some of the best wilderness on the planet. 

Gates of the Arctic National Park is located beyond the Arctic Circle, in northern Alaska, and while it is the second largest in area, its the least visited of our National Parks. Just roughly 10,000 people visit the park each year.

Access is challenging though, which deters many. But, for those willing to put in the time and effort, Gates of the Arctic rewards with incredible mountain and arctic landscapes – which is why it’s been at the top of my list for a long time. There are no roads or trails in the park, it is pure wilderness. So, to visit, backpacking or rafting is required, which is precisely what our trip would involve. 

There is more to photography than pressing the shutter, preparation is essential for success. Ahead of this trip, I spent a great deal of time digitally scouting the park, doing research, finding accessible areas, reading trip reports, and more. After years of excessive planning. the trip finally fit, and I was able to spend 11-days backpacking camping and photographing in the wilderness this past August. 

Attempting the trip during COVID made logistics even more difficult, but we succeeded. 

In all, the trip included four bush plane flights, ~50 miles of hiking, and ~25 miles of rafting – all of which took place over the course of 11 days.

When to Go
Gates of the Arctic National Park is fantastic year-round, although winter conditions are extremely harsh and dangerous for the ill-prepared. In general, the best time to visit the park is summer or fall. Summer is filled with mosquitoes, but days are long and wildflowers are blooming. In fall, the tundra lights up with color, the mosquitoes are gone, but temperatures drop fast and freezing temperatures are common. It’s important to note that due to the northern location of the park, peak fall is usually the third or fourth week in August.

General Area & Plan
My group and I backpacked the Arrigetch Peaks area of Gates of the Arctic. The area is the most visited in the park, because it is one of the most beautiful places anywhere. Jagged granite peaks keep watch over streams and creeks, vibrant foliage, and the wildlife who call this spot home. 

We planned 11 days so we would have plenty of time to explore the alpine peaks and valleys. We allotted additional time for photography since the weather is very unpredictable. We also planned to packraft 25 miles on the nearby Alatna River. The packrafting would enable us to quickly reach our pick-up point on our final day. 

Access
Access is difficult and the biggest challenge is finding a suitable drop-off and pick-up point for your backpacking trip. We chose to be dropped off at Circle Lake, which allowed for an easier route to the Arrigetch Peaks. We elected to be picked up at Takahula Lake because of flight weight concerns if we returned to Circle. Circle Lake and Takahula are semi-connected via the Alatna River. Thus, on our final day, we would packraft 25 miles south from the Circle Lake area to Takahula Lake. 

To start the trip, we needed to get to Circle Lake. Again, the park is in the far north of Alaska so to even access the park, we needed to first get within range. Thus, we had to travel to a tiny village in northern Alaska called Bettles. Bettles is the primary access point for Gates of the Arctic – for backpacking and flightseeing. 

We flew commercially into Fairbanks International Airport and the next day we took a small bush plane flight to Bettles. We landed in Bettles, gathered our gear, and organized our packs, then flew another hour in a floatplane to our drop-off point of Circle Lake. 

When we arrived at Circle Lake, we unloaded our gear, and just like that, we were in the wilderness alone for 11 days. 

Trip Information
We spent an incredible 11 days in the Arrigetch Peaks region and were treated to fantastic weather. The light wasn’t “the best,” in terms of photography, but any day where you can see the sun is a win during autumn in northern Alaska. We were also treated to comfortable temperatures, as it’s not uncommon for single digits the last week of August. We were prepared for that type of cold but thankfully did not have to deal with it. 

Since there are no trails, we spent our backpacking days creating our own paths. We did find a game trail or social path here and there, yet, there was still a lot of bushwacking and route finding. Our most difficult hiking occurred on the first and last day in the lower elevations of the tundra. We were forced to hike over what are called ‘tussocks’, which look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They are balls of tundra that are unstable and elevated over what is usually a wet area. They make for nightmarish hiking because you sink into them every step, oftentimes losing your balance completely and stepping into a nearby hole (that’s also usually filled with water). On our last day, we were even treated to tussocks and thick birch brush. We covered roughly one mile in about three hours that entire day.

But, most of our trip was spent in the alpine where hiking was much easier. We scrambled over scree fields and hiked on the hard tundra, where vegetation was minimal. The hiking was still a challenge due to elevation gain, stream crossings, as well as very slippery boulder fields. 

We returned to our drop-off point on our second-to-last day and grabbed our rafting gear. For our final day, we bushwacked to the Alatna River, inflated our rafts, prepared our gear, and put in. The Alatna is sometimes called the ‘Flatna’ by packrafters. It is an easy paddle with no rapids. With the right wind, you can sometimes do 5-6 mph in a raft. The wind was blowing against so we moved much slower. 

We rafted 25 miles and then took out right next to Takahula Lake. We spent one night camped along the Alatna River on a sand bed, and it was a beautiful evening. We had a fire on the beach and enjoyed our last moments in the park. 

One of the most difficult aspects of the trip was its duration. Being in the field 11 days means you have to eat, and when you’re burning calories hiking, you need to eat a lot. So, carrying that much food, and corresponding weight, moves a trip like this into the “strenuous” category. I averaged 2.5 lbs of food per day so my food alone was around 25 pounds. 


Food (Average Day)  

Breakfast: Oatmeal w/ peanut butter/coconut oil mix, coffee with coconut milk powder
Lunch: Trail mix, energy bar, fruit leather, peanut butter, beef bar
Dinner: Good To-Go dehydrated meal, dark chocolate bar


Now, add in camping, photography, and packrafting gear, and yeah, these packs were heavy. My pack, for example, weighed in at between 60 and 65 pounds at the beginning of the trip. Thankfully, we were able to cache our packrafting gear at our drop-off point or we would have been looking at an additional 10-15 pounds. Each day though, the packs would get lighter and they felt much better on day 10 when we returned to our drop-off point. 

Bears are an “issue” in Alaska. The park alerted to reports of a particularly curious bear who’d been spotted in the general vicinity of where we were heading, so we began our trip on high alert. We did run into that bear twice during our trip. The first time, we noticed him after we set up camp. He was about 100 meters away on the other side of a stream. He was eating berries and didn’t pay too much attention to us. However, he was in a bad spot because he was boxed in with only two directions, away from camp or towards camp, so of course, he chose to come towards us. We tracked the bear for a while and actually were able to push him away from camp and it was a non-issue. 

The second time we ran into him, he wasn’t concerned about us at all. Both encounters were not close though. Careful bear practices are essential to a safe trip in Alaska and we were prepared for that. All of us had Ursack bear bags for food storage, we set up a triangle at every camp (space between camp, kitchen, and food storage), and we had bear spray. 

Packing List

Photo Gear

  • Nikon Z7
  • Nikon 14-30mm f/4
  • Breakthrough Filters X4 CPL
  • 6 x batteries
  • Zeiss Lens Cleaning Wipes
  • 10 x lens clothes

Backpack

Gregory Baltoro 85L Backpack

Sleeping Bag

Marmot Helium 15 Down Sleeping Bag

Packrafting Gear

  • Alpacka Caribou
  • Aqua Bound Manta Ray 4-piece Paddle
  • PFD
  • Sea to Summit 35L Big River Dry Bag

Footwear

  • LOWA Renegade GTX
  • Brooks Cascadia Trail Runners

Shell/Rain Jacket & Pants

  • Arcteryx Beta AR Shell Jacket
  • Marmot Precip Rain Pants

Down Jacket

  • Rab Neutrino Endurance Down Jacket

Apparel

  • 1 x Wool Long-sleeve Shirts
  • 1 x Arcteryx Adahy Fleece
  • 1 x Merino 250 Bottom Baselayer
  • 1 x Marmot Scree Softshell Pants
  • 2 x Wool Socks
  • 2 x ExOfficio Underwear
  • Wool Hat
  • Buff
  • 2 x Gloves
  • Quick-drying Camp Towel

Electronics

  • Anker PowerCore 10000mAh Power Bank
  • Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp
  • Phone Charger
  • 3x AAA Batteries
  • Garmin InReach 
  • Anker Two Panel Solar Charger
  • iPhone 11 

Water 

  • 1 Liter Nalgene
  • LifeStraw Go

Other Accessories

  • Trekking Poles
  • Ursack Bear Bag
  • First Aid Kit
  • Bear Spray
  • Toiletries
  • Toilet Paper
  • Hand Warmers
  • Compass
  • Paper Map
  • MSR Pocket Rocket Stove
  • GSI Soloist 

Closing Thoughts
This was the trip of a lifetime. I went with one of my best photographer friends and this was the second trip we have gone on of this magnitude. Both were successful and a lot of fun. The trip was challenging but rewarding. We were able to capture some great photos of a remote and beautiful area. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere as beautiful or as raw. It was amazing wilderness, and the fall colors were also spectacular. We definitely lucked out with the weather, but sometimes you get lucky and most of the time you don’t! Looking back, I’ve been fortunate to go on a lot of cool backpacking trips, yet this one stands out as the best. 

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin.  His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.

Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.

As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.

You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com

 

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