Backcountry Hiking: Notebook

You’d think that anyone can go backpacking. But backcountry hiking in Alaska is a whole different thing.

Gates of the Arctic National Park is not reachable by road. There’s no “nature center” no bus trips, and certainly no hards of tourists to bump shoulders with while you visit. In fact, if you see anyone else while visiting the Gates of the Arctic, you either brought them with you, or they are animals that are passing through the park naturally. But we are not headed into desolation alone. Where we are going there is a small cabin that will serve as our production base of operations so that we have a warm and safe place to go to every night.

We fly in with a float plane and land on a nice smooth lake after nearly an hour in the air flying over untouched wilderness. The unbridled desolation around us is just wondrous to see. No shopping malls, roads, cars or anything that the modern world considers “developed.” If anything, Gates of the Arctic has been developed perfectly and needs no help from mankind whatsoever.

Pre-planning of this episode has already taken place before we left. We know we need to see the planes land so when we arrive the first time, we shoot the plane landing, the water under the skids of the airplane, etc. Then the cameraman exits the plane, takes some gear off, and the plane takes off again and circles out of view so the cameraman can shoot the arrival from the ground. The plane floats up and the pilot & hosts exit the plane to “virgin” territory- if you ignore that the cameraman is there getting it all.

We pack everything away in the cabin and this takes a lot longer than we had envisioned because, not only does it take several trips for the camping and camera gear bags, but the ground is full of tussocks that have grown without any restriction for years. So they are the size of football helmets. You can try to walk on them- but with heavy gear, slipping off becomes dangerous. You can try to walk between them- but it’s often very muddy and much more difficult to try and step over the tussocks with each and every step.

The next day, we plan out some hiking, and water sequences. Taking our time to be aware of what’s around us, but also to try and get the footage we need. Then there’s a rainy day that we primarily spend indoors chatting & eating. We had to bring everything we ate as there are little to no resources out here save for some low bush blueberries. Water we get from the stream and then filter to ensure it is potable.

When shooting the “gorge” sequence where our hosts hike up the side of the hill into a gorge for water and to see what’s around, a bear had wandered into the area. Only when we exited the gorge did we see the bear in the distance and we know his footing was much better in this uneven terrain than ours. We were also as far from our cabin as we had been the entire time. It would have been a good hour hike back to the cabin and we were certain the bear would have made it there before us. So we watched the bear for a bit and saw that he was moving away and not towards us. So we decided to stay put and finish our shooting for the day.

Then there’s the night sequence. We did shoot this at night, and it did really freeze there. But we cheated a bit and stayed in the comfort of the cabin. We used an alarm to wake us up in the middle of the night and it ws so hard to craw out of bed, and get dressed to go and shoot something in the middle of the night. But the hosts were great and you’d never know it from their performance on screen.

Then, in the frozen morning, we again came out from the cabins, and climbed into the tents for the shot. In as much as it would have been more adventurous to stay out and sleep in the tents, we were here to shoot a video, not for the experience of camping. So staying in the comfort of the cabin was adventure enough. By week’s end, we were running low on food, and hoping for clear weather so the plan could come out to pick us up. We were lucky with the weather and our shoot went off without much issue and the trip was one we would all remember for a lifetime.