by Hank Leukart
August 29, 2010

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Bush planes, ATVs, trains, and packrafts are often the only way to get around Alaska, the U.S. state with the fewest miles of road.

Hank rides on an all-terrain vehicle outside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Hank rides on an all-terrain vehicle outside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (view all Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska photos)

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RCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska — “It seems like all of the boys who never grew up and wanted bigger and better toys moved to Alaska,” a wise coworker quipped to me after arriving in Alaska this summer. Soon enough, I discovered that my coworker was right: I found it almost impossible to meet anyone without a pilot’s license or boat captain’s license in Alaska. Though Alaska is the largest state in the Union, it has fewer miles of road than any other state, making most places accessible only by plane or boat. Even the state capital, Juneau, is unreachable by car. It seems as though all of those Peter Pans escaped the Lower 48 (what Alaskans call the continental US), moved to one of the most logistically complicated destinations on Earth, and became pilots. Today, Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita in the country.

For me, this makes Alaska especially exciting, because no matter where you are, if you’re outside Anchorage, you’re in a remote, inaccessible place — my favorite kind. The amount of time I spent watching planes take off and land from the Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage was topped only by the amount of time I spent being whisked around Alaska on the planes themselves, flying over far flung terrain blanketed with crystal-clear lakes, milky glacial rivers, creamy-blue glaciers, and emerald mountains. Much of Alaska would be considered totally impenetrable if it weren’t for bush planes outfitted with tundra tires, floats, and skis. Before I left the Lower 48 for Alaska, I barely knew the difference between a 747 and a Piper Super Cub. Now, out of necessity, I can not only identify a Beaver, an Otter, a Saratoga, a Cessna 207, a Dash 8, and an R44 but I can tell you what kind of airstrips they need for landing and how many people fit in each.

Flying around Alaska redefined my understanding of “remote.” One morning, my boss, Mitch, and I embark on a mission to seek out the Porcupine Herd, a mass of caribou that migrate every year along the Porcupine River, traveling southwest from their calving grounds in northeastern Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the southwestern end of Alaska’s Brooks Range. After taking a commercial flight over 600 miles north of Anchorage to Deadhorse, a tiny oil-drilling village sitting on the Arctic Ocean, Mitch and I ask an Alaskan bush pilot to take us in a Cessna 207 — which, by the way, can seat up to six passengers but can’t land on arctic tundra without special tires — to the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He flies us through mountain passes with rivers flowing under us, and for the first time in my life, I see the spectacular olive-colored tundra and coffee-colored mountains of ANWR. At the beginning, we only see a small sprinkling of caribou, but as we fly further into the Refuge, we spot thousands. They’re just a small portion of the 150,000 in the Porcupine Herd, but they cover the landscape as we fly over ANWR’s rugged peaks and deep valleys.

“We’re 600 miles from the nearest major city and 100 miles from the nearest road,” our bush pilot informs us as I take photographs of thousands of caribou through a plane window. We marvel at the wilderness below, one comprised only of mountains and caribou. Soon, our bush pilot lands on a remote airstrip in the wilderness to give us a chance to explore. I look across the arctic tundra, and there’s nothing to see but the horizon. Mitch and I, armed with a loaded rifle in case we need to defend ourselves from bears and moose, begin piloting two all-terrain vehicles across the tundra. We bounce up and down and get jerked around on the unforgiving ATV suspensions and uneven ground, so much so that the weld points on my ATV’s rifle mount give in when I fly over a particularly large knoll. When I stop to remount my rifle, we see a long rainbow stretching over us. As we gawk at the arctic sky, swarms of mosquitos encircle our heads and we’re forced to keep driving to avoid swallowing hundreds of bugs.

We ride into the night, vaulting across the landscape on our ATVs, watching the sun dip slowly toward the horizon as it casts an unnatural orange glow across slate-colored river beds and green, prickly underbrush. We’re over 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and the sun will never set.

Like everyone in Alaska, we’re two boys in Neverland. We never want to grow up.

Read the second essay in this series about traveling around Alaska without roads, in which I ride the Alaska Railroad to a little-known glacier.

1948 Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser

1948 Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser

Rivers flow through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Rivers flow through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou from the Porcupine Herd graze in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou from the Porcupine Herd graze in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A rainbow appears in the arctic sky above an ATV.

A rainbow appears in the arctic sky above an ATV.

The sun dips toward the horizon above two ATVs.

The sun dips toward the horizon above two ATVs.

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