Student Handbook
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I.  Securing the Benefits of Wilderness

II. Natural Resources

A. Climate

B. Air Quality

C. Geology/Paleontology

D. Soils

E. Hydrology

F. Vegetation

G. Wildlife

H. National Natural Landmarks

I. Biosphere

III. Cultural Resources

A. Prehistory and Resources

B. History and Resources

Suggested Reading


In establishing Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska's Brooks Range, Congress has reserved a vast and essentially untouched area of superlative natural beauty and exceptional scientific value - a maze of glaciated valleys and gaunt, rugged mountains, covered with boreal forest and arctic tundra vegetation, cut by wild rivers, and inhabited by far-ranging populations of caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and bears. Congress has recognized a special value of the Park and Preserve to be its wild and undeveloped character and the opportunities it affords for solitude and wilderness travel and adventure.

Backpacking in Gates of the Arctic (NPS Photo)Some of the most important aspects of wilderness are its intangible qualities. Space is critical—space for animals to roam and for people to wander. Another critical element is the dominance of the forces of nature, allowing almost no evidence of human activity. The most elusive benefits of wilderness are in the minds of people—the feeling of solitude, freedom, discovery, adventure, challenge, and self-reliance are essential products of the wilderness experience that has always been a part of American culture.

The national park system comprises over 370 areas of special importance to the people of the United States—a system that includes superlative natural, historical, scientific, and recreational areas in every region of the country. Within this broad spectrum of resources and opportunities, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is distinguished by its special wilderness purposes. Gates of the Arctic encompasses several congressionally recognized elements, including the National Park, National Preserve, Wilderness, six Wild Rivers, and two National Natural Landmarks. The National Park Service has been entrusted to manage this area to protect its physical resources and to maintain the intangible qualities of wilderness and the opportunity it provides to learn and renew its values.



The central Brooks Range has long severe winters and relatively short cool summers. The entire region receives continuous sunlight during the summer for at least 30 days. Conversely, winter residents and visitors will experience long periods of darkness and twilight.

Aurora Borealis (NPS Photo)The south side of the Brooks Range below 2,500 feet is generally a sub-arctic climate zone. Precipitation is low, averaging 12-18 inches in the west and 8-12 inches in the east. Snow falls 8 to 9 months of the year, averaging 60-80 inches. The average maximum and minimum July temperatures are 70ºF and 46ºF, respectively. Thunderstorm activity is common during June and July, and June through September is the wettest time of year. Prevailing winds are out of the north. Average maximum and minimum January temperatures are -10ºF and -30ºF.

The north side of the Brooks Range has an arctic climate. Mean annual temperatures are colder than on the south side. Maximum and minimum February temperatures range from 33ºF to -47ºF. The warmest month, July, has 60ºF maximum and 40ºF minimum. Precipitation is extremely light, about 5-10 inches a year, making this essentially an "arctic desert." Snow has been recorded in every month of the year, and the annual average is 45 inches. Prevailing winds from the east in summer and west in winter are greatly modified by local terrain.


While comprehensive data have not been collected in this region, the air quality of the park and preserve and surrounding area is generally considered excellent. Smoke from forest and tundra fires can degrade air quality from June to August.


Arrigetch Peaks (NPS Photo)The central Brooks Range is a remote area of rugged, glaciated east-trending ridges that rise to elevations of 8,500 feet. The range is part of the Rocky Mountain system that stretches completely across the northern part of Alaska. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve spreads across three land classifications: Arctic Foothills, Arctic Mountains, and Western Alaska. Two primary mountain ranges make up the central Brooks Range—the Endicott and Schwatka mountains. Several episodes of fracturing, and overlapping thrust fault blocks. Uplift, erosion, and heavy glaciations account for the rugged mountain profiles and U-shaped valleys evident today. Metamorphic rocks, primarily quartz mica schist and chloritic schist, belt the south flank of the range. There are also a few small bodies of marble and dolomites. Granitic intrusion created the rugged Arrigetch Peaks and Mt. Igikpak areas.

Four major glaciations have been recognized within this region of the Brooks Range. The first glaciation (Anaktuvuk River) took place more than one-half million years ago. The second (Sagavanirktok River) is thought to be broadly equivalent to the Illinoian glaciation of central North America. The last two glacial periods (Itkillik and Walker Lake) are thought to correlate with the Wisconsin advance in central North America. Glaciers were generated at relatively high altitudes near the crest of the range during the more extensive glaciations. Ice flowed from these sources southward through the major valley systems to terminate at and beyond the south flank of the range. Most all-terminal moraines created natural dams that allowed the forming of large lakes along the southern foothills.

Fault Line (NPS Photo)The primary metallic minerals found within the region include copper, gold, lead, and zinc. The major known deposits of minerals occur in a schist belt that generally lies south and west of the park in the Ambler mining district and may extend into the park. The only known mineral produced in the park is gold. Placer mines operated historically in the Nolan-Hammond River areas near Wiseman, the North Fork, Wild Lake, and Mascot Creek. There has also been some limited gold production in the Noatak River drainage near Midas Creek.

The northern portion of the park has petroliferous rocks within drilling depths. The principal reservoir rock in this area is the upper Paleozoic Lilburn formation. There are some potentially large hydrocarbon-bearing structures north of the range front, and petroleum may also exist in Cretaceous or Devonian formations. The current economic situation will not encourage a great deal of interest in this petroleum potential in the near future.

The federal lands within the park and preserve have been withdrawn from additional mineral location, entry, and patent under the United States mining laws and disposition under the mineral leasing laws. However, the unit was also established subject to valid existing recorded un-patented mining claims established under the U.S. mining laws. Federal lands in the unit are closed to oil and gas leasing.

The paleontological resources of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve consist of small fossils of invertebrates, shells, and corals found in the metamorphosed rocks of the Brooks Range. A few plant fossils have been found in sandstones near the divide. Most of these fossils are inconspicuous and difficult to identify.

The value of these fossils is largely scientific. They have been examined and collected by scientists, particularly by members of the U.S. Geological Survey, over the past 30 years. They provide information useful in dating rocks and establishing the geological sequence related to life forms.


Soils within the park are highly variable, depending on topography, drainage, aspect, fire history, permafrost, and parent material. The classification used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service indicates that most of the park lies within a zone characterized by rough mountainous land with thin, sandy soils on hilly to steep topography. The soils are often composed of poorly drained, very gravelly loam on hilly moraines and south-facing colluvial slopes. Sandy loams and occasional lenses of permafrost underlie a thin peaty mat.

Tundra Valley (NPS Photo)Lower elevation benches and rolling uplands are covered by a gray to brown silty loam overlaid by a peaty organic layer that varies in depth depending on the local environment. The soil surface is irregular, with many low mounds, solifluction lobes, and tussocks.

Soils in the park overlie thick continuous permafrost zones that are sometimes located within a few inches of the surface. These soils have been subjected to millions of years of gradual down slope creep by frost-shattered rock and to a constant seasonal pattern of freezing and thawing. Lower elevation sediments have combined over time with windblown silts, river and glacial deposits, and peat accumulations. The processes of frost heaving and sorting, ice lens or wedge formation, and stream erosion have worked these soils into a complex mosaic of roughly textured tundra polygons, pingos, oxbows, and terraces. Almost totally underlain by permafrost, the soils adjacent to the valley floodplains are highly susceptible to any kind of ground disturbance, since melting of the permafrost can result in subsequent soil collapse.

The northern area of the park, primarily the upper Noatak River drainage, contains poorly drained soils formed from very gravelly glaciofluvial material derived from limestone rock in the surrounding mountains. A few well-drained soils are found in very gravelly, non-acid and calcareous drift on hilly moraines. Fibrous peat soils are located in shallow depressions on terraces.


Winter's Ice (NPS Photo)Permafrost, or ground that remains frozen for more than two years, lies under virtually all of the park and preserve. Atop the permafrost lies a thin layer of ground that thaws during the summer. This thin mantle, ranging from 6 inches to several feet in depth, supports plants that tend to hold the thawing soil in place, or at least slow and modify its movement. Solifluction (soil creep) is common, even on moderate slopes.

Alluvial deposits are the principal aquifers for groundwater, which is greatly restricted by permafrost. When under pressure from frost, groundwater bursts to the surface in places, forming conical hills of mud and debris called pingos. Examples of these can be seen in the upper valley of the North Fork of the Koyukuk and the upper Noatak River Valley.

Tributaries of four major river systems originate in the park and preserve. To the north the Nigu, Killik, Chandler, Anaktuvuk, and Itkillik rivers drain to the Colville River. The Noatak River flows west and the Kobuk River southwest, both from the headwaters in the western part of the park. The John, Alatna and North Fork of the Koyukuk rivers drain south to the Yukon. There are only a few small glaciers in the park, so the rivers normally run clear except after rains and during spring breakup. The U.S. Geological Survey found the quality of water in the Kobuk and Noatak rivers within the park to be unaffected from their natural state and most of the other surface waters in the park remain almost totally unaffected except for the John River, which may show some effects from the village of Anaktuvuk Pass.

Giardia lamblia, an intestinal parasite carried by mammals, has been reported in water from the park. The extent of occurrence is not known at this time.

Three warm springs are located within the park and preserve. The Reed River spring is located near the headwaters of the Reed river and had a measured water temperature of 122ºF at the warmest pool (NPS, USDI 1982) A warm spring is also located on the lower Kugrak River and another near the Alatna River.


Three major vegetation associations occur in the park and preserve—the taiga (boreal forest), tundra and shrub thicket. Alpine and moist tundra are the most extensive vegetation types. The taiga reaches its northernmost limit along the southern flanks of the Brooks Range within the park.

Alpine Vegetation -- Tussocks (NPS Photo)Alpine tundra communities occur in mountainous areas and along well-drained rocky ridges. The soils tend to be coarse, rocky, and dry. A community of low, mat-forming heather vegetation is characteristic of much of the area. Exposed outcrops of talus sustain sparse islands of cushion plants, such as moss campion and saxifrage, interspersed with lichens. The low-growth forms of these plants protect them from snow and sand abrasion in this windswept environment. Other important plants include dryas, willows, heather, lichens, and especially reindeer lichens. Grasses, sedges, and herbs are also present.

Moist tundra is found in the foothills and in pockets of moderately drained soils on hillsides and along river valleys. Cottongrass tussocks, 6-10 inches high, predominate the landscape. Tussocks form as a Cottongrass clump, which grows then, dies back each year, accumulating dead leaves that decompose slowly in the cold temperatures. Mosses and lichens grow in the moist channels between the tussocks. Other plants include grasses, small shrubs (dwarf birch, willow, and Labrador tea), and a few herbs.

The taiga, or boreal forest, reaches its northern limit at about latitude 67º30'N along the river valleys of the south slope of the Brooks Range. The extensive forest cover found south of the mountains thins into scattered stands of spruce mixed with hardwoods that follow the river valleys north into the mountains to an elevation of about 2,100 feet. This spruce-hardwood forest takes two forms. White spruce usually in association with scattered birch or aspen is commonly found on moderate south-facing slopes. Heaths, such as bearberry, crowberry, Labrador tea, blueberry, and cranberry are common as are willows. Lichens and mosses cover the forest floor along with a variety of herbs. Some large, pure stands of white spruce occur along rivers such as the Kobuk balsam poplar are found with spruce in such areas. On the north-facing slopes and on poorly drained lowlands, black spruce is predominant. These trees, which grow very slowly, are usually stunted and often scattered. It is not uncommon to find a 2-inch diameter tree that is 100 years old. The under story in these areas is spongy moss and low brush.

As the tree line is approached, the forest thins out until spruce are scattered among the shrub thicket community. In one type of shrub thicket, dwarf and resin birch, willows and alder may be extremely dense or open and interspersed with reindeer lichens, low heath-type shrubs, or patches of alpine tundra. Alder is usually found on moister sites and birch on drier sites. Such shrub thickets typically occur up to 3,000 feet in elevation. A second type of shrub thicket association occurs along the alluvial plain and gravel bars of braided or meandering streams. Willows and alders predominate and are associated with dwarf fireweed, horsetails, prickly rose, and other herbs and shrubs. These thickets develop rapidly in floodplains that are newly exposed after breakup and spring flooding.

Wild Flowers (NPS Photo)Interior Alaska is a lightning fire region. Wildfire plays an important role in maintaining a variety of habitats. Successional plant communities, which are beneficial for wildlife habitat and diversity, are induced by fire. Fire also plays a role in recycling nutrients. The successional stages that follow a fire vary, depending primarily on topography, seed source, severity of the burn, and moisture. Generally, successional stages following a fire include pioneer species such as fireweed, Labrador tea, willows and alders, followed by quaking aspen on upland, south facing slopes, paper birch on east- or west-facing slopes, and balsam poplars on the river plain. Eventually the white or black spruce association will invade and begin to dominate. The recovery rate of the boreal forest zone is relatively slow, spruce and reindeer lichen may require 100-150 years to recover. The forests within the park boundaries are not considered commercially valuable. Trees are occasionally harvested under permit for house logs, and local residents cut firewood.


The wildlife of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is representative of northern Alaska and the Brooks Range. Species are relatively few, and their populations are frequently low compared to numbers in more temperate regions. The populations of some animals such as lynx and hare are characterized by ups and downs called cycles. These may be annual or spread over several years. There are no known endangered wildlife species within the park and preserve.


Float Plane (NPS Photo)A total of 36 species of mammals occur within the park, ranging in size from voles and lemmings to brown bears and moose. Small mammals form the base of the arctic food chain and are a critical element in the survival of many raptors and large mammals. Singing, tundra, and red-backed voles and brown and collared lemmings convert plant resources to flesh on which a variety of predators depend. Collectively, small rodents may have a profound localized effect on tundra vegetation. Larger rodents include the arctic ground squirrel and Alaskan marmot. Arctic ground squirrels occur primarily on well-drained soils among rivers or on slopes. They are commonly observed and can often be a problem at cabins, food caches, and camps.

The furbearers common to Alaska are present, although many, such as marten and lynx, are mostly limited to the forested areas in the southern half of the park. Beaver, mink, and river otter are present but are limited by a scarcity of suitable aquatic habitats. Red foxes, including the silver, black and cross fox color phases, occur throughout the area, and arctic foxes occur occasionally in the northernmost parts of the park. Wolverines are present throughout. The most important species trapped by subsistence users within the park are marten, lynx, beaver, fox, and wolf.

Wolves occur throughout the park and preserve, traveling in packs of family groups as they hunt. The main prey of wolves in the central Brooks Range and on the arctic slope is caribou; however, other prey species may be used extensively if caribou are not available, principally Dall sheep, small mammals, moose, snowshoe hare, and beaver. Denning usually occurs on dry, well-drained slopes where excavation of soils is not hindered by frozen ground. Litters average five or six pups. Wolves are a source of income for the residents of Anaktuvuk Pass and other villages, who trap and hunt them.

Brown bears (barren-ground grizzlies) occur throughout the park and preserve. They are among the earth’s largest predators, but in the Brooks Range they feed mostly as vegetarians, eating berries, sedges, hedysarum, and other plants. They also feed on small mammals and may spend hours excavating ground squirrel burrows, locally disrupting much of the ground surface in the pursuit of their prey. The bears will kill moose calves and caribou fawns and occasionally adults. Some scavenging also occurs. Brown bear populations concentrate along most of the major streams and rivers within the park. Although brown bears range through all habitat types, they are most commonly found in open alpine or tundra habitats. Brown bears gain weight rapidly during the late summer and fall and are waddling in fat just prior to denning. At this time most mature males weigh between 500 and 900 pounds with extremely large individuals weighing as much as 1,400 pounds. Females weigh one half to three quarters as much. There is an average of one brown bear for each 100 square miles of habitat in the arctic.

Grizzly Bear
Ursus arctos

Black Bear
Ursus americanus

Black bears, which are more common in the southern-forested regions, have similar food habitats and behavior. Black bears are creatures of opportunity when it comes to matters of food. Upon emergence from hibernation in the spring, freshly sprouted green vegetation is the main food item, but black bears will readily take anything they encounter. Things such as winterkilled animals are readily eaten, but carrion is apparently taken only if little else is available. As summer progresses, feeding shifts to salmon if they are available. In areas without salmon, bears rely primarily on vegetation throughout the year. Berries, especially blueberries, are an important late summer-fall food item. Bears are cannibalistic on occasion. An "average" adult male in summer weighs about 180-200 pounds. Black bears can have poor eyesight but their senses of smell and hearing are well developed.

Bull Moose (NPS Photo)Moose, Dall sheep, and caribou are the three ungulate mammals occurring in the area. Moose are most common in the forested regions south of the range, but their range extends up mountain valleys into the larger northern drainages wherever trees and shrubs provide food and winter habitat. In summer moose frequently move into alpine habitat, but they are uncommon at the crest of the range.

Moose are an important subsistence resource for villages south and west of the park and residents of Anaktuvuk Pass harvest moose occasionally. Sport hunting for moose along the Kobuk River in the preserve is becoming a more popular activity. Hunters gain access by air or boat.

Dall Sheep Ram (NPS Photo)Dall sheep are widespread throughout the mountainous alpine areas of the park and preserve. Rugged terrain with cliffs, steep slopes and rocky outcrops are essential escape habitat. Mineral licks are seasonally very important, and the sheep may travel some distance to reach a lick site. Sheep find critical winter forage on windblown ridges where the snow has been blown away, leaving the vegetation exposed. The current sheep population in the park and preserve is estimated at 12,000-14,000 animals.

Caribou of the western arctic herd today range over the entire region. The herd declined from a population of at least 242,000 animals in 1970 to an estimated 75,000 in 1976. Since that time the herd has increased in size, and in 1982 it was estimated at 171,699 animals. In 1984 the herd size was projected to number approximately 200,000. The herd migrates through the park and preserve as it moves from wintering grounds south and west of the park to calving areas northwest of the park and to summer range north of the park. Some of the animals use summer range along the northern reaches of the park, and some winter in the southern part of the park, especially in the Kobuk River valley.

Bull Caribou (NPS Photo)The western arctic caribou herd is most widely dispersed in mid-winter, when bands are scattered throughout the forests on the south slopes of the Brooks Range and in the adjacent lowlands, and again in mid-summer, when they are scattered over the arctic slope west of the Sagavanirktok River. Spring movement to summer ranges begins in March, when bands of females travel northward up the Alatna, John, and North Fork of the Koyukuk drainages, and cross the summit of the Brooks Range into the valleys of such rivers as the Killik, Chandler, and Anaktuvuk, which they follow or cross in a generally westward movement to calving grounds at the head of the Utukok and Colville rivers. Males and some yearlings begin moving somewhat later. After calving in late May, the animals join increasingly larger groups to move to higher country on the North Slope and in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Once there they gradually disperse, using summer range from the Arctic Ocean to the summits of the Brooks Range by late July. A southward drifting of caribou begins in August, and in the park it is directed toward the Anaktuvuk Pass and Killik River areas. Migration continues through the rut in October, until the wintering grounds are reached. Caribou have historically played an important role in human survival in arctic regions. Subsistence users still rely heavily on caribou. Since the range of the western arctic herd extends across many land ownerships, management of the herd requires careful coordination between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the various landowners, as well as the hunters who harvest the herd.


A total of 133 species of birds have been observed in the park and preserve over the past 25-30 years. Nearly half of those recorded are normally associated with aquatic habitats.

Bald Eagle (NPS Photo)Raptors inhabiting the park include species of eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls, three jaegers, and the northern shrike. Because of their place high in the food chain, raptors are more susceptible to environmental disturbance and population fluctuations. Arctic peregrine falcons, a threatened species only recently removed from the endangered list, nest in the area.

Fish. The fish populations in arctic waters, although seemingly abundant, have very low growth rates and productivity, and are therefore highly susceptible to over fishing. The most widespread species in the park and preserve is the arctic grayling, which is found in nearly all permanent watercourses and those lakes that have an outlet stream. Lake trout, northern pike, arctic char, whitefish, sheefish, salmon, long-nosed sucker, burbot, nine-spined stickleback, and slimy sculpin also occur.

The Kobuk and Koyukuk rivers are the major chum salmon spawning streams. Sheefish also spawn in the Kobuk. These fish, along with the whitefish, are the most important subsistence fishes. Some lake trout and arctic char are also taken from lakes for subsistence use. Recreational fishing is primarily for arctic grayling, arctic char, sheefish, and lake trout.


In 1962 the secretary of the interior established the National Natural Landmarks Program as a natural areas survey to identify and encourage the preservation of geologic features and biotic communities that best illustrate the natural heritage of the United States. Two sites within Gates of the Arctic were designated national natural landmarks in April 1968—Arrigetch Peaks (37,400 acres) and Walker Lake (181,120 acres).

Walker Lake (NPS Photo)

Biosphere Reserve

The entire Noatak River drainage, of which the headwaters are in Gates of the Arctic in internationally recognized as a biosphere reserve in the United Nations’ "Man in the Biosphere" program.


Although a number of studies have been conducted within Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, the extent and character of the cultural resources within the park are not yet fully known. The archeological investigations undertaken within the park and preserve have produced a basic outline of pre-history, but only a small fraction of the area has been studied. Similarly, a systematic inventory of the historic sites within the park has only recently begun. Additionally, intangible cultural resources, notably the oral histories of past human use of parklands, are being assembled and recorded.

Prehistory and Resources

Northern Alaska is not the trackless wilderness that many people perceive it to be. Humans have continuously explored and lived in the region and used its resources for more than 12,500 years.

Major Cultural Groups of Northwestern AlaskaIt has been well established that the great continental glaciers of the last ice age locked up vast amounts of water as ice, and consequently lowered sea levels, creating a large landmass between Alaska and Siberia, called the Bering Land Bridge or Beringia. This landmass, more than 1,000 miles wide at one point, was above sea level from 25,000 to 14,000 years ago. Even though the rising seas broke through this landmass about 14,000 years ago, the present sea levels were not reached until 4,500 years ago. It was across the Bering Land Bridge and later across the strait itself that groups of people entered northwest Alaska. As successive waves of immigrants arrived in the Arctic, earlier immigrants moved southward across North America. Other groups stayed to explore, settle, and adapt to Alaska and the Arctic.

The earliest traces of human occupation in the central Brooks Range are still somewhat controversial. Artifacts from the Brooks Range, similar to those found in Paleo-Indian sites of temperate North America which contain the remains of extinct mammoths and bison, have led some to argue for an ancient Indian tradition over 12,000 years in age. Other archeologists believe these finds to be later in time, or only about 8,000 years old. The Putu site, located just northeast of the park and estimated to be over 11,000 years old, may be an example of a Paleo-Indian site in the vicinity of the park and preserve.

Native Alaskan Children (NPS Photo)The controversy aside, the first demonstrable use of the area is by people of the American Paleo-Arctic tradition, which probably has its origins in northern Asia. They were nomadic hunters and gatherers, living off the land and traveling in small groups. Unlike many later groups, these early people did not depend on sea mammal hunting for their subsistence, but hunted caribou and other land animals. Northern Alaskan examples of this tradition include the Akmak and Kobuk assemblages from the Onion Portage site on the Kobuk River that are between 7,800 and 9,600 years old, and an assemblage from the Galagher Flint Station, just northeast of the park, that is 10,500 years old.

The next wave of people apparently moved into northern Alaska from the forested regions to the south and east. These Northern Archaic people arriving about 6,500 years ago, had a distinctively different material culture, and apparently depended on caribou and fishing in rivers and streams for their livelihood, staying inland and near the trees most of the time. Many archeologists believe that these people represent an Indian culture rather than an Eskimo culture.

At Onion Portage the Northern Archaic tradition persists from 6,000 to 4,200 years ago. Within the park the Tuktu-Naiyuk site (near Anaktuvuk Pass), with radiocarbon dates from 6,500 years ago is a site from this time. Elsewhere within the unit, undated sites relating to the Northern archaic tradition have been found along the upper Kobuk and the North Fork of the Koyukuk rivers, Kurupa Lake, and others.

About 4,200 years ago, arctic-oriented cultures again appeared in northern Alaska. Either a new wave of people or new ideas came into Alaska from Asia. The Arctic Small Tool tradition, so named because of their finely made stone tools, was a dynamic one, adapting to make efficient use of a wide range of arctic resources. The earliest culture of this tradition spread as far south as Bristol Bay and as far eastward as Greenland, occupying interior and coastal areas. These people moved throughout the arctic over a long time span (the tradition lasted over 1,000 years). They were adept at the use of both the coast and the interior.

The earliest of these cultures, the Denbigh Flint complex, lasted at Onion Portage from 4,200 to 3,800 years ago, while at Mosquito Lake, just northeast of the park, it has been dated at about 2,200 years. The Ipiutak complex, the last complex of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, is represented at sites as Itkillik Lake and near Anaktuvuk Pass and continued until about 1,500 years ago.

By about 1,000 years ago, with the development of the Western Thule culture, the beginnings of modern Eskimo culture became visible in the archeological record. Over the centuries, these people learned to fully exploit both the resources of the coast and the interior. They spread across the arctic, eventually reaching as far eastward as Greenland and Labrador and as far south as the Alaska Peninsula. Local specializations developed. The people who lived along the coast of the Arctic Ocean were the Northern Maritime culture, while those who lived along the Noatak and Kobuk rivers are named the Arctic Woodland culture. The group that lived mostly in the interior part of the northern Alaska—in the Brooks Range and on the North Slope—is called the Arctic Tundra culture.

Within the park area, the historic Nunamiut Eskimos were the descendants of these groups. They spent most of their time in the mountains and on the tundra. However, they maintained cultural ties, through extensive travel and trading, with other groups in northern Alaska.

Athabaskan peoples have inhabited the south side of the Brooks Range and central Alaska for at least a thousand years. Several times in those centuries Athabaskan groups have moved into the Brooks Range. In historic times, such groups as the Dihai Kutchin also lived in the central Brooks Range and on its southern flanks.

Thus, the park and preserve contain archeological sites representative of every cultural tradition known in northern Alaska. This important record will be expanded in the coming years, providing a more complete understanding of the complicated history of human use of the region.

History and Resources

In 1850 the central Brooks Range was still largely isolated from influences from European and Euro-American culture. Kobuk Eskimos and Koyukon and Kutchin Athabaskans made seasonal journeys into the area from the Kobuk, Koyukuk, and Chandalar River basins. Principal native activities within the area were hunting and fishing, which followed the seasonal movement of game and fish. Trading among these coastal people along travel routes allowed cultural exchange and the exchange of inland and coastal products, particularly caribou skins and seal oil. What is now Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve was an area of shifting cultural boundaries and periodic migrations to richer river and coastal environments when game concentrations shifted.

In the mid-1880s American explorers began probing the central Brooks Range. In 1885 and 1886, Lt. G.M. Stoney and the U.S. Navy’s expedition ascended the Kobuk River and explored the western and central Brooks Range, traveling near Anaktuvuk Pass. Lt. John Cantwell’s Revenue Marine Service expedition explored the region via Kobuk and Noatak rivers at the same time. The first white men to enter the Koyukuk River drainage north of the Arctic Circle were Lt. Henry Allen and Pvt. Fred Fickett of the U.S. Army in 1885. In some cases, native people guided these explorers. Allen’s expedition resulted in the beginning of prospecting on the Upper Koyukuk River. Gold was discovered in paying quantities at Tramway Bar on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River in 1893. Trading posts and riverboats began to appear on the mid-reaches of the Koyukuk, and the stage was set for the gold rushes of 1898, which overflowed from the Klondike to the Kobuk and Koyukuk rivers. In sequence, "Old Bettles", Coldfoot, and Wiseman became established mining and trading camps. For the next three decades miners scoured the southern flanks of the central Brooks Range with varying success. A marginal lobe of mining activity centered on the North Fork of the Koyukuk and its tributary Glacier River within the southeastern sector of what is now the national park.

These placer workings were relatively unimportant compared to those on the Middle and South Forks of the Koyukuk and the upper Chandalar just to the east.

Also, around the turn of the century, prospectors reached the area of the Noatak River headwaters. Records of miners are left in place names of the region, such as Midas and Lucky Six creeks. These names were based on hope rather than results because no worthwhile gold strikes were ever made in the area.

Cabins from the various waves of miners and trappers who followed provide the few tangible historic resources of the park area. Most have been rendered to ruins by time and weather. To date, numerous ruins have been identified as well as two sanding cabins, the Yale cabin on the Glacier River built by a prospector and the Vincent Knorr cabin on Mascot Creek, a carefully constructed early miner’s cabin.

The flurry of mining activity triggered a series of significant U.S. Geological Survey expeditions. Beginning with the F.C. Gerdine expedition in the Chandalar/Koyukuk region in 1899, a heroic tradition of surface transits of the central Brooks Range was established by the leading field men of the Geological Survey. Mendenhall, Maddren, Mertie, and P.S. Smith are only a few of those who, with Schrader and Gerdine, mark this period of scientific exploration. Paralleling the geographic, geologic, and mineral studies and mapping of the Geological Survey, the work of noted biologists, such as the Murie brothers, and later anthropological studies furthered the scientific tradition in this vast mountain laboratory.

Robert Marshall (NPS Photo)A profound event in the Brooks Range was the exploratory saga of Robert Marshall. Beginning in 1929 he joined some of the old hands in extensive explorations into the North Fork country and, at the mountain portal leading to the inner recesses of the range, bestowed the name Gates of the Arctic. Based largely on information gathered from local informant, he wrote popular books about his sojourns and about the social structures in this isolated region. More than this, Marshall employed a philosophy and a literature of ultimate wilderness for the central Brooks Range. His work and perceptions over an intense decade before his early death influenced the development of wilderness preservation ideals in America and the creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Throughout the historic period, native and non-native people mingled in cultural and social dynamics, shaped by isolation and inter-dependence. Mining, transportation, trapping, and trading patterns were, in turn, shaped by this integration of people and economic interests in the evolving communities of the region. This is a major theme of social history on the brink of the Gates of the Arctic wilderness.



These books deal with Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, the Brooks Range, or elements of the arctic and subarctic environments. They contain a variety of information that will aid you in planning a trip to this part of the world. Some books are out of print and will be found only through interlibrary loan. Others may be found in bookstores or may be ordered by mail.


Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Guide to Wildlife Viewing in Alaska.

Alaska Geographic Society. Moose, Caribou and Muskox (Vol. 23, No. 4).

Armstrong, R. A Guide to the Birds of Alaska (Alaska Magazine).

Herrero, Stephan. Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Ducks at a Distance.


Science and Nature

Alaska Geographic. Up the Koyukuk.

Alaska Geographic Society. Alaska's Weather (Vol 18, No. 1).

Alaska Geographic Society. Interior Alaska - A Journey Through Time.

Alaska Northwest Publishing Co. The Brooks Range.

Murie, Olaus J. Journeys to the Far North.

Pielou, E.C. A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic.



Alaska Magazine. The Alaska-Yukon Wild Flowers Guide.

University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service. Wild Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska.

Viereck, Eleanor. Alaska's Wilderness Medicines: Healthful Plants of the Far North.

Viereck, Leslie and Elbert Little. Alaska Trees and Shrubs.


Alaskana/Regional History/Native Culture

Beetus, Joe Beetus. Hughes, a Biography (Hancock House Publishers Ltd.).

Brown, William E. The Last Treasure.

Catton, Theodore. Inhabited Wilderness.

Cooper, David J. Brooks Range Passage.

Crisler, Lois. Arctic Wild.

Fejes, Claire. People of the Noatak.

Glover, James. A Wilderness Original: Life of Robert Marshall.

Henzie, Moses. Allakaket, a Biography (Hancock House Publishers Ltd.).

Huntington, Sidney. Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native's Life Along the River.

Kauffman, John M. Alaska's Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains.

Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams.

Marshall, Robert. Alaska Wilderness.

Marshall, Robert. Arctic Village.

McGuiness, Joe M. Going to Extremes.

McPhee, John. Coming into the Country.

Milton, John P. Nameless Valleys, Shining Waters.

Murie, Margaret E. Two in the Far North.

Nelson, Richard. Make Prayers to the Raven.

Nictune, Oscar. Alatna, a Biography (Hancock House Publishers Ltd.).

Nelson, R., Mautner, K. and Bane, R. Tracks in the Wildlands: A Portrayal of Koyukon and Nunamiut Subsistence.

Simon, Edwin. Huslia, a Biography (Hancock House Publishers Ltd.).

Tobuk, Frank. Bettles, a Biography (Hancock House Publishers Ltd.).


Alaska Parks and Travel

Carter, Marilyn. Floating Alaska Rivers.

Davidson, James West and John Rugge. The Complete Wilderness Paddler.

Jensen, Mike. Alaska Wilderness Highway: Traveling the Dalton Road.

Mosby, Jack and David Dapkus. Alaska Paddling Guide.

National Outdoor Leadership School. LEAVE NO TRACE: Alaska Tundra.

Simmerman, Nancy. Alaska's Parklands, The Complete Guide.

Last update: 9/26/02
Doug Beckstead