In the early 1930s, the American forester and wilderness preservationist Bob Marshall explored the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, in northern Alaska. He had been sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ascertain the value, if any, of these remote and unproductive lands. Marshall recommended a massive wilderness preserve for the area--a vision that would not come to fruition until long after his death, with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
During Marshall's travels in the Arctic, two peaks, Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, captured his imagination. Because they formed massive ramparts on opposite sides of the North Fork Valley, within view of the northern tree line, Marshall christened them the “Gates of the Artic.” Just a few miles further north he found an even more impressive and isolated summit, Mt. Doonerak, which he dubbed “the Matterhorn of the Koyukuk.”
Mt. Doonerak is by far the highest peak in its neighborhood. Located in the Endicott Mountains of the central Brooks Range, it lies approximately 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Doonerak is an imposing and remote mountain situated in the heart of one of the world's great wilderness areas. Indeed, Gates of the Arctic contains no maintained roads or trails within its 8.4 million acres--an area approximately the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
Doonerak is not particularly tall, and the relatively dry climate of the Arctic deprives it of the spectacular glaciers seen on classic Alaskan summits further south. However, the peak’s monolithic shape, turbulent weather, and remote location should rank it among the great peaks in a state full of inspiring mountains.
Mt. Doonerak guards its striking summit pyramid with a long--and expensive--approach. In order to get there you must fly to Fairbanks, then on to Bettles Field, the air hub of north-central Alaska. From Bettles, schedule a flight (through Brooks Range Aviation, Bettles Air, or some other charter service) into the Park.
There are numerous trip options. You could fly into Pyramid or Bombardment Creeks, in the North Fork watershed, for a relatively moderate trek to Doonerak's base. Alternatively, you could begin at Summit Lake, on the Continental Divide, and then hike 20 or so miles paralleling the river down to the mountain. You could start at Chimney Lake and hike east via high passes, or you may even be able to persuade a kamikaze bush pilot to land you on Marshall Lake, in a hanging valley directly below the peak itself. Any approach not beginning at Marshall Lake will probably require an extensive bushwhack, involving river crossings, wet tundra, quicksand, and a maze of alder thickets favored by animals such as wolves, moose, and of course grizzly bears.
If you go in the summer, as opposed to a spring ski tour, you should arrange to rent or bring river-rafting gear. The most interesting and enjoyable way out of the Doonerak neighborhood is to launch a boat (raft, canoe, or kayak) near the Gates, and float 90 miles down the North and Middle Fork rivers back to Bettles. The rivers are both easy class one, with a few short sections in the class two range, and long stretches of flat water once you arrive in the forested lowlands northeast of Bettles. This makes for a superb wilderness trip, but be sure to set aside about two weeks for the adventure.
The ranger in Bettles will want to speak to you before your trip and have you register prior to departure, though registration is not required. No permits are necessary, but bear cans are highly encouraged. The wildlife in this area remains extremely wild, and it would be a shame to have the Brooks Range's grizzlies become habituated to a human presence.
Be careful about where you camp. Gravel bars offer attractive, low-impact sites. However, the river can rise rapidly, carrying away such important items as your boat and food, which seemed securely beached just a few hours before. Always tie up your raft and never camp on islands in the river channel. Finally, avoid heavily trafficked game trails; you'll know them when you see them.
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