Gates of the Arctic Park

Float planes are usually the only easy way to access Gates of the Arctic National Park. Photo: Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Photo: Bill McQuay, NPR

Following a caribou trail through an unnamed valley in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR

Gates of the Arctic National Park is nestled in Alaska's Brooks Range. Map Courtesy National Geographic Society hide caption

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itoggle caption Map Courtesy National Geographic Society

Lichen carpets the tundra of an unnamed valley in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR

The view from a nameless mountain pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR
Elizabeth Arnold holds caribou antlers.

Elizabeth Arnold holds antlers shed by one of the countless caribou migrating through the wilderness area. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR

Wilderness Act, Part 1

Listen The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

NPR's Elizabeth Arnold holds a caribou skull with massive antlers still attached. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR

The Wilderness Act, a major U.S. law providing the strongest protection possible to more than 100 million acres of land, celebrates its 40th anniversary on Friday.

For the NPR/National Geographic co-production Radio Expeditions, NPR’s Elizabeth Arnold marks the anniversary with a visit to one of the most remote places in the country — the Gates of the Arctic National Park, north of the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range of Alaska.

There are 8.5 million acres of wild country here, and some of the landmarks are unnamed — the mountain passes, the lakes, the valleys full of caribou and grizzly bears. Access to the area comes mostly from float planes — and once the plane leaves, the feeling of being alone in the middle of nowhere can be overwhelming.

Gates of the Arctic National Park superintendent Dave Mills keeps a close eye out for grizzlies, and keeps a loaded shotgun looped around his shoulder. Mills has worked the park for years, but is still in awe of the place.

"How do you manage a place like this? You know, management is the wrong word," he says. "It's really understanding, and trying to educate ourselves and other people about what’s already here — and that’s really our job, just to let nature be nature here."

There are no man-made trails to follow, but there are ruts or paths left by hundreds of thousands of migrating caribou. The herds leave sun-bleached antlers the size of tree branches in their wake, and some areas have the feel of a boneyard, from generations of shedding.

"There's is a rhythm to wilderness, and it’s slow," Arnold says. "We walk each day with no real destination, picking up skulls and feathers, crossing streams and climbing ridges carpeted with rust-colored lichen. The long Arctic sun doesn’t set untill well past midnight. The shadows of clouds move slowly across mile-wide valleys. The pace is glacial. Your pulse just seems to slow after awhile."

And then there are moments of real danger. Sometimes explorers come across freshly killed corpses of caribou, and grizzlies are a constant danger. Once the grizzlies have their fill of caribou, the wolves and eagles finish off what's left.

"There's very few places on Earth left like this," Mills says. "A lot of people are inspired... just knowing there's places out here that are wild and uninhabited, where these natural processes are allowed to evolve without the strong influece of human pressure."

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