Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for the 'The Gwich'in & ANWR' Category

Honorary Doctorate Awarded Resident of Remote Alaskan Village:

posted: May 10th, 2016 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: This past Sunday (May 3, 2016), Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village, Alaska, was presented an honorary Doctor Degree in Law for helping to advance the people of his village and for his efforts in helping to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As well Trimble has served in his village as an Episcopal minister and a traditional chief. Not so incidentally he is one of the very best fiddle players in the entire Arctic region. Janie and I both feel privileged to know this man, and were once honored by Reverend Gilbert when he led his congregation in prayer intended to ensure our safe travels during a month-long hike through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Trimble-1 Trimble-2 TrimbleMary-1

L to R:  Trimble Gilbert has worn many hat during his life in Arctic Village, to include Episcopal minister and traditional chief; David Salmon presents
Trimble Gilbert with eagle feather and a Gwich’in Indian name to replace Anglo Saxon one; Trimble and Mary Gilbert in Arctic Village cabin.

Monday, April 9, the Fairbanks News Miner published an article which Gilbert had written, and I am excerpting portions of it here. Trimble is a most articulate man, and his views on education and on protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are meaningful.


WROTE DR. GILBERT IN the MAY 9 EDITION OF THE FAIRBANKS NEWSPAPER : As a boy growing up in Arctic Village, I learned by listening to my elders and taught myself to write by copying words from bags of sugar and flour. I never dreamed that one day I would receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from a university. But I never quit learning, and have spent my life encouraging young people to earn their degrees and make Alaska and the world a better place.

Education is the key to protecting Gwich’in culture, our way of life and the place where we live. For thousands of years, my people have called the Arctic home, subsisting on species such as fish from the Yukon River and caribou from what is now called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Clean water and the wild landscape are essential to our survival.

For decades, I have fought to protect the Arctic refuge from oil and gas development because, to the Gwich’in Nation, wilderness is necessary for the survival of our people and our culture, and much of our food comes from the refuge. Preserving the refuge is a matter of human rights.

Trimble-7 Arcticflora Trimble-5

L to R:  Tiny segment of Porcupine caribou herd stampede across Kongakut River; 
the Arctic is not a BARREN wasteland as some politicians have proclaimed;
Johnathan Solomon, Trimble Gilbert share thoughts on refuge with Senator Max Baucus.

President Obama’s administration has recommended that Congress designate the coastal plain and other areas of the refuge as wilderness to ensure that the land will remain wild forever. We support this recommendation, because if drilling hurts the Porcupine caribou herd, the Gwich’in would likely disappear…

“Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” is what we call the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. This means “The sacred place where life begins.” The caribou come here every summer to birth their calves and nurse them until they are ready to migrate…

If drilling happened and affected the Porcupine herd — about 180,000 animals — its future would be threatened. And so would the Gwich’in people and our villages. If the caribou lose land, we will lose caribou. Without them, we cannot feed our families or teach our young people the traditional subsistence way of life. Our children will move to cities, and our community — and our culture — will cease to exist…

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L to R:  Hiking through Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with friend Burns Ellison; caribou
stand amidst field of Arctic Cotton; winter view from small plane of Arctic Village

We are grateful to President Obama for recommending that 12.28 million acres of the Arctic refuge be declared wilderness and protected forever. This way we know all of the important land for the Porcupine caribou will be protected and the herd will not go the way of the great bison herds.


Trimble Gilbert with sons Gregory and Bobby, all excellent musicians.

The 19.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are a treasure for all Americans…


Janie and I have spent a number of years in the Arctic and believe that everything Trimble wrote in the paper is completely accurate. We’ll go one step further and say that the Arctic Refuge may well be the last self-regulating ecosystem in the world. The Gwich’in are the northern-most tribe of Indians in North America, living as they do at the base of the Arctic Refuge, located almost 200 miles north of Fairbanks.







Gwich’in Page

Alaska Boating Adventure


Extreme Ice Fishing


4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy




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Lincoln, It Was A Privledge

posted: June 17th, 2013 | by:Bert

Lincoln (1 of 6)©Bert Gildart:  It’s been 22 years since Janie and I first taught in a remote Gwich’in Indian village located in Alaska on the south side of the Brooks Range.  Known as Arctic Village, locals, who number about 100, could sometimes be difficult to meet, as Janie learned when she first picked up the mail.  Back in Fairbanks (about 250 miles south), we’d been told before boarding the bush plane, that the postmaster’s name was “Peter,” so that is what she called the stern-appearing man working behind the counter.

“Hello, Peter,” she called out the first couple mornings.  “Came to collect my mail.”

“Peter” would hand Janie the mail, but said nothing.  And so she stepped back to the dirt roads, wondering if the man spoke only Gwich’in.  She was frustrated but determined and, so, devised a plan. Janie made some cookies, inserted them into a clear plastic sandwich bag, and then next morning started out the door of the small teacherage, saying, “I’m going to get Peter to say something!  Anything!”

Fifteen minutes later she entered the compact log structure, asked “Peter” for the mail and handed him a sack of oatmeal/raisin cookies.  This time the man’s reaction was different.

“Thank you,” he responded with a grin.  “But my name is not Peter.  I’m Lincoln; Lincoln Tritt. Peter is my brother, and he is on vacation.”

From that time forward a relationship began to develop, which Janie helped foster.  Janie offered to take Lincoln in the old school truck (second was the only forward gear that worked!) to the dirt runway that served as the village’s tiny airport, and slowly her “mail-collection service” began generating trust.  It was genuine, for we loved village life and returned often, and as the years passed and we became fixtures in the Gwich’in Indian community at large, we developed close friendships with Lincoln and, of course, with others.

Once, following an extensive riverboat trip, we met Lincoln in Old Crow, Yukon Territory.  And when Janie and I completed a one-moth hike through the Arctic Refuge, Lincoln called the Fairbanks radio station saying they should dedicate the hour to us, which they did.

More time, and Lincoln paid us a visit in Montana, living with us for over a month (he forgot his hat and left it on our sofa) – and I believe we came to know Lincoln Tritt well.  He was a talented musician, a gifted speaker (he spoke at colleges such as Tulane!) and, despite his lack of academic education, he was a cross-cultural philosopher with extraordinary insights.  He was also a writer, and he often shared his work with us…

From Lincoln’s writing: My cousin Mary’s cabin is out in front of trail that leads into the village. She has a dog that barks at people from the moment they come into view… The bear is a powerful animal and this power is not limited to physical strength.  As soon as the dog becomes aware of the bear’s presence, it becomes silent.  Once such energy made us aware of things that happen around us, but not much anymore.  Today, we live in a physical world where constant noise and activities prevent us from noticing anything.

Tragically Lincoln died of a heart attack this past October, and sadly we are just now learning about his passing.  When he passed we were on the road, out of touch, as we often are, with much of the world.  As well, Lincoln lived in northeastern Alaska, some 2,500 miles away, and communication with that part of the world is often nonexistent.

Lincoln (6 of 6) Lincoln (3 of 6) Gwich'in Gathering (1 of 1)


L to R:  Lincoln inside his small cabin in Arctic Village; Lincoln, in Fairbanks, Alaska; Lincoln is in this picture, present as are all the other Gwich’in in this image at
Old Crow, Yukon Territory, to show
his support for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

And so we are a bit late in mourning his loss, but for the past few nights we have been obsessed with our recollections of this remarkable man.  And though there is much to recall, let me summarize a bit about what we know, asking that our thoughts be considered as the much needed catharsis for two Lincoln admirers still in shock.  Others, of course, know him in different ways and those ways may be much more profound.  I assemble these thoughts from some of his writings and from our visits with him, both in his cabin in Arctic Village and with him here in Bigfork, Montana.

More from Lincoln’s writings: When a person gets the idea that I am better than others or that I know more than others, then that person no longer listens… and can become “hopelessly lost.”

Lincoln was born in Salmon River (Sheenjik Village), Alaska, and said that according to his mother’s memory he was born October 18, 1946.

“I traveled with my family of four,” he told us, “with dog team from Salmon River Village to Fort Yukon during the record cold winter of 1946-47.” Lincoln said that over the next 13 years he lived with his family in Arctic Village and in Fort Yukon.  Lincoln continued, saying that Ft. Yukon was also his introduction to segregation (at the time Fort Yukon was a remote Army outpost) and to the start of his guarded faith with his fellow human begins.

Lincoln’s writings: When I was growing up there were very few distractions in the village.  This quiet and contentment helped our senses to develop slowly and without fear. This way we are more focused on what we see and hear.  From the sense of awareness came our ability to listen.  Today people listen to words without concentrating on the ideas or meaning that the words are supposed to convey.

As Lincoln grew his parents sent him to boarding school, and he believes they did so to help him develop a sense of all that was going on around him.  When he graduated he joined the Navy because he thought it would keep him out of Vietnam, “but that,” said Lincoln, “is exactly where they sent me.”

Lincoln (2 of 6)

Lincoln enjoyed playing Country and Western, but he loved gospel, and once joined the local church choir in playing Amazing Grace.


Lincoln told Janie and me that it was those experiences that prompted him to consult the Gwich’in elders, and to study his grandfather’s journal. In an attempt to synthesize what he was learning he began taking college courses. As well, he worked on his music, and to help, Janie purchased a sophisticated tape player and recorded some of his work.  He had a grand voice (U-TUBE VIDEO) and he loved the country western music to which he was exposed as a youngster.  But he was at his best when he sang gospel music, and we’ll never forget the time when the tiny Episcopal congregation in Arctic Village allowed us to record Amazing Grace, sung in Gwich’in.  Lincoln, of course, was a part of the ensemble.

Lincoln wrote: While learning about things I began to notice two words: want and need.  Then I applied these words to my material possessions.  When I was done with my inventory I realized how little I needed and everything else became junk…  Now I can work on turning myself into a Gwich’in.  I try to live the way my ancestors lived because it gives me peace and freedom.

Lincoln’s life was considerably more complex than what the blog format facilitates, though generalities exist.  Certainly, he was a dreamer (as am I), but he was also a man of superior intelligence who, had he chosen to do so, could have made his mark at any level in the wider society.  Nevertheless, his contributions, though sometimes subtle, were always profound, and will invariably manifest themselves…


Arctic Village, where Lincoln now rests, beside the Chandalar River


We plan to visit Arctic Village one day soon – and when we do, Janie is going to return Lincoln’s hat.  She says she intends to place it carefully on the final resting spot of this wonderful man…

Lincoln, it was a privilege to have known you.



The Flight of Chief Joseph


Both, of course, by Bert Gildart.  Click the links below and I believe you’ll agree the photographs all tell stories.  



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Recalling Gwich’in Indian Elder Hamel Frank

posted: June 10th, 2013 | by:Bert


Hamel Frank preparing the skull of a caribou for roasting over a fire.

©Bert Gildart: Recently I have seen images on Kenneth Frank’s Facebook page recalling his father, Hamel Frank.  His images also stir strong memories for Janie and me, for our experiences in the Arctic created lasting friends, and one of them was  Kenneth’s father.

Hamel was a great man, and we got to know him over a period of about ten years.  During a portion of that time, we taught school, but then later returned as journalists, which also enabled me to gather information about one of North America’s most remarkable group of people. As well, we hiked the Arctic Refuge and then another summer, spent four months living out of a wall tent as we journeyed along the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers in our johnboat. (I think this epitomizes the ultimate form of freedom.)

The group of people I’m referring to are known  as the Gwich’in, and they live further north than any other group of Indians,  specifically, they live just south of the Brooks Ranger in Alaska.  Hamel Frank was one from that group, and we got to know him through our friends Kenneth and Caroline Frank.  (Kenneth, incidentally, says he was graduated from the college at Gold Camp, which really means he is a student of his environment and has the knowledge to help preserve the ways of his ancestors.)

While I taught school Janie would visit elders such as Hamel and jot down the stories these people related.   One of those stories tells of a hunting experience, but more importantly, it recalls the importance of caribou to this group, many of whom still work as subsistence hunters. From Hamel’s recollections, I provide the following, a recollection which tells of a time of near starvation:

Several days later Hamel recalled that his older brothers, Nathaniel and Elaa, lashed on their snowshoes and sought help at Christian Village, some 30 miles away.  They took with them one blanket and the hind leg of a porcupine. Their timing was just right, and that, according to Hamel, was luck, because in those days people were scattered and could have been out hunting or trapping.  But Jim Christian, Ambrose William and Moses Sam were there, and for Nathaniel and Elaa that was even more good  luck.

During the winter, the three young men had been camping over by Tt’oo tthoo van (Brown Grass Lake), and next day, they returned for some of the food they had cached. They stayed the night and in the morning, they hitched up their dogs, put a little food in their toboggan and returned to Christian Village.  Nathaniel and Elaa then snowshoed back to Ch’at’oonjik (Crow Nest River), taking with them what little food could be spared…

“Now we are better,” said Hamel with a nod. “And now, it’s going on to spring. But the only place there was caribou was over on the Sheenjik.  So now everyone was going over to the Sheenjik and started killing caribou. People from Arctic Village go to the Sheenjik. But not us,” said Hamel.

CaribouHooves HamelFrank

L TO R:  The Gwich’in use everything from the caribou, even the hooves, which they boil  to create
a broth, eaten when times were hard; Hamel Frank with pair of snowshoes which he made.



Hamel explained that that summer they stayed in Arctic Village. But later that fall they went to Big Rock Mountain [just north of Gold Camp] and with the help of Arctic Village residents, they built a cabin.  Here, they waited for the caribou, which soon began their return from the north.

“Then the caribou were going back south there were so many,” exclaimed Hamel. “At first, we just watched the caribou migrating.

“That was a better year!  That year,” smiled Hamel, “there were lots of caribou trails…”

Janie and I both believe that the opportunity to work with these people has provided us with some of our most memorable experiences, and we hope that the ways of the Gwich’in will always be respected. To learn more about this group you can check out Kenneth Frank’s  Facebook page, and the website of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.  You can also see more of my experiences with Kenneth by following this link which tells of an incredible ice fishing trip.




*In A Field Where Camas Grows (This story tell about Chief Joseph, the famous Nez Perce Indian)



4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge now 50 Years Old, But Challenges lie Ahead

posted: February 28th, 2011 | by:Bert


Our camp near Caribou Pass, which is not a wasteland as some would have you believe.

©Bert Gildart: Fifty years ago this past December President Eisenhower created the Arctic National Wildlife Range “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” It was the first time in American history that an entire ecosystem was granted federal protection.

Nineteen million acres were set aside ranging from Kaktovik in the Beaufort Sea and then south, crossing over the Brooks Range then dropping down onto Arctic Village, Alaska.

But although the land is de facto wilderness, ever since Eisenhower’s designation oil companies have eyed the area as a potential for exploitation. I am proud to say that Janie and I have fought along with the Gwich’in Indians, hoping that we – along with the millions of others who love the refuge – might succeed in protecting this sacred land. To insure the integrity of these lands is maintained,  President Obama should elevate the refuge to a National Monument.

We continue to work toward greater protection and our  weapons have been photographs and stories, and they have appeared in dozens of different publications. Our intention has been to chronicle misconception – and sometimes to point out downright lies.

At times, we’ve been funded by major organizations and several years ago The Wilderness Society flew us over the refuge. Later, some members of Congress used my images to illustrate the beauties of the refuge. Some of my other work on the refuge has appeared in Time Life, National Wildlife, Defenders of Wildlife, Highlights for Children, the New York Times, and many, many others.


Unfortunately, some Senators and Congressmen never get off their fat duffs but feel, nevertheless, that they can make sweeping statements. “It’s a wasteland,” said Trent Lott several years ago, a man who has never stepped foot there.

Unlike Mr. Lott, Janie and I have intimate acquaintance with the refuge. We’ve hiked the entire length of the refuge, traveled the major rivers in our johnboat, and we’ve served as summer school teachers in five different Gwich’in Indian villages. We know the refuge for what it is; and that is one of the world’s last self-regulating ecosystems. As well, we know it as a place whose beauty can not be matched, something I hope images posted here will dramatize.


One of the major misconceptions concerns caribou, and people such as Sarah Palin have a way of distorting the facts. Palin and Lott and others of their persuasion say the Central Caribou herd has not been affected, implying that oil development will be good for the Porcupine Caribou herd, the herd dependent on the Arctic Refuge. But there are immense differences as Gwich’in spokeswoman Sarah James of Arctic Village has been pointing out for years.

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CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE: Our camp, deep in Arctic Refuge; fox returning with ground squirrel to feed young; caribou migrate by our camp near Caribou Pass, not far from Beaufort Sea; camped on Porcupine River, a tributary of Yukon and reached only following week of boat travel.

James says the Porcupine Caribou herd needs the Arctic Refuge for calving, a life cycle forged more than 100,000 years ago. According to the Gwich’in, the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the core and sacred birthplace of the herd, the vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii – or “sacred place where life begins” – and this wild nursery must remain intact. To deflect attention from the true biological purpose of this place oil companies have designated the nursery as “The 1002 Area.” What bull crap!


As well, oil companies say the Central Caribou herd, which calves near Prudhoe Bay, has expanded its numbers despite drilling. That, James admits, is true. But she insists such expansion is “only part of the story.”

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Gwich’in communities and effects of refuge spill over into McKenzie River Delta; Rock John with huge pike caught near Arctic Village on Chandalar River; roasting caribou heads over fire.

James says the untold story concerns geography. In the area where the Porcupine herd calves, the Brooks Range is separated from the Arctic Ocean by about 15 miles. Not so just to the west, where the Central Caribou herd calves. There, as you proceed from east to west, the Brooks Range sweeps to the south, so much so that the mountains are separated from the Arctic Ocean by almost 100 miles. Caribou in the Central herd have room to roam, but not those in the Porcupine herd.


Because the refuge is a land of such beauty one might think this would be a year to celebrate, and thankfully, there have been accomplishments. But oil companies and Alaska developers such as Sarah Palin are “reloading,” and I hope that Ms. Palin finds that her language – and her inflammatory graphics – do nothing more than ricochet back.


Like a spider web, the threads of Prudhoe spread over the coastal plains and most certainly effect caribou and a beauty that is unique in the world.


Encourage President Obama to safeguard the Arctic Refuge by making its coastal plain a national monument.



*Gator Drama In Shark Valley


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Archaeoastronomy Weekend at Anza Borrego

posted: February 8th, 2010 | by:Bert

Daria Mariscal Aquiar

Daria Aquiar of Baja California and a member of the Paipai nation demonstrates basket making techniques.

©Bert Gildart: This past weekend Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California presented its annual Archaeoastronomy weekend, opening its museums for visitor tours – and hosting a tribe of Native Americans.

The group is known as the Paipai and they hale from the Santa Catarina area of the Baja Pennisula, which is located about a four hour drive south of Anza Borrego. As many who follow our blog know, Janie and I have a particular interest in Native Americans and have, in fact, devoted an entire page of our website to the Gwich’in Indians of Alaska.

Over the years, my stories and photographs of Native Americans have appeared in dozens of publications to include Christian Science Monitor, Native Peoples Magazine, National Wildlife and Time/Life.


The presence of the Paipai at the Visitor Center this past weekend provided us with an opportunity to meet a group of people who are actively attempting to preserve their indigenous ways, specifically, by the continued creation of baskets, bows and arrows, and pottery.

But the weekend was also about the area’s ancient past, and not to gloss over the work of all the volunteer archaeologists, the weekend also provided insights into a time when mammoths, zebras, llamas, camels, and ancient horses roamed the shores of ancient inland seas that once spread north from the Sea of Cortez. Indeed, the archaeological weekend provided not only a number of photographic opportunities, but also an excellent time to learn about the area’s incredible past.


Because most of the Native artists spoke Spanish, Horacio Moncada served as a translator for artists Enriqueta Castro, Melina Zazueta and Adan Arenivar. He said the baskets were made from Jeffrey pine needles and palm leaves to create the intricately coiled pine leaves. They are proud that their use does not harm the trees as leaves and needles are gathered from those that have fallen to the ground. Horacio said that techniques for making the items were handed down over a period of almost 1,000 years.

Adan Arenivar created the bows and arrows and the sling shot, and with the exception of the rubber for the sling shot, all materials were derived from the land.


Click for enlarged version and to see extended caption.

Our visits with members of the Paipai Tribe occurred immediately in front of the Visitor Center, but not so tours of the museum. Normally, the area is off limits, but during this special weekend tours were conducted into actual working labs. Judy Smith, an RVer and also a volunteer who has undergone intense training, explained that zebras, sloths, and camels once occupied what is now the badlands terrain. From this area, the park has amassed a rich collection of bones.


Archaeologists have then identified the bones and the results are amazing. Zebras and camels once occupied the area, but so, too, did horses and llamas. Interesting, these latter two species then migrated, horse to Asia and llamas to South America. Then, several million years ago those in North America all died out.

Volunteer Judy SmithElder-2_DSC8842-2N-American-1

Click for enlarged version and to see extended caption.

In other words, though horses and llamas evolved here and later populated other portions of the world, it was up to the Spanish explorers to reintroduce horses, and up to the Mexicans to reintroduce llamas by bringing them across the isthmus of Panama.

During the weekend, the park also offered a number of seminars, many of which we attended. All were interesting, but for us, the opportunity to meet another group of Native Americans and some of the actual field people now serving as volunteers was the highlight.



*A Letter To Save The Everglades


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Alaska’s Museum of the North

posted: July 29th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: The Museum of the North, which is affiliated with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, has turned out to be one of the most rewarding impromptu visits we have made. It is, as their brochure says, “the premier repository for artifacts and specimens collected in Alaska and a leader in northern natural and cultural history research.”

The museum has many benefactors, to include Bill and Melinda Gates.

As we entered we were greeted by an imposing eight-foot nine-inch mount of a brown bear, and not too far away was a series of panels containing the writing and photography of the late Michio Hoshino. Because of the way in which Michio died, I thought the association appropriate, for the Japanese man  had become internationally famous. He was extraordinarily well liked — and much respected. Every one who met him considered him a friend, to include Janie and me.


Visitors to the Museum of the North are greeted by an 8'9" brown bear that weighed 1,253 pounds.

Though Michio was best known for his photography — and much of it was displayed in the museum  — also displayed was some of his superb writing. Perhaps not too coincidentally, some of it was about bears, for it was a huge brown bear that took Michio’s life in Kamchatka, Russia, in August of 1996.


Here’s that brief sampling, and it ends by referring to Nanook, the monster bear of the North:

The wind that carried away
your grandfather’s last breath
Gave it to a newborn wolf
as its first breath of life.

We are ever reborn in new forms of life. Boy, you must pray for each form of life that you take… just as your grandfather prayed. The words of your prayer are words that we can hear.

We are each an expression of the earth. When you pray for my life you become Nanook. And Nanook becomes man.

Someday we shall meet in the world of ice. And when that happens, it does not matter whether it is I who shall die, or you.



Before leaving the subject of Michio I’d like to say that Janie and I counted the man as a friend, though in truth we had spent but a week with him in Old Crow, Yukon Territory. Still, we kept in touch, and when his photographs were used to round out the story and several photographs I provided National Wildlife about the Gwich’in Indians and their attempts to preserve the Porcupine Caribou herd, I was pleased.


The museum also contains exquisite art depicting, in some cases, epic hunts.

The museum also contained exquisite art. As well, it contained the bones and tusks from the giant mammoth; a special room entitled “The Place Where you Listen,” which features sounds that often seemed to replicate earth actions. It contained other attractions to include a special exhibit of photography entitled “2009: The Last Polar Bear – The Truth About Global Warming.”

We spent almost four hours in the museum, which tells you that for an impromptu visit, Alaska’s Museum of the North must be exceedingly interesting. Janie and I are sure that there are many others out there like us.


Sunrise  and sunset in Fairbanks will be 4:38 and 11:14 respectively.



*Lilies in Glacier National Park


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Athabascan Fiddle Festival

posted: November 20th, 2008 | by:Bert

Note: Several years ago I covered the Athabascan Fiddle Festival for Native Peoples Magazine. The event is an annual one, held in Fairbanks, and it just recently concluded.

Chalkyitsik Dancers

Chalkyitsik Dancers exhibit a variety of dance types to include the popular jig and the rope dance.

The following is an excerpt from that story with comments to follow about photographic techniques and about some of the Athabascan peoples who attended. Janie and I have meet many of these people in the bush, several at trapping camps and many while they’ve been hunting or fishing. These people are a subsistence group, still depending for food on what they extract from the wilderness that flanks their tiny villages. All photographs and text are copyrighted, as is all material presented in my blog.

©Bert Gildart: Fixed forever in my mind is the image of Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village, a Gwich’in Indian, sitting proud, feet beating up and down in a rhythmic manner, drawing his bow across the strings of his fiddle, creating a sweet, sweet sound that only a handful of skilled musicians can yet produce. Included in that image is the joy of watching hundreds of Athabascan men and women dancing.


Most consider Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village to be one of the best of the Athabascan fiddlers. He is in demand throughout both Alaska and much of the Yukon. (See link below)

Elders had risen from wheelchairs to form part of a group that now included individuals who glided and shuffled–bowed and retreated–for almost an hour, until at last–smiling and laughing–a few began to drop from the number, only to regroup for the remainder of the night’s entertainment, for at midnight the festival had only begun.

For me, these memories remain as exhilarating as helping my friend Kenneth Frank of Arctic Village extract dozens of grayling, cod and lake trout from a fishnet at -33°F. The difference is that fiddle playing is intended to offset–perhaps even celebrate–the rigors of life in the “bush.”


Katherine Peter dances with young admirer. Mrs. Peter is the author of several books about her years at Fort Yukon. (See link below.)

“That’s what it is,” said Doris Ward of Fort Yukon, Alaska. “It’s a joyous musical marathon. We just dance and listen, and we have so much fun seeing old friends we’ve shared trap lines and hunting camps with. And, then, for a few days, we forget some of our troubled times and all our hard work…”


For almost 20 years now, Janie and I have been wandering North American for various magazines using a variety of modes of transportation, to include snowmobile, johnboat and an Airstream travel trailer. Upon return from these trips, which often span months, we organize photographs and then write stories around them. One of the most comprehensive photo studies has included our documentation of the Gwich’in Indians, a tribe that lives further north than any other Indian tribe (Eskimos live further north).


Bertha Underwood and Simon Francis. Francis once shot the "Ice Bear," as it stalked him. Janie and I first meet him following a four month trip on the Yukon and Porcupine rivers. He told us the story. (Follow link, just below.)

Several years ago we covered the Athabascan Fiddle festival, an annual event held in Fairbanks. The event is just as described above, and in many cases, the people I photographed were some of the same individuals I photographed under different circumstances living out in the bush. Trimble Gilbert is one such person, and so were Katherine Peter and Simon Francis.


Immediately after the festival Janie and I flew almost 100 miles above the Arctic Circle to visit our good friend Kenneth Frank, whom we also photographed at the festival. From this tiny village of about 80, I then accompanied Kenneth on a 20-mile snowmobile trip to Old John Lake. Temperatures hovered around -30°F.

What an adventure that was, for us to string his 70-foot long net beneath the ice. First, we had to drill 12 holes in the ice and then “thread” the net beneath the ice pushing it with a stick. Next day we returned and hauled out a catch of several hundreds pounds.

This trip for Native Peoples magazine is much on my mind these days as I hope to take my work from my 18 years of documenting the Gwich’in to a different level. To date my stories and photographs from these lengthy trips into the Arctic have appeared in many publications to include National Wildlife, Christian Science Monitor, and Time Life. As well, the United States Information Agency syndicated a story it commissioned me to write to their many overseas outlets.


Kenneth Frank at Old John Lake hefts white fish, one from a catch of several hundred pounds. Temperature here on this mid November day is –33°F, and in just another week the sun will remain below the horizon not to return until mid January.

All that said, this group of people remains one of favorites, and we wish them well with all their various endeavors.


When possible, I used two Nikon strobes to create shadow relief on these subjects. One strobe tends to create flat light or light that is sometimes blocked up in shadows. Janie held one strobe the other was mounted on my camera. Generally I designated the strobe Janie held as the main light and the one on my camera as the fill light, meaning that I backed off the on-camera strobe by up to one full f-stop, though generally a third to two thirds. I also used a strobe for the photograph of Kenneth extracting fish. I angled the strobe up to prevent the light from washing out the snow in the foreground.


*Lessons from Cades Cove (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Happy Halloween–Hee, hee, hee!

posted: October 31st, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Happy Halloween!

But who you may wonder is inside the trunk? Well, it could be one of my fishing buddies who consistently out fish me–and I concluded, well, enough is enough.

Or it could be one of my misdirected friends (or even family members!) who thinks they should vote for the ticket with Sarah Palin. Shame, shame!

But whoever it is, we just wanted you to know that we are also thinking of YOU.

So make sure you stop by our house tonight. After all the excitement of Trick or Treating, we have just the antidote to assure that you will sleep and sleep and sleep… Hee, hee, hee!

Happy Halloween

HAPPY HALLOWEEN--Include us in your Trick or Treat route. We have just the handout to put you at rest


*Acoma and Halloween in New England

*Graveyard Walk


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Duplicating This Grand ANWR Adventure Improbable With Sarah Palin as VP

posted: October 20th, 2008 | by:Bert

Caribou define ANWR

Caribou define ANWR

©Bert Gildart: With Sarah Palin now a vice presidential candidate, once again the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being eyed, and once again, people are making ridiculous statements about the nature of an area they have never stepped foot in. Typical of this group was Bob Tebeau of Kalispell, who wrote an editorial to our local paper. He was touting Ms. Palin’s achievements and promoting drilling. In his editorial Tebeau said, “And as has been pointed out, ANWR is a minute area with practically nothing there.”

Unfortunately, many others are as equally uninformed. For one thing, the refuge is a huge place and each spring it attracts over 100,000 thousand caribou, seeking the rich forage unique to a small parcel of the refuge adjacent to the ocean. The forage is needed by calves that are born there, and if Mr. Tebeau was referring to this area, then he is right, for this specialized area is “minute.”

Oil companies call it the 1002 Area, leaving it to biologists to provide a more ecologically correct name. Because of its unusually rich assortment of vegetation, they call it “The core calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd.”


Because the refuge is the birthplace of a herd, its influence is immense. Caribou from the refuge feed residents in over a dozen Gwich’in Indian villages, and natives there are concerned that drilling could alter migration patterns, diverting them in such as way that the herd will no longer pass by their respective villages.

I make these statements from first-hand experience, for not only have Janie and I taught in four of the Gwich’in villages, we have traveled widely throughout this vast land both on foot and in our johnboat. We have written dozens of stories about these experiences and Time/Life publications has featured my photographs in one of its books. Because this area may well be one of the world’s last self-regulating natural ecosystems, I have devoted one of the pages in my web site to the Gwich’in.

Wall tent was home

Wall tent was home

From it and from previous posts you might get the impression I’m opposed to any and all oil development, but that’s simply not the case. However, I strongly believe there are a few places in this world that should remain truly wild. And, yes, Mr. Tebeau, there is something there. There’s immense beauty, and it has exerted a powerful influence on us. That’s generally the impact it has on any who travel the area, though, granted, getting there is not easy, as Janie and I well know.


Though we have made many trips to Alaska in more recent years, our most epic adventure took place about 10 years ago when we loaded our boat with wall tent and set out for a four month venture. Prior to our departure we spent months preparing. We purchased a desiccator from Cabella’s, then dried Montana deer meat to facilitate transportation. We pared down our supplies; we took clothing that was lightweight but warm. It all worked out, for that summer we lived well on jerky, re-hydrated vegetables-and on Yukon River salmon and pike.

We started our trip one day in early May, towing our boat for ten days up the ALCAN to Fairbanks. From there, we drove a series of rutted dirt roads to Circle, Alaska, a small village located on the Yukon River. We reorganized everything for travel, discovering that our 20-foot johnboat wasn’t as spacious as we had thought. Still everything fit, to include 35 gallons of gas for powering our 50 hp Yamaha hundreds of miles to another village that provided fuel. Then, without much fanfare, we pushed off.


First on our list of destinations were the Gwich’in villages of Fort Yukon, Beaver, and Rampart, the latter of which was located downriver about 300 miles. We spent almost a month at Rampart, the site the Army Corps of Engineers once eyed as a dam. If the project had been approved it would have impounded the Yukon, backing up waters clear into Canada. It would have been as valuable as Governor Palin’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” Today, because the Yukon still flows free, Rampart remains a quiet little fishing village.

Muskrat skinning contest

Muskrat skinning contest

Though several of these villages are some distance from the refuge, still, later in the fall, they depend on caribou. One of the first, however, to see the caribou return is a village in Canada known as Old Crow, and we desperately wanted to experience subsistence hunting before we got frozen in. To reach Old Crow, we returned upriver to Fort Yukon where the Porcupine River enters the Yukon. Here, we traveled 350 miles up the Porcupine, and then another 50 miles to Old Crow, Yukon Territory. Riverboat travel took over a week, and for most of the time we were deep in the Arctic Refuge. We were alone.


Old Crow is a premier subsistence village consisting of about 200 people, and when we arrived that summer, we were made to feel welcome. Residents told us to pitch our tent and that specific village people would watch over it. We were invited to attend village contests then in progress, and though we enjoyed them all, perhaps the one we enjoyed most was the Muskrat Skinning contest.

Trapping has always been a big part of the culture at Old Crow, not surprising when one realizes that here the Porcupine River is near a huge marshland that provides an ideal habitat for muskrats. Though I don’t remember the winning times, I do remember they transformed the feat into art. Residents hunt moose, too, and I bet almost any one in that village can skin one of the huge animals before Governor Palin can figure out which end is which. (She says she’s a moose hunter, and at some level I’m sure she is.)

Old Crow has many special people, but perhaps one of the most revered is Charlie Peter-Charlie, a Gwich’in elder. For many years, Peter-Charlie was Chief of Old Crow. He was one of the village’s best fiddle players, and when young, one of its greatest hunters, said to be one of the few people to actually run down a caribou.


I visited Mr. Peter-Charlie that summer and he reminisced about caribou hunting, saying that when he killed a caribou and was hungry he’d turn it upside down to keep blood in the cavity. “We’d scoop it out and freeze it, a little blood with a little caribou gut. When you’re hungry that was mighty good.”

Charlie Peter-Charlie and caribou hooves

Charlie Peter-Charlie and caribou hooves

Later, during my visit we walked to an old cabin where Peter-Charlie began adding a few more caribou hooves to the outside walls. He said that when there were no caribou they’d take the caribou hooves and boil them, extracting a thin broth.

He remembered times when the caribou did not come and he said that was why the old people would wear a thick belt. “When hungry, they’d tighten the belt every hour or so.”

“Hope,” said Peter Charlie, “we don’t have to do that any more.”

I hope not either, and I hope, too, that Charlie Peter-Charlie is still alive. If not, I hope his thoughts for his people do come true, but I’m not optimistic. In a world peopled by some who want to destroy every single last bit of wildland (sometimes because they’re simply as uninformed as the Kalispell editorial writer), I’ll not take any bets.


*Antietam Battlefield


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Americans Teaching Canadians; Canadians Teaching Americans

posted: September 20th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: I’m discovering that there are some significant differences between writing blogs and writing magazine stories. With magazine stories, I always put them aside for several days and then return to reread them with a fresh eye. Invariably I discover ways to say things better.

No such grace period, however, with blogs, which are generally produced hurriedly and then posted.

Rereading my post from yesterday I believe it could have been much improved with a fresh read that time could have provided. If done again, I would shorten it and focus more on the real point I was trying to make.

My theme was that helicopter use in an area beautiful beyond belief does not comport with the organic act of national parks. I felt the pounding thump, thump, thumping that carried a mile down Moraine Lake and that was so intense that Janie and I had to shout to hear each other was not compatible with the philosophy of a world-class national park.


We felt the trail under repair could have been improved using manual labor provided by an old fashion trail crew. That’s the way it is always done in Montana’s Glacier National Park where I worked for so many years, and if there a difference in philosophies then that’s one thing Americans can teach the Canadians. That message would have been clearer had my posting from yesterday been shorter and more focused.

Quiet was Shattered

Quiet was Shattered

Though I have had difficulty finding the organic act spelled out for Canadian National Parks using a Goggle search, it was easy to find it for U.S. National Parks–and somewhere I have read that there are some similarities. For the U.S. it reads, in part:

“…to promote and regulate the use of the…national parks…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”


I wonder what Canadian author Farley Mowat might have said had he been present. Mowat wrote Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing, among many other books and stories with a conservation theme.

I hear, however, that Mowat was once banned from visiting the United States because he threatened to shoot down a plane whose aerial “hunters” were attempting to kill wolves. Obviously the man was voicing frustration, but I empathize with his dark sentiments.

Reverence for all forms of life is one thing this Canadian author has instilled in some of us.


Yesterday, we rendezvoused with a delightful couple we met this past spring in Mojave National Preserve. We maintain contact with lots of people we meet along the road and Dick and Linda are two. They are fulltime RVers, just now returning from Alaska. We spent the day with them hanging out at our Lake Louise campground. We prepared and cooked a delicious meal outside using our grill. Dick had several recipes in mind and at the end of the afternoon we concluded that our combined efforts produced a meal fit for an epicure.

They’re returning to serve as host and hostess once again at Mojave and we plan to stay in touch. Their lives in this desert park provided the backbone of a travel story that will run sometime early winter of 2009. When it appears I’ll post specifics.


*Mount Katahdin

Ads from Google and Amazon help support our travels:

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Worst National Park Experience-Ever

posted: September 19th, 2008 | by:Bert

Kayaking Moraine Lake

Kayaking Moraine Lake

©Bert Gildart: Three hours after departing in kayaks from the foot of Moraine Lake, one of the world’s most celebrated of all Rocky Mountain glacial waters, we were back, not because we wanted to be but because the incessant noise of a helicopter had driven us back. And now, as we pulled ashore, hordes of tourists who had just disembarked from one of the dozens of buses now spewing exhaust came scampering toward us.

“Stand here (smiles)! We want to take your picture with your kayaks.” Moving on, yet another person gestured, unable to make themselves heard above the din of noise being created by the helicopter. They wanted us to pose with our kayaks, a way for them, I guess, of living vicariously.

Things had changed since I first visited Moraine Lake almost 30 years ago, but the immensity of change was not something we could instantly grasp. That wouldn’t come until after we reflected yet further and until after we took more drastic measures.


There are no other lakes in the world like Moraine Lake, and to give you a better perspective on the company it keeps, just over the hill from us was Lake Louise. But on this Thursday in September, Moraine is the lake we wanted to kayak and we believed that if we arose early, we’d have relative quiet.

Surrounded by beauty

Surrounded by beauty

So far we were right, and as we toted our gear from the relatively new parking lot, past the relatively new chalet, at 7:45, we were about the only ones up and about. Certainly, no one else was about to launch a canoe or a kayak into these turquoise colored waters at this hour-or when the thermometer in our truck registered just a few degrees above freezing.

Nevertheless, Moraine was inviting and we were prepared in our colorful kayak garb designed to insulate against the cold. As we prepared to launch our kayaks, we marveled at the reflections. We marveled at the several glaciers that still hung in the tall peaks overhead. Appropriately, Moraine Lake formed an area referred to as the Valley of Ten Peaks. So beautiful, in fact, is this lake that the Bank of Canada depicted Moraine Lake on the back on its $20 bill.

We were also struck by the quiet of the setting, believing the Canadians had done well to create a national park of this area. Certainly, this setting served to help its citizens rejuvenate their spirits, presumably one of the missions of Canadian National Parks. At least that’s what they say.


Moraine Lake is not a huge lake, and perhaps not surprising, we had decided to make this a photographic outing, using our kayaks. Allowing the cameras to set the pace we easily reached the head of the mile-long lake in less than an hour. Here, several streams gushed into the lake providing a constant source of water, and above, from this vantage, we could see Fay Glacier. Knowing the beauty of the area, we had prepared for a tiny adventure, bringing along a backpack stove to boil water for a “spot of tea.”

Mission accomplished, we were just starting to sip when the quiet of the morning was shattered with the thunder of a helicopter. “It’ll pass,” shouted Janie above the roar that so completed funneled down the lake you could believe you were adjacent to the helipad. “It’ll pass.”


But half an hour later, the noise had not passed, and we were growing angry. Another half hour and we were ready to pack up and leave, but to do so we had to paddle even closer to the source of our irritation. As we did we could see that the helicopter was transporting materials a distance of several hundred yards from near the parking lot to a site on top of a rockpile that was, in fact, called the Rockpile Interpretative Trail.

Silence was shattered

Silence was shattered

Pulling onto the shore we had departed just hours ago the scene was now much different. Now there were people, standing literally shoulder to shoulder. Pushing ashore several stepped back and then stepped toward us now with a alacrity. “Ah, we want your picture,” they shouted. “Please stand here.”

“Your kayaks?” hollered another.”

Then several offered to help. “Thank you,” we shouted, “but we can do.”

Never could we have imagined… And now began the job of transporting our kayaks back to the parking lot, but with the added challenge of threading through hordes of people-and leaving one of the kayaks unattended. And all this while backdropped by the incessant roar of the helicopter!


To accomplish our tasks, first we removed everything (paddles too!) from both kayaks. Then, I made the hundred-yard-long jaunt, weaving between people who had just been discharged from no fewer than 15 huge buses, carrying our equipment. This as I’ve said was on a Thursday in mid September, so here, the merchants have certainly gotten their way.

Quickly I loaded our gear into the back of the truck. Then, I returned to where Janie was standing with our two kayaks. Leaving one behind, we carted the other back to our truck-coughing very, very loudly hoping those blocking our way would step back. Returning yet again for the second kayak, we had to work our way between a small group visually examining the remaining kayak.

“Current Design,” I shouted. “They make good sea kayaks.”

“Ah, sea kayaks. Current Design.” These were foreign people, friendly, but determined to get answers.

Fay Glacier and Turquoise waters

Fay Glacier and Turquoise waters

Again, we repeated our carry, coughing when the helicopter wasn’t accelerating but shouting out as necessary to please clear the way. It was a madhouse, compounded by the continuous din of noise.


From there we drove straight to the visitor center, where Janie and I asked if there was any official way to register a complaint. The hordes of people hadn’t bothered us so much as we’d been able to kayak away from them, but it was the helicopter, and to the official I explained that I did not believe the four hours of helicopter (and the full day yesterday, I later learned) noise was compatible with park philosophy. Thinking about the way such matters were conducted in Glacier National Park I asked why a trail crew of young men could not have transported the items the several hundred yards.

“Yes,” replied the uniformed park attendant. “You can register a complaint, but you’ll probably get the same response I’m providing. And, yes, a trail crew could have accomplished the task but in a much grater span of time.

“We need to have the trail completed for the thousands, and not for just a few individuals.”

Such flaunting of original park intent seems to be the wave of the future, and, sadly, it does not seem to be confined to just Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Tragic things are also happening in America’s national parks, and all that in just a few short decades.

Departing, we took an official complaint form and do plan to fill it out, simply because it will make us feel a little better…



*Searching for Whales…



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Bear Grass–One Fawn’s Gourmet Meal

posted: September 1st, 2008 | by:Bert

Vanishing spots

Vanishing spots

©Bert Gildart: White-tailed deer are now losing their spots, yet another sign of fall. This fawn was photographed in the Many Glacier Valley of Glacier National Park, and together with the second image posted here, show something else that’s interesting. The second photo proves that although bears may not be wild about bear grass, young deer can sure scarf it down.

Though Janie and I had discovered the deer on our own, a naturalists wandering along the trail near the Swift Current Motor Inn also had his eye on it. The man was part of the park’s new Watchable Wildlife program, intended to help visitors find wildlife and and to then help them understand and appreciate it.


“Guess there’s no question about it,” chuckled Bob Schuster, a park naturalist for over 30 years. “Deer sure do like those bear-grass seeds.”

Bob was a man I’d met previously, for once I had served as a ranger in the park. Bob, however, outstayed me by about 17 years. To make the Glacier position work for him he alternated his summer naturalist job with a career as a winter-time teacher. It’s a path many choose.

The Watchable Wildlife program has been very well received and several days later we joined a group watching bears on the side of Mount Altyn. Though many others are involved in the program, again we bumped into Schuster. He said that rangers and bear managers believe there are about a dozen bears that frequent the slopes of Altyn. Now, with the service berries growing so lush and juicy there may soon be more.

Bear grass seeds are gourmet food

Bear grass seeds are gourmet food

“It’s one of their favorite food items,” said Schuster. “Studies in Alaska suggest they may eat thousands in the course of a single day. We can’t say that happens here as there have been no studies, but service berries sure are thick.”

That’s something Janie and I could confirm from all the bear scat we’d seen while hiking the trails, for in some cases their dropping seemed to consist of the dark-purple service berries and nothing else.


Photographs of the deer were taken with a Nikon’s D-300 Camera and an 80-400mm Nikon lens featuring image stabilization. Both images are full framed and not cropped, generally my practice. Because I shoot in the “Raw” format, that means file sizes are immense, large enough for a magazines to create two-page spread from them, something that occasionally happens. What’s more I shoot in the 16-bit mode, recommended for those who may want to do some manipulation in PhotoShop. After changes, I reduce the file to one that is 8-bits.

At the time I photographed the fawn, skies were overcast creating a soft light that works best in deep forest situations. In bright sun, shadows can be so intense you often need a strobe to soften the dark areas. Conversely, when shooting with the lens zoomed out to 400 as I did in the close-up shot, camera shake can often create blur. For tack-sharp photographs, image-stabilization is vital.


*Quebec City

*Airstream Camper Tips



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Extreme Ice Fishing

posted: January 8th, 2008 | by:Bert

Extracting fish from 70 foot net

Extracting fish from 70′ net

©Bert Gildart: Stringing a net beneath 70 feet of ice in -30°F temperatures, and then returning to a remote Athabascan Village located immediately adjacent to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with well over 200 pounds of fish should certainly rank as an “extreme” experience.

For me it was the ultimate ice fishing experience, and I’m reminded of it now as I’ve just enjoyed some darn good outings with my group of Grumpy Old Men . What’s more, we’re soon to depart on another Airstream adventure , and such outings seem to prompt reflection.

But serving as even more of a reminder was a telephone visit this past weekend with my very good native friend, Kenneth Frank, of Arctic Village, Alaska , the man who invited me to accompany him several years ago. Whenever we visit long distance, as we’ve done many times over the past 18 years, we always visit about some of our many adventures together, none the least of which was our trip to Old John Lake on one very brutal Arctic day.


To better envision the setting, first you must fly to Fairbanks, then transfer to a small nine passenger bush plane and fly to Fort Yukon on the Yukon River. This is the latitude designating the Arctic Circle, that point at which the sun neither rises nor sets on the day noted by the equinoxes.

checking ice on old john lake

Checking ice on Old John Lake

But we were flying further north; we were flying yet another 100 miles north to the Gwich’in Indian village of Arctic Village, inhabited by a group of about 80 men, women and children. Here, because we’d be so far north, in winter, the sun is obscured far longer than just the one day experienced at Fort Yukon. Here the sun is obscured for months.

maintaining hole in ice

Maintaining hole in ice

In this setting live the most northern of all Indian groups, virtually all of whom we know from having worked in a summer school teaching program there in the early 1990s.

Residents befriended us, and now we continue to remain in constant contact, once having spent four months on the Yukon in our Johnboat visiting Kenneth and Caroline and other Gwich’in Indians in other villages, all of whom we’ve come to know well. But Arctic Village is the point to which Janie and I returned for my extreme ice-fishing trip

This particularly ice fishing trip, however, was made in November, and several days after Janie and I reached Arctic Village, Kenneth and I loaded his two snowmobiles, then rode them over Datchanlee Mountain arriving 13 miles later at Old John Lake.

The temperature was -36°F, and on this late November day the sun just barely rose above the level of the horizon, where it then floated for several hours before dipping down below the horizon to create what is known as Civil Twilight.

“Look hard and enjoy it,” said Kenneth. “In another week the sun will be gone and we won’t see it until February.”

northern lights

Northern lights

Time was critical for Kenneth that day, but first he tested the ice by walking out about 100 yards, listening for any signs of weakness. Satisfied, we drove the snowmobiles to a point where he said he knew from summer experiences that a drop off existed.


Kenneth then dug out his ice auger and we took turns drilling 10 holes over a distance of about 70 feet. The holes were all in a straight line facilitating placement of a net beneath the ice. To do so, Kenneth then took a pole about 12 feet long, attached one end of the net to the tip, and then shoved it to the next hole where I was waiting.

Reaching into the water, I’d grab the pole with net, anchor it until Kenneth moved up to where I was, then we’d repeat the process with Kenneth now shoving the pole toward hole number three where I was again waiting–and looking.

ultimately a 200 pound catch

Ultimately, a 200 pound catch

In this way we positioned a 70-foot-long net beneath the ice, which was weighted on the bottom to keep it open, giving it (if you were underwater and could see it) a fence-like appearance.

Then we returned to Arctic Village. By now it was dark, and northern lights blazed overhead, creating all the light we needed to find our trail.


Next day Kenneth and I again returned to Old John. We cracked open the holes now skimmed with ice with an ax, and then grabbed the far end of the net. We attached a 70-foot-long rope so we could easily reposition the net later by pulling. Then Kenneth pulled the net up through the ice at the far hole.

“Anchor the rope,” called out Kenneth in the clear Arctic air. “Then come see what we’ve got.”

Walking over to the net I could see fish of various species to include lots of whitefish, trout, and one Kenneth called a lush. When finished Kenneth and I calculated he had about 250 pounds of fish that would augment his supply of caribou meat and so feed his family.

I’ll never forget the experience, nor will Janie and I forget Kenneth, Caroline, Tishina, and Crystal–his entire family–who once visited us here in Montana. They remain among some of our best friends and we are hoping to see them again this summer.

And then, who knows, perhaps we’ll plan another extreme ice fishing trip, or perhaps a river-boat trip to Old Crow, Yukon Territories , where the Gwich’in Gathering will be held this summer.

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Alaska Boating Adventure

posted: May 3rd, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: The February issue of Boating (claiming to be the “World’s Largest Powerboat Magazine”), featured a story about one of the many river trips Janie and I have made in Alaska in our Johnboat.

The title for its story was “Great Adventures, Why are you still tied to the dock,” and described three other outings under separate titles in addition to ours.

Camped on Porcupine River, searching for caribou

Looking for Caribou

Our adventure was entitled “North to the Yukon,” and the story resulted from telephone interviews editors in New York conducted with us in our home in Montana.

Answers were easy to provide as we had written stories about these lengthy boat trips for several different publications, including the environmental section of the Christian Science Monitor.

Our Alaska boat trip was certainly an adventure, but if you’re willing to invest the time required for organization you can also make the trip, and do so in a manner that will not make it a misadventure.

Obviously, there are some things you must have and one of those is flat-bottomed boat, for despite the fact that the Yukon is a huge brawling river, in places it is also a very shallow river, and it is difficult to predict just where those places might be.

So you need a Johnboat, and one of substantial size. Ours is 20 feet long, and it is considered small.

We power it with a 50 hp four stroke Yamaha, and because you must often travel hundreds of miles without access to fuel, you’ll need to carry about 50 gallons of gas.

In other words, you need space.

The other thing you need is a good tent, and we carried a wall tent constructed from a burn-proof fabric.

Fish Camp, McKenzie River, Yukon Territory

Fishing Camp in Yukon Territory

Because weather is at times harsh, you need a place to hole up for several days that is comfortable, and without the

capability of a tent that can handle a small wood stove (“called a sheep-herder stove”) you’ll be uncomfortable.

We also carried collapsible cots, a Coleman lantern, winter cloths and lots of dried food.

Why embark on such an adventure? In part to experience the raw country, for there were nights when caribou surged in mass across the Porcupine River, one of the tributaries of the Yukon up which we traveled.

And then there were simply nights we spent in the tent listening to the wind blow—realizing that no other human beings were anywhere within a hundred miles or more.

Just the wolves, which often howled, and the curious bears that sometimes left tracks within feet of our tent.

Fishing upstream from Fort Yukon

Fishing upstream from Fort Yukon

And then there were days with the few inhabitants who do live along the Yukon and Porcupine located in their small villages. Essentially, all were Native Americans belonging to a tribe known as the Gwich’in.

Once we worked as summer school teachers in a number of these Gwich’in villages, responding to a call from a friend (then the assistant superintendent) for people willing to explain their profession, which in my case was journalism and photojournalism.

We continued for three more summers as teachers and some of these villagers we now consider friends whom we will always want to know about.

In fact, several have visited us here in Montana, and one of our web pages is devoted to this group.Trips along the Yukon and Porcupine later compelled us to take other trips, and one of them took us up the ALCAN to the Dempster Highway.

The Dempster is a 500-mile long road that leads from the ALCAN to the McKenzie River and to more Gwich’in Indian Villages, but located in Canada.

Here, we traveled with a friend down much of this historic river to the Peel Channel of the McKenzie, and then to the Arctic Ocean, all in our Johnboat.

Along the route, we stayed at fish camps, and met remarkable people such Caroline Kay, a woman who had lived a life in the bush.

And so our lives go on, and we are particularly enjoying the recounting of these adventures the day before our anniversary, happy we’ve been blessed to lead such a life and anxious for the time to come when we can embark on yet other excursions, some of which will certainly be made by boat or travel trailer.

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Fishing Techniques From Fishing Fools

posted: January 13th, 2007 | by:Bert

Those of you who rely on the Woodall’s Campground Directory may note that the 2007 directory contains a major story about fishing techniques. The story is incorrectly attributed to “Bill” Gildart rather than to me, Bert Gildart, as it should have been.

Editors tell me the mistake is a computer error, and because they’ve known me correctly for so many years, I’ll have let it go at that, knowing, in fact, that such mistakes do occur.

Regardless of the error the remainder of the article is correct, and knowing that there are many fisherpersons out there, I enclose a portion of the story here, suggesting that when you get your campground directory that you turn to page 80—for the rest of the story.

As well, you’ll see some of the fish I’ve been fortunate enough to land, particularly out of Alaska. Again, I’ve enclosed several here that might make you want to start checking lures and tying flies. Setting for the first photo is 400 miles up the Porcupine River in the Yukon Territory, which Janie and I reached in our Johnboat. That’s Duane James on the left and yours truly on the right. The boat is powered by a 50hp Yamaha, four stroke, and the people who make them are mighty good folks.

Ya hear!

(Note: All photos made on the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers during four-month trip in our Johnboat.) 

©Bert Gildart: My friend Bill Schneider is a fishing fool, a competition angler who likes to laud his knowledge over on friends and acquaintances. Typically, when on a trip, he begins by pulling out the latest Brown boots with Berkley hip waders uniting it all with an equally high-tech pair of Tilley Gators. Enviously, I look on, and that’s when he’ll rub it in.“What?” he’ll say, with a not-so-well-concealed look of smugness as he snugs his gators. “You don’t have a pair of these?”

Same with actual fishing paraphernalia. As he pulls out a bag containing patiently labeled clear plastic boxes of flies overflowing with a host of nymphs, streamers, terrestrial flies and other such esoteric angling accoutrements, he’ll ask—in response to my raised eyebrows—“What? You don’t have a Double Bunny? I thought everyone fished with one of those.”

But the infuriating fact is that the boxes are more than just a collection of items that might make you a better fisherman. Schneider, once the editor of the state’s hunting and fishing magazine, “Montana Outdoors,” knows how to use this stuff, something each and every one of us would like to know.And so you endure, and you ask if you could borrow one, and then (humbly), “Come on Bill; show me how to use it. Please.”

That’s the way I’ve picked up a lot of information. In fact, for years I’ve been humbling myself across the nation, picking up bits and pieces from fishing fools (they’re all a bit supercilious), trying my best to become a good all-around fisherman. In my pursuits, I’ve learned a bit about bass, trout, walleye, sturgeon and even pike—angling. In fact, I’ve picked up a few of the accoutrements, and would like to highlight what I’ve learned and detail just how to use this information, drawing at times on memories I’ve had with some of these dedicated fishermen…

Perhaps at this juncture, I should mention that you can catch many species of fish using very simple techniques, and pike are one of those species. Several years ago in Alaska, my wife and I spent the summer living out of a wall tent, traveling from hole to hole in our johnboat. In one case, we were cruising the waters for pike and had made a 70-mile trip from Circle down the Yukon to Fort Yukon where this sprawling river also accepts the Porcupine. Over the course of a week, we then proceeded 400 miles up the Porcupine River. It was hard, hard work, but you know the cliché; “Someone has to do it.”

Along the way we renewed acquaintances with a native friend, Duane James—and most assuredly, he is a fishing fool! His fishing gear, however, was—and still is—about as simple as you might get, and the incident serves to prove that you can get by very, very cheaply.

Duane was standing next to me and there I was, dapper in my Helly Hanson Hip Waders crowned with my Tilly Hat—and I was creating beautiful arcs with my line streaming out from an Orivs Rod.

My offering was a specially tied dragon fly nymph, and as I remember, both Duane and I were doing well. But confound it all, Duane was doing better, pulling out fish with almost every cast.

His gear?

Duane was using 20-pound line wrapped around a pop can. About the only thing we had in common were our lures—and the fact that we had both attached wire line to the end of our monofilament. If we wanted pike, we had to do that! After all, pike have sharp teeth, and they know how to use them for chomping through tough line, something fishermen should always remember when removing hooks. More than one person has required stitches following the slash of teeth from one of these tigers of the marsh.

Because pike and bass are both predators, you can catch them using similar techniques. Pike spawn in the spring and generally do so in shallow waters. The trick is to affix a weedless lure to your line and then generate the proper type of action. Both smallmouth bass and pike feed on frogs, and so a weedless lure (such as the popper shown in one of my photographs) that can navigate marshy environments works well. Try popping it along the surface and if they’re there, and if they’re hungry, it will send such species into a frenzy.

That’s a fly fishing technique, but you can also use a spinning rod and often do so more effectively than you can using a fly rod. But then, of course, you are no longer a purist. If that’s OK, and this time, you want to try for bass, begin by loading up your spinning rods with a rapallas or some crank bait, such as the Bomber 6A Red Crawfish or the Luhr Jensen Baby Hotlips (Don’t you just love these names!). You can also load them up with one of a thousand other lures, for the number of lures that have been created for bass fishermen is endless—and if the choices are overwhelming, you can easily simplify.

What I’m saying is, of course, heresy, but you don’t have to have a Loomis Rod, Shamino Reel, or even a Berkley high-tech line. In fact, if you really want, you can get by using a red and white Daredevil (which I’ve found works most everywhere), or one of the many variations of Mepps Spinners. To simplify even more, you can fish like my Native friend Duane fishes. You can use a pop can.

In fact, the next time I’m with Bill Schneider I may do exactly that. And because I can guarantee his boxes of accoutrements won’t contain Duane’s setup, at the propitious moment, I’m going to pull out a carefully assembled line attached to pop can and then pose the question:

“What, Bill? You don’t have a Pepsi, swivel and an old Mepps spinner? You don’t have a set up like this?

Predictably, Bill will shake his head, and that will be my clue.

“Well, honestly, Bill, you really must get one of these.”

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Arctic Interlude

posted: November 5th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: This evening our cell phone broke the silence in our Airstream, and when we answered, we recognized the two Native American voices immediately, though we had not heard them now for months.

“Greeting from Arctic Village [Alaska] said Kenneth and Caroline Frank, almost together. We’ve been trying hard to reach you.”

Though we’ve been trying to reach them throughout our travels this summer, they managed to reach us first. Because they did reach us—bringing back some wonderful travel memories–we’re going to digress this evening, and share some memories revealing what life in the Arctic could be like—right now, as I pen these words.

Kenneth and Caroline live on the Venetie Indian Reservation, located immediately adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). They are Gwich’in Indians, and as such lay claim to being the northern-most Indian tribe in North America (Eskimos live further north). Despite the distance separating us, they’ve visited us in Montana, and we them in the Arctic on many occasions.

Though Kenneth and Caroline’s ancestors were all nomadic (Kenneth’s into the 1960s), amazingly, they have both advanced themselves in the “White-man way.” Still, they tend to prefer their own culture—and are sufficiently intelligent to walk whatever path they choose. Caroline, in fact, has earned a master’s degree and though the couple could have gone most anywhere in Alaska, they elected to return to Arctic Village, where she not only teaches, but serves as the village principal.

Kenneth has worked in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. As well, he has worked teaching the young people in his village more about their vanishing culture, which is threatened from outside influences.

We’ve known them since 1991, and are flattered that they have remained some of our very best friends, but then, we have shared many experiences, though typically, we always begin our conversations about the weather.

“What’s the temperature, Kenneth?”

“Oh, it’s not cold tonight; maybe 15 or 20 below (that’s Fahrenheit!).

Sadly, it’s been several years since we’ve seen them, and the last time was in conjunction with a trip to Fairbanks, where I was commissioned at the time to cover the Athabascan Fiddle Festival for Native Peoples Magazine. From there, we flew yet further north to see them, flying about 100 miles to the Arctic Circle, then another 200 miles yet further north to Arctic Village. Just like now, it was the first week of November, but what a contrast from where we’re camped tonight near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and their home in the far north, a fact quickly born out shortly after our arrival, and something Kenneth reminded me last night on the phone.

“Certainly not as cold tonight as when we went ice fishing.”

Kenneth was referring to the time that he and I had driven two snowmobiles to Old John Lake on a day when temperatures hovered at about -30°F. (That’s a 70° temperature variation from where we are tonight in West Virginia). Length of day had diminished greatly and though we left at 9 a.m. darkness engulfed us for yet another hour. Nevertheless, we made the 20-mile trip in less than two hours. But that’s when the relatively easy work turned into some very, very hard work.

Kenneth is dedicated to his life as a subsistence hunter and fisherman, and on this trip he wanted to catch fish, and lots of them. Old John appeared frozen solid and deep, though he first wanted to test the ice by walking toward the center of the lake, listening for tell-tale cracks. The lake is not a huge lake and he quickly returned, reassured that all was OK. Then, we began work.

First, we took an ice auger and began drilling a hole, not an easy job as the ice was several feet thick. We accomplished the task in about ten minutes, but that was just the beginning.

“Fun isn’t it?” queried Kenneth. “We’ve got only seven more to go.”

Our goal was to suspend a 70-foot-long net—with leaders—beneath the ice, and to do so, we needed a number of holes oriented in a straight line, which we completed in about an hour. We then took a pole about 12-feet long, submerged it beneath the ice, and began pushing the net from one hole to the next.

At first the effort was demanding but soon Kenneth had the method worked out and within half an hour, the net was suspended so that it was about a foot beneath the lower surface of the ice. If the net had touched the ice, it might have frozen to the ice, making it difficult to draw in when the net was next examined.

That afternoon, we returned to Arctic Village as northern lights danced over head, though it was only about 4 p.m.

Next day, Kenneth and I returned and pulled in the net—along with about 200 pounds of mostly white fish, but not all.

“Look at this,” said Kenneth, “We’ve got a couple of huge lake trout, and we’ll have them tonight.”

Such recollections are some of the memories we always enjoy sharing each time we visit, and that is generally quite often. As well we share memories from summer school teaching programs we both worked in and about a trip we made together down the Chandalar River, to the Yukon, and then 300 miles up the Porcupine River to Old Crow, Yukon Territories. What an adventure that was, stopping at various summer fish camps.

As well, we shared recollections of the one winter Janie and I lived in the Arctic near them and all the wonderful times we had in the evening.

Truly, Kenneth and Caroline are a wonderful couple, caught up like many of their contemporaries in a struggle to preserve their subsistence way of life, and we hope they succeed. In a small way we’ve attempted to help them preserve that style of life, describing as best I could the merits of their culture for many publications (See our Gwich’in Indian Page). In several of those stories, most notably for Christian Science Monitor and National Wildlife, we’ve pointed out that when oil companies say the Central Caribou has expanded, despite massive development at Prudhoe, they’re not providing all the information. In short, they’re not telling the truth!

We continue to think about our wonderful times in the Arctic and thank Kenneth and Caroline for befriending us—and for their persistence these last few weeks trying to find out just where in the world we are. Sometime we wonder the same thing, and it’s our good fortune to have friends who help to provide some grounding. Allow these photographs to augment my words and to graphically suggest what life in the Arctic is like—tonight, this fifth day of November.

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Privileged To Meet A Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman–and Share Some Commonalities

posted: September 6th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: We meet wonderful people along the road, all sorts of interesting people. But sometimes we meet people whose lives we admire and with whom we seem to share many similar experiences.

Such was the case two days ago when we were camped in Quebec’s KOA. Near us was a couple in one of the few Airstreams we’ve seen along the road, in this case a 34-foot Classic.

The owners were Bob and Nicole, and I introduced myself with a copy of Airstream Life, which I thought that they—as a Canadian couple with Quebec license tags—might appreciate. They said they’d heard of the magazine and were hoping to find a copy.

Both Bob and Niki, as she says her American friends call her, had just recently retired; he from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and she from a government position that worked with specific Native American tribes. I have always admired the RCMP and told Bob that when I was a child, I used to tune my radio to Sgt. Preston and Yukon King. Almost immediately our rapport grew, and we discovered in a round about way that we knew people in common, and in far flung places.

Once Bob had worked in Old Crow, Yukon Terriotry, and it is one of the several Gwich’in Indian communities in which Janie and I had once developed many friends as interim teachers. To renew friendships, several years ago Janie and I had boated from Circle, Alaska, 100 miles down the Yukon River to Fort Yukon.

From there, we had replenished our gas supply, and, in our Johnboat, continued our journey, linking at Fort Yukon with the Porcupine River. From there we traveled for over a week and for 350 miles through both the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness to reach Old Crow, Yukon Territory. At the time, I’d been there gathering a story for Christian Science Monitor and was delighted to chance upon a huge gathering and delighted with the open friendly cooperation of the Gwich’in. We attempted to join them in their various dance ceremonies.
Just three years ago, Burns Ellison, a writer friend, and I had also taken this same boat and traveled from Fort McPherson just off the Dempster Highway but on the McKenzie River, to Aklavik, located not far from the Arctic Ocean. We reached this far-flung village by boating down the Peel Channel of the McKenzie River.

The river system there was a maze, and there is definitely a place where the newcomer should have a GPS. But more significantly, it was also a place where Bob had worked, and we talked about all these things.

Last year I wrote about these experiences for several boating magazines, and Bob and I discussed mutual acquaintances and the adventures and misadventures each of these areas had once provided for the RCMP. Areas around the Peel River, for instance, served as the setting for the Mad Trapper, who killed several other trappers as well as a member of the RCMP who was attempting to question him about improper trapping techniques.

Eventually the RCMP tracked the man to an area just north of Old Crow, and here, they were forced to kill him. The incident was made into a movie and starred Charles Bronson.

The same area also back-dropped a misadventure for the RCMP, for it was here between Fort McPherson and Old Crow that a patrol perished in the brutal cold while on a routine patrol—in -40° temperatures! Members of the RCMP have always, it seems, endured hardships, and usually emerged victorious. But not this time, for all (five, I believe) perished when they lost their way. That was about 1920, and the group has become known as the Lost Patrol.

But these were broad interests that we shared, and my familiarity, of course, was more through books, while Bob’s familiarity had been acquired through the history of the agency directly involved. As a member of the RCMP, he has certainly experienced hazards, and probably more than some of his contemporaries, as his specialty was drug control.

On a more personal note, Janie and I, Bob and Nicole, share common anniversaries, for we were all married in the spring of 1991. We’ve all had wonderful children from other marriages, and now grandchildren.

And of course, we both cherish our Airstreams, and while Bob and Nicole are now full timers, we are out but six to eight months of each year.

We promised to stay in touch and we believe our paths will cross again. And, I must mention, that before departing, Bob gave Janie and me a tie pin, one of the ten he’d been given as a retiring RCMP member, and that is only given to retirees to do as they will.

We’d be hard pressed to explain just how flattered we are.

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Power of One

posted: May 31st, 2006 | by:Bert

The Power of One in a Remote Land

Sarah James

Sarah James illustrates the Power of One

Native activist Sarah James leads Alaska’s ‘Caribou People’ in defense of their way of life north of the Arctic Circle

© Bert Gildart | Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ARCTIC VILLAGE, ALASKA(map)- In this tiny Alaskan town of 120, north of Anchorage and the Arctic Circle, beyond the imaginary line where summer days and winter nights become endless, Sarah James, a Gwich’in Indian leader, is rolling in cash – $130,000 to be exact, a 2001 grant from the Ford Foundation.

Even though the foundation is not connected to the Ford Motor Co., it sounds as though it’s an unlikely pairing. Ford products devour oil and gas; the Gwich’in (pronounced guh-WHICH-in) depend on caribou for everything from their meals to the gloves that keep their hands warm.

Ostensibly, then, they are rivals when it comes to the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), home to the Porcupine Caribou upon which the Gwich’in depend. Adjacent to Arctic Village, the refuge is coveted by petroleum companies and guarded zealously by activists like Ms. James.

Last November, the foundation awarded James a fellowship as part of its Leadership for a Changing World program, a group of 20 outstanding but little-known national leaders.
According to information from the Ford Foundation, the annual awards go to those who have “addressed a range of social problems and have skillfully achieved support of groups ranging from grass-roots organizations to government officials.”

James, however, attributes the honor to her simple “common sense,” a gift she believes she has received from the land – and a grounding she’s used to defend the ANWR.

Caribou Heads Cooking

Caribou heads cooking

“I grew up on fish and berries and Porcupine River caribou,” says James in her sometimes-hurried English. “When you got to think about where food comes from, you know mighty quick that you can get by on very little and still have darn good life. It’s just common sense.”With legendary modesty, James says she’s not sure how she was picked from an imposing list of 3,000 nominees, and insists that others are better educated. But she’s always had a vision of helping her people mobilize around a cause.

Ambitious, perhaps, for a woman who heard little English until age 16, and grew up toiling with nomadic parents in their search for fish and caribou. Some of James’s earliest childhood memories are of wandering the cold, forested land with her parents in the 1940s as they traveled with dogs, lugging their winter supplies. In spring, they left their small cabin to travel the Yukon, Porcupine, and Salmon Rivers, sometimes using boats framed of birch and covered with hides of moose or caribou, heading upriver, where James’s father would hunt.

Because of her family’s lifestyle, James did not attend school until she was about 10. Six years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent her to an Indian boarding school in Oregon. “I had to study from time I got up till time I go to bed,” she recalls.

She graduated from high school in 1967 at age 21, and took a job in San Francisco as a typist.

After two years, she returned to Arctic Village – today a Gwich’in community consisting of a cluster of about 40 cabins, a school for 50 children, a water tank, a gigantic freezer for preserving meat, a community center, and a tiny, beautiful Episcopal log church.

James quickly learned how to publicize Gwich’in concerns, typing hundreds of letters and helping form the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a grass-roots organization devoted to preserving caribou.

Along the way, James began speaking out for other groups of natives. Before long, her simple, direct approach was attracting national recognition.

In the 1990s, she traveled to Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, speaking for the underprivileged and the hardships they endure – and, as always, the caribou. Simultaneously, she began appearing on television programs, including a CNN telecast, the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and the CBS Evening News.

Late in the decade, she led several gatherings to the steps of the US Capitol, crusading for caribou and for preservation of the ANWR. She and the Gwich’in who accompanied her to Washington have tried to clear up concepts that they believe petroleum companies misrepresent.

In their mythology, the Gwich’in – spread among 17 villages, extending to the McKenzie River in the Northwest Territories – were derived from a heart shared with caribou, so each will always know what the other is doing. Little wonder many refer to the Gwich’in as “People of the Deer,” or simply as “Caribou People.”

As James explains it, the Porcupine Caribou herd needs the arctic refuge for calving, a life cycle forged more than 100,000 years ago. According to the Gwich’in, the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are the core and sacred birthplace of the herd, the vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii – or “sacred place where life begins” – and this wild nursery must remain intact.

caribou crossing

Caribou crossing

Despite their regal appearance and the odd fact that both males and females grow antlers, caribou are best known for their annual migration, which, in the case of the Porcupine Caribou herd, often extends more than 1,000 miles – from the Arctic Ocean almost to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. Migrating herds can travel in the tens of thousands, and when they move, the land itself seems to pulse.

Biologically, caribou seek the north slope of the Brooks Range for a variety of reasons. They need an area far enough from mountains to be safe from bears and wolves, and they need a place where winds blow consistently to reduce insects.



The Gwich’in also say that caribou need an area where vegetation is lush, and, according to James and most biologists, the caribou’s core calving grounds host one of the richest concentrations of vegetation on the North Slope.

The oil companies say that the Central Caribou herd, which calves near Prudhoe Bay, has expanded its numbers despite drilling. That, James admits, is true. But she insists such expansion is “only part of the story.”

James says the untold story concerns geography. In the area where the Porcupine herd calves, the Brooks Range is separated from the Arctic Ocean by about 15 miles. Not so just to the west, where the Central Caribou herd calves. There, as you proceed from east to west, the Brooks Range sweeps to the south, so much so that the mountains are separated from the Arctic Ocean by almost 100 miles.

While the Porcupine herd, according to James, is about 130,000 strong, the Central herd numbers but 25,000. “When trucks and big rigs disturb caribou in Central herd, those caribou can move ’cause they got all that 100 miles of room north of mountains where grass is green and wind still blows. But our caribou got only around 15 miles – with five times more animals.”

James says that if oil giants drill into the core calving grounds (called the 1002 Area by the oil companies), the Porcupine herd must move to areas less ideal – areas where “there’s bears,” says James, “away from Arctic Ocean. They move from those good strong winds. They move back to area where’s there’s many bugs. They move to area where there’s not so much of that good green grass…. They don’t die right away. But undernourished young die in winter, when times get tough. That’s what biologists with fancy degrees say. But you don’t need PhD to know that, just common sense.”

Although most petroleum companies claim they can drill in the refuge without consequence to the caribou, most Gwich’in – and many independent biologists – disagree.
Biologists emphasize that although the Porcupine Caribou population is large, drilling would reduce the herd size. If that happens, caribou might choose new migration routes, completely bypassing this international group of villages established initially to intercept the herd.

Stephen Frost Makes Butchering into Art

Stephen Frost turns butchering into an art form

James insists the Gwich’in people need those caribou. Adjusting a pile of caribou antlers, she explains that each family in Arctic Village harvests about 15 caribou a year, as the animals migrate to and from their refuge. As in the days of old, the Gwich’in use every single part of the animal.

The Gwich’in position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has set them at odds with Inupiat Eskimos, who have the only community actually within the 19-million-acre refuge. The Inupiat believe that money they stand to receive from commercial oil drilling in a 1.5 million-acre portion of the ANWR will help lift them from subsistence living.
Both sides have lobbied Congress vigorously.

With a shrug of her shoulders, James says she’s not completely against opening a portion of the refuge to drilling. She says that in 20, maybe 30 years, science might create technology sophisticated enough to extract oil without harming the caribou.

“But it’s not there now!” she exclaims. She also fears that if oil companies do drill in the arctic refuge, they’ll keep most of the profits for themselves, and they won’t hire locals – a habit that James says makes her people feel worthless, and may account for some of the tribe’s social problems, such as high rates of alcoholism and suicide.

Standing in a graveyard, pointing to a flower-strewn site, James recalls how, in 1998, her 17-year-old niece took her own life. “Too many of our young people want to get to Fairbanks, where there’s drugs and alcohol. They’ve lost touch with the land, and that’s when we lose our pride.

“I’m proud to be Gwich’in,” she continues. “But we’ve got to keep telling that to the young. Maybe one day they’ll believe again.”

Over the years, some have heard her words clearly. Evon Peter, the 25-year-old chief of Arctic Village, says he’s benefited from her leadership. Faith Gemmill, current director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, agrees, and adds that James helped groom her for the position.

Both of these young leaders have made trips to Washington with James. And both have testified on behalf of their people’s needs, relying on James’s guidance. In this way, they have helped James fulfill a mandate of “skillfully building a consensus by mobilizing grass-roots organizations.”

Because the sight of the tundra teeming with caribou remains an important vision for the Gwich’in, James also plans to use Ford funding to help with gas payments (about $4 per gallon) required to transport youngsters upriver to distant camps. There, she hopes, they’ll marvel at the caribou, gain pride in their roots – and perhaps gain a taste for grass-roots activism in defense of their way of life.

Or maybe they’ll learn to resist the temptations of a more “civilized” lifestyle.

“When I’m on the land,” said one young man who had recently been placed on parole for drug violations, “I really do great. It’s where my grandfather used to take me.”

Perhaps James has “mobilized” yet another young person, but she plans to do more. She’s definitely a woman with a well-defined mission in service to her people.

And if common sense can be considered a discipline of deeds underscored with care and love, then James may be ready for her PhD.

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The Gwich’in and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

posted: May 23rd, 2006 | by:Bert

Gwichin Kids

Gwich'in Kids

© From National Wildlife Magazine: Above timberline, above Arctic Village, Alaska—120 miles above the Arctic Circle—my wife, Jane, and I watch with Kenneth and Caroline Frank, a Gwich’in Indian couple, as the first caribou of the season return from summer calving grounds located along the Arctic Ocean. Though Kenneth is a hunter, he restrains himself. Customarily, the Gwich’in permit the first caribou of the season to pass so they won’t turn tail and alarm the closely-trailing major herd. “We should wait,” says Kenneth. “There will be more in a day or so.”

For Kenneth and Caroline—and for all the Gwich’in—the return of the caribou is a major event. For many of this most northern of all Indian tribes spanning two nations in about 13 different small villages, the return means that stomachs will be full when it is 70 degrees below zero and game is not moving. But there is more. Now, when the caribou return, the migration is cause for even more celebration, for it means the Gwich’in have thwarted another year of attempts to undermine their way of life. If petroleum companies have their way, they will construct oil rigs in the precise area where members of the Porcupine Caribou Herd have always calved. The Gwich’in are firmly united in their denunciation of these efforts by oil companies and say so in a variety of ways that represent their concerns for themselves and the caribou…

That’s the way I began my story for National Wildlife magazine, and now, several years later, I stand by my convictions that there needs to be one place left in the world where natural processes regulate rather than ones imposed by man. If it means I have to pay more at the pump for gasoline to enjoy the travel I so thoroughly cherish, so be it. Higher prices may prompt us as a nation to do some of the things we should have done 30 years ago during our first national energy scare. But all is not lost. This current energy crisis might prompt us to develop bio fuels, purchase small cars (which Janie and I have done for times we’re traveling in Montana, our home state), improve further hybrid vehicles, and explore alternative sources of energy. It might prompt us to insist that our government become involved in the Kyoto Accord. It might prompt us to drive 55.

But to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and convert it into another Prudhoe would be a travesty. And I say this not as someone who has never stepped foot in the refuge, rather as one who has backpacked (A Christian Science Monitor story) through the entire refuge, floated its rivers, and stood in awe and watched as thousands of caribou streamed across cold, Arctic rivers. As well, Janie and I once served as teachers in many of the Gwich’in Indian communities, and we have a real soft spot for all the people of these most northern of all Indian (not Eskimo) communities.

Several years ago I flew over Prudhoe Bay on a photography assignment for The Wilderness Society. The flight was an eye opener; sprawling beneath like the filaments in a spider web was a dense interlay of pipes. From these conduits forming the Pipe Line, statistics show oil spills on average of ONCE A DAY.

Biologists working for the oil companies say the Central Caribou herd has expanded, implying that oil pads and dericks are good for caribou. What they don’t say is that in the area of Prudhoe Bay, the Brooks Range sweeps to the south, creating a seperation between the Arctic Ocean and the mountains of about 100 miles. This seperation provides the Central Caribou herd with room to move, so its no wonder that herd has not been troubled. But such is not the case in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where the Brooks Range holds firm at about 30 miles from the Arctic Ocean. Here is where the Porcupine Caribou herd gathers each summer to calve, and “Here,” as Sarah James (Another Christian Science Monitor story “The Power of One”) of Arctic Village says, “the caribou got no place to go.”

Standing United Old Crow

Standing United at Old Crow

If we were to tap oil in the refuge, we coudn’t have it at our pumps for another 10 years, and most believe the supplies are limited. Wouldn’t it be a shame to eliminate one of the world’s last totally wild places in exchange for some unknown quantity of oil? I want to maintain my life stye as an adventure travler, and if I have to pay more to do so, then I’ll sacrifice elsewhere.

Hurrah for the Gwich’in, who stand united in their determination to save the Arctic Refuge from development.

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