MOULTONBOROUGH — One day this past summer, Kristin Gates found herself running toward a treeline in Alaska's Brooks Range, hot on the tails of a pack of wolves that disappeared into the trees moments earlier. What would make Gates, a 26 year-old who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., do such a thing?
Gates had just rounded a bend in a river to find herself about 100 feet away from a caribou carcass that was being devoured by a grizzly bear. The wolves had killed the caribou and eaten most of it, Gates figured by the size of their distended bellies, only to have their kill absconded by the bear. Given the choice between the company of sated wolves or a hungry grizzly, Gates high-tailed it to the woods.
That episode was just one of many adventures Gates experienced during her traverse of the Brooks Range, which stretches from east to west across the northern half of the country's wildest state. Gates's trek took her 1,000 miles and 51 days, from June 13 to August 2. She is believed to be the first woman to hike the range solo.
Gates is spending the winter staying at her parents' home in Moultonborough, giving public talks and working on a book about her experience.
Gates was first introduced to outdoor adventures by her father. While growing up in Connecticut, she and her family would visit grandparents in Meredith. When she was eight, Gates and her father set out on the goal of hiking all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-foot peaks. They accomplished that goal by the time she was 15, and along the way covered many miles of the Appalachian Trail. They also crossed paths with many through-hikers — people following the trail all the way from the trail's start in Georgia to its terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine. She became infected with the idea of following in their footsteps, and used the summer after her freshman year to fall in love with long-distance hiking.
Her first through hike was the Long Trail in Vermont. By the time she had completed the 272-mile trail, she thought she might have had enough. She made the rookie mistake of packing too heavy — her pack weighed 50 pounds — and she wasn't yet comfortable in the woods by herself. "After I finished the Long Trail, I remember telling my mom, 'Maybe this isn't for me'," she said. Oh, how wrong she was.
After her sophomore year at Colby College, where she studied English and Classical Civilization with a minor in Geology — "I wanted to be Indiana Jones" — she tackled the Appalachian Trail and fell head over heels. "Every day was so much fun, I just completely fell in love with the way of life and the community." The next summer, after writing every outdoor company she could think of for sponsorships, she hiked the 2,663 mile long Pacific Coast Trail, and a year later, after graduating from Colby, she added the Continental Divide Trail to her list of accomplishments.
With the Continental Divide Trail done, she had accomplished the "Triple Crown" of American through-hikes. Yet, her appetite for adventure was far from satisfied. She moved to Alaska where she got a job as a river guide at a remote camp, where she also learned to help run sled dogs in training for the Iditarod. She lived in the remote village of Coldfoot, which is at the edge of the Brooks Range. "The time I spend up in Coldfoot, I really fell in love with the area and the Brooks Range. You feel like you're the first person to set foot in there. The fact that it's true wilderness was what really intrigued me."
One of her acquaintances suggested to Gates that she should hike the range, an idea she initially balked at. However, the more she thought about it, the more the challenge intrigued her. After three years of living in Alaska, she was riding a bush plane to the easternmost stretch of the range, about to set off on her greatest adventure yet.
Gates was blessed with unusually warm weather during her expedition. Temperatures ranged from 30 degrees and snowing to 80 degree heat. Last year's weather was also strange for the wildlife. Typically, by early July, the caribou herds that winter in the Brooks Range have moved to their summer grounds, however a late thaw kept them in the range for the first two weeks of Gates's trek. And where the caribou are, the grizzlies follow.
"For the first two weeks, I saw at least one grizzly bear every day."
Gates was familiar with guns, as it was necessary for her to be prepared to shoot a moose should one attack her sled dogs. However, she elected to cross the Brooks Range unarmed. "It was a decision I made very carefully," she said. Her research prior to the trip showed that grizzly attacks in the Brooks Range were quite rare, with only three known fatal attacks. And, in one of those attacks, the victim had a gun and successfully shot the bear but was still unable to prevent his own death. She carried anti-bear spray instead, which fell more in line with her sense of wilderness ethics. "I'm on their land, there's something that bothers me about killing these animals."
Although bears might have been the most intimidating of her perils, the leading causes of human death in the Brooks Range are drowning and hypothermia. To let her family know she was safe, she carried a "spot beacon" that would transmit a signal every night to tell her parents that she was okay, and where she was located. If needed, it could be used to send a distress signal, and she also had a satellite phone for emergencies.
Although the Brooks Range is among the wildest places in the country, she did come across some traces of civilization. Those stops included three native villages, where she said she was treated with "amazing hospitality." At two of those villages, strangers took her out for a day of fishing, offers she happily accepted.
For most of her trip, her spirits were high. She experienced a low period, though. Her path took her past the home of some of her friends, and she stopped there for a few days of rest. When she left her familiar company and returned to the wilderness, she realized just how lonely she could feel. She listened to podcasts, funny ones, especially, and kept herself busy until she felt better.
She's had the winter to talk about, write about and reflect upon her adventure. And she's getting ready to begin her next one. Gates will be joining a hiking buddy this time to float down the Yukon River and follow the 2,000 mile path that prospecting miners took in the 1890s during the Klondike Gold Rush. Gates is hoping to model her life after English adventurer Alaistair Humphreys, who uses book sales and speaking fees to fund his expeditions, and his expeditions to inspire his books and talks. If she's successful, it will mean a lifetime of adventure.
"It's just become my passion," said Gates. "There's nothing more exciting for me than to travel through the world on foot, with everything I need on my back. It makes me happy, it's what I love."
CAPTION for GATES HIKING in AA:
Kristin Gates, who is spending this winter in Moultonborough, was the first woman to hike solo through the Brooks Range in Alaska. (Courtesy photo)
CAPTION for GATES HEADSHOT in AA:
Kristin Gates, shown here in her tent during her traverse of the Brooks Range in Alaska, had daily grizzly bear sightings for the first two weeks of her 51-day adventure. (Courtesy photo)