What does wilderness sound like?

A photographer and audio researchers document the soundscapes of remote national parks in Alaska.

  • At over 13,000 square miles, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska is the second largest national park in the United States, after Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Gates of the Arctic does not contain a single road, so most visitors access the park by bush plane. Here, Brooks Range Aviation pilot Garrett Heusser flies through the Brooks Range on the way to audio recording sites.

    Seth Adams
  • Some of the many lakes in the Alatna River Valley from the air. In the right rear of the photo is a classic oxbow lake, formed when a bend in the river was cut off from the main channel.

    Seth Adams
  • There are no suitable landing areas within the Arrigetch Peaks, so trips are multi-day ventures that involve hauling the audio recording equipment by hand. Heusser drops the researchers off at Circle Lake, an oxbow lake in the Alatna Valley, one of several landing areas used to access the Arrigetch.

    Seth Adams
  • Dan Walsh and Davyd Betchkal, of the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division in the Park Service’s wilderness program in Alaska, set up the recording station at Lake Omelaktavik after a rain squall passed.

    Seth Adams
  • Rain clouds retreat into the distance in the Noatak River Valley.

    Seth Adams
  • The aircraft, a 1957 de Havilland Beaver, waits on Lake Omelaktavik while Walsh and Betchkal set up the sound station. The model was no longer produced after 1967, making the newest Beavers over 50 years old. In spite of their age, Beavers are still a coveted bush plane and one of the primary workhorses of rural Alaska.

    Seth Adams
  • “Arrigetch,” in Iñupiat, means “fingers of the hand outstretched.” The summits, right to left, are Caliban, Ariel and Xanadu.

    Seth Adams
  • The recording station includes basic instruments to record weather data to give context to the sound files. Wind, for example, interferes with the audio recordings by pushing around the microphone and producing “pseudo noise.” Measuring the wind speed helps the researchers correct for distortion.

    Seth Adams
  • Betchkal and Walsh pose with their completed sound station in Arrigetch Creek. Wind direction data are also useful for understanding the recordings, as a breeze can “push” noise in one direction or another — for instance, if a babbling creek is upwind, it may be more easily audible than on a calm day.

    Seth Adams
  • The Arrigetch Valley has one major fork, where the Aquarius Valley splits off to the south. Water draining from the Aquarius Valley boosts upper Arrigetch Creek, particularly after the afternoon heat causes snowmelt.

    Seth Adams
  • Spring arrived late this year across Alaska, and in June ice and snow were still abundant in shady areas.

    Seth Adams
  • An unnamed lake in the north fork of the Aquarius Valley. Heusser, the bush pilot, thought he could land on this lake, but added that, “if I’m wrong, I’d have some explaining to do.”

    Seth Adams

 

We often see images depicting wilderness landscapes, but what do those places sound like? Among the hours and days of remote sound recordings they’ve collected in Alaska’s Arrigetch Basin, researchers Davyd Betchkal and Dan Walsh with the National Park Service have uncovered gems like this duet between a golden-crowned sparrow and an American robin.

The researchers, who are part of the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division in the Park Service’s wilderness program in Alaska, recorded another spike in sound after a thunderstorm passed through the region. A Lapland longspur bounced through the audial frame, singing a song to reclaim its territory after the chaos of the storm.

Recording devices can’t be air-dropped into remote locations. Instead, in order to document the wind, water, animals and rockslides of these places, Betchkal and Walsh fly in and hike to their target areas, where they set up devices that will record sound for two months. Two sets of data are gathered: the natural soundtrack, and human-generated noise like passing aircraft. The scientists have captured over 80,000 instances of human noises in natural spaces. Information on the duration, timing and amplitude of audible human disruptions to the wilderness soundscape provide a baseline from which to measure change.

The recordings show that these spaces are often free from human-generated noise for hours before a jet flies overhead or hikers cross a distant ridge. In Arrigetch Basin, the location where Betchkal and Walsh found the least amount of unnatural noise, 6 hours typically passed between bouts of human-created sounds.

Photographer Seth Adams joined the researchers on trips to two locations in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in June: Lake Omelaktavik, in the Noatak River Valley, and Arrigetch Creek, in the Arrigetch Peaks. His images reveal the dedication necessary to record the baseline levels of sound in Alaska’s wilderness. As Anchorage becomes busier — it’s the fourth largest air cargo port in the United States — it’s likely that the quiet solace of the natural landscape won’t last. Avian choruses, like this one made up of a Wilson’s snipe, American tree sparrow and Savannah sparrow, will be joined more and more often by the sound of air freighters.

— Luna Anna Archey, NewTowncarShare News associate photo editor, with reporting by Seth Adams