In August 2014, the Anchorage Museum sent a visual artist, a poet, curator, educator and a filmmaker into the Arctic desert — Kobuk Valley National Park, one of the least-visited national parks in the United States — to discover its distinguishing characteristics, its role in the lives of residents who border it, and to experience why it has become a center for research into the potential for life on Mars.

Distinct in the entire Arctic, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes offer a stark contrast to the surrounding, encroaching northern boreal forest. Twenty-five square miles of crescent-shaped, 100-foot tall dunes remain exposed, created by strong easterly winds that deposited loose sand left by extinct glaciers. Characterized by extreme temperatures and a desert’s aridity, the dunes only receive 10 inches of annual precipitation.

The museum team spent time in Kotzebue, on the shore of the Chukchi Sea, and the village of Kiana, before traveling by bush plane into the dunes. Nearly half a million caribou migrate yearly across the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. No roads lead to the park, and subsistence hunters travel by boat up the Kobuk River from Kotzebue and other villages to hunt caribou. Though people have hunted there for 8,000 years, few people make the trek from the river to the dunes themselves.

The team interviewed Native and non-Native subsistence users and National Park Service personnel to explore the convergences between scientific, traditional, and commercial land uses.

Visual artist Betany Porter and poet Jeremy Pataky worked to observe and capture, while minding their status as outsiders in the region. Museum science educator Maggie Ewan studied the flora, fauna, and geology and documented her findings. Curator Carolyn Kozak studied the human story of the park. Filmmaker Travis Gilmour shot and edited a travelogue film about the expedition.

The film premiered at the Anchorage Museum in September 2014, in conjunction with the Museum’s Arctic Desert exhibition.