A Big Land
From Kaktovik we traveled west over land-fast sea ice to the mouth of the Hula-Hula River, then up river across the coastal plain, past the Saddlerochit Mountains and into the foothills of the Brooks Range. Rivers are the highway system of the Arctic. We traveled on the river ice as much as possible, but in a few places water moving over the ice forced us onto land, into the hills, bouncing over frozen tussocks and gravel bars to get back to the next section of good ice. It's rough country.
Two slow, grinding days put us at the place where Old Woman Creek and Old Man Creek meet the Hula Hula River, like perfectly opposite branches on a child's drawing of a tree they reach east and west through the foothills of the mountains. A beautiful spot but still twenty-some miles short of our intended destination at the Schrader Lakes. We set camp in a willow thicket that would be home for the next 6 days.
"This is a land big enough to hide 150,000 caribou," says Robert Thompson, as we pause on the striking, epic flat of the coastal plain. The jagged broken teeth of the Brooks Range punctuated the horizon. The scale of the north slope is incredible. It is immense. And Robert is right. This land is home to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, now estimated at 190,000 animals strong, and there are times when no one knows exactly where they all are.
To be clear, somebody always knows where some of them are. There are radio collared caribou; someone is keeping track. But the herd doesn't necessarily stay together as one contiguous group, in fact they rarely do. Like the rivers here that so easily slip the bonds of their banks and braid their way across the land, the caribou flow from mountain pass to coastal plain and back again, splitting and rejoining their course seemingly at random, constantly moving. Even their mass migration to the calving grounds on the coastal plain is notoriously hard to predict. Over the years, many scientists, photographers, and sight-seers have tried (sometimes at great effort and expense) to plant themselves in front of the oncoming herd and failed.
Despite what the oil companies would have you believe, the coastal plain is absolutely teeming with life. It is not the barren wasteland portrayed to congress by lobbyists and liars, many of whom have never even set foot on the coastal plain. The Gwich’in call it the sacred place from which life comes. In his book "Being Caribou" Karsten Heuer describes the magic of such abundant life as a "thrumming," an almost audible life force constantly surrounding you. Even in April when food is relatively scarce, the snow is webbed with tracks, the coming and going of so many living things drawn one on top of the other in the snow. Ptarmigan. Fox and wolf and wolverine. Caribou and sheep and moose. Grizzly bears. But even impressively big animals are not so easy to find in a massive land.
I'll admit that I am fairly disappointed with the wildlife photos I was able to get during my time in the Arctic. A tiny white dot in a white landscape, the mighty polar bear. A tiny red dot in a white landscape, the sly red fox. A small brown sphere in a white landscape, the elusive shrew. Ptarmigan are everywhere. But there are only so many ptarmigan photos you can take; white dots in a white landscape.
"It's not like the BBC," says Nancy Pfieffer, long-time Alaska resident, author, and wilderness guide. "Clients think they're going to see a pack of wolves taking down a caribou. They don't realize you could spend your whole life up here and never see something like that." I nod along as she says this. Of course. I know what she’s saying is true—knew it well before I even started planning for this trip. But if I'm being completely honest, deep down that's still exactly what I was hoping to see. Or at least something like it: a polar bear with two infant cubs, caribou walking along a ridge top outlined in midnight alpenglow, an arctic fox pouncing into sparkling snow after ground squirrels. I think that's what every photographer is hoping to catch. And I know not everyone gets one of those photos, but somebody gets it, right? Why couldn't it be me?
They say the universe gives you what you need, even if it's not always what you want. It would seem the Arctic vehemently believes that I need more humility, because that's the lesson it handed over and over. On this trip we went from plan A, to plan B, to C and D, and eventually arrived at living in the moment instead. We watched as mechanical issues, and weather, and changing ice shifted our path and plans. In the last days of the trip more water moving over the river ice (fast moving and more than a 18 inches deep in places) would turn us back from reaching another camp and send us back across the coastal plain a day early to avoid more difficult river crossings as more water came down stream. The best laid plans of mice and men, I suppose. It was hard—for me anyway—to let go of thinking we had control. But, in the end, I think that’s exactly why we need wild places.
By definition, wilderness is a place outside of our control. A truly wild place does what it does; keeps doing what it has always done, regardless of our presence. Cycles of life and death continue on uninterrupted by our meddling. We can not cue the caribou and polar bears, tell them when to enter stage left and give us a show. That’s part of the magic: the clear reminder that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. When we put our mark on the land—bend it to our will—we change that balance and the essence of wilderness is gone. It becomes something else. And while that new thing may still be beautiful and interesting it is fundamentally changed. Something is irreplaceable lost.
So, this is what I keep coming back to: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is still truly wild and we can keep it that way. It belongs to us collectively as a nation, a treasure held in common. The Refuge—and this is true for many of our other public lands—was not set aside for future generations to destroy. It was set aside to preserve in perpetuity. It is a place to keep safe, not just for our generation or maybe the next, but for all generations—for all people. It’s a place to see the wild beating heart of this continent, press your hand firmly against it, and feel a pulse. Places like that are increasingly rare. It’s our job—our moral obligation, even—to be good stewards, to pass down something unharmed for our children and the generations to follow. For a long time that concept of stewardship has been part of our national character, part of what it means to be an American. I was raised to believe in a United States that was strong enough to protect and preserve its lands. Have we really become so weak—so desperate and afraid—that we would allow the destruction of every last corner of this great land for the profit of a few? What happened to the home of the brave? I, for one, still believe in a United States that doesn’t bend to cowardice and greed. I believe in an American people who can stand tall and proudly defend our lands from those who would ruin them.
Join me in reminding our politicians that our public lands are not for sale, that we, the owners of those lands, are not considering offers—now or ever. One way to do that right now is to let your representative and senators know that you expect them to support the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. HR1146 already has 179 co-sponsors in the House and is waiting for introduction to the Senate. This is something easy we can do to protect the future of the refuge and the future of the Arctic as it is today.