I hate snow machines. Always have. They're loud. They reek of two-cycle. They chase away wildlife. And most of all, they tend to break down at precisely the most inconvenient times. BUT they can give you access to places that would otherwise be out of reach for a two week trip. With no roads in or out and snow cover from September until May, they are the obvious mode of transport in Kaktovik. Simply put, they are part of life in the far north.
And so, just like any farm to do list in Wisconsin begins with "Fix Tractor," any trip in the arctic begins with "Fix Snow Machine." I'm not a mechanic. Working on recoil starts and clutches and engines was among the most frustrating things I've done in a long time. At one point, I asked Roland—a friend of our host who was helping us get machines in order for our trip—if there was some trick to getting these started, something I was missing. He looked at me, red-faced and sweating through my jacket from hauling on the pull start over an over, looked down at the yellow ski-doo sitting dead in the snow between us, and said, "The trick is...you have to pull it until it starts," nodded and then walked away. Fair enough.
I'm proud to report that in the end, we met with at least marginal success. Enough anyway (along with a newer rented machine that would later break down as well), to get our group, our gear, and plenty of food out of town and into the backcountry, each machine towing a sled loaded with tents, food, fuel, and gear all wrapped up in a canvas tarp. Each sled also carried a rider who helped to keep the load tracked out straight behind the machine as we crossed the most rugged land I've ever seen.
From Kaktovik, we went west. Across land-fast sea ice and frozen lagoons to the mouth of the Hula Hula River and then turned, following the path of the river south across the coastal plain toward the Sadlerochit Mountains and the northern edge of the Brooks Range. We would ultimately spend 8 nights in the field, leaving a day earlier than planned as changing ice conditions on the river made travel increasingly difficult.
Now, at this point it’s important to note that the irony of using snow machines for this trip is not lost on me. To go see a far away place threatened by oil development via gas powered transportation is admittedly complicated. I get it. Each time I saw the cloud of blue exhaust that comes out of a cold engine when you first fire it up, I felt like a complete hypocrite. I felt the same way watching our plane refuel on the runway in Seattle. We are dependent on fossil fuel. That's a fact. And I'm not just pointing fingers at everyone else, we’re all in the same boat.
But here's the thing: I'm not saying we should never use fossil fuels. If we woke up tomorrow and decided not to use another drop of oil, we'd be totally f@#$%. Totally. We need to transition to alternative energy, ween ourselves off—a process that we've barely started and requires the continued use of some oil. It's going to take decades to complete that process and even then there may be smart uses of fossil fuel even into the far distant future. In the mean time, we need to use the resources we have judiciously.
Fortunately for the Arctic Refuge, there are other sources of these fossil fuels that don't require the whole sale destruction of the coastal plain. In fact, even inflated estimates of the oil reserves within the contested 1002 region aren't especially large compared to known reserves elsewhere in the United States, places already disrupted by development. The end product of drilling in the Refuge would represent only a tiny fraction of our national oil needs. Not to mention the US is actually exporting oil as we speak. In short, I don't want to hear a single peep from anyone wrapping themselves in our flag and claiming that this oil contributes to our independence. We don't need to choose between the Arctic Refuge and independence; we can easily have both.
Harvesting arctic oil comes at a high cost, namely the loss of this wilderness—one of the very few fully intact wild ecosystem in the US. From its apex predators down to it's smallest life forms, the arctic is still a complete system. A land intricately balanced. That's something we can't replace, no matter how much money or popular support we have. Once its gone, it's truly gone. But here’s the thing: we can simply choose not to destroy it—we have that power.
Big oil would have you believe that they can add major infrastructure to this land and not tip that balance. They are either hopelessly arrogant or tragically dim. Maybe both. Anyone who has seen Prudhoe Bay can tell you that oil extraction is not light on the land, or the native people who have lived there for countless generations. Seismic testing, drill platforms, militarized security protocols, and pipelines disrupt the natural rhythms of life and land in staggering ways, many of which we're still discovering.
So, long story short, why risk it? We have this wild and beautiful thing, this Refuge that belongs to all of us. And yes, it does contain a small amount of oil, but we don't actually need it. So let's just leave it alone. Keep this piece of wild intact. Seems like simple math to me. And here’s where you come in: tell your elected officials the same. Even if they don’t agree; maybe especially if they don’t agree. Tell everyone. We only get one shot at this. Make it count.