Getting to the Arctic
"Barter Island, as promised," says the pilot, climbing out from behind the controls and dropping the side door down to the gravel runway. In lieu of an airport, a small blue bus is pulling onto the runway to meet us.
"A promise easily broken," says Jennifer Reed in a quiet, dry tone. Reed is the Public Use Manager for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and by chance one of the passengers on our eight-seat flight to Kaktovik (sometimes written Qaaktugvik), the small coastal village on Barter Island. A frequent traveler here, she's joined on this trip by Refuge Manager Steve Berendzen, Park Ranger Will Wiese, and another independent contractor. As we cleared the mountain rampart of the Brooks Range and soared over the coastal plain she was marking edits in the US Fish and Wildlife Polar Bear Source Book—a document I read in full no less than three times in preparation for this trip. I am curious to know her changes, but too shy to ask.
Many flights to these remote northern airstrips are delayed or diverted due to inclement weather. High winds, fog, snow. All three. Here, the driver of that rough weather is the Beaufort Sea. Weather rolls in from this marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean and, with virtually no change in elevation from sea ice to tundra, batters the settlements on this northern coast.
On our departing flight two weeks later we would stop to pickup another passenger at Fort Yukon, where a cross-wind would force a skewed approach to the runway and some quick last minute maneuvers. This was all deftly executed by two pilots who appeared to be younger than several of the clothing items I packed for this trip. I doubt our landing would even stand out as unique to them—I'm certain they have flown in far worse—but after bumping down the runway and stopping in front of the pole building that serves as a terminal, Charly would look across the narrow aisle with eyebrows slightly raised and say, "well, that was sporty."
All this to point out, that just getting to and from the Arctic is not super easy. To be clear, it's markedly better than the days of Franklin's Lost Expedition, but it's still safe to say its the edge of the map. I'm not being hyperbolic; Kaktovik is literally the far northern edge of the continent. On most maps (when marked) it's followed by a little blue area labeled "Beaufort Sea," and then the margin.
Therein lies one of the biggest challenges to protecting this place from the greedy, wandering eyes of big oil: almost no one goes there. And, realistically, that's not going to change. In some ways, that may actually be its best defense. But how do you give people a connection to a place they've never been, and probably never will? How do you convince a weary public that such a place, held in trust for the people of this great nation, has value beyond the tiny supply of fossil fuel hidden beneath the fragile skin of the tundra?
My hope is that my photos can help, that they can give you a vision of a land you may never see and convince you of its value as an untouched wilderness rather than oil field. These images are not the first of their kind or the best, but they do represent one more piece in the body of evidence that supports the Arctic Refuge's claim as one of America's few remaining patches of true wilderness—a distinction that once destroyed can never be rebuilt. Now is our chance to preserve this wild and rugged land, to pass it on unharmed for future generations.