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It could’ve been only one animal that nimble on the north slope of the Brooks Range in Northeastern Alaska. A Dall sheep ram had hoofed its way out onto an extremely precarious perch in the shadows of a deep gorge overlooking the Upper Marsh Fork River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
While gazing upward, we spun around in our four-person raft, paddling through class III rapids, when we got a great look at North America’s largest sheep species. Shortly after passing through the gorge, I jumped out of the raft, thrashed through willows teeming with horseflies and mosquitoes to work my way above and behind the stout, cotton-colored sheep. I found an opening at the top of the gorge and scrambled downward to within 30 feet of the ram. He gazed up at me seemingly without worry, then stood up and stretched before traversing back across the cliff to an awaiting ewe.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located in northeastern Alaska. It consists of nearly 19.3 million acres in the Alaska North Slope region. The roadless expanse is the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the country. Friends Truman Boren, Chris van Hook and Alaskan guide/photographer Carl Donohue and I were in the midst of a two-week, 160-mile rafting trip to explore this pristine wilderness, the last 5 percent of Northern Alaska currently not open to oil drilling.
The craggy peaks of the Brooks Range along the Upper Marsh Fork.
Beyond the Upper Marsh Fork, we also connected with and paddled the Canning and Staines Rivers, bouncing off dense gravel bars, ducking beneath spindly willow thickets and dodging thick ice packs until we were clear of the Brooks Range, and nothing but flat coastal plain unfolded before us to the Arctic Ocean.
The region first became federally protected in 1960, ordered by Fred Andrew Seaton, Secretary of the Interior under U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and an expanse of 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain was added. That region is known as “1002 area,” and Congressional authorization is required before oil drilling in this area can commence. Characterized by desolate barrier islands and ghostly ice floes, the question of whether to drill for oil in the ANWR has been an ongoing political controversy in the United States since 1977. Much of the debate over whether to drill in the “1002 area” of the ANWR rests on the amount of economically recoverable oil, as it relates to world oil markets, weighed against the potential harm that oil exploration may have upon the fragile habitat and the wildlife that occupies it, in particular the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. The remaining 10.1 million acres of the refuge are designated as “minimal management,” meaning that this portion of the refuge remains untouched.
There are currently no roads within or leading into the refuge. There are, however, a few scattered Native American settlements within the refuge. On the northern fringe of the refuge is the Inupiat village of Kaktovik (population 258) and on the southern boundary the Gwich’in settlement of Arctic Village (population 152). Generally, the 1,500 or so visitors who venture into the ANWR each year gain access to the refuge by bush plane, but it is also possible to reach the refuge by boat or by walking. (The Dalton Highway passes near the western edge of the refuge.) The refuge supports a broad variety of flora and fauna, more than any other protected area in the Arctic Circle.
Navigating down the Canning River can be tricky while avoiding dense
icepacks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Along the northern coast of the refuge, the barrier islands, coastal lagoons, salt marshes and river deltas of the Arctic coastal tundra provide habitat for migratory birds, including seabirds, waterfowl and shorebirds. Coastal plains, river valleys and sea ice are utilized by caribou seeking relief from mosquitoes during summer, and by polar bears hunting seals and giving birth in snow dens during winter.
The Arctic coastal plain stretches southward from the coast to the foothills of the Brooks Range. This area of rolling hills, small lakes and ponds and north-flowing, braided rivers is dominated by extensive tundra vegetation consisting of low shrubs, sedges and mosses. Caribou travel to the coastal plain during June and July to give birth and raise their teary-eyed calves. Migratory birds and insects flourish here during the brief Arctic summer, soaking in the sun that never dips below the horizon. Tens of thousands of snow geese stop here during September to feed before migrating south, and shaggy musk oxen live here year-round.
The daunting Brooks Range rises more than 9000 feet. This northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains marks the Continental Divide, with north-flowing rivers emptying into the Arctic Ocean and south-flowing rivers joining the mighty Yukon River. The rugged mountains of the Brooks Range are incised by deep river valleys, creating a range of elevations and aspects that support a variety of low tundra vegetation, dense shrubs, rare groves of poplar trees on the north side and spruce on the south. During the summer, peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons and golden eagles build nests on craggy cliffs. Harlequin and long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers are seen on swift-flowing rivers. Brazen Arctic terns made many attempts dive bombing us while rafting the various rivers. Dall sheep and wolves are active all year, while grizzly bears and arctic ground squirrels are frequently seen during summer and hibernate in the winter.
There are approximately 130,000 caribou in ANWR,
some of which can be seen roaming the Arctic tundra alone.
Nomination for Alaska’s state bird
Icy winds blowing off the Arctic Ocean were the only relief from billions, probably trillions of swarming mosquitoes. Before I arrived in the ANWR, I heard they were as big as hummingbirds. Not sure how many mosquitoes I swallowed over the two weeks, as they reluctantly became a staple of my diet on the tundra. They clung to us every time we beached our raft, making it tough to simply breathe. Changing out of wet clothes, shivering in the arctic air while being chowed upon, was a flurry of spray jackets, dry pants and down jackets. Our tents became our sanctuaries, but a strategy was needed every time we climbed in and out of them.
I tried sprinting to my tent, then diving in. I tried ripping off my down jacket as fast as I could, shaking it, and then climbing into my tent. Both strategies failed miserably on nearly every attempt. It seemed as though I had a minimum of 50 mosquitoes in my tent every time I dove in or climbed out. It would take me a good 30 minutes to kill them all before getting inside my sleeping bag to lie down. They were so dense at times that it sounded like rain outside, but it was simply mosquitoes pelting my tent. Sometimes I would simply wipe my legs of mosquitoes, so many that they would quickly transform to this black gunky slime.
Just so you know I’m not exaggerating, there are approximately 130,000 caribou in ANWR, and if you take the bio mass of mosquitoes and compare it to the bio mass of the caribou, the entire mosquito population outweighs that of the caribou population. The caribou try to stand in the rivers and on the thick ice packs to gain some much needed relief. They even force caribou herds to stampede as the herbivores can’t stand having them caked inside their ears, snouts and eyes. It’s no wonder there were more caribou on the coastal plain than anywhere else in ANWR. Like the caribou, we sought relief on the breezy coastal plain.
I’ve never been somewhere that was so vast and so flat. After a long evening of paddling, we left the Brooks Range in our wake, and stroked into the expanse of ANWR’s coastal plain. It was time to find a reasonably dry place to pitch a tent, a challenging task on the carpet of spongy, moist tundra. We were closing in on the Arctic Ocean — still a full day’s paddle away — and we could feel a chilly ocean breeze blowing up the Staines River.
The tundra was spongy and dry patches were hard to come by. Tussock grasses made finding a flat patch nearly impossible, but I was fine with lumpy and dry as opposed to flat and wet. Eventually my tent was pitched just in time for the ocean breeze blew itself out, and I was comfortably inside before the swarm of mosquitoes ruined my only timely entry.
While paddling the coastal plain, we smelled musk ox several times but saw none. We also smelled death but couldn’t locate a carcass. Likely a caribou, but what was feeding on it? Later we would learn.
We paddled on, staying to the far left. “The bush pilot told me to stay in the channels to the left of the Staines,” said Donohue. “If we had paddled to the right we’d run into a massive bog.”
I got out of the raft and mud oozed between my toes. Five caribou — two females and three calves were browsing above us at the end of the Staines River, a mere stone’s throw from the Arctic Ocean.
“Maybe the caribou herds and other wildlife would adjust,” Donohue said. “But who wants to see oil drilling in this pristine environment?”
We were 110 miles west of the Canadian border. I recalled reading somewhere that there are an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil along the coastal plain of the ANWR, that 95 percent of northern Alaska is open to oil drilling. The ANWR is arguably the last of the last frontier. No roads scarring these Alaskan wilds, no helicopters flying in to check drill sites. If you can’t reach the ANWR on foot, than paddling is the way to go. It’s swifter, less taxing and anticipation always mounted at what lay around the next bend in the runnel. But on one extremely clear day, that mystery was quelled by the faint sounds of a drum carryied across the coastal plain by a northwest wind. After scrambling up a bluff and peering through my binoculars, I could see three towering oil drills 20 miles to the west at Point Thompson.
For 10 days we hadn’t seen a soul, no signs of man’s imprint, and then on the coastal plain the region’s greatest threat loomed not far to the west. Fortunately my attention was easily diverted by an arctic ground squirrel darting between my tripod and its den. Tundra swans, a sandhill crane and a red phalarope waded and waddled across the tundra and cobalt blue ponds. An arctic fox scurried along the banks of the Staines River. We also came across a downtrodden 1930s cemetery, a Russian family buried on a mound, the animals having dug up one of the graves, a femur protruding out of the frigid earth.
Also located on the coastal plain just east of the mouth of the Staines River is Bird Camp. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service keeps a biologist on the coastal plain to monitor the bird nesting season from late May through late July each year. That camp is surrounded by electrical fence to keep the bears at bay. We also learned what had been feeding on that caribou carcass three miles up the river.
“You just missed a polar bear by four days,” said Scott, the scruffy-bearded biologist. “It wandered upriver smelling that carcass from the coast.”
The next day I walked for about 20 miles hoping to spot a polar bear. Once across the uneven tundra, I escaped out to a long, narrow barrier island, a graveyard of bleached driftwood, skeletons and animal tracks. The sandy isle was a good food source for scavenging animals, and then I found polar bear tracks.
As I followed those detailed prints, ice floes gradually floated on the Arctic Ocean, some cracking and collapsing, the ocean a bright aqua blue. Bands of migratory birds whizzed on by as I continued following bear tracks for more than a mile before they vanished across the tundra. A manic caribou trotted in front of me, snorting as it crossed in front of my camera. I turned to my right where dark clouds and fog loomed across from the coastal plain out to the Brooks Range. My tent was several miles away, soon to be my sanctuary for an 18-hour deluge. That lone caribou was soon a dot on the horizon, it too seeking cover somewhere on Alaska’s open space.
For rafting trips into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, contact Expeditions Alaska at (770) 952-4549, www.expeditionsalaska.com.
Alaska became the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959.
Capital – Juneau
Largest city is Anchorage.
Alaska is 656,425 square miles; it is the biggest state in the USA.
Population – 731,449 (2013 estimate) [Alaska is the 47th most populous state in the USA]
Alaska’s major Industry is oil (petroleum).
Alaska’s highest point is Mt. McKinley at 20,320 feet (6,194 m) above sea level; this is the highest point in the USA.
Origin of the Name Alaska: The word Alaska is from the Aleut Indian word “alaxsxaq” or “agunalaksh” that mean the mainland or shore.
State nickname is The Last Frontier.
State motto is “North To The Future.”
During the summer, Alaska has 24 hours of daylight.
During the winter, Alaska has 24 hours of night.
Alaska has 3 million lakes.
Only 5 percent of Northern Alaska is not open to oil drilling.