On a river trip in Alaska’s starkly beautiful Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reflections on what we’re willing to gamble for oil and money.
Up in the right-hand corner of Alaska, like something freezer-burned and half-remembered in the back of the national icebox, lies a place called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is the largest wildlife sanctuary in the United States. It is the size of South Carolina. It is also home to the country’s second-largest wilderness area. It has no roads, no marked trails, no developed campgrounds. The Coastal Plain, the narrow strip where the refuge meets the sea, is home to more diversity of life than almost anywhere else in the Arctic. It is the kind of place where you can pull back the tent flap with a mug of coffee in hand, as I did one morning in June, and watch a thousand caribou trot past.
The animals came slowly at first, by twos and by threes, and tentatively, lifting their black noses to catch the strange scent of 10 unbathed campers. Then they tacked across the river. Near the front was a bull with a rack big enough to place-kick a football through its uprights. Mostly they were females in dun coats, serious mothers leading coltish calves that slid and played on the snowfields that still collared the tundra’s low places. Ungainly in looks, but a natural for work — each hoof a snowshoe, with hollow fur for warmth and to buoy them across gelid Arctic rivers. The calves had been born three or four days ago. Already they could walk farther in a day than a human.
The few caribou became dozens. They materialized by the hundred out of the heat-shimmer that rose off the tundra, like those lawmen bringing hot justice in old Sergio Leone films. Confident in their numbers, they surged past the encampment, urged by some twitch in the marrow to keep pushing toward the coast where ocean breezes would scatter the mosquitoes and bot flies that soon would torment them. We watched for a long time, not wanting to move and disturb anything.
“This,” someone whispered, “is sacred.”
In late 2017, a Congress controlled by Republicans badly wanted to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. To help win the crucial vote of Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican senator from Alaska, the Senate added a sweetener, a provision that opened to oil drilling the refuge’s Coastal Plain, a roughly Delaware-size piece of ground where the Brooks Range reclines and the tundra tilts toward the Arctic Ocean like the baize of an old pool table.
Most of the country thinks that’s wrongheaded. Seventy percent of American voters oppose drilling on the refuge, a survey by Yale University’s Center on Climate Change Communication found at the time. They don’t want oil drilling where these calves had just been born, and where they now walked, and where wolf and bear and wolverine stalk them, and where threatened polar bears find respite in a melting world, and where more than 200 species of birds have been recorded, including many that brighten your day in the Lower 48, from the tundra swans that head to the Chesapeake, to the mallards that hunters stalk in Arkansas.
Fights such as the one over the refuge are, for most of us, abstractions — tussles over lines on a map of a place we will never see, and will never know. I was tired of this. I wanted to see this place. I wanted to see what we still have, and what we are willing to gamble, for money and for oil.
Getting on Arctic time
North of Fairbanks, the country seems to get bigger and the planes get smaller. Our four-seater arrows north, into the Brooks Range. The pilot finds a notch between mountains and sets us down on a cobbled bar beside water that’s the scuffed green of a dime-store gemstone: the Hulahula River. We transfer to a second plane, smaller still, that swoops down and deposits us downstream. We are 10, in all — a lawyer and his son, a retired teacher, retired doctors and avid birders, Libby and Victor — all here for nine days to float the river for about 90 miles on its course through the Coastal Plain, until, exhausted, the river empties itself into the Beaufort Sea.
But first, mountains. We set up camp in a great scoop of valley and wander, dazed at the sudden change of scenery after Fairbanks. The Brooks Range in summer disorients the newcomer: The rivers run north. The sun seems to rise there, too, after “setting” briefly behind the peaks each night. So far north, the mountains wear no trees at all, but instead are stripped bare, showing off the veinwork of their naked flanks. They are not so bare as they seem. What lives here grows low — lichen, moss campion in purple pillows and Arctic poppies whose dish-flowers track the sun.
The lead guide with the outfitter Arctic Wild, Andrew George, is 39 and from Dallas, but has more Alaska in him than most Alaskans born here. Each summer he runs a fish wheel on the Yukon River with his wife to cache and smoke salmon for winter, when he runs trap lines with his dog team. On his last job, he says, he was paid in gold.
At dinner Mr. George has a message for us. “We’re going to be on Arctic time,” he says. “We’ll eat when we’re hungry. Hike when we want to. Move when we got to move.”
By mid-June the Hulahula River, named by whalers after the Hawaiian dance, is not a deep river nor does it usually pose, for the experienced boater, exceptional challenges. But it is fast and its waters are a life-taking cold. The night before shoving off, the nervous and the curious among us pass around topographic maps of the week’s route, marked in esoteric shorthand with the accumulated wisdom of past guides.
“Class IV scout + portage if necessary run at high water”
“Tight + Rocky”
“Lots of Aufeis”
All we really need to know, though, is to paddle north. To the plain.
The next morning, Patrick Henderson — assistant guide, expert boater and a great chef — whips up Spam musubi, an Hawaiian snack of grilled Spam atop a neat brick of rice, wrapped in nori. We wrestle into drysuits. The guides cinch hard on the straps of life preservers. (“You can’t drown if you can’t breathe!”) We push off in a cold spitting rain, drifting over quick green water. Restive with its course, the river chews at its banks, sending clumps of wildflowers into the water.
Mr. Henderson rams our raft into the shore and motions for quiet. Two football fields distant stands a musk ox, chewing on grass. We pile out to snap photos. The ox turns. Stamps. Nothing says “get back in the boat” like a 600-pound bovid covering ground, fast.
We drift on. There are caribou tracks on the shore, and wolf tracks that follow the caribou tracks.
“What time is it?” somebody asks.
“The time is now,” Mr. George replies.
We drift and paddle and drift more. Faced with the unceasing light of an Arctic June, time loses shape. The tyranny of the alarm clock is replaced by a fainter pulse, usually lost to us nowadays: the rhythm of natural places. We eat later and later, and take meandering walks in the convalescent light of midnight.
One night after spaghetti, Mr. George suggests that, with the weather so fair, we break camp and paddle all night, out of the mountains and into the foothills. A few hours later, Dall sheep watch us splash through rapids from the grandstand of canyon walls. A moose startles. The sun drops behind those walls. The world, and lips, turn a shivery blue. Finally, the mountains release the river. The sun splashes us with caramel light and reviving warmth. “Morning is a place around here,” one of the guides says. We pull to shore at Old Man Creek, where the guides cook breakfast hash and we collapse on shore, only waking when the afternoon sun heats the tent.
‘Welcome to the Arctic Plain’
On the seventh morning the last foothills bow out. The land becomes as flat as a tabletop. The final rapid throws a slap of 45-degree water to the cheek. Call it a baptism. “Welcome to the Arctic Plain,” Mr. George says, standing in the stern of our raft like a Mississippi boatman.
So this is what all the fighting is about.
For almost a half-century, the stretch of land between mountains and sea here has been a sanctuary with an asterisk. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which greatly expanded the original wildlife range; designated most of it as wilderness, off-limits to development; and renamed the whole place the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress did not include the 1.57-million-acre Coastal Plain, but directed in Section 1002 that the area continue to be studied. For nearly 50 years a battle has been waged between those who think drilling in the so-called 1002 Area is Alaska’s birthright and can be done well — the oil industry, many of Alaska’s politicians, the native corporations that would see needed funds from drilling — and those who say the place is too valuable for other reasons, and also too wild, to drill.
No one knows how much oil is under this ground. Only one exploratory well was drilled, decades ago, its results a secret. An investigation by The Times found those results disappointing. The federal government’s last estimate was that a mean 7.7 billion barrels of feasibly recoverable oil may lie under the 1002 Area, or the amount of petroleum the United States uses in one year. But opening up the area might also eventually open Native Alaskan areas for drilling, and make adjacent state lands more profitable to drill, if new pipelines and other infrastructure are built.
The 2017 tax law that opened the refuge to potential oil development requires a minimum of two lease sales in the refuge of at least 400,000 acres each. One must be held by the end of 2021, the second by 2024.
But a draft of the required environmental study released earlier this year by the Bureau of Land Management, the author and the agency that oversees drilling on public lands, contained mistakes in basic ecology and didn’t seriously look at climate change’s effect on permafrost. That’s according to nearly 60 pages of corrections and additions to the study that were proposed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages the refuge. The study even mentions a river that doesn’t exist, pointed out Michael Wald, a co-owner of Arctic Wild. Environmental groups have vowed to challenge the study, and any drilling approval.
Proponents have pitched drilling as a windfall to the United States Treasury — $1.8 billion, by an early White House estimate. But a Times analysis has found it may yield as little as $45 million over the next decade, or less than 3 percent of what’s been sold to the public.
What we do know is the area’s natural value. During the brief, frenetic Arctic summer, millions of waterfowl and shorebirds use the Coastal Plain here before dispersing to every state in the union, and almost every continent. Two dozen of them are birds of “management concern” by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Some are in even more trouble.
Even closer to the coast are polar bears, listed as “threatened’’ under the Endangered Species Act. The population of polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea has declined 40 percent in recent years, thanks largely to impacts related to its shrinking sea-ice habitat. Now these bears increasingly use the Coastal Plain, where females first raise their newborn cubs.
Steven Amstrup, who for three decades was head of the federal government’s polar bear research program and now is head of Polar Bears International, has urged against energy development here. So have the 200 Alaskan members of the Wildlife Society, a professional group of wildlife biologists and managers.
An unending circuit of caribou
And then there are the caribou. The previous day, from our camp on the boundary of the 1002 Area, we watched as hundreds fed on cottongrass and willow buds. We spent the day stalking them with cameras. They always edged farther away, as if they knew the limits of an amateur’s telephoto lens.
Few Americans probably realize that their nation possesses one of the world’s great migrations. Although there are variations, mostyears the 218,000 animals of the Porcupine herd of barren-ground caribou move in an unending circuit — from the south side of the Brooks Range; around the eastern and southern side of the mountains; then westward in late spring onto the Coastal Plain to drop their calves. They spend the summer fattening up on tundra plants. Then they reverse course. These caribou are the original commuters. A female will walk 2,700 miles in a year, on average.
The Coastal Plain has all of this — the birds, the bears, the caribou. It is still a place that can say its own name.
A week earlier, we had briefly landed at Arctic Village, a native Gwich’in village outside the refuge’s southern boundary. The Gwich’in are against drilling. The caribou forever have walked past Arctic Village on their circuit, and their meat has fed the Gwich’in, David Smith, the second chief, told me. Where the caribou are born — where the drilling might happen — his people do not even go, he said. “This is kind of where life begins,” he said. “It’s God’s place.”
An energy industry representative told me that oil and caribou can mix, that it has been done before with success elsewhere on the North Slope.
That’s misleading, countered Ken Whitten, who, for many years, was Alaska’s lead state biologist for the Porcupine herd. Yes, caribou inhabit some areas around Prudhoe Bay, where the pipeline begins. But studies around the oil fields have found that pregnant females will avoid development. As development increased, calving caribou were pushed southward where the food wasn’t as nutritious, resulting in the mothers having lower-weight calves.
These problems will likely be exacerbated in the refuge, said Mr. Whitten. A 2002 report by him and others predicted that extensive oil development would probably stop the growth of the herd, and perhaps worse. “We don’t think there’s any way you can have a large oil development on the 1002 and not have adverse effect on caribou.”
Another caribou expert told me that they simply don’t know for certain what will happen when pipelines and drill pads are introduced into a valuable habitat. While some caribou will walk miles to avoid a road, said Lincoln Parrett, regional research coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, others have noted that caribou in some places do acclimate to low-density development.
Treeless, flat and far from desolate
Caribou line the shore as our rafts drift onto the plain. They lift their snouts and hunt the air for a memory that tells them whether to run. But they do not run, at first. And we drift close, staring at one another across a moat of ice water.
The sun rides its circuit above camp. The days heat up. June will be the second-warmest June on record in Alaska. In our bags, the chocolate is melting.
Over the next several days we camp and float and camp again, occasionally taking long walks across the lumpy mattress of the tundra.
The Coastal Plain confounds a first-time visitor. It is too big. It is too treeless, too flat. The pancakes at breakfast had more relief. Trying to make sense of things, I head out with Libby and Victor, expert birders. Cast your eyes downward, their actions say. Where there are no trees, the ground is full of life. Scoops in the dirt are a sign that a grizzly bear has rooted out a ground squirrel. A twitch among the tussocks is a buff-breasted sandpiper, flown in from winter vacation in Uruguay.
“There’s a Baird’s!” Libby says, pointing out a Baird’s sandpiper. “That’s the one that winters in the high Andes, after raising its babies here.” It has made a nest for four speckled eggs on a gravel shore of the river. We wonder at the tenacity of having come so far to place such a fragile bet.
“The Arctic Plain is really nothing,” Don Young, Alaska’s representative, said during a 2011 Congressional hearing on the refuge. “It is not the heart. It is the most desolate part of the area.”
‘Desolate!” we say each time a snowy owl lifts off in search of a lemming.
“Nothing here!” we call out to one another as the next herd of caribou shimmers into view. We know better than to chase them, now. And we wait, patiently, for their arrival.
The sun is high. My watch is dead. It is exactly the time it is supposed to be.
(Christopher Solomon, a 2019 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, was the 2018 Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year.)