A Journey Into the Heart of Alaska’s Pristine and Imperiled Arctic Refuge

Paddling along the refuge's coastal plain reveals how oil development threatens one of the nation's last truly wild places.

“The seasons are in disarray,” Robert Thompson tells us, shrugging apologetically. It’s early July, and Thompson, an Iñupiaq guide and environmentalist, has invited our team of six to use his house in Kaktovik as the staging point for a nine-day canoe expedition into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

We’d planned to launch from Kaktovik, the northeastern most settlement in Alaska, and paddle along the Beaufort Sea. For decades the warming climate has made these coastal waters increasingly ice-free and navigable from midsummer to early fall. But this year the ice shows no signs of retreating, except on the side of the barrier islands closest to the village.

Ours was a bittersweet assignment: We’d come to see and understand what the country and the world stand to lose if America’s largest and most pristine wildlife refuge is opened to oil drilling. Since the Arctic Refuge was designated in 1980, it has dodged several attempts to remove protections for a 1.5-million-acre swath known as the 1002 Area, which covers most of its coastal plain and has been estimated to contain as much as 11.8 billion barrels of oil. But in December of 2017 Congress approved a tax-overhaul bill that opens the area to drilling, despite opposition from 70 percent of American voters. Federal agencies are rushing through permitting and lease-sale processes, even as scientists warn that oil exploration and extraction will irreparably damage this fragile and critical habitat.

As one of the most intact ecosystems in the United States, the refuge hosts more than 200 species of birds that migrate there from all 50 states and 6 continents.

The route we’d planned would take us along the shoreline of a place that is well known to wildlife lovers but rarely visited. As one of the most intact and virtually untouched ecosystems in the United States, the refuge hosts more than 200 species of birds that migrate there from all 50 states and 6 continents; more than half breed here during the Arctic summer. Among the 47 land and marine mammal species found here are some 200,000 caribou, which can migrate more than 3,000 miles per year—the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal on the planet.

By late afternoon Kaktovik’s harbor is ice-free as far as our eyes can see, so we launch into a low fog with the hope that a shifting wind will push the ice away from shore. The latest weather report predicted rain at 1 a.m., but the drizzle begins as soon as we approach the harbor mouth, where a shipwrecked World War II landing craft is guarded by a quartet of Long-tailed Ducks. Ahalik, ahalik, the birds cackle, heckling us with the call that serves as their onomatopoeic name in the Iñupiaq language. The ducks breed in wetlands here and then winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America.

Thompson had suggested we charter a bush plane, which would allow us to go farther and see more. But aside from a tight budget and concerns about releasing even more carbon than our incoming flights already had, we wanted to experience the refuge on its own terms, under our own power. This, after all, is a landscape like no other, in whose extremes so many species find sanctuary on a knife edge. To truly learn what is at stake in the Arctic Refuge, we needed to be on the ground and on the water, where they are.

Our plan to explore the coast in three small canoes seemed a logical, if dicey, proposition. “If a polar bear doesn’t get you, a big wave might,” Thompson tells us, adding a polar bear killed a man in the Canadian Arctic two days before our arrival.

Over the past decade, Kaktovik has become famous as the “polar bear capital of the United States.” Between August and October, hundreds of visitors show up to observe and photograph dozens of bears, which are drawn to the village to scavenge the remains of bowhead whales that the local people butcher and afterward haul to a small sand spit.

Though the tourism has been a boon to some Kaktovik residents, the phenomenon reveals the desperation of the bears. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on Earth, at more than twice the rate of the global average, and the bears’ habitat is changing more rapidly than they can evolve. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform for hunting ringed seals; with the ice shrinking to record levels, some now roam far north—one radio-collared bear swam more than 400 miles—for a suitable platform, while others look for feeding opportunities on shore.

This summer’s anomalous ice cover would, theoretically, encourage the bears to stay out on the ice, rather than on the beaches and barrier islands where we plan to camp. “But the bears are getting unpredictable,” Thompson says. “And so is everything else.”

Snow cover along Alaska’s north coast also lingered unseasonably long this year, posing a problem for shorebirds whose journeys are timed to coincide with the brief northern summer. A late melt can delay nesting and likely reduces nest density, which scientists documented in species such as Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, Red Phalaropes, American Golden-Plovers, and Long-billed Dowitchers in 2018.

Any avian shortfall is not apparent from the perspective of our canoes. We paddle among breeding pairs of Tundra Swans, groups of Black Scoters, and a single Slaty-backed Gull, a native of northeastern Asia that’s only an occasional visitor to Alaska’s north coast. Common Loons are rare this far north, but there are plenty of Pacific Loons; we see groups of up to six. We also spot a few Yellow-billed Loons, large and relatively rare divers whose population in Alaska is estimated at fewer than 10,000.

Bundled against the elements, we spend our first two days paddling through cold drizzle and sleet, searching the blustery skies for ephemeral bits of blue. Peering over the low barrier islands, we see great jumbles of ice pressing against the ocean side. We make landfall at an island surrounded by flotillas of Common Eiders and drag the canoes across the tracks of wolves, foxes, and polar bears whose rear-paw prints stretch 10 inches across. We split up to investigate the sea duck colony and scout for a campsite.

Eider nests are everywhere among driftwood that has floated in from rivers to the east. Because they’ve built their nests just above the waterline, eiders may be vulnerable to oil spills and other water-borne pollution, as well as rising seas that will eventually inundate low-lying islands like this one. We take care not to disturb the heavy-bodied hens, which have padded their nests with beds of eiderdown, perhaps the world’s warmest and lightest natural insulator.

Peering across the narrow island, I see Steve Hossack, a Yukon-based reporter and videographer, ducking his head as a trio of Arctic Terns dive-bombs him. These long-distance champs see more sunshine than any other birds on Earth as they follow the summer from one polar region to the other. Though much of their range is isolated from human activities, the shore-nesting birds are not immune to the effects, in particular sea-level rise.

The terns are not pleased to see us. Their harsh cries are remarkably similar to the air horns we’ve brought to warn of bear sightings—so similar, in fact, that I don’t immediately realize that Colleen Dubois, a photographer from New Hampshire, is frantically blasting hers. I finally see her waving her arms and trotting toward the canoes. Behind her, maybe 300 yards away, a massive white bear shambles from one eider nest to the next, gobbling up eggs.

What happens next is part panic, part improv comedy, as we speed-walk to the canoes, making quick stops to turn and fire photos of the marauding giant. Converging on the boats with cameras clicking, everyone barks orders at everyone else—Get the bowline! Throw in my dry bag! Just leave the tripod! We watch the bear rear up, sniff, and peer in our direction. Returning to all fours, it quickens its pace.

We slide the canoes into the water, jump in, and take a few quick backstrokes. Safely away, we watch the magnificent predator pass. Peter Mather, the Whitehorse, Yukon-based photographer whose tripod is still on the beach, finally breaks the silence: “I think we’d better find another place to camp.”

We retrieve the gear and paddle across the frothed-up sound, heading for the mainland. A strong crosswind tosses murky waves against our canoes. A few splash over the gunwales, leaving us wet, worn out, and a little spooked by the crossing. We poke along the shore for hours but find nothing but a sprawling marsh of waterlogged peat and tundra.

Researchers think indigenous people of the far north have evolved unique genetic mechanisms that slow the body’s production of fatty acids and lower the levels of cholesterols linked to heart disease, allowing them to remain healthy on a fat-and-protein diet. Warm-weather outsiders like us—as well as whalers, hunters, fur trappers, and other would-be exploiters—haven’t fared as well. All along the coast are signs of their brief and often hapless habitations. We come across the ruins of cabins and whaling camps. We see gravesites marked with weathered wooden planks—faint etchings list the years of death as 1922 and 1933—and coffins that have been ejected by the melting permafrost and split open; one is surrounded by bones and a sun-bleached skull.

Finally, we find a campsite: an elevated beach backed with well-drained tundra, a clear brook, and plenty of drifted-in firewood. Just after midnight, as we’re finishing dinner, the wind drops and the sun slips out from behind the clouds. Its rays warm us and paint the coastal plain and its backdrop of mountains with magnificent golden light. “I feel,” says Wendy Morrison, a writer from Whitehorse, “like we’ve arrived at the end of the world.”

We awaken late the next morning to the back-and-forth croaking of a pair of Sandhill Cranes. Outside the tents, yesterday’s gray chill has been replaced by blue sky, blooming wildflowers, butterflies, and supersize bumblebees. We stow our dry suits and paddle east, watching the pent-up spring emerge on the tundra, which seems to get greener by the hour. A young caribou, curious, comes to the water’s edge to have a look at us, then follows us along the shore, apparently mistaking us for companions. At one point it runs ahead, then waits for us, leaping up and down in anticipation, like a puppy.

At high latitudes, many animals adapt to 24-hour sun or darkness by becoming intermittently active around the clock, allowing opportunistic feeding at all times. Our days, too, take on a curious rhythm: We wake at noon, paddle or walk until 10 or 11 p.m., then rendezvous for a meal and an after-dinner “day hike” in the golden hours between midnight and 3 a.m.

If you spend any time on the tundra, you don’t need a geologist to tell you there’s oil here. We see it often, seeping out of the ground naturally, sometimes slicking the surface of small ponds. You get the feeling that if you drilled anywhere, you’d get a gusher.

At this point, no one knows how much oil lies under the 1002 Area. A U.S. Geological Survey assessment from 1998 estimated up to 11.8 billion barrels. British Petroleum and Chevron constructed a test well in the refuge, near the Jago River in 1986, but the results from that “tight hole”—oil-industry jargon for a top-secret well—have never been made public.

When, where, and how any oil is extracted will depend on the results of new and more extensive seismic tests that could begin this winter, if the necessary permits are approved—a process that also involves an environmental analysis. Seismic surveys are conducted using large vehicles equipped with heavy plates that vibrate on the ground, creating shock waves that reflect off of subsurface formations and return to the surface, where they are recorded by receivers. Geophysicists can use this data to predict where oil or gas may be present.

From the air, you can still see the checkerboard pattern of tracks that heavy equipment left on the tundra during the 1980s. Officials claim that today’s techniques will be less disruptive, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reportedly called the plan surveyors submitted inadequate, noting it failed to address the potential effects of seismic testing on wildlife. The plan was “very poorly described,” says Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International. “From what we can tell from it, there’s a 23 percent chance that a polar bear den could be driven right over, with likely fatal consequences. Beyond that, this activity has the potential to disrupt nearly all the denning habitat on the coastal plain. With the bears’ condition already weakened, it could very well have a negative effect on reproduction.”

The impacts of actual drilling and production would be highly dependent on the location and design of roads, wells, landing pads, and other infrastructure. “They could do it in ways that would lessen the wildlife disturbances,” says Fran Mauer, a retired FWS biologist. “But whenever you’re bringing oil to the surface and transporting it, there’s the potential for spills and pollution and other problems. It would certainly disturb caribou and muskoxen and a large number of birds that nest on the tundra in the summer. Even in the winter there are ravens, Snowy Owls, and Gyrfalcons.”

The government can begin selling leases as soon as an environmental impact statement for the leasing plan wraps up. Audubon Alaska, which has long been on the frontlines of the battle over the Arctic, has teamed up with other advocacy groups to fight development in the refuge. “We’re organizing opposition to this misguided, shortsighted process, in which decisions about our public land are being made hastily,” says Michelle LeBeau, Audubon Alaska’s interim executive director. “We’re keeping the Arctic Refuge in our members’ consciousness so that when there are opportunities to make our voices heard and to rectify this terrible mistake, we are ready.”

Oil production began at Prudhoe Bay in 1977 and peaked in the 1980s, when Alaska produced about a quarter of U.S. oil. Across Alaska’s Arctic, more than 30 million acres are already open to drilling (not counting the Arctic Refuge). The U.S. Department of the Interior recently announced plans aimed at removing protections for millions of additional acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Nearly as large as Indiana, the reserve includes Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, an Important Bird Area that is currently almost entirely off limits for oil and gas development. Even more recently, the Interior Department gave provisional approval for oil and gas production in federal waters about 30 miles from the refuge.

Oil and gas development presents a paradox for Alaskans. No state is experiencing the negative effects of climate change as intensely as Alaska, where melting permafrost is causing roads to slump and destabilizing infrastructure, and where at least 31 coastal communities will need to be relocated above rising seas that have torn away shorelines, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski has said that she believes that climate change is real, and that it is primarily caused by humans burning fossil fuels. And yet it was Murkowski who forced the Arctic Refuge provision into the tax bill. After decades of ignoring the need to diversify the economy, Alaska has painted itself into a corner, in which some argue that the only way to pay for the damage created by consequences of its oil dependence is to drill for more oil.

The connection between fossil fuels and climate change isn’t lost on anyone in Kaktovik, whose residents have long depended on the land and water for their sustenance. But on the issue of oil development in the Arctic Refuge, the town is bitterly divided.

“Personally, I don’t want to live in an oil field,” Thompson says. But Alfred Going, who works as a cook at a guesthouse, tells me that he’s all for it: “It’s going to make us all rich, and it’s going to make things a little better for the kids around here. It might mess up some of our hunting lands, though.”

That’s too high a price for Bruce Inglangasak, who runs polar-bear viewing tours via boat. “What are we going to eat when the fish and the caribou are all gone?” he asks. Or drink “when the water is not drinkable?”

Mayor Nora Jane Burns, who is still on a whaling crew at 60 years old, says more than half of her family’s food comes from wild animals and fish. She supported drilling, until she saw the experience of native people in Nuiqsut, a village on the eastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. “You see smog and soot and a lot of people with respiratory diseases,” she says. “They told them ‘just one spot’ when they first wanted to drill, but now they’re surrounded by oil wells. All the industrial activity scared away the animals, so they have to go a lot farther to hunt.”

Biologists confirm that the jumble of roads, pipes, processing facilities, and other buildings has negatively affected the calving patterns of the Central Arctic caribou herd, which declined to 22,630 in 2016 from about 70,000 in 2010.

Scientists and conservationists are concerned about the cumulative, landscape-level effects of opening even more of the coastal plain to production. “The bigger picture is that industrial development precludes the role of this place as a refuge,” says Melanie Smith, Audubon Alaska’s director of conservation science. “As bird and wildlife species get pushed farther north because of development and climate change, the Arctic Refuge is the end of the trail. There’s nowhere farther north these animals can go.”

Although it is sometimes referred to as America’s Serengeti, we find that animal encounters are far from rat-a-tat-tat in the refuge. You have to work for them. To make the most of wildlife-viewing opportunities without disturbing the animals, we often split up. Joe Bishop, a photographer from Dawson City, Yukon, spends two days staking out an Arctic fox den. Mather zooms in on Long-tailed Ducks in flight, and I go looking for wolves. Everyone tries for a good shot of a Snowy Owl, but no one succeeds.

Most caribou are wary of our presence, but one night a cow trots merrily down the beach and through the middle of our campsite with three calves in tow. The next day a young male, top-heavy with towering antlers, approaches us during a snack break on the beach and nonchalantly lies down just a few feet away.

Caribou are the central figures in the creation story of the Gwitch’in, who are spread across the U.S.-Canadian border to the south and east of the refuge. “We are caribou people,” says Bernadette Demientieff, a native-rights activist who directs the Gwitch’in Steering Committee, which formed three decades ago in response to early proposals to drill in the coastal plain. “Our oral tradition tells us that a Gwitch’in man sealed a pact of coexistence by trading a piece of his own beating heart for one from a living caribou. In return for sustaining us, our people vowed to protect the coastal plain, which we call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit—The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

For thousands of years the Gwitch’in have depended on the vast caribou herds that migrate to the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain each spring to give birth and gorge on nutrient-rich cottongrass. When calves are a few weeks old, the herd begins to move south, over the Brooks Range, and into the open tundra wetlands and boreal forest that are the Gwitch’in hunting grounds.

“Politicians tried to open the arctic refuge to oil before, and it was always stopped. this time we need to warrior up.”

Over the centuries the Gwitch’in adapted their lifestyles to the animals’ migrations. Ethnically and culturally distinct from the coastal Iñupiat, the Gwitch’in are among the last people in North America who get most of their nutrition through hunting and gathering. “We got complacent,” says Demientieff. “Politicians tried to open the Arctic Refuge to oil before, and it was always stopped. Now, this time, we need to warrior up. Because if the caribou disappear, we disappear. It’s over for us as a culture.”

When I stopped in Fairbanks to speak with Demientieff on my way to Kaktovik, I asked if she’d ever visited the caribou’s core calving grounds. “No,” she said. “We’ve never gone there, even when we were starving. We keep out; we respect the caribou’s place. But we are no less connected. In fact, there is no one on this continent who is not connected to that place.”

On our fifth day, we reach the last of the barrier islands. Beyond here, the ocean ice pushes right up to the mainland. We’re boxed in.

Everyone decides to backtrack to explore the river deltas near Kaktovik, except Joe and me. We think there’s a decent chance we’ll be able to pick our way through the stretches of open water between the sea ice, once we portage over the initial ice jam. Our biggest concern is getting back to Kaktovik if shifting winds push more ice into the scant open water.

We work our way along the shore, alternately portaging, lining, and paddling our canoe through mazes of ice and open water, sometimes accompanied by curious seals. We stop to camp and to stalk small herds of caribou that appear on the flat tundra as if from nowhere, and disappear as quickly.

When a gale hits, we build a bulwark of driftwood to stop the wind from flattening our tents. Pinned inside for 18 hours as snow and sleet batter the sides, I have ample time to think about what Demientieff had said.

It’s not just the caribou that keep outsiders connected to this place, whether they’ve visited here or not. It’s not just the 130 species of birds that breed here, then drop by farms and dabble along shorelines in every state and province on their way south. And it’s not just the common need to save the Arctic from catastrophic spills or to save our children and grandchildren from even more of the consequences of our generation’s shortsightedness.

It is, in large part, a shared need to preserve the meaning and the values inherent in the word refuge—a place that can shelter beings that have run out of other options, a place we ourselves can retreat to when we need peace, quiet, and the companionship of nature.

When we resume paddling, our progress is at first painfully slow. Eventually the ice begins to open up and the ocean around us calms. One night, just after midnight, the wind dies completely. We glide over the glass-like water, weaving through a wonderland of ice sculptures that get taller and more whimsical as we go deeper into the frozen heart of the refuge.

We stop talking and take in a stillness unlike any I’ve experienced. Even the waterbirds go quiet; there is nothing but an occasional drip of water or an iceberg’s groan—a low, hollow thrumming that could be the breath of the deep Earth itself.

This story originally ran in the Winter 2018 issue as "Finding True North." To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.