“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.
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.