I know I said I was working, and I am, or I was, feverishly to make a deadline on the new book (it’s still looming) but in the meantime I took a raft trip down the Kongakut River in the Eastern corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from Drain Creek in the Brooks Range down to Caribou Pass.
It was not my idea. My husband gave me the trip for my birthday. I kind of wondered if this was a sign…I mean, send your wife to the arctic alone? (I wasn’t actually alone. There were five of us in two rafts on a tour by Haines and Fairbanks based Arctic Wild, with Haines guides father Bart and son Patrick Henderson. So that sort of explains what I was doing here. I know these guys.)
We had all kinds of weather:
Two great guides:
and good company:
We also flew in very small planes that landed and took off in impossible places:
And we met Sarah James in Arctic Village on the way out and saw her again on the way back:
She’s the Gwich’in elder and longtime and much honored advocate for permanent protection from oil drilling and development of the coastal plain of ANWR. She had a new bright red four wheeler that she uses to putter to the airstrip from the village on to greet just about every plane that lands and spread her gospel of the preservation of this spectacular place. Her people depend on the caribou herds that migrate from the coastal plain. They are everything to the Gwich’in.
But it’s more than that. The coastal plain in the Gwich’in language, she says, is called “Where Life Begins”. She says when she had babies, she wanted a place that was quiet, safe and private. All women need that. The caribou do too, she says. All living creatures do.
I know it seems vast, and you could say there’s plenty of room for caribou and oil wells, pipelines, roads, camps– but that’s not so. Every part of this place is interconnected. Every part of the world is too– but here you can see still see that, and feel it. It’s also not, as you can see, a big swamp with nothing in it, as some would have you believe.
I traveled through this remarkable, stunning, huge, and yet somehow small river valley –the tundra plants, the heathers and Labrador tea, tiny balsam and bear berries. The little birds, so few and so fearless, and the stones with ancient coral suspended in them like ghosts– sure we saw fat arctic char and grayling, golden eagles, a caribou bull, and bears, and sheep, foxes, and a wolf,and heard them howl one night so close to camp I thought they were right outside my tent, but a peak out the flap proved me wrong. Sound carries. Distances are difficult to judge. And it was the scale the place, from huge to tiny- and the weather and the river and the wind- that left the biggest impression on me. No oil is worth losing this much for. Sarah said she’s worried. She said call our congressmen and senators. “Tell everyone to leave ANWR be,” she said. “You go back and tell them what you’ve seen here. Tell them to leave it alone.”
While so much about ANWR has been the same for 10,000 years, and while I expected to see a dinosaur walking out of a broad valley, civilization is encroaching. Here, even in one of the remotest places on earth, the silence was broken a few times a day by the distant thunder of a transcontinental jet, way high above us, flying the polar route. No wonder Sarah James is worried.
There’s one more thing I keep thinking: ANWR is a human refuge, too. A place of relief, an escape from time and schedules and the news cycle. A retreat. A haven. An opening into a new way of seeing the world and my place in it.
On the first night I listed everything I was scared of in my journal and filled up a page. On the last night I wrote:
“What I am afraid of: Nothing.”