The Arctic Refuge - A Unique Wilderness
Posted September 17, 2010
As memorable as it was, my recent sighting of a polar bear in the Arctic Refuge far from the ocean and the polar ice cap, was just the beginning of a remarkable day. That morning, as we sat on the banks of the Canning River, we suddenly noticed a shape loping along the plain behind the bear -- a white wolf. It seemed tiny, in comparison with the huge bear. As it ran, it seemed aware of the larger animal and, turning away from the river, ran rapidly over a ridge and out of sight. Then a young golden eagle soared by, just 20 feet over the bear, as if it too thought the pile of sleeping white fur was out of place.
By noon, when we pushed our rafts into the current, we’d had an amazing morning. But this was just the first course.
The Canning flows north, through the many crests of the Brooks Range as it marches across Alaska. We had already run more than half of the navigable stretch of this river. Ahead of us lay the rolling and treeless 25 mile wide coastal plain, painted in Thanksgiving colors by the early arctic fall. Between us and the Canadian border, a half-dozen more wild rivers spilled across the Arctic Refuge.
The most famous residents of the coastal plain are the caribou of the Porcupine herd. The more than 120,000 animals in this herd roam through Alaska and parts of Canada for much of the year. Each spring, caribou return to the coastal plain in a mass migration unlike any outside of Africa. The plain’s winds provide caribou calves with a respite from Alaska’s famous biting insects. We saw plenty of caribou, but in twos and threes. Most of their brethren were on the forested south side of the mountains at this time of year.
As we floated a swift and sunny river that day, an arctic fox, still in its summer coat, watched us calmly from the wide gravel bars that separated braided channels. That afternoon, after we set up camp, a gyrfalcon flew low over the tundra in search of an unwary plump ground squirrel. The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcons – a bird with shoulders – unlike its sleek cousin the peregrine, which seemed as common as gulls on the river.
After dinner, a brown bear shuffled along the tundra across the river. While we watched, we noticed what we at first thought was the bear’s cub, watching us with evident interest. But as it galumphed along the river, we realized that it was a wolverine. Frankly, I didn’t expect to see a wolverine in my lifetime. This largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family is famously ferocious and elusive. For us, it was perhaps the most unusual animal of the day. Rather than running away, this wolverine turned straight towards us. At a point in the river, it stopped, stood, sniffed and stared. Then, just as someone wondered aloud “do wolverines swim?”, it jumped into the current and swam across. It shook dry its shaggy highlighted coat and ran unto the long northern sunset – taking a moment to note the snoozing heap of bear.
In fading twilight, a loon sped by -- fish grasped firmly in its bill. Our small group burst into spontaneous laughter at the grandeur and absurdity of the day. We slept uneasily -- with a far more soundly-sleeping bear just across the river – pots, pans and cans of pepper spray at the ready.
This entire day had been spent in the coastal plain that energy companies have fought for years to open to drilling. Obviously, what we saw made us astonishingly fortunate, but perhaps nowhere else would such a day have been possible. There’s a reason why this wilderness, as large as South Carolina, hosts the continent’s richest and most diverse store of wildlife. For half a century, the Arctic Refuge has been protected by the wisdom of the American people. At this far edge of the nation – where the plain reaches the Arctic Ocean, and Alaska meets northern Canada, lies a refuge that is worth far more than the small quantity of oil beneath it.
That night, after an autumnal semi-darkness fell on our camp, through crystalline arctic air, we could see the glowing lights of the nearest drilling rig. Just offshore. And just beyond the invisible line that protects the refuge.
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