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  July/August 2000 Articles:
Where the Caribou Roam
The New Gold Rush
Two Worlds, One Whale
Defending the Forest, and Other Crimes
 
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Sierra Magazine
Where the Caribou Roam

After watching one of the greatest wildlife migrations on Earth, all you want to ask the oil companies is, "What part of 'National Wildlife Refuge' don't you understand?"

By Reed McManus

Halfway into a once-in-a-lifetime trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I expected to be exultant. But there I was, pacing back and forth along the Kongakut River's Caribou Pass landing strip six miles from the endless whiteness of the Arctic Ocean, waiting impatiently for a flight and worrying about how many meals I could eke out of my emergency food supply.

A day earlier, I'd waved good-bye to my rafting companions as they packed themselves into a four-seat Cessna and flew south over the hulking ramparts of the Brooks Range toward Fairbanks and civilization. Now I waited for my bush pilot, who was scheduled to ferry me even farther north to the edge of the Beaufort Sea to meet up with my backpacking partners.

What I didn't know was that pilot Walt Audi had been delayed by not one but two "minor" crashes flying backpackers in and out of the river drainages that wriggle out of the Brooks Range and flow north to the Arctic Ocean. He was hopelessly behind schedule, and it would be 31 mosquito-swatting, self-pitying hours before I'd spot his Cessna buzzing toward me through a brilliant blue arctic sky. So my granola-divvying exercise was ultimately unnecessary, but the involuntary downtime gave me an opportunity to contemplate, a little belatedly, just how remote the Arctic is.

When we arrived at Caribou Pass a few days earlier, that wasn't possible: The airstrip felt like an arctic LaGuardia. The 130,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd, it turned out, had already left its calving grounds on the coastal plain to the west and would soon be just downriver as it headed home to interior Alaska and the Yukon. This annual convocation of ungulates (whose name comes from the Yukon river near where the herd winters) inspires a smaller but just as fascinating assemblage of filmmakers and long-lens photographers.

We met two German photographers camped at the far end of the strip, and California-based wildlife photographer Kennan Ward-along with a video crew filming him snapping shots of caribou-staked out at the other end. Farther downstream, we were told, was a Disney crew ready to capture the ancient annual caribou migration with the newest film technology.

Like stories in a gold camp, rumors swirled about the location of the herd. At least 80,000 animals, we were told, were about a half-day's trot away. Would the herd pass by on the plain downstream, or would it, as Ward suggested, pass right through camp, following the deeply rutted tracks from previous migrations that lead up and over Caribou Pass? He told us that our blufftop camp, upstream and around the bend from the airstrip, was a perfect viewing platform. We went on full caribou alert, remaining on lookout late into the evening. ("Evening," of course, being a construct. It was mid-June, and the sun never set. After a night or two, you got good at picking tent spots that wouldn't be frying in direct sunlight at 3 a.m.) One or two stately caribou meandered through, but all the camp chatter had heightened our hopes: We wouldn't be satisfied until we saw shoulder-to-shoulder caribou outside our tent flaps.

Hoping to spot the herd, we hiked up to Caribou Pass and got our first uninterrupted view of the broad coastal plain. So this is what environmentalists and oil companies have been fighting over for more than a decade: a treeless band separating the Arctic Ocean from the foothills of Alaska's northernmost mountain range. From our vantage point, the plain looked like an inviting meadow. (As I'd later find out, it's actually tussock-and-bog tundra, fields of bowling ball-size mounds of vegetation popping up out of boot-sucking mire that forced us to walk along gravel streambeds, no matter how circuitous the route.) Though empty of large animals when we first scanned it, the plain is an excellent route for migrating caribou as they head to and from their calving grounds.

Although 8 million of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 19 million acres are designated wilderness, only 30 miles of the 125-mile coastal plain are so protected. The bulk of the plain-and the main caribou calving ground-falls within the famous "1002" area, denied wilderness protection by Congress 20 years ago so that oil companies would have the opportunity to explore for oil. Over the years, oil-industry projections have varied greatly: The most recent indicate that the coastal plain could, at best, produce enough oil to satisfy U.S. needs for less than six months.

Refuge defenders say it's just not worth disrupting one of the planet's most spectacular birthing rituals. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pregnant caribou and females with young calves are especially sensitive to disturbances such as the presence of humans, vehicles, and noise. It's an instinct that enables them to avoid predators and improve the chances that their young will survive. Drop a few hundred miles of roads and pipelines in their chosen spot, add oil spills and air pollution, and the caribou could abandon their main calving ground.

For eons it has offered nutritious plant growth that the mothers use to produce milk for their calves and harbors fewer predators than surrounding locations-no small concerns when newborns are too weak to escape wolves and bears. If normal growth and nutrition are reduced on the calving grounds, biologists say, caribou will enter the winter without the fat reserves they need for survival, and females may not be able to produce calves the following spring-ultimately damaging the entire Porcupine caribou population.

A commitment from the Clinton administration to veto any legislation to allow drilling in the refuge (together with, until recently, a worldwide oil glut) has spared the plain for almost seven years since the last serious effort to open the refuge to development. But in June 1999, the week I arrived in the far north, Alaska Representative and House Resource Committee Chair Don Young (R) introduced a bill to allow drilling. It was mainly saber rattling, intended to counter bills that would designate the unprotected coastal plain as wilderness. (Anti-drilling legislation has 27 sponsors in the Senate and 165 in the House; pro-drilling bills now have 33 co-sponsors in the Senate and 39 in the House.) But in early 2000, drilling proponents were able to exploit gasoline price hikes to once again fire up the debate over whether to mar America's largest wildlife refuge with air pollution and toxic waste.

Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski (R), author of the Senate bill to drill in the refuge, quickly tried to redefine the debate over wilderness as a patriotic battle against "the price fixers of OPEC and the military ambitions of Saddam Hussein. This senator is not going to stand by and support increased dependence on Iraq." (Of the top ten countries from which the United States imports oil, only four are OPEC countries. At number five, Iraq supplies about 8 percent of U.S. crude oil imports.) In May, Murkowski introduced a GOP national-energy-policy bill that would allow drilling in the Refuge. At about the same time, the caribou were heading for the calving area, preparing to give birth, just as they have for thousands of years.

When word came from Ward's "reconnaissance" crew that the herd was moving en masse away from the calving grounds and along the plain downstream, human activity on the Caribou Pass airstrip hit fever pitch. Ward and his video crew, afraid they'd miss out, commandeered an inflatable raft and shoved off downstream. Several of my fellow rafters worked out a plan with their pilot to delay their return home. They took off for the day, scrambling up to Caribou Pass to try to catch a glimpse of the spectacle.

Meanwhile, I spent the first of two days sitting beside the airstrip waiting for my flight out. I trotted up to each arriving plane, only to be disappointed: one was an Alaska Fish and Game officer, dropping in to replace batteries in the radio collars of caribou he was monitoring; another was a couple from Fort Yukon, well south of the Brooks Range, out for a spin in their Piper Cub. The final blow was a Cessna full of day-trippers who hopped a plane as soon as they got word that the caribou were on the move. They climbed out of their heated cockpit in pastel shorts, just long enough to stretch their legs and tell me the aerial views of the herd were "tremendous," before heading south for dinner.

When pilot Walt Audi's Cessna finally soared into view, I had given up on the herd. But Walt, a longtime resident of the tiny arctic village of Kaktovik, is more accustomed to the natural rhythms here. Despite his two breakdowns (one of which forced him to "hitchhike" home to Kaktovik with an Alaska Fish and Game crew in search of a new propeller) he was determined to get me to my backpacking group and even hoped that we'd catch up with the retreating herd. He had already ferried Ron Yarnell, my guide from outfitter Arctic Wild, to an airstrip yards from the ice of Demarcation Bay. It's the easternmost runway in the refuge, and would give us our best chance to catch up with the herd before they disappeared into the Yukon.

Ron had us hiking soon after Walt wheeled the Cessna to a stop. It was late in the day, and the herd wasn't waiting for stragglers, human or otherwise. Through binoculars we saw great bands of caribou in the foothills to the south and east. Our quest seemed futile; the animals were miles away, and we'd have to follow the drunken routes of streambeds to avoid the topsy-turvy tundra. Like Walt, Ron was undaunted-chipper, even-a trait I learned was common to anyone committed to rolling with the punches of life in the Arctic.

Ron's 29 years of arctic experience proved invaluable. He selected what seemed to me a random spot and told us to set up camp and wait. When I braved the chill a few hours later and poked my head out of my tent, we were surrounded by caribou. There were hundreds of them, all marching inexorably east, crunching their way across the tundra, emitting comical, guttural oinks. Caribou as solo specimens are less than spectacular: After weeks of migrating, they were pretty mangy. (Healthier-looking deer routinely devour my parents' garden near San Francisco.) But they make up for all that in sheer numbers and primal drive. In the distance, caribou were bedded down on every hill as far as the eye could see.

The sound of stampeding awakened us later in the night. We scrambled out of our tents to catch a gray wolf stalking a band of caribou along a low ridge fifty yards south of camp. But the wolf never quickened its pace to more than a lope and didn't seem to be serious about bringing down a caribou; it certainly could have done so if it wanted to. This just seemed to be play, and Ron easily distracted it with a series of wolf calls. For the next half hour, the wolf circled our camp, inching close whenever Ron called, retreating when it didn't pick up a familiar scent. It was oblivious to the sea of caribou it had just been chasing, taken in by canid curiosity.

By morning, the caribou party had moved on and we resumed our own version of stalking. A fog had settled over the coastal plain, obliterating our views of the foothills to the south and the Beaufort Sea to the north. The dull brown hills were capped by a head-high ceiling of flat gray sky, and except for the sound of the gurgling stream we followed, everything was eerily silent. This is the kind of weather that causes multiple-day delays for bush pilots and trekkers. Be impatient and try to fly a plane through this stuff rather than wait it out, and you become a footnote in the annals of arctic aviation. I'd have been content to wait out the weather in my tent, but Ron consulted his topo map and we headed off, marching along a streambed into foggy nothingness, south toward the foothills. I was startled out of my dream state when a pair of mergansers flapped their way down along the creek's surface, turning skyward in front of me like training jets.

It was now clear we couldn't catch up with the largest portion of the herd (which by all accounts numbered around 50,000) but we were hardly disappointed by the thousands we saw. After a long day, we settled in at another camp, guessing that we'd again put ourselves near the path of the caribou. Low hills, cool breezes, plenty of water-if we were ungulates on a thousand-mile trek, we might have picked this path of least resistance. We were right. Before dinner, the caribou show began.

Just upstream from us was a large ice patch, a remnant of the unseasonably late spring. It proved irresistible to the herd. Long lines of caribou headed down from the low hills, crossed the stream in front of us, and started over the ice field. The adults, perhaps more driven by migratory instinct than the juveniles, traversed the ice and were ready to move on. But the young ones had something entirely different in mind, and proceeded to run, buck, and twirl on the ice, kicking up their heels. One jumped, became airborne, and twisted in mid-air before landing upright and heading off to join the more sedate crowd. Only one or two lost their balance in the frenzy, but the juveniles' gangly, not-ready-for-prime-time hind legs always seemed to find traction at the last moment.

I half expected the goofily chirpy orchestral music from the Wonderful World of Disney television shows of my youth to swell in the background. But all we heard was caribou grunting amid an ocean of quiet. The Caribou Ice Rink remained open for a half hour or so, the adults patiently waiting on the grassy bank above the ice until the others had had their fill. Then the herd picked up and moved on, leaving us bundled up against the cold, our mouths agape, wondering if what we witnessed was real or some sort of illusion in the arctic fog.

Crossing the coastal plain on the heels of the main herd was a bit like walking through a barnyard. Caribou hair hung from every protruding willow, every bit of nutritious cottongrass had been trimmed to a stub, and every stream we crossed had been pummeled by hooves. We headed up into the foothills that had been awash in caribou only a day or so earlier, finding only a few straggling cows and calves. We wondered if they had a chance of surviving this far from the main herd. Without the security of numbers, they were perfect targets for hungry wolves and griz. (Only half of the 35,000 to 40,000 calves born each summer will survive predators and harsh weather conditions to make it back the following year.) Still following the sure footing of rocky drainages, we flushed ptarmigan from the willows as we went, at one point rousting several hundred of them. They took off in a cacophony of squawks, a reminder that the caribou are just one part of this sublime ecosystem.

We climbed the undulating green hills up to familiar territory: Caribou Pass, where we'd have a relatively easy downhill hike back to the airstrip where I'd paced for more than 30 hours just a few days earlier. Despite biting winds at the summit, we lingered, enjoying our last views of the coastal plain and the ice pack, a place that seemed so daunting and "too far" just a few days earlier but had become so comfortable. Now we didn't spot a single caribou, even with binoculars. We hunkered down behind low rocks out of the wind to enjoy our final arctic lunch. With shelter, the sun was almost too warm, the blue sky startlingly clear, the view south up the gently braided Kongakut toward the shoulders of the Brooks Range as magnificent as ever.

We vainly debated what we liked most about the Arctic: the surprisingly verdant terrain, the monumental Brooks Range, the spectacle of the migration, the 24-hour daylight, the surreal ice pack floating just offshore. We tried to remain ecumenical, but the obvious answer presented itself soon enough: The rutted trails of Caribou Pass suddenly filled with the familiar sound of hoofbeats. Some three dozen bulls marched toward us, passing within inches of our rocky hideout. We held our breaths as flaring nostrils and wobbling antlers loomed above us. A minute later they were over the pass and heading down to the plain and the rest of the herd, leaving us once again in the embrace of arctic silence.

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