Camp one. Spring Creek, deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge). Rows of nameless peaks swoop up around us like wings. It is late. The others-guide and wilderness advocate Carol Kasza, friend John Anderson-are asleep in their tents. But first night jitters have me out, pacing. Did we bring enough food? The right gear? Will we get lost? What about the bears? Even my shadow seems distorted, out of place in this wild setting. Then I recall a small sticker amid the dials and gauges of the bush plane that dropped us here. “You belong here,” it said simply. You belong here.
An antler in the moss prompts a question, and the long hike ahead gives us time to ponder it. “Carol, how different would our hike be if the coastal plain were drilled for oil?” A 1.5-million-acre section along the refuge’s coast is being studied for oil and gas drilling. There is a one-in-five chance (19 percent) of finding a commercially viable supply of oil. Extracting it would entail laying 260 miles of pipeline, bulldozing 380 miles for roads, and erecting airstrips, worker housing, and 60 drilling pads, all of it smack in the middle of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Carol, who has been a guide in the refuge for nearly 20 years and feels the pulse of this place almost like her own, is thoughtful in answering. “It is about oil and caribou,” she says after a long silence, “but it’s more than that. It’s about wholeness. That is part of what is so powerful here. Preserving the refuge is about preserving the complete, vast whole of it, not just bits and pieces of it like we’ve done with wilderness in the Lower 48. If we start parceling it out?,” she says, trailing off as if even the thought of such a thing is too painful for words.
Seventeen mosquitoes with one slap. By Arctic standards, not so bad. Reputedly a scientist once stripped bare and exposed himself to the winged horde on a particularly bad day in the Arctic. His assistant tallied the bites at a rate of 9,000 per minute, enough to suck half the blood out of a human in less than 2 hours. “Exsanguination,” they call being drained of blood; we call it death by mosquitoes. Almost a constant presence, the mosquitoes whine. They nibble my hands as I focus the camera or take notes, fly straight into mouths when we breathe (26 and counting). I think of the caribou driven to stampeding by mosquitoes. For us, it is just another slap before getting on with it.
Ten Yellowstones would fit into the refuge. “I’ve never been anywhere that made me feel so insignificant,” says John. In the clear air, peaks that seem close enough to touch can be a day’s hike away. In the midst of all this space we have chosen a short route-two small valleys: up Spring Creek to its headwaters and over a low pass in the Arctic Divide; and downstream to the Marsh Fork. In a straight line, it’s less than 25 miles, but nothing in the Arctic moves in straight lines. Today we set out to climb a mountain just downstream, anticipating a leisurely dayhike. Five hours later and miles short of our goal, we have turned around. Dazed by distance, spinning with space.
2:37 a.m. The mountain above my tent just lit up like a candle. The channels of Spring Creek braid themselves across the valley floor like strands of long, silver hair. On the banks, the whitish yellow cups of mountain avens nod “yes, yes” in the late night breeze. This far north, the sun rises in May and doesn’t set until August. Now June, we eat at midnight, set off for hikes at all hours, and crawl from our tents when a spotlight of sun wakes us. “The sun is as soft as candlelight,” says John, who’s looking out over the kaleidoscope of color and shadow. It flows over this place like a blessing. I walk around camp, hands cupped toward the sun, or run up a hillside to watch the shadows being chased out of the valley. I am euphoric, wide awake, as fully alive as I have ever been. I am drunk with the light.