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February 1999

ANWR: Postcards From The Edge

Journey to Alaska's far northern edge, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the midnight sun shines like candlelight on the mountains.

“Listen. It sounds like fairy bells,” Carol says. We have just topped the Arctic Divide and found a small lake still tinseled in ice. Where the lake is open and still, a row of peaks stares down at its reflection in the water, every ridge, every line doubled in beauty by the perfectly calm lake. When a breeze stirs, the millions of tiny ice crystals floating on other parts of the lake clink together like wind chimes. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them,” naturalist Annie Dillard wrote. “The least we can do is try to be there.” One day earlier and the lake would’ve been frozen and silent. One day later and the ice would have melted. We stand a long time, hardly talking, then move off without a word, the lake chiming softly to itself behind us as we drop over the pass.

One morning, still hazy with sleep and quiet, Carol and I sit on our packs and watch wisps of fog slowly work their way across the valley. Where they move in the long shadows cast by the cliffs, they are invisible. When they break into a shaft of sunlight pouring between two spires of rock, they are infused with light, glowing with a swirl of rainbow colors until they reach the sharp edge of a shadow on the other side and vanish so quickly it makes us gasp. It’s as if we are witnessing the mountains as they breathe. Watching the fog, I realize the battle for the refuge is not about the body counts of caribou or barrels of oil. It is about preserving a place where moments of magic can still happen-the chiming sounds of a thawing lake, discovering wolf bones white as snow against a hillside, listening to a river whisper all night. “Being here is a gift,” Carol said earlier. “Unlike the oil companies who just want to take, take, take from the land, we don’t always have to grab pieces of it to take home.” That thought reminds me of the Dall sheep fur I gathered a few days ago. I pull the fur from my pocket, toss it up, and let the wind give it back to the land. Carol understands and smiles as the strands of white spin in the air like fog.

One day’s hike from the end now. Carol has been laughing about how smoothly everything has gone. The refuge has a reputation as a land of extremes, where a soft blue sky can, as if by black magic, yield a blizzard even in June. “Of the entire palette of weather the Arctic has to offer,” she keeps saying, “you guys are seeing only the absolute best.” Everything seems perfect. Then we top a rise to find the entire valley jammed with ice. Huge tablets of ice overhang the river’s edge, toppled upon each other and glowing blue-white in the sun. “Dead end,” I mutter to myself. Two hours later we are through. The ice forced us up high but ended just when there seemed no other route. When we reached a seemingly impassable slope, a caribou trail appeared through the jumble of rocks. “As wild and as harsh as this land can be,” Carol said as we took the last step off the slope and back onto level ground, “I always feel like there is a state of grace here. You worry about how you are going to get across a slope, and a caribou trail appears. You think you are going to get caught by a rain squall, and it suddenly breaks up before reaching you.” We walk down the valley bathed in sunshine, tired but happy, grateful for that “state of grace.”

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