Hike It, Save It: Utukok Uplands, Alaska

On the Brooks Range's Arctic slop, coal mining and oil and natural gas drilling are threats to half a million caribou, and the Arctic's highest concentration of grizzlies.

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The Details ANWR gets all the headlines, but it isn’t Alaska’s biggest battleground wilderness between conservationists and energy developers. For that, look north, way north, on the Brooks Range’s Arctic slope. There you’ll find the unfortunately named National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska–the largest single unit of public land in the entire country. These 23.5 million acres were originally set aside by President Harding in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the Navy, and the BLM took over management in 1976. The area, bigger than 10 Yellowstones, remained essentially unchanged since the last Ice Age–until gas and oil leasing accelerated in the last decade, with more than 3.8 million acres leased and surveyed so far. In the south of the Reserve, abutting the Brooks Range, the Connecticut-size Utukok Uplands is an especially wondrous part of the Arctic. It’s home to the Western Arctic caribou herd (Alaska’s largest at half a million animals), the Arctic’s highest concentration of grizzlies, and the world’s highest concentration of wolverines. Drilling would bring pipelines through the caribou calving grounds, causing a domino effect that could damage the entire ecosystem. Directly underground is another Big Energy threat: coal. Dan Ritzman, director of the Sierra Club’s western coal campaign, says there may be as much as 4 trillion tons of it, one-ninth of the world’s supply. “In 2006, the world’s largest mining company [BHP Billiton] launched a five-year study to figure out how to get to the coal under the NPR-A. You can bet they’ll want a return on their investment.”

The Hike If Alaska is the Last Frontier, then the Utukok Uplands is its wild edge. In addition to the multitude of caribou (a “small” herd numbers 45,000), wolverines, and grizzlies, other megafauna include musk oxen, moose, and wolves. In mid-June, during caribou-calving season, everything comes together in a giant web-of-life bio-orchestra. Witness it all on a 40-mile crossing of Archemides Ridge, between the Kokolik and Utukok Rivers. Essentially a flat gravel bench in the Brooks Range foothills a few hundred feet above the surrounding countryside, the ridge delivers tremendous views of the treeless expanse. Better yet: It elevates you above the tussocky mire, delivering easy walking by Alaskan standards. But don’t expect logistics to be such a breeze. The Utukok Uplands are remote even for the Brooks Range. Visitors need expert navigation skills, and epic and unpredictable weather can delay bush-plane pickup for days. Allow at least a week to hike the stretch, starting in early June and flying out by the third week of that month, when the legendary mosquitoes usually arrive. The best advance information will come from bush pilots; they can advise you as to feasible drop-off and pickup points. Always make a firm schedule and communication plan with your pilot and stick to it. Pack bear spray, an emergency beacon, mosquito gear, and binoculars. Outfitters Arctic Wild (arcticwild.com, 888-577-8203) and Arctic Treks (arctictreksadventures.com, 907-455-6502) lead custom trips–a smart idea for all but the most experienced Alaskan backpackers. –blm.gov/ak/npra

The Champion Northern Alaska Environmental Center (northern.org, 907-452-5021) supports conservation efforts through advocacy campaigns, educational programs, and even a summer camp. The Sierra Club’s (sierraclub.org) Western Arctic Coal Project raises public awareness about what could happen if drilling commences in the Utukok Uplands.

The Way Alaska Air flies to Kotzebue. From there, arrange a bush plane to take you into the Utukok Uplands. Local guides recommend Hageland Aviation Services (hageland.com).