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.
"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."
Expedition Planner: Arctic
Trip planning and guides: For less experienced hikers, a list of guide services is available from the refuge manager (see "Contact," below). Some outfitters, like Arctic Treks, (907) 455-6502, offer consultation services for a fee and will help you plan a trip based on skill level, budget, and time.
Maps: Because the area is so huge, no one map provides the scale needed to navigate. Ask the refuge manager for more information.
Access: Commercial airlines service Arctic Village, Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, and Dead Horse, which are jumping off points for most ANWR trips. Bush planes take you the rest of the way. Contact the refuge manager (see "Contact," below) for a list of bush plane operators. I flew out of Arctic Village with Yukon Air, 2532 Roland Rd., Fairbanks, AK 99709; (907) 479-3792 or (907) 662-2445.
Season: Winter comes early and stays late. Expect ice in passes and streams well into June and snowfall starting in September. There's relatively little precipitation, and most of it falls as summer rain. Expect cold, wet, windy conditions any time of year. Since the sun doesn't set between mid-May and early August, there's plenty of daylight to wait out bad weather.
Walk softly: Because of the short growing season, disturbing plants and animals can tip the balance against survival. Keep your distance so you don't harass wildlife. The short summer also means things decompose slowly, so carry out all trash. Rather than walking single file when hiking, spread out to lessen the impact on vegetation.
Grizzlies: It's legal to carry firearms in the refuge. Pepper spray can also be brought in, but some bush pilots won't allow it in the plane or they require you to keep it in an air-tight container while in flight.
Conservation: With its oil and gas potential, ANWR is one of the most threatened wild places in the United States. To learn more, contact: Alaska Wilderness League, 320 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20002; (202) 544-5205; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact: Refuge manager, Box 20, 101 12th Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99701; (907) 456-0250; email@example.com.