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Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:
The Final Refuge
This fall Congress may vote to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge—or to drill it for oil. Jonathan Waterman heads deep into the nation's
most hotly debated wilderness to find out what's at stake.  
Photographs by John Burcham  

Photo: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

TRUE NORTH: Paddling the remote Kongakut River wilderness, the crown jewel of ANWR's waterways (left). The unnamed peaks of the Brooks Range (right).


SEE A VIDEO of wildlife biologist George Schaller and writer Jonathan Waterman's ANWR trip, courtesy of Wild Chronicles.
Watch the video >>



LEARN MORE about preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at Patagonia's Web site, which is devoted to education and political action. More >>


PLAN YOUR TRIP to ANWR with our Adventure Guide >>


SEE MORE ALASKA TRIPS with these ten adventures into the changing wild of America's last frontier. More >>

We climbed from the canyon floor onto a tableland of dry grass bent double in the afternoon wind. Photographer John Burcham and I doffed our hats and scanned the horizon. We'd begun a traverse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the day before and still hadn't laid eyes on a creature larger than a hawk, let alone a human.

As I looked downwind, the scale of the valley below and the surrounding Brooks Range felt exponentially larger than anything I'd left behind at home in the Colorado Rockies. The Arctic vastness, coupled with the lack of trees or other visual cues, makes gauging perspective a crapshoot. Somewhere in the distance, I watched what appeared to be a fleeing ground squirrel. I grabbed the binoculars.

The squirrel, to my surprise, swelled into a grizzly.

John asked quietly, "That a problem?"

I didn't think so. While it had chosen the same route we planned to follow, over a ridge and into the next valley, it appeared amply rounded. With any luck, summer's roots and berries had left it ill-disposed to chasing humans. We carried holsters of mace, six days' worth of freeze-dried food, John's arsenal of camera lenses, and seven maps that would steer us over land and water, but still we were not, as Arctic bard Robert W. Service wrote, "armed for bear."

Service was one of two men responsible for my being here. My father presented me with a copy of the poet's 1907 collection, The Spell of the Yukon, when I was a teenager, and his tales had struck me like a fever. Today they read like an outdoorsman's Dr. Seuss: wild-eyed prospectors abandoning the search for riches and finding enlightenment among nameless mountains and "valleys unpeopled and still." I've spent most of my adult summers up north. Throughout the region I've found no geography as singularly sublime as Alaska's northeast corner, alongside Canada's Yukon Territory, where glaciated mile-high (two-kilometer-high) mountains crowd the Arctic Ocean. It's the area now contained within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place conservationists adamantly refer to as simply "the refuge" and oil lobbyists prefer to call ANWR.

John and I had begun our midsummer walk in the Sheenjek River Valley, one of the most remote bush-pilot destinations in Alaska. The Sheenjek was the terminus of a three-week-long journey I'd taken with the other man whose work had drawn me north, the renowned field biologist George Schaller. Schaller, at this point, a friend, had agreed to join me and three graduate students on an expedition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his now famous trip, a journey that literally put the refuge on the map. In 1956 Schaller, then 23, had been one of two students on a Sheenjek scientific survey led by conservationists Olaus and Mardy Murie. His "Arctic Valley" report opened with some Service poetry and detailed the diversity of flora and fauna in this mysterious region. The comprehensive paper, among other influences, helped convince Congress and the Eisenhower Administration to protect the region in 1960.

Inspired by Schaller and the wonders he described, I first came to the refuge in 1984, hoping to catch the annual migration of more than a hundred thousand caribou. It was the singular beauty of the Kongakut River, however, that drew me back time and again. Bursting from the 6,000-foot-high (183-meter-high) glaciated spine of the Brooks Range, it is one of many ice-cold rivers feeding a rich coastal plain. Yet the gin-clear, fish-dimpled Kongakut—which carves north, twisting and curling through limestone towers and minarets before abruptly plunging to the Beaufort Sea—is the only river in the refuge held captive by mountains for most of its length.

I'd always wanted to walk the 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Sheenjek, on the southern side of the Brooks Range, north over the mountains to find the Kongakut's first trickle. Schaller, who thinks of himself as "a wanderer with a scientific bent," teaches that the best way to get to know a place is to undertake a long journey on foot, to develop an intimacy with the countryside and the movement of its animals. So John and I were taking the torch from Schaller and following the spirit of his 1956 sojourn. Then, evoking the obscure Alaska discipline of "turf and surf," John and I would raft 25 miles (40 kilometers) down the Kongakut headwaters, meet a friend stationed with kayaks, and paddle the rapids for 70 miles (113 kilometers) to the Beaufort Sea. Finally, we would thread 50 miles (80 kilometers) of icebergs west to the Iñupiat village of Kaktovik.

After seven visits to the refuge, I still found myself spellbound by its alien landscape. Its northern edge—free from the typical scars of glaciation—offers a rare glimpse back to a time before the last ice age, which miraculously skipped Arctic Alaska. The wet coastal plain is formed into large polygons that resemble moon craters. The continuous summer sun transforms the midnight air into a honey-hued wonderland. The normal constraints of space and time feel askew, as if the creator of this place fumbled the assembly manual and accidentally created a world apart.
 
In large part the state of Alaska owes its existence to oil. In 1959 a 40-year battle to earn statehood was won only after local officials proved to Washington that potential revenue from the territory's untapped petroleum reserves would offset the federal cost of maintaining a massive chunk of wilderness 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometers) from Capitol Hill. Nine years later, 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (as it was then named), amid a little-known tidal convergence of tundra and rivers called Prudhoe Bay, the Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil (now Exxon) discovered the largest oil field in North America. In 1977 the eight-billion-dollar, 800-mile (1,287-kilometer) Trans-Alaska Pipeline began pumping Prudhoe Bay oil to tanker ships in Valdez.

The ANWR controversy began in 1980, when Congress doubled the
8.9-million-acre (3.6-million-hectare) range into a 19-million-acre (8-million-hectare) refuge. It simultaneously mandated a study of the 1.5-million-acre (more than half-a-million-hectare) coastal plain inside the refuge's northern boundaries—an area whose geologic foundations contained the same potentially oil-rich "Barrow Arch" formation found below Prudhoe Bay. To no one's surprise, a 1987 government report showed that the refuge's coastal plain potentially contained significant oil. The Department of the Interior recommended coastal-plain oil leasing in an orderly fashion, but warned of possible adverse effects on the region's wildlife. Twenty years later, people are still arguing over exactly what that means.

The hundred-mile-long (161-kilometer-long) coastal plain is sandwiched to the north by the Beaufort Sea and 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the south by the Brooks Range. Though it does not bring oohs and ahhs to the lips of nonbotanists, biologists refer to the coastal plain as a "kitchen," or a feeding ground, for nearly 200 wildlife species. This includes the 123,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd, 106,000 snow geese, a hundred or so grizzlies, and a seasonal population of polar bears, which are already stressed by diminishing sea ice.

While the polar bear has emerged as the poster child of global warming, the Porcupine caribou herd has come to symbolize the refuge. From a plane a week earlier, Schaller and I had spotted a group of several thousand running across mountaintops in search of wind to quell the flies. These caribou travel up to 3,100 miles (4,989 kilometers) a year, one of the longest terrestrial migrations on Earth, traveling northwest in the spring from Canada's forested lowlands. Based on caribou behavior near Prudhoe Bay, up to 30,000 pregnant cows a year might avoid the coastal plain if the morass of service roads, glinting pipes, and ever-churning derricks of the proposed oil field is built.

To those of us outside Alaska, the question of the refuge boils down to two positions, drill it or save it, which fall along major political party lines. A March 2007 Gallup poll shows that 57 percent of Americans oppose drilling. Within the state, however, feelings are more complicated. Alaska crude accounts for more than 85 percent of state revenue and could easily buy out the combined income of tourism, fishing, and mining. The pipeline hit its zenith in 1988, pumping some two million barrels of crude a day, and accounted for 13 percent of U.S. domestic oil demand. Ever since, Prudhoe Bay's subterranean dipstick has been running dry. The 800-mile (1,287-kilometer) pipeline has dropped to less than half of its capacity.

According to the most recent estimate of the U.S. Geological Survey, the ANWR coastal plain holds "between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels … with a mean value of 7.7 billion barrels." If Congress were to "open up ANWR," as the lobbyists say, federal, state, and native Ukpeag´vik Iñupiat Corporation landowners would earn billions from their oil company renters. But seven billion barrels is not a Middle Eastern king's ransom. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has more than 264 billion barrels beneath its sands. In total, the refuge would provide less than two years' worth of U.S. oil. According to a 2005 report from the Energy Information Administration, 20 years into production the American public would save a penny per gallon at the gas pumps. The state of Alaska, taxing the oil company profits at 22.5 percent, would continue to prosper. So would its 626,932 residents, who since 1982 have been exempt from state income and sales taxes thanks to Alaska's oil investment portfolio. In addition, they receive yearly dividend checks, which in 2006, granted $1,106.96 per resident.

Led by U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, from Alaska, who calls the refuge "an empty, ugly place," every Congress since 1987 has proposed both wilderness bills (shutting out industry) and oil leasing bills. Liberal-leaning wilderness supporters plug up the phone lines, in-boxes, and mail slots of their representatives. Conservative politicians talk of "energy independence" as a security issue and tuck refuge drilling proposals within proposed energy, budget, and military appropriations bills. To date, no legislation has migrated past the White House.

Now, for the first time in more than a decade, the shifting Congress could ultimately protect the 1.5 million acres of coastal plain within the refuge. This fall the Markey bill, which designates the coastal plain as wilderness and would close the door on oil development, could be put to a vote in the House. The prize defines the most epic battle of modern environmental politics: a chance to preserve the last undeveloped frontier of America, forever. 
 
"Pretty amazing place this ANN-Wahr," said John, referring to the meandering Sheenjek River Valley that hyperextended below our feet. This was John's first visit and he knew that the few who make it here—only about a thousand a year—either fall in love with the place or they never return. I first arrived at the refuge as a 28-year-old Alaska resident, fresh from years of rescue work and climbing around Mount McKinley. Having finally shed the stigma of cheechacko, as Robert Service called the green, lower 48 tourists who had never studied the northern lights, I was ready to do some exploring that did not involve crevasses, avalanches, and bushwhacking. So heeding the peculiar call of this land with no trees, I traded up for thick mosquitoes and thinning sea ice.

The land seemed largely unchanged in the 22 years since passed. The second day of our 2006 trek, we gazed at caribou trails lining a new valley like lifelines on a giant palm. John and I followed bear tracks down into a mossy creek flourishing with bones, tracks, and scat. Waist-high willows tangled the creek bottom, but large animals had kicked trails in any direction we cared to walk.

After dinner, while John photographed Arctic poppies, I climbed a small peak to glass our route with binoculars. As a caribou bull clattered in rock fields below, a golden eagle rode the updrafts, and the next day's walk through a low pass looked dry and free of tussocks. During the two and a half months of Arctic summer, each of these swaying, mushroom-shaped colonies of cotton grass swell to the size of a human head and poke a foot or two above shallow, bug-ridden bogs. These well-disguised minefields routinely fool cheechackos into feeding the mosquitoes and spraining their ankles.

The next two days proved typical of the far North: wide-open spaces akin to the steppes of Mongolia and a gunmetal overcast that muted the daylight. The midnight sun parked on the northern horizon, beaming beneath the clouds with no discernable heat and shimmering ominously against the tent walls.

We crossed a 5,000-foot-high (1,524-meter-high) pass into the Kongakut headwaters, our hoods up against an icy rain blowing off the Beaufort Sea. Mercifully the cool weather had forced the mosquitoes to take the week off. Moving from the south side of the Brooks Range to the north is like passing from the eastern farms of the Rockies to the canyons of the West. The treeless landscape abounded with orange lichens, shed caribou antlers nibbled by voles, and knee-high willows.

Before leaving my family in early summer, I promised that I'd try to avoid another Alaska "adventure." My greatest hits in this category include, but are not limited to: overturning a kayak, dislocating a shoulder or two, and running out of food. Luckily I didn't have to mention getting mauled by a bear. As a Denali park ranger toting a shotgun, I had lured "problem grizzlies" to my tent by cooking bacon. Those who came within 20 yards (18 meters) of my camp were conditioned with a rubber bullet fired into their fat-swaddled behinds. Through countless observations, tracking, and run-ins, it became apparent, despite a general pattern of behavior, that bears remained unpredictable.

Since bears have noses keener than bloodhounds, John and I carried no toothpaste or lotions or soap or scents that would invite guests. Nor did we fish. In camp we cooked 40 yards (37 meters) downwind of the tent and left our odorless vacuum bags of freeze-dried food beneath a leaning tower of pots. If a bear raided our food, the clatter of kitchenware would wake us into rock-throwing alert.

On day four, a half mile (one kilometer) east of the dry gravel bar on which we were walking, something caught our attention. It looked more like a furry boulder than a grizzly.

"You see it, John?" I asked.

"Yeah, what'll we do?"

"Wait," I said, "and then we'll react accordingly."

As it smelled us, the bear gave up digging and ambled in, testing to see if we would show our cards as prey. Without changing direction or stopping, we climbed onto a high riverbank to appear taller. The barren-ground grizzly is the North's most opportunistic diner, capable of sniffing chemical pheromones emitted through fear from up to a dozen miles away. The bear whiffed us by waving its dish-shaped face to and fro. At 50 yards (46 meters), this bear must've been all but overcome by our unwashed clothing.

I told John as we walked toward the bear that many of my close encounters—totaling more than 50—resulted in grizzlies eventually fleeing in the opposite direction. I didn't tell him that four different bears had swum after me in my kayak. Three other times, bears ran after me. During those pursuits, I only fired a gun once as a noisemaker to scare the bear away. I stopped another grizzly by throwing it a peanut butter jar as a temporary peace offering. Throughout these encounters, rather than reacting in fear, I had relied on strategies that would send me home intact.

I instructed John to pretend that he was Arnold Schwarzenegger and puff out his chest. We accompanied our swaggering strides with shouts of "Hey, bear!" The 400-and-some-odd-pound (181-kilogram) grizzly locked up its front legs and paused. He couldn't help but register our elevated bank position and, presumably, perceive our backpacks as the same sort of muscled shoulders seen on grizzlies. Outwardly, we were putting on a great act. In our minds, we were a dance step away from being scared stiff. But it worked. The bear veered off and loped steadily up a crowberry-covered ridge for 1,500 feet (457 meters) and then disappeared over the top.

"Boy," John said, sniffing his armpit, "we must need baths."

Below us the Kongakut began as a burbling creek. As the morning darkened to afternoon, our clothes sagging with rain, we trudged beneath well-traveled Dall sheep trails, which had worn white contour lines over rust-colored mountainsides. A ptarmigan exploded away from a hiding place at my feet in a clucking whirr of white wings, and I spun to face it while unholstering my bear mace. As a feather floated down, my heart pounded wildly in fear. It takes a while to come down from a grizzly encounter.
 
The next morning, running on fumes after we had metabolized our last few ounces of oatmeal, we reached a confluence that doubled the river volume. There, we inflated our secret weapons, four-pound rubber Alpacka rafts, which we'd carried from the Sheenjek. We assembled our collapsible paddles, zipped into personal flotation devices, lashed our packs to the bows, and attached waterproof spray decks over our chests.

John asked, "Ready?"

"Go!" I shouted. The current flushed us downstream into a waterslide. In narrow channels we pushed off banks dripping with shiny gray permafrost. Fish shadows darted in the back eddies. We whooped and sledded past boulders—freed from slick tussocks, boulder fields, and whining bugs.

The media often paints the refuge as a Serengeti teeming with wildlife, but unless you're traveling by air to track the herd, it's not unusual to go for days before sighting megafauna. After all, the refuge is 30,000 square miles (77,700 square kilometers), nine times the size of Yellowstone National Park. For an astute observer, however, animal sign is everywhere. We could smell the ripened bowels of kill somewhere beyond the western bank. All day and through the bright nights, we listened to a biophony of unidentified birds. We could see tracks tamping the mud or willows waving shed fur.

The river dropped into a quandary of three braids. I back-paddled. A poplar trunk blocked the right channel and shallow waters occluded the middle one. So I pulled hard left with my paddle to ferry upriver, then straightened out to surf river left, sweeping beneath a bank of dwarf birch and catching a smooth tongue of deep water that gave me an ice cream headache as I drank it out of my hat.

For all the route-finding challenges and sporadic bear meetings, John and I were developing a sense of place felt from within. Although we had come to celebrate the 50th anniversary of George Schaller's landmark scientific survey, one of the reasons for the refuge itself, I had been silently lamenting the 50th anniversary of my birth in June. This was not the mere inexpressible angst of some midlife crisis, because I loved my flourishing family, home life, and work. I simply didn't understand how I could continue the epic journeys of youth.

It was Schaller who cured me, by example. At 73 he had spent three weeks with our crew, shivering on a cold float down the Canning River, jumping tussocks, swatting mosquitoes, and climbing a mountain. His innate feel for the refuge freed me to build further intimacy and respect for the land. I took satisfaction in knowing that as I withered, lost my reading vision, and grew stooped in the shoulders, this place would remain unbent, unaged, and as untouched as the first day of its creation. Or so I hoped.
 
After ten hours of hungry paddling, we reached a buddy of mine, Mike Freeman. He had flown in the week prior and was guarding our liquor and kayak cache with a shotgun at Drain Creek, the Kongakut River put-in alongside a bumpy airstrip.

Mike had dressed the gravel bar for us with a checkered tablecloth. He filled our plastic cups with red wine, our bowls with boiling water and freeze-dried lasagna. Over the last week of waiting at what passes for a major junction in the refuge, Mike, a psychologist in the Colorado public school system, had seen only a bug-eyed husband and wife from Illinois. That spring, after being introduced to the Kongakut by a TV show called Rafting Alaska's Wildest Rivers, they'd planned a trip. Their only practice was on two benign Midwestern flows.

The couple learned, to their surprise, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires no permits or registration of its visitors and in return provides no safety net. The trick would be to finish their float by early August, before the nights re-darkened and the falling snow stuck for ten months.

Mike watched them struggle to squeeze into their brand-new dry suits. Seeing their light pile of gear, he was a bit concerned to learn that their plan for bears would be to employ their good vibes as Christians and "shoo" the beasts out of camp. He waved goodbye, partly wondering if they'd survive their first experience on a Class III river and in the Arctic, but mostly impressed that the refuge had the power to draw working-class Midwesterners to the far North.

As the Kongakut hummed its song, we pulled rubber and canvas hulls from the duffels and snapped together laminated birch frames. These folding boats had been inspired by early sealskin-and-driftwood Iñupiat kayaks. Our 50- to 70-pound (23- to 32-kilogram) Long Haul kayaks could carry weeks of food and were designed to take a beating. I had already paddled mine across the top of the continent. I levered my hips into the cockpit—like pulling up a treasured old pair of baggy jeans—then shoved off over the rounded cobblestones and led the way. Two miles (three kilometers) later I misread a narrow channel turn and nearly flipped while running it backward.

At low water the Kongakut boulders formed a puzzling obstacle course. We leaned left and right, dodged snags, clipped rocks. Below purple scree fields, eroded thumbs of rock jabbed the blue sky and Dall sheep fled from the river. At times we were all forced to jump out to escape boulders, willow tangles, or deceiving shallow channels. Two dozen miles from Drain Creek, above a landslide that twisted the river, John, who had never steered a kayak down a river, made a quick turn to reach the main current. In an unexpected eddy, his boat spun broadside and flipped against a boulder, throwing him into the river.

From the shore I extended a paddle and hauled him out. Thigh-deep cold water didn't register through my adrenaline. Mike and I grabbed his submerged boat before the rapids could claim it. On previous trips down this river, I'd watched a more experienced kayaking companion destroy a kayak, so I was relieved to see both John and his boat intact. But as he held up a leaky drybag filled with river water and a destroyed zoom lens, we all grew quiet. We shivered as the sun fell behind the canyon. John blasphemed both the river and the bag manufacturer. The mood of the evening and our thoughts went south for the first time on the trip.

That night, as John wrung out his gear, Mike extracted a liter of 12-year-old single-malt scotch from a well-padded bag. In our cold, makeshift camp amid a boulder-filled bog, surrounded by still warm grizzly scat, the roar of the rapids and all would-be interlopers were chased away by laughter.

Two mornings later Mike was relieved to see the Illinois couple, waiting anxiously for a preplanned deliverance by a bush pilot beneath the river takeout at Caribou Pass, a final ridge above the expanse of coastal plain. They ran excitedly from their tarp to greet us.

I tried to imagine her, slight and shivering with cold, playing pinball down the boulder-strewn river. As if reading my thoughts, she looked crossly at her husband.

"I thanked the Lord that we somehow made it through those rapids," she said.

I bit my cheek in consideration. For the moment, her rationale seemed as plausible as anything that I could think of, standing there under the penumbral light, surrounded by paradise, teeming with tiny plants like God's bonsai garden. As her husband chimed in that he was already planning their next Arctic river trip, I nodded in hearty approval. She frowned. I shook their hands in congratulations. We traded email addresses.
 
Two days later Mike, John, and I feathered our paddles in river delta mud, still talking about the couple's audacity. Then we too found ourselves confronting an apparent miracle. A mirage hovered on the northern horizon, a reddish ocean liner wavering next to giant, floating sapphires. I told my partners we were looking at an illusion created by the warm land air meeting the icebergs and sea air and bending the light waves.

"One time," I added, "I saw a city skyline out here."

We sneaked through a labyrinth of channels and immense, blinding expanses of leftover river ice. Hundreds of caribou sheltered from the bugs within the refrigerated atmosphere atop the ice. Mist bleached the air. Then everything blurred into the characteristic coastal fog.

In the heavily silted river we slipped past waving willows, bones, and a caribou carcass. Somewhere far below, amid the subterranean heat, reservoirs of ancient sea creatures rendered into combustible tar. We were pulled into a channel that resembled a great looping intestine, lined with half-foot-high (less than half a meter) banks blanketed in horsetail, until we finally plopped out into a lagoon at the edge of the Beaufort Sea. The barrier island known as Icy Reef lay another mile out (2 kilometers), so we put our heads down and paddled seaward.

Twenty minutes later we wriggled out of our kayaks. Wearing rubber boots, I followed  John and Mike. They stood atop the sands of Icy Reef, washed out of the refuge by a dozen rivers. Their mouths hung open.

To the southwest, 40 miles (64 kilometers) away, the mountains (and what remained of their melting glaciers) rose above the foreshortened green blur of the coastal plain, the area some would festoon with oil rigs. To the north, amid icebergs riding the ocean currents, was the red mirage ship—except this was no illusion. It was a reality of black smoke and rattling chains, preparing to drill offshore the following summer.

We dove out of a quick-moving thunderstorm and into our tents, and as a rainbow appeared as an olive branch over the political battleground of the coastal plain, we tried to sleep with diesel engines growling offshore. The knowledge that oil drilling was imminent kept me turning in my sleeping bag. We could run a secluded river, but we couldn't hide from the long arm of Big Oil.

I reconsidered what had changed here over the past two decades. To my delight the military had completely cleaned up a Cold War radar station at Beaufort Lagoon, in the middle of the refuge coastal plain. However, climate change had caused the melting of glaciers and permafrost, eroding the coastline in long, slumping tundra fractures. Storm surf, unchecked by a recent dearth of sea ice, appeared to be consuming the ocean bluffs. And now this Shell Oil ship had appeared, worrying offshore waters like an errant mosquito, preparing to drill within sound and sight of the refuge. I wondered, Is my plan to grow old and watch this place remain untouched nothing more than a pipe dream?

By early morning the ship had disappeared and we hoped for a week of quiet while paddling to Kaktovik. Each day we fished for Dolly Varden and shuttled them straight into our frying pan. We poked through deserted sod and driftwood ruins built by the local Iñupiat decades before. And quietly we picked our way along the most spectacular coast of the entire Northwest Passage.
 
I have spent decades chasing an elusive mastery and understanding of the far north. My journeys in the Arctic have given me direction. George Schaller has referred to this pursuit as "finding his moral compass." In Schaller's distinguished career as a conservation biologist, he has always maintained that dispassionately sharing science about a place doesn't cut the mustard. The goal, he once wrote, is to balance knowledge with action, because, "anyone who observes the exponential destruction of wilderness must become an advocate for conservation."

As we paddled the coast, two boatloads of Iñupiat hunters passed us in the fog, waving their ubiquitous Coke cans to us in friendly greeting. We were reminded that, historically, their marine-based culture centered on polar bears, seals, and whales. If an oil field came to the coastal plain and drove the caribou away, these mariners would theoretically retain the riches of their sea. As well, the tax revenue from oil companies has been good to these people. The first time I visited their village of Kaktovik 22 years ago, personal waste disposal systems consisted of plastic toilet seats over wastebaskets lined with trash bags. Now, along with a new school and improved health care, everyone has indoor plumbing. Not surprisingly, until several years ago, a large majority of Kaktovik Iñupiat had supported drilling in the refuge, which would bring further tax revenue.

The blades of my weary partners plopped like metronomes against the Beaufort Sea. I could guess what we'd find in the village. Offshore oil roughnecks and engineers working the exploration ship. Tourists like us, fleeing before winter, and the returning polar bears. And the resident Iñupiat, who will reap the consequences of any congressional action.

For the first time since the oil development debate began a quarter century ago, local opinions now approach the divisive polarity of the lower 48. Oil ships clang and probe and boom in the dwindling ice pack, throughout sacred Iñupiat waters. Concern is spreading that oil operations on the coastal plain could also cause an offshore spill. A 2005 petition against coastal plain development was signed by 57 of 188 adults in the village. The Kaktovik mayor can no longer say whether his constituency supports drilling in the refuge, let alone offshore drilling (which would not bring in any tax or lease revenue).

The oil lobby will keep trying to buy legislation for drilling within the refuge, and proponents like President Bush and Senator Stevens, who has sarcastically invited Americans up to ANWR to decide for themselves if it's worth saving, will roll their eyes at pilgrims like us who continue to speak of the place as the Taj Mahal. Yet it is a nondenominational temple built for everyone: two Midwesterners who have encountered the face of God, the Iñupiat who have lived here for several thousand years, millions of urbanites who nobly embrace a far-sighted ideal of wilderness for its own sake.

Our last night out, I shivered against a North Pole breeze. Whitened spruce logs, which had drifted in from Canada's Mackenzie River, hundreds of miles away, crackled inside an orange campfire. Icebergs sailed by like giant men-of-war, crowding our hushed islet. We were surrounded by fog sparkling with distant sunlight and an ocean rich with seals and whales and all those polar bears who remained, hopefully, far out at sea. I had long ago made up my mind about this place. So did Robert Service, back in the days when statehood first failed and the gold rush went bust, poisoning the creeks and stripping vast tracts of northern landscape.

Mike put on another layer of fleece; John pulled out the Yahtzee board. I pressed closer to the fire and, for comfort, recited the poem "The Spell of the Yukon," about a miner who cared naught for gold.

"It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder," Service finished. "It's the stillness that fills me with peace."
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