North America’s most impressive (and most politicized) wildlife spectacle occurs each June in the continent’s northernmost no-man’s-land. That’s when and where the 200,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd culminate their 400-mile (644-kilometer) annual march from the Yukon to the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
You might stand beside the Kongakut River and watch a procession of caribou crossing nonstop for a day, two days—maybe tens of thousands in the course of three days or more. It’s a tableau filled with all the drama of Shakespeare: mothers bellowing as calves are swept away, grizzly bears taking chase, eagles swooping in on the hapless young, families reuniting amid the chaos. The stage is the silty blue Kongakut, which spreads out in braids across the 20-mile (32-kilometer) wide plain between the 9,000-foot (2,743-meter) summits of the Brooks Range and the shores of the Beaufort Sea.
Outfitters offer float trips on the Kongakut and other ANWR rivers, but the best way to witness the migration is on foot. Listen carefully as you walk and you just might hear a distant chorus of "drill, baby, drill," adding an elegiac note to the theater of it all.
Need to Know: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge maintains an up-to-date list of guide services.
Originally published in the March/April 2009 edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine