Homesick Hawaiian whaleboat crewmen named Alaska’s Hulahula River. Locked in the Beaufort Sea ice, wintering over in cramped wooden Yankee sailing ships near the river’s mouth, they named it for what they surely missed the most—the grass skirts and swaying palm trees of home.
I’ve only been here a few minutes and I can already empathize. I’m at 69 degrees north latitude, high above the Arctic Circle on the North Slope of Alaska. And now that the Cessna is gone, so are all connections to the outside world…except for our little group and the modest pile of food and supplies we brought with us, there is no sign that the Hawaiians—or
anyone else—have ever been here.
Snow squalls blow down the mountain, making a mockery of mid-July. The dark clouds lower visibility to just a couple hundred feet, so I concentrate on what is close at hand—moose and bear tracks, polished river cobbles, the roar of this tiny Hulahula tributary as it tumbles out of the Brooks Range.
On its course to the sea, the Hulahula cuts straight through the very center of the 1002 (ten-oh-two) Area, a relatively small (1.5 million-acre) section of the 19.5 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike the rest of the refuge, Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 held the area from being designated wilderness pending further study, and the battle between development and conservation forces has raged over this chunk of permafrost ever since. After the President, in a speech last year, urged Americans to travel to Alaska and see the 1002 section for ourselves, I decided to take him up on it.
In the morning, under the gaze of forty Dall sheep grazing on the slope above, we break camp, pack up, and prepare to launch in Jim Jager’s Alpacka packrafts. Our crew of seven is in good shape, but what about these little inflatables? Except for its obviously tough construction, the thing looks like a pool toy. But, the river grabs my raft and yanks me out into the main channel, where I’m soon bobbing through a wild wave train. From my seat at water level I watch brown waves rise head-high.The crafts are surprisingly agile and, feeling confident, I spot a shore eddy downstream on river right and drive toward it.
Sweeping across the eddy line, I plant my paddle blade and the boat whips around and settles into the calmer water. Re-entering the flow, I soon catch up with the others, who are now bobbing ahead of me like a row of brightly colored rubber duckies.
I wonder how many politicians have actually bothered to come take a look. It’s shockingly clear that if the coastal plain were ever developed, we could stand here in these icy peaks, miles away—and days away from completing our journey—and stare out over a sea of industrial development.
Halfway down the river, our party splits up as planned. Three continue downstream while four of us deflate and roll up our packrafts, break down our paddles, and set out on a three-day backpacking trip. There are no caribou here this time of year, but I soon notice evidence of the herds of tens of thousands that call this place home. Rutted and crisscrossing trails are everywhere, proof that their march across the tundra rivals the great animal migrations of East Africa. Then I notice just how close we are to the Arctic Ocean.
From our vantage point we look down upon the 1002 and across the entire treeless coastal plain, only about 30 miles wide from the base of the mountains to the sea.
That’s it. Those who wish to industrialize this coastal plain describe it as a vast steppe, an unending flatland so lacking in features, so utterly graceless, so offensively mundane that it really doesn’t deserve to be protected.
But standing here, looking out over the thin strip of land that separates the summits from the sea, I wonder how many politicians have actually bothered to come take a look. It’s shockingly clear that if the coastal plain were ever developed, we could stand here in these icy peaks, miles away—and days away from completing our journey—and stare out over a sea of industrial development.
Back down at the river three days later, we pump up the rafts just above where the Hulahula disappears rambunctiously into a narrow canyon. During the next couple of days we hit some of the biggest rapids on the trip, until we are abruptly flushed out of the mountains and onto the coastal plain. It’s midnight as we float in the soft sunshine, spinning in slow circles, soaking in the view.
We have finally entered the 1002, what former Interior Secretary Gail Norton termed “a flat white nothingness.” And she’s right. But that nothingness is precisely what makes it special. In a world filled with clutter and chaos, the emptiness is the beauty. The nothingness of ANWR is what matters most.
Photographer and writer Stephen Gorman has paddled wilderness rivers and coasts across North America. His latest book, (Wild New England,
A Celebration of Our Region’s Natural Beauty),
has just been released by Voyageur Press.