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Arctic Silence and Scale, Paddling ANWR

Dirtbag Diaries: A two-week, 160-mile traverse of North America’s largest wildlife refuge

Photos and Story by Chuck Graham

Most of my water time is spent kayaking, surfing and standup paddling, so I was looking to do something a little different. I hunted around looking for remote, wild places and decided to raft the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Northeastern Alaska. I managed to talk a couple of buddies into paddling ANWR with me on a two-week, 160-mile traverse of North America's largest wildlife refuge.

ANWR is 19 million acres, which works out to 19.2 Rhode Islands. The preserve also represents the last 5 percent of Northeastern Alaska still closed to oil drilling. It's home to polar and grizzly bears, wolves, Arctic fox, musk oxen, Dall sheep, moose and about 130,000 caribou.

The most frequently seen bird when paddling ANWR is the mosquito. Every time I unzipped my tent at least 50 of these Alaska-sized mutants would slip inside. The caribou would stand for hours in ice-choked rivers just to get away from them. The bugs caked the caribou's eye ducts, nostrils and ears, until insanity overtook them and they'd stampede.

A biologist told me that if you take the biomass of the mosquitoes in the ANWR and compared it to the caribou, the mosquitoes outweigh the caribou. I didn't keep track of how many I swallowed. I'd wipe them off my body, and the mass of dead mosquitoes would transform into this slimy, black gunk.

Besides the main raft we had two packrafts that we traded off in. One day on the Canning River I took a packraft on a channel braiding to the northeast. I ended up separated from the others for three hours, trying to work my way back to the main channel. Being alone really drove home how vast that country is.

Shooting from the packraft on the Canning River.
Shooting from the packraft on the Canning River.

We rafted three rivers, the Upper Marsh Fork, Canning and the Staines. The Canning brought us from the North Slope of the Brooks Range to the coastal plain, which was so vast it was difficult to judge distances. It took us three more days to
reach the coast, where ice floes creaked and cracked on the Arctic Ocean. The scale affected all of our senses. If there was a breeze coming off the ocean, the silence would sweep across the coastal plain. When the wind died, we'd hear nothing but the hum of mosquitoes.

Smell traveled too. On one river stretch the stench of a caribou carcass followed us for miles. A seabird biologist stationed on the coast told us we missed a polar bear by three days. It had smelled the carcass and trekked upriver to feed. I later found its tracks. They'd been there for days, undisturbed. At least for now.

On the clearest, crispest day, I heard a low, rhythmic thud. It took me a while to realize what it was: an oil drilling operation on the Beaufort Sea far to our west. Later on, in the twilight after midnight, I scanned with my binoculars and could barely make out the oil derricks, the greatest threat to the otherwise pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

–Check out more travel stories from C&K.

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