The Other Arctic
The most prominent signs of mammalian life are the caribou trails that cross the tundra and the small, pearly white antlers dropped by the cows after they give birth in mid-June. The Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd has traditionally birthed its young northeast, east, and southeast of the lake. The slowly growing herd—68,000 strong when last counted, in 2009—migrates around the big lake from calving areas to insect-relief areas (windier locations near sea or lake or on ridges, where mosquitoes and bot flies cannot swarm). The herd passes through two narrow corridors between Teshekpuk and the Beaufort Sea—a route that industrial intrusion could obstruct. Each year, when the herd disperses through autumn and winter, it supplies roughly 5,000 animals to feed subsistence families from Nuiqsut to the Chukchi Sea.
From Teshekpuk Lake on the flat northern coastal plain south to the Brooks Range foothills, where the Utukok, Kokolik, and Colville rivers arise, the topography builds dramatically into a panorama of green rolling prairie. The cottongrass tussocks grow larger as well. Attached to the ground by narrow pedestals, they are impossible to walk on and tiresome to step between. Better to hike the stony ridges or a caribou trail. There are plenty of the latter. Here in the Utukok Uplands, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd—the largest in Alaska—calves each June. I came to see them in July 2003, when the caribou were just beginning their journey toward their wintering grounds, south of the Brooks. The herd’s population was at its cyclical peak, some 490,000, migrating across an area the size of Montana. Grizzlies and wolves would come to test the mettle of mother caribou with new calves and to prey upon the old and lame. Behind them, cleaning up the carcasses, would drift the ghostlike wolverines, rarely seen but as populous here as anywhere on earth.
When the herd had passed, I climbed a ridge and tried to comprehend this huge and quiet wilderness. I remember standing there, surrounded by beautiful pastoral grasslands as far as I could see, east and west. Not a road or building or other human in sight. My only company was the sough of the wind and the high-pitched growls from a long-tailed jaeger. I felt as though I’d been dropped off in the late Pleistocene on a Dakotan prairie.
In the Utukok Uplands, the drainages of four rivers have carved out bluffs where Arctic peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden eagles, and rough-legged hawks hide their nests. Along the riverbanks you might find the remnants of past towns, hunting blinds, the occasional whalebone sled runner, and chert points knapped out by hunters from a few hundred to 13,000 years ago.
Drop down the Utukok, floating its rapids beneath the wings of eagles and falcons, to its mouth, and you drift into Kasegaluk Lagoon, a large expanse of shallow waters separated from the Chukchi Sea by 125 miles of sand and cobble barrier islands that, come summer, are as picturesque as Caribbean strands, though a bit cooler. As many as half of the world’s Pacific black brant come wheeling in here in late August or early September, filling the sky with their wavy, overlapping vees. Drawn to rich fields of estuarine green algae, they refuel for their flight to the eelgrass beds of Izembek Lagoon en route to wintering grounds in Baja Mexico. Long-tailed ducks, with their elaborate chocolate parfait plumage, are regulars here, and spectacled eiders, with their goggle-like facial markings, nest on the mainland. Pacific loons, elegant in their gray velvet hoods, seek out inland lakes, while their smaller cousins, the red-throats, nest on tiny ponds and fish in the lagoon. Thousands of ink-bellied dunlins and red phalaropes (a shorebird species in which the female is the more brightly colored and the male incubates the eggs) add to the greatest variety of feathered species in all of Alaska’s lagoons.
Up to a thousand ice-loving and potentially threatened spotted seals (fodder for polar bears) gather on the barrier islands on summer days, barking at times like a kennel of dogs. More and more walruses haul out here as well, as the Arctic warms and their preferred sea ice retreats northward. Beluga whales arrive in small groups to form their greatest congregations along the Chukchi coast. They molt here in the shallows, where the gravel provides a place for them to roll and dance to rub off their old skin. Some take advantage of the protected waters to give birth. Abundant fish and shrimp feed the seals and whales, which, along with the walruses, provide subsistence food for the local Inupiat. Threatened polar bears stalk these strands; more and more often the pregnant females den here come winter, rather than swimming out to the retreating sea ice. And a handful of grizzlies mosey down the long river corridors from the foothills to gorge on the carcasses of marine mammals washed up by the sea.
Back in those uplands, a short walk east from the Utukok headwaters, you come to Storm Creek, the westernmost tributary of the Colville River. The Colville flows east from there and then north, meandering some 300 sinuous miles so scenic they earned the river (along with the Utukok) a nomination for Wild and Scenic Rivers status. From source to sea delta, it remains largely unmarred by man. World-record numbers of raptors flock to the top of its bluffs, inlaid with 100-million-year-old fossils, to hatch and raise their young. Hundreds of pairs of rough-legs and dozens of pairs of gyrfalcons nest along the Colville and its tributaries.