The Other Arctic

The Other Arctic

When most Americans think of the wildlife on Alaska's North Slope, they think of the beleaguered, 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But if they look to the west, they will see another vast wilderness--also teeming with birds, bears, and caribou. Best of all, they can help save it.

By Jeff Fair/Photography by Subhankar Banerjee
Published: November-December 2011

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.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Jeff Fair

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

We've trashed the lower 48 so

We've trashed the lower 48 so now we'll begin trashing Alaska. The little bit of oil we'll get from the North Slope and from off-shore rigs aren't worth the end result.
C'Mon. Give the wildlife, and those of us who care, a break.

The arctic

Nature's wonders can't be bought at the store or made by man. They are treasures and we must treat them as such.

Don't know what you have until its gone

Why do we continue to do the most destructive things for our own self gains. Is it truly human nature or just laziness that gives us the right. Why do we avoid taking the necessary steps to develop alternate means to support ourselves without disturbing the rest of the world. Every being that exists has a right to survive.

Save the Arctic

Humanity must stop the wanton destruction of habitat for all other non-human creatures. We are making it impossible for species after species to continue living on earth. Humans don't own the earth.

SAVE THE ARCTIC

It makes no sense to destroy something that is priceless in order to find some putrid, toxic gunk to further poison our planet. For what? MONEY?

NPR - Permanent Protection

The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska needs PERMANENT national wildlife refuge status. It must be left wild for all to enjoy.

The Other Arctic - NPR

The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska needs PERMANENT national wildlife refuge status. It must be left wild for all to enjoy.

Save the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A

Mention Arctic wildlife and most people imagine an area on the eastern end of Alaska’s North Slope: the beleaguered Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But to the west of Prudhoe Bay there’s an additional 23 million acres of unsung wilderness: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. It’s even larger than the Arctic refuge, teeming with wildlife—and in need of your help.

Though the reserve’s name makes it sound like a giant oil tank waiting to be tapped, it holds much more. This western Arctic wilderness, the largest federal holding in the United States—the reserve is the size of Indiana—is home to hundreds of thousands of caribou; grizzlies and wolves in numbers long ago erased from the Lower 48; and skeins of pintails and long-tailed ducks, Pacific black brant, tundra swans, king eiders, and white-fronted geese lacing the spring and autumn skies. Now and then a surreptitious wolverine, too lanky and long-legged to be a bear, appears in the low rays of the midnight sun. From the river bluffs hundreds of falcons and eagles take wing. And on the reserve’s fringes, where it slips under the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the west, it is refuge to seals and birthing belugas and the terrestrial domain of polar bears—icon of the North—swimming in from the retreating sea ice. A bleak and empty land suited only for oil development? No way.

No Drilling in Our Last Pristine Areas

It's a crime that we are robbing future generations of their birthright to know their natural world. It is also humanity's undoing. We've pillaged enough of the earth. We simply cannot afford further devastation and destruction.

Save the Arctic

Somethings are just WORTH saving! This is at the top of the list!!!

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.