Live from the Tundra: Our Alaska ecologist blogs from the Arctic Refuge

Arctic Village. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.

It is the 50th Anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What better excuse to get to know this great wilderness?

Over the next two weeks a friend and I will do just that by embarking on a great adventure that will take us through this remote land in the northeast corner of Alaska.

During our migration across the Refuge, which we’ll begin Thursday, Aug. 12, we hope to have the chance to see some of the wildlife that calls the Arctic Refuge home. We’ll be looking for wood frogs, trying to help scientists understand where these hearty little amphibians are living in Alaska. We also hope to see caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bears (from a distance!). No matter what we see, we look forward to knowing its wilderness soul as we make our way across 140 miles of its highest mountains to spend time with the community in Arctic Village.

Loya will post again on Aug. 24 after reaching Arctic Village.

Arctic Village is a community of about 150 people, mostly native Alaskan Gwich’in Indians. They and their ancestors have inhabited this area for more than 4,000 years. Even today, food from the land, especially caribou, makes up nearly three-quarters of their diet. I’m going there to teach ecology at a science and cultural camp organized by the Arctic Refuge staff, Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, the school and the community.

Loya and children near the Arctic Village. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.I visited Arctic Village for the first time last year, flying in to teach at the camp. For all that I shared about ecology and climate change with the students, I learned at least as much from them and the elders that spoke and demonstrated their traditional ways of living and surviving. Sitting on the red-carpeted fall tundra, looking across at the gray limestone peaks on the last day of camp, I didn’t want to leave. It was wonderful to have had the chance to experience life in a village on the edge of one of the world’s greatest wildernesses.

As we planned this year’s trip, I wanted to experience more of the Arctic Refuge before the camp started. There are so many possibilities for exploring; it was hard to know which to choose.

As this year is the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge, It would be fitting to follow the route of Wilderness advocates Olaus and Mardy Murie in the Sheenjek River Valley would, where they documented the diversity of wildlife. Their awareness and subsequent love for this landscape of tundra, rivers and glaciated mountains played an important role in its ultimate protection as a Refuge.

Of course, the migratory path of the caribou from the Arctic Coastal Plain into the mountains and south onto the tundra where the Gwich’in of Arctic Village await them would also be a trip that would truly bring the spirit of the Refuge alive for a traveler. But caribou are built for traversing the Arctic Coastal Plain, and I am not. A landscape covered in tussocks — tippy clumps of grass that rise from the wet tundra — is notoriously frustrating to travel through.

Brooks Range. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.In the end, the trip my friend Brad and I chose is not that of the caribou or the Muries, but one which geologist Alfred Brooks and his team from the US Geological Survey likely made in the early 1900’s. We will traverse the Arctic Refuge across the Brooks Range, through the Philip Smith Mountains, named after another early geologist. Hiking in the Brooks Range affords both a beautiful landscape and firmer ground for hiking. We can also use our lightweight packrafts to float rivers, taking some of the load off of our feet for a few days and allowing us to take in more of the landscape as the river carries us along.

Following a 700-mile car trek from Anchorage to the western boundary of the Refuge — which would have taken Brooks weeks but we’ll do in one very long day — we’ll launch our lightweight packrafts into the Atigun Gorge and float ten miles to the Sagavanirktok River, starting on August 13th. We’ll then backpack along and across the continental divide for about 5 days and 60 miles along the spine of the Brooks Range, working our way across rivers flowing north to the Arctic Ocean, through high valleys and passes, known best by the Dall sheep.

Junjik River. Photo by Brendan O'BrienAfter crossing over the Continental Divide, we’ll be able to look down river valleys whose waters flow south to join the Yukon River for the thousand mile journey west to the Bering Sea. It has been a rainy summer in the eastern Brooks Range, and we hope to find the Junjik River full enough to carry us from its upper reaches to where it meets the East Fork of the Chandalar River, and then we’ll continue to float down the meandering river to Arctic Village.

Through my research as an ecologist for The Wilderness Society, I have spent a considerable amount of time on the tundra, yet it never ceases to fill me with wonder. Tiny plants emerge from the snow in late May, grow and flower quickly, and display their fall colors in early August. Many a Fourth of July has brought snow, only to melt the next day, replenishing the water where mosquitoes will lay millions of eggs. Caribou traverse hundreds of miles to reach the coast to give birth to their calves. Waterfowl and shorebirds travel from as far as South America to nest, breed and molt on the shores of the many coastal ponds and lakes. The Arctic Tern goes from one extreme to the other, traveling between the Arctic and Antarctic.

What is it about this landscape that compels wildlife to migrate to the Arctic Coastal Plain each year for the fleeting summer?

We don’t know all the answers to that question, but it does appear that the wilderness quality of this landscape plays an important role. Vulnerable caribou calves and featherless molting birds surely benefit from the wide-open spaces that make it difficult for predators to conceal themselves, the lack of disturbances that cause birds to take flight while nesting may boost survival of their chicks, and the abundance of food including sedges for caribou and geese and insects in the many ponds and lakes allows animals to grow strong for the next leg of their migration. People too find food in abundance, including the hundreds of thousands of caribou, fish in the rivers, waterfowl on the lakes and berries on the tundra.

The tundra is both a fragile and tough landscape. It is easily marked by the paths of animals and just one pass of an off-road vehicle can leave a scar that persists for decades. The people, wildlife and plants that live in the Arctic also know how tough it can be, with frozen soils redefining habitat and home, windchills reaching -80F in the dark winter and being a long way away from other places you might want to go, whether it is to see family in Fairbanks or to reach winter habitat in California.

Because the environment and climate itself can be so stressful for those that live there, adding the additional impacts of oil and gas development, which can include habitat loss and fragmentation, disturbance from vehicle and airplane traffic, and spills which add toxins to the food web may have detrimental consequences for wildlife and the people that depend upon them across their migratory routes. My colleagues and I are partnering with wildlife and habitat biologists to try to understand how those stressors might accumulate to decrease populations of caribou and other species.

It’s time to get everything into our packs and prepare to leave. We’ve packaged all our food in a way to keep it dry and will pack out everything we take in so we can preserve the wilderness nature of this special place for the next visitors.

Arctic Village School. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.Our next contact with civilization will be Aug. 22 when we arrive in Arctic Village for the science camp. The last time I was there, I was able to connect to the Internet from Arctic Village School. If all goes well, I’ll be able to access that and post photos and an update from the road.

Arctic Village. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.
Brooks Range. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.
Loya and children near the Arctic Village. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.
Junjik River. Photo by Brendan O'Brien
Arctic Village School. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.