Traversing the Arctic Refuge: Our Alaska ecologist arrives in Arctic Village

Wendy and Innoko pulling into the Arctic Village near school. Photo by Brad Meiklejohn.

On Sunday, ten days after setting out from Alaska’s Dalton Highway, my friend Brad Meiklejohn and I floated on our packrafts into Arctic Village, the final stop on our adventure through the Arctic Refuge and the place I’ve come to teach a summer science camp to village kids. As we geared up for this great journey, we expected some encounters with wildlife; the refuge has delivered ten-fold.

We took along three wilderness dogs for company and bear protection. Innoko is my white husky who would lead the way down the rivers as we paddled. Roxie is a little red and white husky that always had an eye out for wildlife. We could follow her gaze and see caribou, wolves and an arctic fox. Tana was our bear dog, alerting us to a grizzly and standing ground when it charged us. For every mile we walked, they surely covered five times as much ground.

It was an exciting trip in perhaps one of the rainiest Augusts on record for this northern country. Every day we had sun, clouds, then rain. With all the rain, the rivers were much bigger than we expected, so the packrafting was exciting! We started out going through the Atigun Gorge which had big waves and water pouring over boulders. We were busy the whole time trying to make our way down without flipping over. We made it down successfully and sat in the sun and dried out while eating wild blueberries.

Over the next five days, we hiked up beautiful unnamed valleys, finding fossilized corrals and a wooden dogsled from long ago abandoned near a rocky pass, and tracking which birds were still hanging out in the alpine tundra. We tallied 40 species of birds along the way.

There were many special moments. One was seeing three wolves across the river valley on our second day, and being able to watch them move in and out of the willows. We wondered if they had a den in the area.

Caribou crossing at Accomplishment Creek in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Wendy Loya.A few days later, as we prepared to go over the pass at the head of Accomplishment Creek, a herd of about 20 caribou came streaming down a steep slope next to us, then crossed the creek and went up the other side. The bulls have enormous antlers but still move so gracefully. The females and calves moved quickly ahead of the large bulls.

As we came down the Junjik River valley, we sat to watch a grizzly bear on the other side of the river, feeling we were at a safe distance to do so. But when it became aware of us, the grizzly bear came charging to the edge of the ravine which suddenly seemed quite small. Tana the dog went forth barking, and with the other dogs as backup, the bear stopped, pounded the tundra threateningly, then fled up valley unbelievably fast. When he stopped to look back at us, Tana gave another bark and he ran further away.

Conveying the wild beauty of the Arctic Refuge takes so much more than describing the gently eroding limestone mountains, the shale scree slopes that shine after the rain passes, and the reds, yellows and greens of the tundra. My photos capture some of this, but probably don't convey the feeling of being out there....way out there. It was both exciting and sometimes a bit intimidating to be days away from the road and days away from the nearest village. It was rarely silent, with rivers running, wind blowing and even the occasional thunderstorm. In over 140 miles of travel, we saw only one other camp, set up near a lake by a pass. Perhaps they were sheep hunters flown in by one of the small planes that often flew over?

View the complete slideshow from the trip by clicking in the box below.

Hard to believe that adventure is over already. But it is great to be in Arctic Village, and really great to have had a hot shower when we got here. There are other scientists here to help teach science camp, and we spent the day with the students making observations about wildlife and habitat.

Tomorrow we are hoping to hike a trail that was used by elders to reach the best hunting areas so that this knowledge can be passed onto the younger generation that relies on roads and ATVs to get around town and up into the hills. We'll collect plants to preserve for the Arctic Refuge Visitor's Center, pick berries to make jam, and learn skills for surviving in this rapidly changing and often extreme environment.

And speaking of rapidly changing environment, there is apparently a polar bear within the vicinity of Arctic Village. This is perhaps the second polar bear ever known to come onto the south side of the Brooks Range. They are supposed to be marine mammals, hunting seals, unlike their terrestrial cousins the grizzly and black bears. I hope that the bear will move away and not come closer into town for everyone's safety, including the bear's.

Wendy and Innoko pulling into the Arctic Village near school. Photo by Brad Meiklejohn.
Caribou crossing at Accomplishment Creek in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Wendy Loya.