A Journey to “The Place Where Life Begins”

A photo essay from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Last summer three friends and I had the rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in the rugged wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are no roads in the refuge, and very few people visit this “the Last Frontier.” Most visitors fly in by bush plane, and then camp and hike within the region. Others backpack in. Last July, my group flew over the Brooks Range and then river rafted through the North Slope to the frigid Arctic Ocean. For two weeks and 160 miles we paddled down the Upper Marsh Fork to the Canning River, then converging with the Staines River, to finally arrive at shores of the Beaufort Sea.

photo of an arctic tundra landscape with many caribou grazingall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this image to view a photo essay from the ANWR

The Canning is an interesting river in that it forms the western border or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the vast, 19-million acre preserve that is North America’s largest wildlife conservation area. To the west of us lay the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, the central hub of oil extraction on the North Slope. On the east shore of the Canning the wildlife preserve begins.

In January, President Obama made big news when he directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to begin managing all of the reserve as legal wilderness – meaning no development will be allowed there, including oil development in what is called the reserve’s 1002 area, the section that oil companies and environmental groups have fought over for decades.

Naturally, environmentalists were thrilled with the president’s move. “The Coastal Plain is the wild heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is why Americans from all walks of life have advocated for its protection for more than half a century,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement at the time. “This Wilderness recommendation at last recognizes the wonder and importance of the region for Native cultures, wildlife, and anyone seeking to experience one of America’s last great wild places.” Oil companies and their political allies were, unsurprisingly, angry with the president’s move. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska.”

Formal wilderness designation requires an act of Congress. And given the sort of rhetoric from Senator Murkowski and others, that seems like a long shot. Which is a shame – of all the public lands in the US, surely the Arctic refuge deserves full wilderness protection. As one of the very few people who has visited this unique land, I can tell you what a special place it is. An Alaskan Native people, the G’wichin, refer to the North Slope of the Brooks Range as “The Place Where Life Begins,” because the area is the calving ground of the massive caribou herds.

For two weeks, our group was surrounded only by the sights and sounds of wild nature – the rhythm of the river, sightings of caribou and Dall sheep, the seemingly endless expanse of the Coastal Plain, the buzz of mosquitoes, and the creaking ice floes. But the day before finishing our trip and flying back to Fairbanks, I heard something that sounded foreign to me. I was standing on a plateau of spongy tundra overlooking the Coastal Plain to the west. In the distance, toward the Beaufort Sea, I could hear the faint drum of oil drilling. It was a sound that made my stomach sink.


Click or tap an image thumbnail to see a photo essay from the ANWR

Chuck Graham is a freelance writer and photographer in Carpinteria, CA.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

‘They Cannot Keep Us Silent’

In the paramos of the Colombian Andes, Indigenous leaders face persecution as they defend the rights of people and the environment.

Daniel Henryk Rasolt

The Sturdiest Place in the World

I once believed there was no safer place than New Jersey’s Money Island. I certainly didn’t think that within most of our lifetimes, all of this would be gone.

Andrew Lewis

How Much Longer Will Wild Coho Hang on in the Golden State?

As wild salmon teeter closer to extirpation in central California, conservationists work to rewild the floodplain and reshape our relationship with it.

Austin Price

In Surprising Shift, Conservative Utah Creates Plan to Tackle Climate Crisis

Concerned about its air quality and economy, Utah joins the ranks of red states addressing global warming.

Andrea Smardon The Guardian

Inside America’s ‘Crunchy Conservative’ Counterculture

For some, being environmentally conscious is a fundamentally conservative idea.

Scott Jackson

Extensive Chemical Safety Fraud Uncovered at German Testing Laboratory

Revelations have major implications for animal rights as well as public and environmental health.

Jonathan Latham