Last Chance to See ANWR?

Far off America’s beaten path—with no trails, roads or development—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) consists of 19 million acres of mountain, tundra and coastal plain in Alaska’s northeast corner. For lovers of teeming wildlife, vast open spaces and snowy vistas, a visit to the Arctic Refuge could be the trip of a lifetime. And given recent political sentiment to exploit the oil reserves below the Refuge, this coming summer may provide a final opportunity to visit the area while it’s still in pristine condition.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge offers incredible vistas, and the chance to see unspoiled wilderness that may vanish if oil-drilling interests have their way. © Roddy Scheer

The Refuge contains hundreds of species of mosses, grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, and it provides prime habitat for caribou, moose, wolf, lynx, fox, wolverine, muskox, three species of bear and many other animals. Additionally, thousands of birds migrate from every continent to the Refuge each summer.

With mild temperatures ranging from 30 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, early summer is perhaps the best time to visit ANWR. Around the summer solstice, the sun never goes down, making surreal effects with the low-angled sunlight.

The Great Migration

Another advantage to visiting the Refuge in early summer is the chance to witness one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles—the annual migration of the 130,000-strong Porcupine River caribou herd. The herd winters in the Canadian Yukon, and every year it travels 400 miles en masse to give birth to as many as 50,000 calves on the coastal plain of ANWR as the weather warms up and nutritious lichens begin to bloom. The plain’s long sightlines give the caribou a jump on approaching predators, and the winds off the Beaufort Sea bring temporary relief from millions of swarming mosquitoes and botflies.

Because of ANWR’s possible oil reserves, Congress declined to grant full wilderness protection to the area in 1980. Increasing pressure from the White House and organized labor could force Congress to open the area to drilling at any point, jeopardizing the health of the ecosystem, eliminating wilderness values and threatening the caribou herd.

Visitation or camping permits are not required in ANWR due to the region’s remoteness and inaccessibility. That said, visitors should beware that there are no amenities whatsoever, so wilderness camping and navigation skills are a must.

Do-it-yourself adventurers can catch a flight from Fairbanks to Arctic Village, Deadhorse or Kaktovik ($300 to $400 round trip), and then hop on a chartered bush flight out to one of the Refuge’s six landing strips ($1,000 to $1,500 round trip). For those who don’t want to plan logistics and acquire mountains of survival gear, guided tours with qualified outfitters or environmental groups provide a safe and enjoyable way to see the area.

Guided Tours

Guide David van den Berg came to Alaska in 1989 as a volunteer to help clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He then moved north to become a wilderness guide. Last year, he took over ownership of outfitter Arctic Wild, whose guides have been leading small group trips into ANWR for more than three decades. The company offers several summer Refuge trips involving canoeing, rafting, backpacking or combinations thereof; side trips may include visits to Native villages and tours of oil drilling facilities. Trips range from one to three weeks at $2,000 to $4,000.

“What brought me to ANWR was the expanse of it, the roadlessness, and the opportunities for solitude,” says van den Berg. “There’s not that many places where 9,000-foot mountains come right up to an ocean.” Arctic Wild prides itself on local guides proficient in natural history, low impact camping and top-quality gear.

The Sierra Club runs several ANWR “outings’ for its members led by experienced guides and naturalists. Optional activities include hiking, rafting, bird watching and photography. “Experiencing the wonder of the Arctic Refuge firsthand helps convert passive support into lifelong commitment,” says Sierra Club Alaska Representative Sara Callaghan Chapell.

Many environmentalists have mixed feelings about encouraging visits to the fragile area. But those who do visit are likely to be inspired to help protect the wilderness from the vicissitudes of Big Oil.