Wild Turns in America’s Serengeti
I need to commit. But it doesn’t feel right. The water is deeper, and the current is faster than it was when we crossed the river 12 hours earlier. I retreat backwards and shake my head at my partner Shana. Our initial crossing was sporty to say the least. Although the sun being out and our fresh mentality at the start of our day, coupled with a game plan that included changing from boots and underwear into fresh pants and hiking boots worked well enough.
I knew skiing anything in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was going to take effort. Not just any effort. The kind of effort that requires a certain skill set born from an acknowledgment that the journey is more of the reward than the actual objective. I had made several previous trips to the Arctic Refuge before, and each time I dreamt about skiing in the heart of the mighty Brooks Range. Home to some of the wildest land in the world, the mountains here is the true definition of wilderness as understood by Western culture.
A Unique Place
A traveler for the better part of two decades, with skis in tow, I had never spent as much time in an alpine region such as the Arctic Refuge with skiing not playing a pivotal part of my experience. Alaska has long been the dream of many skier, holding what is largely considered some of the best skiable terrain on the planet. But year after year, I found myself in Arctic Village at the southern tip of the Refuge looking out into a picturesque backdrop of jagged peaks wondering what it would be like in winter or late spring.
The history of skiing in the Arctic Refuge is rich. Stories of “the last great wilderness”, and “America’s Serengeti,” as the Arctic Refuge is often called, have been passed down to the lower 48 for decades. Alaskans and global travelers seeking what many consider a true definition of pristine wilderness have been visiting the Arctic Refuge since it was established in 1960. Unknown skiers have made traverses, bagged first descents, and explored drainages far from the media spotlight. Other skiers, some of the most well known, regarded, and decorated in the sport have also made trips in more recent years. These latter athletes have not been as quiet. They have shared stories about their time in the Arctic Refuge that go well beyond an accomplishment in skiing a previously unskied, wild peak.
Renowned adventure skier Hilaree Nelson shared, “I’ve traveled all over the world. There is something so unique and special about The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s not friendly or comfortable or easy, but it’s wild and it’s massive. It’s unique and intense and unlike anywhere I’ve been. Any time in my life I’m given a chance to go there, I’m going to go.”
Having traveled the world a few times over myself, I too have never been anywhere like it. I also share Hilaree’s sentiment that if given the opportunity to go I am willing to try and make anything feasible happen for another opportunity to connect up there.
Kit Deslauriers, well known as the first human in history to ski from top of the worlds “Seven Summits,” has also been impacted much like Hilaree in terms of the sheer brilliance of the Arctic Refuge. She has also been involved in a few ski projects in the region and knows that part of the importance in skiing in this area is letting other people know about how special it is, and why it needs protection. “If we don’t have anyone who understands what it is like to be there – that is not a blank white sheet of paper or lifeless landscape— how would people know how important it is to protect?”
While the theme of protection doesn’t usually surface in ski articles, the subject matter is becoming more and more commonplace today in a world where climate change and unsustainable business practices continually threaten the integrity of ecosystems and communities across the globe. Whether it’s groups attached to our ski communities such as Protect Our Winters, or the Winter Wildlands Alliance-both of whom support protection for the Arctic Refuge, wild places are as threatened today as they have ever been in the history of humanity. One of the most contested regions in all of the Unites States is the Arctic Refuge.
When the Arctic Refuge was established in 1960 it was granted its first federal protection under law. It wasn’t until 1980 when the Refuge was expanded that it ultimately received three different designations breaking up its 19.3 million acres. While the Refuge as a whole is considered a National Wildlife Refuge, part of it is designated as wilderness, the strongest federal protection granted to public lands in the United States. Another portion of land in the far north known as the Coastal Plain was designated the 1002 area. This latter designation was given so resource studies could be conducted in the area, especially those pertaining to fossil fuels. The total area has been recommended to be given full wilderness status many times over, hence the nicknames and profound stories people constantly share after spending time in the region. But right now, as of the printing of this article, the Arctic Refuge is under its greatest threat since the Valdez oil spill savedit back in 1989.
A year prior, the Gwich’in tribe, a group of Indigenous Athabaskans who have lived in the Arctic Refuge since time immemorial, met for the first time as a full group in more than 100 years. The tribe met in Arctic Village, a small community located on the southern border of the Arctic Refuge because they had heard oil companies were finally going to come in and drill in the 1002. The idea that oil deposits were located under the tundra in the 1002 was the thought behind designating it with special status back in 1980. Even though it is believed that the amount of extractable oil in the 1002 could amount to nothing more than six months of useable oil by the standards of current US consumption, the oil companies were still pushing to get into the last 5% of land on the north slope of Alaska that is not already open to oil and gas extraction. But because of the Valdez oil spill in 1989 plans to open up the Refuge were shelved. Politicians knew the idea would be too unpopular.
The Gwich’in took a particular interest in organizing to defend the 1002, which they refer to as, “the sacred place where life begins,” in large part because it is the nursing grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. In addition to being home to threatened polar bears, musk oxen, and more the 200 species of migratory birds that travel from six continents and from all 50 states to the Coastal Plain, this is also where the Porcupine caribou herd come each spring to birth their calves.
The Gwich’in are known as the people of the caribou. They are a substance people whose economy, culture, and spirituality are inextricably linked to the well being of the caribou. They believe that every caribou has a piece of Gwich’in heart in them, and every Gwich’in has a piece of caribou heart in them. If the oil companies were allowed to go into the 1002 to look and then possibly drill for oil the birds, bears, other mammals, marine species, flora, and Porcupine caribou herd would clearly be impacted, not to mention the overall disruption to this incredibly intact ecosystem that is unparalleled in the circumpolar north.
This past year has seen the Arctic Refuge slip into its most vulnerable state since Valdez unfortunately saved it. The current US administration has moved swiftly, thanks to Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, to open the Refuge up to seismic testing and ultimately fossil fuel development. In early December of 2018 the US became a net exporter of oil for the first time in 75 years. The US Department of the Interior also celebrated the discovery of the largest continuous oil and gas field ever found along the Texas-New Mexico border. Why then would the US push for drilling in a place like the Arctic that is so expensive, unpopular-more than 70% of Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge-and may not pay off in the end? Many believe it’s nothing more than a symbolic battle at this point, for the fossil fuel industry to win the unwinnable conservation fight that is also a clear case of human rights abuse and climate injustice.
Kaktovik and the Solo Circumnavigation of the 1002
My connection to the Arctic Refuge goes back to hearing about this so-called last great wilderness in my teens. On my first trip to Alaska I drove with a friend from Tahoe, but we never made it north of Fairbanks and thus nowhere near the Refuge. It was constantly on my mind, but it wasn’t until after I started freelance writing in my 20’s and penned an article for Indigenous Action Media about the unsustainable practices of the Arizona Snowbowl that Elder Sarah James contacted me. She read the story and invited me to come to her home in Arctic Village, and since she knew I was also an instructor at a college, to bring my sustainability students. The invitation rippled into an undergraduate field course that also served as my introduction to the region those first few years, immersing me in the many issues surrounding the Arctic Refuge protection movement. It wasn’t until 2017 when I finally made it to the north side of the Refuge that my skis also accompanied me on the journey.
Kaktovik is a small village that lies on the northern tip of Alaska and the North American continent. It is the only incorporated area that is technically within the Arctic Refuge, and it lies at the foot of where the oil companies want to look and drill for oil. If you’ve heard of it, it might be because it’s now known as a polar bear hotspot. Tourists travel to Kaktovik from all over the world to see the bears. If they’re smart, they also try and visit Inupiat Elder Robert Thompson.
Like Gwich’in Elder Sarah James, Robert is an Indigenous leader in the Arctic Refuge protection movement. Thanks to the time I had spent working with Sarah and other Gwich’in in Arctic Village I was invited to Kaktovik to meet and work with Robert along with a crew who would be filming and supporting an Italian ski guide named Ario Z’hoo as he attempted to circumnavigate the 1002 area alone, on skis, drawing a big heart with his tracks in the process. And it was February, the middle of winter in one of the rowdiest places I have ever been in my life weather-wise.
Ario is an incredible activist, mountain guide, and all around human being. His goal was far from simple, but his message pure: to continue to spotlight the critical importance of protecting this sacred place. His skis were the daily tools to move around the 1002 as he dragged a sled carrying all of his necessary supplies. Before myself and the support crew left him, we got a taste of what Ario might experience alone during his adventure.
The weather was unlike anything I had ever experienced outside of time spent on Denali. At times, it was a literal expedition walking outside the door of the house where we were all staying. Temperatures dropped to -25F, and with a few inches of snow falling along with wind gusts to 40mph, the wind chill values dipped as low as -60. Any exposed skin would freeze in the matter of minutes, and the whiteouts were so disorienting you could walk 100 feet in one direction and get completely lost. The experience was unreal, and thinking about Ario on his solo journey over the next month was somewhat daunting.
There were some nice days leading up until Ario’s departure where we ski toured on the frozen Arctic Ocean together, and a few turns were linked up here and there where massive drifts had piled up. Ario completed his adventure in fine style, but for me the Brooks Range was still calling.
The Hulahula River
I’ve read and looked at beautiful videos and images from Hilaree and Kits’s trips to ski in the Arctic Refuge (and you should too!). I think what Ario did was amazing, and the more I’ve looked into stories from the people who have chosen to take their skis to the Arctic Refuge the more the inspiration to make it happen grew on me. Patience is a virtue, and this past summer the trip I had been dreaming for about for years finally lined up.
Working for a sustainability startup, my task would be to visit and interview my friend and mentor Sarah James for a few days in Arctic Village. I would then meet Robert Thompson based on an invitation he passed my way last February at The Last Oil Symposium that was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and join a group of six others whom I had never met, to float the Hulahula River from its headwaters in the middle of the Refuge north to the Arctic Ocean and its terminus.
As the time drew near for our departure on the summer solstice, reports trickled in that the river was actually quite low as there had been a big snowstorm in early June that had sort of set the whole place back to winter mode. While that didn’t seem very good for our river floating efforts, it did seem like a ripe opportunity to bring skis. I knew we’d be within striking distance of turns during the trip; the problem is I sincerely did not want to be “that guy.”It’s an identity I’ve come to accept and take on knowing myself well after all these years, but with the respect I believe should be given to working with people like Robert and undertaking such an adventure with his guidance I didn’t want to be the one person with ski gear, thinking about if I could go off skiing during our down days on the river even if I knew I would secretly think about it everyday.
After mulling it over too many times at home I emailed Robert.
Robert’s response was intriguing. He’s an adventurer after all; a human whose memoir, whenever it comes out, will be thousands of pages long and you won’t be able to read it fast enough. Still, he didn’t seem very supportive of the idea, but he also didn’t flat out say no either. The days prior to departing for Arctic Village were nearing when I got a call from one of the people I hadn’t met that I would be joining on the river. Her name was Shana Maziarz and she was a skier. She too had heard about the recent weather and upon our first telephone conversation said, “I think we’d be stupid to not bring skis, don’t you?” I wholeheartedly agreed, and promptly added my lightest touring kit to my already packed items believing they’d either come along for the trip, or get left at the airport in Fairbanks.
When the time came for our Hulahula group to meet, the bush pilot who would be shuttling our loads and us into the start of the river saw our skis right away. “What are you planning to do with those?” he smirked. Shana and I remained polite. As we talked a little bit more, and got off the ground and into the air viewing the heart of the Brooks Range, it was clear to the pilot that we were excited. Slowly but surely snow dipped peaks, steep white faces, and rugged ramps caked in a fresh coat enveloped our total vantage. The pilot asked us what we thought of a few features and realized we were indeed going to use the sticks we brought to climb up and slide down snow. Before we landed he told us of a drainage not far from where he was dropping us off that seemed like it would be reasonable for a ski mission.
Over the course of our Hulahula trip the Arctic Refuge unfolded in a way that was nothing short of spectacular. Rainbows stretching over our camp as migratory birds flew by, and groups of Porcupine caribou emerged seemingly out of nowhere on their way up the drainage to the Coastal Plain as they have for thousands of years. Spending time with Robert amongst this landscape was transformational. The skiing was not.
If there was one other theme next to the constantly recurring one of pristine beauty that usually accompanies descriptions of the Arctic Refuge it is that most reports from people skiing up there, the actual snow quality for the backcountry tourer was poor. And that’s being polite. While it seems like Kit and Hilaree have had their share of good skiing in the area, the majority of the other reports pointed to facets to the ground, no base, and overall difficult-to-horrible conditions. Yes this is still Alaska, but a coastal snowpack is not found anywhere near the Arctic Refuge even though the ocean isn’t very far as the raven flies.
None of that really mattered too Shana and I. We had our skis, the group grudgingly accepted it, and since our first day was one given to settling into our surroundings we of course decided to head up the drainage the bush pilot had pointed out to us to have a look.
After about 9 hours of wet walking across the uneven, undulating tundra we started skinning. In all of my life on skis I have never felt snow like this before. It was almost as if it was a fully faceted snowpack that was simultaneously completely saturated. Down low each step collapsed a crater around me jutting out about 12-18 inches. Breaking trail took on a completely new meaning. There was no cohesion to the snowpack, so avalanches weren’t a heavy concern. Up high things got better, but that was really only in comparison to conditions down low. Skiing was best done at higher speeds, to stay as on top of the snowpack as much as possible. Even the slightest weight distribution underfoot sent too much energy into the snow. And even though the breaking surface we were skiing didn’t run, it still created an almost trench-like reality where going from turn-to-turn meant initiating a hop to accompany a change in direction.
By the time we got back to camp one member in our party was not happy at all. We had been gone for 12, or was it 15 hours? They just didn’t understand what it took to get into these mountains and ski a peak, but then again maybe we weren’t clear enough as to what we considered justifiable in terms of the time, energy, and effort it would take for our mission. But Robert was pleased. Smiling with a grin across his entire face, his excitement was contagious. “You know, you’re probably the only people to ever ski up there. I bet the view was good. Did you see any animals?” The thoughts and questions continued long into the wee-hours of the darkless June night, and gradually gave way to deeper talks about the fight to protect the Refuge.
Shana and I had gotten more than a taste out of skiing in the Arctic Refuge after this first ski mission, and we would only get one more window for another tour on the trip. We approached this next opportunity in a more cavalier fashion. Knowing we had 24 hours of daylight we decided to start in the early afternoon, and both agreed we wouldn’t push our timing or limits unnecessarily. With that in mind we had a new obstacle to tackle on this day, one that involved crossing the river by foot.
It wasn’t an easy crossing by any stretch, but after finding a path that worked we found ourselves looking at one of the higher peaks in the Brooks Range. A bright patch of blue beamed outwards from the small, but brilliant glaciation. But the closer we got the further away we felt. Not wanting to rush too hard we retreated back to a thin sliver of snow lining an obscure chute on even more obscure peak we had passed earlier in the day. It wasn’t the line we were hoping to ski with what we knew could and did indeed end up being our final day on skis this trip, but it felt right so we went for it.
The snow was surprisingly better than we had experienced on our other ski day, but it was still challenging from a snow quality perspective. Mushy, unconsolidated, and grabby, you had to stay on it with each turn. Shana is a true tele-skier. She quite literally told me after I figured out how to politely offer that maybe she should not drop a knee so deep in such challenging snow that she didn’t know how to make a fake tele-turn. “I don’t do any of that ski with your heel down stuff,” she smiled back at me. That was the truth, and in the end it all worked out, minus the crossing on the way back to camp that night.
With our initial crossing line feeling like an accident waiting to happen Shana and I ended up having a bit of an epic after all. With skis on our back, and the current pushing harder and coming up higher on our waists, we had to look for another way to cross. Our midnight sun was obscured by clouds and disappearing more and more with each second as a thick fog enveloped the river valley adding an eerie vibration to an already increasingly precarious situation. Robert had been waiting at camp and had been watching us as we hiked out from our ski line for the past few hours.
Noticing our movements and that we were obviously looking for a better way to get back across the river Robert mobilized several of our trip mates and rallied a raft across the river to pick us up and take us back to camp. It wasn’t the way Shana and I wanted to end our day, but that’s how it went. Cold, damp, and nearly hypothermic, it took a few hours to get warm again. Shana and I felt bad that once again skiing brought such an out-there energy to our adventure, but Robert was also hyper-aware of the extremely large Grizzly bears that had been foraging in the bushes near where we had left our wet underwear and boots from crossing the river at the start of the day. He wanted us to get back to camp as smooth and safely as possible, and like his feelings on the importance of protecting the Refuge, he was right.
Lessons from the Mountains
Back home, reflecting on the trip, I have a clear vision of Shana skinning up towards me at the top of that first line, with bear spray clipped to her belt. Behind her I see a mountainous landscape that looks like a picture I saw as a young boy, one that inspired me in such a way that it made me want to figure out how to see a place like that at least once in my life. I think about the group of hikers we met at the landing site where our bush pilot dropped us off, and the story the lead guide shared of being stalked by a large black wolf while going to the bathroom one morning. And the Muskox that appeared across the river while that same guide was telling us about that very same wolf encounter.
After all those years of dreaming to ski in the Arctic Refuge I do look forward to doing it again. Although the truth is whether I actually ski or not doesn’t really matter. One of the most life shaping lessons I have learned through time spent in the mountains is that places like the Arctic Refuge need to be left as is. We all use fossil fuels, but not every place needs to bear the brunt of what it takes to continue a global energy policy that is ultimately killing life on earth as we know it. The fact that this area still exists as it does with such healthful integrity, and that it’s truly unique in the ecological and cultural resources it supports should be enough to leave it alone. In the words of Hilaree Nelson, “Can’t we just leave one place in the United States of America that we don’t fuck up?”To learn more about how you can help support the Arctic Refuge protection movement visit: http://www.alaskawild.org/places-we-protect/arctic-refuge/