The quiet joy of an undeveloped northern wild

"Look," I said, "eiders - just ahead on the spit.""No, man," my companion Peter Mather said, swivelling around from his seat in the bow of our kayak to look at me.

ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE

REFUGE, ALASKA

“Look,” I said, “eiders – just ahead on the spit.”

“No, man,” my companion Peter Mather said, swivelling around from his seat in the bow of our kayak to look at me. “Those are musk-ox. They’re like a kilometre away.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “They’re ducks and I could hit them with a stone from here.”

I rested my kayak paddle on my spray deck and squinted through the mist at the cluster of dark blobs along the edge of the gravel reef. We were sea-kayaking along the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 120 kilometres northwest of Herschel Island.

I steered our kayak close alongside the narrow barrier island that separated our inside lagoon from the ice-clogged Beaufort Sea, the dark gravel spit our lone landmark in the thick fog. I could barely make out the ghostly outlines of the icebergs, but I could feel them – the frigid breeze blowing off the ice stung my exposed skin.

I was still convinced the shapes were ducks.

“Anyways,” I continued, “How could musk-ox get out here? We’re two or three kilometres from the mainland.”

“Maybe they walked out here on the ice during the winter.”

As we paddled closer, I realized Mather was right.

I’d mistaken a herd of 400-kilogram muskoxen for eiders.

I blame the fog. The mist, together with the lack of trees, buildings or familiar landmarks for reference made judging size impossible.

Or maybe my brain was playing tricks on me. It was probably going haywire trying to adapt to our schedules. Our travel was not dictated by the hour or by how awake we felt, but by the weather – as reliable as Yukon Energy.

If you slept through a window of good weather you were liable to spend the next day huddled inside your tent while a gale screamed outside, wishing that you’d gone while the going was good.

A few days earlier we’d taken advantage of blue skies and a tailwind, paddling from 11 p.m. until 8:30 a.m.

I had also had trouble sleeping, thanks to the 24 hours of daylight, and my chronic fretting that our gear would blow away.

A couple of times I left the comforting warmth of my sleeping bag, bundled back up and ventured outside, making sure that our kayak or any loose gear wouldn’t blow to the North Pole. After a week of shivering, sleeping poorly and travelling at strange hours my mind as jumbled as the pack ice piled up against the spit.

“Want to try photographing the musk-ox?” Mather asked.

“Sure,” I said, steering our kayak towards the shore. The hull scraped against the pebbles and I scrambled ashore. I stripped off my soaking gloves and pressed my frozen hands against my stomach. I looked up at the musk-ox, which were now only 50 metres away.

Seven shaggy adults grazed on the sparse vegetation, while four babies followed their parents, occasionally bounding away from the grown animals to chase one another.

“Ready to get closer?” Mather asked. I dug my camera out of its dry-bag, then started creeping towards the herd.

“Just one second” I said, turning back towards the kayak. “My head is cold so I’m going to put on a toque.”

“Malkolm, you’re already wearing a toque.”

***

For decades, oil companies have wanted to drill for oil beneath the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Industrial activity on the coastal plain would likely destroy the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, leading to skyrocketing calf mortality and nosediving herd population.

Countless other animal species would be impacted – from polar bears, wolves and musk-ox to Pacific loons, sandhill cranes and red phalaropes.

My father began working to protect the Arctic Refuge when I was six. Every summer my family would hike or kayak through the refuge, gathering photos and stories to share with the American citizens and politicians who would decide the fate of the Arctic Refuge.

There were times when everything was quiet – when I’d be transfixed by the minute details of the landscape: the intense purple of a Siberian Flox flower, clinging to life on an exposed scree slope or by the intricate patterns of lichen growing on a fallen caribou antler.

Other times the land was filled with movement as tens of thousands caribou swarmed over hillsides and splashed through creeks, times when I felt like a tiny rock in the midst of a great river.

During two winters I experienced an ecosystem as different from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as possible – the lower 48.

Twice my family, along with many Gwich’in people, toured across the United States, giving slideshows about the refuge and lobbying politicians in Washington DC.

Our Gwitch’in companions spoke about how their culture, so reliant on the caribou, would be destroyed should the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd be opened to oil drilling. Many of their powerful words have stuck with me to this day.

I remember Norma Kassi telling an audience, “Going into the Arctic refuge and drilling for oil would be like going into a hospital nursery and tearing that apart.”

“We can’t feed our children oil when they’re hungry,” said Sandra Newman.

I remembered dreary hours spent in the back of our van as drove from city to city. In the back seat I spent days agonizing over a letter to Bill Clinton about the need to permanently protect the refuge.

I wrote my final draft in my neatest printing, and drew caribou calves and Tundra Swans in the margins. I was scandalized when I received a form letter written in bureaucratic gibberish, not a handwritten reply from the president.

I don’t know if Las Vegas ever put odds on the Arctic refuge being opened for oil development, but if they did, and you bet against the oil companies, you’d be rich.

In 1989, a bill approving drilling in the Arctic refuge passed through the House and Senate right to George Bush Sr’s desk. Then the Exxon Valdez hit a reef, spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude into the Prince William Sound. The outcry over the disaster derailed the Arctic refuge bill.

Six years later, a Republican-dominated Congress and Senate tacked a “rider” onto the budget, which would have opened the Arctic refuge. President Clinton vetoed the entire budget, in large part because of the Arctic refuge rider.

I thought the Arctic refuge was doomed again when the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House between 2002 and 2006. Yet numerous attempts to pass drilling legislation were beaten back, with deciding “no” votes cast by Republicans such as Norm Coleman, Lincoln Chafee and John McCain.

Against all odds oil companies have remained shut out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

***

I squinted through the viewfinder of my camera, rattling off photos of the musk-ox.

After a few minutes we crept back to the kayak and replaced our cameras in their dry-bags. I stepped into the cockpit of our kayak, tucked in my spray deck, dug my paddle blade into the sand and pushed us away from shore.

We paddled in silence. An hour passed. I looked to the south and saw that the mist had begun to lift, revealing the tongues of ice along the mouth of the Kongakut River and the peat banks that marked the edge of the coastal plain.

I dug my paddle deep into the water, regretting it instantly as icy seawater filled my glove. I made a fist to squeeze some of the water out of my glove, then resumed paddling. Movement kept my upper body warm, but my feet and legs, cramped in the cold cockpit were frigid.

“We should stop to build a fire,” I said. “And eat some warm food.”

“Sounds good,” Mather replied.

I looked back towards the coastal plain, the calving grounds of the caribou, the place sacred to the Gwitch’in. I was filled with a different kind of warmth, the sort of warmth that didn’t come with a fire or a cozy sleeping bag.

It was a comforting feeling – the quiet joy of glimpsing the calving grounds and seeing no oil rigs.

Malkolm Boothroyd is an adventurer, activist, writer and photographer who lives in Whitehorse.