Field Notes from the Arctic
WORDS BY MAIA WIKLER
PHOTOS BY Aundre Larrow
This trip was made possible thanks to the North Face and Teen Vogue. Original reporting for this article appeared in Teen Vogue in July 2019.
Before I traveled to the Arctic, I considered it to be an abstract place of glacial blues and blinding white snow-scapes: a remote part of the world where scientists on expeditions gathered samples and photographed glaciers. My limited understanding mirrored media depictions that show empty lands or pristine wildlife, a narrative that emphasizes a vast untouched wilderness without the people who’ve long stewarded the lands.
But it’s more than just polar bear scenes in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an immense ecosystem of 19.6 million protected acres where humans and animals alike have coexisted for generations. It’s home to an ongoing human and environmental rights crisis that follows an unprecedented move by the Trump administration, which, in 2017, mandated oil drilling in the Refuge to balance massive corporate tax cuts. If drilling does occur on this sacred land — the last remaining 5% of Alaska untouched by the fossil fuel industry — devastating environmental and cultural impacts will follow.
I went there myself to report on the issue, to meet those fighting to save these lands and see the impacts of climate disaster firsthand. My journey lasted two weeks, traveling first by way of a 10-seater bush plan to the first Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit, in Gwich’yaa Zhee, or Fort Yukon, Alaska. Hosted by the Gwich’in nation, the Summit provided an unprecedented opportunity for community members and Indigenous leadership to explain what is at stake in the coastal plain region of the Refuge. From there, I flew over the Brooks Range to the Hulahula River Basecamp on an expedition with young artists and activists to see first-hand the caribou migration and impacts of the climate crisis.
Many locals, scientists and advocates refer to the Coastal Plain as the biological heart of the Refuge for countless living species: in its wildness, an ideal nesting habitat is found in its wetlands and food supply, safe from impacts. Millions of birds migrate here from continents and ecosystems across the world, and the largest number of polar bear dens in North America are also on these lands.
“The Refuge is one of the last places left in the nation where you can experience hundreds and hundreds of miles without a road, you can see grizzly bears, polar bears, migratory birds, caribou in relation to the land as they have been for thousands of years and this is existing in fewer and fewer places,” Emily Sullivan, organizer from Alaska Wilderness League, told me.
For the Indigenous Gwich’in people, the lands we know as the Arctic are inseparable from their identity and survival. They call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “the sacred place where life begins,” referring to the nearly 200,000-strong Porcupine Caribou herd that migrates north each year to the coastal plain to give birth. Gwich’in spokesperson and Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee Bernadette Demeitrieff explained this treasured relationship at the Summit, saying, “We are the caribou people. The survival of the Gwich’in depends on the survival of this herd. For thousands of years, we migrated with the caribou —we settled along the migratory route so we could continue to thrive.”
The Refuge became owned by the American public in 1960, when it became officially protected public land. After decades of bi-partisian efforts to protect the wilderness, the Trump administration mandated a minimum of two massive lease sales of the 1.6 million-acre coastal plain to the fossil fuel industry by 2021 to offset tax cuts for corporations and millionaires. The move came as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, slipped into the last page as a rider.
Normally, public lands leasing processes last six or seven years. The administration is pushing to have the lease sales within 12 months. The initial draft of the environmental impact assessment didn’t even consider oil spills, climate change and the numerous neighboring Indigenous communities. The federal agency responsible for public lands, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), notoriously leased unprecedented amount of environmentally critical public lands to oil and gas last year, and is now responsible for these leases in the Arctic.
Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski led this provision, and in doing so, also changed the stated purpose of the refuge itself to include oil drilling, alongside other purposes such as maintaining environmental health, conserving wildlife and protecting wilderness values. Under this legislation, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be managed as a petroleum reserve without requirements to comply with environmental protection, which is unprecedented.
Nobody really knows just how much petroleum is in the coastal plains area. Before drilling can happen, seismic tests assess which areas have oil. The impacts of these alone could be devastating, as seismic exploration uses extreme force to send sound waves into the ground. Tests occur when the tundra is frozen so the vehicles won’t sink, but winter is also birthing season for southern Beaufort polar bear mothers, who seek refuge on the coastal plain — and the species population has already declined by 40% from loss of sea ice caused by a rapidly warming climate. Seismic exploration exacerbates erosion and permafrost thawing, which the Refuge has experienced since seismic testing occurred there in the 1980s.
The Gwich’in organized the inaugural Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit in Gwich’yaa Zhee (Fort Yukon) to connect allies and community members from villages across Alaska and address these threats. Elders traveled by plane from the Southwest and Gwich’in members from Old Crow in Canada who came by boat, joined hunters, chiefs, community members, youth, traditional and western scientists, lawyers, and grassroots organizers, who came together to share their research and personal experiences with the rapidly-changing climate. Louise, an elder and matriarch leader who traveled all the way from Black Mesa, Northern Dine lands, called the journey a “great honor.” “We are standing in unity whether we are Dine or Gwich’in,” she said.
The Arctic is known as ground zero of climate change because it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. On July 1, Juneau broke a 110-year old heat record. Unusually hot and dry summers are fueling rampant wildfires, too: As of the first week of July, 120 fires were burning in Alaska, prompting evacuation orders and air quality alerts. Many of the log cabins in Gwich’yaa Zhee are tilted from the melting permafrost, shifting the foundation, which a local explained to me as a result of climate change. “We’ve got rapid warming the last few years,” he said. “I’ve never seen stuff like this.”
For three days at the Summit, I camped in the tall grasses along the river. We gathered outside under an open-air wooden octagon structure overlooking the Yukon River, surrounded by aspen, cottonwood, willows, spruce and bushes of wild roses. To travel such great distances to gather in a remote village requires a certain kind of commitment, intention and dedication and there, I felt a profound sense of unity, purpose and community.
Speakers shared concerns of rapid glacier melt, increasing wildfires, earlier and condensed flowering seasons that lead to mismatched timelines for pollinators. Gwich’in leaders emphasized how drilling would impact their identity, food security and livelihood. Hunters shared their stories of noticing changes in animal behavior because of climate change. Elders offered prayers and encouraged healing in the community. Western scientists explained that the rapid rate of Alaska’s increasing heat is also exposing coastal communities in the region to storms and erosion from vanishing sea ice: At least 31 villages are in imminent danger from coastal erosion, and three villages —Kivaliona, Network and Shishmaref — must relocate, or cease to exist.
For so many to come together in the Arctic was fitting. The world’s livelihood depends on this region, as it acts as a global climate regulator. When ice melts here, it drives extreme weather across North America, Europe and Asia, with newly open water creating warmer air temperatures and moisture for storms. Research shows that disappearing sea ice could be affecting continental weather patterns, and rapid climate change is also melting permafrost at an alarming rate. When permafrost melts, it also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.
“Our lands are now slumping, entire lakes draining, and even entire rivers reversing as the permafrost and glaciers that held our ancient lands together are now melting and eroding at accelerating rates,” Chief Tizya-tramm, from Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, testified at a subcommittee congressional hearing on Energy and Mineral Resources in Washington D.C., held in March with other Chiefs, tribal members and politicians.
The Trump administration has claimed that drilling in the Refuge for oil and gas will not impact the Gwich’in because they don’t physically travel to the coastal plain, a generations-long choice made so as to not disturb caribou birthing grounds that the community consider too sacred to visit. What the government fails to recognize in its logic is that by impacting the caribou, they impact the Gwich’in.
What became clear at the gathering is that this is a human rights issue. It can become nearly impossible to have access to affordable food otherwise: grocery stores aren’t often accessible, and the cost of gas is often upwards of $7 a gallon.
“I know what it’s like to live in the village and go without a grocery store,” 22-year-old Julia Fisher-Salmon, Draanjik Gwich’in, told me. “The Inupiak people from the upper coast can’t eat their meat anymore because it makes them sick, the oil rigs give off toxic particulate matter…Oil and gas is forcing villagers who depend on this land to leave, to move. It’s all connected.”
At the Summit, I spoke with Iñupiaq mother, Siqiniq Maupin who shared with me how traditional foods are a form of sovereignty. “What I’ve been specializing in are the pollutants on the North Slope emissions by the gas and oil fields. In the winter, you can see black snow on peoples’ rooftops from the oil field so close...for the Inpukiak people our ogavik our whale, our caribou, are our identity...We have been advised that they have found such high levels of toxins in the bowhead whale that we have a higher risk of getting cancer by eating our traditional food. The world has made it so that our traditional food is killing us... I used to think my children’s children’s children might not eat this food but now I’m thinking my children might not be able to eat this food. I know the spiritual aspect of not having this food and that scares me that they are not going to have this medicine to get through these hard times.”
During the gathering, I heard about climate change as a story of greed and disrespect. Twenty-two year-old Chief Timothy Roberts (the youngest ever Chief of Venetie) described recent feelings of disbelief, fear and frustration that stemmed from his coming across a moose missing its head and side from a trophy kill on a trail north of his village. That someone could fly into their lands with such blatant greed, disregard for the sanctity of life and ignorance of the Gwich’in customs — he asked the crowd, who and what would come next? He was shaken by the destructiveness of unpredictability and entitlement.
Julia Fisher-Salmon told me, “In my culture, when you hunt it’s not a place of ego. When I go hunting with my dad or elders, we always say massi cho, we give thanks to the animal. We see our resources as shared and that we are all connected. Our culture is based on the animals we depend upon. The local people aren’t usually the voices amplified. Their input on what they are seeing is invaluable, they’re noticing patterns changing on the land and with animals in a way that only those can with ancestral understanding of it could know.”
I also met a Gwich’in elder at the gathering, Kathy, we shared moose meat and stories with one another. On the last day, she took my hand and said, “Maia. I have an idea, I am so inspired by everyone here. I feel like I can do something, I want to write a letter to Senator Murkowski and have you film me reading it to her.” I helped Kathy film the video and she urged the Senator to not drill in the Refuge: “During the summer I stayed in the village of Venetie and when I ran out of the store bought food and ran out of money I started depending on the wild meat, caribou. Lisa, I’m writing this message to you to help us with this problem. Help me keep my beautiful native food and please stop this drilling in the calving ground. We, we need our native food. Without this, we will starve.”
The Gwich’in believe that even during hard times, one must not disturb the place where caribou bear their young. Elders said that even during the harshest winters and times of starvation, no one dares enter the calving grounds on the coastal plain out of respect. Oil development, justified to balance Trump’s tax cuts for corporations, could end the way of life that has sustained the Gwich’in and neighboring Indigneous communities since time immemorial. Many feel the adverse effects of opening the Refuge to the fossil fuel industry would forever alter their source of subsistence, sovereignty and identity, akin to cultural genocide.
Days following the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit, my reporting continued as I joined Julia, and small group of young artists on a 6-day trip into the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, organized by The North Face. We took three bush planes over several hours to reach our basecamp near the Sadlerochit Mountains, flying over the Brooks Range along the way.
For millions of acres, there are no human roads here--the land has been left completely undisturbed by industry impacts. Knowing this, I was surprised to see countless dark lines intersecting over the vast lands, imprinted into the tundra that we flew over. I asked our bush pilot what those lines were from. “Those are the caribou’s migration trails, imprinted from them following their ancestor’s for thousands of years,” he told me.
To see the caribou trails from the sky, the Refuge looked like caribou country. There is a reason this place is a refuge— this is a birthplace, where mothers feel safe and called to give life on these lands. It’s a mass migration of animals who can give birth here, safe in this pristine wilderness, where the trails of caribou story the landscape rather than the mark of human roads. When we are in a refugee crisis, as families flee violence and climate impacts in their homelands only to be met with racism at the colonial border, this Arctic refuge shows us the beauty of migration. That it is and should be a part of every beings’ right to move in seeking refuge. This Refuge is a testament that migration, birth and motherhood are inextricably connected to the land and a natural part of life.
As we began to land, thousands of caribou ran below us on the flat tundra, the pulse of the plains. I noticed several turning in tightly twisting circles, which Daniel explained as disorientation from the noise of the bush plane. I could only imagine the disturbance and impacts seismic testing, trucks, drills and oil fields would have.
We set up camp along the banks of the Hulahula River, a glacier-fed river named by Hawaiian whalers in the 1890s. The river flows through the mountainous Brooks Range to the coastal plain, carving an S-shaped silver path through centuries of gravel deposits and glacial till. Flowers color the plains and hillsides: alpine lilies, pink moss campion, bright yellow Arctic poppies. Our group hiked for hours each day, navigating thick willows and feeling the buoyancy of permafrost and tundra under our feet.
I wrote in my field notes:
Now that I have drinken from the Hulahula river,
my cheeks kissed by the never-ending sun,
Now that I have seen the trails of caribou and their ancestors,
Now that I have heard the stories of those whose lives are intertwined with these lands and animals,
Now that I have heard the elders’ call to action on the banks of the Yukon River,
I feel a responsibility and a relationship to this place and these communities.
On the evening of the solstice and our last night at camp, smoke filled the sky from the wildfires in the Arctic. The sun, a bright-orange pink orb, rested over the horizon as the smoke turned the evening sky into orange, pink and purple hues in what looked like a never-ending sunset. On our last day, we woke to wildfire smoke: the glacial-fed river was swollen from the hot cloudless days, torrents of water gushed over the rocks and banks. We loaded the bush plane and took to the sky in a haze.
These are homelands claimed by all who migrate here, all who seek its Refuge. These lands represent everything of the past, present and what is to come -- the generations of caribou trails that mark this tundra to the roaring rivers eroding the banks with unprecedented flows from climate change, indicating what is to come if we continue in this way. These lands are impacted the hardest by corporate-caused climate change and could soon face even more destruction from the fossil fuel industry.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in great danger of irreversible environmental impacts as the Trump administration rushes to open the once protected lands to the fossil fuel industry. The Trump administration is trying to condense a six to seven-year long leasing process to less than two years to lock in their oil and gas drilling mandate before the 2020 elections. There is a word for what the Trump administration is attempting to do with the Refuge, coined by writer Terry Tempest Williams, it is “hypography” –\hi-pah-grah-fee\ n: I) any public lands given over to corporate interests at the public’s expense; 2) landscape once pristine, now abused by grazing, clear cuts, strip mines, toxic waste dumps, or oil and gas development; 3) a state of extreme corruption fueled by bureaucrats.
In a century, when this economic tax bill will be long gone, we will not be able to recreate the coastal plain and Refuge. Drilling would turn pristine wilderness into an industrialized wasteland. For politicians and oil beneficiaries, they see these lands as worthless unless they are drilled to death. Can we leave the oil in the ground? It relies on our collective imagination that it is possible to see these lands as more than a short-term monetary gain, more than a corporate opportunity at the cost of humanity and wildness. As Chief Gailand Gilbert, first chief of Arctic Village said, “The coastal plain is not just a place on the map, it is a foundation of our entire life.”
There is currently a bill currently in Congress, the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act (HR 1146), introduced by U.S. Representative for California, Jared Huffman, that could overturn the legislation that authorized opening the Arctic for development. The bill, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council, “would halt the Trump administration in its rush to open the Refuge to oil and gas drilling exploration” by repealing the provision in the 2017 GOP tax bill that mandates oil and gas lease sales on the coastal plain and restore protections for the Refuge. This has been recognized as the only way to protect the Arctic Refuge from the devastation of oil and gas development. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, environmentalists, scientists and grassroots groups are calling for solidarity and action. Lease sales are anticipated to begin as early as October if the Trump administration is able to continue their expedited environmental review process. Urge your U.S. Representative to support HR 1146 so that the Refuge can continue to be a sanctuary for wildlife and people for generations to come.
Like their ancestors, the Gwich’in are not giving up and neither should we.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maia Wikler, anthropologist, investigative researcher, writer and community organizer traveled to the Arctic for two weeks to report on the impacts the region and communities face from climate change and fossil fuel development. You can follow her work at @maiareillyw and her website: maiawikler.com.