Thursday, December 10, 2009

Life Plentiful in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A nameless north fork of Mancha Creek is joined by still another nameless fork; below, an arctic ground squirrel surveys his holdings among rhododendren and dryas
This is the third part of a 3-part story. Scroll down if you'd like to start with the first one. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 30, 2006.
On our 12-day hike through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this past June we encountered abundant wildlife. Six of us hiked up Mancha Creek, in the eastern part of the Refuge. On the sixth day we turned up an unnamed north fork of Mancha Creek and followed it until we crossed into the Joe’s Creek drainage, on the eleventh day, where a bush plane picked us up the following day.

The animals we most frequently saw were caribou, since the Porcupine herd was following its spring migration route north to the calving grounds on the coastal plain. Caribou were plentiful each day, traveling in groups ranging from two individuals to a few dozen.

We sat eating our re-constituted freeze-dried suppers one evening. I looked up.

“I’m eating Pad Thai and gazing at caribou grazing by,” I said, surprising myself with a little poetry and a lot of truth.

Caribou were indeed drifting past our camp, grazing along. And unlikely as it seems, I was eating Pad Thai, straight from its foil pouch. Each hiker carried a variety of freeze-dried dinners, including Santa Fe Chicken, Pesto Salmon, Turkey Stroganoff, Katmandu Curry, and so on. We looked forward to those dinners and gave great attention to the selection every night. Each pouch held a serving for two, and every hiker ate both servings. With all the walking, we were still losing weight.

Besides caribou, the mammal we saw most was the arctic ground squirrel, a mink-sized mammal. One morning one posed like a model. He invited me to photograph him at his breakfast, reaching high to pull down a green stem and munching earnestly. I talked to him softly and crawled close. He struck a formal pose, looking straight into the camera, standing tall and reverent like a deacon. He’d never seen a human. He knew I wasn’t fat enough to be a bear.

He has to careful about bears. We saw several places where a grizzly had moved great volumes of dirt and rocks, trying to dig up a snack. In the wintertime the ground squirrel hibernates under the snow in its burrow, its body temperature falling to below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

We saw a porcupine, two red foxes—one was dead—a white wolf, an impressive golden blond grizzly bear and some twenty Dall sheep, not to mention a multitude of birds. We never saw a musk oxen, although one day we found some of its hair hanging on a bush. I put it in a plastic bag and took it with me. A few days later, I opened the bag and dropped it on the tundra. Take only pictures.

The animal we saw the most signs of, we never saw at all. That’s because the moose weren’t in the Refuge. They spend the summers at Old Crow Flats, in Canada, a place filled with highly nutritious lakes that produce the aquatic plants they need. Once they get fat enough they drift back to the Refuge and spend the winter. No one knew where the moose went until Fran Mauer did a study where he radio collared several and followed their movements.

Their droppings, which look like elongated malt balls, were everywhere we went. The great palmed antlers shed by them littered the flats. The willows in those flats look like runty shrubs, perpetually pruned. They are—the moose bite the limbs off.

On our walk, Bill Curzie, the age group baseball player from New Jersey, showed a knack for comedy. Don, Fran and I were talking about a merganser they’d seen, and I was wondering if it was one of the ducks we see in Tennessee. We were rattling off the names:

“Hooded merganser.”

“Red-headed merganser.”

“Red-breasted merganser,” Don corrected.

“Extravaganser,” Bill deadpanned. Which ended the duck discussion.

A few nights later I had spread my freeze-dried dinners on the ground like a culinary poker hand. Everyone stood looking down wondering which one I’d pick.

“You want to hear my Jackie Mason story?” Bill asked.

Jackie Mason is a comedian who ends every sentence with an accented word and an exclamation point. In a chance encounter, Bill talked to him in a Las Vegas hotel, mimicking the comic’s delivery perfectly. He now did the dialogue, acting his and Mason’s part both—both in Mason’s voice.

“Are you Jewish!?”


“You can’t help that!”

It went on, the story of a comedian ambushed by his own shtick. Bill had us all laughing, and before the trip was over, everyone was talking like Jackie Mason.

On another occasion someone said he’d never forget something or the other. Bill, the baseball player, said,

“I’ll never forget my first home run! I’ll never forget my last home run! It was the same one!”

He could also sing in a velvet baritone, and make up the lyrics on the spot. At supper one night, talk turned to lasagna, one of the dinners on our menu. Bill broke out a song: “Some enchanted evening, you may eat lasagna/ It may come upon ya, as you cross the room,” and it went on.

A few nights later, Bill surprised us again, telling how he had studied at seminary to be a Roman Catholic priest. He went far enough to be given the name “Albert.” But before he became “Father Albert,” he quit, breaking the news to his disappointed mother on his parents’ twentieth anniversary. He learned appreciation of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment.

Our best campsite came on the eight day. It was elevated enough to offer a view east across the valley. A burbling brook of snowmelt ran through our camp from a valley behind us. Caribou continually drifted from that valley past us.

Don, our expedition leader, wanted to climb a mountain across the valley that rose up 1,400 feet above us. I went with him. He had a purpose in mind. From the air, he had once seen a collapsed mountain nearby, one that sheared off and fell, filling the valley below with a jumble of rocks. From the mountaintop he was hoping to spot it. We hiked a mile on tussocks across the valley and then started up.

Half way up the mountain, Don stopped to show me a delicate bunch of flowers growing on the mostly-barren ground. Forget-me-nots, he told me, the state flower. They reminded him of his friend, Michio Hoshino, a photojournalist killed by a bear 10 years earlier. Don had written a poem titled Forget-Me-Not and read it at Michio’s memorial.

Standing there on the mountain, Don Ross, former fighter pilot, Vietnam veteran, former bush pilot in Africa and Alaska, and former Assistant Director of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this world-wise man recited a poem:

Forget-me-not where the wind blows free,
Forget-me-not of the frozen sea,
Forget-me-not of a Higher Power,
Forget-me-not of love within a flower,
Forget-me-not of a past September,
All of this I remember,

Michio Hoshino was killed by a rogue bear on Kamchatka Peninsula, August 8, 1996. National Geographic had featured his photos. Exhibition of his photographic collection continues around the world.

Once on top, Don and I spotted the collapsed mountain. On our next day’s walk we were able to reach it.

We saw lots of birds. My two favorites were about the same size but otherwise completely different. The ptarmigan, a grouse-sized bird, spends the winters in the Arctic. It is almost totally white. One startled me in the bushes one day, flushing with a cackling laugh that fell somewhere between Woody Woodpecker and Clem Kadiddlehopper, the funniest sound I’ve ever heard an animal make.

The plover is beautifully decorated. Its black back is dappled with shining gold patches like you’d sling out of a paintbrush. A white band starts at its wing and snakes a graceful curve up the side of its neck and alongside its head. It migrates to Argentina.

The birds of the Arctic Refuge affect practically the whole world. They fly to several continents, including Asia and South America, and all states except Hawaii. Snow geese in the hundreds of thousands nest on the coastal plain, the place Gale Norton called a “flat white nothing”—the same snow geese hunters shoot at in Tennessee.

Birds have amazing capabilities. They do and see so much more than people. It’s a wonder they have any respect for humans.

We stood overlooking the broad tundra of Joe’s Creek. The wide valley opened before us. On the other side the craggy mountains of the Brooks Range rose up. Through our binoculars, we could see Dall sheep clinging to the high slopes. Fran turned to me.

“This place deserves to exist for its own inherent value, independent of people—although people can derive benefit from it. It deserves to exist for its own value.”

Our last day we broke camp and prepared to walk over to where the bush plane would pick us up, past where we’d seen a serene white wolf trot by the previous day. Don and I waited while Bill shouldered his pack—the others had already left.

“Bill, do you want to have a final ceremony and say a few words over our last campsite?” I asked.

Bill raised his arms to the heavens, a hiking staff in each hand, and Father Albert’s voice boomed forth:

“I commend this place into the hands of Saint Francis of Assisi for his blessing and protection from oil drilling forever, amen.”


Trouble and Danger in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Refuge expert Fran Mauer hikes along Mancha Creek; and, bottom, Arctic douglasia, a plant limited to the north slope of the Yukon.

This is the second in a 3-part story. Scroll down if you'd like to start with the first one. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 23, 2006.
As an expert on the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge, Fran Mauer often got calls from hikers proposing a journey through this wilderness. One guy planned to traverse the Refuge on just the food he could find and wanted to know if that was possible.

“It is if you’ve got the stomach of a caribou,” Fran had told him. Fran said he never heard of him again. Another time there was a solo hiker who had nothing to eat but a bag of Power Bars. Power Bars every day. Power Bars for breakfast, Power Bars for lunch, and Power Bars for supper.

The north country attracts strange people with cockeyed notions. Alaskans call them “queer ducks.”

Fran was the assistant leader of our group of six as we hiked through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this past June. He is a former wildlife biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a superb storyteller with a skewed sense of humor.

But he’d been serious about the caribou. They have the stomach for the food they can find here, which includes lichens I would not want to eat. He showed me lichens whose names alone are off-putting: elk horn, white worms, dead man’s fingers, to list a few. Their names are accurate.

Groups of caribou streamed past us each day, all migrating north to their ancestral calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain, members of the 123,000-strong Porcupine herd. The cows go first and were already there, Fran said. We were seeing yearlings and bulls headed to join them. It is that coastal plain that some want to drill for oil.

There are plenty of animals here big enough to kill us and eat us—including wolves, black bears, and grizzly bears, especially grizzlies, which tend to be unpredictable.

We walked in the season when the sun never sets; plants and animals work overtime. We kept up a silly line of chatter, which had the benefit of telling grizzlies we were around. On another level, maybe the talk was our way of keeping company and asserting our small selves against the immensity of a wilderness that makes one feel diminished, a wilderness where humans are not needed at all.

Ethel, Glen, Fran and I were hiking along one day—the other two hikers were ahead, out of earshot. Ethel Chiang is a former emergency room doctor. Her husband, Glen Freimuth, is an anthropologist, a burly man with a white beard who looks like Ernest Hemingway—two world gadabouts from Illinois.

My hands and forearms were covered by lacerations I’d suffered while climbing two spruce trees. Those trees are covered with sharp stubby limbs that can puncture and tear skin. I’d put a glove on one hand for protecting the sores while deflecting brush.

“I’m doing my Michael Jackson thing this morning,” I said.

“Now there’s a queer duck for you,” Ethel said.

“We’re on the march again,” I said.

Fran began singing, Marching to Pretoria. Then he asked Glen if Pretoria was in Illinois. They decided Peoria was in Illinois, but not Pretoria.

“Roto-Rooter,” Glen said.


“It’s the place where Roto-Rooter is.”

“Oh, is it there?” Fran replied.

“That’s where it got its start.” An anthropologist should know.

Fran mentioned how he’d once had his sewer line reamed out.

“Kinda like a colonoscopy,” Doctor Ethel said.

Talk turned to forget-me-nots, which Fran said he’d told his Japanese wife were “forgive-me-a-lots.” She didn’t believe him.

Thus we repelled grizzlies.

Accustomed to always packing a big gun, Fran was thinking about bears, especially so since he’d lost his bear spray. “There’s no place we can go where they can’t,” he said. He told me that when a man and a bear suddenly meet they both have the same thought: “Kill that thing!”

A grizzly had approached our camp just the previous morning. I enjoyed the whole thing—I wasn’t there. I watched it from above. We were camped on a gravely flat next to Mancha Creek. Across the creek an unnamed mountain rose up steeply. Its slope was covered by spires sticking up like crocodile teeth.

Bill Curzie, who patrols second base in age group World Series baseball, christened the hill “Cathedral Mountain.” “Curzie” rhymes with “Jersey” and so his baseball handle is Jersey Curzie, but I call him Jersey Bill.

Group leader Don, Glen, Ethel and I decided to climb the mountain and check out a cave we’d spotted, curious to see if it was a bear’s den. Part way up we paused to rest. We gazed steeply down on the tents—they looked small and fragile. In the flat to the left, I saw what I at first thought was a caribou, and said so.

“That’s a bear!” Don said. Easy to tell once it moved a bit. It was a golden blond grizzly. “That’s a big one,” Don noted. The bear meandered and then headed toward our tents.

There were two people in camp—Fran, who had lost his bear spray, and Jersey Bill, who’d been worried enough about bears to bring a shotgun, until forbidden to do so. They didn’t know the big grizzly was coming. We could have yelled down. But we wanted to see what he was going to do first.

The bear came to the creek bank, ready to splash across—after which it would be 130 yards from the tents, as I later paced it. He stopped and put his nose up like a bird dog sniffing quail. Then he suddenly wheeled around and trotted off. Good bear. Bill and Fran were denied some excitement.

Fran had told me how fast a grizzly can go when it hits full stride. “(When he charges) his back feet are scratching his ears,” was the way he put it.

Fran had told me about a bear charging him once. The bear stood up 35 or 40 yards away, looked at him, then dropped down and came fast.

“It was like everything switched into slow motion. I could see the drool or slime coming from the corners of his mouth.” Fran made a motion like saliva trailing back.

“How far did he come before he stopped?” I asked.

“Stand here,” he said. He took six steps forward and turned facing me.

“It was that far. I know because I dropped my notebook, and where he turned he left hair on a tree.”

Fran’s partner had been going for the rifle, but couldn’t get it in time—they’d put it under the rain fly to keep it dry.

Death by grizzly can be quick, I expect—the animal is so big and powerful, it can tear one’s head off. Fran had been within seconds of oblivion when the bear turned, an act Fran didn’t expect and doesn’t understand. A true scientist, Fran came back with the data: six steps, the distance from the notebook he dropped to the hair the bear left.

Fran risked his life working at the Refuge, a land he loves. He’s not inclined to surrender it to oil drilling. His Gale Norton story illustrates the fight, one that continues to this day.

In 2001 after President Bush appointed Gale Norton Secretary of the Interior, Frank Murkowski, then senator, now governor of Alaska, asked Interior for a report of historical caribou calving on the coastal plain in the 1002 study area where drilling was being considered. Murkowski, a proponent of drilling, may have thought he could get a useful answer from Norton, who also favored drilling. Murkowski, who headed the Senate and Natural Resources Committee, needed to show that the plain was not important to caribou.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a part of the Department of Interior, was given the job of preparing the report. That agency also had the data and expertise.

“I wrote the report,” Fran told me. His management reviewed it, making what Fran called “editorial corrections” and approved the report for release to Interior. That was in May 2001. The record showed that for 27 of 30 years, there had been concentrations of calving (excluding lesser-important scattered calving).

In June 2001, Gale Norton visited the Arctic Refuge. Fran was given the job of escorting her about. He spent parts of two days with her, a total of five hours, explaining features of the Refuge.

“We sat on the plane facing each other. The Regional Director sat next to me nervous that I’d say something I shouldn’t,” Fran said. In a total of five hours with her, “She didn’t ask one substantial question.”

She appeared uninterested in facts that failed to support her drilling view, and later called the coastal plain “a flat, white nothing.”

When Interior released the calving report, it had completely changed. It said that for 11 out of 18 years there was no concentrated calving in the 1002 area—a stunning reversal of the results submitted by USFWS, which said that for 27 of 30 years there was concentrated calving.

Someone blew the whistle, making the original report available to the press. The Washington Post broke the story in October, 2001, on the very day Norton was addressing a meeting of environmental journalists. Attending reporters, armed with the Post story, questioned her about the discrepancies in the Interior report. Her explanation was simple: “typographical errors.”

At the very least—given the nature of the changes—that answer lacked credibility. The episode supports troubling doubts about truth in government.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Last Great Wilderness

The ice field on Mancha Creek in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and, bottom, a lovely flower with an ugly name, the woolly lousewort

It was the expedition of a lifetime, a one-shot trip, and except for the two leaders, only four people could go, bringing the party to a total of six. That was the number of hikers that a bush plane could deliver to the wilderness in two round trips, ferrying three passengers each time. The trip was the first service trip to the Artic National Wildlife Refuge ever sponsored by the Sierra Club.

I promptly applied, answering standard questions about my health and physical condition. A few weeks later leader Don Ross called me from his Fairbanks home. After a brief discussion he accepted me as a member of the team. My status as an Ironman and marathoner didn't hurt. What followed was one of the greatest adventures I've ever blundered into.

This is the first of a three-part installment. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 16, 2006.


Mancha Creek would be a river in most places. Here, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it’s lucky to have a name. Most of the streams and mountains do not.

Mancha Creek lies in the most remote part of the Refuge, next to Canada, on the eastern edge of the sprawling wilderness. It drains into the Firth River in Canada, which, in turn, drains into the Arctic Ocean 75 miles north of us.

In two flights of three passengers each, bush pilot Kirk Sweetsir delivered six of us here in his Cessna 185 on June 6 of this year. He took off to the west, and I watched the plane grow small against distant, blue mountains. He was the last human we would see until he picked us up 12 days later and 50 miles north, on Joe Creek.

The Arctic Refuge has been called the last great wilderness of North America and one of the greatest wildernesses in the world. Lying north of the Arctic Circle, its abundant wildlife, rugged terrain and expansive solitude are unmarred by modern man, and among one of the last places visited by him. Measuring nearly 20 million acres—the size of South Carolina—it spreads south from the Arctic Ocean for 250 miles, and lies against Alaska’s border with Canada. The plants and animals live here in relationship to the weather and terrain as they have for thousands of years.

The unmarred part is important. There are no roads, fences, or power lines. No motorized vehicles are permitted—except for fixed-wing bush planes, which must land on a gravel bar or on the tundra. All the stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing is absent here. You stand on a mountain and see ranges of mountains spreading before you in every direction over thousands of square miles, all without the aid of a single blinking strobe light.

“Unmarred” is important, one reason for our trip. My topo map covers an area of 5,000 square miles. It shows only one man-made feature—a cabin on Mancha Creek. It’s not there anymore—U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) burned it. But the debris remained.

Our leader, Don Ross, 63, knew about it. He was the Assistant Manager of the Refuge from 1976 to 1984, during which time a researcher used the cabin to do a bird survey. Following that, from 1985 to 2000, Don was a bush pilot, flying scientific and recreational expeditions into the Refuge. He then sold Yukon Flying Service to Kirk Sweetsir, the pilot who flew us here.

Our assistant leader, Fran Mauer, 60, knew about the cabin site, too. Over the years, he logged a passel of hours in the back seat of a Super Cub, counting caribou and moose in his capacity as Senior Wildlife Biologist.

“I spent 21 years working in the Arctic Refuge. I figure I had the best job in the world,” he says.
Both retired now, these two men may know more about the Refuge than any other two persons in the world. The cabin site offended them. In a trip sponsored by the Sierra Club, four of us joined them in an effort to erase the cabin—a husband and wife team from Illinois, a man from New Jersey, and myself.

Plane gone, we shouldered our 60-pound packs and hiked up Mancha Creek. We were in open country containing a bit of thinning boreal forest. Scattered spruce trees grew in the flats together with thickets of low bushes, generally dwarf birch and willows less than shoulder high. The going was tough, hindered by swamps, potholes and stream crossings.

The closest landing site Kirk and Don had been able to find was five miles from the cabin, measured as the crow flies.

“How long’s it gonna take?” the man from New Jersey asked.

“Oh…we’ll get there before dark,” Don answered. Which was true enough, since, in the summer, the sun doesn’t set in the Arctic.

At late suppertime, we camped. Next morning two bull caribou, their antlers in velvet, posed for my camera. Without much stealth, I managed to approach to within 45 yards. If I’d had my camouflage clothes and bow, I think I could’ve bagged one.

On the second day, we reached the cabin, a discouraging sight crouched in a dense spruce forest. A good deal of its logs had not burned. A mangled metal roof slouched over the mess. Litter lay scattered about: Two barrels, two bear-proof boxes, a stove, four five-gallon cans, a battery, a set of dishes, a load of tin cans, and miscellaneous hand tools.

We flattened all the tin cans. Don chiseled the ends out of the five-gallon cans and we flattened the cylindrical shells, to make it all compact. Some of the junk we put in burlap bags for attaching to our packs, most of the rest we bolted shut into the two barrels and the bear-proof boxes. The metal roofing we tied into bundles.

In his work at the Refuge, Fran often fielded questions from journalists. Those questions dealt with the effects of oil drilling on the wildlife. Whenever truthful answers contradicted the position of pro-drilling administrations, Fran couldn’t answer freely without placing his future in jeopardy. It was a conflict that troubled him.

“You couldn’t even say that, could you?” I said, realizing that he couldn’t even tell them that he couldn’t tell them.

“No.” But he solved the dilemma.

“I referred them to Canadian biologists. They could say any damned thing they wanted to.”
After all, the Refuge animals don’t recognize international boundaries, and many of the animals in question migrate to and from Canada, especially the moose and caribou. The birds nesting in the Refuge fly to virtually all continents. Fran is passionate about protecting the Refuge from oil drilling—for its own intrinsic value, for the animals. Since his retirement he and Don have worked toward that end.

It’s a pitched fight, bringing nothing but truth and passion against lies and greed. Several times the Refuge has hung by the thinnest of threads. So far the vote has always favored preservation.

“But you can’t win; they’ll keep trying,” I said.

“We have to win every time; they only have to win once,” Fran said.

We built a big fire to burn the cabin’s scrap wood. One of the five-gallon cans contained a bit of oily material, which turned out to be creosote, probably used to preserve the logs. We decided to dispose of it by burning. Fran poured a little into a pan and threw it onto the fire. A tall column of flame and black smoke roared skyward and billowed for an instant into a dark mushroom. We all whooped and yelled.

“Isn’t it ironic to be burning oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Fran exclaimed. “We’ve finally found oil in the Refuge!”

Next day we loaded our packs with as much metal junk as we could carry, and hiked the five plus miles to the landing site, and then back. Our loads included all the metal roofing. My pack alone contained two big bundles of roofing plus the stovepipe and cap, a weight I estimated as over 60 pounds. We left all the junk in a pile for the bush plane to pick up later.

On that walk we mostly followed the serpentine creek bed, walking extra distance to avoid the brushy flats. That creek bed spread into an ice field a half-mile wide and a mile long. We walked on the ice spaced out in single file so as to avoid what Fran called a “larger statistical sample” of finding a spot to fall through. Breaking through into ice-cold water wearing a heavy pack seemed a poor idea.

A two-inch layer of slush covered the ice surface. Rivulets of ice water ran in depressions across our path. My boots leaked like a sieve, continually bathing my feet in ice water. We returned to camp. Total march time—eight hours. My cold, wet toes looked like albino prunes.

We all carried bear spray, and it was on that junk-hauling hike that Fran lost his—ironically Fran, because he had the most experience working in bear habitat. He thought he’d left it in the pile of junk at the landing site. He was upset.

“How much does it cost?”

“Forty-five dollars,” he answered. I told him that the pilot would find it and eventually return it.

“I’m not worried about replacement cost,” he said, surprised at my thought. “I don’t want to be without protection!”

He went on to explain that at USFWS they’d had two rules: Never go into the field alone—have at least two persons—and never go without a gun (And someone qualified to shoot it.). That gun was usually a pump-action shotgun loaded with slugs or buckshot, or a big-bore rifle like a .375 magnum.

Of course, we had no such weapon, that being against Sierra Club policy. After losing his bear spray, Fran carried the flare gun instead.

“At least you’ll be able to light him up,” I said.

After that discussion with the expert, I began carrying my own bear spray in a handy front pocket, not in the pack.

Our bear worries worsened. That morning we’d discovered that we’d set up our tents astride a grizzly’s trail. It was marked by post-holed tracks we’d not noticed and by ample tuffs of hair hanging on a tree where we cooked breakfast and supper. Too tired to move our tents, we decided to sleep there one more night.