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.

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