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.”


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