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Arctic Trekking with Scott Hed*
Part Two:
Rafting the Kongakut River to the Arctic Ocean
(Back to Part One >>)

This is the final installment of Scott's journal. Read on to learn more about the fascinating ecosystems of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the Porcupine caribou herd calls home.

Packing the rafts
Credit Scott Hed

Rafting Along
When I woke in the morning, the fog had cleared and it was a blue-sky day. The planes came in and some people left and some others arrived for the rafting portion of our journey. We unloaded all of the gear, including the three four-person rafts that would carry us to the Arctic Ocean over the course of the next ten days. The pile of gear and food was enormous compared to what we had on the backpack trip. Then I remembered that we no longer had to carry the stuff on our backs…we’d just float it down the river to our next camp site. From the camp sites we would take day hikes to explore the surrounding country. This seemed like living in luxury compared to the backpack trip. We even made pizza one night!
We were fortunate to be present when spring came into bloom. There were countless varieties of wildflowers of every color. All the plants on the north side of the Brooks Range are very small. The growing season is short, and they hug the ground to conserve warmth in the cool wind that is nearly ever-present. Along the riverbanks grow dwarf willows and birches that are more like shrubs than trees. Otherwise, most plants are only a few inches high.

Grizzley bear
Photo courtesy USGS
Caribou train: 5 hours long

As we made our way north, the foothills began to flatten out into the broad coastal plain. We still saw grizzly bears, but not as frequently as in the foothills and mountains where they prefer to spend their time. We kept seeing caribou every day. We started to see more and more different types of birds, including golden eagles, which are large enough to carry off sheep or caribou calves.

5-hour Caribou Trail
Our last camp in the foothills was the location of a sight I will never forget. As we sat finishing breakfast, a group of caribou arrived on the ridge above us and started down toward our camp. They were headed toward the banks of the Kongakut River and were going to cross to the west and out onto the coastal plain, the destination that they had been seeking in their hundreds of miles journey from their wintering grounds. For five straight hours we watched as thousands of caribou (how many I can’t even guess) made their way right through our camp! They were all cows and newborn calves. There had been a late spring and the caribou were forced to have their calves on their way to the coastal plain instead of on the coastal plain like they traditionally do. This was bad because a higher percentage of calves did not survive the perilous journey. The calves we watched from our camp were the “toughest of the tough” – they had already crossed many rivers and evaded wolves and bears. They just plunged into the rushing river after their mothers, and because they couldn’t swim as strongly as the adults they were swept downstream quite a distance before finally emerging. They shook off the water and ran ahead to catch up to their mothers. It was an unbelievable sight, and made me realize just how important the coastal plain is to the caribou herd’s survival. They need this area because they are not disturbed by human development or predators, the area has just the kind of nutritious vegetation that gives the caribou mother’s the richest milk of any land animal, and the cool breezes off the Arctic Ocean keep the mosquito disturbance to a minimum.

Ice canyons: Kongakut R. approaching the Arctic Sea
Credit Scott Hed

Canyons of Ice
As we approached the coast of the Arctic Ocean, we traveled through canyons of ice that stood 10 feet high on the banks of the river. Often, the river would fork into numerous braids, which we would have to stop and walk ahead to see which was the correct path, and which were dead ends. Eventually, in a dense fog, we emerged in a lagoon at the coast of the Arctic Ocean. We camped for three nights on a narrow band of land called a “barrier island” just off the mainland. To our south was a freshwater lagoon and the lands of the Arctic Refuge. To our north was ice as far as we could see covering the Arctic Ocean. We saw dozens of seals out on the ice. I remembered that seals are the preferred food of polar bears. Polar bears are the one species of bear that is known to stalk and kill humans. So I figured that with all of the seals on the ice, any polar bear would have plenty to keep it busy. Then I thought “What if the bear can’t catch any seals? Will it decide to come see the slow creatures sleeping in the colorful tents on the island?” Well, we didn’t see any polar bears, but we did see some very big tracks in the sand. Maybe it would have been nice to see a polar bear from the airplane! Another reason the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is so important is that it is the location of the highest number of land dens for polar bears in America’s Arctic regions. Since the Arctic ice pack is gradually melting (due to global warming?), more and more polar bears are denning on land instead of on the ice.

Dishwashing in the Arctic Ocean
Credit Scott Hed

Frosty Arctic Dip
One night after nearly everyone else had gone to sleep, a few of us took a hike and upon our return we started a campfire. It was a nice evening and the fire was warm. I figured I may never again have the opportunity to take a swim in the Arctic Ocean, so I did it! I stripped down to my shorts and sprinted out into an area of open water. There was ice all around me and even on the bottom – and it was freezing! After completely submerging my body, I quickly ran back to the campfire to warm up and dry off. The hot chocolate helped out a lot as well. I’m not sure if it was bravery or stupidity, but I was the only one in the group to take a dip in the Arctic Ocean!

Prudhoe Bay oil development
Burning off propane at Prudhoe Bay
Photo credits Pam Miller

Pristine Wilderness to Oil Field Development
When my 18 days in the Arctic Refuge came to an end, a plane picked us up from the barrier island and flew us to Kaktovik, an Inupiat Eskimo village on the northern border of the Arctic Refuge lying on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. After 18 days of not showering, that was the best shower of my life! We enjoyed a home-cooked meal at our pilot’s hotel and a restful sleep in a bed. The next day a few of us flew from Kaktovik to Deadhorse, the “town” at the center of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The oil fields lie just to the west of the Canning River, which marks the western boundary of the Arctic Refuge. As we descended into Deadhorse, I noticed a brown layer of smog in the air above the oil fields. It was more like flying into Los Angeles than Alaska’s Arctic. The departure from the airplane into the heart of the largest industrial site on the planet (over 1,000 square miles of development, 100’s of miles of roads, and growing) was the rudest awakening of my life. After nearly three weeks of hearing nothing but the sounds of the wind, the river, the animals and birds, and the sound of my companions’ voices, the sound of heavy equipment was an assault to the senses.

Saving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

I knew right then and there that we cannot let the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge meet the same fate as had befallen the area around Prudhoe Bay. After all, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is the only 5% of Alaska’s North Slope that is protected from development. The other 95% is either currently producing oil or will be available for future development. Where do we draw the line? At the Canning River, and the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, that’s where.

Scott Hed is the Plains, Prairie and Northland Organizer for the Alaska Coalition.