In late May of 2014, Nasa introduced me via email to Dan Ritzman, Northwest and Alaska Regional Director for The Sierra Club. Included in this email was a proposition to do some filming and photography in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Without blinking I said, “yes!” and it ended up being life changing!
A little history; Dan works for The Sierra Club now but used to own Arctic Wild, a guiding organization based on getting people in to see the beauty of the Alaskan Arctic. His goal this time was to bring a diverse group of people who are passionate about wild places into the Arctic Refuge and guide the trip himself. With the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Conservation Act approaching, this was the perfect time to get some movers and shakers out there and I was fortunate enough to be caught in the mix documenting it all.
With any group of people who are thrown together for the first time, there is a learning curve to becoming close acquaintances, let alone friends, especially with some weird dude pointing a camera in your face. But I can honestly say that we bridged that gap very fast. This may have been spurred by the poor weather that kept us in The Arctic Village overnight when we should have been at our first camp at the base of the Brooks Range. The visibility was too poor to weave through the mountains in our bush planes that day. Thankfully, the residents of The Arctic Village were gracious enough to let us all crash on the floor of their community center. I believe this close proximity gave us all a chance to be properly introduced to each other. Intimacy comes quicker when your neighbor’s snores echo across the wood floor or their vomit bag increases in volume every 20 minutes during a 3-hour bush flight.
Flying into our put-in camp was the first glimpse into the vast beauty of the Arctic Refuge. The Brooks Range is not the Rockies or the Cascades, only 9,000 ft at its highest peak, but it’s splendor competes with both and to have a close-up aerial view weaving through tight valleys was unlike anything I’ve experienced, hard stomach drops and all. With the mountains as our camp’s backdrop and thousands of Caribou surrounding us in the foothills, there was little doubt we had arrived in an untouched place.
Being timid by nature, the caribou never came closer than about 50 yards, just close enough to long to be a part of the peaceful herd. A young grizzly however, decided to indulge his curiosity and venture ever closer. Bear spay in hand I welcomed his/her presence, because, you know, I needed some good shots! Simply being that close in proximity to wildlife that didn’t know humans was tremendously uplifting.
After dreams of cuddling with grizzlies, the next day began our raft, camp, raft, cruise routine. A leisurely pace despite losing a day was nice, because, you know, I needed some good shots! The relaxed, 40-mile descending transition of about 37.5 feet per mile from the foothills at 1500 ft to sea level pushed the feeling of being a small creature in a vast expanse of sacred spaces. It’s where caribou birth their calves after traveling hundreds of miles over mountains and boggy tundra and where so many varieties of birds migrate from the likes of Patagonia and India to lay their eggs and hatch their younglings. You sense, see and feel that this truly is what the Gwich’in call “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
With the ever-present sun keeping our senses sharper and more in tune to our surroundings we reached the coast and set up our final camp on the sandy, driftwood-filled Arctic Reef. By this time I was utterly immersed in the landscape and its wildlife. The drive in me to take in every remaining aspect of this place before we departed the next day was intense. I harassed Dan into taking me out on the Arctic Ocean to get photos of the melting ice before the rafts were deflated and packed up. Soon after a campfire was started as three of us excitedly took a quick polar plunge into the frigid ocean, thankful for the warmth of the fire to dry us.
Around midnight our ever-present sun slid downward into an extended dusk and dawn, as a thick fog spread over the now still water blending the two worlds in soft orange light. I was enraptured by beauty and calm so completely that for a moment I truly forgot about everything except that which I was experiencing with all my senses. It’s hard to describe how I felt. Seemingly possessed, for what seemed like hours I absorbed the beauty of the light, the stillness of air and the feint far off thundering of massive ice chunks breaking and falling into the ocean.
Upon returning, I find for the first time in a long, long time, when I look at the images I took while in the Arctic Refuge and specifically those on the Arctic Reef that morning, I can return there. I want everyone to have a chance to experience this place and have it penetrate to their core as it did me, then maybe the debate on whether or not to destroy it would be frivolous.
You can see more photos here.