I am going to ANWR! Yes, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That mythical wilderness of glaciated mountains, retreating sea ice and stranded polar bears, and vast herds of migrating caribou doing battle against the invasion of big oil. A place where there are still unnamed mountain peaks and passes. A place for wizened explorers who know how to survive alongside grizzlies and wolves, build a snow-cave, navigate without a compass. This is mostly above the Arctic Circle, you understand, so compasses are notoriously unreliable.
Let’s get this straight. I am a greenhorn. Neophyte is much too polite a term. I am told that Cheechako is the derogatory word Alaskans use for people like me – foolhardy lower-48ers thinking they can handle the untamed north. I have no problem with being called that. It is true. I have been backpacking exactly once: in our friendly and welcoming Sierra Nevada in July. I have been camping exactly twice: Kings Canyon National Park and the Baja California Desert. I’m not counting, of course, the eight days in a wood-floored tent cabin at Las Caletas in the rain forest on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. They fed me three yummy meals a day and gave me kayaks and snorkel gear. Nope. Doesn’t count.
I am going to ANWR. Me! Two years ago when I was Executive Director of the Sequoia Parks Foundation, I was having dinner with some donors in Sequoia National Park. Professional wilderness photographer Jeff Jones and the other guests at the table were talking about arranging an expedition into the western region of the Refuge so Jeff could capture photographs for a follow-up to his recently published Arctic Sanctuary book. At the table were Jeff’s fellow expeditioners author/historian Bill Tweed and Fran Mauer, retired Wildlife Biologist for the Refuge. There I sat, stewing in my envy. Then I blurted it out: “If you guys end up with space, I want to join you.”
I’d like to say that the skies opened up, that thunder rolled off of Mt. Silliman at my words. That I knew at that moment my life was going to change. Instead my words were greeted by kind smiles and a surprised “Great. We’ll keep you in the loop.” Fast forward a year to summer 2013 when I got the email. There was space for me in the raft.
And if you think it took me more than 10 seconds to accept, you have absolutely no appreciation of how fast I can type.
A flurry of emails followed confirming the general dates for arrival by commercial airplane to Fairbanks and arranging for van transport to Coldfoot and bush plane to our put-in spot on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River. Eleven days in the raft, counting lay-overs. Darn near three weeks in Alaska allowing for the various travel legs and unpredictable weather over the Brooks Range and at our pick up spot close to the mouth of the Canning at the Beaufort Sea.
Then all was quiet until the beginning of this year, when the planning started in earnest. In case I thought this was going to be a sweet little luxury cruise, my uninformed assumptions were sent flying out of my head when the first email, titled “Everyone behind the walls,” was asking if anyone wanted to invest in the protection of an electric bear fence. Which was answered by Fran, he of decades-long experience in the Refuge: “Yep, good idea. And I’ll bring the shotgun.”