The last refuge

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 21, 2002; 5:51 PM

My watch warbles me awake at five minutes before midnight. It's an upside-down time to get up, but things get inverted at 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. It's noon all night. It snows all summer. The trees rise only to your sock line.

I peel open an eye, blinking against the blue nylon glare of the tent wall. After a week and a half on the upper fringe of Alaska, we've logged almost 250 hours of continuous daytime. The sun never sets on 69 degrees north, at least not this time of year. From April to July, it just rolls 'round and 'round the horizon like a roulette ball, a 90-day windup for the permanent frozen night that will descend in the autumn. And tonight is the actual solstice, June 21.

Normally only a screaming bladder could pull me from the amniotic comfort of my tent into the chill of an Arctic "night." But at 11:59 I wrestle sluggishly out of the warm, silky clutch of my bag, unzip the tent and lean out into the cold midnight glare. It's one minute to summer, the last seconds of the longest day in America's most controversial public land, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It's certainly peaceful now. We're camped beside the rushing, ice-flanked Aichilik River, a glacial flow that enforces the quiet with a constant jet-engine shushhh. The river bisects a great, wide basin between the northernmost toes of the Brooks Range. Our tents -- puny in the wide valley between two ridges -- lie on the green tundra like a handful of gumdrops. It's already much greener than it was when the bush pilot dropped us off 10 days ago, such is the speed of the compressed Arctic growing season.

I hug myself in the cold as spring officially gives way to summer. I can see a half-dozen caribou a hundred yards across the river. Females and youngsters graze lazily, while a male with fuzzy black antlers lies on his belly, head up and looking my way. They're hoping I won't get busy around camp and force them back on their migratory way. We've seen caribou everyday, everywhere, thousands in all. Almost every one of the 60 miles we've walked has been mid-river of the massive annual migration of the Porcupine caribou herd, 150,000 reindeer on the hoof to their ancestral calving grounds on the coastal plain.

Before I duck back into the tent, I take a last uneasy look at the clouds churning around the mountain passes. Our pilot will have to thread those passes if he's to make our rendezvous here tomorrow morning. There are no guarantees. Our lead guide, Leslie Nicholls, was four-days stuck with a group last year. Our own weather has been reliably poor, and I'm not hopeful as I look around the surrounding wilds. But I am, once again, awestruck.

These 19 million acres represent some of the last truly undeveloped wilderness in the country. To the south towers a rank of snow-marbled black peaks, a majestic Jersey wall between us and all the peopled latitudes below. To the north, under a cobalt tureen of sky, the valley opens into a broad prairie of tundra extending out to the Beaufort Sea 25 miles away. This is the 1.5-million acre coastal plain, where the caribou are headed. It's also the so-called 1002 Area, where the oil is.

For now, though, no derricks or airports interrupt the flawless flatness that seems to unroll not just to the sea, but on to the ultimate North, the icy top of the world itself. There are no roads here, no trails but caribou trails, no ranger stations, no huts.

There is only a near-perfect wilderness under a for-now eternal sun.

A Flight of Fancy

It's not easy to reach the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as befits what may be America's most remote patch of public wilderness. The tourist season is mostly squeezed into a few not-quite-so-cold weeks between spring melt in late May and the mosquito bloom in late June. And most trips begin as mine had on a Tuesday last month, with a dragonfly flight through the corridors of the Brooks Range in a six-seat crate of a bush plane.

I'm part of a 10-person Sierra Club backpacking trip that had convened the night before in Fairbanks, Alaska. This morning had been a steady progression toward the untamed: a 200-mile prop flight due north from Fairbanks; a day of waiting in the rain on the gravel airstrip of an off-the-grid Indian town Arctic Village; and, now, a 90-minute barnstorm into the wilderness proper in a 1952 DeHavilland Beaver on its 10th engine.

Pilot Dirk Nickisch munched potato chips with a map of the refuge in his lap, scanning the narrow valleys for a clear route though the clouds. He had already ferried half our party out to the Aichilik River, but we suddenly found ourselves flying low in a snowstorm, pressed down by a lowering cotton ceiling. Ridges and peaks faded behind a scrim of white, and Nickisch peeled up like a fighter pilot when another route closed up.

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