Some Kind of Place: Nuiqsut, Alaska

2013-08-03 The Storm

I. Path to the Sea
The blades of the fiberglass kayak paddles rise and fall to a rhythm as balanced as a pendulum’s. In the deafening Arctic quiet, they splash into the murky water with deep chops, the sound muffled only by the wind. Under cloudy skies, the river is a long, wide pane of gray, broken periodically by sandbars speckled with chalk-white caribou skulls. Steep banks rise on either side of the water, crowned at the top with tufts of grassy tundra. The cabins of a fish camp, where a family of Inupiat Eskimos likely spent the summer catching the year’s supply of char, burbot, and Dolly Varden trout, appear empty. Near one of the small, shingled buildings, what appears to be a small grizzly bear reveals itself as a musk ox when it raises its shaggy head to the sound of the boats, turns, and gallops out of sight.

As they slowly navigate the river, the small, rugged, inflatable crafts—weighing five pounds and collapsible to the size of a sleeping bag—add bright yellow and red to the otherwise stark aesthetic. Chelsea Ward-Waller ’12, Brett Woelber ’09, and his brother Paxson ’08 are on the Colville River, less than two miles from the Arctic Ocean.

From the start of their journey in the sweeping mountain passes and sunlit canyons of Alaska’s Brooks Range, they have come 300 human-powered miles in a month. They’ve named their trek Expedition Arguk—arguk meaning to walk against the wind, in Alaskan Inupiat—and they didn’t embark without putting a lot of careful thought into what they planned to do and why they planned to do it. Brett is a hydrologist; Chelsea, a geologist; Paxson, a media producer. All have a powerful affinity for the outdoors, for nature’s wild frontiers. They saw in Arguk an opportunity to traverse one of this country’s most rugged, remote regions, and they wanted to do so before the landscape was forever altered by encroaching development; a bridge, soon to be built by ConocoPhillips, will span the Colville River, offering easy access to the energy company’s newest drill site. “Our trip is limited,” Paxson explains, “We aren’t experts. We’re not going to provide a dry environmental assessment [of what’s going on here], what we can provide, though, is what it’s like to be here.”

And what it’s like to be out here is a discordant mash of serene beauty and perpetual discomfort. Three weeks on two different rivers means being constantly wet; something as simple as slipping on dry, five-toed socks before curling up in a sleeping bag is nothing short of sacrosanct. Campsites are often buffeted by piercing winds and require an electric “bear-proof” to be erected each evening.
To the group’s surprise, they haven’t seen many grizzlies. Several days into their first stretch of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, a grizzly swam across the river in front of them, climbed up on the bank, stared, then darted into thicket of small trees. Still, everyone keeps bear spray within reach at all times. In Fairbanks, before beginning the trip, and after much debate and consideration, they decided on an extra measure: Brett carries a .44 magnum on his hip that has yet to leave its leather holster. Still, they’re not mentally prepared for what they encounter as they near the ocean.

Chelsea is the first to see the enormous, lumbering form. White spots (seagulls, skulls, driftwood) on the horizon are plentiful, and the landscape’s flatness often makes size difficult to judge—but a polar bear seen from less than a half-mile off is unmistakable.

Paddling ceases.

The bear’s shoulder rotates almost mechanically, and its legs move in a slow, seemingly effortless plod, yet it covers ground quickly. Then, suddenly, it disappears into the river ahead. Paddling begins again, this time with hurried purpose. Polar bears are known to attack prey by swimming underneath it, so the packrafters retreat to a sandbar in the middle of the river and get out of their boats. For several minutes, the bear is nowhere to be seen. Brett brings the .44 out and holds it at his side. Finally, it reappears on the opposite bank and continues down the shore.

Once the bear is well out of sight, the group presses on toward the mouth of the river; within a few hours, they wade into the Arctic Ocean. When they turn and look back across the tundra, what seem like abbreviated skylines of miniature cities appear at different distances across the horizon—the derricks from the Colville River Unit Alpine Oil Pool.

II. From Beginning to End
Arguk began at the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where Luke Douglas ’09, Brett, Paxson, and Chelsea hiked into the Arctic National Preserve: 13,000 square miles with few named landmarks or a single trail. Navigation involved topographic maps, compasses, landmarks, and a little guesswork. With the shadows of clouds moving along with them, they passed through valleys and over steep passes, crowned with ridgelines of striated rock. They followed braided rivers, at times walking through rushing water when it proved easier than hiking over tussocks, the hillocks of thick grass that make up the vast floor of the region.

After the first week, they arrived at Anaktuvuk Pass, a small Nunamiut Eskimo village in the central Brooks Range. There, Jason Mercer, a biologist and the group’s fifth member, joined them. But they were not five for long. Luke arrived in Anaktuvuk with a badly sprained ankle and, after much deliberation, left on a flight back to Anchorage shortly after Jason arrived. The new group of four would use their packrafts to float down the Anaktuvuk River to its confluence with the Colville. Where its headwaters lay was a mystery, however, and no one in town seemed to know. After substantial wandering, they found a small, meandering channel through some grassland, began paddling and, soon enough, found themselves on a narrow river.

The landscape north of the Brooks Range changed drastically; they were suddenly surrounded by bright green, perfectly rounded hills. It looked “like you could walk blindfolded for a hundred miles without tripping,” Brett remembers, and though it seemed empty at first, more and more birds began to appear. Many were in molt and couldn’t fly, so as the boats approached, they ran down the riverbanks in large flocks, flapping their wings until just out of sight. When the boats came around the next river bend, the charade began anew and continued for miles and miles.

The packrafters then entered the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), the largest single unit of public land in the United States (measuring slightly larger than the state of Maine), in Alaska’s North Slope. The region was opened for oil development in February, an event that garnered litle attention, even in Alaska.

After entering the NPR-A at the confluence of the Anaktuvuk and Colville Rivers, the packrafters spotted another boat filled with paleontologists who invited them to their camp at Ocean Point, where the saltwater from the Arctic Ocean begins to mix with the freshwater from the mountains. The next morning, they visited their dig site, where a group of duck-billed dinosaurs had been killed en masse millions of years ago. Thousands of bones spilled from the side of a bluff.

After leaving the paleontologists, the packrafters paddled through thick sea fog as they neared the ocean. Motorboats full of Inupiat Eskimos would pull alongside; a few of the natives would snap pictures of the visitors. There had been a celebration in the nearby village of Nuiqsut, population 400.  The people in Anaktuvuk Pass had warned the packrafters about Nuiqsut—an insular and protective community, they claimed.

The village’s power lines soon came into view, standing tall over the prefabricated houses arranged among a neat grid of gravel roads. When the packrafters arrived, they deflated their boats, walked past the graveyard on the edge of the village, and entered the town offices to introduce themselves.

2013-08-15 01 NuiqsutIII. The Village
Contrary to the opinion of those south of Nuiqsut, Expedition Arguk was welcomed warmly in the village. People in pickup trucks and four-wheelers waved when they passed by on the town’s gravel roads; some would stop to welcome them or ask where they’d come from and why.

Caribou and moose antlers lay unceremoniously on the tops of garages and the ice cellars outside homes. (The ice cellars are used to store whale skin and blubber after a hunt.) Subsistence hunting accounts for a large part of the diet in Nuiqsut, though there is a grocery store in town where a half gallon of Darigold two-percent milk runs for $9.99, a dozen grade AA eggs cost $6.99, and one and a half quarts of Dreyer’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla ice cream will run you $15.35.

The visitors attended Thursday night Bingo in the town hall, bringing their own sheets and markers and finding seats around one of the long wooden tables in a room full of Inupiat women and a few men. Chelsea won $100 in the first game, and she, like every subsequent winner, received the room’s applause. Several days later, representatives from ConocoPhillips held a meeting in the same room to discuss the construction of the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River to the new drill site. Door prize tickets were handed out before the meeting began, and someone translated the presentation from English to Inupiat. “There will be some blasting involved.” “The bridge will withstand flood conditions.”

The presentation ended with, “Does everyone have a door prize ticket?”

“760694.”

Clap. Clap.

A new first-aid kit.

“760675.”

Clap, clap.

A new set of kitchen knives.

Jason left Nuiqsut first, followed by Brett and Chelsea. Paxson was the last of Arguk to leave. He boarded a small prop plane, flying under the name Era Alaska. After bumping down the small airstrip, the plane lifted off the ground, slowly gained altitude, and disappeared into the fog, bound for Deadhorse, 60 miles away, where a larger plane awaited.

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  1. This is great! Makes me want to take a rugged adventure, and see a polar bear one day.

  2. Great job! Really well written!

  3. Excellent narrative as stark and yet grand as Alaska. Visited Alaska last Aug. – Denali, the Kenai, but got no farther north than Fairbanks. Found this site while trying to remember the proper term for the striated rivers our guide mentioned. Led me to your description and finally to my missing term (at 74 sometimes the word gets lost and one must struggle to pull it out) – BRAIDED rivers. Thank you. I’m an old, retired English teacher and librarian. You earned an A!

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