I first noticed the wind because I realized I was turning my head to the side to walk into it. I’d peak around the hood of my parka to see what was in front of me every few feet. When someone walked past they too would walk with their head turned to the side. At thirty below zero a ten mile an hour breeze feels cold. Soon we were walking foreword but facing more backwards, the wind was picking up.
I glanced into the wind and saw the snow was being blown across the ground in long twisting swirls only a few inches above the surface. Hadn’t seen that before. I remarked on it to the young guy from Montana, I forget his name, he said, “we’re in for a blow and we should stop stomping jugs”. My eyes followed his glance a mile out in front of us where I could see Stevie and his helper headed back our way pulling the cable back into the Nodwell and picking up the jug sets they’d just put down.
Hang loose libs, and while looking below the fold think back to the days of color print film.
We walked towards them draging sets together as much as we could and then helping to reload when we met up with the Nodwell. The wind was now up to thirty miles an hour and the snow was blowing as high as our waists and more.
We stood by at the recorder, waiting for the other Nodwells, the vibe ops, and lastly back crew who had picked up as much cable as they could. We were all heading back to camp together, no one gets left. Typically a vehicle had enough diesel to idle for seventy hours or so, after that things would get cold. A bad place to break down.
The six miles back to camp took over 3 hours. We would lose site of the rear pointing flood lights of the vehicle twenty feet in front of us and then lurch to slow down as we almost drove up on them in the blizzard. Mostly we were just following a cut the cat skinner had made anyway.
It was the end of the eighties, the price of oil was very low, but it looked as if there was a possibility of exploration in the refuge, and with the new 3D seismic, BP and Arco wanted to take a look down at what was right next to the refuge and try to predict what was on the other side of the line. We were working up and down beside the Canning River and the Western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
For most of the year the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or ANWR as it’s known, is frozen and cold. Around a thousand people visit annually, that number has held steady for quite a while. Most visitors are rich hunters and fishermen on guided trips, and most people go to the same area. ANWR is vast, a couple hundred miles north to south and about the area of South Carolina.
Though we weren’t technically on the refuge we were never more than ten miles away from the border and without a survey crew it would have been hard to tell. We walked back and forth up and down covering three to six miles or more a day for about four months.
Tracks out onto the shore ice, you can see Russia if you squint very hard.
We saw two species, arctic fox and ravens, oh, and towards spring Steve found a lemming. The fox were everywhere, underfoot almost. They’d hang around the camp so you’d stumble over them going to take a leak. Waiting for any kind of garbage or trash I’d guess, though we pretty much left none. The ravens you could spot from a couple miles out as they effortlessly rode the wind and followed the line looking for any bits of dropped food.
Often when we were far out beyond the sound of any engines we’d hear fox barking.
The bears were out on the pack ice where wind and bergs would open up the water once in a while and seals had breathing holes. The caribou were either in the forests of the Brooks Range or all the way on the other side of them.
There’s a village on the edge of the ocean, Kaktovic, but I’ve never been there or anywhere on the refuge as far as I know, we were only working on the edge. Kaktovic is Inuit people. I think the word Eskimo is a pejorative, everyone said Inuit. The people there are pretty much free to hunt as they please and they take an unknown number of polar bears per year. I guess that population of polar bears is stable or increasing anyway. I’d think that before too long the memory of a time of subsistence hunting and polar bears and maybe the entire village will live on in history books only.
If the Inuit there are anything like similar folks in Deadhorse then they are already firmly ensconced in the twenty first century. Kids watch the Simsons, people cruise the net, play video games and so on. If they can still go out and shoot a bear well so be it.
Indians on the other side of the Brooks take caribou also.
The Brooks Range dominated the horizon to the south, all else was flat. The snow underfoot not only crunches and squeaks but has a slightly hollow sound as if one were walking on cork board.
So what of the Wildlife Refuge? Worth it or not? Will oil mess it up?
I checked out the stats on the Refuge web site. They figure there’s enough total oil there to keep the US humming for around 200 days if I did my math right. Quite a bit of oil.
Will exploration and development wreck the place? especially the Porcupine Caribou herd, one of the last great migratory mammal herds? Probably not.
Is it worth maintaining a huge Wilderness and Reserve that virtually no one will ever see?
I think the answer to the last one is a resounding yes. Our US Fish and Wildlife do almost no maintenance, the cost of the Reserve is minimal. Those sorts of wild places are very worth preserving when the effort to do so is almost nothing. It’s worth knowing that such wild remote places exists. The indigenous peoples aren’t affected in their hunting and fishing, they can still do pretty much as they’ve always done.
The oil isn’t losing value by sitting there. There might come a day when instead of a few months, the oil under ground in the Refuge could supply us with the plastics for many decades, a time when we no longer burn carbon.
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Thanks for reading.