Saving the Sacred Place: Where Life Begins

Jonathan Waterman
Fall 2007

Snowmelt pushed us through the limestone folds and shale backs of the Brooks Range, down the Marsh Fork of the Canning River, toward the sandstone legs of the Saddlerochit Mountains and the fertile coastal plain. We heaved our raft through the shallow headwaters as birds erupted from the willows and Dall sheep bolted off salt licks. An icy sea wind sat down so hard in the valleys that it blurred our vision and stirred the vast landscape into a strange and dusty pandemonium.

The six of us had come to celebrate this place, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and to learn from our companion, George Schaller. He first visited the arctic as a graduate student in 1956 as part of a scientific survey. Led and inspired by the field biologist Olaus Murie, they documented diverse habitats and plentiful wildlife, allowing them to convince the Eisenhower administration to legislate the 9-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range. Until now, George had been too busy making other animal reserves in far-flung corners of the world to return here. Exactly half a century had passed since he first set foot in the sanctuary that now represents the most symbolic wilderness battle of modern times.

It all began in 1980 when the Carter administration doubled the range into a 19-million-acre refuge and Congress mandated a study of the 1.5-million-acre slice of coastal plain. The results would determine if the plain should be opened for oil leasing or protected as wilderness. Underlain by billions of barrels of what petroleum geologists refer to as “sweet, light crude,” the coastal plain is referred to by the Gwich’in people as the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

If they develop the plain, the United States would gain perhaps a meager one-year supply of fuel over an expected half century of drilling while oil contractors would strike it rich. In turn, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins would go bankrupt. Caribou would be driven from their calving grounds along with scores of bird species and an already shrinking population of musk ox. This remote wilderness that draws less than 1,000 people a year would then be under the reek of gas flares, the clang of oil rigs and the shimmer of pipelines.

We hoped for something different. Working through the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with the National Geographic Society and Patagonia, George came back on this 50th-anniversary trip to bring needed attention to saving the Arctic Refuge he helped create. Fifty years after mentoring with Olaus, George, 73, began passing the torch to a new generation of Alaska and Wyoming graduate students paddling our rafts. By the time we splashed through the swirling Canning River confluence, George had showed us how we could find the same moral compass, along with the courage to speak out, that Olaus Murie had given him.

When we crashed through the narrow and braided headwaters, the river broke into George’s kit. His prized 1956 field journal and his first edition of Animal Tracks, personally inscribed to him by Olaus, soaked up the water like sponges. As soon as we turned the perforated raft up into a windbreak each evening, the unflappable George would hang out his soggy books, wet gear and valuables, then excuse himself to explore. Armed with a newer field journal, he searched for voles, measured small trees and discovered nests of plovers, rough-legged hawks, swallows and peregrines. Identifying and further defining this place – inhabited by nine marine mammals, 36 land mammals and 180 bird species – seemed the least we could do to show why this refuge needs congressional protection.

Swept out of the mountains, we pirouetted up onto yet another gravel bar. Clad in leather boots, George jumped into ice water and before heaving us back into the current, he balanced over the paddle, cupping his hand for a teeth-numbing drink. He gazed around for more Dall sheep, dotting distant hillsides like summer snow.

Each morning, he awoke at five, inspected the tundra and came back in time to start paddling. Each evening, after long days shivering on the river and boot-sucking jaunts across the tundra, he’d arrive in time to eat dinner and scrub our dirty dishes. We’d talk then about how we might each make a difference. Many nights, George would peel apart the soggy pages of his journal and read to us from a time when they thought of wilderness as a resource more valuable than oil.

Out on the coastal plain, a wet Beaufort Sea breeze plunged us into the freezer. We stepped from the leaking raft one last time. Through airborne river silt that lined our eyes like sleep, thousands of caribou appeared, undulating up and down, pushed above the visible horizon by mirage, as the herd worried the tundra for protein-filled plants against their coming migration. George praised the chill that quelled the mosquitoes. Then he walked off beneath caterwauling pomarine jaegers, where he photographed whistling ground squirrels, followed tracks and pulled apart scats to check animal diets – out into the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

About the Author

Jonathan Waterman is the author of Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (W.W. Norton, 2007, paper). See related stories in the September National Geographic Adventure and Wildlife Conservation magazines. On September 26, National Geographic Wild Chronicles will air the anniversary expedition on national TV.