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The Last Wilderness

Kennan Ward
Winter 2002

I have a love-fear relationship with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. There are so many accounts of mysterious vanishings in the Brooks Range that whenever I fly in, as the winds change and the plane shakes, I feel fear, respect and humility. Most of the peaks of the Arctic Slope remain unnamed, unclimbed and unexplored.

Early explorers followed the mighty Yukon River through Alaska's interior. Athabascan villages still line this river, separated by a day's journey or more. From the air the Yukon, the largest river in Alaska, weaves, circles, horseshoes and branches into innumerable smaller rivers. Many eddies, oxbows and bends end up cut off from the main channel, forming lakes and ponds. If Minnesota is "The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes," then Alaska is "The Land of a Million Lakes."

Moose, beaver and muskrat, swans, loons and other waterfowl make their homes in and around these lakes and rely on them for food to raise their young. Passing over this landscape grants us a time-traveler's sense of what much of North America must have been like less than two or three generations ago.

Habitat loss is the primary cause of the sixth extinction crisis. Where the lights shine we have to do what we can, piecemeal, to stem habitat loss by preserving critical open land. Where there is still night sky, we can do much more: rededicate large patches of the earth to nature and allow her to settle in and go about her work of restoring ecosystems to health and balance. Only in a healthy, functioning ecosystem can the full diversity of native plants and animals thrive. And to be whole and healthy, an ecosystem needs a vital core where human presence does not linger.

Only in the arctic wilderness can we find all three North American bears. The refuge's western region, along the Canning River, is home to the American black bear. Grizzly bears roam the Brooks Range and the coastal plain. Polar bears can be found on the ice floes offshore. The arctic environment could be compared to the polar bear: majestic and savage, yet uniquely beautiful.

About the Author
An adventurer-naturalist, Kennan Ward photographs and writes about wilderness and wildlife. With his wife, Karen, he operates WildLight Press, Inc., based in Santa Cruz, California. You can view their images at