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.

Snow covers the land nine months of the year. The short growing season supports willow, wildflowers and other sturdy plants. The Arctic is often compared to a desert environment because of the scarcity of annual precipitation. However, when the snow thaws or the rain comes, the frozen ground becomes saturated, and creeks and streams quickly respond by turning into muddy, turbulent rivers.

Many years ago, we watched a pack of wolves pass by our camp from 50 feet. A grizzly bear patrolled the riverbanks for dead fish left as high water receded from a melt-off. Shorebirds announced their presence as mating season filled the air. Over 100,000 caribou migrated through our camp, feeding on the summer wildflowers. This was only our first day in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Time spent in the Arctic Refuge is like no other part of my life. Each day in the field is different. Days and weeks pass with only the subtle signs of plants, animals and weather. This calmness is often the wilderness' most precious, incomparable event. Then there are days when we can barely catch up. After something of a "photographic drought" on a recent trip, we were surprised in the middle of our camp chores by a wolverine loping toward us.

One of the great American "inventions" of the 20th century is the idea that some land should be permanently protected for its natural value. The Wilderness Act of 1964 made it the national policy of the United States to preserve areas of wilderness on federal lands. If there is any place deserving of being declared Wilderness it is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Biologists call the coastal plain the "biological heart" of the Arctic Refuge. For 20 years, development interests have spent millions in an attempt to open this special place to oil and gas development, and year after year the will of a majority of the American people has stopped them. We must continue to work toward permanent protection of this national treasure, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson upon signing the Wilderness Act of 1964: "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

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