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Pristine Arctic wilderness
Pristine ANWR valley similar to those the author explored. Photo by Scott T. Smith, courtesy of

A Walk On The Wild Side

Oklahoma oil man reconsiders drilling in Arctic wilderness.

By Mark Herndon

Editor's Note: The letter below is an email that has been circulating this week on the Internet. We felt our visitors would want to read it. Please feel free to email it to others you might know.

Hi everyone,

For those of you who don't know, I returned yesterday from a month alone in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northeastern Alaska. I'm really beat. I lost 25 lbs and basically feel like I have been beaten up. It was a really tough trip.

I want to share a little bit about the place with you while it is still fresh in my mind; things that I feel are very important. I want to grab you by the lapels and tell you a few things that are true, because I have seen them.

ANWR is probably the biggest chunk of absolute wilderness left in this country. I've also been in part of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Noatak National Preserve, two other large protected areas in the Brooks Range. ANWR is huge compared to those places; it's a place where you could walk your whole life and never see it all. Contrary to what you may have heard about the place in the media, it is not a vast wasteland. It is like heaven on earth, and hasn't been touched by man. There is not a single building, not a single trail, in an area that I've heard is about comparable to South Carolina. It's 19 million acres and there ain't no visitor center.

Very few people go there. It is difficult and committing to get there. Since I have been there, and with the current political situation about ANWR's coastal plain, I emphatically want to tell you what it is like. And feel free to tell your friends.

First, I paddled the Canning River, on the west side of the Refuge. I started up high in the glaciated Brooks Range and hiked for a few days. Craggy mountains and a two day snowstorm on the fourth of July. It looks wilder than the wildest part of Colorado without the trees. That part of the refuge is far north of treeline.

As I floated down I saw gyrfalcons, peregrines and golden eagles. I saw musk ox and had a long, close encounter with a grizzly bear. Everywhere were tracks of caribou, muskox, grizzly, wolf and wolverine.

I hiked up side valleys that were miles wide and absolutely flat tundra covered with lupines and arctic poppies. A close examination of the tundra reveals hundreds of tiny flowers and lichens. Everywhere were old caribou antlers and skulls poking up through the tundra. Wolf killed caribou skeletons also dot the tundra, often skulls with huge antlers attached. I saw more muskox, and managed to walk pretty close to some of them, before they got a little agitated.

As I floated out of the mountains to the coastal plain I began to see caribou in earnest. More than you could ever count. It was like being in a herd in Africa. This is also where I came out of the wilderness part of the refuge and the river became the boundary between state land on the left (where oil exploration goes on) and ANWR on the right bank. On the state land I began to see many abandoned fuel drums and huge tracks on the tundra where cat trains shoot seismic in the winter. The tracks don't go away any time soon. I saw abandoned drums on the tundra constantly after a while over on the state land.

As I crossed the coastal plain I saw many smaller caribou herds and began to see lots of birds; geese, ducks, tundra swans, and many strange types of birds that I have no idea what they were, probably migrating up from Hawaii or Chile to nest.

All this time, I saw more and more garbage on the left bank. Most of the animals were on the right bank. In this day and age, I would think that BP-Amoco, Exxon, and Phillips would go clean all that crap up.

I made my way to the delta of the river where it empties into the Beaufort Sea, and in a 2:00am lull in the wind paddled a roundabout 10 miles across the four mile lagoon to an island that is about 6 miles long. There were many small icebergs about thirty feet across. I saw old sod huts that the eskimos used to live in on the island, and found that the entire north side of the island was still fast against the sea ice which continues to somewhere in Russia, I guess. I walked out on it for a ways, and it is really rough. One day I watched ringed seals (polar bears staple food) sunning on the ice through binoculars. I saw a huge set of polar bear tracks around the lagoon side of the island, but they were pretty old. The island was just a few miles outside of the ANWR boundary, and Exxon had drilled a dry hole on it in the past two years. It was one of the filthiest locations I have ever seen in my 15 years working in the oil industry. I was really surprised, because Exxon drillsites in the lower 48 are usually the cleanest of them all. I was not impressed with what I saw of the oil industry in Alaska.

Then my bush plane landed on a sandspit and took me to the headwaters of the Jago river, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I spent ten days in this valley, hiking up to the glaciated peaks at it's headwaters. Part of the Porcupine caribou herd had gone south up the valley a couple of days before my arrival and there were millions of tracks, all heading south. Interspersed were the occasional wolf or grizzly track. I saw a few stray cow caribou, but the show had already moved south for the winter.

On the Jago, I was trapped for two days waiting for a rain swollen river to come down so I could wade across. I fell in the same river on the way up, and wet gear up there is serious trouble because of the cold. The only way to describe this valley is to take the prettiest valley in Montana or Idaho and double it. It just took your breath away. It was so different that it may as well have been the moon. One night while I slept a grizzly walked by my tent. There was a set of fresh tracks there that weren't there the night before. He paid me no mind.

Anyway, I was picked up on a gravel bar on the lower river and flown out to Kaktovik, on the coast. I heard there were nine white people in Kaktovik, but the Inupiat eskimos who live there were very nice people. You'd see someone cleaning a freshly killed bearded seal in the front yard of their house. A local hunter (they basically all hunt and whale) heard I'd been on the Canning and sought me out for skinny on where the caribou still were. From there, I made all of the flights home.

Before I went to see ANWR for myself I already had some conceptions. After last year in Alaska I thought that modern oil exploration could be done responsibly. Certainly most Alaskans were for it. They got $1600 each last year from the north slope oil money.

After seeing ANWR....seeing that coastal plain myself, I realized that there are a lot of lies being told about this place. It is not a vast wasteland. It is achingly beautiful, and if you value wild places, the refuge could be considered a sanctuary or a cathedral. To me, it was an intense experience far beyond what I expected. I have been going to wild places most of my life, but I have never been to a place like this. Not even close in the lower 48.

There are a few places that are just not appropriate for large scale oil exploration. This place is far more fantastic than Yellowstone or Grand Teton, but it is far away and few care.

If we put a bunch of drill pads on that coastal plain we will be making a terrible mistake. Our country will never again be energy independent anyway. Those numbers don't lie. Drilling in ANWR will only help about 4 major oil companies and the state of Alaska (which is completely addicted to the oil tit). The numbers don't lie. It will only make a few percent difference to the nation.

The first morning back, I read in the paper that the House approved drilling in ANWR. I felt like crying. That coastal plain is very narrow, and the most environmentally sensitive exploration would put a giant blot on it.

Most of you will never meet anyone else in your life who has actually been to ANWR. Fewer still who have crossed the coastal plain. I emphatically urge you to listen to what I am saying and take it into account as you form your own opinions. The vote to open ANWR still has to make it through the senate, and those of you in Oklahoma are wasting paper by writing to our senators; to those of you in other states, maybe you can help.

And remember. I AM in the oil industry. I'm all for drilling in many, many places. Not here. The price is way too high.

I can't emphasize enough how special this place is. I don't believe the promise that they will only disturb 2000 acres. When they get through shooting seismic in that place it will look like a chessboard from the air. It's kind of like a football field. 22 players standing on their feet probably occupy far less than 100 square feet of that football field. But they sure do make an impression. The coastal plain is the living part of the refuge. The rest is very mountainous and almost sterile by comparison. To go stomping on the coastal plain with a series of industrial sites is just too much.

I don't want to have to say that I saw ANWR way back BEFORE it got all messed up.

Thanks for listening (for those of you who made it through this).

Mark Herndon

Times Article Viewed: 4679
Published: 24-Aug-2001


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