CLF Staff, Board Members and Friends Visit Western Arctic
Mid-July, CLF staff, board members and friends spent four pleasurable nights and five days in the western Arctic’s Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Trip attendees included board members Ed Norton (chair) and former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. Our conservation-minded arctic guides and co-owners of Arctic Treks, Jim and Carol Campbell, led the trip and provided insight into the Reserve’s fascinating geography, history and wildlife habitat.
On our flight from Fairbanks to Umiat, a historical camp located on the Colville River, we marveled over the brown meandering Yukon River, the dramatic limestone cliffs of the Brooks Range and finally through the Gates of the Arctic. After a short layover in Umiat, which is used primarily as a staging area for oil and gas activities, we travelers were joined by seasoned Alaska bush pilot and owner of Coyote Air, Dirk Nickish, for a low-elevation flight over the tundra to Pik Dunes, a unique collection of arctic sand dunes surrounded and dotted with shallow lakes, ponds and wetlands. Here, we set up camp and spent four sun-lit nights on the tundra.
The Teshekpuk Lake Special Areas was designated to protect the extraordinary migratory bird and caribou habitat located in this coastal plain portion of the Reserve. During our time on the North Slope, thousands of members of Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd crossed our path, a large majority of which were mothers accompanied by their calves, many less than two months old. The Pik Dunes and surrounding tundra serve as key habitat for these new mothers who are in great need of both nourishment and insect relief. These areas are relatively free of the rapturous volume of mosquitos present in the coastal plain during the summer.
A large portion of the Reserve’s coastal plain is a vast wetland complex of lakes, ponds, creeks and rivers that serve as habitat for literally millions of migratory birds and waterfowl – and mosquitoes. Lucky to have a few seasoned birders in our midst, we identified a number of bird species including the Pacific Loon, Arctic Tern, Common Jaeger and Pacific Brant, among many others. No top level carnivores ever appeared, although their presence was made known by the many tracks in the sand, reminding us of the prey-predator relationships that has been the natural life cycle in this wild place for thousands of years.
Our return to Fairbanks included a swing over the Colville Delta and the Alpine oil development just east of the Reserve and north of the native village of Nuiqsut, a community whose subsistence lifestyle is partially dependent on the wildlife found in the Reserve. The sight of industrial oil and gas infrastructure served as a stern reminder that although a large portion of Alaska’s North Slope is undeveloped wild land, there is also a great deal of industrial interest in developing the Reserve for its subsurface oil and gas resources. As this development moves forward, CLF aims to ensure that the most critical areas for wildlife and native subsistence are protected, while ensuring that any development is done with the least invasive methods possible.
One cannot fly over the Reserve’s coastal plain without acknowledging its vast wildness. During our time in the Reserve, we were lucky to see but a piece of the life supported by its dramatic landscape. The sight of caribou barely a month old was a fitting reminder that although the Reserve resides in a largely undeveloped state, it is the task of the present generation to ensure that this magnificent landscape is protected for our future.