Edward Abbey, the iconic wilderness writer, called Alaska “the last pork chop” in an essay based around a float trip he made in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Abbey didn’t seem impressed with Alaska, or ANWR for the matter — too many mosquitos, uncomfortable weather and greedy locals ready to cash in on any resources the land might yield.
I was 18 and hadn’t really experienced anything outside of Alaska when I read that essay. Hip people spoke of Abbey in near-religious terms. One girl confessed Abbey was a divining light in her life. At night, I stared up at the stars, wishing I could be a divining light. I went to the library and checked out “Desert Solitaire,” considered his masterpiece of nature writing. After reading it, I felt so uninspired I wondered if there was something wrong with me on a spiritual and cognitive level. Later, when I saw how little wilderness remained in the Lower 48, I learned to appreciate Abbey, particularly his charming misanthropy. Right then, though, all I could think was that Abbey seemed like the sort of guy who would have railed against pork farming while helping himself to second serving of bacon at breakfast.
Since the passing of the GOP’s tax bill, with a provision to allow drilling in ANWR, I’ve been saddled with a strange feeling of guilt and ambivalence. In April 2009 I first looked on ANWR’s coastal plain. I was standing near Sadlerochit Springs, huge and erupting from a mountain. A surprisingly verdant network of dwarf willows and cottonwood extended as far north as the water flowed. Beyond that, the landscape stretched white and undulating like a rough sea that had been flash frozen. It was here, beneath that swath of tundra, that the richest oil deposits in ANWR are predicted to be. It was also here that the Porcupine caribou herd often calves.
For four years I’d imagined this moment with the hope my arrival would be complete with something akin to African drumming, Tibetan chanting and maybe Amazonian pan flutes. I’d made this journey — a ski-traverse beginning from the Haul Road and ending at the village of Kaktovik — in part to experience the area before it was developed. I was hoping the experience would inspire a rational way to articulate why ANWR’s coastal plain should be left alone. The irony that virtually everything I wore and gear I was using was made from petroleum products was not lost to me. The journey from my home in Juneau to the Brooks Range was only possible because of oil.
Still, this was supposed to be a sacred moment. Instead, I was struck hard by a haunting indifference. It was counter to who I wanted to be, and what I thought I loved. There was nothing I could romanticize here, nothing that fit neatly between the pages of a book or in the frame of a photo, or in the limitations of my perspective. ANWR was an idea. The truth was too much for me to grasp.
It was around negative 15 and there was little breeze — quite nice compared to the weather during the last month. I looked back for my partner. Ben was resting 200 yards away, staring off towards the thundering springs. Five days previously, a hole the size of a dime had erupted in his foot, likely the consequences of having to ford a river barefoot and in our skivvies several times.
After Ben and I made it to Kaktovik — helped by local Robert Thompson, who pointed us in the right direction after my GPS broke during a white-out at the edge of the frozen Beaufort Sea — I delved into books and articles to try to understand what was really at stake in ANWR. The idea of wilderness is so subjective and political that just thinking about it gave me a headache. By the time I gave up on a writing project about ANWR, I felt like a donkey that had been spun in circles and pinned too many times. It was disconcerting how easily I could be swayed to see logic in both sides of the argument.
On the pro-development side some of the best reasons include that most people from Kaktovik, the only village in ANWR, want drilling. The mostly Inupiaq village has expressed dismay that they feel like they have no voice in what happens to their land. If successful, tapping ANWR will help Alaska’s flailing economy and put more money in North Slope communities. Development would supposedly be limited to 2,000 surface acres, which isn’t that much when you consider ANWR consists of 19,286,722 acres. Our country — and Alaska specifically, me included — is addicted to oil. America consumes almost 20 million barrels of petroleum products each day. It’s hypocritical and would impact national security to rely on other nations’ natural resources.
On the other hand, if geologists’ estimates are correct, the amount of recoverable oil in ANWR could only sustain our country’s petroleum needs for around half a year. Oil is a finite resource, a sunset industry, and we need to focus on developing other forms of energy. Many Gwich’in people living in villages near ANWR view the coastal plain as sacred and worry the Porcupine caribou herd will crash, destroying a key component of their way of life. Emissions from fossil fuels — according to the most credible scientists — are causing a rapid and dangerous change in the Earth’s climate. Each year wild places continue to get chipped away. We have to face the very real likelihood that in a few generations there will be no wild places left if we continue on this path.
In 2015 Ben and I returned to ANWR for a south to north trek. I wasn’t looking for answers this time; rather I was just feeling lucky to be out in the country. It was August, and when we made it to the coastal plain, the tundra was alive with caribou and migratory birds. There was no misery and, unlike last time, not once did I contemplate whether I should eat Ben if he died. Kaktovik was filled with construction workers and machinery. On a nearby barrier island, polar bears waited for a whale be brought to shore. A handful of tourists were in town, hiring guides with skiffs to take them a few hundred yards over to photograph the bears. The whole scene felt relatively insane. I missed being on the coastal plain and in the mountains but, to be honest, I was also really looking forward to chowing down on that bacon cheeseburger at the airport in Anchorage.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.