Bear with me. I’ll get to the oil. But first you have to understand where I’ve been and where you undoubtedly won’t go, but Shell’s drilling rigs surely will—unless someone stops them.
Over the last decade, I’ve come to know Arctic Alaska about as intimately as a photographer can. I’ve been there many times, starting with the fourteen months I spent back in 2001-2002 crisscrossing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—4,000 miles in all seasons by foot, raft, kayak and snowmobile, regularly accompanied by Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Kaktovik, a community of about 300 on the Arctic coast, or with Gwich’in hunters and conservationists Charlie Swaney and Jimmy John from Arctic Village, a community of about 150 residents on the south side of the Brooks Range Mountains.
In the winter of 2002, Robert and I camped for twenty-nine days at the Canning River delta along the Beaufort Sea coast to observe a polar bear den. It’s hard even to describe the world we encountered. Only four calm days out of that near-month. The rest of the time a blizzard blew steadily, its winds reaching a top speed of 65 miles per hour, while the temperature hovered in the minus-40-degree range, bringing the wind-chill factor down to something you’ll never hear on your local weather report: around minus 110 degrees.
If that’s too cold for you, believe me, it was way too cold for someone who grew up in Kolkata, India, even if we did observe the bear and her two cubs playing outside the den.
During the summer months, you probably can’t imagine the difficulty I had sleeping on the Alaskan Arctic tundra. The sun is up twenty-four hours a day, and a cacophony of calls from more than 180 species of birds converging there to nest and rear their young never ceases, day or “night.” Those birds come from all forty-nine other American states and six continents. And what they conduct in those brief months is a planetary celebration on an unimaginably epic scale, one that connects the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to just about every other place on Earth.
When you hear the clicking sound of the hooves of the tens of thousands of caribou that also congregate on this great Arctic coastal plain to give birth to their young—some not far from where my tent was set up—you know that you are in a place that is a global resource and does not deserve to be despoiled.
Millions of Americans have come to know the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even if at a distance, thanks to the massive media attention it got when the Bush administration indicated that one of its top energy priorities was to open it up to oil and gas development. Thanks to the efforts of environmental organizations, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and activists from around the country, George W. Bush fortunately failed in his attempt to turn the refuge into an industrial wasteland.