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Wainwright: An Arctic village on the verge of development

Ben Anderson
Raymond Aguvluk cuts off a piece of bowhead whale flipper to get it ready for distribution at a celebration in the village of Wainwright.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Hopson's whaling crew in Wainwright cuts up a whale for distribution at a village celebration.
Stephen Nowers photo
Wainwright elder Lizzie Aguvluk cuts a piece of bowhead whale with an ulu.
Stephen Nowers photo
Wainwright elder Lizzie Aguvluk readies bowhead whale for a village celebration on June 22.
Stephen Nowers photo
The arctic coast village of Wainwright
Stephen Nowers photo
Bowhead whale flipper from Captain John Hopson's strike thaws in the village of Wainwright. Hopson's crew was readying the whale for distribution to the village.
Stephen Nowers photo
Wainwright, Alaska.
Stephen Nowers photo
An umiak frame in the arctic village of Wainwright.
Stephen Nowers photo
The Olgoonik Hotel in Wainwright.
Stephen Nowers photo
Oil spill response equipment staged in Wainwright
Stephen Nowers photo
Erosion control on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in Wainwright.
Stephen Nowers photo
The head of a beluga whale taken in a subsistence hunt decomposes on the tundra near Wainwright.
Stephen Nowers photo
Detail of a whaling gun.
Stephen Nowers photo

WAINWRIGHT -- On a midsummer night in late June, this village on Alaska's northern coast is in the midst of activities it has engaged in for centuries. At the home of John Hopson, Jr.,Wainwright resident and captain of the whaling crew "Iceberg 15," men work outside and women inside, all of them deftly slicing and dicing the remains of a 52-foot whale caught earlier that spring. Head southwest down the beach, and odds are good you'll see some of the younger members of the community (out of earshot of their parents) enjoying some of the true midnight sun in this part of the state. Go a little further, and you'll find a whale graveyard of sorts, the remains of past seasons' catches.

Like many Alaska communities, Wainwright still relies heavily on a subsistence way of life. Residents can still plan a year based on the whale, caribou, walrus, and seal seasons, among other species. Peppering the landscape of this clean, well-organized community are entrances to underground, permafrost-based cold storage units.

Hopson has one, carved by his grandfather in the 1940s with hand tools. Anyone who has ever seen a piece of heavy equipment working in frozen ground can attest to the monumental difficulty of such a task. Hopson said he didn’t know how long it took to dig the cellar, but he’s sure it was “years.”

Behind these routines of tradition, a question looms. Wainwright, 70 miles southwest of Barrow, sits on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, a hotbed for potential offshore oil drilling. A Shell-owned Oil Spill Response (OSR) facility already exists there, four boats sitting unused inside a chain-link fence, along with blue and yellow CONEX containers filled with booms for catching potential spills.

“Wainwright is not only a staging 
ground for our OSR assets,” said Curtis Smith, spokesman for Shell. “We often perform crew changes there and house 
our science teams in Wainwright.”

In the future, the Chukchi Sea may be a busy offshore drilling region, and some companies, including Shell, are already looking at the potential. A drilling operation in the region would likely require an undersea pipeline to shore, where an above-ground pipeline would then run northeast, to intersect at some point with the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline. It’s potentially a huge project, one that could revitalize the sluggish North Slope oil industry.

Wainwright's lands also sit within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which will host a lease sale in December, potentially resulting in new onshore oil development. So the community finds itself smack-dab in the middle of what could suddenly be a very busy area.

The local Native Corporation, Olgoonik, has been involved in the preliminary stages of that development, and is placing bets on the favorable development of the region. Those crew changes and housing in Wainwright that Smith spoke of? Those are thanks in part to Olgoonik. Olgoonik Spokeswoman Kimberlie Payne said that balancing that interest in their region with the traditional lifestyle of Wainwright's people is vital, and Olgoonik seeks to achieve that balance.

"Beginning in 2007," Payne wrote in an email, "Olgoonik has supported oil industry activities with marine mammal observers, communications coordination between the industry and subsistence hunters, crew change and supply support services as well as managing critical marine science studies in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. In anticipation of exploration activities, Olgoonik has invested in excess of $5.5 million in equipment, infrastructure and training programs for local residents that meet industry needs."

Olgoonik also plans to eventually utilize an abandoned Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line location -- a radar net, now defunct, set up during the Cold War as a way to warn of Soviet planes entering U.S. airspace -- for operations, away from the main village. The facility is visible from the south side of Wainwright, about five miles away down the shoreline of the Wainwright Inlet. Payne notes that any development must be done with the best interests of the people of Wainwright in mind.

"(Olgoonik) believes that our traditional way of life can be balanced with responsible and environmentally safe oil and gas development," Payne said.

For now, Wainwright waits for tentative development plans to grow into something more corporeal. How it handles those future developments may determine, in the end, the future of the community itself.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com