OPINION: What happens in Arctic Alaska: A wilderness guide’s perspective

More than a decade after my Arctic traverse from Canada’s Yukon border to Kotzebue Sound on the Bering Strait, that 1,000-mile summer remains the most formative outdoor season of my life. I learned that extended solitude does not break me and that fear will not keep me from doing the things that matter to me. I am glad not to have missed the window my aging body is closing. Had I never done anything else, these weeks of silence and distance alone would have made it all worthwhile.

I keep writing about the Arctic beyond the pages of my new memoir, speaking up on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s anniversaries or when some ploy threatens the Brooks Range. The conservation icon Robert “Bob” Marshall — a one-time forester and inspiration for the Wilderness Act of 1964 — still overly stuck on northern Alaska’s importance for humans, valued its wildlands for “the emotional values of the frontier,” the sense of discovery, freedom and self-sufficiency that they preserved. Modern developers embrace a materialistic slant of the same legacy: economic opportunity, weak government regulation and prosperity for the ruthless few.

The Ambler Access Project ballyhooed by a state of Alaska public corporation entails a 211-mile-long industrial corridor through the south side of Gates of the Arctic National Park that would lead to the development of a massive copper mine, a “resource,” in the official spin, “essential for ... green energy products, and military effectiveness.” This Dalton Highway spur road would not only carve up and pollute a wetlands ecosystem that six wild and scenic rivers water but also harm wildlife, especially sheefish and salmon populations and the Western Arctic caribou herd. Indigenous villagers who depend on this bountiful larder, though not all, oppose the latter-day stampede the state labels a “path to opportunity.”

After a lengthy permitting process, the scheme by 2022 had reached the phase of preparatory fieldwork when the Interior Department, believing the environmental analysis to be flawed, halted it. It will resume when the Washington, D.C. pendulum swings to the right again.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel projects are still getting the green light. After ConocoPhillips posted record profits yet again and scientists announced that global heating would exceed 1.5° C, the Biden administration, breaking yet another pre-election promise, approved the Willow Project on the North Slope, one of the country’s largest oil and gas developments, in its largest still-untrammeled tract.

It’s like a tragic, dirtier Groundhog Day.

News headlines break my heart over and over again. Worldwide, one of 10 faunal species will be gone by 2100. Mere nostalgia has bled into solastalgia, the grieving for places irrevocably lost, lost not to creaky memory but to development and its apocalyptic horse- and henchmen. On a positive note — I hear you must finish on one if you care to retain readers, as nobody likes a downer — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve endure in much of their terrific splendor. Adaptation and evolution proceed, evidenced in recent grizzly–polar bear hybrids (“grolars” or “pizzlies”) and in beavers engineering the tundra.


Still, an Arctic warming four times faster now than the rest of the globe breaks even the most sophisticated climate models. Trees growing ever farther north during longer summers shrink tundra habitat and may sentence some species to extinction. Like excessive snowfalls, forests insulate soils currently thawing, preventing refreezing in winter, which could cancel out the additional sequestering of carbon dioxide in the wood’s biomass. A historical drop in trapping could swell the surge of northbound beavers, which in Northwest Alaska advance five miles per year on average. Already, their stick dams, easily counted on satellite photos, distend south-slope Brooks Range and Kotzebue-area creeks into wetlands, which speeds up permafrost decay by decades: a waist-deep pond can warm bottom muck fifty degrees Fahrenheit above the ambient air temperature. James Roth, a UAF ecologist, never expected beavers on the North Slope, yet he estimates that by the second half of this century, they’ll be settling there. Fishes and insect larvae will live in ponds they create, which are deeper and do not freeze solid.

Civilization’s mission creep in the high latitudes, the changed seasons and vegetation, the loss of species and silence, of clean water and contemplation, won’t be outright clear to the next generation, which inherits all this. You could argue that I contributed through my writing and guiding and lifestyle, though the largest group I ever guided up north numbered five — a High Peaks all-women backpacking trip — and I remain child- and carless. In the so-called “developed world,” we’re all implicated in the main dilemma of our era, the fallout from the Anthropocene. It is crucial that we curb our appetites, humbly make amends, and start to take drastic measures.

Unlike that Las Vegas deal, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

Trained as an anthropologist, with a degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Michael Engelhard worked for 25 years as an outdoor instructor and wilderness guide. The above is an adapted excerpt from his new memoir, “Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-Mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.