The largest protected wilderness in the United States, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a 19.3 million acre expanse of roadless terrain roughly the size of South Carolina. 50 years ago this past December, the vast, diverse region was established as a perserve to protect the wildlife, wilderness, Eskimo and Native American cultures that has called this continuum of eight ecozones home. For a visual reference to what happens when you leave a region as wild and ecologically abundant as this alone, you will not do any better then the annual Porcupine heard of 200,000 caribou finishing their 400-mile annual march from the Yukon to the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As National Geographic writers Jim Gorman and Robert Earle Howells go onto explain, this is nature at its dramatic peak. From a single vantage along the Kongakut River, one can witness tens of thousands of caribou contending with attacking grizzly bears, swooping eagles, and a strong current threatening to wash the calves away.
The Arctic refuge has been home to Eskimo and Native Americans for thousands of years, including the Inupiat Eskimo and Gwich’in Indians. There might not be a more diverse natural habitat in the world, as the refuge spans five different ecological regions: lagoons, beaches and saltmarshes of its costal marine areas, coastal plain tundra, alpine tundra of the Brooks Range, forest-tundra south of the mountains, and the boreal forest that contains tall spruce, birch and aspen trees. The entire area is positioned north of the Arctic Circle and a mere 1,300 miles south of the North Pole, engendering a land of permafrost and frozen soil. The headwaters of the refuge’s Sheenjek River, located within the Romanzof Mountains, is considered the most remote spot in the United States.
Teaming with wildlife, the arctic and subarctic ecosystems include gray wolves, wolverines, lynx, polar bears, caribou, muskoxen, black and brown bears, tundra swans, snow geese, arctic graylings, and Dolly Vardens are some of the fauna that call this vast, unspoiled territory home. There are no recreational developments, no bridges, no signs, no roads—this is nature left untouched so that future generations can understand what undisturbed wildlife and ecological processes actually yield without human interference.
The official site for the refuge brings to light the origins of the refuge, a seven-year campaign led by Olaus and Margaret Murie to establish the country’s first ecosystem-scale conservation area.
There are two histories intertwined with the region, those of the indigenous tribes and those of the powerful interests who laid claim to the land. In the mid 19th century, British traders were beginning to push their way into modern day Alaska, establishing posts along the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers. At that time, however, the land was technically a colony of the Russian Empire. Concerned about British encroachment, the young American nation made a deal with the Tsar of Russia and purchased Alaska. All of this international geopolitical and financial gamemanship went on without the input or notification of the indigenous people.
As Alaska become incorporated into the larger American picture, it became clear to prospectors and visitors that what the American government had purchased was a place of immense natural resources and wonder. The creation of the refuge in 1960 and the subsequent land rights battles with the indigenous communities was a contentious battle, and it wasn’t until the Alaska Native Claims Settlement of 1971 that the Natives were federally and legally recognized within and around the ANWR.
Today, at the extreme north on the Beaufort Sea is the city of Kaktovik, home to the Kaktovikmiut. Natives to the Arctic coast of Alaska for thousands of years, they are the only native population in the world to hunt bowhead whale and Dall sheep. Arctic Village, 100 miles to the southwest, and Venetie, 75 miles south of that, includes members of the Gwich’in Indian Tribe.