This photo from June 2009 of the Brooks Mountain Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge invites the question: Why is there ice in this river valley, but none up on the mountains? Photographer Jeff Jones wrote: In fall as the surface of a river freezes, water continues to flow underneath. This flow finds weak spots in the ice above. Breaking through, the water flows out over the top of the existing ice, eventually freezing, too. This happens repeatedly, each time adding to the thickness of the ice. At the center of the river pictured here, the aufeis was probably 4-6 feet thick. The ice blue pool of water is accumulated melted ice on top. The high temperature this day was probably around 47ºF. | ©2010 Jeff Jones

It’s August 2014, and I’m bundled in five layers of clothes and haven’t worn dry boots or socks in days. There are grizzly bear tracks nearby, and I’ve just killed 21 mosquitoes after opening my tent for no more than a few seconds. I’ve watched one long continuous sunset and sunrise, and I’ve seen caribou running uphill. Deep in the Arctic approaching the 69th parallel, I’m way outside of my comfort zone — and I’m so happy to be here.

Notes from my travel diary, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Throughout my 30-year career, I’ve been focused on place-based environmental activism, primarily on the California Central Coast. It’s been a journey informed by science, intuition, and storytelling. But 10 years ago this summer, my aperture was opened in surprising ways by a single piece of art.

It was an image of a patch of frozen blue water in the Arctic by photographer Jeff Jones, who has exhibited in local venues such as the Corridan Gallery and California Nature Art Museum (formerly the Wilding Museum). The frozen blue patch was something called aufeis, a German word for a sheet-like mass of ice similar to a glacier, but occurring in fresh moving rivers. I fell into that photo and experienced a wave of emotions too nuanced for day-to-day language: enchantment, anticipatory grief, a connectedness to all things.

So in 2014 I went chasing that ice, traveling with photographer Jeff and four others to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the largest refuge in the U.S., which gets only about 1,200 visitors a year.

We traveled the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, following the Trans-Alaska Pipeline north. From here our bush pilot flew an orange 1953 de Havilland Beaver — nicknamed Pumpkin — over the Brooks Range and landed us on a tundra plateau. It took two trips and about six hours to fly in our team and gear. We then began a two-week rafting trip down the Marsh Fork to merge with the Canning River, which flows to the Arctic Ocean.

The trip was led by Fran Mauer, who served for 50 years in the Wildlife Refuge as senior biologist, and who had during his career testified before Congress on the impacts of oil exploration on wilderness and wildlife. Fran had a steel-trap memory, a biologist’s brain, and a poet’s soul. He was also the only guy in our group with a gun, and at times when we were traveling through grizzly territory, I stuck close to him.

During our conversations, we debated the interpretation of wilderness. We were in the refuge on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which aims to set aside areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled.” It was obvious to me that the calls to “drill, baby, drill” in one of the wildest, most untouched regions in the U.S. for the sake of a few month’s supply of oil — some have calculated about 80 days — has less to do with energy independence than it does with greed.

A more nuanced discussion rolled through our camp about how to respond to the impacts of climate change on wilderness protected areas, or whether to leave them to heal themselves. We engaged in deep philosophical wrestling about how difficult it is to resist the urge to fix problems, even those we’ve caused.

I never saw any aufeis. Or rather, I saw one patch far in the distance as we flew in. We’d expected to be cautiously navigating our raft — loaded with photography equipment and nicknamed the Blue Whale — around many of these freshwater glaciers. But summers in the Arctic have been changing.

I did, however, experience other wonders with a kind of bodily stop-motion awe. Dall sheep navigating impossibly sheer cliffs. Arctic terns with bright orange beaks brilliant against the blue sky, preparing to launch their streamlined bodies on the longest annual migration of any bird. The full moon making its first appearance in four months when the planet tilted in such a way to pop it up briefly from behind a mountain range. Channels of crystal-clear water tinted with hues of green and blue, the color of sea glass. The quality of light that emerges when the endless sunset hits a patch of fog at midnight, and the lichens and moss burst with stunning fluorescence, as if they’ve been lit from within.

There was a physicality to the journey as well. During this warm, wet year, almost daily we came upon a section of river either too high to navigate through the rapids or too low and braided to get over the rocks. Instead, we portaged all gear a mile or two at a time, making multiple trips. Much of this was over lumpy tundra, which is nothing like hiking a well-groomed trail. The thick layer of moss and bearberry and heather had the consistency of walking in snow, while the tussocks and low-lying bushes required constant navigation. I walked alongside recent wolf tracks, the tundra littered with cracked bones and teeth and ram horns.

Often our small herd of people was spread out over a long distance. There was a level of aloneness that I’ve only experienced a few times in life. Carefully navigating while portaging, I kept my eyes down, picking out my next step — giving my brain a break from constantly processing the impossible vastness and beauty of the landscape. The journey became a kind of Zen meditation with bear spray.

Recently, accepting the Wilderness Spirit award from the California Nature Art Museum to the Community Environmental Council, I’ve been reflecting on how this one trip a decade ago profoundly shaped my world view, and how the trip all began. It was like a detective story where you get one clue at a time, in this case an internal voice that said: Follow that photo.

Sigrid Wright has led the Community Environmental Council as CEO for nine years and joined the nonprofit in 1995.

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