Memories of ANWR


by Chelsea Woodworth, August 17, 2009

“Dad, do you remember where Chelsea is going?” my father asked my 85 year old grandfather.  He seemed unreachable, staring at the nursing home window.  Then, he turned and looked directly at me with his old familiar smile and he said with great assurance, “ANWR!”

Polar bear and whale bones

Growing up, I learned to appreciate the outdoor skills of my father and grandfather. Over the years I formed a deep admiration for their respect of the land where they hunted, camped, and fished.   I can remember my grandfather always dreamed of going to Alaska, but he never got the chance due to tight finances.  When I received word that I had been selected to spend my summer with Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I felt honored to take the trip for my grandfather.  I parted from my family on May 24, 2009—I was going by myself to learn, explore, and understand one of the last great wildernesses, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This opportunity to work as a biological sciences intern with the Refuge came through the Student Conservation Association (SCA).   I decided to dedicate my summer to conservation within the refuge system because I sought to expand my passion and understanding of wilderness preservation.  I specifically chose SCA as a liaison to the Fish and Wildlife Service because I felt the need to join the national youth movement, pushing to conserve our planet’s finite resources.

My first assignment involved assisting a botanist on a float down the Porcupine River, located within the boreal forest on the southeastern portion of the Refuge.  Our work focused on forest fire succession, meaning we located and resurveyed old burned vegetation plots to better understand the continuous changes in the environment.  The sites represent some of the oldest forest fire succession plots in the state, with initial observations beginning in the 1970’s.  The days were long, and the plots were very difficult to find due to thick underbrush and imprecise GPS coordinates.  Towards the end of the trip, I felt discouraged because we had not been able to find some of our plots.  However, on the last day, floating down the river, we passed by a wading bull moose.   Just then,  I looked into the sky as the wind shifted a cloud over the sun causing the rays to scatter from the perimeter of the cloud.  I realized we had been progressing towards a broader goal of bringing attention to the importance of maintaining the Refuge.  By spreading awareness through our study, we are further enabling the natural processes in this area to continue their unaltered cycle as they have for thousands of years.

Chelsea loading invasive plant samples

My second assignment was to conduct an invasive plant survey along disturbed areas of Arctic Village, an Athabascan speaking Gwich’in community.  We worked with the Youth Conservation Crew to help survey and pull weeds.  From the YCC kids, I learned about Arctic Village life and culture staying at the home of the Crew supervisor, who had no running water or plumbing.  I was 290 miles north of Fairbanks, but felt as if I was worlds away.  That evening, I enjoyed my first taste of caribou and listened to stories of the caribou migration and the spiritual significance of the northern lights.  During this survey, we found eight different invasive species, which were not thought to have spread that far northward.  Further studies will be necessary to understand how the invasive plants will impact the native vegetation.

The Refuge has received global conservation attention from scientists around world.  One of the most enjoyable memories I have, is driving the entire 441 miles of the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse with Salvador and Daniel, Spanish botanists visiting the Refuge.  They were attempting to finish a biogeographical census of every biome on the planet.  I felt inspired to accompany them on our first trip up the Haul Road together and found comfort in knowing that Arctic Refuge has international support for its protection and preservation.  Perhaps, this international support for one refuge will one day capture our imagination and attempts will be made to conserve all threatened wild lands.  The relationship between species and their environment is interwoven like a spider’s web; you cannot remove or add one string without affecting others.   Conservation knows no boundaries, and therefore needs to be considered an international integrated priority, not just a national concern.

The final field assignment of the summer took place on the North Slope in the 1002 area.  We stayed in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik on Barter Island located on the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean.  Weather in Kaktovik is unpredictable, and the ocean fog can settle in quickly.  Due to such fog, no planes could land on the island for four days, so I waited for the rest of the crew to arrive.  Around 2:00 am one morning. the fog lifted enough for the blazing midnight sun to hug the horizon of the Arctic Ocean and illuminate the overhead fog in brilliant oranges, pinks, and purples.  During this sunset and sunrise, two male polar bears were picking through the whale bone pile on a spit outside of town.  To see the polar bears with the midnight sun and icebergs floating on the ocean left me awestruck, and the goose bumps I experienced were not due to the frigid temperatures.  Observing the bears in July and knowing the great distance between the shore and the ice really brought their threatened status home for me.

Polar Bear in the midnight sun

Now, the late summer evenings carry a crisp chill signaling changing seasons.  I realize I am coming to the end of my experience working for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  As I conclude my internship, I reflect upon my travels with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  The employees at the Refuge have motivated me with their mentorship and dedication towards protecting Arctic for future generations to come.

The Refuge only receives 1500 visitors each year, but continues to have the support of millions of people, like my grandfather, who will never get the chance to explore this region for themselves.  You may ask yourself, as I did in the beginning of my journey, why do so many continue their support? The answer lies in the sound of the flap of a Snowy Owl’s wings or in the deep ruts of the migration trails of the Porcupine Caribou herd, or perhaps in recognizing your own natural instinct that we should just let it be.