Paving Tundra

Paving Tundra

In the face of a controversial road proposal, a documentary expedition attempts to redefine progress in Alaska's Brooks Range.

 

STORY BY JAYME DITTMAR | PHOTOS BY JAMES Q MARTIN

 

 

I was looking at the tundra when Kristin came out of the emergency cabin and told me Q needed stitches. Sitting on a spongy patch of ground cover, I’d been examining the intricacies of it: the mosses dotted with tiny mushrooms, the purple anemones, the lichens in oranges, reds, and greens. Each piece was minuscule but combined and seen from afar they painted a mosaic of unrivaled color and complexity.

 

“It runs deep,” Kristin said. “We’ll give him some painkillers, but it’s going to take a minute before you can start.” People die in the Brooks Range the same way people usually fall in love with it: slowly. Often it’s the tundra that makes us slow. During the summer in the subarctic, you sink into your steps, and it takes every muscle in your leg to extract your foot from the moss and move forward. Wandering around whimsically out here, oblivious to what’s happening around you, is not an option. Every mile is calculated, dangerous, and well earned.
I breathed in the fecund scent of the tundra, the smell of
northern Alaska, and steadied my hands to stitch human flesh.

 

A few weeks before, we’d packed into a van loaded with seven weeks’ worth of gear en route to the Arctic Circle. Our team of filmmakers and Alaskan explorers was set to embark on a 350- mile packrafting trip to the southern Brooks Range to film the landscape and live among its Athabascan and Inuit villages. Our route ran parallel to the proposed Ambler Road, a 220- mile asphalt scar that the state of Alaska claims would uplift the economy, provide jobs to the native population, and create access to the Brooks Range for hunting, tourism, and open-pit copper mining.

 

 

That’s what we’d come to document: how the road would forever change this place and its people.

 

On paper, we looked good. We were young, fit, and all craved journeys to distant, difficult-to-reach places. We had two accomplished filmmakers from Montana, Tom Attwater and Lane Brown, adventure photographer James Q Martin, and the first white woman to solo traverse the Brooks Range, Kristin Gates. Also, me. I knew the region well enough and usually carried a gun as well as a camera.

 

Because I’ve spent time with the people in these villages, some of the elders had asked if I’d help tell their story. I’d been touched by one woman in particular who took my hands in hers, wrinkled from wind and work, and said, “this road will kill our culture, and in that it will kill my people. Can you do something?”

 

I was entirely aware of the challenges presented both by the rugged landscape and by the cultural distance between Alaskan natives and the outsiders who arrive in neon drysuits. When I see meticulously outfitted film crews helicopter into a village, I usually join the locals in guessing how long they’ll last. Too often, the reporters and filmmakers arrive with their stories already fabricated and thus fail to see or hear what’s happening around them. I wanted to make sure our crew didn’t make that same mistake.

 

 

The Brooks Range is one of the last great wilderness areas in the United States, a vast, fearsome, beautifully functioning ecosystem that native people still depend on, psychologically as much as physically. It has not yet been conquered or coerced into compliance.

 

Not yet.

 

The Ambler Road, if built as proposed, would cross more than 150 rivers and streams, including two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Kobuk and Alatna, and dozens of miles of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve. Gravel quarries would be dug every 10 miles to provide the highway’s substrate. “This would not be a narrow and tidy road in the boreal forest with an occasional wooden bridge across a stream,” writes the Brooks Range Council, which fiercely opposes the road, “but a massive piece of infrastructure where single-span steel bridges support ore trucks and tourist RVs rumbling by 24 hours a day.”

 

This breach into the Arctic—labeled the “Road to Resources” or the “Road to Ruin,” depending on who’s talking— would be a vital vein for capillaries of development that would spiderweb throughout the entire region. The state government is said to hold maps that call for even more construction in the “Ambler Mining District,” with routes running south to Nome, west to Red Dog Mine, and north to the Lisburne coal fields, through the Chukchi oil fields and to other untapped mineral and oil deposits.

 

The area covered by the proposed mining district serves as a crucial habitat and corridor for Alaska’s largest caribou herd, the Western Arctic, which has dropped from nearly 500,000 to about 200,000 in the last 10 years. Also in decline are the salmon, whitefish, and shellfish that provide sustenance for the villagers who live along the Koyukuk, Alatna, and Kobuk Rivers. The road corridor would deplete subsistence food from the residents of 10 nearby villages, worth up to $10,500 (or one third of the median annual income) per household, according to a study led by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

 

 

Road construction and mining would also unearth natural occurring asbestos, putting surrounding populations at risk of diseases such as mesothelioma. Asbestos levels are so widely known in the region that there is a place named Asbestos Mountain in Kobuk, and construction workers in Ambler must sign waivers stating they knowingly assume the risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease.

 

What’s worse is that the Ambler Road is one of several potentially devastating extraction projects that are surging forward in Alaska under the Trump administration. Since May 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency has resurrected plans to construct an open-pit mine, commonly known as the Pebble Mine, in Bristol Bay, imperiling the world’s largest salmon run. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke also signed an executive order to reassess the feasibility of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, announcing that the “war on North American energy over.”

 

“Decisions are being made hundreds of miles away from there that will directly affect my people,” Harry Douglas, an elder from Ambler, told me.

 

I believe Edward Abbey advised us best: “It is a lie. For those who go there now, smooth, comfortable, quick and easy, sliding through slick as grease, will never be able to see what we saw. They will never feel what we felt. They will never know what we knew, or understand what we cannot forget.”

 

 

Our journey began in the subsistence village of Wiseman, where we stopped to prepare for our launch on the Koyukuk River. People wandered to the river edge, curious to know what had brought us there. When they learned that we’d come to shoot a documentary about the proposed Ambler Road, small talk transitioned to urgent instruction. As we inflated and loaded our packrafts, the villagers wanted to make sure we knew about the caribou herds that haven’t returned to Wiseman since the trans-Alaska pipeline and access road, the Dalton Highway, were built in 1974. They talked about what it had been like when their children heard bulldozers for the first time, about how those same bulldozers caused the caribou, moose, and other wildlife to stampede through the village. Above all, they wanted us to know about the country.

 

“That’s wild land, in where you go,” a Wiseman elder with two teeth told me.

 

I replied in the same village English: “We go down, follow river, get chased, maybe lost, we keep it wild, ah.”

 

He smiled.

 

With so many people there to see us off, our crew didn’t launch until evening. But it wasn’t going to get dark anytime soon. In fact, the sun never entirely set during our trip. For hours at a time, the sky would retain retained the oranges, pinks, and yellows as dusk faded into dawn.

 

The Iñupiaq say that time started when people stopped living in the moment, and our crew tried to embody this mentality to get a deeper understanding of the place. Nobody carried a watch. Our schedule was ruled both by the strength in our arms and that of the current.

 

Yet the days still held routine: Rise for instant coffee. Squeeze 80 pounds of gear into a four-pound packraft. Film. Find a sandbar. Experience bloodletting from mosquitos. Build a fire. Watch the sky do some crazy astronomical activity. Try to film that too. More bloodletting. Sleep. Repeat.

 

 

The last time I’d been on the Koyukuk, more than a year before, I’d been racing a team of sled dogs. Ravens had flown above and cheered me forward to catch the musher ahead. I’d arrived at Allakaket nearly frozen and spent close to a week there with the dogs, celebrating the spring carnival and becoming an adopted member of the Bergman clan before mushing back to the road system. Plus, I knew we would be welcome in Allakaket, our first stop on the river, and that there would be a delicious array of moose, beaver, and maybe sheep meat waiting for us.

 

We arrived around 6 a.m. after paddling all night. The crew immediately set up their tents and passed out. I ate a Clif bar and walked into town, where I found Steve Bergman in his shed setting wolf pelts out to dry. He looked up and said, “Ah Jayme, didn’t see you there,” as if we’d seen each other yesterday.

 

He nodded to the furs. “Look at this, this year.”

 

An elder on the village council, Bergman talks slowly but moves rapidly. He could be 40 years old or he could be 85—I can’t tell. He said the council was awaiting our arrival and eager to bring us to his fish camp, which was the location for this year’s summer culture camp—an entire week dedicated to teaching traditional values to young Athabascans, to ensure that knowledge of ages past isn’t lost.

 

 

Later that same day, a motorboat brought us downriver to 15 canvas tents lining the banks. Over the next five days, we crafted homemade paddles, netted and skinned fish, dried meat, and told stories late into the night. The food was plentiful—the best the Alaskan interior has to offer. Our crew simply had to film, interview, and let the story shape itself.

 

At one point, Bergman and I were overlooking the river and I asked, “What does progress mean to you?”

 

He said, “I have this life to know things and take care of my family. I am lucky. But I want my children to have it too.”

 

Passing on the traditions of his culture to his children— to him, that was progress.

 

It made me think of something Bergman’s 11-year-old grandson had said to me a few days earlier, when I’d asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy had looked at me, confused. “Be?” he’d asked. “I don’t want to be anything. I want to hunt and fish and take care of my village.”

 

 

We were never offered the luxury of simply floating through Alaska’s most remote wilderness. Instead, we had to react to the water, weather, and wildlife constantly. One minute we were admiring the beauty of the place and the next we would be seeking shelter from rain or hail. It felt like the country was forcing us to test ourselves, and to slow down.

 

Most of the time it would only rain briefly, and the clouds would cede to the sun again. That pattern held until we reached the village of Kobuk, where it rained for seven straight days. We didn’t want to risk continuing down river as the flooding also caused an upsurge of debris that could damage our packrafts. By day five our food supplies were almost depleted, and our next cache was waiting for us in Ambler, which the locals said was anywhere from 45 to 70 miles downriver. That evening we debated solutions for hours, until Kristin volunteered to paddle alone to Ambler, a journey of about 30 hours, and then jump on the next plane back to Kobuk, bringing supplies.

 

Kristin has an alliance with the unyielding natural forces of the north that few of us will understand. On our trip, she was always looking up to the next mountain, around the next bend—craving more and urging the whole team forward. I came to believe that the nonstop exposure to rain, cold, and wild things gave her strength. She gained personal stability in the challenge of the next mile and her capability to tread through it. I guess that’s what it takes to be the first woman to solo traverse the Brooks Range. Her trail name is Lost.

 

 

 

We knew she was qualified and we were grateful she volunteered, but we still decided it was too dangerous. When we retired to our tents that evening, the solution to our supply problem remained cloudy as the skies that held us in the village.

 

At some point in the night, Kristin quietly collapsed her tent, packed some supplies, and slid her raft into the surging waters of the Kobuk River, headed for Ambler. I later decided that she needed time alone with that river more than we needed our food. Days later, she returned with our cache.

 

Now fully supplied with Backpackers Pantries and Pop-Tarts, we continued to the narrowest stretch and paddled past 10 grizzly bears in one day. One apparently grew curious about the creatures floating that appeared to be half boat and half human. As waded toward our rafts, I held one hand on my .44 Magnum and one on my Nikon D810, knowing that my shaking mitts wouldn’t allow me to get a clear shot with either.

 

He stood on his hind legs and put his nose to the air. Beneath my drysuit, I smelled like a wet moose with trench foot. I’m sure the rest of our crew was just as savory. He lowered himself, and wandered back up the gravel bar, and disappeared into the dark of the forest. That night Tom set up a Rube Goldberg bear alarm with cable and cooking pans. Several times I woke up to clanging, only to realize it was Tom retesting his system.

 

 

Out of all the trials we faced, we were finally beaten into submission on one of the many nameless peaks of the Brooks. I was taking a time lapse of a passing storm when I heard Q yell from above, “I’m hurt. We need to get back to the cabin.” He’d sliced his hand on a sharp rock while descending. Back at the cabin, we decided that even if we’d had the appropriate medical supplies to suture the wound, the pain would make it impossible for him to wield a paddle and continue downriver. Quick to harm and slow to heal is so often the way of the Arctic.

 

The next day, we waved from the cabin’s porch as a floatplane carried Q away. In its wake, the sudden silence allowed commitments from the outside world to infiltrate our thoughts. Lane had a film career to develop. Tom had a house, a dog, and a relationship that all required attention. Kristin would be on to the next adventure, trekking across some other wild country.

 

It hit me that I didn’t have any such plans. After reaching Ambler, our final village, I would spend the fall there hunting caribou. And then maybe I’d paddle to the coast. Maybe I would winter over mushing dogs to witness the landscape changing into a world that turns so beautiful people say it makes you afraid. I decided to stay in this place as long as it would have me.

 

 

We finished the expedition several weeks later. After a few days of healing, Q flew back into the village of Kobuk and we proceeded to Ambler, capturing the Brooks Range on film as it’s never been seen before. I’m optimistic that the movie will change some minds about the true meaning of “progress” in Alaska—that people will see the importance of saving this place and the way of life of the native residents who depend on it.

 

But movies are mere facsimiles, and I know for certain that the best way to persuade people to preserve the Brooks Range is to have them spend some time here. No scene or sound bite will ever adequately portray its mystery and power. Let them paddle up a slough after dusk on a late-summer full moon. Let them make eye contact with a grizzly bear, or spend a day eating nothing but sheefish, or cut their hands and spill blood into the watershed. Let them hike through the untorn fabric of the tundra so they can feel their feet sink into a landscape that won’t let go.

 

This story originally appeared in Adventure Journal Issue 06 

 

Help stop the bulldozing of a 220-mile industrial access road across Alaska's Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. The Ambler Industrial Access Road is fiscally irresponsible and environmentally disastrous. Sign the petition HERE

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