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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Cover Story
WRITTEN BY GEORGE B. SCHALLER
PHOTOGRAPHED BY SUBHANKAR BANERJEE
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Frozen in time spacer A NEW BOOK
EXPLORES THE
BEAUTY AND CULTURE
OF THE ARCTIC WILD

 
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In the village of Kaktovik, bowhead whale jawbones mark graves at an Inupiat cemetery that photographer Subhankar Banerjee visited a year before returning to experience a whale hunt. After a whale is killed, he says, all the boats that participated in the hunt gather around it and "the hunters give a prayer, thanking God and the whale for providing food for the community." The prayer is broadcast via CB radios back to the village.
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In March 2001, Bellevue-based photographer Subhankar Banerjee began a journey over four seasons and 4,000 miles to explore and document the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska's far northeast. Traveling with Inupiat guide Robert Thompson on foot, by raft, kayak and snowmobile, Banerjee discovered a wilderness that remains unscarred and utterly silent but for the movements of the creatures and peoples who make it their home. His journey is recorded in a new book excerpted here, "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land," which includes 120 of Banerjee's color images as well as photographer's notes and a collection of original essays by wildlife experts such as George B. Schaller and David Allen Sibley. (The Mountaineers Books, 2003.)

JUNE 1, 1956: Bush pilot Keith Harrington banks his Cessna 180 over a lake in the Sheenjek River valley in northeastern Alaska and lands on the frozen surface. Bob Krear and I, both graduate students in wildlife ecology, quickly unload the plane, which then returns south to Fort Yukon. We cut poles and erect tents on a knoll among stunted spruce. Beyond the lake, Table Mountain is still capped with snow, but here in the valley, at an elevation of 2,000 feet, spring is near, with the first purple saxifrages in bloom and a willow ptarmigan on her clutch of six eggs beneath a rhododendron shrub. Sanderlings, black-bellied plovers and other shorebirds wheel over the lake, migrants traveling north across the Brooks Range to the Arctic tundra. A muskrat splashes and a pair of old squaw ducks paddles in a lead between ice and shore. The valley is resurgent with life after a long, harsh winter.
 
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From a vantage point looking south to the Romanzof Mountains in the Brooks Range, you can see the Okpilak River braiding through the tundra of the coastal plain on the northern border of the refuge.
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The following day brings Olaus and Margaret (Mardy) Murie, as well as Brina Kessel, an ornithologist at the University of Alaska. Olaus is president of The Wilderness Society and a renowned mammalogist who, with Mardy, has done research on Alaska's wildlife since the 1920s. After our summer's work they will become leaders in the four-year struggle to protect this region. As we settle into camp we begin to absorb the wild beauty around us. We have come to study not only the natural history but also to gather impressions of the "precious intangible values," as Olaus phrased it, with the hope that this knowledge will lead to protection of the area.

In this land of the midnight sun the jubilant singing of juncos, myrtle warblers, tree sparrows and gray-cheeked thrushes can be heard 24 hours a day. From our tents we see occasional bands of caribou crossing the lake ice in single file and hear the sound of their clicking hooves. They, too, are heading to the tundra of the coastal plain. One day, two massive grizzlies the color of winter grass trace the shoreline eating tender green sedges. And once a gray wolf trots past our tents; we name the spot Lobo Lake in his honor.

We roam daily from camp, observing, recording, photographing. Our plant collection grows rapidly as we examine different habitats, including the riverbank with its occasional stands of cottonwood trees and the lowland meadows with their tussocks of cotton grass. I scrape different kinds of lichens off the bark of white spruce and seek others hidden close to the ground among the crowberries and cranberries. Tree borings show that a spruce 20 feet tall is about 100 years old. Leaving the valley, I climb among the stark, gray limestone cliffs bordering it up to the alpine tundra, where I note the first gentian and delphinium of the season and add wheatear, horned lark and Lapland longspur to our bird list. I collect invertebrates, too, preserving them in vials of alcohol, from fleet-wolf spiders to ants, beetles and even mosquitoes, three species of which have become our intrusive companions. It is warm now, daytime temperatures into the 60s.

Evenings at camp we gather to share our experiences: a beaver track in the mud of a river bar, a cow moose with calf, a red fox hunting meadow voles. Olaus shows us his vibrant field sketches, perhaps of an Arctic loon or a cast caribou antler.

During our wanderings we also collect the droppings, or scats, of fox, wolf, lynx and grizzly. Olaus shows us how to identify what these predators have eaten by the color, thickness and length of the hair and the fragments of bone.

Photo A polar bear approaches whale bones from the previous year's hunt on frozen Bernard Harbor in early June. After a whale is taken during a Native hunt, its remains are left on the ice to be consumed not only by polar bears but also grizzlies, Arctic foxes and gulls.


This procession of perfect days, of sharing observations and knowledge and companionship, has a great influence on me. My admiration of Olaus and Mardy grows as they set an outstanding example of how to study and enjoy the life around them. Olaus is in his late 60s, a lean man with unruly hair and an infectious, broad smile, yet he approaches each day with curiosity, a responsive heart and an undimmed capacity for wonder. He is teaching me the value of good fieldwork, but, more important, he conveys the spiritual values of wilderness. Within days of our arrival in the Sheenjek valley we are held captive by its splendor.

In late June we move camp upvalley to the shore of Last Lake, as we name it. I set off one day on a lone week-long walk "to explore the country," as Olaus had urged me, around the headwaters of the Sheenjek. My pack is heavy with enough food for 10 days, a pot, a sleeping bag, an air mattress and a tarp beneath which to crawl if it rains or snows at night.
 
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Jimi John returns to Arctic Village with a boatload of fresh moose meat that will be cut into smaller pieces to share with family and community. Almost every part of the animal is used by the Gwich'in people, for whom subsistence is a way of life.
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After hiking about 40 miles toward the crest of the Brooks Range, I skirt a cirque glacier at 7,000 feet and stand on a knoll near the divide, a passing snow squall swirling around me. Twelve Dall sheep rams are nearby, their white coats bright against leaden scree. It is July 15. From here the Sheenjek River drains south and the Hulahula River drains north to the sea, the latter named for Hawaiian whalers who overwintered at its mouth in the early 1900s. Standing among sharp-edged peaks, at the convergence of mountain and sky, I am alone at a place without roads or people, not even trails except those trodden by wild sheep and caribou; there is nothing to violate the peace. Here, one can recapture the rhythm of life and the feeling of belonging to the natural world.

Looking at the rivulets that would join to become the Hulahula, I wish I could follow the valley down to the coastal plain. These plains, which extend only about 30 miles between mountains and sea, are the biological heart of the region. Polar bears den there in snowdrifts in November, give birth to cubs in December or January, and finally emerge in March or early April. More polar bears make dens in the refuge than anywhere else along Alaska's coast, and it is the only conservation area in the nation where polar bears den regularly. Well over 100,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd gather on the plains to calve, often packed together for protection against the hordes of mosquitoes and botflies. The bird life there is extraordinary, with many species not found in the Sheenjek valley.

I cross a divide toward the west and descend to the headwaters of the East Fork of the Chandalar River, where I unroll my sleeping bag on a river bar. Dinner consists of crackers, raisins and a cup of cold water. I am too weary to make a fire and cook, but am filled with the contentment that comes from achievement and exhaustion.
 
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Pregnant Porcupine caribou form long lines and move with a sense of determination as they migrate across the frozen Coleen River to reach the coastal plain in time to calve. Caribou are the only species of the deer family in which females have antlers. During winter, the antlers allow them to displace nonantlered caribou that have excavated feeding craters, allowing the females to conserve energy and maintain health for her growing calf. The females keep their antlers until a few days after their calves are born in early June.
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A noise awakens me at 5 o'clock the following morning, a cacophony of grunts, churning gravel and rushing water. I sit up. Caribou! They flow down the shadowed valley toward me, some in single file, others in a compact mass. I recline and wait motionless. The animals pass, ignoring me a mere 60 feet away, of no more relevance than a stray log of driftwood. Wave after wave washes by me, a total of some 2,000, before the clatter of hooves recedes. The return migration has begun.

The Porcupine herd, estimated to number between 170,000 and 200,000 at the time, generally heads eastward from the plains and into the mountains after calving, up and down valleys and over alpine passes toward Canada. In some years the animals will winter in the forested lowlands of the Yukon Territory, having migrated some 300 to 400 miles from the calving grounds, and in other years a part of the population remains in what is now the Arctic Refuge. The animals dominate the landscape wherever they are, a river of life, always moving, moving toward the ridge beyond, not only defining this Arctic ecosystem but also symbolizing the freedom of its wilderness.

Days later, back at camp, I find a piece of gray chert with a serrated edge on a knoll. It is a hide scraper made by a hunter long ago, perhaps as he scanned the valley for prey. Further searching reveals other stone tools and waste flakes. An archaeologist later tells us that these artifacts may be as much as 8,000 years old. One morning we spot a white tent across the valley. I wade the braided Sheenjek to investigate and find three Gwich'in Indians from Arctic Village, south of the Brooks Range, close to what is now the Arctic Refuge. Ambrose William, the eldest, gnaws on a porcupine leg while David Peter fries dough in deep grease over hot coals. A wolf hide is stretched out to dry.

"Wolf hunting?" I ask, continuing a conversation. "Hunting wolf and prospecting some," William replies. At that time the Territory of Alaska paid a bounty of $50 for every dead wolf. The hunters later visit our camp and give us useful information about the region. The Gwich'in in Alaska and Canada depend on caribou hunting for survival and cultural identity, the destinies of caribou and humans intertwined.

By late July, the brief Arctic summer grades into autumn as blueberries ripen and willow leaves turn gold. Every rainstorm in the valley brings snow to the peaks. On Aug. 1, the family of resident short-billed gulls suddenly leaves Last Lake. Two months have passed since our arrival, and we have collected much information. Our tallies represent only a small fraction of the totals in the region. Years later the Fish and Wildlife Service would list 180 bird species for the Arctic Refuge as a whole, and also 36 land mammals, nine marine mammals including ringed seal and bowhead whale, and 40 fish species. Such figures illustrate the remarkable diversity of life in a region that many consider an empty wasteland.

Invited by Olaus, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent proponent of wilderness, visited our camp with his wife Mercedes. In discussions about the future of this region, he helped make me aware that conservation is basically politics, that powerful voices in Washington will ultimately determine the course of events. Later he reflected our feelings when he wrote, "This last American living wilderness must remain sacrosanct."
 
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Photographer Subhankar Banerjee, a native of India now based in Bellevue, relaxes in a hot spring in Alaska's Okpilak River valley. In his introduction to the book, Banerjee describes his journey through Alaska as one that turned many corners and revealed innumerable surprises.
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On Aug. 5 we leave the Sheenjek with the early migrant birds.

My summer in the valley bequeathed to me a legacy of memory and desire. So naturally I was elated when, on Dec. 6, 1960, a year after Alaska became a state, Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton issued a Public Land Order officially establishing the 8.9 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range. It was the culmination of many years of effort to protect America's last great wilderness. Olaus died in 1963. Mardy continued the fight on behalf of the Arctic Refuge, writing, lecturing and lobbying. Brina, Bob, Mardy and I had a reunion of the Sheenjek team in 1991 at her home, with the memory of Olaus a strong presence. And in 2002, Mardy celebrated her 100th birthday and gave us this statement: "I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them."

I retain my dreams from the summer of 1956.

George B. Schaller is a field biologist and director for science at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. Schaller has spent most of the past 50 years in the wilds of Asia, Africa and South America, studying and helping protect species as diverse as the mountain gorilla and giant panda. His numerous writings include 15 books, among them "The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations," which won the National Book Award in 1972. For the past decade he has studied wildlife in Laos, Mongolia and China.

Subhankar Banerjee is a Bellevue-based free-lance photographer specializing in wildlife, environmental and cultural photography. Born in India in 1967, Banerjee obtained a bachelor's degree in engineering before moving to the United States. In 1994 he obtained master's degrees in physics and computer science. He worked as a physicist at Boeing before embarking on the project to photograph the Arctic wild. A traveling exhibit of his work will open next month at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.


Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

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