Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


 

Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sometimes called “America’s Serengeti,” northern version. It is one of the world’s biggest and northernmost reserves with one of the most spectacular assemblages of arctic plants, animals, and landforms anywhere.

The polar ice pack is always off the coast, even in summer. Permafrost is seldom more than a yard or meter underfoot, and in some places extends some 2,000 feet (610 m) down. Daylight lasts around the clock from May to August. Then it begins to decline to near 24-hour darkness. Winter has a few hours of twilight around noon, otherwise is illuminated only by stars and the northern lights.

The growing season is so short that many willow trees are only a few feet tall, and most other plants form a carpet a few inches high. But what a carpet!—a mosaic of scarlet bearberries and orange and gold lichens and mosses in fall, of wildflowers (arctic poppies and lupines, pink plumes and lousewort) in spring and summer. Permafrost makes this possible by blocking moisture loss so the ground is soft and spongy, despite low annual precipitation.

So harsh yet fragile is this unsparing environment that lichen trodden underfoot may not regrow for a century.

Yet it seems ideal for some. Great flocks of migratory birds—waterfowl, shorebirds, birds of prey from four countries and the South Pacific—come to breed in splendid isolation of the north slope tundra, finding plenty of food for growing young families.

The great Porcupine caribou herd—in a good year 180,000 of them—complete a 2,000-mile (3,300-km) round-trip migration, crossing the river for which they are named to give birth to calves on the northern coastal plain. The young can stand and nurse almost immediately and in 24 hours run after their mothers—important because predators such as bears, wolves, and sometimes golden eagles are watching.

Later they form huge post-calving groups—sometimes tens of thousands grazing on nutritious cotton grass, many by late summer moving south and east to Canada. (Some of the steep inclines they cover suggest it’s no wonder their ankle bones click, but the cause is not known.)

Stocky musk oxen, whose survival was once imperiled by their defense tactic of forming outward-facing circles against predators—effective against wolves but not repeating rifles—are doing well after reintroduction a few years ago, their shaggy coats cozy protection against deeply subzero windchills.

Northernmost herds of Dall sheep—whiter than bighorn mountain sheep with thinner horns—leap gracefully about the snowclad Brooks Range, their remarkable eyesight, equivalent to eight-power binoculars, able to spot predators miles away. Where the south slope of the range tapers off to spruce forest, black bears find cover. Moose forage on willow shoots along rivers.

Polar bears stay near sea ice, living off ringed seals, digging dens in snow to give birth to cubs during winter hibernation. Beluga and bowhead whales migrate along the coast. In river deltas and lagoons are 12 species of anadromous fish which spend their lives partly in fresh, partly in salt water.

Grizzly bears and wolves roam almost everywhere on these nearly 31,250 square miles (81,000 km2) of tundra, mountains, forests, marsh, and lakes, bounded by the Arctic Ocean on the north and Canada on the east, which was set aside originally at the urging of a broad spectrum of national and Alaska-based conservation organizations, including a Fairbanks garden club. Favorite spots for the big bears are the lovely Sheenjek and Ignek valleys.

Diminutive, quick arctic foxes are as active in winter as summer but change summer coats of gray-brown or occasionally blue to snow-white. Thickly-furred lynx have large padded feet which support them like snowshoes—as do their prey, snowshoe hares. Fierce wolverines, built like small bears, are as much scavenger as predator, but will take on caribou, moose, and even bears many times their size. They totally consume killed prey with powerful jaws that can crunch even thick bones.

There are 36 species of land mammals here. It is not easy living but with berries and roots and plenty of mice, voles, and arctic ground squirrels for the carnivores, it’s possible.

Birds are everywhere during the arctic summer—some 180 species: longspurs, wheatears and gray-crowned rosy finches in alpine tundra; white-winged crossbills on the south slope; and yellow wagtails, hoary redpolls, and arctic warblers in riparian thickets.

Arctic and red-throated loons breed on small lakes. Dippers (aka water ouzels) dive for grayling fry in rocky streams. Formerly endangered peregrine falcons, rough-legged hawks, and golden eagles in their northernmost breeding populations build aeries on cliffs.

 Alaskan brown bears, same species as grizzly bears found through Canada and parts of the northern U.S. and Eurasia, reach their largest size in Alaska—world’s largest land carnivores, up to 10 feet (3+ m) long, weighing more than a half-ton, with 10x16-inch (25x40 cm) hind pawprints. This is attributed partly to their rich seafood diet there, especially on spawning salmon which swim upstream by the millions as bears are emerging lean and hungry from hibernation. They may consume 35 pounds (16 kg) or more a day, taking advantage of this nourishing fare during its brief abundance.

Alaskan brown bears, same species as grizzly bears found through Canada and parts of the northern U.S. and Eurasia, reach their largest size in Alaska—world’s largest land carnivores, up to 10 feet (3+ m) long, weighing more than a half-ton, with 10x16-inch (25x40 cm) hind pawprints. This is attributed partly to their rich seafood diet there, especially on spawning salmon which swim upstream by the millions as bears are emerging lean and hungry from hibernation. They may consume 35 pounds (16 kg) or more a day, taking advantage of this nourishing fare during its brief abundance.

There are 36 species of land mammals here. It is not easy living but with berries and roots and plenty of mice, voles, and arctic ground squirrels for the carnivores, it’s possible.

Birds are everywhere during the arctic summer—some 180 species: longspurs, wheatears and gray-crowned rosy finches in alpine tundra; white-winged crossbills on the south slope; and yellow wagtails, hoary redpolls, and arctic warblers in riparian thickets.

Arctic and red-throated loons breed on small lakes. Dippers (aka water ouzels) dive for grayling fry in rocky streams. Formerly endangered peregrine falcons, rough-legged hawks, and golden eagles in their northernmost breeding populations build aeries on cliffs.

But probably the most important bird habitat is the lacework strip of marsh, braided streams, and coastal lagoons along the northern coastal plain where 10 major rivers drain into the Arctic Ocean.

Tundra swans, snowy owls, red and northern phalaropes (species whose males do nest duty), and thousands of golden plovers and pectoral and semipalmated sandpipers nest here. Later 40,000 or so oldsquaws molt here, amid a diversity of other migrants—common, king, and spectacled eiders, snow geese, pintails, wigeons, buffleheads, and others.

The Arctic Refuge is one of the largest, northernmost, and most scenically spectacular reserves in the world. Its magnificent vastness can hardly be conveyed—from snowclad 9,000- foot (2,745-m) peaks of the Brooks Range sloping off to spruce forest on one side and treeless tundra on the other, through which 10 major rivers drain into the Arctic Ocean. But it is also fragile and destructible, which is why environmentalists have fought to prevent exploration for oil, which could damage forever an irreplaceable natural heritage.

Best times are mid-June through early August for best weather and best water levels for riverrafting, but July is the top mosquito month, sometimes not bearable without mesh screens. (Snow lasts nearly eight months here, ice is on coastal lagoons until July.)

There are no roads, trails, or lodges. Access is primarily by air. Commercial service is available from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon, Arctic Village, Deadhorse, and Kaktovik, from there by charter for float trips or tenting. Guides and outfitters can be arranged. Refuge staff can be helpful with advice, contacts, and trip-planning information. Plan as far ahead as possible.

Take lots of insect repellent. Boil or treat drinking water. Use the land lightly to avoid permanently marking delicate habitat.

 Dense feathers cover all but sharp, curved claws of snowy owls, maintaining body heat of 100oF (38–40oC) when temperatures plummet in their circumpolar tundra habitat to –60oF (–52oC). Standing 20–27 inches (50–68 cm) with wingspans more than twice that, they locate prey by hearing—stiff feather discs direct faintest sounds to ear openings—plus overlapping binocular vision with light-gathering properties many times that of humans’, and flexible necks that swivel for a 270-degree view. Prey varies widely but they rely most on lemmings, especially when nesting, so when these crash every few years, owls temporarily move south.

Dense feathers cover all but sharp, curved claws of snowy owls, maintaining body heat of 100oF (38–40oC) when temperatures plummet in their circumpolar tundra habitat to –60oF (–52oC). Standing 20–27 inches (50–68 cm) with wingspans more than twice that, they locate prey by hearing—stiff feather discs direct faintest sounds to ear openings—plus overlapping binocular vision with light-gathering properties many times that of humans’, and flexible necks that swivel for a 270-degree view. Prey varies widely but they rely most on lemmings, especially when nesting, so when these crash every few years, owls temporarily move south.


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