My childhood dream was to live in the wildest place in America, Alaska. For several years, I did just that as an employee of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and North Slope Borough Environmental Protection office.
Actually, my first trip to Alaska was as an employee of a fish cannery near Naknek, in southwestern Alaska in 1979. (However, I didn’t actually can fish; rather, I put salmon and herring eggs in freezers.) I later attended the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for a year and spent several summers working in Alaska during the 1980s.
During this period I spent two summers studying seabirds (one summer in the Semidi Islands and another in the Aleutians) and did two stints monitoring bowhead whales near Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States. Other national wildlife refuges I worked at include Arctic, Nowitna and Yukon Flats. While working for the state, I spent one summer in western Alaska (working out of Bethel) and another summer in Prince William sound.
In addition, I worked as a volunteer during two winters on projects involving sea turtles in Michoacan, Mexico, and manatees in Florida. One summer found me working for the National Park Service at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, but not as a biologist.
It’s hard to choose a single best experience or favorite place from my experiences in Alaska. Camping on a hill carpeted with blueberries near Wonder Lake, with a priceless view of Denali (Mt. McKinley), is something I’ll never forget. Cruising the Inside Passage aboard an Alaskan ferry is also an unforgettable experience.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was probably the most spectacularly beautiful work site I’ve ever known. I saw my first wolves and a muskox there. The most exotic locales I visited were Katmai National Park’s Valley of 10,000 Smokes (where I saw a wolverine), the Aleutian Islands and the landfast ice of the Arctic Ocean off Point Barrow. The combination of wind, rain and fog made the Aleutians the most challenging environment, with sea otters, active volcanoes and World War II memorabilia as added attractions.
One of my most memorable experiences was stumbling across an ice-enclosed pool near Barrow occupied by two bowhead whales while accompanying bioacoustics researcher Christopher Clark, who took the photo on the left (below). But my first encounter with a polar bear was even more exciting.
Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge was a treat because of the numerous wolves that inhabited the area. It also introduced me to the fossils of Ice Age mammals that are so abundant in parts of Alaska.
But the biggest surprise was Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. I was initially dispirited because of the extraordinary bureaucracy in the main office in Fairbanks, as well as the refuge itself, which was simply bleak. As the name suggests, the Yukon Flats is an enormous flatland on the south side of the Brooks Range. After flowing through a mountainous area, the Yukon River spills onto this forested plain, turning it into a vast swamp.
In the Land of the Midnight Sun, the water soaks up sunlight, slowly heating the entire area. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Alaska is 100° Fahrenheit in Fort Yukon, the largest community in the Yukon flats.
In other words, the Yukon Flats is HOT and muggy, with hordes of mosquitoes. It’s essentially one big swamp — and not a terribly picturesque one, with the stunted trees one would expect so far north of the Arctic circle.
My first trip to the refuge itself ranks as one of my most miserable experiences in Alaska. We spent most of our time huddled inside a flimsy building, as bored as we were uncomfortable. My last trip was even harsher.
Two of us were sent out to survey waterfowl. To navigate the wilderness, each of us pulled a lightweight plastic canoe. We would have been most comfortable wearing nothing but shorts. Instead, we wore rubber hip waders and long-sleeved shirts and head nets to protect us from mosquitoes. We carried fairly heavy backpacks, with binoculars slung around our necks and shotguns slung over our shoulders for protection from bears.
We also had to pull our plastic canoes, which frequently got jammed between the stunted trees. We could take off our T-shirts and wring out what seemed to be enough sweat to fill a water bottle. And that still wasn’t all.
The woods were filled with at least two kinds of hornets, one which nested in trees, the other on the ground. The tree nesters were the worst, because their hives always seemed to be at eye level. I never knew I was in trouble until I heard a buzzing sound just inches from my face, inevitably followed by a sting. Freezing and searching in vain was a mistake. I learned to instead run away as soon as I heard that warning buzzing.
One wouldn’t want to seek safety in the swamp water; I recall a pond that was teaming with leeches. One day, I heard a tiny sound and looked down to spy a small frog with one leg nearly severed by a dragonfly nymph. We also discovered a bear trap — with a severed bear’s toe. The Yukon Flats can be a truly hellish place.
To my surprise, I enjoyed that trip, which turned into an adventure. The hornets were small, and their stings really weren’t that painful. We were also fortunate in that the Yukon River ran through our first plot. We could jump in for a refreshing swim, and the mosquitoes weren’t such a nuisance when a slight breeze wafted along the riverbank.
Nor was the Yukon Flats as ugly as I had at first imagined. The woods were threaded with extensive flower patches, typically curving along former river channels.
The final touch was fire. As I recall, Yukon Flats is the most heavily burned area in Alaska. We saw several fires from the air, and one was burning uncomfortably close during our last day on the refuge. The alien vegetation, insects and smoke suggested a different planet or period of time. I would not have been terribly surprised if a dinosaur had come crashing out of the woods.
Rising above the smoky arctic Amazon in a helicopter is one of my last memories of Alaska.