Flight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
We are on our way to Kaktovik flying just above the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It consists of 19,286,722 acres in the northeast corner of Alaska. It is the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the country.
The move to protect this corner of Alaska began in the early 1950s. But it wasn’t until 1960 that the region first became a federal protected area under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and mandated studies of the natural resources of this area, especially petroleum. The question of whether to drill for oil in this region has been an ongoing political controversy since 1977. The controversy surrounds the potential harm oil exploration might have upon the natural wildlife.
There are currently no roads within or leading into the refuge, however there are a few scattered Indian settlements. On the northern edge of the refuge is the Inupiat village of Kaktovik (population 247). The geographic location most remote from human trails, roads or settlements is found here in northeast Alaska.
Salt water marshes provide habitat for migratory waterbirds
Even though the landscape appears barren, the refuge supports a variety of plant and animal life. Along the northern coast, the barrier islands and salt marshes provide habitat for migratory waterbirds including sea ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds. The coastal lands and sea ice are used by caribou seeking relief from biting insects during summer, and by polar bears hunting seals and giving birth in snow dens during winter.
A flock of snow geese just below the plane
As we watch the landscape below, we catch our first glimpse of a flock of snow geese soaring beneath the plane. The name – Snow Geese – derives from the typically white plumage. They breed north of the timberline in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the northeastern tip of Siberia, and migrate to warmer parts of North America from southwestern British Columbia through parts of the United States and into Mexico.
As we approach the airport in Kaktovik, we catch our first sighting of polar bears running along the coastline. Hooray, we are here!