Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Gives New Meaning to ‘Isolated Experience’

Isolated Experience Main
ANWR is home to black, brown and polar bears. The harsh environment means some brownies may hibernate up to eight months.Design Pics incC/Alamy

With just 50 yards of tundra separating us, a wary female grizzly had a decision to make. She’d strategically maneuvered downwind of me, and I could see her wet snout in the morning sun tilting in my direction as she sniffed the crisp Arctic air. When I realized what she was up to, I dropped my pack, pulled out my bear spray and made myself look as big as I could. The ball was in mama bear’s court now. I wasn’t hoping for an encounter like this in the roadless, 19.3-million-acre expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

But by rafting the Kongakut River on the North Slope of Brooks Range in northeast Alaska, and hiking in North America’s largest wildlife refuge, I’d immersed myself in an Arctic biome. Crossing paths with wildlife was inevitable. For one example, approximately 150,000 caribou depend on ANWR’s vast coastal plain for calving grounds.

Rafting Campsite
I wasn’t hoping for an encounter like this in the roadless, 19.3-million-acre expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Chuck Graham

Since the 1960s, ANWR has been in the middle of a political and economic fight—to drill or not to drill the area for oil. To date, conservationists have kept plans for development at bay. ANWR remains among the wildest places in North America. So, when friend and guide Carl Donohue from Expeditions Alaska invited me to join a rafting expedition on the Kongakut, I didn’t hesitate.

Dall Sheep
Wildlife encounters are common. Caribou, Dall sheep (pictured), musk ox and wolves roam ANWR along with over 200 bird species. Danita Delimont Creative/Alamy

Sunset in late June was 12:30 a.m., sunrise 3 a.m. In late evening, long mountain shadows crept across chilly Class III rapids on the Kongakut, but it never got truly dark. I didn’t sleep much. Neither did the mosquitoes. Each day, as soon as I’d gotten out of the raft and pitched my tent, I walked up one of the colossal tributaries that feed the river. I hiked barefoot most of the time. The tundra was soggy and squishy. Amazingly, my feet never looked so clean. Encounters with Dall sheep, musk ox, Arctic ground squirrels and caribou kept my camera busy.

Arctic tundra
No roads, no trails. “Visitors have the freedom to respond to the landscape as it unfolds before them,” says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Chuck Graham

Then there was that female grizzly with her blond cub. The stench of my unwashed days appeared to confirm her worst fears—she did an about-face and rambled up the sweeping river valley, cub in tow. Hurrying back to the Kongakut, I looked over my shoulder every 20 paces to make sure she wasn’t having second thoughts. With astonishing quickness, mom and cub were at least a mile east of me. In the open Arctic landscape you’re able to appreciate how much territory bears can cover in a short amount of time.

Grizzly bears fighting over salmon in water

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As I drew closer to the Kongakut’s steady flow, the roar of the river calmed my fears. The Beaufort Sea beckoned along the coastal plain, and our scheduled bush plane pickup two days later. There was plenty of daylight left, but not nearly enough time.

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