“Why Can’t We Leave This One Small Place Alone?”

How opening ANWR to energy development could threaten the Gwich’in homeland and heritage

aerial panoramic view of The Yukon River
The Yukon RiverK. Hill/National Parks Service

The Yukon River at the tiny Alaskan town of Circle is two miles wide and intensely braided—the main channel roiling in whirls and eddies, the water the color of milky tea from the crushed rock of glaciers from its headwaters in British Columbia, and the tons and tons of silt from its always-eroding banks. Stopping every few seconds to wipe away mosquitoes from our faces, we load up drybags and camping gear in Tony Peter’s big flat-bottom boat. Tony is a Gwich’in native who has agreed to take us the 80 miles downriver to Fort Yukon, a Gwich’in village of about 600 people near the confluence of the Yukon and the Porcupine. A young, fit man named Preston helps us load and launch. He is going to visit family in Fort Yukon, then to a camp up the Porcupine River for the salmon season. The cottonwood fluff is blowing, drifting on the breeze like the lightest of snows. For the Gwich’in, this is the sign that the salmon are coming—they may still be a thousand miles downriver, but they are coming. The big, 115-horsepower Evinrude shoves the boat out into the main current and comes quickly up on plane, no matter the load of six men, a barrel of extra fuel, and a lot of gear. The bugs are left behind, the wind is cool, the sun warm.

The land on the banks, for miles and miles, is empty of any sign of human endeavor. The cottonwoods and aspens are a bright green, the towering spruce almost black. The river hisses against the cutbanks, and here and there big pours of earth fall away and disappear beneath the boiling surface. The country is intensely, almost surreally, flat (indeed, we’ll be traveling through Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge for most of the journey to Fort Yukon), with a sky that goes on forever. Thunderheads tumble upward in the distance, turning bright white in the relentless sunlight (it is June and never gets dark) of the Alaskan interior. Weather systems that look near-to-hand, that make me search nervously for the drybag with my rain gear in it, pass off in the distance and deliver their rain to other travelers, to other parts of the boreal forest, to unknown places lost in the wilderness immensities.

A group of Gwitch’in in a boat
The Gwitch’in call themselves “the people of the caribou.”Gwich’in Steering Committee

I'm here to interview some Gwich'in hunters and others for a film project about American public lands. This is also the week of the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit in Fort Yukon, and it's happening at a time when climate change, at least here on the Earth's wild and ragged northern edge, seems more obvious, and more threatening, then ever. The Yukon is carrying more silt and gravel than any time in anyone's memory, with channels changing and new islands appearing as if in hyperlapse. The water of the river is changing as the permafrost melts, bringing new worries about the salmon runs.

Fort Yukon hunters after caribou are already traveling upriver hundreds of miles. The migration patterns of the huge Porcupine herd (about 200,000 caribou at most recent counts) have changed, and around Fort Yukon, moose have become the main meat animal, which is fine, the hunters say—moose meat, and especially moose kidneys cooked in caul fat, is a wonderful thing. But for the Gwich'in, who call themselves "the people of the caribou" and have lived with the herds for over 10,000 years, nothing will ever replace a tundra-fed caribou.

The news that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski had successfully inserted a provision into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (which passed) to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling has added to the Gwich'ins' concern for their future. In villages like Fort Yukon, accessible only by air or the river—where a small beefsteak at the only grocery store costs $35, or a box of Raisin Bran is $12—hunting, gathering, and fishing are not the lifestyles or vacations they are in the Lower 48. They are absolutely essential for life. Hunting and fishing are central to their culture, to their language, to their daily and seasonal lives and travels, and to their family relationships. The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—known to the federal government and the energy industry as the 1002 Area—has long been known as the primary calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, a place selected by these animals for thousands of years, with rich grazing to support nursing and maturing calves and the winds off the Beaufort Sea to blow away the mosquitoes. The calving grounds, like the migrations and the wintering grounds, change, but the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has always been crucial to the long term survival of the caribou here. And as goes the caribou, so goes the Gwich'in—at least as they have lived for thousands of years here along the Yukon.

map of the primary habitat of porcupine caribou herd.
This map shows the range of the Porcupine caribou herd and the homeland of the Gwich’in. The coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are the primary calving ground for the herd.Gwich’in Steering Committee

We were lucky to catch up to Sam Alexander in Fort Yukon and sit with him for an interview on the porch of the very modest home in which he grew up. Sam's father was the traditional chief of the Gwichyaa Gwich'in Tribe of Northern Alaska, and Sam is on the board of the Gwich'in Council International. He spent his childhood fishing and hunting the Yukon Flats, and he has roamed far since then, graduating from the US Military Academy, serving three tours in Iraq, and leaving the service with the rank of Major in the U.S. Special Forces. He went on to take a business degree from Dartmouth and then came home to teach at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and found an adventure travel company called Latitude Six-Six. Alexander has been a leading voice for opposing the opening of the Refuge's coastal plain to leasing for drilling, and has traveled to Washington D.C. to testify before Congress. Alexander's presentation to Congress turned into a heated exchange with Alaska Congressman Don Young, who's wife was Gwich'in and who was a barge captain and school teacher in Fort Yukon. Young's first elected position was mayor of the village, in 1964, and he is a longtime proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“Part of it was the fact that they were not being honest about the impacts this would have,” he says. “I kept hearing them say that it would only impact 2,000 acres of the plain, but it turned out that meant that, if you added up every acre that was actually being drilled, it would be 2,000 acres. It did not account for the roads that would be built, the truck traffic, or the infrastructure.”

The fight he has taken on, he says, was to let as many people as possible know the truth of what was being proposed. "My role in this is pretty limited really," he says. "Bernadette [Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee] has worked so hard on this. Nobody knows all that she has done. So when she asks me to do something, I do it. She asks me to go talk to Congress, I do it. I'm a warrior. I go in. That is what I do, and I'm good at it."

We find Bernadette at our camp near the banks of the river. She is a tall, lean woman in her 40s, a mother of five, grandmother of five, and she is tasked with—along with a hundred other responsibilities here in town—organizing the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit. That involves some serious rounding up of speakers, audience members, meeting boats, and planes to bring in visitors and supplies and make sure everyone is fed, watered, and coffee’d up. All of this is conducted from the seat of a dusty four-wheeler that never seems to stop for more than a few minutes. She greets us and directs us to the community hall for lunch, and speeds away.

Caribou roaming the tundra.
Caribou roaming the tundra.Gwich’in Steering Committee

Lunch at the hall is a rich moose stew, and the first of many memorable meals we would eat there—moose, caribou ribs, caribou soup, whole ducks, goose stew, and a ceremonial serving of whale blubber, sliced thin, eaten like ocean-flavored chewing gum. Children rush back and forth, vying for the affections of a small, leaping yellow puppy. The line of hungry people is long, staged by a sign that says “Elders First, Visitors, Everybody Else.” Conversation, storytelling, and greetings make the hall roar; there are Gwich’in people, and visitors, from all over Alaska and British Columbia, and up and down the Yukon River, the Porcupine, the Koyukon, and beyond. The hall is the hub of the community, with a huge woodstove and a stage for the band that fuels the dances that occur each night we are in town.

It was about a mile from our camp to the hall, and in the many times I set out walking, I only made it there once without being picked-up by truck or four-wheeler. A stranger, picked up from the road, engaged in deep conversation, and taken to a place to share a meal that is taken directly from the local land and waters, cooked by people he has never met, who he may never see again, is the kind of hospitality—the purest kind of welcome—that no traveler can ever forget.

One of those conversations I had was with Darrel Vent, Sr., a hunter and trapper from the village of Huslia, population around 300, on the north bank of the Koyukuk River. He also serves on the Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council and seems to know almost everybody along the river. He introduces us to local hunter and fisherman named Walter "Chuck" Peter, who, along with Darrel, has given a presentation at the Climate Summit of first-hand accounts of the dramatic changes in weather, the river, the migrations of caribou and waterfowl, runs of fish, and the day-to-day challenges of travel and existence on river, ice, and snow.

Walter’s house is on a quiet side road at the edge of town. He is a carpenter, as well, and built the house himself. There are piles of duck and goose decoys, a splendid 20-foot, flat-bottom boat with a 115-horse Evinrude prop motor. He looks to be in his early 30s, but is actually 42, with five children and two grandchildren, one of whom is playing on a balcony of the house and watching us as Walter shows us his fish wheel, nets, a walk-in fish cache that also serves as a smoker, meat locker, and waterfowl processing shed. Two big four-stroke snow machines sit in a place of honor beside the boat. “I had a dog team when I was younger,” he says. “You really have to love dogs to keep doing that. I call these my iron dogs. I got 10,000 miles on that one on the left, hunting, running the trapline, hauling wood.”

two men talking to each other.
The author (left) speaking with Walter “Chuck” Peter.Hal Herring

In spite of poor fur prices and yo-yoing weather, Walter still runs a trapline of up to 60 miles. “It’s something to do along with hauling wood,” he says. “Wolves, lynx, marten, wolverine. You can never tell what the prices will be, and winters are so strange now that you never know when the fur will be prime. It used to be December, but now you never know. But I’ve done it forever.”

“We hear people from outside talking about ‘subsistence hunting’ or saying this is about survival, but we don’t say it like that,” he says. “We say it's about thriving. There is nothing better than this—fat white-fronted geese, moose meat, king salmon, whitefish. This is what we do. We can’t live without it.”

What is clear, talking with people in Fort Yukon, is that the discussion over climate change is different here. There’s no debating the pace of change with somebody who lives off of waterfowl that never show up or do not stop, a person who sees the ice go off the river months earlier than it did 40 years ago, who can’t use a snow machine to run a trapline because there is no snow, who watches rain falling in February in a village where the average temperature at that time used to be zero or below.

“Hunting geese like we do,” Walter says, “the geese are gone at breakup, so we have to go out there even when the ice is going off. We know it is risking our lives, but we go anyway.” People who depend on the bounty of the Earth for their very living do not have the luxury of illusion, or time for debating what is obvious here. Those luxuries are reserved for people in more settled places, where there are buffers between them and the world that provides their every need, where even the debate over opening the coastal plain of the Refuge to energy development has no immediate resonance.

“All of our representatives are for this development,” Walter says. “All of them. Congressman Don Young has been after that refuge since he has been in office. They are just heart-set on it. I don’t know why. They have this passion for opening the Refuge, but where is their passion for the native people? Where is their passion for the land? Everywhere we go there is development. Coal mines, gold mines, logging, oil drilling. And we have this one place that is still wilderness, with caribou and thousands of specklebelly geese up there right now, with hills and lakes, all that open country. Why can’t we just leave this one small place alone?”