What I s the Arctic National Wildlife refuge...?
There is an area in northern Alaska known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is as large as Northern Italy, where I come from, but with a notable difference: There are no roads in the Refuge, and there are no sprawling towns. This place is the ancestral homeland of the Athabascan Gwich’in people. It is home, too, to the majestic Porcupine caribou herd, which has migrated for millennia to the northern coastal plain to bear offspring.
The Refuge is also home to the wolf, the bear, and a great multitude of other forms of wildlife. Each spring millions of migratory birds flock to this place to hatch their young. That is why this area, with some changes in its overall acreage over time, has been protected by federal law since the 1960s.
The land comprising the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred in the eyes of the Gwich’in people. In their language, this expanse is called “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit”, or, “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins”. Amazingly, the Gwich’in have survived in this harsh, beautiful terrain for over fourteen thousand years; even today in this place, they continue to hunt the life-sustaining caribou, just as their ancestors have for centuries.
Each spring through the ages, over 100,000 Porcupine caribou have migrated to these lands from Canada. Only here, free from the clouds of aggressive mosquitoes that infest the Arctic during the summer, can they give birth to their little ones in relative peace and calm.
This place is sacred, too, in a broader sense, because it is one of the very last corners of the planet as yet untouched by the plundering hand of “progress”. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is home to the most complete range of undisturbed Arctic ecosystems on US soil, and this is reason enough for its continued existence and federal protection.
But the Bush administration--and the powerful oil companies that played a key role in bringing it into being--are determined to claim for industry the one final sliver of Alaska’s northern coast that remains off-limits to drilling.
From 1988 to the present, the main obstacle to the commercial push to drill the coastal plain has been fervent, sustained activism on the part of many Gwich’in, as well as of environmental groups and other concerned citizens throughout the nation.
The current US government’s own agencies, such as the US Geological Survey, have made strongly qualified projections concerning the amount of recoverable oil in the proposed drilling area of ANWR. It has been widely reported in the press that a total of about six months’ worth of oil might be obtainable from the area in question; the US Geological Survey calculated that Americans could possibly reap a 1-cent savings on gasoline if ANWR were to be opened to commercial development--but only ten years from the time drilling began.
The dismal projections for benefits to the American people notwithstanding, the oil lobby and its backers in Washington felt that ANWR drilling represented some of the easiest, handsomest profits a favored industry could hope to realize in the modern day. That plumbing the depths of their new Arctic gold mine would lead to the despoiling of caribou calving grounds--and by extension, to irreparable damage to ancient Gwich’in hunting practices--made no difference. That one of the last surviving subsistence cultures of its kind in the world would, due to a powerful political deception, soon give way to a maze of drilling pads, storage pads, pipelines, roadways, power plants, power lines, and construction camps would simply constitute the price of progress.
It was the threat of that deception that caused me, in December of 2005, to leave my home in the northern Italian Alps, and to set out on a solo quest to traverse the length of Alaska, in protest, from south to north…on skis.
I had done something similar five years ago in crossing Norway, where I trekked 3000km in five months’ time. My goal there was to raise awareness of the Sami people and their struggle; my book, The Dream of the Wolf, is an account of that arduous, exhilarating journey.
Now I had determined to embark upon a 2000-km protest walk in solidarity with the Gwich’in, a walk that would take me across the wildest, most unforgiving terrain I had encountered to date. A walk in which each step was a prayer and an act of love for our mother, the earth.