“Fasten your seatbelts and no smoking on the plane.” I’ve heard these words a million times before, but this time it was different. I was strapping myself into the smallest airplane I’ve ever been in, a de Havilland Beaver affectionately known as “Pumpkin,” and I was about to fly over some of the wildest country in America—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I was joining the Sierra Club for a weeklong adventure through the Arctic.
Tucked away in the northeast corner of Alaska, it is the largest and wildest refuge in the country. I had heard about the beauty and wonder of this place, but nothing can compare to experiencing it firsthand. As we flew north, crossing over the Arctic Circle, I watched spruce trees give way to rugged mountains. Further north the mountains turned to sweeping tundra, wild rivers, coastal lagoons and finally the bays of the Arctic Ocean.
These areas are home to some of our most amazing wildlife. In fact, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains the greatest diversity of animal life of any protected lands in the entire region. Polar and grizzly bears, musk oxen, wolves and wolverines all call the refuge home. On our visit we saw Dall sheep, caribou, red fox, hawks and golden eagles.
Each year, the lush tundra of the Arctic Refuge acts as the birthing grounds for much of this wildlife. Birds I see in my own backyard in Texas begin their lives in the Arctic Refuge before migrating to my hometown and others in all 50 states.
This area is also essential for mother polar bears to build their dens and for the Porcupine caribou herd, which travels hundreds of miles each year to the coastal plain to birth their calves. For these animals, and others, there is no alternative to this place they have depended on for millennia.
Wildlife are not the only ones who depend on the Arctic Refuge. The Gwich’in people, whose cabins we could see from the airstrip in Arctic Village, have lived off this land for centuries. The Gwich’in are the caribou people and they rely on Arctic bounty for their livelihood.
During the trip, I was able to swim in a freezing Arctic river, explore a remote and unnamed slot canyon with a 50-foot waterfall, and go white-water rafting through the most rugged portions of the Brooks Range. I was even able to see the spectacular Northern Lights.
Getting outdoors has always been an important part of my life. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of camping with my family, but this trip was truly an enlightening experience. It was an opportunity to reconnect with the outdoors in a place of unparalleled wonder, and it made abundantly clear the importance of protecting our country’s natural treasures.
The area’s significance to wildlife, native cultures, and sheer untamed beauty are unmatched and irreplaceable. I believe the marvels of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, especially the coastal plain, should be safeguarded—and I’m not alone. Polling shows that four out of five Americans believe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should receive stronger protections.
The natural wonders of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge deserve the strongest levels of protection possible to ensure that this amazing place remains unmarred for future generations. I’m grateful for the chance to reconnect with the wild lands that make America great, and I want others to have those opportunities too.