Our Last Great Wilderness

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn August 16, 1826, after long weeks of frustrating and perilous travel along the north coast of Alaska, the British explorer Sir John Franklin decided to abandon his bold ambition—completing the exploration of the North American coastline. The cluster of gravel banks where a conspiracy of storm, fog, drifting ice, and approaching winter forced him to turn back—still shown on maps as the Return Islands— lay off an indentation that he named Prudhoe Bay.

Less than a century and a half later this remote spot has become an arena for fierce, almost frantic competition among the world’s largest oil empires, and a focus of conservationist outrage. The gravel bars and shallow waters that made life miserable for Franklin’s men, with their small boats, have confounded those operating the largest ships ever built—the oil magnates seeking to extract the newly discovered oil beneath Prudhoe Bay.

The mission assigned to Franklin was to follow the uncharted coast from the mouth of the Mackenzie River in Canada across the top of Alaska to Bering Strait. Once Sir John’s party had passed from British to what was then Russian territory, travelling in boats that could be hauled over the sea ice when necessary, the mountains paralleling the coast had receded to the south, leaving a broad plain of marshy tundra between the shore and foothills.

At the same time the weather had become very foggy, perhaps, Sir John thought, because of the sodden nature of the coastal plain. For a week he had been unable to take any astronomical sights to learn his position, and for days the party was confined to a gravelly spit that they named Foggy Island.

The fog curtailed the caribou hunting on which they depended for fresh food, and there was only limited driftwood for their fires. When they tried to continue westward, they soon bogged down again, this time on one of the gravel banks they were to christen the Return Islands. After two days the sky cleared just long enough for observations to determine their position. The signs were all ominous. The season was late, and the fact that no Eskimos had been seen suggested that the region was inhospitable even to that hardy and resourceful people. Hence, on August 18, when the weather seemed at least tolerable, they began their return: As the waves were still very high to seaward [Sir John wrote], we attempted to proceed inside of the reefs, but as the boats were constantly taking the ground, we availed ourselves of the first channel that was sufficiently deep to pull on outside of them. The swell being too great there for the use of oars, the sails were set double reefed, and the boats beat to eastward against the wind, between the drift ice and the shallow water.


Thus ended the first visit of modern man to Prudhoe Bay. Sir John returned to the Arctic in 1845 to attempt a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America—the long-sought Northwest Passage. His ships were caught in the ice, and ultimately all 129 men of the expedition perished; but the expeditions sent to search for them—more than forty parties in all—added enormously to knowledge of the region and thus helped to make possible the historic trip of the giant tanker Manhattan in 1969.

Sir John and his men saw the land they discovered from the grimmest possible perspective, as do, to some extent, those laboring there now to find oil—fog, unpredictable ice floes, biting winds, frustrating gravel banks, a largely featureless shore, and an almost impassable swamp if one seeks, randomly, to walk inland.

The magnificent belt of mountains that parallels the coast is too far south to be usually visible. Yet those mountains, which span the entire width of northern Alaska from Canada to near the Bering Strait, together with the slope between them and the Arctic Ocean constitute the largest and least spoiled wilderness remaining within the United States. While the mountains have various local names, the system as a whole is known as the Brooks Range. It is, in fact, the northernmost extremity of the Rocky Mountain system. The foothills and the apron of tundra between them and the sea are known as the North Slope.

Near the coast the North Slope is not a slope at all, except to an imperceptible degree. It is like the sea—a great, monotonous, flat expanse that, to those who love it, has a grandeur without counterpart. One’s vision is opened to limitless horizons. One sees the march of clouds above and the march of seasons below in a way denied those hemmed in by walls or forests.

One of the most striking features of this region as seen from the air is the patterning of the surface much like that of an alligator skin. The extreme cold shrinks the ground until a polygonal series of cracks is formed. The cracks eventually fill with water, which freezes, leaving a system of tundra polygons enclosed by veins of ice.