- Historic Sites
Our Last Great Wilderness
America’s greed for oil has drastically upset the ecological balance of Alaska’s North Slope, and the end is not in sight
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Polar bears roam the ice floes; grizzlies are numerous in the Brooks Range foothills. In the mountains one may see wolves following a band of migrating caribou or, if one is lucky, a loping wolverine who pauses every few dozen yards to rise on his hind feet and look around, like an oversized raccoon. He is said to be so ferocious that, although smaller than a wolf, he will drive a whole pack from their kill.
While the sweep of the tundra and the treeless foothills is magnificent, the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range are breathtaking. The mystery, beauty, and isolation of those mountains have enslaved the souls of many visitors, including myself.
Probably the first white man to cross the Brooks Range was Ensign (later Rear Admiral) W. L. Howard, who had been with a Navy expedition exploring tributaries of the Yukon in 1886. He penetrated the mountains and met a band of friendly Eskimos, who led him across what is now Howard Pass to the North Slope. There he descended to the Colville River, which he found to be an Eskimo trade route.
There were two distinct Eskimo cultures: the Nunamiut Eskimos, who lived a nomadic, inland life heavily dependent on caribou hunting; and the coastal Tariamiut Eskimos, whose base of operations was usually a village centered on a “dance house” and led by a whaling chief. Survival of the two groups depended heavily on trade between them.
Howard remained with the inland Eskimos until, with the arrival of spring, the ice broke thunderously from the rivers and the trading parties began to head downstream for the coast. Howard found these Eskimos gay and helpful travelling companions, and he became the first white man to reach the Arctic Ocean from the Alaskan interior.
In 1901 and 1924 the mountains were crossed via other routes. Then, in the thirties, a young man named Robert Marshall felt the call of the Brooks Range and devoted several years to its exploration. Marshall was a New Yorker of independent means with a doctor’s degree in botany from the Johns Hopkins University.
So deeply moved was Marshall by the beauty and solitude of the Brooks Range and other such virgin regions that he became instrumental in the establishment of the national wilderness areas that now preserve select tracts from harmful intrusion. This he was able to accomplish in the late 1930’s as chief of the Division of Recreation and Lands in the United States Forest Service. One of the preserves, in Montana, now bears his name: the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.
Marshall’s successive penetrations of the Brooks Range, during which he followed stream beds and ascended mountains to take bearings for his map making, showed the region to be unique. The mountains, none more than ten thousand feet high, are not as lofty as those of the central Rockies, but the harsh polar environment has carved them into pinnacles, canyons, and jumbled ridges nothing less than awesome.
Marshall told, as none had before, of the wonders of this region. At one point he came upon a lake more than a mile long, hemmed in by towering slopes that vanished into the clouds. Waterfalls dropped from the cloud-shrouded heights into the lake and its tributary streams.
“Nothing I had ever seen, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon or Mount McKinley rising from the Susitna, had given me such a sense of immensity,” Marshall wrote afterward of this spot. Yet he limited the circulation of his books on the Brooks Range, apparently fearful that his glowing descriptions might generate a deluge of tourists. These mountains, he felt, should forever be preserved for those willing to endure hardship to find solitude. There is something glorious in traveling beyond the ends of the earth [he wrote], in living in a different world which men have not discovered, in cutting loose from the bonds of world-wide civilization. Such life holds a joy and an exhilaration which most explorers today cannot understand, with their radios and aeroplanes which make the remotest corners of the world just a few days or even hours away in distance. Modern mechanical ingenuity has brought many good things to the world, but in the long list of high values which it has ruined, one of the greatest is the value of isolation.
Marshall could hardly have guessed how soon the modern world would invade this last great wilderness. When Ensign Howard crossed the mountains in 1886, he found that some of the natives were stoking their fires with oil-soaked shale. In 1906 Ernest de Koven Leffingwell of the United States Geological Survey, who explored the coastal area near Prudhoe Bay, found oil seeping out of the ground. And there were Eskimo tales of an entire lake of oil near Cape Simpson, west of Prudhoe Bay. In 1917 Alexander Malcolm Smith, better known as Sandy Smith, found the “lake,” fed by a large seepage, and within four years oil companies had begun staking claims in the area.