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The Ultimate Confrontation
Robert Cantwell
March 24, 1969
It has come in the Brooks Range of Alaska, a majestic wilderness where wolves are many and people are rare—or were, until oil gushed at Prudhoe Bay
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March 24, 1969

The Ultimate Confrontation

It has come in the Brooks Range of Alaska, a majestic wilderness where wolves are many and people are rare—or were, until oil gushed at Prudhoe Bay

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Unpublicized though it was, the Brooks Range wilderness continued to exert profound influence on the U.S. conservation movement through Marshall, who, under Franklin Roosevelt, had authority over outdoor recreation in 180 million acres of national forest land. He used that authority vigorously, principally to establish a system of wilderness and primitive areas in the national forests, setting aside 81 of those areas from which all forms of mechanization were forever barred.

Even more influential was Marshall's concept of a wilderness elite. "Only a small minority of the human race will ever consider primeval nature a basic source of happiness," he wrote. "Quality as well as quantity must enter into any evaluation of competing types of recreation, because one really deep experience may be worth an infinite number of ordinary experiences." Venturers into the wilderness were a superior class, he felt, because their self-testing gave them emotions that were intrinsically more valuable than the casual sightseeing of millions. And the Brooks Range was always, for him, the ultimate wilderness, the ultimate experience.

There is now a town called Anaktuvuk Pass (Zip Code 97721) right in the middle of the central Brooks Range, with 119 Eskimos, a schoolteacher and a Vista volunteer, a new schoolhouse and a gravel airstrip. One can take off from Fairbanks at 10 in the morning on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday and fly north a few hundred miles across the broad, watery valley of the Yukon to Bettles, 45 miles above the Arctic Circle. En route, it becomes dramatically apparent that the country just south of the Brooks Range is an unending expanse of low hills covered with shining yellow birches and dark stands of green-black Alaska spruce. There are no signs of human habitation, no roads. The only breaks in the forest are the shining still surfaces of winding rivers bordered with immense sandbars as level and empty as supermarket parking lots on a Sunday morning.

At Bettles there is a first glimpse of the mountains, incised on the northern horizon in white and steel-blue peaks. The seats are taken out of the plane in Bettles, and various necessities of life in Anaktuvuk Pass—plywood walls for shelters, bags of onions, cans of chili con carne—are strapped into the cabin. Leaving Bettles, the plane climbs high over John River. Bright sunlight strikes the tops of the mountains in all directions, and thin blue shadows below the peaks create an impression of a world of nothing but mountains, empty and geometrical, all tilted planes and angles. Any horizontal line gets bent, broken, crushed, upended; there are no flat places in this world.

Was Marshall right? Is the Brooks Range more awe-inspiring than Yellowstone or Yosemite? Well, yes. But in an unexpected way. For an hour or so we flew low over the John River, where 5,000-foot mountains on both sides block out the distant peaks. I could look out of either side of the plane and see extremely large chunks of very hard rock appallingly near. But the land beneath those forbidding stones is strikingly parklike and genial. It is the contrast between the gaunt, frozen peaks and the garden appearance of the little valleys that makes this mountain range unique, a mixture of overpowering strength and fragility, with constantly changing patterns instead of the uniform grandeur of the Rockies.

Even more meaningful, perhaps, is the solitude, which envelops everything in a shell of silence that makes the Brooks Range inspiring in a way that familiar places such as Yellowstone can never be again. So, in a sense, Marshall was right: these unexplored mountains are more impressive than the most famous of our national parks.

Almost any writer mentioning the Brooks Range stresses its strange combination of strength and vulnerability, of the harsh and the gentle. Commander John Reed, the director of the Arctic Institute, who was in charge of the Navy's exploration of Petroleum Reserve No. 4, observed how the region was easily-scarred: "Vehicle tracks are likely to remain easily visible for years because of the slow recovery of tundra vegetation. Even winter tracks may long be visible because the compacted snow affects the following summer's growth."

The record goes back a long way. Ejnar Mikkelsen was a young Dane who borrowed money to go there with Leffingwell in 1906. In Conquering the Arctic Ice he described a trip into the eastern Brooks Range, where he camped in a forest of dwarf trees many years old but only shoulder high, where "the mountains were towering over our heads and the sound of falling water was the only noise in the great frozen country." Constance and Harmon Helmericks, the authors of We Live in the Arctic, spent 1945 in a cabin on the Alatna River, near where Lieutenant Stoney had lived 60 years before. They watched a herd of 100,000 caribou stream past, 4,000 a day for a month. Lois Crisler, who wrote Arctic Wild, lived through the winter of 1957 on the Killik River in a landscape where ancient birch trees grow only ankle high.

Most of them said the winters were livable. Some of them said they were enchanting. Mikkelsen wrote of winter darkness: "These days in the Arctic are the finest that man can see. The air is fresh, clean and bracing; we feel the joy of living so much we frisk about like puppies." Nicholas Gubser, a Yale scientist who lived through 1960 at Anaktuvuk Pass—he could not keep up his notes during the winter because he had to hunt to keep from starving—said that only at 40� below zero was he really cold.

But all the reports agree on one vital point: the Brooks Range is not only the greatest wilderness left, it is also the most fragile. Its thin land surface cracks like an eggshell. Nothing decays or sinks into the earth. The healing underbrush and vines that soon hide a forest camp in the continental U.S. are absent: the campsite will remain visible forever. The tracks made by the Navy's exploring vehicles 25 years ago still crawl through the foothills, like the trail of some prehistoric monster which had dragged itself in from the sea. In many areas there are no trees to screen anything; an empty oil drum is visible for miles and looks enormous. Along the big rivers are rushing streams that are called creeks—really good-sized rivers in their own right. "There are trails all along those creeks," wrote Donald Orth, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey crew that mapped the Brooks Range. "That doesn't mean that many people have walked along them, but if a couple of people do so, it makes a trail."

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