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PHOTOS: 300 miles across Alaska's North Slope to the Arctic Ocean

Our first couple of days were a sink-or-swim introduction to life in the central Brooks Range, as the mosquito-swarmed fog of Atigun valley gave way to freezing rain and fresh snow as we climbed over the first pass. Even in late July, winter is never far away in the Arctic. July 24, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
The top of the pass gave us some of our first panoramic views. The innocuous contour lines of the maps we’d be looking at for months suddenly took form in the reality of the terrain ahead of us: a chaos of deep canyons and ragged mountains soaring above roiling clouds in the valley below. After a quick, cold snack, we headed downhill. July 24, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Many visitors to the Brooks, expecting muted Arctic bleakness, are surprised to find the mountains shot through with veins of brilliant color and contrast. Pale pink glacial streams run through vivid green, yellow, and red vegetation, which gives way with elevation to monstrous faces, arches, and fins of striped white, black, and orange rock. July 24, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Water and wet feet are a basic reality of Brooks Range backpacking. Though the range receives very little precipitation compared with much of the rest of Alaska, poor drainage and the long winters leave the summer tundra soaked and make braided river crossings a frequent necessity. We quickly learned that, rather than fight the inevitably losing battle to keep our feet dry, it was better to learn to be comfortable hiking wet. July 25, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Brett and Luke walk toward the head of Thunder Valley, a remote cluster of tilted and twisted sedimentary towers in the central Brooks Range. Much of the eastern Brooks Range is preserved in ANWR, while the central portion is protected wilderness in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. July 26, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Fresh fish provides a welcome break from dehydrated backpacking food. Though fish grow slowly in the low-energy Arctic environment, the lack of visitors means near-legendary fly fishing in a few choice spots. July 26, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
For most of our trek through the Brooks Range, we stayed low in the valleys to conserve energy. Though slogging our heavy packs over passes like this was exhausting, the elevation gave us a sweeping perspective on the landscape. July 27, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Much of the Brooks Range is composed of ancient seabed and is rich with marine fossils. These beautifully fossilized corals, possibly syringopora, had their origins in warm seas millions of years ago and now rest thousands of feet up in a barren, snow-blown pass in the central Brooks. July 28, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Brett, Luke, and Chelsea take a break on a section of “aufeis” on the upper Anaktuvuk River. Aufeis (in German, literally, “ice on top”) forms when rivers freeze solid and water is forced to the surface, creating successive frozen layers of ice. This aufeis probably remains year-round and forms a sort of mini-glacier on the banks of the river. July 29, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Almost everywhere we walked or camped, there were animal tracks crisscrossing the landscape. These big wolf prints were on the banks of the Anaktuvuk River. Wolves are common on the North Slope, but they are leery of humans and are rarely seen in the summer months. August 2, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
In the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, we picked up our packrafts and headed for the Anaktuvuk River. The Anaktuvuk flows North out of the Brooks Range across the North Slope, where it joins the Colville River on its way to the Arctic Ocean. Because it is so shallow and remote, the river is very rarely run; the last recorded descent we could find dated back to 1901. We were thrilled to find that not only was the river runnable in our packrafts, but it was tremendously fun. It wasn’t always easy, though. As we set up camp one night on the North Slope tundra, this storm abruptly rolled on to us out of the Brooks Range. Just after this photo was taken, we were hit by a ferocious wall of wind that flattened the green tent and sent the fire spinning off into the tundra. The whole group piled into Jason’s white Stephenson’s tent to ride out the storm. August 3, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Brett’s packraft on the rocky banks of the Anaktuvuk as another storm approaches. The North Slope is often referred to as being part of the “Arctic desert,” but this became a running joke after we were hit with sudden violent thunderstorms and deluges of Arctic rain. August 5, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
We brought an RC plane with us mounted with a GoPro to take aerial footage on the North Slope. Though high winds often kept our plane grounded, the occasional calm evening was a perfect time to relax over a warm dinner and do some flying. August 5, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
A caribou watches us from the banks of the Colville River. Caribou have the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal, traveling up to 3,100 miles per year, and are a major source of food for subsistence hunting communities throughout the Arctic. One of the concerns that we heard over and over again from local people was that development or sport hunting could disrupt or diminish caribou migrations.
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Expedition Arguk relied on four Alpacka packrafts to take us 245 river miles, from Anaktuvuk Pass in the central Brooks Range to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. These incredible boats are capable of running remote whitewater, yet weigh only five pounds and can roll down to the size of a two-person tent. When the legendary Arctic wind churned the Colville River into upstream whitecaps, we simply deflated the boats and walked along the banks. August 10, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Because of the low angle of the sun in the Arctic, many nights treated us to sublime five-hour-long sunsets. August 12, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Brett watches the polar bear from his packraft. Shortly after this photo was taken, the bear slipped into the water and disappeared under the gray waves.
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Fresh polar bear and human tracks side-by-side on the Colville River delta. At this point we had traveled 299 miles through the Arctic, and were just one mile away from our goal: 300 miles and the edge of the Arctic Ocean. August 17, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Not wanting to share the water with a polar bear, we dragged our boats the last mile. Still, silent fog sat over the featureless gray delta. It was as if we had walked off the edge of the earth, into a primordial landscape of basic forms in gray on gray on gray. In the shimmering air and without any reference points, perspective dissolved into nonsense: at one point, we stared at three white dots flickering in the mirage, thinking they might be bears, only to realize a few steps on that we were looking at seagulls just a few yards away. At last we reached the shallow salty water lapping at the edge of the sandbar and there was nowhere left to walk. After 300 miles of canyons, rivers, and tundra, we’d reached the edge of the top of the world. We took a few photos and then turned around and made our way back down into the real world; out of the fog and back to the tundra, and back toward home. August 17, 2013
Courtesy Paxson Woelber
Paxson Woelber

“See the polar bear?” Chelsea yells back at me through the cold wind.

We’re paddling down the Colville River Delta, just a mile from the Arctic Ocean, bobbing in the swells between the gray water and the gray Arctic sky. Through the rippling sea mirage on the far bank, a white shape resolves in the flickering air. With its nose held high, swinging from side to side, the polar bear lopes purposefully down the bank, scouring the air for the scent of food. We watch it from our boats in a kind of stupefied nervous awe. Before this trip, in what had seemed like a moment of unreasonable pre-expedition paranoia, I’d googled “kayaking around polar bears,” only to find that nobody on Ask.com or Yahoo Answers had ever had this special concern. There’s no guide book to tell you what to do when you’re in a 5-pound inflatable boat and you cross paths with a polar bear, the largest land predator on Earth. And one with a reputation for occasional nastiness. And fast swimming. And cunning. And able to ambush prey in water. The water that you are now sitting in.

Its back begins to turn toward us as it walks up the bank; then it twists in the glassy air and suddenly disappears. There’s a moment of confusion as we realize what’s happened: that it’s not on land anymore, it’s slipped into the water with us.

Our trip began a month earlier and some 299 miles away, on the side of the Dalton Highway in the heart of the central Brooks Range. A team of four scientists and one media professional, we’d set out to cross 300 miles of the Alaska Arctic by foot and packraft. The Arctic is entering a period of intense transformation, swept up in accelerating climate change, economic and industrial development, and geopolitical tension. Yet for all its growing importance and potential, the Arctic remains a far-off place, largely absent from public understanding or imagination. The North Slope Borough alone is larger than 39 US States, yet few people outside of Alaska would even recognize that name. We wanted to see this land from eye-level to understand and appreciate the radical transformations occurring.

Our expedition took us over snow-scoured passes and glaciers in the Brooks Range, into remote villages, and past massive oil facilities towering over the tundra on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. We paddled through fierce thunderstorms on the remote Anaktuvuk River, and found dinosaur fossils with a group of paleontologists below the coal-seamed bluffs of the Colville River. We had dozens of eye-opening conversations with people who work and travel through the Arctic, and others who call the Arctic home.

As soon as we realize that we’re no longer on the top of the Colville River food chain, we paddle quickly -- very quickly -- for the riverbank. We haul out on a little strip of mud about 100 feet from shore and scan the cold, gray water. Polar bears are hungry and lean this time of year as they wait for the ice to reform. The rapid disappearance of the polar ice that will facilitate oil exploration and transpolar shipping has also meant longer waits for polar bears. The last thing we need is a hungry polar bear.

The bear emerges from the water on our side of the riverbank some distance away, shakes itself off like a huge dog, and, to our relief, continues across the delta. Soon we can only see its head, floating in the air above the gray sand, and then it too flickers out, leaving us behind.

Though the Arctic may seem distant, there are political, environmental, and industrial forces are pulling it closer to the rest of the world every day, and its importance in human affairs will only grow. We hope that our media projects can give people a sense of what’s there, what is changing, and what stands to be lost if ignorance or indifference lead to mismanagement of one of the Earth’s great places.

Paxson Woelber was an organizer of the 300-mile Expedition Arguk. Additional information is available online.

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