22 Jul Black Waters: Gates of The Arctic
This week in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park, I landed a two and half-foot Northern Pike, the biggest fish I’ve caught in my life. As a small group of anglers, all of African descent, our team on the BlackWaters Expedition was delivered by floatplane to a narrow beach on the banks of the Kobuk River. Led by Chad Brown, founder of the environmental engagement
nonprofit Love Is King, this adventure into the least visited of all the national parks aimed to reimagine the face of Arctic exploration to include people of color, a segment of the population that is woefully underrepresented in the outdoors. To be part of such an ambitious endeavor has been a quiet dream of mine for a while now. To catch wild fish on a remote project deep in the American frontier, and to do it in Alaska, was a bonus. I’m just glad to have had the chance to share this wonderful opportunity with my audience and impress upon those who read my accounts how important it is to preserve these lands that are once again at risk from environmental damage and exploitation from oil drilling.
In the summer of 2014, I wrote an article for Angling Trade Magazine about a few of the emerging trends in the sport of fly fishing. When I got the assignment, I had never fly fished a day in my life, but I took on the challenge with the beginner’s mind to learn as much as I could. Through that process, I first learned about the traditional Japanese methods of Tenkara while reading Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s book titled “Simple Fly Fishing”. Once I had a taste for it, using only a line, a rod and a fly, I began fishing on lakes and streams across the U.S. every chance I got.
The practice of angling had opened a whole new world for me. I have since made investments in more advanced rods, reels, nets, waders, boots and more varieties of flies than I could have ever imagined. Fly fishing developed in me a remarkable appreciation for the delicate balance of air and water temperatures, the availability of trees for shade and fish habitat, the slope and bend of terrain, the rhythmic cycle of insects as they hatch and the time of day they are likely to swarm. Even the presence of grazing animals like deer, bison and cows contribute to the ecological systems that make fishing on wild rivers possible. I have so much yet to learn, but at my current level of proficiency, I can usually catch a moderately sized fish wherever it is likely to be. All I really need is lawful access to a healthy stream of water on a well-managed stretch of public land.
The BlackWaters Expedition into the Arctic also included Nick Brooks of Outdoor Gear & Beer from Atlanta, Jahmicah Dawes of Slim Pickin’s Outfitters from Stephenville, Texas, Alex Bailey, founder of Black Outside Inc. from San Antonio and Dudley Edmondson, a nature photographer from Duluth, Minnesota and author of the book Black and Brown Faces In America’s Wild Places. On the day that we all arrived and met in the town of Fairbanks, Alaska to begin our journey, CNN reported that the oil company “ConocoPhillips is proposing five drilling sites on federal land in Alaska’s North Slope, and the project would include a processing facility, pipelines to transport oil, gravel roads, at least one airstrip and a gravel mine site.”
Called the “Willow Master Development Plan,” this operation will be conducted on a site that has been the birthing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd for thousands of years. Known to Native people of the region, the Gwitch’in, as “the sacred place where life begins”, it is also habitat for polar bears, migratory birds and wide variety of other Arctic mammals. The ecological impact of such a massive undertaking in this otherwise pristine environment would be devastating. Apart from the risk of an oil spill, the infrastructure required to build and maintain these facilities would likely disrupt the reproductive cycle and migration patterns of the Caribou upon which the Gwitch’in have relied throughout their history. In a part of our nation where the annual household income is around $27,000 a year and gasoline sells for $10 per gallon, wild game and fish that can be harvested from the land can go a long way toward supplementing the local diet. These natural resources provide area residents with the sustenance they need to survive the long winters. Without Caribou, the Gwitch’in people would cease to exist.
Our first stop in the refuge was at the community of Arctic Village. There we met with Charlie Swaney, a local leader and renown hunter of Caribou. His wife Marion prepared meals for us from the meat of animals harvested in the spring. Swaney shared with us a bit of his vast knowledge of the natural environment from which he derives his living as well as the frustration he endures as he tries to convince the leaders of Alaska and the U.S. Congress that the Arctic is worth preserving. He recounted an occurrence in 2001 when then Senator Frank Murkowski stood before his colleagues on the Senate floor in Washington D.C. holding up a large sheet of white paper as a dramatic prop. He claimed that through much of the year the Arctic is nothing more than a vast barren wasteland of ice and snow.
“I ask you, look around,” Swaney said while standing amidst lush green tundra. “Does this look like a white piece of paper?”
The Gwitch’in, like most Native people, want only to continue their traditional way of life. The environmental watchdog organization Earth Justice has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the hopes of putting a stop to this operation on the grounds that it also exacerbates the ill-effects of climate change.
“In approving the project, the agency ignored the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offered unsupported and inaccurate greenhouse gas emissions estimates,” the lawyers allege in their suit. “Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States over the past 60 years, presenting many disruptions to Arctic ecosystems and exacerbating sea-level rise, sea-ice melt, and permafrost thaw.”
Now that our team has returned from the Arctic, we are all very eager to share our experiences within our respective communities and encourage everyone to support the preservation of this endangered landscape. Even though it seems far removed from our homes in the lower-48 States of America, the Arctic is much closer than we might realize. Interconnected ecological systems on this planet share five key components: water, soil, sunlight, pollinators and plants. “Without them there is no life on Earth,” said team member Dudley Edmondson. “You either eat the plants or the animals that eat the plants. There’s no other way to look at it. Breaking down life to these essential elements can help anyone understand how life works.”
Fly fishing has connected me directly and intimately to many of the natural areas I visit. The ability to catch fish on a wild stream is a good indicator of that location’s ecological health and security. I have found that when any of these essential elements are stressed or compromised the environment is at risk. In order to preserve life on our planet it’s important for us to realize when our production of energy or the extraction of natural resources is putting a strain on the very same plant and animal species that make our existence possible.
The waters of Arctic rivers are not restricted to the borders of Alaska or Canada. The Kobuk finds its source in the Endicott Mountains and Walker Lake and feeds dozens of smaller tributaries throughout the national park and beyond to big rivers further south. The Yukon River flows across the state down into British Columbia to mingle with the streams that join rivers in the U.S. including the Missouri and the Mississippi. This massive water shed relies upon the renewal of winter snowfall and the preservation of glaciers that are melting too quickly to be fully restored year after year. If we allow the destruction of the Arctic and permit its water to slow to a trickle, it is only a matter of time before these effects cascade down the length of our continent. If the Gwitch’in and other native people lose their ability to harvest the resources of their land, we can clearly envision a time when water, game, grazing animals and farm fields are just as scarce closer to home. By that point it will be far too late to take significant action.
Since the announcement of the “Willow Plan” on July 8, 2022, there has begun a 45-day period for public comment. For details on the proposal and how to get involved visit https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/109410/510