Arctic Refuge fills the heart with awe

Attorney Suzanne Bostrom just got back from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She’s been working alongside clients and partners to protect sacred lands, animals like the Porcupine caribou herd, and the health of the land and water in the Arctic Refuge for over eight years. She finally got to go there. Here’s her story of Arctic Refuge awe.

Arctic Refuge awe. A thunderstorm butts against blue sky over the distant mountains and tundra in the foreground, with tents in the distance to the right.
Camping on the tundra in a thunderstorm. Photo by Suzanne Bostrom.

By Suzanne Bostrom

I recently had the privilege of traveling to the Arctic Refuge with Trustees’ supporters and clients. Although I’ve worked for over eight years as an attorney protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas industrialization, this was my first time setting foot in it. It was a dream come true to finally experience first-hand this remarkable place and to fully understand why our work and the decades of work by so many others to protect this place truly matters.

Pure magic

Our camp was in the foothills above the coastal plain at the base of the Sadlerochit Mountains in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness. We were there right after solstice, when the sun spins donuts over your head all day without ever setting. There was a near constant, cool breeze coming in from the coast that kept the intense heat from the Arctic sun in check and kept the bugs down.

I was struck by the sheer size and scale of the landscape. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. You could see across the landscape into the distance for what seemed like forever. Areas that I thought would be just a short walk away were actually miles away, and features I thought might be small outcroppings or hills at a distance were actually larger and steeper than I imagined up close.

Arctic Refuge awe is bouncing on the tussocks at midnight. Here, a close foreground of tussock cottongrass gives way to distant mountains.
Arctic Refuge awe is the tussock view at midnight. Photo by Suzanne Bostrom.

Full bloom in the Refuge

The sheer diversity of plant life in the tundra and tussocks amazed me. We were there during the window of time in the spring when the wildflowers were exploding everywhere you looked. While there were some familiar favorites that I know from exploring Alaska in my own backyard — like bright purple lupine — there were so many flowers that were new to me dotting every corner of the tundra.

Walking through the tussocks made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, weaving through a grassy maze and bouncing from squishy mound to mound, admiring the puffy white lollipops of tussock cotton grass along the way.

We also saw an amazing array of birds and other wildlife, including caribou, rough legged hawks watching over a nest of fuzzy new chicks, musk ox, and even a wolverine, which was clearly shocked when it came over a hill to find us camping on the other side!

Unfortunate reminders

And, for all the wonder I experienced, there were also unfortunate reminders of how fragile this landscape is and how much oil and gas extraction would alter and permanently damage this place. Even though we were far from the western border of the Refuge and miles away from the coastline, you could still see ExxonMobil’s Point Thompson gas development glimmering in the distance.

Arctic Refuge awe blooms in shades of purple and yellow in close-up wildlflowers on a hill leading up to mountains.
Wildflowers blooming. Photo by Suzanne Bostrom.

When flying into the Refuge, you could see the lined scars from past seismic and oil and gas activities — some of which have lasted for decades — crisscrossing state lands outside the Refuge. From the foothills, we could see the lands that were recently leased out for oil and gas in a rushed sale at the end of Trump’s term.

It was abundantly clear from setting foot in the Refuge that no oil and gas activities could ever occur in a way that would not permanently damage and alter what makes this landscape so special and unique. My time in the Refuge filled my heart with awe and appreciation for what makes this place so unique. It also reinforced why it is so important for all of us to continue our fight to permanently protect this place for generations to come.