Stomachs churned as our tiny plane jerked up, then left, right and back down. I glanced up and saw Nathaniel vomiting into a Ziploc bag. We passed a mere 100 feet over a jagged ridge and were once again thrown around like rag dolls. Beneath us, mountain ranges were sliced open by the blue and white waters of a wide braided river. We’d been flying for an hour and hadn’t seen a road, trail or any sign of human touch.
A series of 20,000-year-old caribou trails emerged on a mountainside. The Gwich’in people, who have lived on this land with the caribou for the entirety of their cultural memory, say that the caribou trails in the mountains of the refuge are like the lines in an elder’s face.
Our team headed into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home of wolverines, grizzlies, snowy owls and a herd of 200,000 caribou. This was the first in a series of expeditions organized by the International League of Conservation Photographers to document the incredible landscapes, wildlife and people that depend on the refuge. Our small but strong team of four—Nathaniel Wilder, Bethany Pacquette, Katie Schuler and myself—hoped our images and stories would be part of a groundswell of voices calling for the refuge’s protection.Flying into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by bush plane takes one directly over the impressive Brooks Range and majestic Canning River valley. Photo by David Thoreson.
As we approached our landing strip, I saw the white face of the flat coastal plain and Arctic Ocean over the last mountain range. The coastal plain is the heartbeat of the refuge. In summer it is a lush field of flowers and grasses and is abuzz with wildlife and bugs. Hundreds of thousands of migrating birds come to nest, rear and feed in the small lakes and ponds that mark the landscape. Grizzly bears roam the open plains in search of young caribou, but it is the caribou bringing the landscape to life.
The 200,000-strong porcupine caribou herd complete the longest known mammal migration on the coastal plain, where they give birth to 40,000 calves in the first week of June every year. We were here to photograph and film this exceptional event, but nature lobbed us a surprise this year. An extremely late spring saw the coastal plain covered in snow and ice, which is no place for caribou calves or their paparazzi.