February 24, 2005
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
By JIM DOHERTY
Spring Green, Wis.
WHEN the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created a little more than four decades ago, the aim was to preserve, intact, what one of the original planners called a "completely undisturbed" cross-section of northeastern Alaska's spectacular mountains, rivers and tundra. Ever since, oil companies have been eager to tap the rich formations they believe lie under its ecologically fragile coastal plain. This spring, the struggle between conservationists and developers over the nearly 20-million-acre refuge promises to heat up as Congress considers an energy bill that would open it for exploration and drilling.
But aren't the creatures whose welfare the refuge is supposed to protect - all those grizzly bears, caribou, musk oxen and wolves - entitled to participate in the process, too? Don't they have a right to be heard? I started thinking about this one summer day a few years ago after a bush pilot deposited my wife and me with our backpacks on a bumpy meadow not far from the refuge's border with the Yukon Territory. We were making camp late one afternoon beside a fast-running stream where two valleys came together. Although it was mid-August, the barren peaks of the Brooks Range were already dusted with snow and the willows bunched up here and there along the stream had turned bright yellow.
I was boiling water for tea when I had the feeling I was being watched. Sure enough, we had company. A grizzly and her two burly youngsters were shambling toward us through the brush.
By then we had encountered a number of grizzlies. Each time they had fled. These were not so inclined. As they approached on all fours, the fur on their humps glowed with the fiery hues of the sunset behind them. When they stopped, we held our breath. They seemed perplexed, perhaps angry. Had they been planning to spend the night there? It would have appealed to them for the same reasons it did to us: good water, nice view.
Then they plodded off, settling down on a hillside a hundred yards away. Through binoculars, I watched the mother recline against a boulder. The cubs curled up beside her. All three peered intently in our direction.
Decisions, decisions. Should we risk cooking a meal? We decided against it. What to do with the food pack? I hid it under a pile of rocks nearby. It contained only enough provisions for breakfast; we had cached our main pack elsewhere.
It was the longest night of our lives. After the wind picked up, it was impossible for us to hear what was going on outside the tent. I lay awake pestered by second thoughts. We should have brought a guide. We should have brought a cellphone. We should have brought a gun.
Then I recalled a conversation I'd had the previous week in Fairbanks with Ave Thayer, a tall, taciturn outdoorsman who had been the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's first manager. Mr. Thayer frequently took solitary treks in the Alaskan wilds, unarmed and unafraid. When I asked why he didn't pack a pistol or rifle to guard against bears, he said that he was better off without one. People who carry firearms, he explained, are apt to feel overconfident and behave in an incautious manner that bears may perceive as threatening.
Mulling Mr. Thayer's point over in my tent, I concluded that, if he was right, grizzlies must have a kind of sixth sense that enables them to divine human intentions, and react accordingly. In which case, I reasoned, my wife and I were safe because, as any bear could tell, we meant no harm and were scared half to death. Thus reassured, I fell asleep.
In the morning, our neighbors were gone. So, it turned out, was our food pack - a small matter. The important thing was, we were still there. The creatures had given us the once-over and left us alone. Unwilling to push our luck, we broke camp, moved on to other adventures and then returned home to regale family and friends with our story about sleeping with bears. But it's more than a story. It's a blueprint for giving the refuge's wildlife a vote on oil production there.
Call it the grizzly test. Require all would-be developers to take it. If you want to drill for oil in the refuge, first you have to spend a couple of weeks roughing it there. No guns, no phones, no guides. Just you and the bears. Let them look into your heart. If they're reassured by what they see, you pass; if they feel threatened, well, according to Ave Thayer, there are worse ways to go.
Those who survive the grizzly test earn the right to submit their drilling proposals to Congress. But who knows? Perhaps a solitary stint in the refuge is enough to make even the most avaricious developers think twice. Once they've discovered for themselves how magnificent the refuge is; once they've watched caribou lope across the tundra, listened to wolves howl, beheld the mesmerizing effects of light and shadow on limestone mountains riddled with caves and turreted with hoodoos - once, in short, they understand why so many folks consider the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sacred ground, they might undergo a change of heart and decide to leave it the way it is. Which is to say, undisturbed.
Jim Doherty is a former editor at Smithsonian magazine.
The answer to my quandry lay close at hand ; after consulting the AHD , I discovered, to my surprise, that this noun has a fourth sense - one unconnected, at least on the surface (but who really knows ?) with that old black magic that somebody or other weaves so well. But let the AHD's entry speak for itself :
hoo·doo [ ... ]
n. pl. hoo·doos
1. a. Magic healing and control, especially in African-based folk medicine in the United States and the Caribbean. Also called conjure. b. A practitioner of hoodoo.
3. a. Bad luck. b. One that brings bad luck.
4. Geology A column of eccentrically shaped rock, produced by differential weathering.
tr.v. hoo·dooed, hoo·doo·ing, hoo·doos
1. To practice hoodoo on; affect with a charm or curse.
2. To bring bad luck to.
[ Of West African origin, possibly from voodoo.]
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