When I close my eyes, I can trace Alaska’s western Arctic in my mind. I know the major drainages by heart- a result of spending far too much time daydreaming over maps.
When I picture it, I always start at the Koyukuk- the first place I knew. I see it reaching north, hands spread like arteries towards the divide and then diving south, south, south past those regal Endicott peaks and Phillip Smith Mountains, past my old haunts in Wiseman and Coldfoot, forks joining and then twisting all the way down to that bend around Koyukuk Mountain where the river meets the Yukon.
Leaving the Koyukuk and traveling up the Alatna, you will find yourself nearing the Schwatka Mountains which feed the great Kobuk River. The kind of healthy, clean river that has helped sustain entire villages for as long as anyone can remember.
A hop north from there lies the Noatak which swings west and then south, sharing the same terminus as its sister, the Kobuk, in Kobuk Lake at the Chukchi Sea.
Even further north is the mysterious Colville River which sweeps out from the DeLong Mountains west and then north to the Beaufort Sea.
I am beginning to understand where the road to Ambler would fall. I hate to think of it, so sometimes I try not to. I can barely look at its map to see how close the mine would come to Nakmaktuak Pass and places that I fell in love with during my time in the Brooks Range. With funding cuts, the project isn’t moving forward as quickly but it is not over.
It was not more than a generation ago that wilderness conservationists were talking about keeping all of the land north of the Yukon River untouched by development. There has already been so much compromise. After another generation, what will be left?
“In response to people who say you can’t go back. Well, what happens when you get to the cliff? Do you take one step forward or do you make a 180 degree turn and take . . . one step forward? Which way are you going? Which is progress?” – Tompkins
“The solution might be to turn around and take a forward step.” -Chouinard