Several young caribou run across a vast open field in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska.

Protecting the Arctic Refuge

May 5, 2020

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an icon of exploration and one of the world's most remote places, deserves our collective attention. 

As we reflect on Earth Week, we're looking back at the expedition of six young creators to this vastly beautiful landscape, led by our team athlete and Arctic advocate, Kit DesLauriers. 

For these creators, it was more than a first expedition—it was a powerful introduction to the Arctic Refuge's connection to climate change and human rights.

 

THE NEXT GENERATION OF EXPLORERS

 

Home to the greatest variety of plant and animal life in the circumpolar north, land of the indigenous Gwich’in and Inupiat people, and what some call the “last great reserve” of untapped oil in the US, The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under threat. Alaska has always been a special place for The North Face. In 1972, we sent our first fully supported expedition to the Brooks Range to protest a proposed pipeline in the area. We’ve been back countless times over the years, but now that it’s threatened again, we took a special trip to the region to experience the land and people connected to the Refuge.

A large herd of caribou crosses a shallow section of the Hulahula River on a cloudy day in Alaska.
Caribou crossing the Hulahula River in the Arctic Refuge.

The Arctic Refuge, home to 19.6 million acres of incredibly beautiful tundra and mountains, is an icon for explorers everywhere. It’s also land that is held sacred by the Gwich’in people, who are connected to Caribou as their primary food source and way of life, as they have been for thousands of years. Other wildlife call this place home, including polar bears and over 200 species of migratory birds from every continent. This land is also ground zero for climate change; temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. The Arctic has permafrost that stores vast amounts of carbon, releasing into the atmosphere as it melts. 

Language to open the Arctic Refuge for oil development was included in the 2017 tax reform bill as a way to generate $1 billion in new revenue for the federal government to help in small part offset the $1.5 trillion tax package. This public land, owned equally by every American, has been protected for generations and out of the spotlight for over a decade. Many young people growing up now are doing so without even knowing its legacy. A study conducted for The North Face by YPulse, a youth-focused research organization, found that 68% of Generation Z Americans are unaware of threats to the region. 

A bird's eye view of a river carving its way through the rocky landscape of The Arctic Refuge.
A bird’s eye view of the Arctic Refuge.

In efforts to raise awareness about this issue with young Americans and others, six young creators, from a YouTube Comedian to a Bronx-Based Oil Painter, were paired with The North Face athlete and Arctic advocate Kit DesLauriers, on an expedition into the Refuge. For many of this group, it was an introduction to the outdoors and camping for the first time, far from home, in one of the most remote places left in the United States.  

 

FROM THE EXPLORERS

The North Face athlete, Kit DesLauriers smiling, standing near the water with the sun hanging low in the sky behind her.
Kit DesLauriers, Ski Mountaineer and The North Face Athlete, @Kitdski

Kit DesLauriers: “Science tells us that temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Arctic Refuge as they are in other parts of our country and every time I’m in the Arctic Refuge, I see something new that shows me how acutely this is true. What stuck with me this trip was that while some changes are gradual, when you are close like we were, camped within view of the migrating Caribou, it’s that much easier to understand what climate change means directly, for the local people, the animals, and the landscape. I’m passionate about protecting the Arctic Refuge for its breathtaking landscape, but also because of its role in the future, which has an impact on us all.”

A portrait of Julie Fisher-Salmon, a Gwich'in and indigenous rights advocate, smiling with a beanie on.
Julie Fisher-Salmon, Gwich'in and Indigenous Rights Advocate, @Juliansley

Julia Fisher-Salmon: “This trip was my first trip to get closer to the land that is held as the sacred place where life begins.  Its beauty and purity brought me to my knees.  I’m thankful for this opportunity to be near my ancestral homelands, which also doubles as the calving grounds, as the Gwich'in are known to be the people of the caribou.

A portrait of Maia Wikler, a writer and climate justice activist, smiling as she looks away from the camera.
Maia Wikler, Writer and Climate Justice Activist, @MaiaReillyW

Maia Wikler: “I see this as a human rights issue, it is a matter of spiritual, cultural, and physical survival. If drilling is allowed to happen here, it will cut off countless communities from their most reliable food source and sense of identity, I see that as the ultimate human rights injustice. Many community members and elders have told me that the survival of the Gwich’in depends on the survival of the Porcupine caribou herd. The Refuge and caribou are the basis of their identity, wellbeing, and life. Protecting the coastal plain is protecting Indigenous sovereignty. Now is the time to be on the right side of history. The staggering biodiversity of this planet represents the diversity needed in this movement, a testament that there is a place for every single human to make a difference. There is power in the strength of community, and that shouldn’t be dismantled by political decisions.”

A portrait of visual artist Monica Hernandez, looking directly at the camera, with mountains in the background.
Monica Hernandez, Visual Artist, @Monicagreatga

Monica Hernandez: “The Arctic is very far and very different from where I’m from, from any place I’ve ever experienced, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect me. Being fortunate enough to visit the Refuge, seeing it firsthand, having it broken down to me from not only the environmental problems, but the social and political as well, I started to realize how we are all tied to this land, how we’re responsible for its preservation. Learning the basics gives you the tools to take action. There are people for whom this fight is their direct lives, they’re at the front lines of the crisis, and hearing their stories felt like I was being let in some majorly consequential secret I was never told and maybe never bothered to seek out. It sucks to realize you’re not as helpful as you could be because turning a blind eye in the moment can spare you the discomfort of feeling like the world around you is falling apart but help comes in many forms. Your involvement can be as direct as going there and, can be simple as getting informed, signing petitions, calling representatives. Everything helps and it’s not too late to learn and become an ally.”

A portrait of Nathan Zed, a YouTube personality and comedian, backlit by the evening sun.
Nathan Zed, YouTube Personality & Comedian, @Nathanzed

Nathan Zed: “On midnight of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year giving us 24 hours of sunlight in Alaska, we tried to cross the river. The sun was blood red. In a 24-hour day, the last four were devoted to this seemingly never-ending sunset, one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. However, I later realized that this sight was caused by the smoke of nearby wildfires. Again, and again, we would experience a moment of beauty and simultaneously grapple with the effects of the immediate danger to the area. It’s completely surreal to stand somewhere that has survived for thousands of years, and know it is at risk of completely changing within the next decade. Not only was this trip a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature, but it was also an opportunity to make an agreement with myself: to help preserve what I’m seeing for future generations."

 A portrait of photographer and storyteller, Aundre Larrow, smiling and looking away, with a blue sky behind him.
Aundre Larrow, Photographer & Storyteller, @Aundre

Aundre Larrow: “The thing that struck me most was the effect our temporary presence had on such a pristine environment.  Even just camping there for a couple of days, when we picked our tents up, the ground was different. Where the snowmobiles were in Fort Yukon, the ground was different. If we sat still for long enough, animals would just walk really close to our campground. We were visitors in their home. Being out there was a recalibration of self and made me realize that we as humans have a responsibility to understand the impact we make on our shared environment.”

Members of the expedition inspect a map, stand around their campsite, birdwatch through binoculars, and share a meal.
Dinner time at the camp near the Arctic coastal plain.