BY KEVIN FRALEY
Snowdrifts piled up and buried my cabin in interior Alaska in the winter of 2019. Outside, temperatures hovered as low as minus 40 degrees. When the cold, dark months trapped me inside, I used the time to dream about Alaska’s short summer and fall seasons. Inside, I pored over online maps, planning an early fall trip. I’d stumbled onto a scientific report from the 1970s that described fish presence in rivers of Alaska’s Arctic Slope, the area of mountains, tundra and coastal plain stretching from the Brooks Range north to the edge of the Beaufort Sea.
The report discussed several rivers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S.’s northernmost and largest refuge, which held adult, sea-run Dolly Varden char, prized for their sport and subsistence value throughout the Arctic. I’d explored one of these rivers on a previous hunt and hadn’t realized that “Dollies” were swimming below me. As my eyes traced the lines of the rivers on the map, I envisioned a packraft beached along sparkling whitewater and a large Dolly – with scarlet belly and constellation of white and red spots, ivory-edged fins and a toothy orange kype – nosing toward my fly. The mere thought of these fish got my heart pounding.
On the Arctic Slope, juvenile Dollies grow one to two years in upriver tributaries, finding refuge in the few stretches that don’t freeze to the streambed during the brutal winters. Later, they descend to the Beaufort Sea during open-water seasons to feed and grow. In late summer, mature adults, the biggest more than 14 years old and approaching 30 inches in length, muscle their way up Arctic rivers to spawn in headwater tributaries. After spawning, these fish drift downriver to a few deep or spring-fed pools, where they overwinter in large groups. When river ice breaks up in the spring, they return to the ocean to feed, ranging up to 40 miles offshore. This cycle repeats annually until they die.
I had never caught a Dolly on the Arctic Slope, despite a few previous half-hearted fishing attempts while caribou hunting. I hadn’t tried hard enough, and the Arctic Slope is notorious for bad weather. Rain and snow plummet, rivers blow out and fishable water disappears in the blink of an eye. Sunny days are a rare blessing, but I hoped to find a few fishable days this coming August.
I called up my friend John and asked if he’d be interested in an Arctic Refuge fishing trip for Dollies.
The plan as I outlined it was to hike about 20 miles upstream along a river holding Dollies, cross a drainage divide to another river, and float 16 miles back to near where we started. As Alaskan residents, John and I could pursue several species of big game animals on this trip, and we decided we’d chase caribou on the float out. Caribou herds migrate seasonally throughout the area, and hunting is allowed in the Arctic Refuge.
Wilderness originals like Olaus and Margaret Murie and Wildlife Conservation Society’s George Schaller fiercely advocated for establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a way to preserve the unique landscapes and abundant wildlife. Today, conservation and Indigenous groups continue to fight for its protection.
The refuge is in the news frequently, as opening the Section 1002 Area along the coastal plain for oil exploration has been a decades-long national controversy. The U.S. Department of Interior conducted a drilling lease sale during the Trump era, but it garnered no interest from major oil companies. And in 2021 the Biden administration subsequently suspended the few leases that were issued and ordered a moratorium on development in the refuge. However, debates at the local, state and national levels continue about whether drilling should occur, with Alaska Natives, politicians, economic development proponents, conservationists and outdoor recreationists all weighing in.
While oil exploration and extraction in the refuge may result in economic benefits and jobs, it may also result in irreparable harm to the landscape, wildlife and fish. The neighboring Prudhoe Bay oilfields have shown that myriad roads, pipelines, gravel pad and drill rigs can disrupt caribou movements and occupy migratory bird breeding areas.
Most animals on the Arctic Slope move long distances and would encounter oil exploration infrastructure during their annual migrations. For caribou, the sights and sounds caused by gravel roads, heavy machinery and the sounds of seismic “thumper” vehicles could be enough to change behaviors during the critical calving period along the Arctic coast.
Dolly Varden and other sea-run fish species undertake spawning runs through the Section 1002 Area while ascending rivers within the refuge and move along the coastline of the area during summer movements. If the area were developed, it would potentially expose fish to any negative disturbances occurring there (e.g., gravel extraction and chemical spills).
In addition to a classic Alaskan adventure, I was hoping to gain some personal clarity on the oil extraction issue while immersed in the refuge. While we would not be within the Section 1002 Area, the Dollies that we hoped to catch transit those coastal waters during the summer feeding period.
We trudged across tundra tussocks with the sun beating down. Sweat poured off us under the weight of packs laden with our camping gear, packrafts, food, fishing rods, rifles, revolvers and other necessary items.
Time seemed to run away, and late August 2020 arrived. John and I embarked on our adventure from our jumping-off point a few hundred miles north of Fairbanks, just outside of the refuge boundary. We trudged across tundra tussocks with the sun beating down. Sweat poured off us under the weight of packs laden with our camping gear, packrafts, food, fishing rods, rifles, revolvers and other necessary items. A few biting flies buzzed around us, but the whining of the notorious mosquito hordes of the tundra were absent thanks to recent frosts.
Inflating our packrafts, we crossed a large river, then deflated and stowed the boats back in our packs and hiked upstream along a smaller, wadeable river where we hoped to find Dollies. We clambered across wide gravel bars and sedge tussock benches. There are no spruce trees on the Arctic Slope of Alaska, but stubby willows poked up in clumps in and around the river bottom.
The river started out swift and strewn with boulders. We continued up a couple miles through a small canyon, rounding a right-hand bend to find the wide plain of the upper river spreading out before us. As we walked along the gravel bar, we spotted a small grizzly bear along the far bank, fur rippling as it dug after roots or small mammals. With the wind hitting us in the face and the river roaring, the bear didn’t startle as it walked downstream, ambling by us at 200 yards.
Soon we came to a tributary entering the river. We snuck up to see the outlines of fish hovering in the icy, diamond-clear water, congregating in a large group before traveling further upriver to spawn. This was it. John rigged up a spinning rod, while I had my 7-weight fly rod and an articulated purple conehead leech. Soon, John yelled. I looked up to see him land a small female Dolly, recently arrived from the Beaufort Sea more than 120 river miles away. She lacked the harlequin coloration of the males but exuded a steely beauty. Releasing this fish, John continued casting.
Casting out into the pool, I felt my line lurch forward. A strong male Dolly stood out in the clear water with his brilliant red belly and white-edged fins. He bulldogged in the current, straining my rod arm, brilliant colors glittering like a collection of gems against the grey river stones. He was a nice six-pounder, among the bigger fish that we caught. A gritty survivor, he sported a finger-length gash on his side, perhaps from a seal lying in wait as he entered freshwater. Despite the wound, he torpedoed out of the shallows after I removed the hook. Both John and I caught more Dollies, as well as some large, dark purple Arctic grayling, resplendent with their iridescent sailfins.
Hoisting our packs we continued upstream until we saw a small group of gulls circling. This usually screams fish, and sure enough, we found a large group of around 50 Dollies holding in a choppy-water pool. The gravel banks in the area exhibited odd hummocks, sculpted by aufeis, some of which still remained unmelted just upstream.
Aufeis is the word for the 3- to 10-feet-thick icefields left over from the previous winter when water overflowed the river channel and froze repeatedly. These flat-topped mesas of white ice, created and then carved by river channels, sometimes extend for miles and may remain unmelted all summer. The fish downstream of the aufeis aggressively struck my streamer. My fly line zipped out when the big males made runs. I scrambled after them downriver, tripping and sliding on gravel.
When we began walking along a miles-long icefield to find a campsite for the night, a small group of caribou, including several bulls, raced along the top of the aufeis to within 100 yards of us in curiosity and then retreated, repeatedly. Anything we harvested here would need to be packed up and over a drainage divide to the river we would float out on, so we kept the rifle slung. We walked on top of the ice for a half mile – the flat, hard surface preferable to wandering through the gravel bars and busting through willow thickets. Traversing the frozen plain in the hot sun felt like a different planet.
Eventually, we stopped at a sandy beach along the river just inside the ANWR boundary. We pitched the tent and sat in light clothing, enjoying the late-season warmth. I noticed a large male Dolly swimming up the river below camp and broke out the fly rod, casting into the current. Without hesitation, he surged towards the fly and bit angrily, turning downstream. Hauling on the rod, I chased him down through a riffle, clear water spraying as I crossed the channel to a gravel bar to land him. After a short fight, he slid into my hands, kype gaping – a truly stunning fish bedecked in spawning finery.
The next morning, we continued upstream, further into the refuge. We still saw Dollies but squandered the few opportunities we had, expectations of more fish upstream making us careless.
Arriving at another canyon section with large boulders, looking at our map, we realized we needed to start ascending the drainage divide so we could cross to the river we planned to raft down. A large bull moose grazed along the tundra nearby. His half-graceful, half-gangly bulk seemed out of place in this land without trees.
We laboriously worked our way up towards a pass in the low, gray-shale mountains of the Brooks Range foothills, passing a porcupine high in the pass, shuffling along a dry streambed. I had never seen a porcupine this far north, much less miles from the smallest willow and was amazed by the adventurous spirit of the little animal.
When we dropped down to the next river, vast stretches of aufeis gleamed in the distance amongst a backdrop of bare, gray mountains. We descended a steep talus slope, the rocks clinking together. At the bottom, we made camp, inflated our packrafts and enjoyed dinner in the bright sun.
On our final day out, we floated our way down to the main river against a light breeze, carrying our packrafts and packs about a mile along a severely braided section of the river before it became deep enough to float again.
Once on the main channel, we zipped down the large river. The water sparkled in the sun as we scanned for wildlife and more Dollies. The way the water flew by, I knew we would easily cover the 16-mile distance to the takeout by the end of the day. A couple miles downriver, a grizzly bear burst out of willows on river left and splashed across the creek just downstream of us after catching our wind. In its haste, the bear plunged into a deep hole, nearly sinking over its head. We watched it scamper up the side of a distant hill, seemingly mortified by its undignified escape.
Continuing our descent, we were unable to locate any more Dollies, but eager grayling grabbed our flies. Later in the day, we came around a bend and nearly floated past a bull caribou standing in a trance-like state on a gravel bar. We quickly pulled ashore. The caribou noticed us and jolted into action. John took the rifle as the caribou trotted along the river across from us. He sat down and aimed carefully, steadying his elbow on his knee.
Thwack. The bullet hit home, and the animal spun around in a circle before coming to rest in the tundra alongside the river. We waded across, pulling out our knives and game bags. The bull had a respectable double-shovel rack shrouded in velvet and would make fine eating.
It was quick work between the two of us to quarter the animal and gather the lean steaks, rib meat, neck meat and other scraps. Then came the challenging part – fitting all that meat and the head in our small packrafts, already loaded down with our multi-day packs. We piled everything on board. Miraculously, everything stayed attached through the half-dozen class III rapids on the way to our takeout point.
Coming around a bend, I caught a whiff of barnyard scent, and we soon floated past a herd of 20 or more shaggy-haired muskoxen, grazing and ambling around the gravel bars and willow patches just 50 yards from our rafts. Once extirpated, muskoxen were reintroduced to the Arctic Refuge around 1970, and it was a treat to see these charismatic animals.
It wasn’t long before we floated out of the Refuge and back to reality. Just a couple hours after harvesting the caribou, we’d reached the end of our journey and headed homeward. Already reliving the trip in my head, I again pondered the effects that oil development could have here.
Don Thomas called Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the “last best wild” in the spring 2022 issue of Backcountry Journal. Abounding with fish and game, and revealing cryptic and beautiful secrets to the few outdoorspeople who venture far enough in the backcountry, it is imperative that this special, wild place remains protected and unspoiled for the enjoyment of future generations of Americans.
While oil exploration and extraction practices have improved in recent years, seismic surveys used for exploration have been proven by peer-reviewed science to leave lingering effects along the tundra and waterways they intersect, and the possibility of a catastrophic spill is also a concern. The 2006 and 2009 oil spills (267,000 and 45,800 gallons, respectively) in the Prudhoe Bay oilfields nearby are a troubling reminder of the impacts that could occur in the Arctic Refuge if the Section 1002 Area is developed. And the physical mark of the Prudhoe industrial complex will remain upon the landscape long after the oil ceases to flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
The story remains to be written about whether oil extraction will occur in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and we, backcountry hunters and anglers, must stand strong in defense of this “last best wild.”
Kevin Fraley lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, is a volunteer board member for BHA’s Alaska chapter and works as a fisheries ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. When not dodging mosquitos and bears while conducting remote fieldwork, he is usually found chasing after Chinook salmon or sheefish with a fly rod.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 print issues a year right in your mailbox.