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Alaska's North Slope
MAY 2006
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Photo: Caribou in front of truck

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Fall of the Wild (continued)
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Photographs by Joel Sartore

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For 20 years the industrial oil zone was out of sight, out of mind. But it's been slowly creeping toward Nuiqsut. The newest oil field, Alpine, which began operation in 2000, is located on native and state land in the river's braided delta eight miles downstream. ConocoPhillips originally touted it as a model of high-tech, low-impact oil development with no permanent roads and the use of directional drilling to tap 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) beneath two drill sites that would disturb only 97 acres of tundra.
 
Then the drillers hit it big. Now five new satellite sites are under development. ConocoPhillips received an exemption from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to plop one drill pad in the middle of Nuiqsut's subsistence hunting lands. The company wants to build a bridge over a branch of the Colville to another pad, right at one of the village's ancestral fishing spots. With NPRA leases coming on line, Nuiqsut is practically surrounded by drill rigs, ice roads, and seismic teams during the long winter drilling season when heavy equipment can move around the tundra. The activity provides jobs for some in the village, but locals claim it's also pushed the caribou away, forcing them to travel ten or twenty miles farther from home to find meat for the table. Though shareholders in the village corporation each received a dividend of about $3,000 from Alpine royalties last year, the consensus on the slope and in the village is that Nuiqsut got a raw deal.
 
"The town is so full of anger," says Bernice Kaigelak, who teaches traditional Inupiat language and skills at the village school. "We're trying to find a balance between subsistence and the Western way of living. There are some areas we don't want them to trash, other areas we'd like them to use. I've come to the point that regardless of what we say or do, they're going to come anyway. If you work with them, you have some control."
 
Chester Hopson, a young hunter from the village, showed where the two worlds collide. With September temperatures hovering around freezing and winds whipping across the flat tundra, Hopson launched his 20-foot (six-meter) aluminum skiff into the wide pale-green river frothing with whitecaps. Chester's cousin Anthony Hopson worked at Alpine and wanted to pick up his paycheck, so he, brother Andrew, and their friend Joe Frank Sovalik, all in their late teens and early twenties, came along for the ride.
 
Soon the skiff was screaming down the bumpy river as Hopson, cheeks beet red from the wind, deftly steered through the shoals. After a few miles, a gray rectangle of gravel rose on the right bank six feet or so above the tundra. Shipping containers were stacked on the pad, ready for drilling season in the coming winter.
 
A drill was boring away downstream at the next pad, rising like a rust red lighthouse amid a tawny sea. Anthony's paycheck awaited in the office, so Chester nosed the boat onto a mudflat dotted with the odd grizzly and caribou track, and the young men hiked the remaining half mile (one kilometer) across the spongy tundra. Behind them the vast coastal plain stretched without relief to the horizon. The scene was oddly beautiful, almost eerie, instilling an unsettling, yet exhilarating, feeling of endless emptiness. A solitary loon bobbing in the shallows was the sole reminder of this seasonal illusion. During the summer breeding season the Colville Delta teems with wild things, including rare yellow-billed loons and spectacled eiders, which are among the species threatened by oil development.
 
Walking up to the big drill pad, with its blazing lights, bustling trucks, and diesel hum of activity, on the other hand, was like coming out of the desert into Vegas—so incongruous, so starkly out of place that "satellite" seemed an apt description. The young men headed for the residence complex, kicked off their boots in the mudroom, and parked themselves at a table in the cafeteria while Anthony went for his check. Food is free on the rigs, so the men helped themselves to chips, sodas, and chicken-fried steaks. In winter they bring their mothers here every week for free prime rib or to play bingo. Despite the relative proximity of high-paying jobs, few Inupiat work in the oil fields. Many complain of the two-week shift work, of low-end jobs, or of discrimination. Anthony worked as an assistant fire-watcher—which he says is one of the most boring jobs on the planet. "You just sit and watch somebody weld and make sure nothing catches on fire." Chester worked on the rigs for about six weeks, and hated it. Now he builds ice roads in winter for Nuiqsut's native Kuukpik Corporation. A driller dropped by the table to tell the guys about a roustabout job on another rig, but there were no takers.
 
Back in the boat, Chester and his friends headed a few miles downstream to his grandmother Nanny Woods's place, a rough plywood shack sitting on the crumbling riverbank. The door was banging open in the wind. The flotsam and jetsam of a typical Inupiat hunting camp lay strewn about: dead batteries, old cookstoves, rusting oil drums, and associated junk. This is their spot, the cousins say, their home away from home. Here they escape the growing pressures of Inupiat life, the constant buzz of four-wheelers, the incessant drone of TV, the boredom of the village, and just hunt, fish, and be free.
 
"The caribou herd used to come here," Chester said. "Hardly does anymore now that this pipeline is here. Oil is a good thing for the jobs, but it changes things."
 
"Man, I love it when the herd runs," Joe Frank said. "You can feel it in the ground just like Dances With Wolves."
 
There are other sounds now. They can hear the rig from here, the generators, the planes, the helicopters, and a garbage-truck-size vacuum cleaner—a "super-sucker"—for cleaning up spills. "OK," I said, "pretend I'm ConocoPhillips. I'm offering each of you ten million dollars for this cabin and the land around it. Any takers?" To a man, each said no.
 
"How far will ten million take you?" Andrew asked. "You can go to Vegas and blow ten million dollars in a year. But can you still come out here? This place is priceless."

"We get more from this place than money," added Joe Frank. "The land feeds you. We're rich as long as we've got the land."
 
As they left the shack, one of the men pointed to a lone wooden marker jutting from the tundra. "See? Our grandpa George Woods. He's buried over here." One has to wonder if that old Inupiat knew when he picked that spot that one day he'd be listening to super-suckers for eternity, or at least until the oil runs out. 

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