National Geographic: How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?

The icon of Alaska’s wilderness symbolizes the tension between preservation and use at U.S. national parks.

PARK RANGERS here call the high season—from June through early September, when Denali National Park and Preserve hosts the majority of its 500,000 annual visitors—the “hundred days of chaos.” Indeed a midsummer morning at the park’s Wilderness Access Center, located at the start of Denali’s fabled 92-mile-long Park Road, can feel a bit like rush hour at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Loudspeakers announce bus boarding times, and visitors from many nations crowd the ticket counter.

Most of Denali’s visitors are cruise ship passengers who see the park and its prolific wildlife largely through bus windows. “But if you’re seeking solitude, it’s not hard to find,” says ranger Sarah Hayes, who helps backpackers and hikers prepare for their adventures. “We’ve got six million acres of mostly trailless lands where wild animals roam undisturbed. And it’s accessible to anyone who hops off the bus.”

As my bus rolls out, noses press against windows, hands clutch cameras, and people speaking half a dozen different tongues excitedly speculate about wildlife sightings. I ask several passengers what’s on their wish list. “A moose!” “A grizzly!” “Caribou!” “A wolf!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, North America’s tallest peak is a stunning sight, although in warm weather its slopes are often shrouded in clouds. The mountain was a big part of the legend and lore of the Athabaskan-speaking people who gave it the name Denali, meaning Tall One. In 1896 gold prospector William Dickey renamed it Mount McKinley in honor of Ohio politician William McKinley, a staunch champion of the gold standard who one year later would become the nation’s 25th president. For decades Ohio’s congressional delegation successfully blocked attempts to rename the mountain. Then last summer the Obama Administration used its executive power to restore the original name.

Seeing the mountain, spotting a grizzly, or catching a glimpse of a wolf are the top three reasons people give for coming to Denali. As recently as 2010, a visitor stood a better chance of seeing a wolf in the wild than seeing the elusive Tall One, which is visible on just one in three summer days. But since 2010 the number of wolf sightings has plunged. According to a study of wildlife viewing opportunities along the Park Road, observers recorded wolf sightings on only 6 percent of trips in 2014—down from 45 percent in 2010. Park biologists report that the number of wolves inside the park has dropped from more than 100 a decade ago to fewer than 50 last year. I came to Denali, in part, to discover why.

“I hate to call the weatherman a liar, but there’s no way it was 30 below zero down there,” pilot Dennis Miller says, as our ski-plane climbs away from the snowy airstrip at park headquarters. Bundled in half a dozen layers and wedged behind him in the tiny cockpit, I watch Miller shake his head. “I’ll be surprised if it gets that warm all day,” he says.

A few minutes later we hear the day’s first radio-collared wolf in our left headphones, as an antenna on the plane’s left side picks up its signal. Miller turns the aircraft and the beeps equalize, left and right. The chirping gets louder as we cross the park boundary and fly over the Stampede corridor, a notch of state, borough, and private land also known as the Wolf Townships.

“That’ll be the female in the East Fork pack,” Miller says. “Back in November we counted at least 15 wolves, but we found the collared male dead two weeks ago, on March 6. I’ve only seen a single set of tracks since then.”

They come here to snap a few pictures and get some bragging rights about being 50 feet from a grizzly … They go away wanting to protect places like this.

Following the signal, Miller descends and zigzags through a river valley where a lone wolf track heads into the trees. He throws the plane over on its left wingtip and peers down. “I’m just going to make one pass,” he says, pulling the plane tighter into the turn and squinting toward the ground. “Some of the guys in these houses here, if they see me circling, they’ll come out and try to find what I’m looking at and shoot it.”

I’ve spent the previous four days flying with Miller and National Park Service biologists, whose focus turns to wolves during the snowy, light-filled days of March. Each time they’ve spotted a wolf inside the park that they want collared, they’ve called in a helicopter team to swoop down and dart it. With the animal tranquilized, biologists fit it with a collar. They also take blood and hair samples, hoping to fill some of the many gaps in what we know about the health, behavior, and genetics of one of the world’s most misunderstood animals.

The research is an extension of the pioneering work of ecologist Adolph Murie, one of the first scientists to study Denali’s wolves in the wild. In 1939, when Murie made the first of his many expeditions to what was then Mount McKinley National Park, wolves were considered vermin, and Park Service rangers had a history of shooting them on sight. Murie’s research showed that wolves and other top predators play an essential role in healthy habitats, and he argued that we should manage parks to protect entire ecosystems rather than individual species

Other influential scientists and thinkers would follow Murie to Denali, whose wide-open and mostly treeless mountainscapes are ideal for observing wildlife. This sprawling swath of still wild America would inspire and anchor many of the lofty ideals now considered part of the DNA of the National Park Service and incite great shifts in thinking on the role of parks and their protectors. It was here that many of the now accepted values of environmental protection and science-based decision-making gestated. The Wilderness Act has roots here, and the seeds of some of the nation’s most influential environmental initiatives were planted here.

Denali has also had an outsize impact on the hundreds of thousands of nonscientists who arrive each year with dreams of a thrilling wildlife encounter and depart with a much deeper connection with the natural world. “We see it all the time,” says Park Superintendent Don Striker. “They come here to snap a few pictures and get some bragging rights about being 50 feet from a grizzly. In the course of experiencing this natural drama, something clicks. They go away wanting to protect places like this.”

Yet Denali has always been an uneasy paradise. The park was created in 1917 as a refuge for Dall sheep and other game animals, and its first rangers found themselves chasing poachers who supplied meat to miners and railroad builders. This tug-of-war between use and preservation would become the fundamental tension of the national parks. Even today there are few places where it’s felt as intensely, or dealt with as creatively, as it is here. The tension extends from Denali’s sometimes crowded summit to its remote traplines. It reaches from the skies surrounding the mountain, which often buzz with sightseeing flights, down to the ears of solitude seekers in the trailless valleys below.

“A lot of things about this park are confusing to people,” says ranger John Leonard. “It’s wilderness, but then people are landing planes in some places and hunting and trapping in others. That’s the difference with Denali—it’s not locked up. And that’s what makes it so challenging to manage.”

 “Was that you flying around the other day in a red-and-white Super Cub?” Coke Wallace asks when we meet outside his home on Stampede Road. “We thought maybe you guys were radio tracking a wolf. I almost went over to see if there was anything I could shoot.”

Wallace is a trapper, hunter, guide, and self-described “extreme right-wing redneck.” As he shows me his extensive collection of traps and snares and a very large wolf hide stretched over a drying rack, he gets a call on his mobile phone. Its ringtone is a wolf’s howl.

“Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t hate wolves,” he tells me. “In fact, I think they’re cool as hell. Only problem is, every five to seven years I catch the wrong wolf.”

In 1999 Wallace shot a collared alpha female in the Grant Creek pack, which had been highly visible to visitors on the Park Road. In 2005 he caught the East Fork pack’s alpha female in a trap set just outside the park boundary. In 2012 he dragged a horse carcass to a site where wolves were active and set traps and snares around it. When he returned a few days later, he’d trapped a pregnant female belonging to the East Fork pack. The kill, documented by a neighbor and later confirmed by Wallace, landed him in the Los Angeles Times and generated both death threats and a boost for his guiding business. That same year Wallace caught the only remaining breeding female in the Grant Creek pack, which often roamed just outside the park boundary. The pack consequently produced no pups and fell from 15 members to 3.

“That was the third time I ruined millions of people’s Denali National Park viewing experience,” Wallace quips.

Until a few years ago a wolf that strayed near Wallace’s turf would have been off-limits. But Denali’s most vulnerable wolf packs are at the center of some ugly politics. In 2000 Gordon Haber, the celebrated and outspoken wolf biologist who continued Adolph Murie’s research, observed trappers laying snares along the park’s boundary. He joined with others and persuaded the Alaska Board of Game to establish a no-kill buffer zone along the Stampede Trail and in the Nenana Canyon area. After Haber died in a plane crash in late 2009, the Park Service requested an expansion of the protected area. The board responded by eliminating it completely, making wolves vulnerable to trapping and hunting all around the park boundary.

“We increased it twice, but it was never big enough,” explains Sam Cotten, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “The last proposal was for another significant increase, and the feeling was that the federal government created that border and that’s the line. So we went back to a harder boundary.”

Although the Park Service halted its predator control decades ago, the state has ramped up its wolf reduction program in some areas in an effort to boost caribou and moose populations.

“Food security for our subsistence users is a primary driver,” says Cotten. “When we don’t meet objectives for populations of ungulates like moose and caribou, we have to consider culls of predators.”

In 2013 and 2014 state predator-control agents and authorized private hunters, shooting from aircraft, killed dozens of wolves just outside Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The cull reduced the preserve’s wolf population by more than half and killed several collared wolves that had been part of a decades-long Park Service study. Although Cotten says the wolf-culling programs are based on sound science, some data undermine the premise that killing wolves leads to increased prey populations, particularly in the long term.

To Wallace, the wolf culls and the removal of Denali’s buffer zones were long overdue. “It’s the state standing up to an overreaching federal government and libtard environmentalists,” he says. “I liked the park much better as McKinley National Park, when it was for sheep. Then the feds crammed that whole ANILCA thing down our throats.”

In 1980 the U.S. Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It designated 104 million acres as national parks, forests, and preserves and protected 50 million more acres as wilderness. Mount McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, and expanded from 2 million acres to 6 million. Property rights were retained throughout the preserve, as were hunting and trapping rights in some sections.

It’s good politics to hate the parks and to overlook all the good they’ve done for the state, especially economically.

ANILCA is widely considered among the most important conservation victories in U.S. history, but many Alaskans saw it as the culmination of years of federal overreach. Wallace was a teenager in Fairbanks when protesters there burned an effigy of President Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 elevated 56 million acres in Alaska to national monument status. In 1979 residents of towns near the park organized the Great Denali Trespass, marching into the park to shoot guns, light fires, and commit other acts of protest.

“Every other place I’ve been, they love their national park,” says Superintendent Striker, who managed five parks in the lower 48 before coming to Denali. “But here the relationship is so poisoned by the past. People don’t realize this was always federal land—it was never the state’s. It’s good politics to hate the parks and to overlook all the good they’ve done for the state, especially economically.”

The debate—and everything else—seems far away when I poke my head through the tent flap at a campsite near Cache Creek in mid-March. It’s the third morning of a mushing expedition and also the third morning with temperatures of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I think about retreating back under the canvas, but Denali—visible most days in winter—catches my eye. Above the valley rays of sunlight splash the Tall One’s summit and northeastern flanks with a dazzling orange glaze.

When I finally muster the gumption to emerge from the tent, heads turn. Thirty or so sled dogs that had been yawning in their dug-out nests of snow rise and begin to yelp and howl eagerly. Dog teams are still an integral part of backcountry management here during the winter, patrolling the park’s boundaries, supporting wildlife research, and hauling supplies for cleanups and cabin restorations. And Denali’s hands-on summer kennel show is the most popular demonstration program offered by the park’s staff.

“The dogs connect people to history and to an experience most people will never have,” says kennel manager Jennifer Raffaeli. “In the winter they’re the most reliable and reasonably safe way to move around parts of the park. Unlike a snowmobile, they’re always ready to start up. They also have a survival instinct, which is something no machine can ever have.”

That afternoon the cold snap breaks, and we mush in a caravan of three dog teams to the ranger station at Wonder Lake. At 2 a.m. we step outside our cabins to catch a dazzling show of the aurora borealis as the dogs sleep nearby.

“A lot of Denali is untouchable to most people, but with the dogs, traveling like this, you can touch it,” Raffaeli tells me as we stare in awe at the curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky. “The sense of peace you get here in the winter is so intense it’s almost beyond belief.”

Three months later, in late June, I experience a completely different Denali. It’s 8 p.m. on the Park Road, and I’m stuck in a traffic jam. As a moose cow and two calves make their way languidly along the tree line, drivers stop in the middle of the road to point cameras.

In the 1960s Adolph Murie fought hard against plans to pave a highway into the heart of the park. He achieved a partial victory when the Park Service decided to pave only the first 15 miles. But as visitor numbers increased, the narrow road became more crowded and dangerous, and concerns grew about the impact of traffic on wildlife. In 1972 Denali became one of the first of America’s national parks to set up a mass transit system to reduce the number of cars—an approach that has since been copied at other parks.

I spend a week roaming through Denali’s summer backcountry, soaking up the clarifying power of wilderness. Toward the end of my trek I score a short stay in the East Fork Cabin, Murie’s base while he researched the relationship between wolves and sheep. For the young ecologist, it was a dream come true. He had solitude and the chance to study animals with the simplest of tools: binoculars, a camera, notebooks, and strong legs. His focus was an extended family of wolves ranging near the cabin at the east fork of the Toklat River.

Murie’s bosses in Washington, D.C., may have expected a dry research monograph. What he gave them instead was The Wolves of Mount McKinley, a classic work of natural history. Published in 1944, the book-length report brought the Toklat-East Fork pack to the world’s attention. Murie described, for the first time, wild wolves’ life cycles and relationships and the workings of an entire ecological network. Realizing that the interactions were more complicated than anyone had imagined, Murie began working to change policies that called for the eradication of predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes.

That stance made him unpopular both inside and outside the Park Service. But the more he wrote about the subjects of his research in magazines and journals, the more popular the “First Family” of American wolves became. Wildlife lovers began to travel up from the lower 48 to see them, and wolves became one of Denali’s signature attractions.

On my way to the cabin the bus driver asked her passengers, “Back home, how many of you feel like every hour is rush hour?” I didn’t raise my hand, reluctant to admit that the never ending race against the clock has, for much of my adult life, gotten the best of me—and that for many years I’ve dreamed of breaking free of human-calibrated time.

I awake from a nap late that afternoon. Reflexively, I move to check my phone, then catch myself. Here there is no possibility of a text or call. The clock is no longer in command. I spend three days around the cabin—hiking, reading Murie’s work, and adapting, as Emerson put it, to the “pace of nature.” As I hike back toward the road, I’m not looking forward to rejoining the bustling bus scene or catching up on the news of the world.

Even the news from inside the park isn’t good. I drop by park biologist Steve Arthur’s office to ask about the preliminary results of the latest studies of wolf population numbers (still low) and the findings of a necropsy on a bloodied wolf carcass I saw during my winter visit. Arthur’s team had dug the frozen wolf—an East Fork male—out of the snow and discovered a snare around its neck. The animal had managed to pull the snare free of its anchor, then wandered into the park and bled to death.

In May, Arthur got a call from a hunter who had legally shot a collared wolf near a bear-bait station on the Stampede Trail, just outside the park. In 2012 state game officials had expanded the controversial practice of bear baiting (which is banned in most states that allow bear hunting) to include grizzly bears. The spring baiting season overlaps wolf breeding season, making it more likely that pregnant or nursing females will be killed.

After five weeks in Denali—walking, skiing, flying, mushing, and bus riding through the extremes of winter and summer—I have time for one last venture into the wilderness. From a rear seat on the backpackers’ bus I spot a promising route leading over a rise, then down toward the Toklat River.

I trot into the trailless landscape without a map, half hoping to get lost among the mountains and tarns. Reaching the river, I spot a hanging valley on the other side that looks much closer than it actually is. What started as a half-day hike stretches past eight hours, which is fine with me—I’ve got all the daylight I need. Walking back toward the road, I flush a golden eagle from a high overlook and realize that I’ve been walking far more quietly than is smart in bear country. As soon as I open my mouth to speak, I top a rise and look down on a large male grizzly cooling off in a pond about 200 yards below me. When my voice reaches him, he rises on his hind legs and looks around, comically. He’s a big guy, but he’s not a troublemaker. He wades to shore and climbs out of the water, stopping to shake himself dry before sauntering slowly up the mountain and out of sight.

I flag down the bus a final time and step aside for a solo backpacker who’s chosen this spot to disembark. He has a four-day pack on his back and a laminated map in his hand. I ask him where he’s heading. He sweeps his map across the vista of mountains and valleys and rivers and sky, his eyes crinkling into a smile as he takes in a range of possibilities broad enough to be a world unto itself.

“Out there somewhere,” he says.

National Geographic: Yukon: Canada’s Wild West

A modern-day minerals rush threatens North America’s last great wilderness.


Shawn Ryan recalls the hungry years, before his first big strike.

The prospector and his family were living in a metal shack on the outskirts of Dawson, the Klondike boomtown that had declined to a ghostly remnant of its glory days. They had less than $300 and no running water or electricity. One night, as wind sneaked through gaps in the cladding, Ryan’s wife, Cathy Wood, worried aloud that their two children might even freeze to death.

Today the couple could buy—and heat—just about any house on Earth. Ryan’s discovery of what would eventually amount to billions of dollars’ worth of buried treasure has helped reinfect the Yukon with gold fever, and fortune seekers have stormed the Canadian territory in numbers not seen since the 1890s. The minerals rush has reanimated Dawson’s weather-tilted bars and bunkhouses, whose facades glow in pastel hues during midsummer’s late-night sunset. The scene could be from more than a century ago, with bearded men bustling along wooden sidewalks and muddy streets, hooting and trading rumors of the latest strikes and price spikes. Inside Diamond Tooth Gerties casino, miners mingle with tourists and cancan girls, thronging four deep around beer taps and poker tables.

During the first Klondike stampede prospectors plied nearby creeks with picks and pans and shovels, and a bartender could sweep up a small fortune in spilled gold dust at the end of a big night. Nowadays mining’s heavy lifting is done by a mechanized army of bulldozers, drilling rigs, and flown-in workers. The claim-staking boom has cooled since the price of gold has stabilized, but an ongoing high demand for minerals and the Yukon’s industry-friendly regulations continue to attract mining companies from as far away as China.

At Shawn Ryan’s expanding compound at the edge of town, helicopters thump overhead, fetching GPS-equipped prospectors to and from remote mountain ridges. Ryan is 50 years old, but he radiates the eagerness and intensity of a much younger man. “This is the biggest geochemical exploration project on the planet right now,” he says, his grin revealing a couple of missing upper teeth, “and maybe in history.”

Along the Porcupine River caribou have been a mainstay of the Vuntut Gwitchin people for at least 10,000 years. Now development is threatening their traditional way of life.

Along the Porcupine River caribou have been a mainstay of the Vuntut Gwitchin people for at least 10,000 years. Now development
is threatening their traditional way of life.

In the modular office he calls his war room, radios and bear-spray canisters surround a trio of computer screens atop a plywood table. A self-taught geologist, Ryan uses the left-hand screen to display the colored maps he generates from his ever growing database of soil samples, looking for anomalies that might betray a hidden body of precious ore. On the center screen a blue grid overlays a map of the Yukon, showing the claims he currently owns; since 1996 he and his crews have staked more than 55,000 claims, enough to cover a landmass larger than Jamaica. Ryan uses the right-side screen to track his gold-related holdings, which notch up in value whenever an economic jolt sends investors fleeing to precious metals.

As the material needs of the world’s seven billion people continue to grow, the rush to exploit the Yukon’s exceptionally rich resources—gold, zinc, copper, and more—has brought prosperity to a once forsaken corner of the continent. But the boom has brought to the fore a growing tension between those who would keep one of North America’s last great wildernesses unbroken and those whose success depends on digging it up.

“They’re blanket-staking the whole territory,” says Trish Hume, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Though Hume does mapping work that’s mining related, she worries that the Yukon is reaching a tipping point where the environmental and cultural costs of mining outweigh the benefits. “The people coming up and taking out minerals aren’t asking what happens to the animals we hunt, the fish we eat, the topsoil that holds it all together. And when the boom is over, how does our tiny population afford to clean up the toxic mess?”

Read the rest of the story at National Geographic

Tom on Snake Rapids

Author Tom Clynes smacks into a wave train on the Yukon’s Snake River, part of the pristine Peel River watershed. Peter J. Mather photo.

Larger than California but with only 37,000 inhabitants, the Yukon drives an immense wedge between Alaska and the bulk of Canada. From its north coast on the Beaufort Sea, it stretches to the south and southeast, taking in tremendous expanses of lake-dotted tundra, forests, mountains, wetlands, and river systems. Walled off by some of Canada’s highest peaks and largest glaciers, the territory is almost completely unsettled, its sparse population scattered over a few small communities and the capital, Whitehorse. It is also rich in wildlife, an Arctic Serengeti whose extreme seasonal shifts beckon vast herds of caribou and other animals into motion. Among its wildest quarters is the Peel watershed, an immense wilderness, which drains an area larger than Scotland.

“The Peel watershed is one of the few places left where you still have large, intact predator-prey ecosystems,” says Karen Baltgailis of the Yukon
Conservation Society. “From wolves and grizzlies and eagles on down, it’s a wildlife habitat of global importance.”

The Yukon has long served as a migration waypoint for humans too. During the last glacial period, when most of Canada was buried under a mile of ice, Alaska and the Yukon were part of an arid, glacier-free pocket called Beringia, which linked Siberia and North America. Animal bones discovered in the Yukon’s Arctic and carbon dated to 25,000 years and older appear, to some archaeologists, to have been broken or cut by humans— though many scholars contest this claim.

It’s clear, however, that human populations were permanently established by about 13,000 years ago, when retreating glaciers opened up corridors that allowed people to migrate north and south. These nomadic hunters brought elements of their culture and technology with them. Eventually Dene (sometimes referred to as Athabaskan) languages became widespread. Even now, Navajo and Apache speakers in the American Southwest share words and sentence structures with many of the Yukon’s First Nations peoples, despite centuries of separation.

The Yukon’s early inhabitants hunted bison, elk, caribou, woolly mammoths, waterfowl, and fish, and they competed for resources with carnivores such as wolves and Beringian lions. Due to climate warming and other factors, some of these animals died off. But others, such as the barrenground caribou, thrived in such numbers that native peoples adapted their own movements and lifestyles to the animals’ migrations.

“We’ve been depending on the caribou for at least 10,000 years,” says Norma Kassi, former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. “Our oral tradition tells us that a Gwitchin man sealed a pact of coexistence by trading a piece of his own beating heart for one from a living caribou.”

The Porcupine caribou herd is named after the big westward-flowing river that many of the animals cross twice each year. Their journey begins 400 miles to the northwest in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Each spring more than 100,000 caribou converge on the coastal plain to gorge on protein-rich cotton grass. Massing in groups of tens of thousands, the cows give birth almost in unison—possibly a “swamping” strategy that allows the majority of calves to survive the predations of grizzly bears, wolves, and golden eagles.

When the calves are just a few weeks old, the herd begins to move south, a cacophony of clacking hooves, bellowing cows, and bleating calves. Though the adults’ towering antlers give them a top-heavy, somewhat comical appearance, caribou are among nature’s most graceful travelers, custom- built for their journey across mountain ranges and rivers into the windswept marshland that is the traditional hunting ground of the Vuntut Gwitchin.

The snow is flying as my plane banks over the Porcupine River and touches down in Old Crow, the Yukon’s northernmost community. Unconnected by roads to the rest of the world, the village is a jumble of raised wooden houses whose outer walls are decorated with caribou and moose antlers.

The Gwitchin are among the last people in North America who meet most of their nutritional needs by hunting and gathering. Through the slats of smokehouses, I can see strings of drying meat and fish. The caribou are due to begin moving through the area at any moment, and the mood of the village is energized and upbeat. Barrel-chested men pilot all-terrain vehicles through snowy gusts, and children run around in T-shirts chasing sled-dog puppies. Robert Bruce, a genial, Santa-like man in his 60s, rides up on an ATV, a smile stretching across his broad face. “The caribou!” he yells. “They’re here!”

A few minutes later we’re inside his house eating caribou stew, talking of the herd’s longawaited arrival, and sharing family history. Bruce grew up on the land, moving with the seasons to harvest wild game, fish, and berries. Though he, like most Gwitchin men, still hunts or fishes nearly every day, life in Old Crow is not primitive. A village store offers expensive packaged food (flown in from Whitehorse, and satellite television and the Internet have enabled the Gwitchin to see themselves in the context of the wider world. Alcohol is banned, but substance abuse and identity issues have had profound effects on the community, especially young people.

As we talk, Bruce’s adolescent grandson, Tyrel, sprawls on the couch, half watching a Three’s Company rerun. “Tomorrow,” Bruce says, winking, “we’ll take him hunting.”

The government had claimed nearly all of the Yukon territory as crown land. A hard-fought land-claims process recently returned control of some of the land to its native inhabitants, allowing them to again be the guardians of the places where they travel, hunt, and fish. But some threats, such as climate change, are outside the community’s sphere of in(uence. “See those riverbanks collapsing?” Bruce says as he steers his aluminum motorboat upstream. “That’s the permafrost thawing. Ten years ago we’d have ice on the river by this time. And now we have animals like cougars coming here, and new plants that cover our blueberries and rose hips. That’s where we always got our vitamins.”

Like other Gwitchin elders, Bruce has traveled to Washington and elsewhere in the U.S., appealing to the American people to protect the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds. Politicians have tried multiple times to open ANWR’s coastal plain to oil and gas leasing. Drilling could tap a reservoir of billions of barrels of oil—and, biologists say, displace the caribou from their core calving grounds. “We call it vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii,” Bruce tells me, “The sacred place where life begins. To us, it’s a human rights issue. Because when the caribou are gone, our culture is gone.”

In a few minutes Bruce squints and guns the motor. “Caribou!” he yells, reaching for his rifle. Moments later he pulls up alongside a swimming herd of six, selects a bull in midpack—“We never take the leaders,” he says— and dispatches it with a shot to the neck. It’s not the sort of hunting that would pass the test of sportsmanship farther south. To a Gwitchin, though, hunting isn’t recreation; it’s a means of acquiring protein and fat in a place where efficiency has always meant survival.

As Tyrel grabs hold of the caribou’s antlers and Bruce steers the boat toward shore, I realize that something’s not right. It’s autumn, but this herd was headed north. “We’re seeing more of that now,” Bruce says, as he swipes his knife blade across a sharpening stone. “Caribou are smart, smart as humans. But we’ve gotten confused, and now the caribou are getting confused too. So many changes.”

With their light-on-the-feet lifestyle, native Yukoners saw little value in the heavy metal they noticed sparkling at the bottom of sunlit creeks. Prospectors began poking around the Yukon in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1896 that three miners dipped their pans into a creek near the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. News of the strike finally reached civilization 11 months later, when the first newly rich miners descended gangplanks in San Francisco and Seattle, staggering under the weight of their riches. Within days headlines around the world were screaming, “Gold! Gold! Gold! … Stacks of Yellow Metal!”

Thus began one of the most extraordinary outbreaks of mass hysteria in modern history. The term “stampede” was a fitting and quite literal description, as tens of thousands stormed the ticket offices of the steamboat companies that were heavily promoting the Klondike’s get-rich-quick possibilities and struck out toward a wilderness for which few were prepared.

“My father said they came like mosquitoes,” says Percy Henry, 86, an elder in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. “Isaac, our chief, said that they would destroy our land—and that there was nothing we could do to stop them.”

The newcomers converged on a soggy (oodplain that the Tr’ondëk Hwech’in had used as a fishing and hunting camp. Within months the nearby forests had been cut down, and tens of thousands of stampeders were digging in nearby creeks. By the summer of 1898 Dawson City was a rough-hewn metropolis of 30,000, with telephones, running water, and electric lights.

And then, even more quickly than it had begun, it was over. In 1899, a year after Dawson was declared the capital of the newly founded Yukon Territory, word of a new strike in Nome, Alaska, drew many miners downstream on the Yukon River. Others, bent by scurvy and drained by the realization that their dreams had come to nothing, sold what they could and headed home. Over the next decades a few men found work on the gold dredges that began to work the rivers and dammed-up creeks, creating the snaking tailings piles that are Dawson’s defining landscape feature.

Much of the territory had emptied out by 1953, when the capital was moved south to Whitehorse. But Yukon’s brawling, big- mountain physicality has continued to tug on adventurous imaginations.

“You could definitely say I heard the call of the wild,” says Scott Fleming, 42, a soft-spoken carpenter from Ontario who arrived in Dawson in 1992, chasing the promise of a life that could be both hardscrabble and good.

I get to know Fleming during a 13-day canoe expedition on the Snake River, which twists through the Bonnet Plume Range, eventually emptying into the Peel River. The Peel watershed is one of the largest still pristine river systems on Earth. Long insulated from development by its remoteness, the watershed in recent years has drawn the mining industry’s attention. As First Nations and conservation groups push for protection, the Peel has become the subject of nationwide petition drives, election-year debates, and competing proposals to protect or develop the wilderness area.

Fleming ran into Ryan, also from Ontario, shortly after arriving in Dawson. Ryan had come to the Yukon in his 20s to do some fur trapping but quickly turned to mushroom hunting, supplying wild fungi to the lucrative international restaurant trade. Then he got hooked on gold prospecting.

In the Yukon, much of which was never glaciated, gold deposits come in two forms. So-called lode ore is held solidly in rocky veins where it was borne up through the Earth’s crust. Placer gold is created when lode ore is loosened by erosion and carried away from the main ore body by water and gravity, concentrating as flecks and nuggets in streambeds and buried under gravel and sand.

“Shawn was convinced that the mother lode was still out there,” Fleming tells me one night as we cook dinner by the last rays of sun. “He said that for the past hundred years people were seeing the tracks and not the beast.”

Ryan hired Fleming as his first employee, and for the next six years the two men used bicycles, a beat-up wooden boat, and mostly their own feet to access promising-looking wilderness. Refining their rigorously scientific system of collecting and analyzing data, the two men began to home in on what would eventually prove to be millions of ounces of gold. But just when Ryan had persuaded his first major investors to come on board, Fleming departed to pursue a career in carpentry.

On day five of our Snake River expedition I ask Fleming why he left on the eve of the big payoff. Our group of eight has taken a daylong break from the river to hike up to Mount MacDonald, a multi-spired wonderland of rock walls, glaciers, and hidden box canyons.

“Shawn’s a great guy and greener than most,” Fleming tells me when we stop for lunch in a high meadow sprinkled with arctic poppies. “But being out on the land every day and seeing places like this, I guess it had an effect on me.” He gazes out over the river and across the purple mountains that sprawl to the horizon. “I realized I didn’t want to be part of tearing it up.”

We follow a milky stream up the valley, springing across thick beds of sphagnum moss. We step over moose and wolf tracks and pause to watch a golden eagle making halfhearted dives toward a young Dall sheep huddled on a ledge under its mother. It’s nearly midnight when we return to our riverside camp, which is newly adorned with a pile of grizzly scat.

By morning the weather has turned, dusting the surrounding mountaintops with snow. We don dry suits, tarp the canoes, and launch toward a formidable canvas of dark clouds.

The wind and rain come in hard over the next two days, raising the river and dislodging tree trunks, which we swerve to miss as we race downstream. The waterway braids through broad valleys, its branches converging and quickening to squeeze through white-water canyons. The rapids test us, tossing bucketfuls of glacial water in our faces, freezing our hands, threatening to overturn our heavy canoes as we dodge boulders and bounce through rolling wave trains.

The river serves up gifts too: fresh-caught grayling, which we cook over an alder fire. A summit cloaked in deep red alpenglow. The camaraderie born of shared challenge in a place that’s real and raw. With each day on the river we’re all breathing more deeply, feeling more robust and confident.

Thus far we’ve seen no sign that humans have ever set foot here. And so it’s jarring when, on the ninth day, we spot an oil drum lying on its side atop a strand of red rocks.

A few miles up a tributary of the Snake, one of North America’s largest iron deposits was discovered in 1961. The site was test mined but never fully developed. Since then, demand for steel in Asia’s emerging economies has renewed interest in the Crest Deposit, and mining industry advocates are talking of developing a rail link to the coast.

“Overland access is always the Achilles heel of wilderness,” says Dave Loeks, chairman of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. “Right now the Peel as a wilderness is as good as it gets. We’d better have a darn good reason before we develop it, because it’s a one-way gate. The mining industry always makes big promises, but now we have closed mines in the Yukon that are leaking arsenic and cyanide and lead. Instead of paying to clean up the mess, the companies just go bankrupt.”

But Bob Holmes, director of Mineral Resources for the Yukon government, says the industry has changed. Holmes, formerly a manager at the Faro lead-zinc mine—now the site of a more than $700 million government cleanup that will require an estimated hundred years to complete—says new bonding and reclamation policies have reduced the risk of major failures.
“Nowadays you can’t put a shovel in the ground until you have a closure plan.”

Environmentalists say the Yukon’s archaic mining laws are long overdue for an overhaul. “Mining is part of our history, and no one wants to see it go,” says Lewis Rifkind, of the Yukon Conservation Society. “But the current technology can do terrible damage, and we’re still regulating it with laws written when that bearded guy on our license plates was crouching in a creek, shaking a pan.”

The Yukon’s so-called free-entry system allows any adult to stake a claim on the majority of the territory’s land—including some native lands and private property—and to use the land in virtually any way necessary to access the mineral resources below, subject to regulatory and environmental rules. Recently, however, an appeals court decision has cast doubt on the Yukon government’s right to allow prospectors to explore and stake claims on some traditional lands without first consulting the affected native peoples and accommodating their rights.

The royalty rate for placer mining—37.5 cents an ounce in Canadian currency—was set in 1906, when gold was valued at $15 an ounce. From April 2012 to March 2013, Yukon placer miners produced some $70 million in gold and collectively paid $20,035 in royalties.

Yukon’s premier, Darrell Pasloski, says reform of the royalty and free-entry systems is not a high priority on the government’s agenda. “Placer mines are like the family farms of the Yukon,” says Pasloski, whose 2011 reelection campaign was heavily supported by mining interests. “And the free-entry system creates opportunities for the little guy. A story like Shawn Ryan’s wouldn’t exist if you modified that.”

Nearing the end of my stay in the Yukon, I find myself back in Dawson. Gold has just topped $1,700 an ounce, and there’s talk that it could break $2,000.

“People keep asking if I’m going to cash out, now that I’ve made my fortune,” Ryan says. “I tell ’em, ‘Aye, are you kidding? This is the greatest Easter egg hunt on Earth!’”

I hitch a ride on a helicopter to a promising site near the Ogilvie Mountains that Ryan’s team has been exploring. As we take off, I can see up and down the fabled gold rush creeks—Bonanza, Hunker, Eldorado— where bulldozers have replaced that bearded guy shaking a pan.

Within minutes, though, I’m buzzing over mountains blanketed in thick forest and roamed by wildlife. I land in a light drizzle at a hilltop campsite, where I meet Morgan Fraughton, then one of Ryan’s project managers. Guided by his GPS, Fraughton and I head out to a nearby ridge and spend the day walking a traverse line, stopping every 50 yards or so to twist a hollow auger into the ground.

The hillside, covered with moss, fireweed, and lichen, is a miracle riot of color and nutrition. Underneath the vegetation the dirt is just as colorful and diverse. Fraughton’s auger brings up samples of yellow sand, bluish loam, green gravel, and red clay. “If we get data back that looks positive, it’s supercrucial to get out and stake it quick,” Fraughton says, as he photographs and bags the dirt. “It’s like the Wild West the way rumors fly in Dawson. A couple weeks ago we went to stake an area where we’d found good soil, and someone had already staked it.”

The rain tapers in the late afternoon as we make our way back to the prospectors’ camp. As we descend a steep, boulder-strewn hillside, I mention something Ryan told me: “I tell people not to get too attached to all this beauty. We just might want to mine it.”

Fraughton sighs. “Yeah, I can see how that kind of thing can make people nervous,” he says. “But there’s no guarantee that this will be mined. If it is, I hope it’s done in a responsible manner. But I’m just a prospector. If I wasn’t out here, someone else would be, making 300 bucks a day.”

As we approach camp, the clouds begin to part, splintering the sunlight into beams that spotlight a few of the broad-shouldered mountains jostling by the hundreds toward the horizon. A half dozen summits, suddenly bathed in ethereal yellow light, begin to sparkle and steam. It’s a natural spectacle on a scale so vast it seems impossible, at this moment, that any of it could ever be in short supply.

Fraughton and I sit down for a minute to pick a few blueberries and take it all in. “You know what the amazing thing is?” he says. “I’ve been all over this territory, and it’s hard to believe, but it’s this good everywhere. Wherever you go, there’s just mountains and more mountains, too many to name, too many to count. And I think, What if one of them disappeared? Would it really make a difference?”


National Geographic – Book Talk

Why This 14-Year-Old Kid Built A Nuclear Reactor

In his quest to better the world,Taylor Wilson captured the interest of Homeland Security and ended up with radioactive pants.

By Simon Worrall, National Geographic


Author Tom Clynes doesn’t do optimistic. The contributing editor for Popular Science is usually attracted to stories about Ebola epidemics or eco-mercenaries. But when his life and family began to fall apart and he found himself in the middle of a messy divorce, he met Taylor Wilson, a boy who had just created a nuclear fusion reactor in his garage.

Fired by this young genius’s optimism and desire to make the world a better place, he decided to devote himself to telling Taylor’s story in his new book, The Boy Who Played With Fusion.

Talking from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he describes how meeting Taylor made him rethink his relationship with his own children; why we are ignoring gifted children in favor of under-achievers; and why it is crucial to give our brightest and best the support they need.

The book opens with you accompanying Taylor and his father down an abandoned mineshaft in search of “hot rocks.” Set the scene for us.

The Boy Who Played With Fusion  by Tom Clynes

The Boy Who Played With Fusion by Tom Clynes

We went into an abandoned uranium mine in the Virginia Mountains in Nevada, just north of where Taylor now lives in Reno, to find uranium rock. On the way, he’s talking my ear off. He’s the total opposite of the science fair introvert sitting in the corner staring at his naval. He loves to evangelize about everything nuclear.

Eventually we will make yellow cake out of the ore we collect in Taylor’s garage. We have to pop this chain link fence to get into the mine. We have a pickaxe, shovel and flashlight and go down a few passageways where we find some veins of radioactive water running down the side of the mine. It literally glows. [Laughs]

When we go back over the fence Taylor’s Geiger counter brushes against his thigh and he realizes that his pant legs are radioactive. So, he rips off his pants and sits there in his boxer shorts, trying to figure out what kind of radiation it is. “It’s not loose contamination, “ he says, “so it makes me think it’s been on the pants for a while. But, how? My jeans are generally not radioactive at the start the day!” [Laughs]

Tell us about Taylor and how you first heard about him?

I’m a contributing editor of Popular Science. In 2010, I started nosing around this community of high-end nerds who were not working in billion dollar research labs like a lot of nuclear researchers but doing crazy things in their garages—tinkering with nukes, transmuting elements and building atom-smashing machines.

Someone mentioned this 14-year-old kid from Texarkana, Arkansas, which is not exactly a hotbed of science in this country. But he’d just become one of only 32 people to build a nuclear fusion reactor themselves. So, I decided to get in touch with him. I was drawn in by his audacity, enthusiasm and optimism, and the fact that he just goes out and does things that everybody else thinks are impossible.


Read the rest of the story at National Geographic