KOBUK, Alaska — This fall before the ice froze, I started a letter to President Joe Biden. I was gathering cranberries on the hill above the old sod igloo where I was born and raised, thinking while my hands worked, thinking about food, and health, and how here that is the definition of success. The berries were still liquid, soft and not easy to pick without crushing. They stained my fingers pink where my nails and knuckles weren’t coated dark with blood from the caribou I’d hunted earlier, for meat. I hadn’t found snow to wash my hands. To the north, caribou were white dots migrating on the distant brown tundra. That night I planned to slice a caribou heart to fry and was hurrying to make a cranberry pie as well.
As I plucked at the fragile berries, I wanted to tell the president how my family, and so many before mine, have gathered berries here over the years, and salmon and countless other fish, beavers and ducks and geese, mushrooms and bird eggs, wild onions, and of course caribou. Wolf skins, too, and mink pelts, and warm caribou hides, all from this land and these waterways.
Mostly I wanted to warn him how the Ambler Road — a 211-mile industrial corridor proposed by multinational companies to cut along the Brooks Range, through the Gates of the Arctic National Park, BLM and state land, as well as the backyards of Alaska Native villagers — would change this land forever. The road would bridge 3,000 streams, 11 major rivers, 1,700 acres of wetlands, cross a major caribou migration corridor and transform one of Alaska’s — and the world’s — last wild spaces into a string of the world’s largest copper and zinc mines.
As I tried to piece this together in my head, I occasionally glanced up to make sure a grizzly bear didn’t suddenly silently surprise me. It has happened before, always an abrupt reminder of my place here — and how quickly it can change when I grow lax about respecting nature. Bears are good at that. People too, I guess. One day we’re gathering food, and the next a road and open-pit mines threaten to destroy our lives and livelihoods.
Somehow I needed President Biden to know the value of this land as it is, wild and clean and alive. And to understand what the Canadian and Australian mining conglomerates are willing to destroy to take the minerals from the ground here in northern Alaska, to smelt down into their own personal wealth.
I wanted to remind him the Department of Interior has the power to revoke the permits for this project, and that Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Cabinet Secretary, has the Ambler Road Final Environmental Impact Statement on her desk until late January. She can make the call.
I also wanted to tell him how thoughtless — and often sneaky and illegal — the state of Alaska has been in forcing through the permitting process, how unfathomable it is that our boom-and-bust state wants to subsidize this road, which is likely to cost $1 billion, more than the projected fee revenue from the mines. And how one mega-mine after another would leave massive lakes of acid tailings, pits of poison at the headwaters of salmon streams and above the tundra and watersheds that help make the land around me so plentiful.
Above all, I wanted him to understand the love and invisible feelings that come with a deep connection to the land, and an awareness of dependence on the land, and how different that is from a recreational respect for nature. But how? There’s no app on a smartphone for that. And maybe no words.
By then cranberries filled my measuring cup. I still had to head down to the riverbank to break ice and haul water. And chop an armload of kindling, and get my wood-fired oven up to temperature for pie crust. Winter was coming, and my solar panel hadn’t charged much that day. My laptop was almost dead, and in the night I’d have just enough voltage for light, and maybe a few songs on my old tape deck that I bought the year Ronald Reagan was elected. It was moldy, and plays too slow, but that is OK, I know those tunes by heart.
At the Kobuk River, I filled my buckets and paused to stare upstream. The river was a quarter-mile wide, big and silent. I’ve spent my life along this river, hunting for food, fishing, gathering year-round, and for the last 30 years photographing and writing about it, too. I’ve tried to show how amazing the animals, plants and people are, how vulnerable the Arctic is, how climate change is rapidly altering the weather, ice and landscape.
I pictured the mountains to the east, where the mines would be. I’d traveled those mountains where they say copper is in the ground. I knew the water was pure for every bend in the Kobuk between here and there. In the twilight the land felt endless and wild, empty, and at the same time full with thousands of caribou moving across the tundra, moose and bears, wolves and wolverine, and people, too, Indigenous to this land.
I thought about how this, our home, the Brooks Range, is one of the last and largest intact ecosystems on Earth. It could be straight out of America’s history, with big bears, Alaska Natives and vast sprawling herds of migratory animals.
President Biden, I’ve heard how copper mining might help with solar-panel production and national security. I’ve also heard the words — important and historic words — honoring the rights of the first peoples on this land, and committing the U.S. in the coming decades to protecting our lands and waters from the impacts of climate change.
As I carried my buckets uphill in the dark, and they grew heavier with each step, I wanted to say this wild land all around me, around us, is our national security, Mr. President. I hope you understand that. I hope you feel that. Please, stop the destruction this road would cause. For the health of us all.