In the summer of 2013, a hardy group of six people chose to take a journey to explore an area of Alaska that few people have ever laid eyes on. Three scientists, two media experts, and one journalist would eventually complete the trip. A year of planning, and a successful Kickstarter project (plus two planned short films) later, “Expedition Arguk” had their funding.
At Sunday’s Anchorage Science Pub, three of these explorers regaled the packed house at the Tap Root in Anchorage with photos and stories from their 300-mile trek.
“How did we do?” Paxson Woelber asked after the presentation. He had just finished a 40-minute talk about the trip, switching off with fellow travelers Brett Woelber (his brother) and Chelsea Ward-Waller. Enjoying a brew and chatting with a small crowd to the side of the stage, neither Paxson or Brett seemed aware that they had just held a 100+ crowd’s full attention for over 40 minutes, many of them standing the whole time when seats became scarce. (That’s not an easy feat with what, in someone else’s hands, could have amounted to showing off vacation photos.)
Brett Woelber said the purpose of Expedition Arguk was to explore the areas of the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPR-A) being proposed for development. In particular, they wanted to get a look at the area where ConocoPhillips’ CD5 bridge will be constructed. Woelber described the area as “one of the last major spans on the Colville River Delta.” The team felt there was value in getting a better understanding of an area that was about to undergo development for the first time.
Because of the increase in development in the Arctic, the scientists that made up Expedition Arguk thought that more accurate maps would soon be needed. To demonstrate why, Woelber showed a map of Alaska highlighting different entities that own and manage select parcels of the state. It turns out that 63.8 percent of Alaska’s land is managed by federal entities.* Referring to the proposed areas of development in the North Slope, Woelber voiced his concern:
“The implications of this map is that for the big decisions in this area, they’ll be coming from out of state.”
More accurate maps could mean decisions made by Outside entities would based on a more accurate understanding of the area. Woebler showed the audience charts of the areas they traveled through: 75 miles on foot through the Gates of the Arctic and about 225 miles down the Anaktuvik and Colville rivers. Starting in July 2013, the team took about four weeks to complete their trip.
One of the main themes reiterated by the presenters in one way or another was the challenge of the environment and their own expectations. Chelsea Ward-Waller said they expected a drab landscape, and were surprised at the variety and intensity of color they witnessed. Other areas looked similar to a lunar landscape, barren and dry. Luke Douglas had put himself through physical training in New York, but the springy tussocks making up the first part of the trip proved difficult to prepare for. Douglas eventually had to end his part of the journey early after he injured his Achilles tendon. They didn’t expect to run into any polar bears, but as Paxson Woelber wrote in the Alaska Dispatch, they certainly found one.
When asked what advice they had for others who might try to make the trip. Without missing a beat, Woelber said, “Tabasco. Bring Tabasco.”
Though they likely had the option to sell their footage to a variety of interested parties, one of the goals of Expedition Arguk was “to make photography from the remote Arctic available for free public use.” In keeping with that philosophy, they have applied a creative commons license to their photos and uploaded many of them to Wikimedia and Google Earth. In addition, the people of Expedition Arguk have used their notes to help expand relevant Wikipedia articles, making the information they gathered available to anyone who wants to read it. They are now working on editing their video footage into two short films.
The audience Q&A session lasted nearly as long as the presentation, and many people stayed after to talk to the three presenters. The interest in this area of the state and what it took to travel through it was palpable. Needless to say, it’s unlikely Expedition Arguk will have a difficult time finding a market for their forthcoming films.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 40 percent of Alaska’s land is managed by federal entities.