Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest
How do they Arctic?
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge staff share reflections on how they came to their work and place
As part of our ongoing podcast series, My Life, Wildlife, we chatted with four different staff members who have ties to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Below are excerpts from their stories of how they came to the Arctic and what they love about working and living here. You can find the series here, on iTunes, or anywhere you get your podcasts.
Will is currently the assistant manager at Selawik National Wildlife Refuge in western Alaska. Before taking that position in 2021, he worked for several years with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a biological technician and park ranger.
On making the move from an upstate New York cubicle to Alaska
“There I was working three jobs, one of which was just pretty awful, cooped up inside all day. And on my morning drive to work one day, I looked up and there was flock after flock of Canada geese flying high overhead, and they were all flying north. And it was December. And I was perplexed. It was snowing. It was like the first storm of the year, why were all the geese in high Vs, flying north when they should be flying south for the winter? And, also, I was frustrated because on a day like that when every goose I saw was flying, I should have been out goose hunting. The best day of the year to be goose hunting, and I was going to my basement cubicle.
So like a good employee, I got to work and instead of doing my job, I went on Google - I needed a change. So I googled duck job. And the first two things that popped up were a couple of volunteer opportunities in Alaska. And I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to going to Alaska before, but thought “duck job” “Alaska,” Alaska sounds cool. It’s far from this cubicle. And right there that day, I threw together a resume and sent it up to the email contacts in Alaska.”
On a favorite place and experience: monitoring eiders
“So remoteness is all relative, but Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most remote place I’ve ever been. It’s a truly wild place. We based out of the village of Kaktovik, and boated down the coast. There’s people living on the landscape there, but there’s no real infrastructure along that coast. And the mountains of the Brooks Range loom from Kaktovik, 50 miles to the south, and as you boat to the east towards the Canadian border, they get closer and closer to the coast. And you can look out over the rolling fields of cotton grass to the Brooks Range in the background.
And if you look to the north, nothing but steel gray water and floating ice chunks, and it’s just… it’s big. And it’s beautiful. And it’s just an incredibly special place. It’s quiet, it’s calm. A lot of people when they think Arctic Refuge, think about the grand peaks of the Brooks Range, think about caribou…. But yeah, I think about the plains and the sea.
My favorite spot up there is Demarcation Bay, seven miles from the Canadian border. And there’s always seals in the bay and there’s always fish in the bay and there’s ducks and there’s geese and there’s caribou and I’ve seen brown bears and polar bears and it’s an incredible place.”
On working and living in Kaktovik
“I came to really enjoy spending time in Kaktovik. It is a very special village. It’s
within the boundaries of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s on the Beaufort Sea coast on an island. And there aren’t any other villages really nearby. There’s no road access. The only way to get there is by plane… And there’s about 275 people that live in town. I worked as a technician for Fish and Wildlife Service for several summers in Kaktovik, and got some opportunities to go back in the winters and in the spring and do some work via snow machine. I just really really grew to appreciate the pace of life, the values people held, living a subsistence lifestyle.
Spending time in Kaktovik, spending time in a village, really changed my perspective of refuges and the National Wildlife Refuge System. I think when I started I thought of refuges as sort of preserves away from people, something that was established for wildlife, wild places.
And after living in Kaktovik, I realized that all the refuges in Alaska are people’s homes. People have lived on them for thousands and thousands of years. They’re not these untouched landscapes that I thought they were. So I saw more of the value in refuges for preserving people’s homes and serving people that live on them now and will continue to live on them forever.”
Allyssa is the Environmental Education Specialist for Arctic, Kanuti, and Yukon Flats Refuges, based in Fairbanks. She works with schools in the Fairbanks area and also with remote communities and villages, sharing about wildlife, habitat, and the special refuges she works for.
What brought her from Georgia to Alaska?
“And so I remember my brother, he would take me out a little bit at local parks. And I just loved it. I loved walking and bird watching. But I just didn’t really know how to connect more with that. So when I was in college, that’s kind of when I started getting more into doing longer backpacking trips and hiking trips. And then I found this opportunity for Student Conservation Association. We did a one week alternative spring break in the Grand Canyon, we did a lot of invasive species work, a lot of trash pickup, we got to hike up and down the Canyon.
I mean, I was just — I was in heaven, and it completely changed my life. And that’s kind of when I was exposed to careers in the natural resources. It blew my mind that there was just an array of jobs and opportunities that you could actually do and make money. Growing up, you were a nurse or a doctor or lawyer, you know, the big jobs. And so when I graduated college, I took a trip to Alaska, we went fishing down on the Kenai and I was like: I want to move to Alaska. I just want to live there. I don’t know what I’ll do.
And so I found another opportunity with SCA, the Student Conservation Association, and it was a 10 or 12 week internship, doing recycling and greening. And that was with the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.”
On working with youth, and her favorite animal
“I just tried to connect youth with as many opportunities as possible of what they have here. I’m kind of like the resource that I looked for when I was little, because I just didn’t know what was available to me, when I’m sure there was tons of things available. But I just didn’t know how to how to ask for them. In 2009, I got to visit a couple villages. And I just loved working with students…
They’ll usually ask me — what is your favorite animal? Which is very hard for me because I don’t have just one. So I say, I think my favorite animal is the sandhill crane. That species has become my favorite since living here in Fairbanks. They mate for life, which I think is beautiful. And they have this very loud and distinct call. In the beginning of September, they start leaving and moving south. And then they start coming back in May. And so it’s kind of like the sound of sandhill cranes is an indicator that spring is here… and they’re just gorgeous.”
Bill is the mammal biologist at Arctic Refuge. He previously worked with Kodiak brown bears, brown bears in Siberia, and lived in Southeast Asia for several years. Originally from northeastern Ohio, he spent a lot of time playing outdoors as a kid and fishing with his dad on trips to Ontario.
On how he got to Arctic…
“My path to Arctic’s kind of convoluted in many ways. I’ve been a biologist, essentially since the early 80s, I was an agricultural and forestry extension agent in northeastern Thailand, I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I was there for about four years, then went back to grad school and then returned back to Southeast Asia as a Fulbright scholar in Northern Thailand, working with a small hill tribe, an Indigenous group in the mountains of northern Thailand…
I’d been working in Laos for about five and a half years or so. And I decided that I wanted to go back to grad school for wildlife. So I got an opportunity to do that, and do some research in Kamchatka, Russia. And that was all on on bears and the bear-salmon ecosystem.
My first job with Fish and Wildlife Service was in Bethel with Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. And then in 2006, through 2018, I worked at Kodiak [National Wildlife Refuge]. And of course Kodiak is known for its bears, its bears and salmon.”
On studying the Porcupine Caribou Herd
“The main thing I’m working with now, in cooperation with Canadian colleagues and USGS colleagues, is the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which has some of the longest migrations of any land mammal in the world. They spend part of their time over in the Yukon Territory in the Northwest Territories. And then they migrate way over here in the springtime, to the coastal plains in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and that’s where they give birth to their calves. And by the beginning of July, they start moving into different places in the Brooks Range.
The calving, post-calving, and insect relief period are very important to the caribou. There’s extreme demand placed on the cows at that time because they’ve dropped their calf. They’ve got to lactate, so they’ve got to consume as much high quality food as they can forage. And that’s why they’re moving to the coastal plain at this time, the coastal plain and the northern foothills.”
On climate change, caribou, and refuge landscapes
“We’re trying to get some detailed information on their diet patterns. Why do they move to the coastal plain? What areas do they go to? What species are they are they eating? The importance of this with climate change, of course, is that’s likely to shift.
Just this past spring, from the end of May through the beginning of July, we were out collecting [caribou] fecal samples. We send them off to a lab where they can determine exactly what species of plants the caribou had been eating.
The Porcupine Caribou Herd is very important for subsistence for Native peoples in Canada, and for Native peoples in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Experts in climate change modeling can model what the landscape is going to be like into the future. So we hope to be able then to identify areas that are going to be important to these caribou in 10, 20, 30, 50 years.”
Paul is the supervisory ecologist at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He leads the team of biologists and works with partners to study wildlife and habitat on the refuge.
From bluegrass country to the immense scale of Alaska
“I grew up in central Kentucky, rolling hills bluegrass country, and spent all my time outdoors along streams, chasing frogs, salamanders, insects. I was always fascinated with wildlife from an early age and one of my really lasting memories of that part of the world is summer sunsets with lightning bugs and katydids and crickets and the cacophony of insects and frogs at night in the spring.
My first memory of being in Alaska is just feeling really, really, really small. I think the thing that that drew me to public service, especially in Alaska, was just the scale of the place in which we work.
And that has far reaching implications for migratory species, but also for ideas around protected areas, and just how diffuse of an impact climate change has, and what that means to the plants and animals and places that we care about. Not just individual species, but whole landscapes.”
On getting a different perspective
“In July this year, I went up with one of our biologists to collect diet information for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, flying over the southern part of the coastal plain in the Brooks foothills and seeing large groups of caribou that had just dropped their calves and were actively foraging. I have one really, really distinct memory of sitting up on a peak in the foothills, the Brooks Range, overlooking about 4,000 caribou. Just watching them peacefully go about their business while we ate lunch, and being able to see for 30 miles out to the Beaufort Sea. And putting, from that perspective, these little caribou into into the context of the landscape was just awe inspiring.”
On learning more about the refuge’s wildlife
“At the refuge right now we have a long-term project working on tundra-nesting birds at the Canning River Delta, as well as fulfilling our international treaties with the Porcupine Caribou Herd. In addition to that, we have a number of smaller year-to-year projects that we’re working on.
One that I’m really excited about that we just started this year is trying to document the presence of a rare and enigmatic songbird, the gray-headed chickadee, which was formerly thought to be common in localized places and in the refuge and now it’s become increasingly scarce and hard to find. It’s thought to be an old world species, and the subspecies that’s endemic to North America only occurs in this very narrow band. And we think that the Arctic Refuge might be the last stronghold for that subspecies, especially in the eastern part of the state.
On feeling close to nature
“I feel a lot of gratitude and very humble when I’m in wild places. Most people will never have the privilege to visit the refuge. And we know that, we appreciate that. I feel a weight of responsibility to share the beauty, the magnificent landscapes, the wildlife, the stories, both from the people who live there and the people who get to work there.
I think there’s something in all of us — what E.O. Wilson called “biophilia” - this desire to be close to nature.”
Listen to and read a story from Joanne Bryant, Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Tribal Communications Specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She shares a memory of a family vacation into Arctic Refuge: “We walked in the same path as my ancestors”
Compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communications Coordinator, Alaska Refuges.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.