Articles & Insights

The articles that follow below are re-printed here with permission. They appeared originally in various Sunday issues of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


A Triumph of the Spirit by Chip Duncan

During years of making documentary films abroad, I've only gone to visit a United States embassy once. The reason was simple enough, Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar), is a dictatorship and we wanted a briefing. It may seem counterintuitive, but visiting a dictatorship can be relatively safe for the visitor. It was the locals we were concerned about. In a nation where gatherings of more than five people can lead to a lengthy prison stay, journalists and filmmakers often pose a genuine hazard to even the most innocent of civilians.

Our visit took place in November, 1995, just seven years after one of the worst massacres of unarmed civilians ever perpetrated on its people by a ruling government. On August 8, 1988 more than 3,000 protestors were killed in Rangoon during a peaceful demonstration for freedom and democracy. Although barely reported to the outside world due to intense restrictions on media, the massacre rivaled the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place in Burma's fondest ally, China.

Shortly after, following pressure from human rights organizations, the United Nations, and leaders of many free world trading partners, the Burmese government authorized democratic elections in 1990. But the funny thing about brutal dictatorships is that they rarely have the support of common folks - and in this case, they lost the election in dramatic fashion to the British-educated daughter of the national hero - Aung San Suu Kyi.

While her father had been a post World War II modernist who fought for independence from British rule, Aung San Suu Kyi led a people's movement for democracy. Already under house arrest at her home in central Rangoon, Suu Kyi was never allowed to assume elected office. The election was ignored.

Suu Kyi, who rivals Gandhi, Mandela and King for her passionate commitment to her people and the ideals of freedom and equality, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Today, seventeen years later, she's still under house arrest. She was unable to attend the funeral of her British husband in 1999 and she's missed the childhood of her two children.

Now, after nearly a half-century of tyranny, the people of Burma are rising again. As many as 100,000 people took to the streets of Rangoon during late September. In protests led by scores of Buddhist monks known for non-violence, the government has, once again, responded with force and brutality.

From behind the walls of her compound, Suu Kyi continues to be a symbol of the struggle and, more important, a symbol for what a person will give up to obtain freedom. Like civil rights protests in the United States during the 1950s and 60s, Burma's democracy movement has a spiritual component to it. Buddhist monks, known for their simple lifestyle and commitment to service, are leading the masses.

Their role offers more than just symbolism. Monks are revered in Burmese society. They give up their lives for service. In a highly spiritual nation comprised primarily of Buddhists, torturing and killing monks is akin to killing one's spirit. Whatever moral ground the government may have laid claim to is gone.

At the time of this writing, the Burmese government has admitted to arresting roughly 3000 protestors with as many as 500 still incarcerated. It's a safe bet, given Burma's history of oppression, that the numbers are significantly higher. Human rights groups working in Burma suggest that scores of monks and protestors were not only detained, but tortured or killed. What we see in Burma today is a lesson for the world.

As Gandhi said so eloquently, freedom and democracy cannot be imposed by outside forces. They can only be achieved when the will of the people supports the cause. Freedom comes from within. We're also witnessing the power of a free media in the battle to both obtain and maintain freedom. Despite criticism against media in the United States, few among us would trade away the power of the press to monitor government and inform the people about the excesses and abuses of power.

But in Burma, there is no free media. Just as it did in 1988, the government has cut of the press. They shot and killed a Japanese photographer, cut off the Internet and cellular phone service. So what can we do? It's a big question with answers that range from simple to complex. First, check investments to make sure you're not inadvertently feeding the Burmese leaders and their control of Burma's natural resources. Whenever there's tyranny and human rights abuses involved, someone's usually making money and it's rarely the good guys.

Second, pressure Congress and President Bush to do something that's more than rhetorical. Embargos can be effective as long as they don't deprive citizens of daily needs such as food and medicine. Though the Bush administration has shown only a marginal interest in the United Nations, the U.N. and special envoy Ibrahim Gambari are making progress, especially as it relates to Chinese cooperation in pressuring Burmese leaders. This should be encouraged.

Third, support humanitarian groups that work in south Asia and, specifically, in Burma. It's a given that while the Burmese people fight for their own freedom, the need for humanitarian relief will be heightened.

Fourth, increase dialogue about Burma and with Burma. Most of the world's most challenged nations benefit by being part of the global consciousness. Welcoming them into the dialogue helps these nations overcome the global discrepancies that exist around wealth, consumption and education.

Fifth, engage teachers and clergy in the dialogue. Little motivates people like having your rabbi, imam, minister, priest or guru up the ante by asking a congregation to become more active around an issue. Teachers can educate students about Burma and engage in cross-cultural communication through the internet. What difference will it make? Maybe none, but that's unlikely. Hope is hope. And information and understanding of the issues will lead to political and financial pressure on the Burmese leadership.

Like so many Americans, I find it hard to believe that in the 21st century, we've come so far in technology, science, agriculture and all the comforts of privilege, but we've learned so little along the way. That genocide continues, that tyrants still impose their will on their citizens, that our planet's environment is at risk, that millions die of hunger in a world of bounty, these things are a mystery to me. Americans often find it difficult to know how to help because most of us have never had to fight for our own freedom.

Unless they're stopped, the leaders of Burma will do what they've done for years. They will try to protect their own power. But there are monks and students, farmers, vendors, teachers and taxi drivers meeting in secret places, discussing the most sacred of notions, freedom. And this time, they have the spirit of the people on their side.

 


Sleeping With The Dead by Chip Duncan

There are thousands of tents amid the rubble that was once the thriving city of Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. As I drove along the main street two weeks ago, one of them stood out. It was white and dirty, but most of the tents were white and dirty. It was jimmied in among rock piles, garbage and debris, but that's not uncommon here either. What made this tent unique is that the front flaps of this temporary shelter were just inches from a new grave.

Still, nothing about the tent suggested to passersby that sleeping with the dead was anything out of the ordinary. That's because ordinary in Muzaffarabad changed forever at 8:40 a.m. on Saturday, October 8th, 2005. Located in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, Muzaffarabad was the epicenter of the quake. But the devastation covered more than 30,000 square miles. It's a mountainous area roughly equal in size to the southern third of Wisconsin. Despite the difficult terrain of the Himalayas, the Northwest Frontier Province and Azad Kashmir were densely populated. Larger cities such as Balakot and Muzaffarabad were prosperous, modern communities known for their beauty, tourist amenities, schools and hospitals. But 85 seconds changed everything. It was a sunny, beautiful autumn morning. Most children were in school (it's a largely Muslim country where Friday is the holy day), most men were working, and most women were in their homes doing chores.

In Balakot, thirteen-year-old Sadia and her sister, fifteen-year-old Rabia were among the 450 girls sitting in the classroom of their three story, cement school house. As the building began to rumble, Rabia remembers her teacher shouting to everyone to "run for your lives." Her teacher was among the 326 who perished as each floor fractured and toppled on to the one below it. Sadia and Rabia's mother, brother and friends are among the approximately 85,000 known dead. Nearly everyone who was inside a building at the time of the quake was either killed or severely injured. Miraculously, Sadia and Rabia survived. As we spoke with them, each fought back tears as they recalled their loss. Each battles nightmares. Though each shares a sense of determination, they also have scars that will be with them forever. The sisters are among the roughly three million displaced Pakistanis whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the quake and who now live in the tents provided by the United Nations or one of the international relief agencies that struggle to provide care. It's hard to imagine three million people living in tents. I wasn't able to until I saw it. It's hard to imagine schools, hospitals and entire communities laid to rubble. It's hard to imagine losing everything you own and worse, losing your loved ones. It's hard to imagine living through a Himalayan winter while sleeping in a tent on a carpet you dug out of the rubble that once was your house. It's hard to imagine wearing the same clothes every day, bathing with a pot of water heated over a communal fire, scavenging demolished buildings for shoes, or standing in line for hours during a freezing rain while waiting for emergency rations of flour and cooking oil. But that's daily life in northern Pakistan.

In late February I spent a week documenting and photographing the area for a Los Angeles-based non-profit agency called Relief International (RI.org).

I wish I could say the tragic story of Sadia and Rabia is an anomaly. It's not. Virtually every person we spoke with had lost a loved one in the quake. Most had lost several. And unlike those who suffered in the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 or Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, the world community remains painfully unaware of Pakistan's misery. Those who are so often generous with their time and money simply didn't show up this time around. Officials we met with in Pakistan, including President Pervez Musharaff and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, call it a case of "donor fatigue." While they're grateful for the work of various NGOs, the UN and pledges of aid and loans from several nations around the world (including the USA), the devastation and desperation far outweighs the response. At the current pace of relief work, I believe it will take a generation before the area flourishes as it did before the quake. Right now, it's all the local people can do to simply survive the winter. In the quest to return to some sense of normalcy, several communities have begun holding classes for those students who survived. Tents have replaced the cement block school buildings and, weather permitting, classes are held outside. Like schools and other government buildings, hospitals were also hard hit during the quake. The modern, five-story hospital in Muzaffarabad was destroyed almost instantly. A row of parked ambulances was crushed as the first floor was flattened.

Patients, doctors and nurses had little chance of survival. Today, doctors and nurses from several countries have set up tent hospitals in the largest communities and tent clinics in the smaller ones. Many nations responded with short-term emergency care. But the need continues. Perhaps surprisingly, Cuba has the largest contingent of health care providers still on the scene. Prior to the earthquake, Pakistan and Cuba didn't even have diplomatic relations. Various aid workers also expressed a need for mental health professionals. Psychological counseling is not a typical part of Pakistani life as it is in North America and Europe. Emotional matters have been dealt with in the family system. In this crisis, however, what comprises a family unit has changed dramatically. In one brief stop in the village of Hilcote, we met a widower near a roadside cemetery. He'd lost 8 family members. Only one small daughter survived. As we were talking with him, another man came by with his two daughters. He's lost 7 family members. Both men looked at us as if we could provide help or answers. All we could do was listen, and then, only for a few minutes. Is there hope for the people of northern Pakistan? Yes. Despite the misery and suffering we saw throughout the region, we also saw children with smiling faces finding their way under new circumstances. For many of them, life is an adventure. They showed a resilience sadly missing on the faces of adults still beset with shock.

The challenge now is to create a long term, sustainable lifestyle that provides opportunities for those same smiling children. That means finding the resources to rebuild homes, schools, hospitals and government buildings. It means providing educational opportunities during the rebuilding process and meaningful employment for adults who lost their jobs. Of all the places I've been privileged to visit, none has provided such a positive opportunity for exercising the goodwill of the USA. It's the right thing to do. But it's even more than that. In the war on terrorism, there's often rhetoric about "winning the hearts and minds of the people." Prior to October 8th, this region was considered a hotbed of anti-US sentiment with sympathetic leanings toward al-Qaeda. Today it's a region on its knees and in need of help.

Though it may seem contrary to the images seen on television news, our small documentary crew was welcomed with warmth and smiles. Even as we visited the tents of people with no resources, we were offered whatever hospitality they had - a cup of tea or a piece of fruit. Is it conceivable that by doing the right thing - whether individually or as a nation - that we might also win the hearts and minds of a proud, intelligent people? Of course, it's convenient to call such a suggestion "naïve." Those who wage the war on terrorism with weapons, troops and billions of defense dollars often label such notions as ignorant, uneducated, inexperienced or naïve. Perhaps it's time to change the paradigm. As one who's witnessed the power of goodwill and humanitarian pursuit in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the past few months, I can only attest to my own personal experience in visiting these challenging areas. The people of this planet, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, or economic status are far more similar than they are different. The mother who has lost her child is like our mother. The family crippled by poverty or whose home has been destroyed is like our family. As a nation, we have a long history of resolving conflicts through war and aggression culminating most recently in our "preemptive" invasion of Iraq. The cost in both life and dollars is extraordinary and there is no end in sight. As a realist, I'm aware that there are situations where force is the only recourse. But making a collective shift as a nation to one that builds bridges, creates life-affirming coalitions, and works toward a positive embrace of our mutual desire for peace is something we can only do at the demand of the American people. Pakistan, now reeling from a devastating earthquake and in dire need of international assistance, represents exactly that opportunity.

 


Educating Girls Takes Precedence in Afghanistan by Chip Duncan

When protests broke out in Afghanistan recently over the questionable reporting of Quran abuse at the US base at Guantanamo, I could imagine more than just the faces of angry young men burning American flags. I could see their families - women and children suffering in the impoverished villages these same men go home to each night.

I'm just like most people. I see the images and read the words, but it's often little more than information. The details are lost because people and events are so rarely humanized. We learn from walking in another's shoes, but the shoes of an Afghan or Iraqi civilian so rarely seem to fit the average American.

That changed for me in late April when I joined with actor Sir Ben Kingsley on a goodwill mission to Afghanistan. As global ambassadors for the international relief agency Save the Children, our job was to witness, to experience and to report.

As we flew north in a small prop plane from the Afghan capital of Kabul to the city of Maimana, I admit that my thoughts had more to do with Osama bin Laden than the children we were there to visit. I couldn't get over how vast and rugged the Hindu Kush mountains were. He could be anywhere, I thought, absolutely anywhere.

Though villages hugged each valley and waterway, there were few roads, and most were barely passable. Many of the villages are snowed in during winter, making transportation on anything but foot nearly impossible. In the deserts further north, food and water are scarce and most who travel do it on the backs of horses or camels.

After our brief flight, local workers from Save the Children greeted us on the gravel runway. We spent an hour at a security briefing, then began our journey. During the next week, we covered nearly a thousand kilometers in a caravan of Toyota 4x4s. The roads varied from single lane asphalt to sand two tracks and, for miles at a time, riverbeds. Some were bone dry. Others nearly swallowed our vehicles.

I've traveled and photographed throughout the developing world, but little compares with Afghanistan. The charming, gracious and hopeful people we met were a sharp contrast to their war-ravaged countryside.

Imagine three decades of warfare - an entire generation of fighting that included Soviet occupation and the long civil war between the Mujahadeen, the Taliban, and various warlords whose loyalties change quickly, often based on who's paying and who's not.

During our short visit, we were exposed to the trials of war, and to the humanity and perseverance it can inspire. At a dinner in Mazar-i-Sharif, I sat next to an Afghan worker for Save the Children. While the group ate and chatted, he shared his story with me, mostly in a pained whisper.

He had lost three brothers during the civil war. With the city in virtual lockdown due to days of street fighting between the Mujahadeen and the Taliban, he'd run out of food for his children. He knew if he went to the market alone, he'd be killed. So he did what may seem unthinkable, he took his 3-year-old daughter with him in his arms. Together, he thought, they'd be safe. There were some morals, he said, even in war. No one wanted to shoot a young girl. He was able to save his daughter's life because she saved his.

Since November, 2001 the war has changed dramatically. Following the invasion in pursuit of bin Laden, al Qaeda and leaders of the Taliban government, the US has scaled back considerably. Today, approximately 20,000 US soldiers lead the coalition forces, mostly in fighting to the south and east of Kabul along the Pakistani border.

Despite the distances we covered and the time we spent in Kabul, we never saw a single American serviceman. Considering we were traveling with a non-profit relief agency and without weapons or armed security, it was probably for the best.

But the remnants of fighting are everywhere - from bombed out buildings to the thousands of scattered tanks and troop carriers lining the roads. There's a resiliency that's apparent on the faces of the adults, and the children are just that, children. We saw them playing in the burned out shells of helicopters and tanks, running after bandaged soccer balls, and bouncing along potholed roads on rickety bicycles welded together with an array of used parts.

The danger, however, is everywhere. The 2005 State of the World's Mothers Report recently issued by Save the Children lists Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world for a child. Chasing a soccer ball can, literally, kill a child.

A generation of war left behind an estimated five to seven million land mines - among the most of any nation in the world. There are mines from the Soviets, mines from the Mujahadeen, mines from the Taliban, and mines from coalition forces. The fields and villages are also full of unexploded ordinance, much of it from coalition forces.

The challenge of land mines may be even more insidious than the numbers indicate. Afghanistan suffers from a combination of spring storms and flooding. With each rapid snowmelt, a phenomenon known as "mine migration" happens as mines are literally washed randomly from place to place. International efforts to remove land mines are underway, but mine migration heightens the challenge.

During our visit, security briefings focused on cultural protocol, safe houses, and overnight reports of fighting. Every briefing reinforced the idea that walking off the road - any road - could result in injury or death from land mines. Whether walking home from school, herding livestock, or working in the fields, children are at constant risk.

Still, landmines represent only a fraction of the risk to children. Poor health care, malnutrition, a shortage of clean water, lack of immunizations and access to education further the challenge. For every 1000 Afghan children born, 165 die within the first year. By comparison, fewer than 7 out of 1000 children born in the United States die within the first year. The maternal mortality rate is also among the world's worst - 1600 women die out of every 100,000 live births.

Making it through the first year of life doesn't necessarily improve the odds of survival for a child. Save the Children estimates that 1 out of 4 Afghan children dies before reaching age 5, usually from a preventable disease. {Globally, nearly 30,000 children under age 5 die each day, often from preventable or treatable causes such as malnutrition and diarrhea due to unsafe water. In Afghanistan, however, deaths from HIV-AIDS and malaria, two diseases that plague much of sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, are less likely killers. In other words, many of the causes of death of an Afghan child are more easily preventable.}

Staggering though the statistics can be, there is hope - for Afghanistan and for much of the developing world. And that hope lies in the education of girls.

There are few if any governmental regimes that have treated women worse than the Taliban did from 1996 through 2001. Women were not just dominated by men, they were frequently tortured and killed for minor infractions. Wearing nail polish could result in having toes cut off. Showing up in public without wearing the burka could result in having a nose sliced flat against the face. A woman accused of adultery was punished by death, usually by stoning in a public place (a practice that continues in parts of rural Afghanistan even after the fall of the Taliban).

Some of the practices affecting women continue today, including multiple and arranged marriages, often involving girls as young as 13.

Slowly, however, after a lifestyle molded by the constant insecurity of war and poverty, communities are beginning to embrace change. Our small delegation was witness to what many believe represents Afghanistan's greatest hope for the future.

On a Saturday morning in a village roughly 50 kilometers north of Kabul, we witnessed the re-opening of a village school closed by the Taliban. Hundreds of children were entering classes, and for the girls, it was their first day of school … ever. A large delegation of Afghan men was there for the opening ceremony. The only adult women in attendance were the workers from Save the Children, women who had risked their lives providing aid during the reign of the Taliban.

A local politician spoke, hammering his fist and raising his voice at all the key moments. A school administrator spoke, smiling his gentle smile. And then, at a podium nearly twice her size, 12-year-old Roshan, whose name means "light," read a speech on behalf of all the young female students. She was going to school. And though she didn't know it, she was changing Afghanistan.

In the village of Belcheragh in the Faryab province, we watched Save the Children staff educating adults and children in basic health care and personal hygiene. We attended a school built with Save the Children's resources that included scores of girls attending classes for the first time. And in a village north of Mazar-i-Sharif, we photographed the first class of young women being trained as community midwives, the first step in an effort to reduce the high maternal death rate. (*use this photo for sure).

The seemingly insurmountable challenges in Afghanistan do have solutions. Educating women and especially girls paves the way. From South Korea to Costa Rica to Kenya, it's been proven that the more education girls receive, the more likely it is that they'll grow to be mothers who are healthy and empowered. Educated girls are more likely to postpone marriage and pregnancy until they're able to handle both with resources and maturity. Educated girls opt to have fewer children and, when they do have children, they're more likely to be resourceful in providing food and education for their own kids.

Not long after I left Afghanistan, an international aid worker for CARE was kidnapped from her car in Kabul and is being held for ransom. An internet café near the Save the Children compound was bombed, leaving two dead. During the past three weeks, the Kabul field office of Save the Children reports that 14 Afghan workers for various charitable groups have been killed in fighting.

The risk to international aid workers is extraordinary. They work in remote areas without security or weapons. The faces of the dying are everywhere. In Afghanistan, Sudan, Mali, Rwanda, Bolivia and a score of developing nations, Save the Children, CARE, Doctors Without Borders and hundreds of non-governmental organizations work every day to provide food, health care, clean water and immunizations for children and adults. But it is not a thankless task. Change is happening. With action and commitment to the empowerment of girls and women everywhere, the world of the future will be rich in rewards.

 


How Will Future Generations Judge Our Stewardship? by Chip Duncan

After an historic 51-49 vote of the U.S. Senate this month that opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, the Today Show and Good Morning America led their news with the “not guilty” verdict in the Robert Blake trial, the delivery of Scott Peterson to his new home on death row, and the latest in Michael Jackson’s pajama party.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that. The majority of the American people and the handful of corporate conglomerates that dictate television news didn’t care that the battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from oil drilling was all but over. Without justification, a last minute vote on ANWR had been attached to the Senate budget bill, and there was no more dodging the drill bit.

With a majority of just two senators, President Bush, using his so-called mandate from the November election, will likely get what he’s after – more Alaskan oil.

That the amount of oil in the refuge is unknown doesn’t seem to matter (estimates range from 5.7 to 15 billion barrels). Even Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, a supporter of drilling, was quoted recently in the New York Times saying “We don’t know if there’s any real oil there. That’s why this could be boom or bust. The geologists simply say it’s the area of North America most likely to support a large field.”

Interesting logic. “We don’t know so why not drill” vs. “we don’t know so maybe we should err on the side of conservation.”

The fact that most major world oil companies are only mildly interested in ANWR’s potential also doesn’t seem to matter. The fact that we’re occupying oil-rich Iraq, which owns approximately 25% of the world’s oil reserves, doesn’t seem to matter. Wildlife? Well, the wildlife that survives won’t be wild any more but heck, they’ll do just fine.

More rigs, roads, housing, offices, warehouses, shipping piers, people, cranes and equipment plowed into the most fragile ecosystem in the world? Not a problem. Or is it?

As a true believer in representative government, I find it tough to argue against oil development in ANWR since the majority of Alaskans favor development. But they also receive a sizable government check at the end of each year for the exploitation of the state’s oil and mineral rights. In other words, developing ANWR will put money in their pockets. But the voice of the “lower 48” has been virtually silent on this issue. Our nation’s environment didn’t warrant a single question in any of the 2004 presidential debates.

So why do I care? Beyond the obvious (yes, I generally believe we should try to protect what’s left of our wilderness), I care because I’ve had the rare privilege of seeing ANWR, feeling it, and letting the power of this great refuge enter my soul. I understand the privilege and I’ve done what I can to share it including production of a PBS documentary and a lengthy article for this newspaper (Is ANWR Worth Saving?, June 2001). And for the same reason it’s hard for Americans to comprehend the tragedy of war in Iraq or genocide in Sudan for people living in those nations, it’s understandable that most Americans can’t grasp the tragic decision to drill for oil in ANWR. It’s a long ways away and odds are, most Americans will never get a chance to visit.

Yet it’s tragic nonetheless. Tragic because drilling will deprive future generations of a chance to experience and explore the last great pristine wilderness in the United States. Approximately one hundred years ago, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt made history by ensuring the preservation of Yellowstone National Park. At the time, it was unthinkable for most Americans to visit Yellowstone - it was simply too far away. A century later, Yellowstone is so overwhelmed with visitors that park officials are forced to limit the number of campers, cars and snowmobiles. Most of us would agree that Yellowstone is a national treasure worth far more than oil. And Roosevelt, the father of our national park system, is routinely applauded for his vision and courage. Sadly, the Bush legacy on ANWR will be the opposite.

My first visit to ANWR came during June of 2000 when, thanks to my friends at Juneau-based Alaska Discovery I joined a small group of river rafters to paddle the Kongakut River from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. I went back six months later to spend Christmas in a small native community called Arctic Village, population 125. It was the experience of a lifetime - 24 hour sun and 24 hour darkness all in one year. I also had the chance to listen to the Gwich’in people discuss their nomadic history as caribou hunters throughout what is now called ANWR. During interviews with elders in Arctic Village, not a single one supported the Bush plan to drill for oil.

During June 2004, I went back to ANWR with Alaska Discovery for a 13-day rafting expedition on the Hula Hula River. My goal was to trek and photograph the exact area where the Bush administration was pushing to drill. The grandeur is overwhelming, but the power of ANWR is much greater than grandeur. In the absence of human development, in the rawness of virtually untouched wilderness, there exists a spiritual force greater than any I’ve ever experienced or imagined. It’s a birthplace not just for Porcupine caribou on their annual migration, it’s a birthplace for the spirit of wilderness.

To many, the flat, marshy terrain that extends from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean may not look like much. It vaguely resembles eastern Colorado or the plains of western Nebraska - with one great exception. The refuge is home to more species of birds than any place else in the United States. It’s filled with grizzly, wolves, sheep, wolverine, moose, arctic hare, the only remaining herd of musk ox in the U.S., arctic fox, tundra swans and the spectacular migration of approximately 120,000 head of Porcupine caribou every June.

For a photographer, it’s a land of easy wide shots. But it’s in the close ups that the character of the arctic reveals itself. Hundreds of species of tiny wildflowers fight for life in a uniquely short growing season. During the summer solstice, their life cycle unfolds within a matter of days. An entire mountain slope can be white, yellow or red one day, green the next. Moss and lichens, a food source for the scavenging caribou, color the rocks and jutting cliff sides in patches of burnt orange and yellow.

The vast horizon of ANWR, uncluttered by human structures or the contrails of jet aircraft, is a rapidly changing tapestry of cumulus clouds, storm showers and rainbows. The landscape pulsates with a quiet, natural rhythm. In my visits to ANWR, as I’ve opened myself up to the natural world around me, I’ve become one with that rhythm. I’ve never felt safer, more grounded or more in sync with our earth.

As I wrote in 2001, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a special, even sacred place. Before the drill bits pushed their way through the frozen tundra, I’d hoped we could squeeze a few more miles per gallon out of our cars, or reduce our thermostats just a degree or two, perhaps enough to avoid the need for more oil.

I was naïve. On a myriad of issues, we seem incapable of thinking long term. The 7th Generation precept of the Iroquois people - that is, the idea that what is good for us should also be good for those who follow seven generations from now - rarely seems to apply when it comes to public policy.

So as the thaw begins in the arctic, is there any hope for those who want to stop drilling in ANWR before it starts? Yes. Forty-nine U.S. Senators, including Republicans and Democrats, voted with the future in mind. Majorities can change. It’s not too late to contact legislators, write the President and motivate neighbors and friends. During our history, we have learned with certainty that once wilderness is gone, we don't get it back.

 


Spirit of The Wild by Chip Duncan

The rain stopped about 4:30 a.m. When the clouds parted an hour later, Mike Speaks, a legendary Alaskan river guide, was outside my tent.

"Duncan, get your butt out of bed if you ever want to see Mt. Fairweather," he said.

Wearing wet wool socks and polar fleece pounded by twelve days of glacial silt and campfire smoke, I climbed out in a hurry. My fourth trip down the fabled Tatshenshini-Alsek River system was about to end with one of nature's greatest spectacles revealed before my eyes. The towering, snow-capped Mt. Fairweather, among the highest and most elusive peaks in North America, had shed the gray cloak it sometimes wears for weeks on end, the same cloak that had hidden it from me for more than a decade. On this morning, more than 15,300 feet of snow fields, hanging glaciers and deep crevasses of ice rose mightily above Alsek Bay.

Part of the Fairweather Range along Alaska's southeast coast a short eagle flight north of Glacier Bay, everything I'd heard about this stunning mountain had still failed to prepare me for this moment. A few light clouds roamed slowly around the center of the peak. Early morning sunlight cast shadows toward the Pacific Ocean to the west. The floating icebergs of Alsek Bay and the purple tresses of dwarf fireweed along the sandy shoreline of our rafting camp worked together to add all the dimension and perspective needed to bring Mt. Fairweather to life.

What is the spirit of a mountain so rarely seen, I wondered. How many before me had waited for the same privilege? Had others felt the spiritual pull of one of nature's most beautiful creations? I couldn't deny the feeling that I was being rewarded for the long journey that brought me to this river's edge on an unusually cold August morning.

I'd first rafted the Tatshenshini River with Speaks and Bart Henderson in 1991 as the writer-photographer for a public television adventure documentary featuring the river. Our film had told the story of a mining controversy on the "Tat" and environmentalist's efforts to turn the Tatshenshini and its sister river, the Alsek, into the world's largest pristine wilderness park.

In 1992, the Canadian mining company lost their bid to dig for copper in the mountains that bordered the western edge of the Tatshenshini and the river system became what might be nature's greatest stronghold in the world today. The Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and the adjoining Kluane National Park in Canada's Yukon Territory comprise more then 2.5 million acres of relatively untouched wilderness. Grizzly bears, wolverine, wolf, lynx and eagles roam freely. Indeed, but for the fewer than 1000 rafters, kayakers and hikers who make the annual summer pilgrimage to this challenging ecosystem, they virtually own the place.

A longtime lover of wild places and the spirit they inspire in me, I'd fallen hard for the Tatshenshini on my first visit. Within two years I was back to raft the Alsek, a roughly 200 mile journey from the Yukon's Haines Junction to Alaska's Dry Bay, a sleepy fishing village of fewer than 100 residents near the Pacific Coast.

I filmed the 1993 trip, then returned again in '96, television camera in hand. Those two trips down the Alsek became part of a 2001 PBS special called Rafting Alaska's Wildest Rivers (the show also featured the Kongakut River inside Alaska's arctic circle). But somehow, despite three visits and the compilation of more than 40 hours of footage, I felt I'd still never grasped the power and pull or the spirit of the wild lands that surround the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers. On previous visits, I'd traveled with additional crew members and carried several cases of television gear as well as a gas-powered generator for charging batteries. With my eye buried in a viewfinder and 18 hour days filming everything from guides rigging boats and climbing expeditions up unnamed peaks to the occasional wandering grizzly or moose, I'd experienced my trips as if I too had watched them on television. I loved the place. I'd joined the fight to save the place. But something inside me said I'd never really experienced the place. Then, in early May 2003, my phone rang.

"What are you doing in late July?" asked Speaks, his Alabama drawl infusing the question with charm.

"Working," I replied.

"If that's your answer, then you're doing too much of it," said Speaks. "Come on up and hang out in the woods for a while. We'll climb around on some glaciers."

Speaks, who by now had become a great friend and a colleague on numerous shooting assignments in Asia, South America and Africa, was guiding a July Alsek River trip for an outfitter called Alaska Discovery, one of the premiere river guiding companies in Alaska.

I had a million reasons to say no, but a little voice kept saying "life is short, life is short." I packed my bags, cashed in some frequent flier miles, and returned to North America's wildest river system for the fourth time - this time armed with only a notebook and a still camera.

We put in at the Dezadeash Flowage in the Yukon's Kluane National Park, the headwaters of the Alsek River, in late July. Though the skies were clear and the temperatures mild, the winds were howling. Speaks and I were joined by guides Chris Denker and Jon Hirsh as well as eleven other hearty first-timers who hailed from San Francisco, Seattle, New Jersey and Chicago. Denker lives in Haines, Alaska and spends winters working on research projects in Antarctica. Hirsh is a veteran Grand Canyon river guide who makes his home in Durango, Colorado during the off season.

Denker's safety talk and orientation included standard operating procedures for the turbulent rapids we'd encounter along the way as well as warnings about the deadly cold water. The Alsek is fed by some of the world's largest glaciers and water temperatures range between 33 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything more than a short dip is fatal.

Everyone was also encouraged to embrace the somewhat free-form nature of the trip. We had 12 days to make it to the take out and other than that, much would be left to whim and chance.

"The standard program is that there is no standard program," said Denker. "I suggest you put your watch away somewhere deep in your dry bag. We're never 100% sure where we'll be camping or when, or what nature will throw at us. The one thing that is for sure is that this river, this whole wilderness can kick your butt."

Like the Tatshenshini, the Alsek River builds in force as it moves westward. Our put in at the Dezadeash was approximately 2000 feet in elevation surrounded by peaks of 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Within fewer than two hundred miles, the river drops to sea level and the peaks that line the shores of the river rise to more than 15,000 feet.

As Speaks put it, "as the river flows down, the mountains go up. And the climate goes from relatively temperate and dry to wet and cold. It's like a journey into the ice age."

Because of the heavy winds, we made slow progress during the first two days. Despite the favorable current, we were paddling against whitecaps. On the third night, we pulled up a few miles short of our desired camp on Lowell Lake, a 2 mile wide, 5 mile long section of the Alsek that adjoins Lowell Glacier. We took shelter behind the small ridges to the east of the glacier in a low spot protected by an alder grove. Shortly before the late evening sunset, several of us hiked to the top of the ridge to view Lowell Glacier. As we approached the top, we were buffeted by winds of nearly 60 miles per hour. These weren't gusts. They were sustained winds strong enough to literally hold us in place as we leaned forward toward the glacier. By now the longest sustained wind I'd ever experienced, it was hard to believe it could get worse.

We left camp early in hopes of catching a break from the wind. After rowing about 3 miles down river, we found ourselves hugging the northeast shoreline of Lowell Lake to avoid what the guides were now calling "gale force winds." We pulled over to scout for a campsite with some protection from the wind and determined that we'd need to row about another half mile downwind. On a river where raft speeds average 5 to 15 miles per hour, it took us nearly an hour to go just more than 500 yards. We had to drag the rafts along the shoreline for the last 100 yards as we fought for the protection of a small sandy mound that became our home for two more nights.

On two previous visits to Lowell Lake, I'd spent hours filming in sunny, warm, windless conditions. I'd floated among the ice bergs that frequently calve from the glacier and I'd hiked up Goat Herd Mountain that rises more than 4000 feet above the lake to the east for a vista of Lowell Glacier. From that vantage point, it's easier to see the vast size of the Lowell - a 3-5 mile wide ice sheet that extends more than 35 miles toward Mt. Hubbard to the northwest. I'd even spent a half day on my '96 trip exploring an ice cave that once carved its way through the glacier into an icy abyss. But on this trip, the steady wind forced a much different plan. We did what we could to enjoy our time as we were perched on a small, flat moonscape of land roughly two miles long and a half mile wide. The winds, we all agreed, couldn't end soon enough.

Hiking up Goat Herd Mountain was out of the question. The first third of the climb follows a narrow path up a rock wall that leaves little room for error or wind gusts. But we did manage to explore what had become our island. After following their tracks, we gave wide berth to a blond grizzly and her cub, watching them from a safe distance through a spotting scope. And on the far southern end of our spit of land we found an eerie reminder of the power of the wilderness. Buried in sand up to its snout, the skull and a single horn of a moose was locked in a frightening pose, a small alder bush growing through its skull. How it died we would never know, but it was clearly trapped in place.

Life is fragile here, even for the heardiest of creatures. At the same time, he couldn't have picked a more beautiful place to die, I thought. He was a few feet from the river, and the ever changing Lowell Glacier stretched toward some of the world's highest mountains - the St. Elias Range.

Even the toughest of conditions have their rewards. An extra day of layover gave me time to explore the small things so often overlooked in such vast, beautiful landscapes. The shoreline of both the Alsekand Tatshenshini are filled with wildflowers and a myriad of grasses, sedges, lichens and moss that lead in to the alder and cottonwood covered hillsides. Fireweed. Yarrow. Yellow Dryas. Bog orchid. Harebells.Monk's Hood. Columbine. Indian Paintbrush. Gray skies, rocky mountain walls and the silt-brown rivers are often framed in rich tones of violet, yellow, green and various shades of red and rust.

Despite the grizzly threat (and armed with a can of "bear mace"), I also ventured out alone for a midnight hike on our second night in camp. The field of sand, rocks, and boulders left over from the receding glacier was barely illuminated by the low setting sun to the north. Even in late July, the sun hovers just below the horizon on a clear night. I sat and watched the sky to the north for nearly an hour as a wall of rippled cirrus clouds gently fanned across the afterglow.

By the early morning of day six, Denker, Speaks and Hirsh decided to make a run for it across the lake in hopes of picking up the stronger current as the lake funnels back into a river. We rigged the three rafts together into a "sausage" and paddled our way westward. Within fewer than two hours, we'd made the far shore and were soon on our way "down river" once again.

There is, to me, a much mistaken idea that nature provides serenity. Surely, it can and often does. But it's not a given. Living in the wild, whether for a day or a few weeks, shows the many faces of the natural world, from the peaceful to the violent. During the past two decades, I've been fortunate to film in ecosystems and climates as diverse as the central American rain forests of Costa Rica and Belize, in the desiccated landscape of sub-Saharan Africa and the Australian outback, in the humid, blistering hot plateaus of central Burma, the fog shrouded peaks of the Peruvian Andes, and during the frigid winter solstice in Alaska's arctic circle. All have their challenges. All take their toll on the body and the camera gear in one way or another. But nothing breaks the spirit quite like a sustained gale force wind. Five days of constant wind had made us weary. On this trip, no one was sad to leave Lowell Lake behind.

We caught the current and as the river narrowed between two huge mountain ridges, we were blocked from the wind. Progress came easily and we made our way several miles down river before arriving at a legendary set of rapids called Lava North. Named after the treacherous "Lava Falls" on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Lava North has built a reputation all its own. For adrenaline junkies it's a full-on class 5 whitewater chute with crashing 12 foot waves. But unlike rapids on warmer rivers in Chile, Ethiopia, Zambia or the Grand Canyon, this one can quickly kill a rafter who's flipped into the frigid waters.

The guides scouted the river and found it was relatively unchanged from years past. They knew the route well and would avoid danger if at all possible. During the mid-90s, two women on a private Alsek River trip were thrown from a boat that flipped in Lava North. One survived by swimming to a sandbar a mile below the rapids. The other died. Today, most outfitters provide rafters with dry suits for the quick passage through the rapids.

By the time we hit Lava North the day was warm and sunny. For safety reasons, our three boats went through together, distanced by only about 100 yards. I was in the front of Hirsh's boat. We were all soaked as giant waves washed over our boats, but we all made it through safely.

At a lunch stop a few minutes later, everyone was grinning as we exchanged high fives. Then the wild river, in its usual unpredictability, gave us yet another surprise. We'd been in a well known "grizzly corridor" for days and had spotted more than 15 of the giant bears thus far. Without warning, we pulled up for lunch on a beachhead near a small clear stream that funneled into the river. We saw our first bear roughly 400 yards to our left. He (or she - it was hard to tell) watched us disembark and remove our dry suits, then he rambled off into an alder-filled ravine. Everything seemed fine as I ventured a few hundred yards west in hopes of a safe but close encounter with the photographic grizzly.

Within minutes, however, I spotted another grizzly wandering toward our group as they munched away on sandwiches. Known for their extraordinary sense of smell and their deadly force in getting what they want, I hurried back quickly and let Speaks know we were now smack in the middle of two brown bears…both within fewer than 300 yards. The guides gathered everyone for a quick exit, leaving him to dine on wild berries and roots.

Is it possible for something to be both uneventful and extraordinary at the same time? On the Alsek, yes. Nothing happened that night. Except serenity. The temperature was perfect. The winds slowed to a breeze - the perfect breeze for keeping the mosquitoes and "white socks" (a biting, flying critter that I can live without) at bay. I set up camp alone on a sandbar away from the group, a camp accessible only by wading through the knee deep water of a small tributary. I awoke several times that night to the meditative sound of the Alsek, a steady rumbling of water pushing its way toward the Pacific, a sound punctuated by the constant tumbling stones and the hissing of glacial silt.

About an hour after our late morning departure, we stopped on the northwest side of the river for a hike up a mountainside filled with the bloated flowers of Yellow Dryas. In the distance, we could see the icy walls Mt. Blackadar, named for kayaking legend Walt Blackadar. The Alsek runs almost straight into Blackadar, then makes a sharp turn to the right. As the eagle flies, a short journey to the left would put us on to the Tatshenshini. It's here, for the first time, that I begin to get a sense of how the two rivers share this wilderness like siblings. Their ecosystem is one.

After a few more miles of rowing down river, we made camp on the northeast side of Mt. Blackadar, a few hundred yards from a shrine to its namesake. The shrine, a kayak paddle with an inscription, is one of the only signs of humans found along the entire route of the Alsek and Tathsenshini rivers.

To the west, the Tweedsmuir Glacier, a giant mass of ice thousands of feet thick, converges toward the slopes of Mt. Blackadar. Together, they funnel the Alsek into a raging, almost impenetrable torrent of white water called Turnback Canyon. Only the most experienced of kayakers, such as Blackadar (the first to run it), can make it through the 12 mile stretch of steep terraces, boulder-filled chutes and fierce, unpredictable waterfalls. A rafters options are simple: risk sure death, hike a two day portage across the ice fields of the Tweedsmuir, or do a half day of de-rigging, a helicopter assisted portage, and a couple of hours of re-rigging. We'd opted for the chopper.

The character of the Alsek changes again as we traveled southwest from Turnback Canyon. The wide open vistas that surround the Tweedsmuir and Lowell Glaciers are replaced by the steep mountains of the Noisy Range to the east and the Icefield Range to the west. The mountains, as Speaks had predicted, were rising dramatically. From river's edge to the summit was no longer a simple hike. Peaks here range from 7,000 to 12,000 thousand feet.

We re-rigged on a beautiful sand beach where the only signs of life were occasional patches of Fireweed, Yellow Dryas and alder and the huge paw prints of yet another grizzly. The distance between Turnback Canyon and the confluence with the Tatshenshini River is approximately 30 miles. At the confluence, the size of the river nearly doubles. What was a tight, raging funnel of silt-colored ice melt roughly a quarter to three quarters of a mile wide soon becomes a vast braided corridor. The channels change constantly in a river that ranges from 1 to 3 miles wide.

We made camp for two nights on a west-facing table of sand and gravel at the confluence of the two rivers. It is, to me, a sacred site where the Alsek and Tatshenshini rivers merge into one, carrying the name Alsek from this point forward. Since I was a little kid I've always marveled at photographs of extraordinary campsites in exotic places such as Kenya, New Zealand, Mongolia or the boundary waters that separate Minnesota and Canada. This one not only rivaled all I'd ever seen, its 360º view of cloud-shrouded, ice-covered mountains may have been the best.

The peaks surrounding the confluence are mostly un-named except one, which Hirsh jokingly referred to as the "it doesn't matter horn" because of its resemblance to the icon of the Swiss Alps. On my first visit to the confluence, we counted 26 hanging glaciers on the peaks within view. On this trip, from our slightly different vantage point, we estimated about 30. While some of the glaciers (also mostly unnamed) descend close to the river's edge, most are tucked into the deep valleys and crevasses high up on the jagged peaks.

What was, perhaps, most noticeable to me was that the glaciers seemed to be higher up than I'd remembered. According to Speaks, virtually all of the glaciers throughout this part of British Columbia and southeast Alaska are shrinking dramatically. I've seen the same thing happen with the once-grand hanging glaciers in the Peruvian Andes. In less than a decade, many have disappeared completely. Whether global warming is a man-made or natural phenomenon, it's hard to imagine the impact it's having on the Tatshenshini-Alsek river system. Many of these remaining hanging glaciers will be gone in my lifetime.

Walking on a glacier is, well, it's like nothing else. And virtually every rafter who ventures down the Alsek makes a stop 13 miles below the confluence to spend a few hours hiking on the Walker Glacier. The Walker, named because of its easy accessibility to hikers, is also slowly receding. On my first visit, the glacier had extended to within a hundred yards of the river. On this trip, we trekked for nearly a mile inland before the first easy step onto the vast sheet of ice.

The first thing I noticed was the sound. Every step involved crunching down on thumb-nail sized pinnacles of ice. The surface of a glacier is like a frozen sponge peppered with small rocks, pebbles, sand and silt. Then there's the constant sound of water moving beneath the glacier itself. Several times I had to step or leap across small streams that carved their way across the top of the glacier. In some places, it's possible to see through patches of clear ice to the larger flows of water beneath the surface, some as wide as 6-8 feet across, as they tumble toward the river.

From a distance, many glaciers are look like brown fields or braided channels of dirt. Following the winter snowmelt, they accumulate a mixture of blowing silt, sand and debris. The Walker is no different. Its milky white ice twirls are speckled with a combination of dirt and circular patches of dark moss. Pretty? Yes. But in an unusual way. More universally beautiful, perhaps, is the huge wall of blue ice seracs that rise several stories above the otherwise flat ice sheet. The shapes change with the seasons, leaving behind an eerie sculpture of jagged edges and soft, rolling tunnels and chutes carved by the constant flow of water.

On my first visit to Walker Glacier, Speaks, Bart Henderson and I had joined a group of mountaineering friends for a long day of climbing Solstice Peak, a majestic, snow-capped mountain that rises above Walker Glacier. During the extended daylight of the summer solstice, we'd made it to within 500 feet of the summit and back in time for a midnight dinner. Because of our wind delay toward the start of our trip, there wouldn't be time this year for anything more than exploring the glacier itself. Yet it too was a privilege beyond words. As is so often the case, the vast scope of things in this wilderness can possess those who visit. It's easy to get captured by the big vistas. Yet it was the small things, the tinted blues of the seracs, the discovery of ice worms the size of a tiny pin living off algae within the glacial ice, the patterns of moss, the tiny crystals of ice, the sounds of the constantly flowing water, all these things brought Walker Glacier to life.

Low hanging clouds hugged the river at dawn. I'd slept on a cut bank about fifteen feet above the water's edge. About 30 yards to the east, the fast melting runoff from Walker Glacier carved a rushing stream that added its might to the already powerful Alsek.

It was dreary and cold as we navigated our way through the braids and shallow channels of a river bordered by rocky peaks and a charcoal gray sky. I'd become accustomed to the vastness of this landscape so it didn't seem unusual when the skies opened up more than 15 miles to the northwest, illuminating the Novatak Glacier. What was unusual, however, was that the opening in the clouds seemed locked into one place for hours. Speaks and Hirsh guided their rafts nearly a mile behind us, their boats almost silhouetted by the cool, white surface of the glacier.

After rowing for about 4 hours, the river begins to narrow as it approaches Alsek Bay. We stopped for lunch on the southeastern side of the river, then set out on a trek overland toward the bay. Like Lowell Lake, Alsek Bay was formed by the convergence of three glaciers that empty directly into a basin. Our first glimpse came on foot as we arrived at its northern shore. Piles of driftwood, discarded against the beach like a child's pick up sticks, framed a sea of blue-white floating ice bergs calved from the glaciers.

I remembered the first time I saw Alsek Bay. It was, and is, the eeriest place I've ever been. It has the character of an old soul, yet it's in a constant state of change. Nothing is permanent. It is a place of creation and death, where the forces of nature build and destroy on a moment by moment basis. Snow, wind, sleet, rain, and the blistering heat of June's 24 hour sun demonstrate nature's profound ability to give and to take.

Alsek Bay reaffirms my belief in the healing power of wilderness and the need to preserve wild places. For while the glaciers here are slowly dying, they leave behind them an extraordinary gift of life, a gift I believe can be appreciated not just by humans, but by all the living things that call this place home. Beauty. The cycle of life and death. However fleeting, Alsek Bay holds in its frigid waters the pristine sculptures of ice calved from the glaciers and molded by the timeless current of the Alsek. Its waters feed salmon, bear, lynx, wolf, eagle and wolverine, then pass slowly to the Pacific, and beyond. Alsek Bay is a place for exploring the uplifting force of the natural world as well as the intricacies of the human soul. It is the heart of the Tatshenshini-Alsek wilderness.

We returned to our rafts for the final hour of rowing our way into the bay. As we drifted slowly down river, a lynx sat majestically on a boulder just three feet above the river's edge. It was the first time I'd ever seen one in the wild. She showed no fear, and watched casually as each raft drifted slowly passed. As we entered Alsek Bay, I looked to the southeast. The low curtain of clouds rested just 1,000 feet above the water. As it had been on my previous visits, Mt. Fairweather was hidden high above the clouds.

A few minutes later, we were setting up camp in the rain. What had been planned as a festive farewell evening was, instead, a rushed dinner and a late hike bundled in heavy rain gear. The thunder of calving glaciers echoed our way every few minutes, sometimes sending along small waves from the crashing walls of ice. The ice bergs themselves danced to their own music, toppling occasionally as if shifting their balance from side to side. A few flipped completely as the tenuous muscle strands of ice beneath the surface gave way to persistent currents of water. When the rain took a brief pause around 10 p.m., I remember thinking how still everything was. As if in the eye of a storm, the wind had died. The rushing Alsek had fanned itself out across several miles of the bay and its sound was barely discernible. Even the birds seemed to be hiding. It was just another mood of this incredible place, I thought. Just another mood in what may be earth's most diverse and pristine wilderness, a place untouched by development and only rarely visited by a few privileged adventurers. Yet it is a place everyone deserves to witness, a place that can nurture within all of us the power, pull and inspiration of the natural world.

Twenty four hours later I'd flown south in a small bush plane with Speaks and Hirsh and was back in Haines, Alaska for a final night before the long flight home. Haines is the jewel of southeast Alaska, a tight knit community that captures the adventurous, independent spirit of Alaskans. Situated on the Lynn Canal, Haines still has a frontier atmosphere. It's the final stop before crossing the bridge between the world and pure wilderness.

We joined a group of old friends and dined on fresh salmon we'd carried back from the river. We caught up on the news and were reminded, sadly, of so many challenges facing the world. We headed out to listen to a bluegrass band, laughed over a few beers, and then, at about 10:30, nature gave us a final send off. The northern lights. From Juneau north to Skagway, the sky became a dark pallet for an impressionist whose brushstrokes were fleeting fields of energy. We watched for nearly an hour as the dancing fabric of green, purple and yellow moved across the sky with its own beautiful anarchy. It was the spirit of the wild.

 


Answers Lie In Constitution by Chip Duncan

In the recent debate for Wisconsin's U.S. Senate seat, Republican challenger Tim Michels expressed his support for the USA PATRIOT ACT. Yet when questioned further, Michels admitted he'd not read the nearly 250 page document. Well, Mr. Michels, join the club. What club you say? The United States Senate.

On October 26th, 2001 the Senate voted an overwhelming 98-1 in support of the USA PATRIOT ACT. Criticism of those favoring the Act revealed that many in the senate had not read it before making their vote. And perhaps worse yet, there was no significant debate on legislation many believe has changed the fundamental liberties granted to American citizens in the Bill of Rights.

Due to the efforts of Democrat Senator Russ Feingold (the lone dissenter in the Senate) and House Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, the USA PATRIOT ACT has a "sunset" clause. Even in the climate of fear that swept Washington and the country after the devastating attacks of 9-11, both Feingold and Sensenbrenner understood the consequences the USA PATRIOT ACT might have on civil liberties. When the debate begins again in 2005, it's unlikely that any sitting member of Congress will cast a vote without reading the bill.

As a documentary filmmaker, I found the USA PATRIOT ACT one of the most interesting responses the Bush administration made to the terrorist attacks of 9-11. It's complicated, it's controversial, and it's one of the few post 9-11 security measures directed squarely at the home front. While the Justice Department argues that it's intended for use against terrorists, civil libertarians contend that it can just as easily be used against any American citizen.

It's rare that "public affairs" issues make for good television, but my colleagues and I felt the PATRIOT Act was the exception. We opted to explore the issue further in a public television documentary that's now airing nationally. History became our window to the long national debate between security and civil liberties. It's a debate that goes as far back as the founding of the Republic.

So just what is the USA PATRIOT ACT? First, it's an acronym. The USA PATRIOT ACT stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. The Bush administration argues that the Act empowers local and federal law enforcement, streamlines government powers, and facilitates the war on terrorism by expanding the use of domestic surveillance techniques and information sharing.

Critics of the Act surfaced quickly following its passage. Their battle cry - does the end justify the means - is that the PATRIOT Act undermines the Bill of Rights and infringes upon individual privacy. Specifically, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Center for Democracy and Technology contend that the Act undermines the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.

Does the end justify the means? Is the USA PATRIOT ACT the lesser of two evils? If history is our guide, the answer, for many, is no.

Within seven years of passing the Bill of Rights, a Federalist dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act gave President Adams the power to imprison or deport aliens suspected of subversion. The Sedition Act made it a crime to bring false, scandalous or malicious accusations against Congress or the President. In other words, First Amendment protections of speech and the press were challenged. Several pro-Jefferson, anti-Adams journalists were tried for sedition. The public responded with overwhelming support for Jefferson who, once elected President in 1800, let the acts sunset.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were just the first of many examples of the federal government compromising civil liberties based on the argument that it was insuring better security. The long list includes Lincoln's suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War; Lincoln's use of military tribunals; the Red Scare and Palmer Raids during and following World War I; Roosevelt's use of executive orders during World War II including the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps and the establishment of an "Office of Censorship"; McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee's role in outing (often wrongly) alleged communists and or political subversives; and the FBI COINTELPRO actions to expose and neutralize political dissidents in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

In many of the cases mentioned above, the government later overturned its policy and, in some cases, it apologized to those whose rights had been compromised.

Many proponents of the USA PATRIOT ACT contend that 9-11 changed everything and that old rules no longer apply. Yet crisis has been at the heart of the debate for more than 200 years. In a process that circumvents Congress, the president often uses "executive orders" during times of crisis and war. While the USA PATRIOT ACT did pass Congress, there are many other measures, especially those related to the President's ability to declare an enemy combatant, to hold military tribunals, and to detain alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay without charges that also contribute to the debate between security and civil liberties.

During crisis, the majority of Americans and the Supreme Court have a history of supporting (for better or worse) their President on security issues. In fact, an ABC/Washington Post poll taken within days of 9-11 indicated that 66% of Americans were willing to give up some of their civil liberties to prevent further terrorist attacks. Clearly, it is in that spirit that Congress gave its overwhelming support to President Bush with the passage of the USA PATRIOT ACT. With time, however, many questions have been raised about the constitutionality of the Act. A grassroots movement against the Act has resulted in more than 350 communities and 4 states passing resolutions against the USA PATRIOT ACT. The lessons of history are often at the root of the arguments made against the Act.

While support for the USA PATRIOT ACT has turned surprisingly partisan during the current campaign, opposition has not. Many Republicans and Libertarians, especially those who favor less government, privacy and states rights, have expressed strong opposition. Often, these same voices question how much power the executive branch of government should have in a debate that will not soon disappear.

Regardless of whether one opts to read the USA PATRIOT ACT, which is, admittedly, no walk in the park, answers to the debate lie in a different and time-tested document - the Constitution.

 


He Played His Last Game by Chip Duncan

A few weeks ago at the end of the Masters Golf Tournament, Arnold Palmer retired. The photo in the paper was haunting to me … a weary man walking across a final hillside. He'd played his last game in golf's most prestigious tournament.

I'm not a golf fan and I probably wouldn't have noticed the picture if it weren't for one simple reason: Arnold Palmer was my father's hero. They were close in age and they shared a passion that drove them for a lifetime - golf. In Palmer's case it went beyond a career. Palmer was so good, such an enormous talent, that he created an empire from his skill on the course. As a young man, my father had been his peer. He'd set records on several courses in Nebraska and he'd learned to play scratch golf. But my father lacked one thing on the golf course that kept him from reaching Palmer's status. He lacked the composure to play truly great golf. On some days that meant punching a gimme or shanking a pitch. On others, that meant swearing up a storm, throwing his clubs in disgust, even walking off the course during a match play fundraiser for a local charity.

As a kid, I learned quickly to stay out of the way when golf was on television. Weekends were about one thing - golf. He'd play it in the morning, watch it in the afternoon. By the time I was sixteen, I'd learned that the very last thing I wanted to do was to caddy for the old man. By twenty, I'd figured out that a social outing centered around golf with my father was a template for disaster. To this day, I have to be dragged on to a golf course, and even then, I'll only play with overt, sacrilegious cheaters who openly defy the rules of the game. My dad hated mulligans. I've learned to live with them (especially in relationships).

So just what was it about that photo of Arnold Palmer walking off the course for the last time? Yes, it was the end of an era. But for me it was more than that. It was the moment when it hit me, really hit me, that my father had died.

It was just a few years ago that he'd retired to Arizona to play golf. He and his wife had found a beautiful home on a beautiful golf course, a green oasis in a sea of brown. From all accounts, he was as happy as he'd ever been. He'd left behind a career in business that had challenged him and served him well to spend the last few years of his life doing the only thing he'd ever really wanted to do … play golf.

We stayed in touch. We talked regularly on the phone and saw each other a couple of times a year. We hashed over politics, social issues, business and family. And as always, I listened to him talk about his game. When it was going well, he'd jabber on about everything from "the guys" to the 9 iron he used on his approach "to that two-tiered monster with the deep trap on the left side."

The last time we talked was in early November as I was leaving for a trip to Peru. He was playing regularly and feeling great. He was putting like a young man again, stroking the ball with the precision of a pendulum instead of punching it toward the hole. And, though it wasn't causing him any discomfort, he was scheduled for a hernia operation while I was away. It was "routine."

My cell phone rang while I was driving through the coastal desert north of Lima. According to my sister, something had gone terribly wrong during the preparation for surgery. While inserting the "main line" for antibiotics and painkillers into his chest, the doctor had punctured his lung. For reasons that are still not quite clear, the doctors went ahead with his surgery anyway. But the lung didn't heal. In fact, it became dramatically worse. Within a matter of days, the punctured lung resulted in a serious case of pneumonia. By the time I made it to Phoenix, he was in a drug-induced coma.

Things get blurry when a family member is dying. Decisions are minute-by-minute. The stress is incomprehensible. And there are very few, if any, clear-cut answers to the onslaught of challenges. A patient in critical care lives or dies based not on black and white choices but on choosing among barely discernable shades in the infinite spectrum of gray.

My father had a team of five doctors, all with their own specialties, idiosyncrasies and unique personalities. Wait around long enough and we were sure to encounter the quietly confident intellectual backed with the latest research; the frenzied, arrogant extrovert barking at everyone around him; and the heroic optimist who dismissed anyone who would even think to question whether my dad might be in mortal danger. "Of course not!"

We did our part as a family. Questioning this. Questioning that. Limping by as lay people suddenly immersed in a world we did not comprehend. Then, after nearly four weeks in intensive care (three on life support), my Dad passed away quietly.

He wanted to be cremated and he'd kindly asked that we keep any memorial service low profile. A big remembrance just wasn't his style. Still, for family members, there was much to be done. We were all busied with contacting friends and relatives, organizing the less-than-formal memorial service, and dealing with the myriad of legal and financial issues that surround death. There was, frankly, no time for me to think, let alone grieve.

The memorial service was a blur as well. There were plenty of upbeat stories about his professional accomplishments and his love for wife and family. And of course there were no shortage of stories recounting his temperamental golf game. Even in retirement, he never found composure on the course. He never outgrew throwing a club following a horrible shot or the careless interruption of the group playing up. His regular foursome, now reduced to three, seemed oddly bittersweet in the telling of their tales. They would miss the man, they would not miss the meltdowns.

Through it all, it was my job to preside. To host. To comfort. And to play the role of first-born son. It was, after all, the role I was born to play and my own spiritual beliefs had prepared me well. While I wasn't in denial, I also found little time to connect emotionally with his passing.

Then, on a quiet morning in April, I sat at home reading the sports section (in the Journal Sentinel) of the local paper. On page 7, I found myself staring just a few beats longer than normal at the photo of a slump-shouldered old golfer walking off the course one last time. I felt a tear roll across my cheek. So many thoughts finally surfaced, among them the realization that I would never really comprehend my father's love of golf or his deep anger over never achieving the golfing goals to which he'd aspired for a lifetime. I'd never know that passion or that pain. It was as if no matter what he did, he'd always failed at the one thing he truly loved. Perhaps in his mind, he had.

But there was so much more to his life than golf. There was so much more to his legacy than a handicap he couldn't seem to live with. I thought of all he'd done for me as a role model, wondering whether it would bring him any comfort. He was not the sort of dad to play catch in the backyard. He wasn't the scoutmaster type, he wasn't likely to join the family at church, and he wasn't a handyman of any kind. In fact, I never even saw him mow the lawn or put up a storm window.

And yet there were so many things he was. My dad was a just man. He believed in fairness and equality for all people. He spent his career in business trying to build coalitions, especially between the white "old guard" and people of color. He was afraid of bumblebees and his own shadow would startle him, but he wasn't afraid to venture in to a high crime neighborhood or to be a true friend to people from all races and economic backgrounds long before it became acceptable to his generation. He wasn't afraid to challenge a political bigwig or a wealthy bully whose agenda included somehow making other people's lives more difficult. He was a Reagan Republican with conservative economic values whose party let him down time and again when it came to fighting unjust wars, criminalizing social behaviors he thought should be an individual's choice, working to deny women the right to choose, or bringing religion into the halls of government. And if ever there was a cutting edge where he'd made a difference in the business community, it was by walking the walk when it came to equal status for women in the workplace.

It wasn't until I was an adult that we really began a meaningful relationship. He'd never cared for kids and if he'd been born a few decades later, he'd likely never have had them. He really never got the hang of being a classic dad. But he did know how to be a father and a friend, and once I was old enough to talk about real, adult issues, he succeeded at both. It was then that I began to see the positive impact his values had had on me. In everything, that is, except golf. Maybe I'm lucky I never got into the swing of it.

Change happens. People move in and out of our lives all the time. When we're lucky, they leave an impact that makes us better people. Long before he'd played his final game, my father's life beyond the golf course had helped to make me a better man. For that and so much more, he will be missed.

 


The Sacred Search by Chip Duncan


"This is a time of transition, for it is a new era. After arriving at the sacred city of Machu Picchu, no person will ever be the same again. There will be a transformation, a great transformation in his or her life. That person will be able to understand, step-by-step, with much effort, that we all climb up our own mountain, the mountain of life. And it is important to dedicate those efforts to God, which is the infinite expressions of the cosmos."
Victor Estrada, Andean Shaman

During the spring of 1994, my colleagues and I began production of a documentary film series for The Learning Channel called Mystic Lands. There was a demand for programming that would look beyond traditional religious practices and into the world of the spiritual, a world often defined by its lack of absolutes.

Words such as guru, shaman, yoga, Zen, healer, cosmos and meditation had become mainstream. Discussion of the search for the sacred was no longer limited to churches, mosques and synagogues. Buddhism had become "hip" in Hollywood. And for many, ritual and spiritual practices were becoming part daily life.

In my case, I'd always been a bit irreverent - the type of guy that's quick to level the religious playing field with a friendly but sacrilegious joke. Not that I didn't have respect for those who followed their faith -- I had that in abundance. But only as long as they kept their God (or gods) at arm's length.

As a photographer, I'd developed an eye for filming both ritual practices and people. I'd produced a string of travel films around the world and discovered that religious practices and spiritual places were often the most interesting and challenging to film. I also loved the feeling of holy places. I was curious about the bells and whistles, the smells, the icons, and the chants. But what I wasn't prepared for at the start of production was the devotion. The humanness. The humility. The passion. The giving up of oneself to God. I wasn't prepared for the profound, limitless expression of faith I soon found in spiritual places around the world.

During two years of location production, I had the privilege of filming in some of the world's most sacred places. I was able to photograph and script eight productions including Machu Picchu in Peru, India's Taj Mahal, the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, India, the ancient Buddhist ruins of Burma, Tantric Buddhist practices in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the ancient ruins of Greece, the Anasazi temples of America's southwest, and the sacred practice of Vodou on the Caribbean island of Haiti.

Was I prepared for the travel, logistics that would challenge an insomniac, 115 degree heat, humidity that left my camera lenses fogged for hours, parasites that preyed on my guts for more than a year, pollution, unsafe transportation, the dangers of malaria and cockroaches in my soup? Yes. Was I prepared for dictatorship in Burma and anarchy in Haiti, red tape in India and rebellion in Peru? Yes. Odd as it may sound, these things are part of documentary filmmaking in the developing world and among the challenges that appeal to my colleagues and to me. What I wasn't prepared for was personal growth and change. I wasn't prepared for spiritual transformation. I wasn't prepared to find God.

Before the Mystic Lands project, my spiritual life had been limited to an Episcopalian childhood (mostly holidays), to reading Christian books by C.S. Lewis and the existential works of Sartre and Kafka, to late night discussions in the college dorm, and occasional meditation. The only holy book I'd ever read in its entirety was the Bahagedva Gita (*check spelling). I was, by my own definition, a sort of naturalist or theist. In other words, I simply followed the logic of nature with the intellectual assumption that "all this" must have come from "some thing." Beyond the recognition that a God of some kind must exist, it just didn't seem worth worrying about. I wasn't bored by the discussion of spiritual matters and I prided myself on being open-minded. But God was not an emotional part of me. And I certainly didn't feel any soulful connection to forces greater than those of earthly definition. That began to change with a visit to the Anasazi ruins of the desert southwest. I spent several days filming in Arizona's Canyon de Chelley, guided by a Navajo man named Leon Skyhorse and his mother, Marjorie Thomas. Marjorie was a tribal elder with what I can only describe as a sixth sense. She viewed the Anasazi ruins as a living force filled with sacred energy of "the ancient ones." The popular myth surrounding the Anasazi is that they somehow disappeared around A.D. 1200. However, both the Navajo and the Pueblo people of New Mexico believe the Anasazi simply migrated south to the Jemez and Rio Grande Rivers. But their spirit remained in places such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep and Canyon de Chelley.

Zuni elder Peter Pino believes that all of the Anasazi ruins were once a part of a great spiritual society, and that they remain sacred places today. According to Pino, "you can sit on the mesa top and just have a quiet moment to yourself, and you can sense the motion of the time when the community was occupied. You sense energy that goes beyond words and essentially, in order to feel what is happening there, you have to feel in the heart, and in mind, and in body."

Pino believes the legacy of the Anasazi is one of transcendence and of oneness with the natural world they worshipped as God. It was a grand legacy, and one I wanted to experience. During two weeks of filming the ruins of the Anasazi, I spent several hours alone in meditation or simply sitting, watching, and feeling myself grounded to the rich brown earth around me. I opened myself to experiencing the energy the elders believed could be felt there. Maybe it's because I was open to it, maybe it's because I took the time to listen with more than my ears, but while sitting on the cliffs of Chaco Canyon, I felt a powerful presence. It was discernable as nothing more than energy. The earth didn't move. I didn't levitate or fly. But I very simply felt, for the first time, that a force greater than me, a force greater than humanity, existed. And that moment set the course for the experiences that followed.

An Andean shaman named Victor Estrada helped me explore the ruins of Machu Picchu with more than my eyes. He taught me how to look within and to open myself to sacred energy.

I researched the Islamic view of heaven at the Taj Mahal and witnessed Hindu cremations at the funeral pyres along Varanasi's River Ganges.

The sacred practices of Tantric Buddhism in Bhutan's Paro Valley and the quiet, meditative beauty of Theravada Buddhism at Burma's Sagaing Monastery helped to slow my pace and to ground me in this world.

At the ancient sites of Delphi, Corinth and the island of Patmos, I chronicled the Greek transition from paganism into one of the world's most devout Christian societies. I felt the powerful words of the Apostle Paul in ways I'd never before imagined myself capable.

And on the Caribbean island of Haiti, I had my head and my heart opened to the sacred practice of Vodou - a beautiful yet often misunderstood faith that mixes the beliefs of west African slaves and the French landowners who brought them to Haiti more than three hundred years ago.

It was a time of transition, of grounding, and of purpose. It was a time of privilege that opened me not just to God, but to the powerful, beautiful impact that history and culture have on the spiritual beliefs we feel and we follow.

For as long as humans have maintained a belief in God and in religious and spiritual practice, misunderstanding and persecution have been at the forefront of our world's disharmony. Today, our religious differences often signal conflict, and passions based on ignorance fuel the fire. As I write this, I'm relatively certain that somewhere in this newspaper there will appear a story of conflict based on religious beliefs.

During the production of Mystic Lands and in the spiritual work I've done since, I've been deeply touched by the one thing I now share with religious followers worldwide. I now believe in God and in the spirit that makes life sacred.

While I'd always waited for that one defining moment when the spirit would arrive, it didn't happen that way for me. It happened over time. It happened because I learned to allow the experience to settle in. And God made the experience grand. God created images to be photographed in the moment. God created a presence in me to photograph them regardless of my emotional state or the relative nature of my belief.

I still see it all, I still see the all within it. Sheets of rain gleaming with a rainbow on the horizon of Arizona's desert. A rattle snake sliding into the ruins of Chaco Canyon. Fog shrouded ruins at Machu Picchu. The tireless faces of Hindu worshippers on the shore of the River Ganges, dripping sacred water onto outstretched tongues. The Taj Mahal cloaked on a misty morning. Amber light reflecting off the dome of Schwedagon Pagoda on a steamy night in Rangoon, lighting the cheeks of young girls worshipping. A young mother, possessed by the Vodou spirit of Damballah, squirming along a cement floor in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

I didn't create these images. I witnessed them. And in them I saw the spirit of God that unites us, the spirit that unites the faithful around the world. It's a spirit that transcends religion. As uncomplicated as it may sound, the energy is universal, loving and without judgment.

For me, it is beauty, an irresistible beauty I failed to see until I opened my eyes and my heart and allowed for its simplicity. Nature. The roller coaster of the human condition. The unexpected circumstance of life. I'm frequently reminded of the many questions we encountered throughout the production. Viewers, friends, colleagues, the network -- we all had questions when it came to God, religion, and the spirit world.

"Christianity versus Judaism? Why do Muslims pray toward Mecca five times a day? Don't Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the Old Testament? How can the Hindu believe in 300 million gods? Didn't the Inca eat their babies? How can anybody spin a prayer wheel all day long -- and for that matter, why? What's with that voodoo-zombie thing in Haiti? Weren't the Anasazi taken away by aliens?"

We heard them all. Some questions may have seemed ridiculous at the time, but all were relevant then and all remain relevant today. Many have no answer. Some answers are contradictory, some lost in untold history. And all are part of the mystery. Of course, the sacred locations are easy to talk about because they exist. Many have a cultural, political and spiritual history that lends itself to anthropological and archeological exploration. In others, colorful, entertaining and thought provoking religious practices are still performed every day. Anyone can go, anyone can see, anyone can study, anyone can feel. But the discovery of faith is part of an individual journey down a path of our own making. To simply say that God exists within is not an answer for anyone. Religious or spiritual dictates rarely convert or transform anyone. The process of discovery and coming to a knowing of God is a deeply personal one.

Though I'd been exposed to Christianity throughout my life, I went into our production without a preconceived notion that any one religion was right or wrong. I believed both then and now that as much as religion has to do with one's personal choices about God, it also has to do with geography, culture, education, politics and money.

Even today, as I continue down my own path, the teachings of Jesus Christ are familiar to me much the way Hinduism would be familiar had I grown up in India. I grew up with Christianity and it continues to surround me. While I've never understood the denominational battles fought by Christians, the idea of "Mere Christianity" as put forth by C.S. Lewis makes sense to me. The power of positive thinking, the belief in the powerful goodness of God as put forth by Norman Vincent Peale makes sense to me. The search for enlightenment through the practice of our own good deeds as put forth by Buddha makes sense to me. An Inca farmer thanking his Gods for rainfall and sunshine makes sense to me. Virtually every religion in the world has God, goodness, and morality at its center.

Culture, politics, history and money influence religion and impact our choices. Because of my experience, my truth -- as I understand it now -- is that I am a hybrid of belief. I've seen too much joy and beauty in all faiths not to cherish them for their uniqueness, their strengths, their virtues and their truth.

The work I did with Victor Estrada, the Andean shaman, helped me feel connected to God in ways no religious practice had before. Like Victor, I don't believe that any one religion holds all the answers and the convergence of my Christian beliefs with various spiritual practices is not a contradiction to me. Rather, it is part of my process.

Regardless of where my path leads, I go there with a universal faith in God. I accept the truth around me. The truth of nature. The truth of human character and behavior. The truth of love, charity and kindness. These are not things we created and no matter which spiritual practice any of us may choose to follow, the acceptance of and belief in God is fundamental to all religions. It takes very little travel and very little experience to discover that we are much more similar than we are different. The values of love and family supercede all that divides us. Goodness is universal. In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics both love their families. Both attend church. Both believe in the teachings of Christ. Their problems are about politics, not faith. In America, when Christians, Jews, and Muslims make their prayers, they're heard by the same God who hears the whispering wind through a prayer flag in Bhutan.

Peace lies in acceptance, not of our differences, but of our similarities.

There are places that are sacred, places that resonate and vibrate with a timeless energy, an energy that comes from nature and wildlife, an energy that comes from the human presence both past and present. It can be found in the great spiritual places of the world -- Machu Picchu, Bali, Jerusalem, Varanasi, Haiti, Mecca, the Taj Mahal -- but the truth is that the spiritual world surrounds us and is as present on the streets of Milwaukee, Bangkok, Moscow or Capetown as it is in Chaco Canyon.

It's up to us to find it, to recognize it, and to learn to cherish the gifts that God provides us each day, everywhere. A spiritual life and the happiness it brings is not about living in the darkness, it's about choosing to live in the light. It's not about wanting more possessions, it's about freeing ourselves of want. It's not about violence, hatred, war, hunger, poverty or injustice. It's about wiping away a child's tear, extending a hand, listening, smiling, and showing up.

 


Is ANWR Worth Saving? by Chip Duncan

Sixty-six year old Trimble Gilbert raised his arms like a fiery evangelist. He had something to say. An Episcopalian priest, Gilbert preached his Christmas Eve sermon to a semi-interested flock of 63 people, better than half the folks in Arctic Village, Alaska.

A member of the Gwich'in tribe of Alaska natives, Gilbert has been the priest here since 1974. Just an hour earlier, he'd arrived for the 8 p.m. service at about 8:15. Only my friend Mike Speaks and I had been on time. We'd already stoked the wood stove and made sure the oil heater was on set on high. Gilbert arrived smiling, wished us a "Merry Christmas," turned on the holiday icicle lights that dangled from the log-walled exterior, and said "I guess it's about time to get this going." He took nine long pulls on the mountaineering rope that rang the church bell. Like most of the 125 year-round residents of Arctic Village, Gilbert runs on what he calls "Indian time." The service would start as soon as folks arrived.

I moved outside and watched as the village main street filled with snowmobiles (the locals call them snow-goes or snow machines, but never snowmobiles - that's a dead giveaway that "you're not from around here"). As young boys threw snowballs barehanded, stocky women in fur hats and teenagers wearing the latest Oakland Raiders team jackets filed inside. The temperature was a balmy 25 degrees below zero, slightly above normal for this time of year.

How did I get here? Why choose Arctic Village, Alaska as a place to spend the Christmas holiday? Why voluntarily go anywhere that's known for sub-zero cold and a midday noteworthy for darkness?

This story begins six months earlier with a documentary film assignment in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, often referred to as ANWR (pronounced ann-waar). After years as a documentary filmmaker that included several productions in Alaska, I finally had the chance to journey beyond the tourist haunts of Denali, Glacier Bay and the Lynn Canal and into the "real" Alaskan wilderness to create the third segment in an adventure film called Rafting Alaska's Wildest Rivers. Along with adventure guides Julie Munger, Mike Speaks, Russ Lyman, my associate Bob Huck, and seven commercial passengers, we left Fairbanks on June 12th and headed to the source of a relatively unknown river called the Kongakut. Only about 100 people raft the Kongakut each summer, and when they do, they do it in June. It's the one time of year when the river is free of the two biggest obstacles to safe and enjoyable passage - ice and mosquitoes.

The Kongakut River is among the wildest rivers in North America - but not because of whitewater. The Kongakut runs through what may be the most pristine wilderness left on earth. It's an eerie-yet-beautiful landscape of tundra laden hillsides and vast plains of knee-deep permafrost bogs. From its source in the Brooks Range, the Kongakut flows north into the Arctic Ocean. It courses through what may be the most controversial land mass in the United States - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the annual breeding ground for approximately 125,000 Porcupine Caribou.

How controversial is ANWR? Just ask your local environmentalist or oil company neighbor. Many oil company experts, geologists and politicians believe this oil-rich, 19 million acre refuge could someday pump as many as one million barrels of crude oil per day for as long as … well, no one knows for sure. Estimates range between 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil, enough to significantly impact America's reliance on foreign oil. Not bad for a country that imports more than 55% of its petroleum yet remains hell-bent on 12 mile-per-gallon 4x4's and the fossil fuel it takes to power them. Heck, even my tidy little Nissan Pathfinder gets only 20 miles per gallon on a good day, an appallingly small number for those of us who lived through the energy crisis of the 70's. Has there been progress on the conservation front? Not much. Yet many environmentalists argue that America could offset the need for new Alaskan oil by simply adding a mere 3 miles more per gallon to the cars we drive.

For Americans accustomed to cheap gas on demand, conservation remains a tough pill to swallow. And the new administration of President George W. Bush is pushing hard for development of ANWR. Solution? Let's pop a few hundred burly rigs into the permafrost, pave a haul road through those impassable mountains, install a pipeline, build a system to flush all that nasty, briny by-product into the Arctic Ocean and go! After all, we did it just west of here back in the 70's. And the environmental standards and procedures of the oil companies have improved dramatically. But hold on all you Texans out there. This is Alaska. The last great wilderness. The last great frontier. A hunter's paradise. A hermit's delight. A tourist's Mecca. A place where hippie-earth-loving-tree-hugging-vegetarians live in harmony with dispossessed - NRA - loving - moose - hunting - rednecks, adventure aficionados (and wannabes), cruise ships full of card carrying AARP members and coastal villages filled with eco-tourism entrepreneurs. No issue in recent memory does more to define Alaska and America's environmental direction for the future than the battle over ANWR. But guess what: Nearly 75% of all Alaskans are in favor of development! Even Democratic Governor Tony Knowles seems anxious to kick some gas and oil butt up in that arctic wilderness.

So up to Alaska I go, camera in hand, seeking a wee bit of adventure, isolation, beauty and the knowledge that comes from first hand experience. As a fair-minded documentary filmmaker who walks the fence on most issues, I'm looking for the truth.

We depart Fairbanks on a 12-seat Cessna Caravan, the Wright Air flight to Arctic Village, Alaska. I've been told that Arctic Village is little more than a dirt airstrip with a few houses nearby, and that once I get there, I should track down a Gwich'in woman named Sarah James. Though an interview with Sarah wasn't essential to our film, she was portrayed to me as a local expert on the refuge and on the Indian rights that surround it. Her perspective, I thought, could be a good one, and we had to go through Arctic Village anyway. I'd made several calls to Sarah before leaving Fairbanks but my only proof of her existence was a slow but steady voice suggesting that I leave a message on the recorder. I'm not one for long explanations to a machine, but on the last call I said something like "I'm a filmmaker from the lower 48 doing a story up in the refuge. I'd like to chat with you about the caribou migration, maybe get your insights into the ANWR debate. I'm flying through there tomorrow around 11 a.m." Did I mention that I only had about a half hour layover while we transferred our gear into small bush planes? I don't remember. During the flight in, I could see that the tiny village of square, one-story log homes was actually a good mile from the airstrip. I wouldn't have time to walk there. I was on the ground long enough to swallow my share of dust from the gravel runway and swat a few mosquitoes, but there was no sign of Sarah.

We left in a Cessna 185, loaded to the max with waterproof camera cases, sleeping bags, tents, packs and rafts. Before the day was over, pilot Don Ross made seven trips of the roughly 100 mile stretch between Arctic Village and the icy source of the Kongakut. Then, loaded into three 14 foot Avon rubber rafts, our group of 12 departed on the 10 day trip toward the Arctic Ocean. What began as a quick, majestic, almost mind-blowing passage through the 6,000 to 10,000 foot snowy peaks of the Brooks Range, soon turned in to a peaceful, even pastoral float past balding, eroded foothills of permafrost, willows, and tundra flecked with a rainbow of thumbnail-sized wildflowers.

We took the Kongakut slowly and spent hours each day trekking the hillsides and scaling the nameless peaks that surrounded us. Unlike most adrenaline-powered river trips, we used the rafts mainly to transport our equipment and food from campsite to campsite. Our only real danger was the 34 degree water and the ever-changing weather systems, neither of which proved a problem to our small expedition.

When I polled the group for their impressions following a long hike or a robust paddle, I was told that words failed to describe the experience. Yes, it's majestic. And we were all aware of the isolation and escape from the pace of life in the lower 48. But it was more than that. Our voyage through ANWR freed each of us to explore the great spirit of wilderness and the powerful impact pristine nature has on our own sacred place within it. Even after years of trekking the Rockies, the Himalayas, and the Andes, it was the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that gave me my first real understanding about that which Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and others had so eloquently written. This was a land that pulsated with a quiet, natural rhythm. There were no roads, no airplanes, no motors, no gawky antennae or satellite dishes on the mountaintops. Slowly, as I opened myself to the natural world around me, I became one with that rhythm. I have never felt more grounded, safe or in sync with the Earth. I have never known greater faith.

During the brief summer, the smooth slopes of the Kongakut River valley are draped in various shades of green vegetation - twisted tundra grasses, willow, alder and moss-covered rocks. The vast horizon, which in places spreads beyond our view in every direction, was peppered with a virtually endless stream of broken clouds. At times they would come from the north, driven by cool winds off the ice shield. At other times, they would cling to the mountain peaks, slowed by inversions of hot and cold air. And the ever-present arctic sun created a kind of sleepless confusion that was almost intoxicating. Our trip through ANWR was timed for the summer solstice - 24 hour sun - and the precious display of magic hour light that glided along the horizon for hours each day. Blue skies up river became bluer, storm clouds to the east loomed darker, and the low, golden rays brushed the green slopes onto a burnt, yellow canvas. Though I've traveled extensively, there is an energy here I have never felt before. It's as if the land knows its own power, the power of its extremes, the power to transform, endlessly. And the short window that allowed our visit was a gift from nature herself. The month of June is like the eye of the storm and we all shared in the privilege offered by this brief glimpse within.

But ANWR and the Kongakut River offer much more than beauty. Our encounters with wildlife became so regular and abundant that they reminded me of Yellowstone, Glacier or Rocky Mountain National Parks. On day two, a wolverine and a small herd of Dall sheep moved within a few feet of our group. Snowshoe hares darted around the campsite and a grizzly loped along a hillside no more than an eighth of a mile from camp. Julie Munger was the only one among us who's been here before and she reminded us that "this is only the beginning." The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, we are told, is often called Alaska's Serengeti, a reference to Africa's famed wildlife refuge. The name fits.

As the trip progressed, the abundance of wildlife, fish and bird life was a constant source of wonder. Much of our excitement, however, surrounded the small herds of Porcupine Caribou we'd heard so much about. By day five we'd seen hundreds of free-roaming caribou heading north and west, usually in groups of 10 to 20. At times they moved in single file along hard-packed trails they'd cut through the tundra on their annual migration, trails that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years. At other times, they spread out and grazed the wide open fields of mosses, wildflowers and willows. But rarely, if ever, did a caribou stand still. A majestic creature made more so by the rack of antlers we've all come to know through illustrations of Dasher, Dancer, Donner and Bliztzen, the caribou frequently moves at a trot, as if prancing its way through the wilderness. The rack is common for both male and female caribou, and their long legs make movement easier in the deep snows of winter.

On day six of our journey, after passing through a small chute of class three rapids, several caribou crossed river a few hundred yards ahead. Speaks is always quick with his binoculars, but this time, he said, it was "just a herd of about 20 making its way toward the ridge to the west." Sightings of small herds had not lost their grandeur, but they had become more commonplace.

We made camp at the confluence of two enormous river valleys on a wide open plateau of grassland. As I set up my tent for the night, two adult caribou grazed fewer than 100 yards away, accenting a mountain view that has few rivals. I sat watching for several minutes, grateful for the silence, grateful for the feeling of privilege the journey and the wildlife were providing. Unlike most river trips, I had the sense that the journey down river was moving us toward something - not just a takeout - but something I couldn't quite put my finger on. A sacred place, perhaps. A place where time has no impact or consequence. A birth place.

Shortly after our departure the next morning, we paddled round a quick bend in the river along cut banks of snow and gravel. Then, as the river opened up, we witnessed a sight that equals any wildlife phenomenon on the planet. A herd of close to 1,000 caribou had forded the river and was making its way slowly up a narrow canyon. Everyone quietly sneaked their cameras from day packs, and shutters began to clip open and closed. Munger carefully steered our three rafts toward a 12 foot bank along the west side of the river. We wrapped our lead lines around rocks to hold the rafts in place. Then, like predators, we scaled the bank on our stomachs, inching forward to watch the caribou move. It took several minutes for the last of the caribou to pass beyond our view.

In an interview a few hours later, Boston-based sculptor Peter Haines described the sighting. "I'm still taking it in," he said. "It's like being in Eden. As a friend of mine would say, 'Good work God.' I mean, it's humbling. And also good work God in the sense of making us an aesthetic being that can respond to this."

Haines and his 17 year old daughter Pendry also were witness to a sighting the next day that continues to define our experience. Just a few feet beyond our campsite, Bob Huck and I were doing an interview with Julie Munger for the documentary. Suddenly, a hushed whisper came from Speaks. As we popped our heads above the waist deep willows, we saw roughly 50 caribou wandering directly through camp! I swung the camera around and, for the next few minutes, all twelve of us watched in silence as the curious but unflappable herd passed by, walking within 20 feet of our tents. No cars. No phones. No machinery. No pollution. No people. We were surrounded by nothing but the wild things God had put before us. It was, for me, the most primitive, sacred experience I've ever had in wilderness.

During our final two days on the Kongakut, we paddled deep into the river delta that braids out toward the Arctic Ocean. At a juncture called Caribou Pass on the east side of the river, we pulled our boats up for the take-out. There's a small, make-shift gravel runway there that bush planes use to ferry the few passengers and photographers that make their way to the pass each year for the caribou migration. Ironically, Caribou Pass, often the scene of a massive migration numbering in the tens of thousands, was relatively quiet during our visit. Acclaimed wildlife photographers Tom Walker and Dan Cox were camped a few hundred yards from the runway along with two photographers from Japan and two from "somewhere in Europe." Thus far, Walker and Cox had "spotted only a few caribou here and there." Walker, who makes the trip here annually, believed the massive herd would be through Caribou Pass within days.

We spent June 21st, our last day of the trip, climbing a roughly 4,000 foot unnamed peak to the north of Caribou Pass. A challenging trek through knee deep tundra that required several hours, the end result silenced everyone. With a view of 360 degrees, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge spread out before us. To the south, the snow capped peaks of the Brooks Range were bathed in the golden light of summer solstice. To the east, a seemingly endless ripple of balding brown hillsides was blanketed under charcoal gray skies. To the north, the icy white shield of the Beaufort Sea trailed off into the Arctic Ocean. And to the west, perhaps the greatest vista of all - a low arching ball of fire played off the vast, open, uninhabited plains, the summer birthplace of the Porcupine Caribou. It was as if the journey had brought us into the womb of mother nature.

As I sat in the cold wind that blew off the icy shelf to the north, I couldn't help but wonder, is a caribou breeding ground enough to save ANWR from oil and natural gas development? In an overpopulated world with a constant need for energy and natural resources, is it arrogant to value ANWR more than the needs of people desperate to pay their home heating bills? Or is preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge more important than the need for the temporary, short-term fix many environmentalists say the refuge will provide? Can development be handled in an environmentally sound manner with little long-term impact? Or will the Porcupine Caribou go the way of the 19th century buffalo as the land on which it has bred for 10,000 years rolls up under the power of a bulldozer?

Without answers, I made the two hour trek back by scaling the western edge of the mountain. On the flight out the next day, I asked Don Ross to fly me over the near-permanent icy shield that butts against the delta of the Kongakut. It was the first frozen ocean I have ever seen. As we looped around to head back toward Arctic Village, we passed over the mountain we'd hiked a day earlier. Three musk ox grazed near the summit, the first we'd seen of the 200 or so that live within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When I arrived in Arctic Village an hour later, Bob Huck and I began unloading our camera gear and duffel bags onto the dusty airstrip. During our time away, something dramatic had changed here…the summer mosquito had arrived. And it lived up to its reputation. Desperate for help, we dug through our day packs for repellent while swatting ourselves in what must have been an hilarious pantomime. Like a dancer without rhythm, I turned quickly toward the sound of a rumbling four-wheeler that tooled up the trail in a cloud of dust. Sarah James had arrived!

"Typical Alaska," I think, as I bounce along on the hard metal luggage rack on the back of Sarah James's four-wheeler. The temperature has dropped a good 10 degrees in five minutes, there's a full rainbow arching across the balding peaks to the east, raindrops the size of Midwest Junebugs are hitting me hard in the face, and I'm grinning that wide grin I always get when I realize that life just opened up an interesting new door. I love this place.

Sarah lives in a one-room log home situated on the highest hill in town. The storybook view goes unnoticed by Sarah as she climbs off the four-wheeler. I do my best to take it in while swatting the 40 or 50 mosquitoes that find me as soon as I'm off the bike. Wham. Swat. I whisper a mouthful of obscenities before remembering that I'm not alone. Oops. Sarah invites me inside for coffee. Thank God.

I'd first heard about Sarah from an Alaskan wilderness guide named Joe Ordonez. Joe described Sarah as a committed environmentalist fighting to save ANWR from development by oil and natural gas companies. In June, 2000 development of the refuge was an issue - not a big issue, just one of many environmental issues facing the average American. Still, I wanted to include Sarah's perspective in the documentary.

I sat down on Sarah's small couch across from the barrel-shaped wood stove. We chatted about her people, the Gwich'in, and about the annual caribou migration. She was interested in how many caribou I'd seen and wanted to know "what it like up there?" While I'd flown thousands of miles to get to the Kongakut River, Sarah had never been north of the Brooks Range (*see map inset). She'd never seen the breeding grounds on the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean that the caribou had been using for thousands of years, a breeding ground that sits smack dab on top of the largest untapped oil and natural gas reserve in the United States.

We chatted for about an hour, then did an on-camera interview for the documentary in which Sarah talked at length about the long history the Gwich'in share with the caribou.

"They are our food," said Sarah. "We do caribou dances and we do caribou songs, they are everything to us. They are part of our language, related to it, our lifestyle, they're related to it. We're caribou people."

When Sarah mentioned that the caribou were "sacred," I took the leap. As a filmmaker, I'd produced numerous hours of television on spiritual subjects, so the idea of a sacred animal roused my attention. Though I'd expected to go down a more animistic road, I probed enough to find out that many of the Gwich'in of Arctic Village were practicing Episcopalians. In fact, the small log church was visible from Sarah's hillside.

"Why Episcopalians?" I asked.

"I don't know," said Sarah. "I guess they were just the first ones to show up here."

Since I'd just experienced the summer solstice (24 hours of daylight), I asked Sarah about the winter solstice. After all, she was the first year-round resident of the Arctic Circle I'd ever met. Beyond dark and cold, what could it be like? According to Sarah, the Northern Lights were beautiful and the Christmas holiday was a time of great celebration. There was even a "Caribou Feast" and a kind of festival-like atmosphere in which the local people celebrated with caribou dances and caribou song. As a single guy with no kids, I thought "why not?" Why not spend Christmas in the Arctic Circle? There'd be Northern Lights. I could leave the cold and snow of my Wisconsin home behind and experience the real thing. Plus, I'd have a chance to spend Christmas away from the commercial pace of the lower 48. So, Christmas with the Gwich'in!

In the six months between the summer and winter solstice, an amazing thing happened. Oil and natural gas development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge became the biggest environmental story in decades. George W. Bush made it a campaign issue, one that sharply divided the two candidates. And following the long debate over who actually won the presidency, now- President Bush continues to lead the fight for development. For those who follow such things, the number of e-mails flying around among traditional democratic voters and environmentalists on the subject of ANWR has been breathtaking. Until mid-January, 2001 each exclaimed something to the effect of "Call or write the White House and tell President Clinton to make it a national monument." While Clinton's last few weeks did include the naming of numerous environmental hot-spots as national monuments, ANWR was not among them. Now, other than the pro-choice issue, a potential tax cut debate and the McCain-Fiengold battle over campaign finance reform, ANWR is the hottest issue going.

So, lucky me. I'd been to ANWR in June, filmed the migration of the Porcupine Caribou and now, in the heat of the debate, I was headed back to Arctic Village for Christmas. What I'd thought might be a chance to document the spiritual life of the Gwich'in became something quite different. Yes, I would still focus on the spiritual and cultural aspects of the people of Arctic Village; however, the environmental debate, in which the Gwich'in now find themselves in the middle, would take center stage.

On the way north, I stopped near Denali National Park to visit Mike Speaks at his log cabin on Deniki Lake. Mike had journeyed with me to ANWR six months earlier and just a few weeks before my December arrival, we'd hiked the Inca Trail together down in Peru. I couldn't imagine that Mike would want to join me in Arctic Village. He'd been on the road most of the year and he cherished his time in Denali. But Mike suffers from the same disease I have - curiosity.

"You know, there's not much snow here," said Mike, each word hanging on his Alabama drawl. "And the weather is warmer than usual. I can't even get my snow machine out to the mountains to ski."

I shared his lament. Even though the lake behind his log cabin had been frozen solid since October, grass was popping through the scattered piles of snow. Things just weren't quite right. Nothing to plow. No need for chopping wood hour after hour.

"Let's go for it," I said. "It'll be cold, dark, and lonely. We won't know a soul up there. The weather will be forbidding, there's no general store, no cars, no hotels, and … well, you get the picture."

Mike and I took the Warbelow Air flight from Fairbanks to Arctic Village on Dec. 21st, the winter solstice. The eight seat, twin prop plane took off at 9:15 a.m. in total darkness with four passengers and a heavy load of boxes, mail, film gear and our supplies. Two folks got off an hour later during a stop at Fort Yukon. Mike and I were the only passengers headed to Arctic Village. An hour later, we arrived in the dim twilight of the arctic day. It was 11 a.m.

As we walked down the ladder to the snowy tarmac, a gust of sub-zero wind blew my fleece hat sideways. I pulled the flaps down and zipped my jacket up around my face, then turned back to help unload the plane. The pilot's routine here was a simple one - pass the luggage off as quickly as possible and go. We built a small pile of equipment cases and duffel bags next to cardboard boxes of Christmas mail and, surprisingly, a P.A. system that had been shipped in from Fairbanks.

"Looks like there's gonna be a dance," said Speaks.

"Yep, Sarah says they hold a Caribou dance," I replied. "Supposedly on Christmas night. Plus lots of fiddle playing."

As we were stacking up the bags, two snow machines pulling wooden sleds came up the same road I'd been down on Sarah's four-wheeler six months earlier. But these guys were leaving a spray of powdery snow instead of dust. Though I'd expected to see Sarah smiling from under one of the two fur hats, we were greeted by two older men who introduced themselves simply as "Trimble" and "Moses." Despite the cold, both men removed their fur mittens to shake hands when introducing themselves. We loaded our gear onto the sleds and headed to our home for the next week - a red, two room schoolhouse with a half court gymnasium and a small kitchen. Sarah had arranged for us to sleep on the floor there since the kids were out of school for Christmas.

After unloading, we set off across the village to meet Sarah. It turned out her snow machine wasn't working, so she was spending her time at home. I'd tried to rent one before arriving but there were none available. Though folks can and do walk the village, it is fairly spread out across roughly two square miles. We walked the half mile to Sarah's house, remarking about our good fortune. The temperature was hovering around zero and the snow covered mountains around us were framed by the softest pastel colors I'd ever seen. Though the sun never rose above the horizon, it did cast a daily glow that lasted from about 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For those few hours, we enjoyed an eerie yet beautiful dusk.

Sarah and I picked up right where we'd left off - the debate over ANWR. The stakes had been raised considerably since my last visit, and so had her passion for the issue. We chatted about Christmas, about who might be open to meeting with us for an interview, and about what kinds of winter activities were going on around the village. Gale Tritt was making some traditional necklaces, Charlie Sweeney was bringing in a caribou he'd just shot, and Sarah had heard that somebody had some fish nets under the ice of one of the surrounding lakes. But mostly, we were told, folks were getting ready for Christmas. There was, it seemed, plenty to keep us occupied. But just in case, I'd brought along a copy of Atlas Shrugged - the thickest book I owned and something I'd always thought I should read when I had the time.

Long hours of darkness are particularly good for sleeping in, even on the hard floor of a school classroom. Mike and I settled into a routine that started with breakfast at 9. And by 9:30, the first snow-go of the day could be heard passing by just outside the window. Daily life was getting underway.

From the solstice to Christmas Eve day, we spent our time meeting people when we could, and photographing scenic shots of the village when no one was available. At Sarah's urging, we started by interviewing her uncle, the local Episcopalian priest. A respected elder named Trimble Gilbert, he was, in these parts, a man for all seasons. Trimble was a regular at the airstrip for each morning's flight. He was active in community leadership and had been playing fiddle at dances across northern Alaska for years. An opponent of oil and gas development in ANWR, Trimble said he was leaving that fight to others such as Sarah. His focus was on helping people through his ministry and working to re-establish a more traditional lifestyle in Arctic Village.

Shawn Martinez was a different story. An eager, positive man in his late 20s, Shawn did what so few Gwich'in have done before - he went away to college, then choose to return to help his people. He was among the most admired people in the village. While working as the Secretary of the Tribal Council, Shawn was doing all he could to support the elder's call for traditional values while still pushing Arctic Village into the 21st century. He'd worked hard to bring in the Internet and to computerize the ways in which the council was doing business with the outside world. Shawn was also the first person in Arctic Village to own a DVD player and to start a library of movies that had become a local treasure. While opposed to development of ANWR, Shawn's focus was clearly on the social and educational issues facing his tribe.

We also spent time with Kias Peter, a community elder and the step brother of Trimble Gilbert. A sprightly man of about 70, Kias showed off his smokehouse for drying caribou meat. He showed us how he used to use his hand saw for prepping wood for the fire, then grinned as he replaced it with the buzz of a chain saw. He hopped around excitedly on his hand-made snowshoes, showing us how, as a boy, he would chase caribou through the forests. But even Kias confided that snowshoes had gone the way of many other things from the Gwich'in past. With snow-goes around, who needs 'em?

Many of the traditional values that Gwich'in tribal elders long to bring back are related to their history as a nomadic people. Their reputation as the "caribou people" stems from their reliance on caribou for nearly every aspect of their lives including food, clothing, and a spiritual connection to nature. Ancestors to the Navajo of the desert southwest, the Gwich'in (considered part of the larger Athabascan community) followed the migration of the caribou for thousands of years. While ancestors to today's Navajo headed south approximately 500-600 years ago, the Gwich'in remained in the northern part of Alaska and northwestern Canada. They maintained their nomadic lifestyle and followed the migrations of the Porcupine Caribou into the 20th century.

While the Gwich'in continue to rely on caribou for food, hides, and many of their cultural traditions, they are no longer able to follow the herd as they did in the past. Federal and state laws and the need to educate their children have limited their ability to track the herd beyond a short radius surrounding Arctic Village. As much as I'd hoped to be able to join a hunting party to bring one in for the Christmas feast, it wasn't going to happen. The buzz around the village was that the caribou simply weren't around. Even the one Charley Sweeney had bagged a few days earlier seemed an anomaly. They were "somewhere else this year," according to Sarah. "Nobody knows where."

Though my observations may be superficial based on the limited time I spent in Arctic Village, the Gwich'in, like so many Native American tribes, seemed to me to be a culture trapped between a rock and hard place. Thanks to federal funding, the small schoolhouse in which Mike and I were staying was loaded with iMac computers, and internet access took only seconds. The school had satellite T.V. and VCR's for classroom education. There may be no roads to Arctic Village, but staying in touch with the outside world proved a simple task. And the outside world can be tempting to young people. Many of the Gwich'in teenagers we met wore the latest in Oakland Raider's team jackets and hats. The children were up to speed on everything from Barney to Nintendo. The challenge for Gwich'in elders is maintaining a traditional, largely subsistence lifestyle while dealing with the temptations of the media driven society that has found its way into their homes. It's a challenge that distracts many Gwich'in from the ANWR debate … even though the cultural and environmental issues are, in both obvious and subtle ways, closely linked.

As Mike and I were walking past the one room post office at about 5 p.m. on December 23rd, a group of eight boys were playing football on the only lighted parking lot in the village (Who but the federal government would put a parking lot in a village without cars, then leave it lighted 24 hours per day?). As the boys dove, tackled and chided each other like any kid from Seattle to New York City, a man in a fur hat stopped near us to ask what we were doing. "Are you surveyors?" he asked (I was carrying a tripod). "Nope," I replied. "We're documentary filmmakers." The discussion that followed ended with an invitation to interview Lincoln Tritt the next day.

Christmas Eve day in Arctic Village started like any other Sunday. Many of the locals were in front of the t.v. for the 9 a.m. NFL game of the week. I was too. But by noon, after the Green Bay Packers playoff hopes had dimmed, we headed out to interview Lincoln Tritt. He was staying at his sister's house, a slightly-more-upscale log home on the northeast edge of town. The thermometer hanging outside the door (the only one we ever saw) showed 28 degrees below zero.

A fifty-something Vietnam veteran, Lincoln has a reputation as a writer, lecturer and environmentalist. I'd be inclined to add "philosopher" to the list. Lincoln spoke eloquently about the need to return to traditional values. But like his cousin, Sarah James, Lincoln also spoke passionately about the need to fight development of ANWR. Perhaps more than anyone else we met, Lincoln saw development as an enemy of the Gwich'in. It would, he believed, destroy the culture and traditions he was fighting to protect. For Lincoln, the issue went much further than the breeding needs of the caribou. It went to the soul of his people and their ability to sustain a lifestyle that had survived in these parts for thousands of years.

Before we left, Lincoln asked me a question. "Why is it that you white people down there don't believe us when we talk about global warming? We live here. We see it, we live it. Heck, there was water - not ice - water, water at the North Pole this summer. Does that seem normal to you?" Lincoln went on to suggest that excessive drilling of oil could be contributing to global warming. "Doesn't it make sense," he said, "that oil is like a coolant for the earth?" Even though my geologist friends might think me a bit nuts, I had to admit that it made some sense. Pulling all that oil out had to have some consequences. But I didn't have any answers for Lincoln. Because at the core of Lincoln's question was a bigger one I'd been asking myself for nearly a decade: "why don't we listen to indigenous people, especially when it relates to their oral histories and observations of the natural world?" After years of making films featuring various religions and cultures, I remain mystified by all we overlook, deny and disclaim based on the value we place on science, technology and industry. Yet for those who've traveled with me and among the women and men I've met along the way, wisdom and understanding seem most clearly obtained by those who are closest to the natural world. Both Lincoln and Sarah are grounded in the natural world.

During the course of the day, we'd been checking in regularly with various folks we'd met regarding the time of the Christmas Eve service. We heard estimates ranging from 6 to 10 p.m. But Sarah finally assured us it would begin at 8 p.m. She invited us for a Christmas Eve dinner at her house, a meal that included caribou soup made with bones and meat she's been given by Charlie Sweeney. Sarah also made "fry bread," a treat she'd picked up on her visits to the Navajo reservation in Arizona. When I asked her whether the tradition of fry bread had begun with the Gwich'in, she said "no. No flour in Alaska." (Duh. Typical white man question).

The dinner was excellent. We left Sarah to finish decorating her tree and headed to the church. It was the first service I'd ever attended with a Native American priest. Of the 63 people in attendance, there were only seven men. I saw Lincoln Tritt and Kias Peter. Trimble gave a sermon about the need to listen. Just that simple: listen. It wasn't the classic sermon about the birth of Christ I'd anticipated. And most of the kids weren't listening. But Trimble gave the sermon with heart. He also led the congregation in song including several classic Christmas carols sung in Gwich'in. I did notice that while most of the adults sang along, most of the children had trouble following the words.

About an hour after the service, Santa Claus made an appearance at the community center. Like children everywhere, the youngest citizens of Arctic Village were in awe. The only difference that I noticed from life back home was that no one made too big a deal of the reindeer. After all, Santa lives just a few miles to the north and caribou, a.k.a. reindeer, are a big part of everyone's daily life.

Christmas Day in the village started with a village breakfast at the community center. By 11 a.m., most folks had dropped by the center, exchanged holiday greetings, and headed home for some quiet time with family. Mike and I headed back to the school, played our 100th game of horse in the small gymnasium, then received a visit from a local man who "wanted to set us straight on a few things." He had opinions about everything including the folks we'd interviewed, the limited gene pool of Arctic Village, the need to develop tourism, Indian hunting and fishing rights, the lack of local law enforcement, the need for education, and the problems plaguing the village government. But the fight to save ANWR wasn't interesting to him. "Yeah," he said. "They shouldn't be allowed to drill up there." But he offered little more. After his visit, Mike and I spent the afternoon on our own, glad we were able to stay in touch with family and friends through the phone and internet. Still, it seemed like a long day. Perhaps the longest Christmas Day I'd ever had. The darkness didn't help. Like everyone in town, we were anxiously awaiting the "potlash" (potluck feast) that was scheduled for that night.

The "Caribou Feast" Sarah and I had discussed back in June never quite happened. The reason was simple - the caribou had found safety somewhere else in the frigid arctic north. Perhaps they were roaming the Brooks Range. Perhaps they'd split their herd and headed toward the mighty Yukon River. Perhaps they were looking for food in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. We would never know. But caribou or no caribou, Trimble Gilbert and his son were ready to entertain. The P.A. system that had been on our flight in was hooked up and ready to go. After a meal of mashed potatoes, baked turkey and Sarah's fry bread, about 75 people, nearly two thirds of the residents of Arctic Village, danced late into the night.

Before returning to Fairbanks and the lower 48, I did a final interview with Sarah James. She's bright, committed, and able to articulate not just the facts but also the emotional connection the Gwich'in have with the land and the wild creatures that live in and around ANWR. There were few surprises in the interview. I knew Sarah's position from the summer. I knew the Gwich'in history with the caribou and their reliance on the land surrounding ANWR. But the tone of Sarah's interview was different. Things had become urgent. Home heating prices in places such as Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee had doubled during the past month, the result of an unusually harsh winter and low supply of natural gas. Then President-elect Bush and Dick Cheney were vocal in their support of ANWR development. Even radio talk shows had begun to pick up the banner cry of development.

"How are we gonna do it?" asked Sarah. Even their neighbors to the north, the Inupiat Eskimos, were calling for oil and gas exploration and development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Inupiat Mayor George Ahmagak is quoted on The Heritage Foundation web site as saying "Our whalers and hunters make maximum use of our few resources, always taking care not to harm the land so their grandchildren may in turn carry on their culture…. As Mayor, I can state unequivocally that the people of the North Slope Borough enthusiastically support the presence of the oil industry in our land…. The wisdom of our Elders teaches us the value of hunting where game is plentiful. Likewise, it makes sense for our nation to seek oil in an area that even (DOI - Dept. of Interior) has identified as the country's best prospect for new petroleum deposits."

"Sadly," Sarah said, "our brothers are on the other side of the fight." But even more perplexing to Sarah, the Inupiats, are opposed to off-shore drilling. While the Gwich'in subsist on the land, the Inupiats subsist on the sea surrounding their coastal homeland. In this particular battle, Sarah says, the Gwich'in support the Inupiat's efforts to protect their lifestyle and food supply, but it does not appear to be a two-way street.

Shortly after Christmas, we left Sarah where we often found her, on the telephone. A gifted activist in the fight to save ANWR, Sarah's link to the outside world is her phone. From the time of our arrival, it had never stopped ringing. We packed up our left over food and supplies for Sarah and gave her two pounds of the hottest commodity in Arctic Village - coffee! In a dry village with no supply route other than small airplanes, coffee is like a little bit of gold. It's the only local commodity that rivals gasoline (which averages $5 a gallon) in price.

As we boarded the Warbelow flight back to Fairbanks, I was, once again, struck by the incredible beauty that surrounded me. I took a long look at the landscape, unsure whether I'd ever be back in Arctic Village. It was 11 a.m. and the sky was as bright as it would be all day. The snow-capped summits of the mountains to the north were reflecting light from a sun that sat out of view under the horizon to the south. Hoarfrost covered the poplars and spruce that ran the length of the snow-packed runway. And Trimble Gilbert, all but hidden by a thick parka and fur hat, packed goods on his sleigh and snow-go for delivery in the village.

The flight back took us southwest to drop mail in the Gwich'in village of Beaver, then on to Fairbanks. As I looked out the frosty window, I couldn't help but think of the environmental challenges facing our world as the population continues to grow. Consumption is at an all time high and rarely do we hear the call for conservation. I couldn't think of the last time I'd heard a politician or world leader offer a view of a future without reliance on fossil fuel. And those who did were usually silenced. More and more, I thought, the demand for resources goes up. And more and more, the world becomes divided between those who have and those who have not. It can only get worse, I thought, as what we do have to exploit runs dry.

It's true that only a few hundred people visit ANWR each year, and that most Americans will never see or feel the power of the pristine wilderness. Nor will they witness the majestic migration of the caribou or step on the soft, spongy tundra that blankets the coastal plains each summer. I'm aware of the privilege I had and can only hope to share the experience in some small way. To save the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge requires both love and respect for those who will inherit our lands in the future. One can certainly argue that the Porcupine Caribou is worth saving. Likewise, it may also survive development. A bigger issue for me is the survival of the Gwich'in culture. It is not a perfect culture, and their home is not a perfect home. Some would argue that in a country of nearly 300 million people, their voice of roughly 8,000 is a small voice. Others would suggest that we have taken enough already. And Trimble Gilbert would say it's time for us to "listen." Could it be that his Christmas sermon was targeted at a congregation larger than those in attendance?

Choosing to preserve a great, wild land mass such as ANWR takes vision. It takes sacrifice. For a nation that's grown accustomed to cheap oil and electricity on demand, it may take a big sacrifice. But there's another way to look at the protection of ANWR. As National Parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Acadia and the Smoky Mountains are forced to regulate the massive number of visitors each year, it becomes clear that Americans want wild places. We want to be able to experience the power and the glory of nature. And we want it to be pristine and untouched. While ANWR may seem a faraway place today, one need only think back to the early 20th century when Teddy Roosevelt had the vision for protecting Yellowstone. At that time, Yellowstone was as far away for most Americans as ANWR is today. Yet it became not only accessible, Yellowstone became crowded.

During the year 2000, I spent the summer and winter solstice inside Alaska's arctic circle. Though I am far from an expert, I discovered that Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge is a special, even sacred place. Whether ANWR is worth saving from oil and natural gas development is a question many Americans are now asking. I'll add a few more. Can we squeeze a few more miles out of our cars in order to save it? Can we turn down our thermostats to save it? Can we consume less to save it? Some may argue that these questions over-simplify the issue. I know of only two things for sure. Wilderness is a part of the collective soul of the 280 million Americans who populate this planet. And during the past 200 years we have learned with certainty that once it's gone, we don't get it back.