Untangling a Complex Story on the Ikpikpuk River


A hand brushed against my knee, signaling for me to move. Shifting my weight and looking toward the horizon, a line seemed to guide us North. A static-y voice cut through the roar of the plane.

“That’s the pipeline,” Steve, our pilot, said.

A lush green path cut through the landscape in both directions. The dark pipe ran down the middle, carrying oil from Prudhoe Bay, the northern oil field, to Valdez, a port in the south. Was it a scar in the land, something sensitive to the touch with lasting negative repercussions, or was it a former cut that fully healed? Regardless, oil flowed below us.

Steve bumped my leg again as he adjusted various controls. Space was at a premium in his Cessna 180. Joe Riordan, my college roommate, friend, and now expedition partner sat in a cramped seat behind Steve. Dry bags, canoe paddles, a rolled up PakCanoe and five large bear canisters crammed with food surrounded him. The luxury of the front seat spoiled me.

I leaned to the left as the right wing of the plane reached toward the sky. The pipeline no longer guiding us, we headed into the Brooks Range and toward our drop-off, the banks of the Kigalik River in the heart of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.

A few months earlier, I paced the confines of my cramped studio apartment. Phone calls, writer’s block and a deadline stood between me and my journalism master’s thesis. Instead of typing on my laptop about agricultural plastics, I sent a text to Joe.

“What kind of opportunity would you have to be faced with to either leave your job or take two months off?” Send.

“A good one :)” Joe replied.

This was our first text in over a month. I was daydreaming of an adventure that left responsibility and technology behind. One that could prolong the impending answer to everyone’s favorite question—what was I doing after graduation? An adventure where extraction was our only deadline. My mind was already in the canoe.

The National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska (NPR-A) occupies over 22 million acres on Alaska’s North Slope. Rivers calmly wind their way to the Arctic Ocean, mosquitoes swarm by the thousands, 40% of the world’s migratory birds fly there to nest, tens of thousands of caribou migrate to calve. For the past 100 years, this land has sat awaiting its fate: to be drilled or not to be drilled.

In the middle of the reserve, Maybe Creek and the Kigalik River join forces to form the Ikpikpuk River. The Ikpikpuk meanders across the coastal plain of the North Slope, descending about a foot per mile. Along the way, there are no towns or villages, a portion of map devoid of the marks of human infrastructure except for a handful of native allotments, only some with small buildings for seasonal hunting. Information on the Ikpikpuk is as abundant as its rapids—virtually non-existent.

A quick search on the internet about the Ikpikpuk River gives you a few things. One site describes the origin of the river’s name, meaning “big cliff or bank” in Inuit. Another says it spans 195 miles from its start to Smith Bay. Not much about paddling.

My grandfather’s cousin Walter Gove paddled parts of the reserve in the early 2000s, but never near the Ikpikpuk. His trips combined adventure with research. As he paddled, he collected data that contributed to the bird and caribou counts, hoping the studies would lead to protecting the Slope from drilling.

Now too old for Arctic expeditions, Walt saw my energy and planted the seed of going to the Slope, fulfilling my need for adventure, and using my new background in journalism to shine a light on NPR-A.

In a stack of studies that he sent home with me after a visit, a map highlighted the Ikpikpuk River as a suggested area for protection. The nearby Teshekpuk Lake was already protected due to its importance to waterfowl migration. What made the Ikpikpuk worthy of a suggestion, but not protection?

I spent the months leading up to our flight to Alaska in early July planning a trip based on understanding the difference and answering the question of drilling. Countless emails gradually brought the trip from a text message to a reality. The original two months I had naively suggested became 23 days. Landing just upstream of the start of the Ikpikpuk River, we planned a route that would end with crossing Lake Teshekpuk, hoping to see what made it more important than the Ikpikpuk.

The plane took a steep, banking turn, then touched down on the sand bar. Wheels sunk into the wet sand, our boots following suit. Minutes later, we swatted at the swarms of mosquitoes and sorted our gear into a pile on the riverbank.

“Bug spray? Bear spray? Have a blast!” Steve shut the door, donned his headset, and took off down the sand bar.

There we were, a few degrees north of the Arctic Circle, ready to tell the story of NPR-A. But how?

The first few days of paddling were eye-opening. Planning the logistics of getting to the slope had overshadowed researching the landscape. The tundra teamed with plant life. Long sandy shores provided ample space for mid-day naps and camps. This surprised me, however, the bird and animal life, or lack thereof, surprised me more.

As we paddled down the winding river, only the occasional goose or shrub-dwelling bird greeted us. Gyrfalcons and peregrines proved to be the most common, screeching at us from their nests on the high banks. Still, the 20 or so pairs of falcons and their nests of chicks paled in comparison to what I expected to be the 40% of global migratory birds.

Each bend that we guided the boat through, each embankment that we climbed, I expected the herd of thousands of caribou to greet us, or maybe a flock of geese that covered the sky as they flew in fright of two humans. Nothing of the sort. Instead, an Arctic bumblebee buzzed by our heads, its pitch interrupting the constant drone of mosquitoes.

The lack of life within view led me to the question that brought us here: to drill or not to drill. Many of the indigenous communities supported oil. Oil meant jobs, infrastructure, money.

In early 2023, a few months before our trip, the federal government approved the Willow Project, the first active oil field in NPR-A, just over 100 miles to the east of the Ikpikpuk River. The communities proximal to Willow opposed it. So, it seemed that from afar drilling was great, but in your backyard, it brought problems. Since its approval, the government has halted Willow.

After nine days of paddling, the largest flock of migratory birds had been a gaggle of greater white-fronted geese, fewer than 15 adults. The only mammals we had seen were a handful of Arctic ground squirrels that teased us from above our camp and a lone Arctic fox. Grappling with the idea of bringing drilling infrastructure to the area, I began to think that it might not be a terrible idea.

We live in a petroleum-based society. Our canoe had petroleum-derived components. Our dry bags and bear canisters also require petroleum in their production. A gas-powered plane brought us here. Even with all the environmental impacts of petroleum production and use, society’s consumption is not destined to stop in the near future. Meeting our demands requires us to find new sources. So why not here in this desolate landscape seemingly void of both humans and animals?

I basked in the Arctic sun on the tenth day. We enjoyed the warmth, drying out our gear from the cold rain a couple days prior. Socks dangled from the straps of our packs. An inside-out jacket draped over the middle of the boat.

“John!” Joe yelled in a hushed whisper. “Look!”

I turned. He pointed across the river at three caribou. I scrambled for my camera and tripod as they walked toward the water. They saw us, huffed a few sharp breaths, and trotted away. Maybe the herd was close.

After a night of sleep, as the excitement of seeing the caribou began to wear off, the herd gave us another hint of its presence. Steering the canoe into the sandy shore for a snack break, we trudged through some soft ground onto the riverbank. Caribou tracks covered the sand in every direction. Hundreds of sets, all heading down the beach and across the river.

Just under two weeks of paddling now remained. One more day of cruising down the Ikpikpuk River, paddling up two different streams, and crossing the open water of Teshekpuk Lake made up the 100 miles between us and our extraction.

The cries of the peregrine falcons faded as the high banks shrank. The honking of geese and squawking of gulls filled the air. Flocks grew from small groups to several hundred loud and skittish waterfowl. Each paddle stroke brought us closer to the lake and seemed to pull the rolling hills down into a flat expanse of tundra and ponds. The habitat was perfect for geese.  Shores became more bird feces than sand. How would all this life withstand heavy machinery and the inevitable scars of oil infrastructure?

Crossing the lake proved the hardest paddling of the trip. A fierce headwind kicked up merciless four-to-five-foot waves in quick succession. The shores showed the most signs of life, though. Caribou antlers always bobbed on the rolling horizon. Arctic terns, having migrated from Antarctica to nest here, dipped and darted around us. We paddled, we watched, we grappled with our thoughts on drilling, life, and the outside world that we left behind weeks prior.

I was stuck. As an outsider, my opinions meant little without any experience. Even after canoeing as far as we had, I would leave afterward. The families who stayed and needed jobs to get them through the total darkness of winter had more at stake with the oil dilemma than myself. How do I balance drilling and the environment? How do the people and the birds and the animals get appropriate weight?

Our flight to the Slope showed that Alaska is no stranger to oil infrastructure. The pipeline assimilated into the environment after its decades of construction. Alaska, as many there say, does oil right. But Valdez and Southern Alaska are not the fragile tundra that makes up NPR-A. Peregrines, sandpipers, terns and waterfowl need summer homes. People on the Slope need livelihoods. If we drill, ecosystems that welcome the migratory birds in other months will be affected. If we preserve, people lack income and the politics of oil elsewhere dictate our economies.

I looked out at our camp below my perch on a bluff. To my left, a spill pad with 55-gallon drums sat waiting to refuel planes like the one that would pick us up later that morning. More than 350 caribou grazed across the river. A few hours later, a plane would carry us to a town to then board a larger plane back to Fairbanks. We would fly over flocks of snow geese, more herds of caribou, and an indescribable vastness of land.

Flying over the area that we just paddled through gave me a perspective of the immensity of land and life that is impossible to see from a boat, solidifying the key to the story. It’s complicated. Life, in some form, occupies every corner of the Slope, but it’s not always a flock or herd of thousands of birds or caribou.

Nuances fill every environmental story that we see. We form opinions by giving different weight to the same information. Our backgrounds and motivations guide our thinking. Sitting in that plane above the slope, my mind spun. The only way to tell the story of the slope, to near an understanding of the nuance, would be to come back.


Guest Contributor John Gove is a storyteller who focuses on the intersection of adventure and the environment. Whether deep in the backcountry, or just outside the city, he points his camera toward the stories that take a little sweat and discomfort to tell.