Arctic Voices

Arctic Gardens Ebook - Chapter One: Beyond the Northern Divide

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Chapter One - Beyond the Northern Divide

In North America there are three Continental Divides. We are familiar with two of them: the chain of mountains, the Rockies and their outliers, that separate the waters flow- ing eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean or westward to the Pacific; and the Appalachian chain which divides the Atlantic-flowing rivers from the ones flowing into the Gulf of Mexi- co. Few know about the other divide that sends its waters northward into the Arctic Ocean, which also defines our hemisphere. This chapter will describe the geology, the ecology, the human cultures, and the recent history of this land of northern-flowing rivers, as well as the South Slope of the mighty Brooks Range, an important part of the land area above the Arctic Circle of our region, which stretches from the Kukpuk River at Point Hope in the west to the Mackenzie River on the east.

Arctic Refuge coastal plain with Beaufort Sea 20 miles distant, principal calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd

The Brooks Range was created by tectonic movements and other geologic forces that are not as well understood as are the forces that created moun- tains more accessible to academ- ic geologists. The geologic forces not only created peaks and crests and rocky slopes, but also flat ar- eas of importance to the caribou and millions of migratory wa- terfowl. Meanwhile, offshore a bit, other forces created what is called the “Barrow Arch,” a rich, oil-bearing formation as well as an environmental attraction to whales that come close to the shore during their annual migra- tion. In between the shoreline and the mountains is the vast tundra, daunting to humans, but ecologically rich.

Does anyone live up there today? Many of us might know that Eskimo or Inuit people do. Some of us might know that Indian people do as well. What we might not know is that the ancestors of these Native Americans or First Nations people were the first residents of all of the Americas, North and South.

Archeologists have found that the ancestors of the modern Indians such as the Gwich’in tribe may have been in the Arctic country as early as about 15,000 years ago, migrants across the Bering Strait from Russia. This migration is generally agreed upon by the sci- entific community, although disputed by traditional Gwich’ins, who assert that they have lived in this place forever.

Bluefish Caves-courtesy of www.andaman.org

In either case, these people were in every sense of the word pioneers, following as close- ly as humanly feasible the retreating glaciers of the last ice age or else following the strip of un-glaciated land along the Pacific Ocean. Some of the earliest evidence comes from near the Porcupine River community of Old Crow, Yukon. These people in all likelihood came up the mighty Yukon River from the Pacific several hundred miles and thence up the Porcupine another 300 miles to the well-known ar- cheological site of Bluefish Caves.

From this time on, people lived sporadically in ice-limited parts of Alaska and adjacent Canada. They left behind only a few clues of their lives. But we know from geologic studies that the door from Russia to Alaska slammed shut by 12,000 years ago. The climate was warming, glaciers were melting, and oceans were rising. The Bering Strait land bridge was flooded, and what scientists call Beringia ceased to exist.

Thus, whoever was in the Arctic of Alaska and Canada and indeed in all the Americas at that time were the only ancestors of all later Indians and Eski- mo people. Nobody else could have gotten here until much later (the last one or two thousand years) when the technology of boat travel began. Both before and for the next 7,000 years (12,000 to 5,000 years ago), the people of the Alaskan and the adjacent Canadian Arctic had no access to the frozen coastal environments and were limited to the inland areas.

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