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Wild Abundant America

Born in Calcutta, India, Subhankar Banerjee fell in love with the wilderness of the American West. His dream, to photograph the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, came true when he made his way to Kaktovik, Alaska, in March 2001.

Subhankar Bannerjee mounrtains
McCall glacier has lost nearly 33 feet in depth over the past four decades. All photos © Subhankar Bannerjee

In the far northeastern corner of Alaska lies an Arctic sanctuary, a precious jewel of the circumpolar north: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Over a two-year period, I had the remarkable opportunity of living in this vast wilderness. I observed and photographed breathtaking wildlife spectacles during all four seasons—a polar bear mother and her tiny cubs frolicking by their den, a newborn muskox baby walking with its herd, caribou calves born on the coastal plain, birds engaging in courtship and nesting, and large flocks of snow geese flying over the coastal plain. Beyond the abundant wildlife, the refuge has the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen and is so remote and untamed that many peaks, valleys, and lakes are still without names.

The proponents of oil drilling have said that the coastal plain of the refuge is “white and barren; void of any life” for nine months of the year. This perception exists perhaps because few people have traveled to the refuge outside of the short spring and summer seasons. During the harsh winter months, not only does life thrive there, but new life is born. Some of my most powerful photographs were taken during the winter months in the refuge.

From my journal ...
November 5, 2001: Robert Thompson [the author's Inupiat guide], his cousin, Perry Anashugak, and I load our sleds and leave Kaktovik around ten in the morning on three separate snowmobiles. Six hours later we reach our destination: Old Man Creek, in the Hulahula River valley. The Hulahula River comes out of the Brooks Range here, and the overflow water creates an ice field half a mile across. From the east the river is joined by Old Man Creek, and from the west, by Old Woman Creek. Both are lined with willow patches that provide food and shelter for moose, muskox, ptarmigans, porcupine, and other animals. The willow patch is also a good place to pitch a tent because it breaks up the notorious arctic wind, which can be excruciatingly strong.

Robert and Perry are here for autumn sheep hunting. Thanksgiving is approaching, and they want to bring fresh meat home to share during the community feast. While Robert and Perry set up the tent, I notice the sky is catching a faint pink tint. At first I think it is the color of the sunset but soon realize—no this color is actually moving. The sky is deep midnight blue, with stars galore across the northern horizon.

For the next four hours I am mesmerized as the faint pink display turns deep pink mixed with bright white, and then becomes deep red with bright yellow highlights. The moon is at its half phase, casting light and shadow on the now-covered Romanzof Mountains. The Hulahula ice field catches the red of the aurora. Amazing shapes form and disappear in the sky.

Around eight in the evening, the temperature drops to minus 50° F. and we turn in for the night. I got my first frostbite, on three fingers and the tip of my nose.

A glimpse of hope
One summer evening in the refuge I sat meditating on a nameless hilltop, looking out at the braided Kongakut River valley and the mountains of the Brooks Range beyond, and found amidst its startling beauty a glimpse of hope and faith. No matter how industrialized our nation gets, no matter how our resource needs change, I believe we will have the moral courage to keep places like the Arctic Refuge free of development so that future citizens of the world will continue to have the opportunity to meet nature in its wildest form.

I hope you're inspired by the images. Mahsi Choo Shalak Nai (Gwich'in: Thank you, all my relations).


This article and photos are taken from Subhankar Banerjee's book Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Landwith permission from Mountaineers Books (www.mountaineersbooks.org). Solo exhibits of his photos are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (May 2 - September 2nd, 2003) in Washington; California Academy of Sciences (September 12 - December 31, 2003) in San Francisco; and the American Museum of Natural History (November 1, 2003 - March 31, 2004) in New York.

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