The Slippery North Slope

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. camps in the Arctic and asks why big oil can't keep its hands off America's largest patch of wilderness

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

JUST NORTH of the Arctic Circle on the coast of Alaska, there's a lush fairway of liquid emerald tundra upon which 129,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd converge during the early part of summer to feast on succulent cotton grass, nurse their young, and escape airborne armadas of mosquitoes by dipping into the frigid waters of the Beaufort Sea. If the timing's right, this is one of the most magnificent wildlife spectacles on earth. Regrettably, however, we're here during the last week in July. And while not a single caribou is anywhere to be seen, the skeeters are everywhere. Right now, in fact, a cloud of them is zeroing in on a ridge where, poised before a CBS television crew, gazing with hooded blue eyes toward the ice-studded sea, and smearing his hand over an angry stain created by a bottle of deet that exploded in the pocket of his pants, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is offering up an impassioned paean to this patch of paradise.

"This is the largest pristine wilderness in North America," Kennedy croaks in a froggy quaver. "And it enriches us all because nature is the way that God communicates with us most forcefully—"


"Here we can see the Creator's richness, not only in this giant expanse of wetlands, but also in the mosquito population—"


"Yet oil companies want to treat this land as if it were a business to be liquidated. If we allow them to destroy this place, then all of humanity will be diminished, because—"



Kennedy's on a roll, but his soliloquy will have to wait until the wind picks up and the bugs subside. John Blackstone, the CBS correspondent, sighs with relief and mashes a mosquito net over his head. Pamela Miller, who runs VIP trips to Alaska's North Slope, spritzes her hair with another layer of deet. As we hike back to our camp, four miles up the Aichilik River, Kennedy turns to his 15-year-old son Bobby, who isn't looking too jazzed about having joined his father's latest adventure-travel-cum-environmental-activism vacation. "Now I see why the caribou jump in the ocean and freeze their asses off with big smiles on their faces," the elder Kennedy quips. "If people see this, they're gonna say, 'Go ahead and give this place to the oil companies.'"