On the very edge of the earth, where the coastal tundra melts into the Chukchi Sea in a watery tangle of streams, bays, lakes and lagoons is a world of austere beauty, vibrant with life. Kasegaluk Lagoon is rich beyond compare in Arctic Alaska. The long list of descriptors for the area only hints at its significance regionally and in fact globally. Important molting, calving and rearing area for Beluga Whales. Hosts one third of the spotted seal haul-outs in the Russian and Alaskan Chukchi Sea. Supports hundreds of nesting pairs of Common Eider. Provides staging and molting areas for the bulk of the western north American population of King Eiders. Nesting habitat for Spectacled Eiders, Pacific Brant, Red-throated Loons and other unique arctic breeders. In the autumn Kasegaluk Lagoon becomes a seemingly critical refuge for Walrus searching for a place to rest in an increasingly ice-free sea. Important terrestrial denning habitat for polar bears. Ducks, and geese, whales and seals all flock to Kasegaluk to rest, breed, and feed every summer.
Yet, despite the variety and abundance of wildlife along this 125 mile long lagoon system, almost no one has ever even heard of the place. Even among conservationists and wilderness travelers the place is terra incognita. Too remote to ever go there by mistake, too expansive to make a good post card, Kasegaluk is partly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and partly by the State of Alaska, mostly not managed at all and has no constituents except local hunters from Wainwright and Point Lay. Kasegaluk Lagoon remains far from the headlines and far from the imaginations of most everyone. But I’ve been there, walked the gravel beaches and looked down from the bluffs at Kasegaluk’s western edge.
I’ve seen the Chukchi roil with Belugas; white bodies in grey water. I’ve seen Common Eiders tuck a nest full of eggs into a feathery blanket to keep them warm while she tended to other business. Been startled by huge flights of Brant taking wing in the fog. This world of wind, ice, sand, grass and wildlife is real and rich and sadly in peril. Though the immediate area around Kasegaluk Lagoon within the NPR-A is, for now, protected from oil and gas development, there is a very real risk to the area’s ecology from off-shore oil leases in the Chukchi Sea nearby. If ever there was an area with exceptional wilderness and wildlife values that had few champions, this is it. Much like the Arctic Refuge 40 years ago, this area is so remote that no one seems to understand or care about its fate.
Taking a few hardy canoeists to Kasegaluk won’t affect the global economics, or national politics that ultimately drive the decision about whether off-shore oil production will be permitted in Alaska’s Arctic. But we do hope to introduce a few enthusiastic naturalists to a rich and beautiful part of our state. The Arctic needs more friends and advocates. If you are interested is visiting Kasegaluk Lagoon with us on our Beluga Adventure this July, please contact us.