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Scrapbook: Hiking Through a Place That "Challenged My Senses"

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October 28, 2011

Hiking Through a Place That "Challenged My Senses"

Duane and Ben
Ben and Duane Greuel near the March River three miles from the Arctic coast. 

Duane Greuel might live in Wisconsin, but you can call him a Sierra Club Arctic Hero. So how does someone who grows pickles and fruit on a hobby farm become a defender of the Arctic?

For Duane, it was his two-week backpacking journey last September through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where he trekked alongside caribou, gazed at the northern lights, and made friends with native people. He immediately realized how special this place was.

"The wildlife, the mountains, the plains, the coast. All these systems come together and work in harmony with each other," he says. "This place challenged my senses. I never knew what quiet was until I went there. I could hear my son clearly talking to another person a quarter-mile away. Here at home, you can't hear someone 20 feet from you."

Duane is one of several activists fighting to keep the Refuge intact. Right now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on whether to permanently protect a huge chunk of the coastal plain from Big Oil by designating it a Wilderness Area.

Keeping oil and gas companies out of there is paramount to preserving a way of life for the people Duane met during his trip. Opening up the area to oil would parallel the days of a young America, when white populations slaughtered buffalo that the Sioux depended on.

A nearby caribou
A nearby caribou.

"The Gwich'in and Inuit people who live there are caribou people. Their culture is based on the caribou, which breeds along the coastal plains. The caribou are more than just wildlife. They are part of a culture, and the destruction of the caribou's habitat would destroy the culture of these indigenous people," he says.

Duane was joined on the journey by his son Ben Greuel, a Sierra Club Resilient Habitats organizer, and a handful of other backpackers. It spanned 70 miles, but the hike was longer that that.

"We had to cross braided streams, which sometimes meant hiking maybe a mile or two up to cross them. But sometimes they'd be too deep and you'd have to go back down and try again. We'd do 12 miles a day, but sometimes that 12 miles would turn into 20. We also did two side trips along Brooks Range," he said. "At one point I walked across at least 15 miles of blueberries."

Wildlife was everywhere. Besides caribou, there were "birds by the thousands," Dall sheep, a wolverine "that charged at us," and a grizzly that "kind of stood up and decided whether he was going to eat us or not," Duane says.

DC Senate Bldg
Duane visits the U.S. Senate during Wilderness Week, March 2011.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Duane credits his dad for his love of the outdoors. He and his wife would take their three children camping all over the western U.S. Now that the kids are all grown up, he focuses his time on conservation projects and the current priority of preventing Wisconsin's governor from opening new taconite mines along the Wolf and Namekagon rivers near Copper Falls State Park.

"Hopefully the public will put pressure on the state legislature to not approve any of this," he says. "Other states are envious of our groundwater quality, but this would ruin that."

Summer 2010 084
Duane and his son, Adam, at the Circle Park Trailhead in the Bighorn National Forest.

Duane has hiked countless trails, visited many parks, and led campaigns to protect the environment. But he maintains that nothing compares to his Alaska trip. He fears that Americans are complacent on the issue because most haven't been there.

"A lot of people think that a little oil well won't do much. But they don't consider the infrastructure, the roads and equipment, the pipes, the shipping routes," he says. "It would no longer be a place for habitat. It'd change the water quality of the Arctic Ocean and the ecosystem for whales, belugas, walruses, not to mention the salmon fishery. The value of the Arctic coast is tremendous and we need to keep it that way."

He will never forget one particular day during the trip. There were a few dozen yards between hikers and Duane took up the rear. At one point his instinct told him to turn around.

"Something was behind me. I turn around and caribou were in our line. They thought we were caribou marching across the tundra. When I fully turned around, the lead caribou stopped and kind of gave me a look like, 'Hey you're not a caribou!' And I was thinking, 'Hey you aren't a human!' I'll never forget that for as long as I live. Where would something like that happen anywhere else in the United States?"

Learn more about the Sierra Club Resilient Habitats campaign.

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