Cooper Island, Alaska, July 19, 2009 — It is not uncommon to hear a hiker or wilderness camper describe the exceptional nature of an outing by emphasizing that at some point on their excursion they realized they might be the first human to ever step foot at that spot. In my opinion, this statement, places too much importance on the individual, in settings which ideally should provide recognition of exceptional nature of an outing by the relative unimportance of oneself compared to the natural world, but it does reflect the common view that people like their wilderness experiences to be “pristine”.
A remote Arctic island (especially one with the lack of amenities of Cooper Island) would seem like a good place to have one of those “I may be the first person to ….” experiences, but surprisingly just the reverse is true. One of the realities of the Arctic is that signs of past human activities are well preserved and highly visible because of the freezing temperatures, minimal vegetation, frozen soil, and slow rates of decomposition. If something is left on the ground or near the surface, there is not much that will cover it up or hide it from people visiting that location in the future. At least two centuries of human activities on and near Cooper Island are preserved here today and provide daily visual reminders that I am unlikely to find a place to step where no one has stepped before.
Inupiat have lived in this region for thousands of years subsisting to a great extent on the abundant marine life in the area of Point Barrow. That Cooper Island has long been occupied, at least seasonally, by the Inupiat is evidenced by its name, Iglurak, meaning island with a house on it. When I first visited the island in 1972 there were remnants of at least two sod huts. Nearby, and scattered the length of the island, were the vertebrae, jaw bones and skulls of bowhead whales, evidence of the past importance of that species to the subsistence diet. Luxurious patches of grass, contrasting sharply with the typical minimal vegetation on most of the island, mark the places where whales were butchered and still provide nutrients for plant growth. Dr. Craig George, a good friend and biologist with the North Slope Borough in Barrow, identifies the waters just north of Cooper Island as an important fall feeding area for whales and, before motorized boats allowed whales to be towed back to Barrow, Cooper Island was the closest land where harvested whales could be butchered. The extent of the Inupiat presence here is evident in the “pre-contact” nature of some of the stone and whale rib tools found on the surface and pottery found below the surface.
The nest boxes I built with both salvaged wood and some new plywood from Barrow are the most widespread sign of a human presence in the past three decades, and my cabin the most obvious change in the past decade. Other signs of relatively recent activities are the depressions and mounds created by the Army Corps of Engineers five years ago when they were assessing the feasibility of using Cooper Island gravel to reconstitute the shoreline in Barrow, where homes and other infrastructure are threatened by erosion.
There is also evidence of the oil industry’s interest in the region in the past four decades. A beached fuel barge that washed up during the early days of development at Prudhoe Bay is at the far eastern end of the island and visible for at least five miles. Parts of a tide gauge installed in the 1990s when an exploratory well was within sight of Cooper and broad deep ruts from seismic vehicles, which passed over the island after exploring offshore are reminders that offshore drilling in the waters adjacent to the island is still a very real possibility.
This brings us back to footprints and their relative importance or unimportance. While humans have been on Cooper Island for numerous and diverse reasons for hundreds of years it is not the people who left their physical footprint on the island that have meant that it is no longer seems “pristine”. Given the connection between carbon emissions, atmospheric CO2 and the warming environment it is the carbon footprint of those whose lifestyles require large amounts of fossil fuel that have changed Cooper Island the most. Increasing temperatures are rapidly altering the size and shape of the island as a loss of permafrost and increasing wave actions speeds erosion. Freshwater ponds, which used to provide breeding areas for shorebird species that typically breed on mainland tundra, have been lost as the winter’s snow melt now drains through substrates that were permanently frozen until just a few years ago. Sea ice that used to be visible from shore during all months can now be hundreds of miles away in August and September. With increased shipping and oil and gas drilling foreseen in the region, Cooper Island faces some major direct threats in the future, but for the present it is the indirect influence of human activities occurring well away from here that are the most immediate threat to the island and its resources.