Mainly, it’s bugs. If you look at a topographical map of the Arctic plain north of the Brooks Range, you’ll see that it’s flat, and it’s covered with thousands and thousands of small lakes. Minnesota brags about it’s 10,000 lakes. There are over 3 million lakes in Alaska over 20 acres in size.
When the long summer days come, and a little warmth with it, these wetlands produce one of the great insect blooms of the world. There are swarms of them, and the caribou avoid them at all costs. They’re bloodthirsty mosquitoes, for the most part, and caribou are forced to flee to snow covered ground to escape them.
The ultimate punishment in Alaska Native culture is banishment, and to be banished in mosquito country, without clothes, was a death sentence. It was almost never done. It was a terrible way to die.
The great flocks of migrating birds come north not just to escape predators. They come for the bugs. Chicks can get big and strong in a hurry when they can eat bugs 24 hours a day. In order to make the long return flight, a chick must mature very quickly. Bugs are the perfect diet.
Ten or fifteen years ago a big magazine, The Atlantic, I believe, sent a reporter to ANWR to report on all the wildlife he expected to find. As I recall, he spent a week looking for an animal, and all he ever found was a tuft of caribou fur. But this little tuft sent him into seventh heaven. He was communing with the wildlife of ANWR as he held it.
The environmentalists say ANWR is the Serengeti of the North. It is, in only one respect. The bugs.