Here, during the cold loveliness of winter, falling snow has the consistency of sand and clings to rooftops and stop signs in Barrow. Emerald streaks of aurora borealis cross star-drenched skies.
And in summer, during full-time daylight, bright Arctic flowers bloom. Immense snowy owls scan the tundra from hummocks. Mouselike lemmings scamper in the high grass. Fish and birds grow fat. Front yards are filled with drying racks for fur or fish; boats; sticks for probing the sea ice to make sure it is solid; snowmobiles.
And then there’s the oil.
Lots of oil.
In the old days, it bubbled up as dark seeps. Then commercial quantities were announced in 1968, and oil gushed from beneath the land, in Prudhoe Bay, 200 miles east of Itta’s home, to flow south through an 800-mile pipeline to the terminal at Valdez and on to the rest of America. By the 1980s—peak flow—up to 25 percent of U.S. oil came from that pipeline.
But now the pipeline runs only one third full and is in danger of shutting down from lack of supply. At the same time, government scientists estimate that up to 22 percent of all undiscovered oil and gas on earth lies in polar regions, much of it off Alaska. That’s why Shell paid more than $2 billion for leases there and tried, for the past five years, to drill a few exploratory wells. First, they were stopped by Itta’s lawyers, teamed with other native and environmental groups. Then the holdup came from federal agencies, cautious after the Gulf explosion.
In 2005, when Itta ran for mayor, he opposed all Arctic offshore drilling. In many ways his life until then was preparation for the fight. The world he grew up in was so different from today that one of his friends told me it’s as if he’d telescoped 150 years of history into one lifetime.