Mic Crenshaw on Operation ROAM: The Arctic Refuge

Love is King and Operation ROAM made its inaugural expedition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Watch Mic Crenshaw discuss Operation ROAM with Solamon Ibe and Alejandro Vivas on our latest episode of Geography of Hope!

By: Mic Crenshaw

My first impression upon arriving in Fairbanks, Alaska, was of a small western-looking town, with a compact downtown area filled with bars, gift shops, cafes, a few banks and office buildings, an outdoors store. There is a lot of space between structures, some vacant lots, some parking areas. People don’t seem to be in a rush. It’s a place that reminds me of Missoula, Montana; Boise, Idaho; Salem, Oregon. When I think of the history in terms of the western United States, in the lower 48, I think of white men in cowboy hats, Native Americans on horseback rising across the plains, and an explosion of violence spurred by an advancing white population with its desire for land, extraction and wealth. Was there something similar that happened here in Alaska, I ask myself?

We came to learn from the people and the other life forms that existed here long before anyone “arrived.” How did the Indigenous Gwich’in feel about the transplants and visitors, the settlers and the adventurers, the explorers and exploiters would come to discover for themselves?

FOR THEMSELVES. That term says a lot. The language we use to describe events, places and people says a lot about how we think about places and how we see ourselves in them. Whose perspective is it at work in our minds and what purpose does it serve?

I got to visit Fairbanks for the first time as part of Operation ROAM, with Love Is King. I was part of a group of BIPOC scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and adventurers who were participating in a once in a lifetime experience. Two days were spent in Fairbanks where we would get acquainted with each other and our gear. Backpacks, jackets, portable cooking units, compact charging stations, water filtration bottles, tents, specialized mosquito repellent, bear spray and more. Our group of five was joined by a field medic, videographer, and Chad Brown, our group leader and the founder of Love Is King and Soul River Inc, as well as his loyal and fearless service animal, a dog named Axe. Chad was the most experienced of the group, having traveled to the Arctic and explored, camped and fished in the backcountry for nearly a decade.

Over the course of those two days in Fairbanks, we met with members of the Gwich’in Nation at a community event celebrating the life of a young man who had been tragically murdered — a member of the Gwich’in community and the son of Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Pulling out of Fairbanks we headed north to intersect with the Dalton Highway. Once on the Dalton Highway, we would travel some 350 miles to the Atigun Gorge, then the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and eventually, the Arctic Ocean. Along the way we crossed the mighty Yukon River and stopped at camps with names like Cold Foot and Dead Horse, before eventually arriving at the Arctic Ocean.

Prepping gear for a wild Alaska journey. (Mic Crenshaw)

As we drove north, there were the pine and birch forests that blanketed the rolling hills and appeared to have almost uniformly shaped and sized trees that grew shorter and thinner as we got closer to the Arctic Circle. There were countless natural pools and springs, streams and rivers that crossed and dotted the landscape. All of these features could be immediately seen from the side of the road, but it was clear that the abundance of rivers, forests, mountains and lakes stretched undisturbed for as far as the horizon in every direction.

To the east and periodically the west, maybe 20-40 yards off the road, was the ubiquitous Trans-Alaska Pipeline — a steel artery, a defiant tube, a feat of determination and human ingenuity in the name of extraction and fossil fuel consumption. It runs the length of the state from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and along our journey it was as ever-present as the billions of mosquitos that populate this land every summer. Even when we reached the fantastically pristine and glorious Atigun Gorge, a place of mind-bending beauty for as far as the eye can see, the pipeline remained.

Mic Crenshaw (right) and team hikes with an oil pipeline in the distance. (Mic Crenshaw)

Beyond the gorge, our destination was the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, more than 19 million acres of wild lands and waters. We had been briefed in Fairbanks by an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this wondrous place, established in 1960 through the efforts of conservationists and public officials eager to protect and leave it as it once was and should remain, as it had always been since the beginning of time. Where national and state parks have been curated by the human imagination with trails and campsites, guard rails and rest areas, this place, the Arctic Refuge, would have none of that. No signs, no gravel or paved paths, no ranger booths or toll stations. The only paths would be those created through time by wild mammals and first peoples. This would be protected public land.

The forest eventually opened to a treeless tapestry dominated by a rich carpet of lush green ground cover of various grasses, shrubs, bushes, moss, lichen, stone and wildflowers. The air was so clear and the horizon wider than any I had witnessed. The Brooks Mountains had emerged from the foothills to the south into majestic gargantuan fortresses of jagged stone, each completely unique. The scale of this place is something that challenges perception. What appeared to be a few hundred yards might actually be three to five miles. Reference points being either the road, or the pipeline, or completely natural structures like mountains, lakes and rivers, had so much distance between them it was hard to judge the accuracy of assumed distance and relative space. And so we hiked. And hiked. And hiked some more. Our packs were heavy, our surroundings were awe-inspiring, and because the permafrost had thawed, each step at times caused our feet to sink up to 10 inches into a mesh of organic material.

(Mic Crenshaw)

So, what were we here for? This group of mostly Black folks included a Latinx man, a South Asian woman and one white comrade. If the only people who frequented this vast area were scientists and conservationists, wealthy game hunters and fishermen and petroleum workers, what was our purpose?

Love Is King developed Operation ROAM to open access to the wildest and most remote areas of the Arctic for BIPOC and LBTGQ people who might not otherwise come here. In doing so, the primary objective is to expose an underrepresented demographic to the transformative capacity that results when human beings communicate with nature. Love Is King is about the healing that can take place for those of us who have experienced trauma as a consequence of our very identities, being born into a society where race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity will almost certainly guaranty a profound disparity between you and your white counterparts. This is not up for argument and there is overwhelming science and lived experience that verifies this set of facts. As we grapple with the truth and challenges of our existence in a society that values exploitation of people, land, animals and natural resources over life itself, we consider fundamental questions of existence in a very political, personal and spiritual way.

Questions arise.

What is my place, what is my purpose, why am I here, why is the world the way it is and what can I do about it, what will I do about it and who will I do it with?

In the Arctic summer, the sun shined 24 hours a day. When the sun never really goes down, it causes one to ask more questions.

What if you sleep when you’re tired as opposed to when you’re supposed to? How did the first peoples of this place orient to the extreme schedules of day and night? When do these mosquitos sleep? What is conservation and who does it serve? What is hunting and fishing for recreation versus hunting and fishing for sustenance? How do we judge our importance in relation to the land and the salmon, the bear, the whale, the moose, musk ox, wolves, caribou, seals, wolverine, porcupine, ground squirrels, and countless species of birds, plants and insects? When I say BIPOC, who am I really talking about? When we talk of natural resources are we talking about the land and its species or are we thinking from an extractive point of view?

Camping under the midnight sun. (Mic Crenshaw)

Understanding will require more conversations with Arctic Indigenous peoples if I’m to answer these questions with any type of meaning and context that would matter. I should, I will, I must.

In downtown Fairbanks there were plaques at a park by the Chena River that talked of the untapped wealth yet to be extracted from the expanse of Arctic Alaska. Silver, gold, zinc and lead, natural gas and of course, more oil. We are on the edge of an abyss, and everything is at stake. All of it. In the Arctic Circle, you can see and feel the reality of climate change beneath your feet with each step and ponder the catastrophe ahead and contemplate the human solutions to man-made problems that have transformed the natural environment for all life on this beautiful planet.

Metal plaque on Golden Heart Plaza in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. (Bernt Rostad, Flickr Creative Commons — full text at link)

It will make you cry if you let it.

I can’t escape, I can’t fly to space, and I can’t even sleep ‘cause I’m wide awake.

What are we going to do y’all? That’s what we’re here to ask. When we think about protection, let’s think about all of us, especially those of us who were here first. And when we think about the future, think about those of us who, historically speaking, feel the heaviest impacts of environmental racism and injustice, having a seat at the table armed with first-hand knowledge and experience in partnership with the people whose lives, culture and wisdom is inseparable from the very environments that only a handful of us get to enjoy as recreation and that others choose to exploit for financial gain.

Love Is King.

I want more of us to roam around at the top of the world and listen to the Gwich’in, stand with the Gwich’in, and figure out some things together.

This is what I’m talking about when I say:

Skins, scales, fins and feathers,
we’re all in this together,
fire and ice, changing weather,
here we are now, Earthbound.

I recorded this acapella version of Earthbound atop the melting tundra, amidst a cloud of mosquitoes, somewhere between the Atigun Gorge and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

Born on the southside of Chicago and raised both there and in Minneapolis, Mic Crenshaw is a world class MC and poet who has emerged on the national and international stage. As a teen in the late 80’s, Mic was embroiled in the violent streets of Minneapolis, leading groups to physically confront white supremacist gangs that were enforcing their will at local parks and social scenes. The violence remained, both in the streets and from authorities, and Crenshaw decided it was time to move west to Portland, OR. Since 2012, Mic has released 3 EP’s expanding his musical presentation into metal and other rock inspired sound. The EP ” Superheroes” (2014), which features Dead Prez on its title track, solidified Mic’s place in Hip Hop worldwide and as an activist/educator. “Bionic Metal” (2014) features signature wordplay in line with motivating sonic backdrops. “Hope and Danger” (2016) heightens the introspection and critical analysis of race, class and culture in modern society. Mic recently released a new project entitled “EarthBound,” which explores our modern social condition through the lens of ecological responsibility, economic violence and the sociopathic tendencies of our political landscape.