A Wonder of Natural Beauty in Alaska

This is what is meant by undisturbed nature -- some 19 million acres that make up the extraordinarily remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Lying wholly above the Arctic Circle in northeast Alaska, it is the nation's largest and most northerly wildlife refuge, a special corner of the globe that promises unparalleled solitude, challenge and adventure.

Only about 1,200 to 1,500 people make the trek here every year. Unlike the vast majority of the country's public lands, ANWR's mission is to put the sanctity of wilderness ahead of the needs of visitors.

In this vast area approximately the size of South Carolina (keep in mind that Alaska is the largest state in the country, twice as large as Texas, the next largest state), there are no visitor centers, no campgrounds, no roads and no trails.

People who come here have to know what they're doing, and visitors almost always link up with one of the state's highly specialized guides who reward their effort with access to utterly unspoiled wilderness.

Here they'll find a pristine wonderland of alpine and coastal tundra, coastal lagoons and salt marshes, rolling taiga uplands, 18 major rivers (three designated as wild and many of them runnable and popular for float trips), and seemingly endless stands of birch, spruce and aspen.

The four highest peaks of the majestic Brooks Range are here, as are most of its glaciers, and the land supports an animal population that includes all three species of North American bears (brown, black and polar).

One of the undisputed highlights of the refuge are the two caribou herds -- two of the largest in Alaska. Together they number close to 160,000. The timing and exact routes of these two herds are unpredictable (their fall migration usually begins in late summer), making it a challenge for visitors to plan trips to witness the migrations, a spectacle that knows few rivals in North America.

The refuge is home to nearly three dozen other species of land mammals that include muskox, wolves and Dall sheep (nine marine mammal species live along the coast), an equal number of fish species in its rivers and lakes, and 180 species of birds from four continents. The nation's northernmost breeding population of golden eagles calls this home, and its coast is a major migration route for several waterfowl species.

There are no known introduced species living in the refuge today, and although more than 300 archaeological sites have been found here, people are almost absent. Even the area's native population -- a mix of Inupiat eskimos and Athabascans from the interior -- live only on the reserve's north and south borders.

Continuous light prevails here from late April to mid-August, and the visitors who answer the call of the wild most frequently come in the months of June, July and August. Come mid-November, the sun dips and stays below the horizon until mid-January. This is the best time to see the magic of the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. The ultimate light show and a phenomenon of physics, the lights appear as curtains of undulating colors that dance across the sky in a show of nature's glory. They can be viewed only when the sky is dark and unencumbered city lights. The lights can illuminate the sky for minutes or for hours. Green and milky white are the colors most commonly seen; red lights are the most rare. You needn't go as far as the wildlife refuge to see them in Alaska: Fairbanks is generally considered the aurora capital, with more than 200 nights a year promising a glimpse of the spectacle.

With suspected oil deposits in the region, heated talk of opening the refuge for drilling has persisted for more than two decades. Advocates for drilling, many of them native Alaskans, believe drilling would create jobs and could be accomplished with minimal impact on the environment. Opponents believe this precious stretch of land should remain pristine, and they argue that the amount of oil that could be extracted is negligible, considering annual U.S. oil consumption.