Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is the largest, wildest, and most pristine national wildlife refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System. This place of extraordinary wilderness protects, in an undisturbed condition, fragile ecosystems, habitats, and wildlife.
For Refuge Association Board Member, Chad Brown, along with his team at Soul River Runs Wild, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce select groups to one of America’s iconic crown jewels.
Soul River Runs Wild is a Portland-based non-profit organization that connects at-risk youth and military veterans to the great outdoors by providing unparalleled educational experiences. Soul River Runs Wild opens new doors for youth and provides purpose to veterans who have served our nation.
In late July, Soul River Runs Wild completed their first week-long leadership training deployment to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with an inspiring group of seven veterans and seven youth. The youngest of the youth was 13 and the oldest was 19 years old.
Starting off in Fairbanks, Alaska, the group met their guides, re-packed their gear, and assessed what they could carry on their journey. Due to weight limits of the prop planes, only the necessary gear would make it. Thanks to the support of many partners, Chad and his team of veterans and students flew up to the north slope of the refuge to begin their journey.
Every day was different for the team and included educational classes about the landscape, navigation courses, fly-fishing, hiking, and rafting. Soul River Runs Wild developed a series of outdoor classroom experiences that are designed to exercise students’ minds and help them generate their own thoughts by discovering new things together as a community, with the refuge as their backdrop.
The veterans taught the students about scientific principles and journaling, the impact of climate change on various eco-systems, including how climate change affects fly-fishing, communities and cultures, and how this topic is discussed within the political process.
After each class, the group went hiking on the tundra, exploring the refuge’s rich and diverse wildlife, fly-fishing, and rafting down the Ivishak River. For Chad, the veterans, and the youth, the fly-fishing experience was particularly poignant. The group managed to hook Arctic Char, Arctic Grayling, and Dolly Varden Trout. Anglers all over the world travel to Alaska for world-class fishing opportunities such as this one.
Every day presented challenges for the group, with extreme terrain, high winds and a demanding schedule. Everyone was forced to work together and to take care of each other, young and old. The extreme terrain even reminded the veterans of former military operations. The youth within the group pushed through. For Chad, it was incredible for him to observe the youth transform.
Regarding the students, Chad mentioned “They grew up so fast! They were already leaders, but this trip really showed me that these incredible students have a bright and positive future ahead of them.”
Despite the challenges that they had to overcome, the bonds that the veterans and students built were powerful and rewarding.
For the students, re-integrating back into society after the deployment has been tough. Many of the youth spent days sleeping on the floor in their bedroom, re-adjusting to their former lives. Despite the reclamation, the students are building a movement of refuge supporters, teaching their parents, and educating their communities about the importance of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Refuge System. When one of the students returned home, he pitched his high-school President to start a new student organization called “Eco-Revolution” which will bring together his peers that are interested in birds, wildlife and nature. For the aspiring conservation leaders, this deployment reaffirmed their goals and ambitions.
Soul River Runs Wild is challenging old precedents, opening doors to communities, building partnerships, providing unique opportunities for inner-city youth to grow and to give back purpose to veterans to live tomorrow.
“Everyone who has been involved in our deployments has changed the family tree of these youth and all of it would not be possible without the support of the collective community of supporters that we have,” said Chad.
The reality of the situation is that not everyone will be able to travel to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or participate in one of Soul River’s deployments. But the impact that these youth and veterans have on their communities as advocates for wild places is inspiring individuals to re-connect to nature and wildlife.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association is extremely proud of Chad and his team’s accomplishments at Soul River Runs Wild. Together with the help and support of organizations such as Soul River Runs Wild, we can build a connected conservation constituency that provides endless opportunities for individuals to appreciate and value our Refuge System by building a stronger community among our neighbors and re-connecting to our wild self.