Article in the Suburban News Publications, July 19, 2006

Final frontier

UA native Chad Kister now fights for Alaskan wilderness

News photo by Ben French
Chad Kister (right) speaks with Ann Alaia Woods of Clintonville after Kister's presentation about the Arctic National Preserve July 11 at the First Community Church.


With a red laser pointer, Chad Kister outlined a dark Alaskan tributary projected onto the wall of the First Community Church.

"And this is the river where I almost drowned," he said calmly to a group of 20 or 30 activists who had gathered to hear heroic tales of survival down flooded rivers across the caribou plains of Alaska's wildlife refuge.

Kister, an Upper Arlington native, spoke at the church's environmental forum last week about a 90-day excursion through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that took place more than 15 years ago.

The 700-mile trip included close encounters with grizzly bears, oil company security guards, hypothermia and almost 130,000 caribou. Since then, it has been the topic of more than 900 presentations throughout the country.

His speaking tours and the accompanying novel Arctic Quest are only a portion of Kister's personal lobby to keep oil drilling out of the last protected area along the Arctic coastline.

As gas and oil prices break records in the United States, Kister and like-minded environmentalists watch as pressure to drill for oil in the wildlife refuge mounts around the nation.

"The issue has been opened up many times in the last 26 years," he told the group.

"We've won each time, but if we lose once, we've lost it forever."

Kister, whose Athens house runs on solar power, considers himself a pretty strong liberal. He often is surprised how his presentation has been embraced by strong conservatives -- especially among sporting and hunting groups throughout the country.

Chad Kister poses while floating down a river in Alaska in the 1990s. Fish was one of the main meals for Kister during his 90-day trip through the Alaskan wilderness.

No matter what the political view, many have been impressed by Kister, he said. As a 21-year-old college student, he set out on a 90-day trip by foot and raft, armed with a 10-day supply of food, a fishing rod and a few outdated maps.

"I was young and thought I could survive anything," he said of some of his gutsier choices, including a decision to navigate Alaskan flood waters.

A seven-foot wave sent Kister into a wall of shale that tore his raft and left him without a fishing pole half way through his trip. Luckily, Kister ran into the only two human beings within hundreds of miles who loaned him an extra fishing pole to finish the trip.

Kister's diet was limited to what he caught -- some plants, berries and the infamous Woolly Lousewort root stew, one of his favorite items off the tundra menu.

The cost of the low-budget excursion would have been more than doubled with one food drop, he said.

Kister returned to Ohio with a plethora of photos and a message he hopes will convince legislators and citizens "there is a lot more than just snow and ice out there."

The refuge holds only a six-month supply of oil, Kister argued, which is less the amount that would be saved if every American properly inflated their tires.

"Wouldn't it be a shame to sacrifice such an oasis of life for such a small amount of oil?" he asked.

Kister credits his upbringing for the passion he feels for environmental issues.

"I grew up in Arlington and was involved in Eagle Scouts and always enjoyed the outdoors," he said, referring to his Boy Scouts experiences.

Caribou are one of the primary mammals found in this environmentally sensitive area.

A love for writing, paired with academic success at UA High School, led to a full journalism scholarship at Ohio University.

"I intended to use the money I'd saved on my paper route for college," but it became seed money for a trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he said.

Kister has returned many times to Alaska and released a second book, Arctic Melting: How Climate Change is Destroying One of the World's Largest Wilderness, in December. It's accompanied by a film, Caribou People about the need to protect the Gwich'in and Inupiat people and culture.

His message to his hometown is "Awareness and action are key," he said.

"Contact your elected officials repeatedly," he said.

"Write letters to the editor, call in to talk radio and television programs...People really need to know what is at stake before it is too late."