The Man with the Mammoth Bones

John Reeves (R) in his library with some mammoth tusks.

John Reeves (R) in his library with some mammoth tusks.

“It tastes like shoe leather. It’s good with ketchup, too.”

That’s how John Reeves, a larger-than-life character in Alaska, described the taste of barbecued mammoth. In a land of big mountains and ever bigger dreams, the former champion swimmer still cuts an imposing profile. He stands 6 feet 10 inches tall but proudly reminds us that his son surpasses seven feet. Reeves is also one of the largest private landowners in Alaska. His company, Fairbanks Gold, LLC, owns thousands of acres of patented mining grounds and also holds numerous additional claims along rivers in both state and federal land.

With all of his land, Reeves is constantly uncovering mammoth tusks and bones. They aren’t hard to find in this part of the world, which, along with Siberia, formed the stomping grounds of the woolly mammoth. Not infrequently, the beasts’ remains have several-thousand-year-old meat still attached when unearthed. Permafrost in Alaska and Siberia creates cryogenic-like conditions that are near perfect for storing a mammoth for eons. Some people might think of sending the ancient mammoth carcass to a lab for studies, but John Reeves isn’t that kind of guy. Instead, he tossed it on the grill.

The impractical meet the entrepreneur

Reeves pointing out something on the map to the professors and students.

Reeves pointing out something on the map to the professors and students.

Exploring Reeves' property off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks.

Exploring Reeves’ property off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks.

At the last minute, our research network – a mix of decidedly academic professors and students with the PhD Seminar in Arctic Extractive Industries that was taking place at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks – arranged to visit Reeves on one of his many plots of land last week. Our organizer, Alaskan historian Terrence Cole, joked that we would be the type of people Reeves would call “impractical.” Yet the big and tall landowner greeted us in that warm but no-nonsense kind of manner that seems typical of Alaskans.

We met Reeves on his property just off the Steese Highway leading north out of Fairbanks. Across the motorway, the silvery Trans-Alaska Pipeline was visible through the orange birch trees. The smell of roasting coffee filled the air, which was inexplicable until Reeves explained to us that his wife was into roasting coffee beans from Costa Rica. He bemusedly complained that due to the expense of roasting, they weren’t able to draw a profit from it.

Earning money and keeping it is a lesson that Reeves, a lifelong entrepreneur, has taught to his children since they were young. He regaled us with a story about family dinnertime. “The kids would have french fries on their dinner plates, and if they didn’t say ‘No Taxation Without Representation’ in time, I’d grab one of them,” he laughed. “They learned real quick.” It’s this sort of attitude that has allowed Reeves to prosper in a state known for its get-rich-or-die-trying view on life.

Like many self-made Alaskans, John Reeves hitchhiked up here after deciding that life in the Lower 48 – specifically college in Florida – wasn’t for him. But he didn’t throw in the towel once he made it to the Last Frontier. Instead, back in the 80s, he bought a former gold dredging site outside Fairbanks and developed it into a tourist attraction where visitors could pan for gold and keep what they find. He later sold it to the cruise company Holland America. The site has since become the subject of a court case – something else Reeves is famous for, as journalist Dermot Cole (coincidentally Terrence Cole’s brother) has reported.

A taste for mammoths – and history

At first, it seemed like money is what makes Reeves spin. But after spending about an hour with Reeves, it became clear that the forces driving him are bigger than cash. They are history, gold, and mammoths – some of the legends that Alaska itself is built on.

Reeves didn’t spend too much time talking about how he had come to be one of the largest landowners in Alaska, after the federal government and the Native regional corporations. Instead, he appeared more interested in showing us the artefacts of his adopted state’s history, from the Pleistocene to the present.

On top of the snow-soaked mud sat hundreds of pieces of equipment collected from Fairbanks’ Gold Rush days in the 1900s, when entire valleys were dredged and filled with water. At the back of the property sat a disused “overland train” – specifically, a Model-VC 22 Sno-Freighter. The American construction company LeTourneau Technologies developed this mode of transportation in the 1950s for moving across Arctic tundras without a need for roads, and sold it to the U.S. Army for use in constructing the Distant Early Warning Line in the early days of the Cold War. Originally, each of the 24 tires had an electric motor – that is, until copper thieves came around to Reeves’ property and stripped them.

The overland train.

The overland train.

Sheltered from the cold, one building on Reeves’ property was full of books and documents about mining, which he had obtained by purchasing the entire contents of a library in Utah. In this same room were all sorts of other incredible relics: scrimshaw (carvings or paintings on whale bone, walrus tusks, and other types of ivory), fox furs, and hundreds of maps that might hold the secrets to a new gold find. It would be possible to fill an entire small museum with his collections. There was even an early 20th-century diving suit hanging on the wall. It had been used by a technician to swim underwater and look for gold after a valley had been dredged and submerged.

Reeves has his eye on the future, too, however. As he held enormous gold nuggets in his hands, he expressed his certainty that there’s still plenty of gold to be found in Alaska and described how the search had progressed to the next level. Prospectors are now looking for “nanogold,” ultrafine gold that is left over in the tailings and detritus left behind by previous efforts.

Books and Scrimshaw in Reeves' library.

Books and walrus scrimshaw in Reeves’ library.

More books and a mammoth carved out of mammoth ivory.

More books and a mammoth carved out of mammoth ivory.


Reeves (L), a diving suit, a safe, Prof. Terrence Cole (R), and some fox furs.

Straight talk on Fairbanks and mammoths

In one of many typically unscripted moments while we were walking around Reeves’ property, he shared his thoughts with us completely unfiltered. His candor was refreshing after we had spent two days in a conference where everyone from oil executives to government representatives took great pains to be politically correct.

“I think of Fairbanks as a political animal,” Reeves offered. “Ester is where the hippies are. The center is the middle of the road. And the North Pole is full of meth heads, but they go to church on Sunday.” (True to form, in Ester, west of downtown Fairbanks, we had gone to a bar for the Arctic Energy Summit’s opening reception where we chatted with a liberal filmmaker from Whitehorse as the Smiths were jingling on the stereo and Major League Soccer played on TV.) If Reeves’ entrepreneurial spirit had turned him into a landowner, his frankness had turned him into a TV star: he and his family were once stars on the National Geography reality TV show called “Goldfathers.”

Fairbanks on the map -a bit different than Reeves' personal geography of the city - and some mammoth tusks.

Fairbanks on the map -a bit different than Reeves’ personal geography of the city – and some mammoth tusks.

Despite Reeves’ multiple careers as champion swimmer, landowner, historic preservationist, and state employee, the outsized Alaskan appears more of a modern-day mammoth hunter than anything. In yet another building – one entirely dedicated to mammoth specimens – he showed us his collection of tusks, bones, and two whole skeletons – all found on a parcel of land half the size of the parking lot to his place. This collection seemed to be his pride and joy and something he’s not keen to exchange for cash anytime soon – even though, according to Reeves, a pair of mammoth tusks can fetch up to $485,000 on eBay. Knowing this price, his wife had suggested that he sell a couple on eBay, Reeves explained to us while chuckling. “But why would I do that? Mammoth tusks are more fun to look at. I like them more than the stacks of $100 bills.” Money isn’t everything.

The big kahuna of mammoth specimens.

The big kahuna of mammoth specimens.

Saying goodbye to Reeves.

Saying goodbye to Reeves.

At Arctic Energy Summit, Herding Both Reindeer and Oil Are on the Agenda


Oil industry and regional corporation executives discuss oil spill prevention, preparedness and response at the Arctic Energy Summit, September 29, 2015, in Fairbanks, Alaska. From L-R: Robert Blaauw, Shell’s Arctic Program Director and Chair of the ART JIP’s Arctic Committee; Richard Glenn, Executive VP of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and member of the National Petroleum Council; Mitch Winkler, Head of Shell’s Arctic Technology Program; James Hall, Chairman of ART JIP, Exxon Mobil.

Across the vast tundra of northern Eurasia, nomadic indigenous peoples have herded reindeer for thousands of years. From the Sami in Fennoscandia and northwest Russia to the Chukchi in northeast Russia, herding reindeer is, for many Arctic peoples, a way of life. Reindeer provide food, clothing, and companionship on the tundra. But at the Arctic Energy Summit in Fairbanks, Alaska this week, a newer herding activity in the Arctic came to light: herding oil.

Whereas reindeer herding is a continuous way of life, herding oil would only be necessary in an emergency, if there were an oil spill. Since 2004, led by ExxonMobil, the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program (ART JIP) has been researching the use of “herders” like low-toxicity biodegradable surfactants – something like dishwashing soap – in ice-covered waters. These surfactants “herd the spreading oil back into a smaller, thicker slick,” according to this ExxonMobil report (p. 17). There’s even a brief video about successful herder experiments on the ART JIP’s main website. Once herded, the oil is easier to remove from the ocean, generally by burning.

Discussing herding oil during the Arctic Energy Summit panel.

Mitch Winkler, Head of Shell’s Arctic Technology Program, discussing herding oil during the Arctic Energy Summit panel.

Against the icy backdrop of the Arctic, the introduction of fire to get rid of oil seems like an almost hellish solution. But counterintuitively,  in icy conditions, burning is sometimes the best possible response for cleaning up an oil spill. The presence of ice causes oil to form in thicker layers than in open water, making it thick enough to burn. ExxonMobil also claims that smoke plumes dissipate quickly in the Arctic, and in any case, they note that human populations are generally quite distant. While Arctic populations tend to be small and scattered, however, there are still many people who depend on the environment and marine ecosystem. There may be fewer people than in cities in the south, but they may be more vulnerable to the effects of an oil spill and its remediation, too.

Herding reindeer, herding oil

Executives of international oil corporations carefully choose their words. During a panel on oil and gas industry emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and collaboration (which should be available soon to watch here), neither the Shell nor ExxonMobil executives uttered the two worst words for the 21st-century oil industry: Deepwater Horizon. To reference this disaster would evoke fiery explosions, black smoke, and birds with oil in their wings. Instead, the executives spoke of “Macondo” and the “post-Macondo” era – words more neutral and benign in their association, referring in more technical terms to the name of the actual prospect. When discussing Shell’s withdrawal from the Chukchi Sea, the two Shell representatives repeated verbatim phrases from the press release: “challenging and unpredictable,” regarding the regulatory environment, and “disappointing,” regarding the outcome.

So the choice of the word “herding” in the phrase “herding oil” must be understood within the wider context of corporate terminology. The word sounds bucolic, bringing to mind a shepherd and his flock of sheep, or in an Arctic context, a reindeer herder and his animals. Herding oil makes it sounds like it is something that just needs to be corralled into its proper place. It papers over how oil is much more viscous, sticky, and pervasive. The black liquid is not as easy to herd as reindeer, however stubborn some may be. Even today, if you dig into the sand on certain beaches along Prince William Sound, it is still possible to find oil a few inches down leftover from Exxon Valdez in 1989.

At the Arctic Energy Summit, I asked Anders Oskal, a Sami reindeer herder and Executive Director of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry in Kautokeino, Norway what he thought about the oil industry’s use of the term “herding.” He hadn’t heard of it before, and after I explained as best I could how the oil executives had described it, he responded, “We might call that edge herding.” Looking quizzical, though, he added, “You can’t drink oil. It’s not a food.” So the use of the word herding wouldn’t really work. Oskal asserted, “The day the oil industry knows a bit about herding, then we can discuss.”

Anders Oskal, Norwegian Sami reindeer herder.

Anders Oskal, Norwegian Sami reindeer herder and Executive Director of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, with his cell phone at the Arctic Energy Summit.

Platforms for beluga spearing and oil extraction

I wonder who paid more? Shell and the World Wildlife Foundation's competing signs at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska.

I wonder who paid more? Shell and the World Wildlife Foundation’s competing signs at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska.

At Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, not so far from the site of the Exxon Valdez disaster, brightly lit ads for oil companies depicting their platforms jutting dramatically out of the frozen North Slope decorate the walls. The ads are hard to ignore (along with an ad at McDonald’s for the “McKinley Mac,” which is exclusive to Alaska. By the way, given the mountain’s official renaming, shouldn’t the burger be renamed Denali Mac?). Shell appears to have outspent the World Wildlife Foundation, whose smaller sign is underneath. The juxtaposition of the two signs – Shell’s about investing in Alaska’s future, and the WWF’s about securing the Arctic’s future, illustrates the longstanding battle between oil and environmentalists up north.

The display of the yuyqil at Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport.

The display of the yuyqil, a 19th-century Dena’ina Athabascan technology in Southcentral Alaska, at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport.

Tucked away in a dim corner between Gates B and C, however, was a small exhibit about indigenous technology in Alaska – the precursor to all the pipelines and platforms that would one day come to this land. In the nineteenth century, the Dena’ina Athabascans of Southcentral Alaska would dig up a spruce tree and turn it upside down before sticking it into the shallow shorefronts of Cook Inlet. The tree roots thus served as a elevated platform above the ocean, called a yuyqul, from which the Alaska Athabascans could throw spears at beluga whales coming inshore to eat salmon. This 100-year old marine technology to harvest resources from the ocean is an eerie predecessor to the oil platforms that would dot the North Slope seventy years later.

The Dena’ina Athabascans abandoned their yuyquls after firearms were introduced. This is not necessarily surprising. Oskal stressed to me that Arctic indigenous peoples have always been quick to take up new technology. He referenced studies done in the early 1990s that concluded the high ownership rate of mobile phones in Norway and Finland, which at the time were some of the highest in the world, were likely due to early adoption by the Sami. Indeed, as we spoke, he kept turning his cell phone over and over in his hands, almost methodically, and mentioned advances in battery technology.

Co-existence between reindeer and oil in the Arctic

The experience of the Dena’ina Athabascans and the Sami demonstrates that indigenous peoples can be just as forward-looking in terms of technological advances as the oil company. Indigenous peoples use technologies perfected over thousands of years, just like oil companies. Sometimes the two technological paths even meet, as in the case of platforms or cell phones.

Still, there are fundamental differences between oil extraction and reindeer herding. The oil industry is extractive and takes as much of the resource as it can get. It generates cumulative effects on the land and erects lots of permanent infrastructure to get to its resource, including roads, railways, and pipelines. In contrast, reindeer herding is nomadic and has a much lower footprint while tending to take only what it needs from the environment. Despite these differences, though, the two ways of life – extraction and reindeer herding – can co-exist under certain circumstances.

Florian Stammler, a Professor of Arctic Anthropology at the Arctic Centre in Finland, explained during his plenary talk how the oil industry and reindeer herders exist side-by-side in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in northern Russia. One of the reindeer herders he spoke to during fieldwork remarked that the oil companies have a right to be on the land and use it, too, and that life is more fun with the neftyaniki (oil workers) there. But reindeer herding and oil herding may be less compatible, for oil herding would mean that a disaster had happened: an oil spill in the Arctic. This is a situation that everybody wants to avoid. Industry and indigenous lifeways are compatible, but that compatibility has its limits.

Still, Oskal, the Sami reindeer herder skeptical of the use of the word “herding,” made clear during his plenary presentation that the oil industry is not necessarily the reindeer herder’s enemy. “It can even be quite profitable,” he attested. Renewable energy, like wind turbines, can be more destructive in terms of their impact on land – the most important resource for reindeer herders moving from place to place. The ideal environment for wind turbines is often on the same cool, high, windy grounds where reindeer herders might bring their animals to rest and cool down in summer and avoid mosquitos.

Several Alaska Natives I spoke to in Fairbanks mentioned that the oil companies were in fact doing a lot better job with respecting the environment and training and hiring locals than before. I have to admit that I was initially in disbelief when an oil company representative asked rhetorically during a panel, “Can bowhead whales smell?” (a comment which referenced how Inupiat knowledge informed scientific studies about these marine mammals’ olfactory senses, and which also brought to mind the work of anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, who wrote the seminal book Do Glaciers Listen?). For all the untold undesirable effects that oil extraction causes to the land, water, and air, companies are more aware than in previous decades of the people, animals, and environment where they are operating. They have also helped to fund a wealth of Arctic research – especially into bowhead whales.

So oil companies are consulting and partnering with a good number of Arctic indigenous peoples and anthropologists, but they are also continuing to hire some really talented people in public relations. As Oskal joked, “Maybe they’ll start saying oil husbandry.”

Mood at Arctic Energy Summit subdued following Shell’s withdrawal

It felt like somebody had died.

Such was the mood on the frigid floor of the Arctic Energy Summit this morning. The biannual conference opened today in Fairbanks, Alaska in the Carlson Center sports arena, where the heating hadn’t yet been turned on and where news of Shell’s withdrawal from Alaska’s Chukchi Sea was making waves. When Nils Andreassen, Executive Director of the Institute of the North, gave one of the opening speeches, he intoned, “After some of the headlines in the papers this morning, I’d like to ask for a moment of silence.”

For a brief second, some might have thought he was grieving for Shell’s decision to withdraw from the Arctic following an unsuccessful exploratory drilling season at the Burger J prospect in the waters north of Alaska. Andreassen quickly clarified that the moment of silence was “to reflect on the complexity of being in the Arctic. And whether you’re for or against some of the decisions that take place.” As the audience bowed their heads in silence, though, one could imagine bells tolling up and down the state as Shell packed up for good.

Reverberations of disappointment

Rex Rock speaks at the Arctic Energy Summit.

Rex Rock speaks at the Arctic Energy Summit.

After years of abortive attempts and finally managing to drill an exploratory well this summer, Shell claims did not find enough oil to justify continued exploration. In its press release, the company also blamed high costs and “the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” Others rumored that Shell was looking for an excuse to get out of the Arctic because of so much negative press, particularly from environmentalists. Regardless of the actual reasoning, Shell’s decision caused disappointment for many leaders of regional native corporations and politicians in Alaska.

At the Arctic Energy Summit, Rex Rock, President and CEO of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC, one of twelve regional native corporations), expressed defeat. “We were pleased that Shell was able to finally able to clear some of its regulatory hurdles and head back to the Chukchi Sea earlier this summer. However, along with Shell, we are disappointed to see the exploratory drilling at the Burger J prospect not turn out as we had hoped,” he stated.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, who spoke at the icebreaker reception for the Energy Summit last night, tweeted:

The fixed infrastructure of oil

Arctic Energy Summit is a place for industry executives, academics, practicioners, and politicians to discuss how to get more energy out of the North and how to provide its communities with more, too. Renewables have almost just as big a presence as oil, with hydropower, geothermal, and wind energy often generating a lot of excitement. But the conversation tends to center on what will be the next advance – be it a new oil field, a new regulatory change, or a new renewable technology – that will allow us to sustain our current lifestyles rather than trying to alter how we think about consumption and extraction, as a colleague pointed out.

Through the windshield, an oil tanker train rumbles through Fairbanks.

Through the windshield, an oil tanker train rumbles through Fairbanks.

Particularly in Alaska, however, it can be hard to think of alternatives to oil given its tangible presence. Fossil fuel is invisible in most of the Lower 48, where you only really think about it at the gas station. Even then, you never see it as it moves from pump to tank. In contrast in Alaska, the inner machinery of the oil industry is etched into the landscape, both in moving and fixed form. Oil tanker trains stop traffic as they rumble between Anchorage and North Pole, just east of Fairbanks, where two refineries have operated with grave effects on human health and the environment. Meanwhile, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is a chrome wonder of the modern age that moves half a million barrels of oil every day from the North Slope to Valdez, the port on Alaska’s southern coast.

There are several stops along the pipeline where people can appreciate its hulking immensity up close and even touch the insulated metal if they’re tall enough. Seeing the four-foot wide structure curve through the orange-tinted forest of birch, spruce, and aspen trees can almost feel like coming to worship at the temple of oil. It’s this infrastructure that has allowed Alaska’s economy to flourish in recent years as oil skyrocketed to $147 in 2008.

Looking at the TAPS.

Looking at the TAPS.


TAPS: Roadside attraction and lifeblood of Alaska.

The pipeline must have a minimum amount of oil flowing through it or else a number of problems may occur, from ice build-up to an inability for the oil to pump itself over the state’s steep mountain ranges. So with Shell pulling out of the Arctic, it almost feels like another nail in the coffin for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Without a new source of oil, the the pipeline could eventually turn into a rusty ghost of a boomtime past.

Just before seeing the pipeline, we looked at hoards of old equipment left over from Fairbanks’ gold mining heyday in the 20th century. When gold was going strong, it was probably hard for people to imagine that all the dredging equipment would ever be sitting useless as much of it does now. It is similarly difficult to think that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline could ever be just an empty skeleton after all the manpower put into its construction and maintenance.

Old mining equipment now sitting

Old mining equipment now sitting unused.

Postponing the inevitable?

Perhaps that’s why although Shell said it was withdrawing for the “foreseeable future,” many others see it only as a temporary delay. Despite the somber mood and moment of silence at the Arctic Energy Summit, the dream of offshore Arctic oil hasn’t died. For many, it’s only been deferred.

Rex Rock of ASRC declared, “Make no mistake: we are not victims of a changing climate. Our Inupiaq culture is one of perseverance and resilience.” To him and many others, Arctic oil is an opportunity to be seized. If it doesn’t materialize, some Alaskans, Natives among them, argue that this would be the death knell for life as they know it – not warming temperatures, melting sea ice, or longer open water seasons. In pursuit of future riches from Arctic oil, they will probably keep persevering in their hopes that Shell’s drill ships will appear again on the horizon – and working hard to make it happen.

The pipeline lives to see another day.

The pipeline lives to see another day.