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Coming soon to Alaskan paradise: Devastating pollution

"Forward a few paddles…” Joe says in a soft but urgent voice. Three of us—Joe Riis, Neal Conan, and I—are paddling 92 miles down the Kobuk River through the northernmost boreal forest in Arctic Alaska. Five rapids are looming. We can hear them, and because we’ve been cold and wet for the previous three days, we want to make sure we get through without mishap.

We slip into an ever-narrower canyon that bends left. Where a rock wall shadows the water, only the sound of riffles is bright. Seven startled mergansers fly ahead of us. Then the five rapids come up fast. As the river foams and writhes, black spruce trees wave their arms: “Good-bye.” A sudden gust sends a shiver across the water. “Paddle hard!” Joe yells as the bow of our cumbersome raft pitches and bumps. The first four rapids were easy. The fifth is a class 4. Another bend and a wall of rock flies by. The rounded nose of the raft disappears in a gouged-out blue trough. I thrust my paddle down until the bow lifts. A standing wave hits my face, drains away. We laugh hard; we dig down with our paddles and slide through.

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