Duane Greuel (right) and his son, Ben.
How does a Wisconsinite who grows pickles on a hobby farm become a Sierra Club Arctic Hero?
Ask Duane Greuel, who last September backpacked through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where he trekked more than 40 miles alongside caribou, gazed at the northern lights, and befriended Alaska natives.
"This place challenged my senses. I never knew what quiet was until I went there. I could hear my son clearly talking to another person a quarter-mile away. Here at home, you can’t hear someone 20 feet from you,” he says.
Duane is one of the many Sierra Club Arctic Heroes who are helping to collect more than 100,000 signatures for a petition that will go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service will soon decide whether to designate a huge chunk of the coastal plain as a "Wilderness Area" that would be permanently protected from oil drilling.
According to Duane, the fight is as much about protecting a way of life as it is about preserving wildlife. “The Gwich’in and Inupiat people who live there are subsistence people. The caribou and other animals are more than just wildlife. They are part of a culture, and the destruction of the caribou’s habitat would destroy the culture of these indigenous people,” he says.
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Duane traces his love of the outdoors back to camping trips with his dad. Later, Duane worked as a soil scientist and even studied prairie chicken habitat with former students of Aldo Leopold.
These days, in addition to his Arctic work, he's organizing a fight to defeat proposed taconite mines along the Wolf and Namekagon rivers, which would threaten Wisconsin’s clean groundwater. Duane also organizes an annual barn dance that draws hundreds of people and raises money for conservation projects.
“It’s a riot. My youngest son is a bluegrass player. It’s a big neighborhood barn dance. It gets the community together. That's how we all stay in touch," he says.
Duane has hiked countless trails and visited many parks, but his Arctic adventure surpassed all other experiences. His greatest fear: That Americans don't understand what's at stake.
"A lot of people think that a little oil well won't do much. But they don't consider the roads and equipment, the pipes, and the shipping routes," he says. “It would change the water quality of the Arctic Ocean and the ecosystem for whales, belugas, and walruses. The value of the Arctic coast is tremendous, and we need to preserve it.”
Duane will never forget one particular day during his trek when he was at the end of a line of hikers. At one point, he sensed something behind him." I turned around and there were caribou in our line. They thought we were caribou marching across the tundra. When I fully turned around, the lead caribou stopped and gave me a look like, 'Hey, you're not a caribou!' And I was thinking, 'Hey, you aren't a human!' I'll never forget that for as long as I live. Where could something like that happen anywhere else in the United States?”
Photos courtesy of Duane Greuel.