By Arctic Wild Guide: Michael Engelhard
Encounters with wildlife can feel like payback for karmic points earned and keep some of us buzzing for days. Perhaps more than in its weather or plants, the land’s life force concentrates in its creatures, sharpened to poignancy, similar but foreign enough to our own to be captivating. To some people, it becomes audible. A fellow wilderness guide describes it as a low frequency sound, “like a didgeridoo.” She has come to expect it in certain places and greets it like an old friend.
A fall day on a guided Canning River raft trip, at the western boundary of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will always remain special to the trip’s participants for what the land offered up.
Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we had pitched our tents, I noticed a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. A polar bear! The clients were quick to emerge from their nylon cocoons when I alerted them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. We stood and watched the bear sniff and root around. To this marine mammal-dependant carnivore (the largest on land), ground squirrels could have been the only morsels of interest there. Its wedge of a head swung on the pendulous neck, gauging god-knows-what. Thirty miles from the coast, radiant against willows and heather, the bear looked more displaced than it would have in a zoo. Sea ice—a haul-out for seals and hunting platform for the bears—had shrunk to the third-lowest extent on record. Hunger could have driven the bear this far inland, though it appeared healthy and fat.
Without a care in the world, it soon lay down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope.
Who was there to fear?
We sat and kept our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily have been mistaken for a smooth limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifted its head to sample the air. We were downwind from it, and it remained unaware of our presence.
Before long, a golden eagle flapped past. Harassed by a mob of songbirds, it scrutinized the bear, which did not wake up. Then I caught another bright spot heading downstream. A cub? But the gait was different, a trotting more than an ambling. A scan with my glasses revealed a white wolf.
Animals congregating for no obvious reason leave us mystified and in awe, especially when they are rare. They embody connections we have lost, evoking lineages and ways of life that once were familiar but now seem arcane. At our layover camp, tracks of caribou, wolves, moose, bears, foxes, and a wolverine had seamed the mudflats with unknowable agendas. The day after, we had observed a peregrine making a kill, a black Arctic fox, and a moose built like a bulldozer—all within an hour. Animals even sought contact with us on occasion, mirroring our own curiosity: Mew gulls escorted the rafts, shrieking blue murder. Caribou stepped closer, eyeing us nervously. A red fox—nonnative like we and likely to cannibalize its smaller arctic cousins—investigated our dinner setup. The flow of animals in the continent’s margins clearly had changed. We had changed it.
Sure, there were explanations for such meetings, or at least the beginnings of explanations. Mornings and evenings, warm-blooded animals tend to be more active, avoiding mosquito peak times or heat, fueling up for a cold night or the day ahead. With their patchwork of habitats, rivers provide food and cover for prey and predators alike. Their corridors ease travel, funneling animals—and humans—from the boggy and lumpy tundra. Nevertheless, the landscape seemed lifeless for hours at a time and for miles around. We frequently surveyed it from a hilltop or standing up in the rafts, finding no movement except in the river’s slippage beneath scudding clouds. What fine-tuned the meanderings across this land? What tangled invisible paths at greater than random frequency? Did life attract more life, beyond caloric or reproductive rewards? Was there some animal magnetism, some orbiting of terrestrial bodies about which we knew nothing but which included us?
While shadowing the Porcupine caribou herd, the writer and wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer heard a “guttural thrumming” at significant moments in the herd’s migration. Not much is known about this phenomenon, but Heuer believes it could be a key to understanding communication that orchestrates the herd’s moves and even transcends species boundaries. This strongly resonates with the beliefs of Gwich’in Indian hunters who, regarding caribou distant kin, have long claimed the ability to converse with them.
Unconcerned with such puzzles, the wolf approached the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, it then sauntered over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory.
Because the bear was not moving much and posed no immediate threat, I had breakfast and broke down my tent. Then I acted as lookout while the rest of our group took their turn and loaded the rafts, shielded by the bluff and prevailing wind. As I contemplated Sleeping Beauty with mild voyeuristic unease, I realized once again that, “out there,” who spots who first amounts to a matter of safety. Vision, hearing, and smell have been refined to various degrees in the tundra’s denizens to ensure survival of the most sentient. Enhanced by broad arctic vistas and a sparse natural soundtrack, this deep involvement of the senses accounts for the wilderness traveler’s sensation of being fully, if at times frightfully, alive.
As if to drive home that point, a camouflaged couple we’d run into below the Marsh Fork confluence came floating around the bend. Velvety caribou antlers in the raft’s bow attested to their prowess as hunters. But they drifted by with their bloody cargo, oblivious to the predator outside their field of vision that had just bumped them to a lower rank on the food chain. I shuddered to think how often I had courted disaster like unknowingly, like this.
When we shoved into the current a few hours after the initial sighting, the bear was up and moving again, sniffing through bushes on the bench. We stole away like thieves, enriched by an encounter that luckily stressed none of the parties involved.
Over the next fifteen miles, our course intersected with that of a northern harrier, a rough legged hawk, more peregrines, and low flying, yammering loons. An Arctic fox popped from between tussocks and then sat on its haunches with erect ears, intrigued by the bipedal transients.
Hours later, a tundra airstrip and a water flow gauge perched on a terrace on river right announced the end of our journey.
After a dinner upgraded by fresh grayling and char, I dumped dishwater down the cutbank, scattering ground squirrels that had staked out riverfront property by tunneling below the rim. Straightening up, I faced a grizzly nosing along the opposite shore. As we gathered to keep tabs on its progress, furtive movement on our side caught my eye. Some dark troll momentarily rose on its hind legs for a better view of us. Bear cub, my thoughts clicked into the familiar groove; but my fellow guide, Cyn, correctly identified the visitor: “It’s a wolverine!” Loping toward us on flat feet, the animal stopped repeatedly, as if considering a dare. This allowed us to check the bushy tail, burly legs, and brawler’s face characteristic of one of the North’s most elusive critters. I stared in disbelief until my eyes watered. This was only the second time I had seen the weasel on steroids, and the first time, in Denali, it had been a mere glimpse. At roughly a hundred yards, the wolverine hesitated. Deciding that it had crossed some kind of threshold, it bolted, jumped into the river, and dogpaddled to the other side. On shore, it shook its backlit coat, sending a burst of droplets flying. By then, the bear had lain down for an evening nap. The wolverine continued upstream where it spied the bear. Like its wolf counterpart before, it detoured around the sleeping mound. Then it clawed from the gravel bar up onto a bench and vanished behind a rise.
What a strange variation on a theme—like an Animal Planet rerun with a different cast. But to capture scenes like the ones we had witnessed in a single day, a documentary film crew would have to spend weeks or even months in the wilds.
Sunset had turned the northwestern horizon into a garish smear. A string of geese sailed right through it, black cutouts pulled to their fall staging grounds near Beaufort Lagoon. The river shone gunmetal blue, braiding and unbraiding into its delta, beckoning us to carry on. Struck by oblique rays, icebergs glowed in the distance. The bear was still snoozing. When it got too dark to make out its shape, the clients crawled into their tents, trusting in our triage of pots and pans, pepper spray, and assorted firearms.
Before I turned in, the realities of our streamside world dissolved into those of another, one almost forgotten during the past week. To the north, near the coast, flares and red strobes ruptured the night like a mad carnival. The lights wavered and merged in the crystalline air. They spelled the undoing of everything we had experienced. They proclaimed the place where sanctuary yielded to busyness, where extraction passed for production. They hawked the stuff that became our gear and got us to the river—Prudhoe Bay crude.