By Jess Lewis
Photos by Nathaniel Wilder (nathanielwilder.com)
Caribou spill from the hills and instantly my upset stomach is forgotten. I stare through binoculars slack-jawed as they pour like water from the Brooks Range down onto the river ice. Thousands fill the basin, their bodies steaming in the weak June light. As a single being they move towards the canyon, hooves striking at the ice, only to turn back afraid to move forward. Their wild dash has slowed into a muddle of brown bodies gyrating in upon itself.
The Porcupine Caribou herd is 169,000 strong and endures the longest migration of any land mammal. Moving over 2,500 km over rough and broken ground they roam from winter pasture deep within Alaska to summer strongholds on the northern coast. The females’ bellies are swollen with young, their spindly legs nearly ready to buckle from fatigue, yet each year they hear something calling to them from the North and they run to it. Literally, they run. Through deep snow, mountain passes and glacial water, some ancient instinct urging them forward.
As I watch, a young male steps tentatively away from the herd. His velvety muzzle swings low to the ground as he gracefully sweeps towards the river. The Kongakut gurgles inches from his nostrils. Slowly he places one long leg into the liquid testing its depth. Determining it safe, he confidently strikes out for the far shoreline. The mesmerism breaks and caribou surge for the river. Rainbows dance among the animals as they stampede, continuing their journey north. I watch until the very last of them disappears over a distant saddle in the mountains. The land feels empty without their presence and the silence left by the four footers is overwhelming. It invades my body and wraps itself comfortably around my mind.
I stare mindlessly into our small driftwood fire. Flames dance like gypsies and sparks fly into the night — a night that defies the very definition of itself. I turn my face to the sun willing its weak rays to warm my body. It slides languidly along the horizon full orbed and orange. I am on watch. Two hours to meditate, write, pray, simply be. If I listen carefully I can hear the earth breathe as it sleeps. The Kongakut gurgles over the smooth black stones and the wind hums steadily as it searches the tundra. The air is cold and light on my exposed cheeks. It’s almost as though there is less air at the top of the world. I delight in the idea, twirling it through my mind. One by one my fingers go numb. I alternate between curling them inside my coat and holding them out to the fire. So far I have seen no Grizzly bears, but I am sure that they will come. As my watch beeps 2 a.m. I go and wake my mom. Handing her a mug of steaming hot chocolate, I leave her with the Ruger .454 Magnum and bear spray and happily crawl into my sleeping bag. Tying a bandana around my eyes to block out the light I drift off to sleep and dream of caribou.
Groaning with effort I pull my boat through the shallow water. It’s laden with sixteen days worth of gear and quite heavy. Arctic rivers are braided and often the water chooses, much to our chagrin, to run below ground or in a dozen shallow intertwining paths. Thus we pull. The nylon rope begins to dig into my skin and I’m grateful for my formidable layer of clothing initially meant to ward against the icy water. I glance around and take note that everyone else looks just like I feel. Tired, slightly annoyed at the river and yet prodigiously happy. The wild seems to have this effect on people. A change takes place in the very core of my being, enticing me to embrace every experience for exactly what it is through thick and thin. It is a skill, taking joy in the simple act of living. I think about the caribou and their bellies full of flesh and blood, their run across Alaska. How hard and overwhelming that journey must be and yet how every year they persist and endure its hardships. Shoulders forward I lean a little harder into my rope.
Mosquitoes drive me mad. I inwardly shudder at the high pitched buzzing telling of their immanent approach and my skin crawls with the thought of the quarter size lumps they always leave me with. This poses a definite problem for me, for in the arctic mosquitos will cover a patch of uncovered skin so thickly they are standing five deep waiting their turn to get a taste of my oh-so-sweet blood. I was fully aware when I signed on for this trip that I would have to deal with the pests; regardless, I am ashamed to say that on one hot and sweltry afternoon they got the better of me.
My mom, dad and I decided to attempt scaling a rocky pinnacle, which threw itself some two thousand feet from the valley floor into the cloudless blue of the sky. Scrambling into my tent I threw on my head net and donned rain gear –- Gortex being the only decent protection against the mozies, and we set out into the bush at a swift pace.
Our efficient clip soon became and arduous scramble as the ground turned to mush from last night’s rain and the terrain became steep. To make matters worse, the bushes effectively created their own microclimate making it unbearably humid and I began to sweat. One thing you should know about me. I hate overheating. So without hesitation I stripped off my coat and secured it around my waist like any good tourist. When the mosquitoes began to show up in hoards I simply gritted my teeth and continued to struggle up the mountain. Moments later I went raving mad.
I lost all sense of my humanity and began to act as any animal would. A primordial noise, some sound between a groan and a growl leaked out of my lips. My arms began to flail helplessly about my head as if windmilling them about might keep me out harm’s way. When this failed I did the only thing left to do. I satisfied my primal urge to escape and simply fled. Topping out on the ridge I scrambled the last few rocky feet to the pinnacle and collapsed. The wind tore through my clothes soothing the large red welts covering my body and washed away any of the remaining attackers.
My parents approached slowly, gazing at me in wonder and not without a hint of amusement. My dad’s lips twitched into a poorly suppressed grin, “Why didn’t you just put your jacket back on?” I roll my eyes towards him like a frightened animal and shrugged. It never really occurred to me.
Caribou have been seen acting in the very same way I did. They go from standing peacefully to quite suddenly shaking their heads vigorously, stamping their feet and eventually stampeding about with no apparent rhyme or reason to their madness. But there is a rhyme and even a reason, one that was becoming more apparent to me by the second. Bugs. Not just any bugs but biting bugs. Luckily mosquitos can be dealt with by seeking refuge on a windy ridgeline. Unfortunately, the caribou must also suffer through fly season and a soft breeze does not so easily dissuade flies. Warble flies burrow under the caribou’s skin and lay eggs, which hatch into larvae the next season and dig their way back out, only to drop to the ground, become flies and repeat the process. The Nosebot fly makes its way up the nasal cavity and lays its eggs there, the hatching larva form one massive clump, often blocking the airway of the animal. I shudder at the thought and pull my coat on over my vulnerable skin.
We sit quietly as the river carries us towards the sea. Dall sheep graze on the hills or sunbathe on the dark canyon walls overhead. Light dances through the glacial water, clear as glass, and plays with the stones far below. A breeze pushes us, gently blowing strands of unwashed hair into my eyes. I trail my fingertips through the water tempting the Arctic Char and Grayling to come take a nibble. It is a rare sunny day and the sunbaked tundra lends a rich and heavy scent to the air, something like ancient earth and salty seawater. We must be getting close to the coast. Wild flowers blanket the shore. Small starred Forget-me-Not’s the color of the sky on a warm summer day, Bearberries with delicate purple bells, others with intricate orange tendrils that reach for the sky, and my favorite, Arctic Poppies, bold and bright their yellow dresses sway about their stems in the breeze. Like a patchwork quilt the tundra flowers hug the contours of the land.
I nearly fall out of my boat when a caribou comes careening into my line of sight and launches herself into the river. I stare wide-eyed as she swims like her life depends on it for the far shore. She isn’t more than twenty yards from the front of my boat. I can make out her nostrils flaring as she struggles to propel herself through the rushing water. Her eyes are rolled back in her head, showing the brilliant white of her inner eye. Clearly she is terrified. It’s odd to me that if we scared her so badly her escape route would bring her so directly in line with our path…
Being held in the gaze of a Grizzly is a sobering experience. I am trapped in his eyes, canyons of brown, deep and ancient in their power. He pauses mid stride on the bank clearly as startled by our presence as we are by his. Awe flows like electricity between the great Bruin and the humans floating by in the river. His wet, black nose wriggles, tasting the air. Too soon he turns and lopes away and the magic is lost. His retreat takes him up a talus slope and we watch in appropriate reverence as his blonde shaggy coat ripples with every stride. He pauses for a moment on the ridge and with one last reproachful look dips out of sight.
We had rudely deprived him of his dinner. It’s not every day that a Grizzly gets a good shot at a caribou. I turn my attention back to the cow. She stands on the rocky beach, water falling like shattered glass to the ground. Her head is low, velvety antlers dip towards the earth, her sides heaving, swollen with pregnancy. Slowly she turns and picks her way over the rocks. Always on the move she begins to trot north towards the summer calving grounds.
We are an oil hungry world and currently our energy use is dependent on the black gold we suck from the earth. There is a lot of oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, so why not drill there?
One word: Caribou.
The caribou play a central roll in this true pristine wilderness landscape, something increasingly rare in our world. By hosting the fly larvae and allowing them to mature under their own skin they effectively supply thousands of migrating bird species with sustenance. Their individual lives are given into the circle of life feeding the great grizzlies and the endangered Grey Wolf. The United States government is currently mulling over whether or not to drill for oil in the Arctic, an action that would greatly threaten the survival of the Porcupine Caribou heard. Human ingenuity can find alternative energy but it can never replace the wilderness and natural species found there.
From my lookout perch above the camp I gaze out over the ice flow creaking upon the surface of the sea. The Brooks Range towers rugged and regal in the distance, a backdrop to the wind-scoured tundra flats. All is bathed in the golden light of the midnight sun. Soft hues blend the land together to where no line is distinguishable and I cannot tell where the ocean meets the sky and the land.
Three caribou lope into view, a young male with proud velvety antlers and two small females. Their gait is steady, fluid and full of a grace and purpose I wish I felt in my own life. I sit in silence and watch as their delicate legs carry them over the tundra and out of sight. A deep melancholy settles on my heart and I cannot help but wonder, how much will be lost if we lose the caribou?
Jess Lewis grew up adventuring in the small mountain town of Buena Vista, Colo., with Outward Bound instructor parents. A few years back, she and her family repeated a trip her farther took when he was 12. He and his Aunt were the first people to run the Kongakut river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and so we went back to repeat it. This piece is about that experience, the way that landscape shaped her and, especially, the way the caribou have influenced her life.