Stories from the North Part 2: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
I remember clearly the pressure of goodbyes upon us as we packed and shuffled our gear out to the airstrip for the next portion of the artist residency in the Arctic. Arctic Village during Gathering had been so full, and goodbyes were complimented by gift exchanges: a handbag made from lynx and muktuk (whale skin and blubber) that somehow had made its way all the way down South. Bittersweet for sure, but something big was calling….
“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless, and the rivers run God knows where.” ~ Robert Service
This is a continuation of the Arctic story: raw, unedited excerpts from my travel journal and sketchbook during my two week residency with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge through Voices of the Wilderness: an effort to team up artists with those working in the field in Alaska’s Refuge, National Forest, and National Park systems. The journey continues into Arctic Refuge, where my guide Roger and I spent several days camping in the Sheenjek Valley in the Southern portion of the Refuge.
Danny, our bush pilot, landed us on a dirt strip, the only sign of man in hundreds of miles, in the valley that was to be our home for the next four days. We watched him take off again, the bush plane disappeared into the distance, and then we were alone.
Danny, our pilot, was a bush kid. Raised semi-nomadically between hunt, trap and fish camps in the Yukon Flats region. Roger spent a lot of time with this isolated, subsistence-based family of five. They’d make their own parkas from caribou hide and ground squirrel. His sister, the youngest, recounted her proudest moment of trapping her first wolverine and skinning it herself. The three kids in their early adolescence were sent out on a right of passage journey along 150 miles of trapline on dogsled in the dead of Arctic winter. This completely self-reliant family exhibited creativity and improvisation, yet also defiance and animosity towards society and civilization. The kids eventually left home to Fairbanks and life in the city, while the parents followed, reluctantly surrendering some of their earnest backcountry ways for hunts on snowmobile and life in town upon old age.
Rain and clouds envelope the valley and cast a strange but familiar hovering darkness over the mountains. Stunted willow cover the valley floor and their leaves shimmer exposing light undersides in the wind. There is the landing strip and creek that is to be our water source to my right, the East, followed by a rocky embankment that gives way to a gradual slope of squishy tundra tussocks, scraggly spruce, gnarly remains of trees, and underbrush of blueberry. The permafrost is under everything, and the softness reminds of the melting that ensues.
It becomes rocky again as the slope increases nearing the base of Camp Mountain, a glorious and stately facade to our camp, rising something like 4000 feet above the valley floor. Below Camp Mountain there is a forest of stunted spruce called Fairy Forest by Margaret Murie. Through the spruce, we arrive at the wet and mushy shore of Last Lake. On the other side of the valley runs the Sheenjek River, the beautiful and winding river that shares this land with the Chandalar, which divides Refuge land from Native land. And beyond the Sheenjek, more stately and rugged mountains in the West, the place where the sun sinks low behind the peaks and fakes a set only to travel the short circumference of the pole to rise again in the East.
We had packed up a modest dinner of sandwiches and fruit and crossed the creek, traversed some scree, and sat next to a small spring waterfall that bursts out of the rock of the mountain and ducks back underground blessing us with the coolest, freshest water that has filtered through the mountain’s sediment for years before emerging back into the light. I happily get soaked filling our bottles and gazing over the valley, vast and without a trace of human: the ancient caribou, moose and bear hunting grounds of the Natives.
Each day we trekked along trails carved out by caribou, moose, sheep and bear. Caribou sign was so frequent that I began to feel as if I was one, ambling along gracefully through the willowed tundra. The Arctic bug has bit me! Entranced, I dropped deeper and deeper into stillness. Deeper and deeper into humility. The landscape became bigger, wilder with every step.
Fear becomes primal, and it is necessary in these environments. It’s provoked out of the depths under layers and years of comforts and stability. It comes when it is needed. And I’m grateful for it. I feel a little bit crushed and subdued by this landscape. A little bit hushed. Like reverence.
“To know the Wilderness is to know a profound humility.” ~ Howard Zahniser
I never would have imagined I’d be up here now. I dreamt of the Arctic last summer, and here it is. I am here. I told Roger why I wanted to come up to the Arctic. The Poles call to me. They call for me to listen and record. To see and to feel. Beyond the politics or anthropogenic change. Beyond who’s doing what wrong or right. Simply to listen.
So I’m here.
“Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska, that is her greatest economy.” ~ Margaret Murie
Up Big Creek towards the headwaters there is a small valley that lies hidden between two mountains over the saddle. It was there that my instincts soared, alertness prevailed, and wild took over. We ate our lunch amongst chewed on caribou antler racks left to bake in the Arctic sun after the carcasses had been cleaned by wolves.
Winter comes, snow falls, ice packs over permafrost, and winds blow temperatures down to 50 below. There aren’t many animals that bare the cold harsh climate, besides the caribou, which use this area as their wintering grounds. Magical animals they are. I’m so transfixed by them that I even had an urge along the trail to pop one of their poop pellets into my mouth to taste their reality. Oh boy.
The clouds broke to reveal the sun at times, warm upon our faces and lighting up the landscape in brilliant hues. Drops of water gathered on vegetation caught the light and went shimmering across the hills. The alpine landscape behind the mountains that guard the valley revealed a blue-green lake surrounded by lichen and moss and mud holding caribou tracks. I ran down the scree, delighted by the magical sight. We spent time there, at that special hidden place.
Late one night, I walked pointed North down the valley. The wind was cold and the sky was parting enough to reveal light cast on clouds by the low Western sun. The lichen and moss on the valley floor burned bright orange in contrast to the lime green of the horsetail. I walked out here at night to sing, move, chant, come back into myself. I caught moving figures out of the corner of my eye. They were light-backed and darker brown underneath. They appeared stocky and moved slowly, but fluidly over the landscape. Caribou? Bear? I was mystified and watched cautiously at a distance. They mystery remained with me, but the feeling of sharing this vast space with other beings delighted me.
I stayed up late that night watching the subtle light, at times dramatic when clouds allowed, play upon the mountainsides. The sunset went on endlessly changing from golden hues on clouds before bright blue sky to luscious pink over dark ocean blue. Truly the land of the midnight sun. It only got lighter, not darker. I excitedly ran to Roger’s tent to tell him that the light show he had endlessly been talking about was on! He peeked out for a moment, but said this was only the beginning. Maybe a light show will come for our last night here. Or maybe the “great weather” will prevail.
The expansiveness of the Arctic Refuge is a mirror for the expansiveness of the soul. We cannot be contained. We are vast, wild, free. We need nothing, yet at times yearn for holding. We are expanded energy living in a world that demands containment. Yet we will not be caged. We cannot be possessed.
“Wilderness itself, the basis of all our life, having furnished all the requisites of our proud materialistic civilization, does it have the right to live on? Do we have enough reverence for life to concede to Wilderness this right?” ~ Margaret Murie
On our last hike we were greeted by sun and big white poofy clouds. The wind whipped across the tundra of the valley beyond Camp Mountain’s saddle, and I was grateful, for it took the bugs away with it. Skin, lips, mouth bone dry in this Arctic dessert. We sipped crystal clear ice-cold water from the creeks that burst forth from rock on our way up the saddle. I leapt around with ease over tundra and rock around the lake, feeling like I could stay there forever, in that micro-climate with the caribou, sheep, bear, marten, vole, robin, duck, and mosquito. I felt as home as I did atop Thunder Mountain in Juneau, where Mariah and I would muse about living life with the marmots.
It was our last night in the valley. The mountains had grown to be companions and the willows dance partners. Roger and I were getting along well after a hike over the saddle to another hidden alpine lake and much conversation ensued. Whiskey and smokes and an ever-changing sky. I took a break to walk North up the valley, a nightly activity for me, and this time I laid down on the valley floor, allowing the land to be absorbed through the back of my heart. This place feels familiar and yet so distant. It has been intense, overwhelming, disquieting, stirring, daunting, and yet also comforting, soothing, inviting, acknowledging. Acknowledging of everything I walk with, arrived with, left with. Acknowledging of my strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledging of all my thoughts, whispers and prayers. I am humbled by the recognition and the all-seeing eyes of the mountains and craggy spruce trees. My birthday wish for this year, as I turned 27 on Arctic ground, is to be less me-centered. To be able to acknowledge the other as much as I know and acknowledge myself. As much as the mountains relentlessly have testified to me.
I could barely keep my eyes open on the long plane rides back to Fairbanks, slowed by a strong headwind. I listened to the two pilots up front speak airplane banter. They know the language of the sky like a ship captain knows the language of the sea. The view flying out down the valley through the Refuge was breathtaking, especially in this airplane that had big windows all the way down to my feet so I could trace the mountains down to where they eroded into scree and met treeline and brush. The mountains are grand, but the rivers dominate this land. They slice and weave their way, dividing and coming together, leaving no land untouched by their mighty will. The Chandalar, Porcupine, Beaver, Tanana, Chena, Yukon and Sheenjek. The lifelines for the animals and the people of this place. The meridians upon which all life navigates. The water shows the way. The vastness of the land, untouched by human besides a fish camp or trapline or small village dispersed in its grandeur, lulled me into a sleep full of dreams and strong memories.
The challenge of integrating is now upon me. Back in civilization, lights inside buildings brought me to a dizzy faintness, weaving through cubicles in the Service’s office building made me sick, and being inside too long made me want to cry. I sit now in the grass overlooking a forest of spruce and birch, alder and aspen, and yet the traffic from a town “out the road” away is deafening. The silence of that wild land consumed my heart. Birthed me anew. I learned of isolation, of idealism, of pragmatism. I learned of the ideals of life in the North, in the wild, that call to the feral-hearted strongly, the practicality of doing all that is required to live life wild, and yet the incessant urge that overcomes and dominates any heart, to connect to fellow human beings. To live with others. To ease the burden. To learn. To love.
Connection is truly everything. When we open our hearts, we open to connection with everything: one another, the land, the animals, the elements. Each becomes a companion to walk through life with.
Perhaps the largest challenge of them all is before me. How do I take these profound and bursting days of life in the Arctic and wrap them up into one piece of artwork, symbolizing the Arctic Refuge and depicting the likeness of Trimble Gilbert to represent the Athabaskan people? Do I overlook the sadness, the confused limbo state of life of the Gwich’in and feed an ideal that still remains, but is buried under modern conveniences and the sicknesses that come along with them?
I confronted Roger on our last hike together about some of my hesitations. He helped lead me to a place where I could accept the challenge again, honor the ideals, channel the beauty, see through the eyes of those who see the bones of one thousand generations of ancestors in this land. I started to see the potential this creation holds to bring together the people of the Arctic and those beyond it, to honor and reflect the land, and to heal wounds. To inspire, instigate, and travel through the hearts and minds of many. To open more doors.
So I accept. And I’ll create.
A whole-hearted thank you to Barbara Lydon at Voices of the Wilderness and the Fairbanks division of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for welcoming me warmly and opening my world and heart to the Arctic. I am especially thankful to guide, historian, and impassioned Wilderness activist, Roger Kaye.
I’ll be returning to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge summer 2017 to expand my work to Kaktovik, a village of Inupiaq Eskimo people on the Arctic Coast.