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.
The Kobuk River is located above the Arctic Circle at latitude 67° north, just below the Brooks Range. North of the river there are no trees, but here a “hedge” of boreal forest thick with black spruce, balsam poplar, white birch, and Arctic willow, plus cranberry and blueberry bushes, is threaded through with tributaries, oxbows, and sloughs that provide a rich habitat—what I call “landscape intimacy”—a sanctuary for an enormous diversity of mammals, birds, and fish in a wilderness that has not yet lost its wild.
Flying from Fairbanks to Bettles, I get a sense of the whole—the vastness and complexity of the place. Mist rises from purple draws. Where trees have died out, the ground looks bruised. Wide plains of tundra are burnt umber, with wiggling streams pinched by black spruce and willows. We fly for hours: valley after valley has begun to turn copper and gold. Wide rivers are spliced together with sand and gravel bars. Dry melt ponds are pockmarks on the land. Here and there cliffs heave up, all gravel. Others are bald domes of rock. To the north are the treeless spires and pointed peaks of the great Arctic divide: the Brooks Range.
Bettles, population 26, is noisy and chaotic. Helicopters are landing and taking off every half hour. When I ask where they are going, I’m told they’re carrying materials to build helipads, hubs that will enable the building and maintenance of a proposed 200-mile-long road to new copper, zinc, and gold mines near the village of Ambler. It’s what Alaska’s governor, Sean Parnell, proudly calls one of the “Roads to Resources.” Ten million dollars of state Department of Transportation funds have already been spent on a project not yet approved, a road that will probably be made big enough to carry 300 to 400 ore trucks a day traveling at speeds of 70 miles per hour.
Late in the afternoon our floatplane takes us northwest and lands on Walker Lake in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle and is four times the size of Yellowstone.
Inupiat people have been living in the Kuuvak (the Kobuk River valley) for more than 12,000 years, with caribou, moose, Dall sheep, grizzly and black bears, salmon, whitefish, and berries in their diet. According to national park botanists, the polar climate here has helped preserve a remnant flora seen during the Pleistocene, so that if, 14,000 years ago, you were an Inuit hunter from, say, Vankarem on the northeastern coast of Chukotka, in the Russian northeast, and crossed the Bering Land Bridge and arrived in the Kobuk valley, you would have seen many of the same shrubs, lichens, and flowers we are seeing now.
At Walker Lake we portage our gear a quarter mile across a steep slope and sleep on reindeer lichen. The preferred food of caribou, it’s as soft and white as a cloud. For breakfast we feast on blueberries and oatmeal, then inflate our raft and put in on the Kobuk. Flowing south for some miles, the river drops down as if pushed by the great bulk of the jagged range that divides this relatively temperate terrain from the cold tundra that reaches all the way north to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
Our raft bumps over dimpled water as peak after peak lights up and goes dark in the rapidly changing weather. Passing a tributary, I can see into the middle of this northern extension of the Rocky Mountains—Mount Iqikpak and the Arrigetch Peaks pierce clouds and release powerful rivers: the Noatak, Killik, and Alatna, among others.
To the south the Kobuk valley is a tangle of low hills and plains—alpine tundra—and millions of acres of wetlands and lowlands, which are home to swans, geese, ducks, and songbirds, as well as moose. At Onion Portage, more than 300,000 caribou from the western Arctic herd swim the river each fall and arrive on their wintering ground: open country all the way to the Yukon River and the Yukon-Charlie Preserve.
The 280-mile-long Kobuk River flows south at first, then veers west. At its mouth, it drains into Hotham Inlet, then Kotzebue Sound and the Bering and Chukchi seas. Coastal Inupiat peoples who live on the Bering Strait have been marine mammal hunters and fishermen for thousands of years, and have always traded freely with the Nunamiut, the inland people: caribou skins and meat for seal oil and whale meat.
This northwestern quadrant of interior Alaska, bordered by Barrow on the north coast, the Anaktuvuk Pass on the east, the Kobuk valley to the south, and the Bering Strait in the west, holds vast populations of caribou, grizzlies, black bear, moose, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and hares, hundreds of birds and fish, and more than 12,500 years of human culture. Yet it has only a handful of inland villages, six coastal villages and towns, and not a single road.
It’s said that when fireweed loses its last, topmost blossoms, autumn begins. Never mind the calendar. Above the Arctic Circle the land has its own time line. In one day we have passed from summer into fall. The world has rusted: we travel through bog copper, melt pond glint, past a russet and burgundy wilderness. Red aspen-flames wind around S-shaped rivers. Deserted meanders curl into yellowing scars and thaw ponds. A dry oxbow is a sash of gold. A gash of green wiggles away from a fiery dome.
Now rain clouds roll in fast. We paddle and drift. The thick, luxurious boreal forest crowds the banks. It’s an Eden where long avenues of glistening water are overhung with trees. In some places, stands of green sedge grass line banks of coarse rock in perfect, Japanese garden–style rows. Gravel bars are disheveled with clumps of fireweed sending out winged seed puffs, green-bladed wild iris, and red-topped sedge grass. Everywhere the sand is deeply imprinted with grizzly and wolf tracks.
At water’s edge, chum salmon that have made their way by scent and memory up more than 200 miles of river to their birthplace are spawning and dying. There are so many carcasses that bears and eagles, foxes and wolves take only the good parts and leave the rest to rot. (In Fairbanks, when I asked an ecologist what the biological strategy of salmon dying this way might be, she said, “It’s not only about the food they provide upriver, but also the coastal nutrients they bring to the nutrient-starved glacial rivers and tundra soils.”)
Cold rain bangs down and a headwind pushes our boat backward. Arctic Alaskan summers are short and river miles (compared with air miles) are long. A hundred years ago, the seasonally nomadic people who still live along this waterway measured time in the wide, elastic cycles of breakup, fish camp, berry picking, caribou and Dall sheep hunt, freeze-up, winter fish weirs, winter trade fairs, and sacred events called messenger feasts where neighbors gathered to dance, eat, sleep, gossip, and relax before the rigors of spring began again.
The crushing demands of an alien culture with its market economy, strange religion, and different language had not yet been imposed on them. Weather and seasons were the markers of activity and of spiritual and moral conduct for all. The people who lived on the Kobuk said that Tulungersaq, or Father Raven, formed all life in the world. They said, “He was no ordinary bird but a holy power…. He was squatting in darkness when suddenly he became conscious and discovered himself. Where he was he did not know; nor did he know how he had come there. But he breathed and had life. He was alive.…This land, the Raven called the World.”
All sentient beings were thought to have personhood and, often, a dual existence. The transformation of animals into humans and humans into animals was a common occurrence; the peeling back of an animal’s skin could reveal its soul. Sila, or the power of nature, contained both weather and consciousness. The two were bound together seamlessly.
An oxbow pinches itself and almost becomes a circle. We straighten out and enter mist. A cool sun appears and retreats, and I wonder what I am seeing: what is animal, what is human, and how does thinking-knowing mingle with air. Narrow inlets appear: I call them Duck Inns. They are small refuges out of the river wind, with reeds and grasses in which to hide from eagles. In this one, a family of mergansers huddles at the far end.
Something dark moves on a gravelly spit ahead. A large male grizzly, a boar, comes into view. He doesn’t see our boat at first. He’s looking for salmon. There are rows of half-eaten fish on the gravel bar; he’s looking for something fresh. As we paddle into the bend, the bear spots us. He walks closer, lifts his nose, and sniffs. Now he stands. Will he charge? We’re ready to paddle away from him, and our bear spray is lashed to the side of the raft in four places. Lifting his head, he tries to understand our scent: rubber or flesh? Friend or enemy? We drift closer. He drops down on all fours and steps into the water, then stops. He’s well-fed and glossy-coated—not hungry, only curious, but he’s had enough. Turning on his heel, he clambers out of sight into the bush.
The sky clears, but it’s cold. The water is running fast and we paddle only to stay warm. At another bend we spot a grizzly cub sitting in the river. We slow the raft to watch. He’s bashing the water with his paws, turning right and left: is he playing or looking for fish? As we come into view he stands. His coat is cinnamon, not dark like the boar’s. Now he’s submerged in water up to his neck. His head swivels, small ears listening. Sensing danger, or at least the unknown, he quickly climbs the bank and crashes through a thick stand of blueberries into the trees.
We wait a bit longer. Maybe he’ll come back. Then it occurs to us that his mother must be nearby. We watch a bit nervously for her to show herself, but as we drift beyond his bathing spot, no sow appears.
All day we keep looking back as the current bumps us forward, past shadowed trees, over submerged rocks and the flashes of fish going upstream to die. Time unspools beneath us, pushing us into the present. Now we are still and the river moves past without us. Shamans all the way across the polar north said they could see into human/animal bodies and into mountains and ice; they could see the past and the future.
Warming myself by the campfire, I trace the outline of an animal track. Every sandy bank is etched with them. Our tents sit atop their comings and goings. In no place else in the world have I understood as clearly that we humans are merely passing through another’s nation. Today it’s the nation of grizzly bears.
Morning, and rain returns. The boat is pumped up and warm clothes layered on: long underwear, heavy fleece jackets, down jackets, and, over these, waterproof clothing, and life jackets. The first paddle in the morning breaks surface reflections into concentric circles that speak of the reciprocal relationships among all things here, of mutual respect and moral boundaries. By digging down with our paddles, we might enter openings and passageways; we might begin to understand the acute responsiveness of the planet to our presence and its impact on us. We might begin to form a way of knowing this place. But that would take time.
Here, the river water is translucent celadon, and as we drop in altitude, we gain in avian activity: a group of eight mergansers floats ahead of the raft; others fly back over us, upriver. Glaucous gulls perch on gravel bars, facing a cold sun that pops in and out of a sky layered with gray and white. A mother and her ducklings skitter, churning the water silver, and disappear into reeds. Four blue-winged teal fly up and over, almost touching our foreheads. A pair of osprey mate atop a nest that crowns a black spruce. High above us, a pair of ravens shape their wings and make aerobatic dives, cawing and gurgling in raven-speak. Ahead, five geese scurry off a sandbar after two gulls swoop down and heckle them. At the bottom of a few steep banks are abandoned beaver dens. A single muskrat pushes a small mountain of dried grass across the river.
The river is moving at about three miles per hour, but fireweed seed is faster. It flies past us in white puffs as if mimicking snow. Weather change: hoods up. Graupel bounces off rubber, then softens to cold rain. The headwind that has been pushing us stops suddenly. Ahead, raindrops float whole and bright on the river’s surface for a moment, then, one by one, like tiny lights, blink out.
Looking down, up, and to the side, I try to keep a panoramic vision of interior Alaska in mind: the thick ribbon of the Yukon River, the winding fence of boreal forest, the sawtooth peaks of the Brooks Range, hummocky tundra and frozen thaw ponds, and all the animals and people who have, for centuries, wandered throughout.
An ecosystem is made up of “wholes within wholes” where everything is bound together and in flux simultaneously. Lichens, willows, and grasses co-evolved with caribou, musk oxen, and moose. Salmon smell water, stream banks, and sand. Eagles spend summers feasting on eggs, fish, and carrion. Grizzlies finish off meals of chum salmon with paws full of berries. This river cascaded down from high mountains and glaciers and is ocean-bound. Here, flesh and spirit are conjoined and on the move. The river is nest, morgue, water hole, pathway. It is what one native resident called simply “a good place to live.”
At camp, the conversation returns to the proposed 200-mile industrial mega-road that will cost half a billion dollars to build over thawing tundra and wild rivers: more than 100 crossings of wetlands and rivers in all, some with culverts, others with bridges, in a part of the world where there have never been any roads at all. Acidic water runoff from the mines will pollute the waterways. The road may be built with asbestos-laden soil taken from the colorfully named Helpmejack Hills. In that case, plumes of asbestos dust would rise over the national park and would fly hundreds of miles, affecting the health of all who work on, live near, or travel the road. The governor has already signed a law that forbids anyone from suing the state or the mining companies for health problems—mainly mesothelioma—arising from the road constructed out of a hazardous material.
We stoke the fire and wonder how such a plan could have gotten this far. The state of Alaska has already spent $20 million surveying the area. Companies using the road will pay $9.7 million a year to cover maintenance costs. Investment brochures claim that the mines will give out much more than that in copper, though their lifespan is relatively short, about 12 years.
The narrow tops of black spruce puncture night air. The beginnings of the aurora borealis show in the northern sky. One might ask, what is the value of wilderness, or a river, of tundra, or a boreal forest? The nuts-and-bolts answer is this: worldwide, boreal forests store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem—almost twice as much as tropical forests. Here, carbon is stored not only in living trees and plants but also in the peat and permafrost soils. The forest functions as a huge carbon vault, one of the earth’s “air conditioners,” where 47 percent of the songbird population of North America, 303 species altogether, breeds, nests, and fledges. It’s not so much that we are trying to save the beauty and efficacy of the natural world; rather, it saves us.
Opinions about the road in the three villages of Ambler, Shungnak, and Kobuk are split. Many younger people endorse the road and the mines because they want and need jobs and money. Twelve thousand years of subsistence living no longer holds them. Their language is nearly gone, and the threads that bind traditional culture together are broken. “We had everything we needed here,” a native friend told me, “before alien people came telling us we didn’t have enough.”
Cold night. Ice on the water bucket. My dreams have been moving me through riffles, rapids, road-building, and whole cities teetering on stilts above shadow-dappled water. By midmorning the waning moon has ebbed away with the mist. A single raven flies low, wings creaking, and two seagulls make a laughing sound. We shake ice off our tents, roll them up wet, and keep going. Last night, listening for bear, we heard a distant wolf call. Before leaving I see his track by our tents, the place where he crossed next to the smoldering fire.
The slaughter of wolves has been weighing heavily on national park visitors and employees. There’s an all-out culling effort by the state’s Department of Fish and Game to keep the declining caribou population up so that sport hunters can kill their quota, though officials can’t say with certainty why the caribou are in decline. As in all western states, money from hunting licenses keeps the department afloat—a conflict of interest, it would seem, with its mission to protect the wildlife. Last winter the agency killed 44 percent of the wolf pack that dens in the Yukon-Charlie Preserve from helicopters. Are they “park wolves” or “state wolves”? Who “owns” the wildlife?
* * *
Fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. We load our raft in light snow. The poet Derek Walcott wrote: “Motion is loss.” A few fat flakes flap down. Taking the place of jagged mountain peaks are high-rise clotted snow clouds. Downriver the water is glass and we keep breaking it. Humans have been changing the “natural world” for thousands of years, but playing God in a world deeply disrupted by politics, economics, territorial disputes, and climate instability rarely works out well.
People have always used this river and continue to do so. The Kuuvanmiut (the people who live on the Kobuk) still have fish camps in the summer months that are overseen by women. The younger men walk to the first tributary north through mountain passes to the Noatak drainage to hunt caribou and Dall sheep. As soon as snow falls, they return and help the women at the camps, where fish are being dried and smoked and berry picking is ongoing. The men hunt nearby until winter comes on strong; then the whole population of a village returns to its winter camp. In earlier times, a taboo against living in the same house for more than one winter required the Kuuvanmiut to build new ones. Once that was done, they could spend long winter nights in the all-day twilight, fixing dog harnesses, boats, and nets, and telling stories.
Those were the days before snowmobiles cut through magic songs that were sung for protection. The sparsely populated river valley was home to dwarfs, giants, and animals that assumed the shapes of humans, then eased back into their animal skins. One legend tells of a specially blessed young man who paddled the Kobuk in a canoe made by beavers and birds. Along the way he married a woman who turned out to be a red fox, and later he lived with a kindly giant.
Spirits in the bodies of iñugaqalligauraqad—“small strong men”—lived here and still do. In Seth Kantner’s 2004 book Ordinary Wolves, a man named Enuk said that iñugaqalligauraqad had come to his camp: “They rob my skins. Meat. Caribou tongues even.” By comparison, our overpopulated world seems thin, unspirited, and bleak.
Farther downriver, we hear songbirds for the first time. We thought they had departed for the winter, but some are still here: a robin sings a morning song and four Bohemian waxwings flap between birch trees. I try to push away the black line of the proposed road that would tear apart the beauty of this place, and the human-drawn boundaries that allow senseless wolf depredations, and for awhile I do.
Under a clear sky we drift in silence. Here, movement means not loss, but beginning again: we seem to be gaining on green. At midday blue skies reign. We eat lunch on a gravelly island. A tiny inlet is still ice-choked, but the sun feels good on our tired shoulders. Glaucous gulls cruise by, eyeing our salami and cheese. As we start off again, an immature bald eagle flies toward us, all black feathers with white spots, like an Appaloosa horse, then lifts up suddenly over our heads and alights on a spruce. A northern shrike whistles. Two red birds we can’t identify poke their heads out of holes in a sandy bank.
All week we’ve been hoping to see migrating caribou. There should be thousands of them streaming through the trees and crossing water on their way south from the Noatak drainage, but none appear. They will stay on the north side of the Brooks Range until heavy snow is imminent. Though it has been cold here, real winter weather has not arrived above the Arctic Circle.
Instead of caribou, there are more birds: around a bend 17 or 18 ravens circle trees, cawing, gurgling, making their strange sounds. Toolmakers and jokesters, they possess the most diverse set of sounds—around 30 of them—and speak in local dialects. Maybe they can talk someone into saving this valley.
Pairs of Pacific loons float by and bald eagles flap between trees. Ospreys carry fish in their talons to hidden nests. Dead chum line the shore. Grizzly, moose, and wolf tracks pave the sandy banks. Earlier, snow filled their tracks separated by huge strides. Now sun shines in them before retreating. Though the days are getting shorter, we seem to be going backward in time. The berry bushes have lost their autumnal colors: we’ve entered a nation of birds and returned to the season of summer.
* * *
Shallow water and narrow spruce shadows fibrillate as if trying to pump life back into the fading day. Cutbanks and gravel bars slide by, islands in the streams of a braided river bulging with small islands and hemmed by vegetation: havens for the wildlife here. Isn’t this enough for us humans? Do we have to pimp the earth for monetary gain at the expense of place itself? Does “progress” trump human health, the rights of the grizzly, moose, or robin? Who speaks for them? Who speaks for this river?
An anguished bird cry awakens us from our mid-afternoon river-daze. We can’t see what’s happening at first, but around a bend we spot a bald eagle attacking a loon. Its mate flies back and forth over our heads, crying for help. The eagle dives down repeatedly, trying to pick the bird out of the water. She tries to fly but can’t lift up. As soon as we approach, the eagle leaves and the airborne loon rejoins its mate on the river.
For half an hour, we float slowly behind the two birds as the female stretches her wings, shakes her head, and gets ready to fly. No eagle in view now. Finally the pair flap hard and lift up, disappearing into the safety of the trees. One life saved by a boatful of strangers.
On the wide gravel bars, tracks reveal that we’ve moved from grizzly into black bear country. But at the end of August, anything can change: something in my bones tells me that winter might begin as early as tomorrow.
To be on moving water is to ride an unrolling scroll. Wind scratches messages on the water’s surface ahead: that’s our only future. Midstream boulders punctuate the flow of memory. Watch out. Veer left. Stay right. Don’t forget. Forward a few. Paddle hard now. As we eat lunch, a wild iris brushes my arm, and the river, like a Tang dynasty scroll, unravels time. A season changes one way, then goes back to the other. Death thoughts gust by. Ice-gouged spruce tip over and thrum water like drumsticks; the vastness of the physical world and our small place in it loom large.
A layered cutbank flies by like a piece of time with its 53,000 years of geological depositions. At another site, the ruins of a 1,000-year-old inhabitation are revealed. Not far downriver, the people of the Kuuvak are netting chum, seining whitefish, and collecting berries in birchbark baskets that fold on top like huge envelopes. Spruce ladles, carved from hollowed-out burls, are still used for serving a lunch of fish-head soup. Kids are shooing ravens away from drying fish, and resident dogs scare away bears. A green willow wall with a small fire in the center smokes the last of the salmon.
A hundred years ago, people traveled by skin-covered canoe, and when the river froze, they made their way on dogsleds. In the fall, a huge trading fair began at Shesilik, near the coast. Every river filled with travelers. Nunamiut (inland people such as those from Kobuk and Noatak) carried caribou meat and hides in canoes to the coast, where marine mammal hunters from Wales, Shismareff, Kivalina, and Point Hope, as well as traders from the Diomede Islands, came each year. Caribou, moose, bear, and inland ducks and birds were traded for maktak, walrus, seal oil, and whale meat. It’s still a sharing, trading society, and young men who hunt for a living can be seen carrying coolers full of seal oil and fat to inland settlements on floatplanes.
What night is it? I can’t remember. But I know how cold it is: 15 degrees. We hover over the campfire. In the northern sky the aurora begins its pulse-dance of green and white lights. By one or two in the morning, it’s a green fist driving down toward the river, but on arrival there, its reflection softens and shivers.
Morning, and we paddle out into a strong current. My dreams are all waterborne but darkened by thoughts of the road and the mines. With a tailwind, we don’t have to paddle, but only steer to keep the raft straight. Sometimes we make the raft spin and spin, taking in the 360-degree view amid laughter.
Cottonwood leaves shush and clatter. “That’s the sound of autumn,” Joe says softly. But here, above the Arctic Circle, the air is already heavy with winter. To the north, the sawtooth-above-treeline wilderness of the Brooks Range has been blanketed with snow.
We see a huge black ring around the sun called a sundog, indicating a change in weather. By morning everything is frozen solid—sponge to frying pan, tent stake to ground. The lids of the bear barrels are iced shut. Clouds called mare’s tails that foretell rain sweep across the sky like brushed hair. The river deepens and fills with schools of sheefish, a local whitefish that grows to be more than 30 inches long. They are ghostlike, swimming upstream. The songbirds have ceased singing. As the days go by, our brief summer reprieve vanishes. Motion is loss: we lose summer and enter autumn again.
At the Pah River, where, before 1870, 15 “native” houses stood on these banks, the Kobuk slows and deepens. A Kobuk man far downriver stands on a sandbar, fishing. Is he a human or a bear?
Wind and the fading light pulse the river into hammered silver, then the water darkens into what looks like a lagoon. Beyond, tall mountains are black cutouts—an entry into another world. A floatplane drones by. A raven flies over. Which is the plane, which the bird, one wonders? Water is moving and bulbous clouds push down on it as if saying, “Don’t go.” Rain is on the way, or else snow. Only two miles remain of the 92 we will have paddled.
Night. Raft unpacked, campfire started, soup cooking, tents set up, pads inflated, down bags rolled out, and a rind of moon falls behind the pulsing light of the aurora. Tonight it appears first as two spotlights that frame the Big Dipper. This is true north.
Earlier we missed our camping spot and had to paddle upriver—a last arduous push before the end of river time. It’s not good to be careless. Herb Anungazuk, an anthropologist who grew up in Wales, on the Seward Peninsula, wrote: “The land and the sea will show you its wrath if you cannot read what it tells you.”
Low, tight clouds close in above the trees and the mineral smell of snow erases the rain’s soft scent. We vacillate between wanting the floatplane to come soon and hoping we’ll be snowed into this remote valley all winter. At the last moment we get back in the raft and glide down to the other bank to make sure we are really in the correct place.
All week we’ve been moving in time, away from time, on top of time, all hopes and fears unspooling beneath us. But the road: will it come into being and corrupt this place? We dig in with our paddles and start back for camp. Joe whispers, “Forward a few paddles… Harder. That’s good.”
This article was made possible by the Jonathan and Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism. It first appeared in OnEarth.org, a quarterly magazine and daily online publication of thought and opinion about the environment.