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Big Beasts & Black Rock

Abruptly unwired, the author absorbs tales of warbles, bear peanuts, and a weird tattoo in the land of 24-hour sun

By Bob Sipchen

Debbie lowers her binoculars and gives me a puzzled look.

"People," she says, wiping rain from the hood of her jacket and stepping over to a spotting scope mounted on a tripod. "Looks like two. Coming over the ridge."

She's surprised by what she's seen and so am I. Sort of. I'm always startled to encounter my species in remote places. I shouldn't be. We're everywhere.

In the 24 hours since I arrived on Alaska's Kokolik River in search of caribou and coal, my mind has not stopped trying to people this unfamiliar landscape 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Flying north out of Fairbanks, photographer Brian O'Neill and I had noted how, within a minute or so, trees, rivers, and lakes overpowered the recognizable elements of civilization. Still, signs of humanity persisted: a cabin here, a mining camp there. And then, 150 miles after takeoff: the incongruously straight gravel line of the Dalton Highway, with the trans-Alaska pipeline zigging and zagging alongside.

We landed in Coldfoot, a former pipeline workcamp that's now a truck stop, to await our flight to the Kokolik. A moose and her calf ambled among mud-caked 18-wheelers. Humankind had a toehold on the land, but the next morning, as pilot Dirk Nickisch took off in his 1950s-era de Havilland Beaver, we saw how tentative that hold remains. As we droned through the Brooks Range, wings seemingly eager to stroke the jagged peaks, Nickisch reminded us over headphones that the squiggles we might mistake for hiking trails were animal paths. The geometric patterns I wanted to interpret as farmers' irrigation circles were the work of ongoing freezes and thaws. There was, in fact, no visible trace of people in the millions of acres unfolding below.

Which struck me as ironic in the grand scheme of things. This was, after all, where Homo sapiens first appeared on the North American continent, crossing a land bridge from Asia and ultimately migrating onward to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. The only imprint of our species that we saw during our three-hour flight was a narrow scar in the tundra where Nickisch dropped off a fuel stash. At the edge of the dirt runway were a handful of tents for researchers studying the Mesa site, a Paleo-Indian hunting camp whose archaeological remnants have helped push back the date for human migration to 14,000 years ago.

After another 250 miles or so of sweeping ridges, lush valleys, and streams strung with tiny lakes, our plane skittered onto a gravel bar decorated with fresh bear prints. Here we met Sierra Club senior regional rep and occasional river guide Dan Ritzman, plus two other folks continuing a trip they'd started a few days earlier upstream: Debbie, an adventurous accountant from Colorado, and Jim, an oral surgeon from Ohio who has climbed three of the "Seven Summits."

It's a few days before the summer solstice, and the sun never sets. This exhilarates and disorients, and may help explain why I continue to see signs of humanity that aren't there. Repeatedly I mistake hillsides terraced by weather and geology as the sites of housing tracts. Clouds strike me as contrails, a flying goose as a speedboat blazing upstream. My mind just will not accept that we are alone.

So I can hardly blame Debbie, a passionate birder, a disciplined observer, when she turns from the spotting scope with an embarrassed grimace.

"Caribou," she says. "They were facing me, and I could only see two legs."

A few hours later, Jim, Brian, and I crouch behind a stand of waist-high willows. We'd grabbed cameras and hiked from our riverside camp, rubber boots slurping in the saturated turf, to lie in wait for what we hope will be a wave of caribou. I'm trying to be still, to avoid shifting even an inch to assuage my rapidly numbing buttocks. I try to imagine that I'm one of the first people on this quiet land, a hunter poised, spear in hand, hoping that my cohorts' growling stomachs don't give us away as we stalk the prey on which our lives depend.

Splat! Jim swats a mosquito on his pants.

The Kokolik River is at the far northwest of a migration route followed for centuries by the 400,000-head western Arctic caribou herd, one of the world's largest. We are near their calving ground, but so far our sightings have been sporadic. It seems their migration route includes quirky meanderings influenced by everything from available forage to the mood of the 400-quadrillion-head Arctic mosquito herd, which torments every available inch of skin.

Splat!

The act of stalking, as hunters know, focuses a vestigial part of the brain. This Stone Age neuro-circuitry refuses to accept that in an era when you can order buffalo burgers online, survival is no longer tied to creeping up on prey. That obsolete need for quiet concentration also delivers serenity, a state of mind I hadn't realized was so missing from my life until now, as I witness the diminishing twitchiness of my brain.

Splat!

For months prior to succumbing to Ritzman's insistent invitation to join his trip, I'd been immersed in the Sierra Club communication team's frenzy of video blogging, e-mailing, Tweeting, and Facebooking about the BP oil rig that had gone haywire in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happened, we made our way through the Anchorage airport just as President Barack Obama appeared on the flat-screen televisions overhead and, in his first Oval Office speech, delivered a message that echoed many of the exact phrases the Sierra Club had been urging him to say about the dire need to break our nation's addiction to fossil fuels.

Alas, if you've ever watched someone go through rehab (and yes, Gary Busey counts), you know that it's a confoundingly complicated process. Air travel in particular reminds us of our shared societal dilemma, from the jets that represent our mainlining of energy to the trickle feed that delivers our technology fix. Our Alaska Airlines flight attendant, for example, strolled the aisle in a totem pole-print apron, offering tutorials on the inflight WiFi and renting digital entertainment devices. At the Anchorage airport, a vending machine sold iPods, Dr. Dre headphones, and other relics-in-the-making from the age of extracted energy.

In seemingly impotent counterpoint to our multimedia bingeing, a cranky backlash has infiltrated magazine and book racks. The premise of this budding genre is that we're multitasking ourselves into psychological and societal fragmentation, that skimming across the infinite infotainment universe engenders superficiality. An Atlantic magazine in the airport bookstore declared "the extinction of boredom" and made a compelling case that this is a loss to lament. Those agonizing moments of circumstance-enforced stimulus deprivation—childhood summers with nothing to do; heck, long airport waits without the drone of overhead televisions—are vanishing quickly. Media gushes into the void.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr discusses how technology changes not only individual neuro-circuitry but also the essence of a culture. Today, he suggests, we live in what science fiction writer Cory Doctorow termed "the ecosystem of interruption technologies."

Splat!

Before long, Jim's mosquito swatting becomes more annoying to my recently unplugged self than the bugs' whine. After an hour or so without spotting a caribou, we rise. Only now do we notice the big muddy excavations in the hillside behind us. "Bear peanuts," Jim says. Just a few hours earlier, Dan had explained that ground squirrels are brown-bear snack food. A single grizzly might eat up to 300 a year, taking the edge off its appetite between caribou kills—a piece of information that seems at least as relevant as whatever's going on in the life of Lindsay Lohan. I clutch my pepper spray and reflect that such data may well have resonated across this big emptiness for 500 generations.

In the distance, our tiny tent encampment has the relative heft of a city. We fall into a simple, satisfying rhythm: cook, eat, converse. At one point, I put on my sunglasses and fly-fish a riffle at 3 a.m., then retreat, exhausted, to my tent (unzip, dive in, and rezip fast to avoid dozens of inconsiderate roommates). Awakening to our new internal 24-hour clocks, we eat, talk, break camp, load canoes, and paddle.

On the river, we move at a pace that is utterly untethered from standard 21st-century prods andimperatives. The water reflects migrating clouds and a hypnotic tableau of submerged rocks moving an inch or two a season (or century?) toward the Chukchi Sea. Clumps of tundra sprawl over the crumbling riverbank, looking like the shag of a musk ox.

Stepping onto a gravel bar for lunch, I poke my head over the six-foot riverbank wall and immediately shift into stalking mode. A far-off caribou is behaving oddly. I duckwalk through wildflowers and grass tufts to get a better look. Is it dead? Frozen with fear at the scent of a bear? Giving birth?

I adjust my binoculars and cringe. When I reach my prey, I give it a solid kick, and an empty 55-gallon oil drum sounds a discordant thunk. We are, Dan has reminded us, just inside the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska, a 23-million-acre swath of the North Slope that President Warren G. Harding set aside in 1923, figuring it had lots of oil that the navy might need someday. As we continue downriver, caribou eventually appear, first by the dozens, then the hundreds, and then the tens of thousands, spread out across ridges and galloping across the tundra as if the ankle-twisting turf were a putting green. But they keep their distance.

By our last day on the river, we feel almost immersed in the herd, yet still haven't come as close as we'd hoped. When we spot a cluster of bucks on a distant swath of snow, we ease our canoes up to the riverbank. In a diplomatic whisper, I urge Jim to hang back so that Brian can sneak up and snatch the close-ups this magazine needs. Jim isn't having it. He clomps toward the bucks. My carotids thump. Dan gives me a look. He, too, wants Brian to get his caribou photos. But among a guide's responsibilities, the prevention of homicide also ranks high. Sensing futility, I plop down and try to stifle the impatient urban jerk within as Dan follows his other charges over the tundra toward the snow.

The sun's radiant heat massages my polypropylene top as the small of my back relishes the cool, damp soil. Red-breasted mergansers streak across the sky. A white-crowned sparrow calls. Willows flicker. Bugs crawl. Mindlessly, I multitask: I breathe. I repose. A sharp grunt alerts me. More grunts. Muffled clacking. An aromatic nuance changes in the breeze. Then, perhaps 50 feet upstream, they come crashing over the riverbank, two or three dozen caribou—bucks, does, and several calves walking the bank looking forlorn, making a guttural bleating sound. The bucks, antlers catching sunlight, splash into the river and swim toward the shore where I sit. For a few seconds, time means nothing, and two species' lives intertwine in precisely the way they have for millennia.

Then my multimedia impulses intervene. I edge toward a canoe, where a video camera rests in my bag. My motion alerts the first buck, which turns midriver, signaling the whole group to reverse course. They're gone.

Alone again, I look down at the rocky ground and recognize the other object of my Arctic quest. Just 200 yards upstream we'd glimpsed something in the riverbank as we paddled by, preoccupied with those bucks up on the snow patch—the first exposed seam of black and crumbly rock. I pick up a chunk. This is what Dan really wants me to see—actually, wants you to see: coal. A day after leaving the Kokolik, Brian and I fly with Sierra Club organizer Emily Fehrenbacher into Anaktuvuk Pass, a village of 275 or so people deep in the Brooks Range.

In Inupiaq, the language of the Nunamiut ("inland Eskimos"), Anaktuvuk means "place of plentiful caribou droppings." To the nomads who named this valley in the middle of the western Arctic herd's migration route, that phrase would have been a far better harbinger of a good life than "place littered with gold nuggets."

Values do change, though. In the dining area of the musky prefab hotel where Anaktuvuk's handful of yearly visitors stay, Fehrenbacher, who sports a ring in her nose and a Chicago Cubs T-shirt under her fleece, pops open her laptop and displays a map of northern Alaska. East of the Dalton Highway, which carries all those ice-road truckers to Prudhoe Bay, is the ever-embattled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trace a finger in the other direction, to the Gates of the Arctic National Park, and you find Anaktuvuk.

We're here because the village is a few dozen miles—a few months of aggressive road building—from the eastern end of a coal seam that runs 250 miles west to the Kokolik. That seam may hold the largest deposit of coal in the United States—some 3.5 trillion tons, in a nation that continues to burn a billion tons of the stuff a year.

From the air, Anaktuvuk appears as isolated a village as this earth still has to offer. The map on Fehrenbacher's laptop, on the other hand, shows the town amid a web of red veins where proposed supply roads and pipelines would crisscross the tundra so the coal could be dug up—or perhaps gasified—before being sent off, most likely to feed the steel mills of Japan and Korea. To put Anaktuvuk in context, we visit its cemetery. Tall wooden crosses are decorated with plastic flowers. The eight families who first put down roots here in 1948 are well represented. Prior to that, they roamed the Arctic. One cross telegraphs how that past still informs the present: "Michael Nigaalok Ahgook. Born: May 29, 1966. Died: ???? Found: May 10, 2004."

Walking through the 12-square-block town, it seems that every one of the small frame homes has a dog chained to a plywood doghouse. In front of one, Johnny Rulland, 82, threatens wildly yapping Shadow with a scrap of two-by-four. Then he settles on his front steps to talk, his English suggesting he might be more comfortable conversing in Inupiaq. His wizened face seems to reflect a trance state as he recites stories of particularly eventful hunts, like the time he blasted a grizzly that reared up as he slogged along a frozen creek. He figures that he shot 30 to 40 caribou a year in his prime. Like most elders in the village, he depended on sled dogs to pull him deep into the tundra. Now the hunting and fishing is done via snow-machines, eight-wheeled amphibious Argos, and ATVs like the shiny red four-wheeler that's parked amid the rubble of Rulland's yard.

I hand Rulland a chunk of coal I'd pocketed on the Kokolik and ask him what he thinks about the possibility of corporations mining it nearby. I'm not sure he understands. His response is a wistful "Life has changed."

Outside another home, a puppy named Mud scampers up, then lolls on its back, tail lashing ecstatically as Fehrenbacher scratches its belly.

Casey Nay, 28, watches while herding children outside her sister's house. She says the char are running and much of the village is out fishing. She's taking her sons, Richard, 9, and Billy, 5, and their cousins, but she offers to talk as she prepares. So we hop into her Argo and rumble a couple of dusty blocks to the house she shares with her partner, Tony Edwards, 33.

We step into the entry, a mudroom draped with rabbit, ptarmigan, marmot, wolverine, wolf, and lynx pelts. Richard darts in ahead of us and returns clutching a single-shot .22.

"We start them out with BB guns then move them up to .22s," Nay says. "When a child kills their first animal, they have to give it to someone." That habit helps the whole village, she says. "If someone doesn't have a hunter in the family, we hunt for them. The elders come first."

Edwards, a heavy-equipment operator, said he is open to the prospect of exploiting the nearby coal. He grew up in another Arctic village and worked in the oil fields for a while.

Nay is more conflicted. She acknowledges that some young people in the village would like to see the jobs and connection to the outside world that development would bring. "On the other hand," she says, "we are out here for a reason."

In the living room, she models a traditional Inupiaq ruff that she and Edwards made from wolverine and beaver skin. A soap opera drones on a wide-screen TV beneath a wall decorated with native masks and drums and framed photos of the children in Inupiaq dance clothing. As Nay gathers fishing rods and ice chests, the boys slip into a bedroom and are instantly sprawled across the floor and bed intently focused on a first-person-shooter video game.

"There are only a couple of high school boys who hunt now," Edwards says. "Unless the family drags them out, they'd rather surf the Web and watch TV."

Just before midnight, Brian and I stand on a hill and watch the town life unfold. At least a few people have "gone upside down" during the 24-hour sunlight, in which noon and midnight look a lot alike. The dirt streets are busy as people go about their slow-paced errands on ATV, Argo, and bicycle.

The next day, at the Nunamiut Corporation store and barrackslike hotel—gasoline flown in from Fairbanks goes for $8.10 a gallon—people gather. "Morning, ya'll," people say. Riley Sikvayugak Jr., 45, has dropped by to see whether the brake disk for his Argo, due three weeks ago, has arrived so he can resume hunting. It hasn't.

Cheryl Hugo, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, greets Sikvayugak in the store's narrow, paneled hallway with an affectionate grin.

"Hey, nomad," she says.

Sikvayugak says he's been a hunter since he was six. His father's people sustained themselves on whale, walrus, and polar bear near Barrow. His mother grew up in Anaktuvuk. On hunts, the men from the village would set him up as a lookout, then sit down to play poker for cigarettes and ammunition. "There was no money," he says.

Even now, on the way home after a successful hunt, he'll call in on the CB radio: "Tell the people there's caribou." Everything gets used, he says. The elders like the milk, brought back in the udders. He's particularly fond of the warbles, the translucent, thumb-size insect larvae that incubate under a caribou's hide. "As a kid, I'd wait for them to be skinned and put my hand out. I'd eat as many as I could. They're like grapes to me."

There is something powerful in the way Sikvayugak talks about caribou and the vast land that connects them to his people. You hear a similar respect for and a longing to preserve the Arctic in Dan Ritzman's voice. It may explain, or be explained by, a peculiar tattoo on his shoulder.

Tattoos have been important to Inupiaq culture for millennia. Each part of the human body is said to have a soul, and people tattooed themselves as a form of magic, not the least significant use of which was to lure animal souls near.

I don't know if Dan is familiar with this information. I do know that when we sat sipping Irish whiskey on the banks of the Kokolik, he told me about an animated after-school special he had watched as a boy growing up in Southern California. Based on a children's novel by Fred Bosworth, the cartoon tells the story of the sole remaining Eskimo curlew, a migratory shorebird that had once darkened the sky over the Arctic but ultimately disappeared because of human's unchecked appetites. Dan's shoulder now sports a tattooed image of that bird.

So it turns out that I've come to this ecosystem of uninterrupted solitude in the most media-free expanse in the United States because of the relentless proselytizing of a man who spent a good part of his life fighting to protect the Arctic because he was inspired by a cartoon that flickered across his cortex during childhood.

I wish I could say I fully understand the moral of this story. I do know I'll always be grateful for having had the chance to help tell it.

More: Arctic Coal, Arctic Melting

Bob Sipchen is Sierra's editor in chief.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

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