In Alaska's Arctic, the land provides what the Inupiat need
Fairbanks simply stops and Alaska takes off into the wilderness, stretching unbroken all the way to the Arctic Ocean. From our antique DC-3, the solid, green forest changed gradually to scattered, glittering shapes: Sun reflected off the treacherous labyrinth of the Yukon Flats.Skip to next paragraph
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Then the great river itself curled into view. Although it is legendary for the tumultuous aftermath of the gold strike at Fortymile in 1886, the real significance of the Yukon River lies in prehistory. It was the path to the Americas from the Bering Strait, an ice-free refuge as glaciers closed in on each side.
The beauty of the flight silenced the chatter of our group - seven members of a Mountain Travel trek and two leaders. The plane took us over the razorlike mountains of the Brooks Range, over the rectangular patterning of the Arctic tundra - the result of hundreds of years of freeze-and-thaw cycles - then dipped toward a tiny cluster of houses at the treeless edge of the continent.
Smiling faces met the plane, faces nestled in wolverine fur. Our group stepped off into a sunny June afternoon and a windy 36 degrees - 21/2 hours by plane from the 90-degree heat of Fairbanks.
Kaktovik is a village of people who are known in English as Eskimos but who call themselves Inupiat, ''the real people.'' The houses are ''ranches'' now rather than the underground sod dwellings of 20 years ago. But the close connections of the Inupiat and the animals with which they share this forbidding land are still visible everywhere. Strips of seal meat hang on drying racks in front of houses. In one yard, 10-foot lengths of baleen lie against some rusting drums with the brown filaments billowing in the wind. The hide of a polar bear is stretched on a roof to dry.
Great space stretches in every direction, with nothing on the flat horizon but chunks of ice crushed into a ridge at the shore - and on the ridge the carcass of a whale.
Is it possible that this is still the United States? For the 19th-century explorers, the Arctic was the culmination of a long and perilous voyage; such a remote, strange country needs to be earned. But a noticeable feature of Kaktovik is the line of telephone poles. And over the small wooden turquoise box of a post office - ZIP Code 99747 - flies the American flag.
Seventy miles south of Kaktovik, in a valley just below Mt. Michelson and the continental divide, trip leader Chuck Horner tried to teach us how to walk without rushing; to wait, upon reaching a rise; and then scan for animals, the Inupiat way. And by the end of the trip, we were doing it. Richard Nelson describes it in ''Shadow of the Hunter'': ''They had learned the gift of enduring patience. . . . One could not expect that the weather, ice, and animals would do a man's bidding.''
Sometimes we walked on miniature flowers, a lush variety of genus, shape, and color, matted together into a spongy insulating blanket over the permafrost - solid here to depths of 2,000 feet. At other times we followed bear and caribou trails.
The land is much more rugged than it looks. It consists of tussocks held together by complex root systems above the soggy tip of the permafrost. Walking any distance means crossing streams of tremendous velocity, the runoff of water unlocked by summer and unable to seep into ground that is as solid as bedrock.
But walking here has its rewards: the tracks of a wolf still sharp in wet sand lying astride our way; the scent of willow catkins filling the air; Dall sheep, their heavy curled horns balanced over dainty legs, moving across impossible scree.
In the perpetual day, it is hot by 6 a.m., and we swim in the ice water of a glacial tarn. But by noon there can be thunder in the clouds piling up on the mountains and a temperature drop of 40 degrees.
Late in the afternoon of our first full day in the Brooks, we saw what we had come for: a caribou, alone, coming directly through camp. It walked slowly at first, and then shifted. With head as erect as a show horse, it pranced by, chin up, antlers spread flying behind as if blown back by the wind.
There is no airstrip here; the tiny plane that took us out landed on the stones of the dry creek bed. After five days in the Arctic, an airplane is a sophistication, a reality that makes no sense.
We spent a second week in Denali National Park. Denali is an Athabaskan Indian name that means ''the great one.'' Mt. McKinley rises higher from the land around it than any mountain in the world - 19,000 feet above the Chulitna River.