On Foot Across the Arctic

DURING the night, the snow that had changed from rain only hours earlier pelted down from the mountain pass. As the arctic light diminished, the wind's fury increased. About midnight a violent gust of wind snapped the poles of our mountain tent, and the walls flapped in around us. Grabbing a side, we tried to subdue the thrashing tent but with no success. My wife questioned our sanity, and I throttled a curse. Night seemed to last a thousand years.

The next morning, we peered out onto a world of white. We were deep in one of Alaska's isolated wilderness areas, the Brooks Range. What now, we wondered? Our tent support had broken, and we were weeks from the Arctic Ocean, where our month-long backpack trip across 200 miles of mountains and tundra was to conclude.

Native elders back in Arctic Village, the home of a small Indian tribe located 200 miles north of Fairbanks along the south slope of the Brooks Range, had told us there would be times like this. They knew. Years ago, several had hiked the route we now followed. They understood its wildness. They understood that people must do for themselves. "There's no one else out there," they said. "If you're in trouble, you've got to do for yourselves."

Later that day, we did just that. We found willow sticks that we split down the middle. Then we pulled from our packs the wire native friends had told us to carry and use for rabbit and ground-squirrel snares if we ran out of food. With these items, we spliced the aluminum poles back together. The arrangement worked. Nodding, we agreed that old Issac Tritt would be proud of us.

We'd learned about the old trade route one winter night as northern lights blazed over our tiny wood-heated cabin. When Issac had been a boy, he and his father had journeyed over 200 miles to the Arctic Ocean to trade caribou skins for guns, flour, and sugar. When they'd made the trip, they'd seen caribou, wolves, and bears. They'd passed through high, glacial-covered passes where Dall's sheep butted horns. They'd netted fish and hunted caribou.

Issac Tritt, Moses Sam, and other elders from Arctic Village, had made the trip with the hope of improving their life. In part, we'd go for adventure, but also to experience the lifestyle of the group of people best known as the Gwich'in. We began planning our August trek.

First we assembled a list of supplies. Weight would be critical, for unlike village elders, we had no pack dogs. We'd carry freeze-died food and smoked caribou meat that natives gave us. Other items included a backpack stove, tent, Therma-rest pads to insulate us from beneath, waterproof matches, fire starter, a first-aid kit, and a shotgun loaded with rifled slugs. We carried no flashlight as we'd still have almost 24 hours of light.

After months of preparation, we left Arctic Village. We were alone, as the wilderness often reminded us. Near our first night's camp, some creature rustled in the nearby bushes. Moments later the sound stopped. We listened, but there was no sound at all. Grizzlies were around and could be dangerous. Steeling myself, I walked toward the sound, only to see a moose turn and fade deeper into the brush. I returned to the warmth of our campfire where we basked in a silence so complete, so pervading it seemed a n anachronism.

Though there had been no grizzly that night, hardly an hour passed when we didn't see bear sign. One morning we saw tracks where there had been none the night before. The tracks were imprinted into the sand along the river by which we camped. They ended 20 feet from our tent.

Another night we camped by a roaring creek. Some primitive instinct made us look up. On the other side of creek the stood a sow and her cub. The cub was making a circle with its nose, trying to understand the strange and perhaps frightening odor. We watched them and were awed. Moments later, we stood. When they saw us, they dropped. Then they raced off, plowing through the brush, quickly disappearing from sight. We both caught our breath and marveled at their fear of us.

Though grizzlies were everywhere, the animal we saw most was the caribou. Often we saw them singly, but two weeks after we left Arctic Village, we saw a group a mile away. The herd was lying on a ridge and from our distant vantage appeared to be a pile of boulders. Without binoculars, we never would have known the difference.

The next group we saw was near Gilbeau Pass, the major ascent on our route. A storm was brewing, and the bulls seemed determined to cross the narrow, boulder-strewn pass. Charging up the hill, they passed within 50 feet of where we stood. They ran with heads erect, antlers laid across their backs, challenging the wind, the rain, the snow.

NCE Arctic Village residents hunted caribou along the trade route. Meat from their kills was stored and preserved by digging pits into the permafrost. After digging holes they lowered meat and covered it with rocks to keep bears and wolves from finding it. We found several such "caches," as well as other old signs. Here and there we found ancient fire rings. We also found hunting towers Gwich'in elders once used to better survey the country. The elders had understood the wilderness, and they knew how to use their land.

The old trade route we followed wound for almost 70 miles up a river valley, passed through endless fields of tussocks and cotton grass, over glacier fields, and through hundreds of streams and rivers. One day we made 38 stream crossings. Often we covered little more than a few linear miles. On those days, the Arctic Ocean seemed light years away.

The route then ascended through the heart of the Brooks Range, finally squeezing through Gilbeau Pass. As we approached the pass, we almost lost our way. But we were fortunate; Gilbeau wasn't. Forty years ago, when Gilbeau explored the area, he must have gotten lost. Or maybe a storm caught him, and he grew cold. No one knows exactly what happened. Gilbeau was taken by the mountains, leaving behind only bones.

Maps helped us through the pass. Throughout the trip we used them daily, but near Gilbeau we used them almost hourly. With them, we selected the correct canyon leading to Gilbeau Pass. From there, the mountain valleys guided us down through canyons, past glaciers, and onto the barrens known as the North Slope.

When we reached the barrens, our food was running short. Little remained other than a handful of rice and dried eggs. We decided to fish, dig for roots, and pick berries. Natives had shown us the types of berries that could be eaten. Cloudberries were abundant, and we ate them by the bowlfuls.

Fish were also plentiful, and we easily caught Arctic char, which we cooked as natives had instructed. We simply roasted the uncleaned fish over a fire, turning them like hot dogs. Meat pealed away from the entrails in mouth-watering chunks.

One month after leaving Arctic Village, we reached the Arctic Ocean and the small Eskimo village of Kaktovik. Winter was rushing in, and pack ice was moving onto the shore. Soon we'd be whisked back to warmth by a small plane. That had not been the case for Arctic Village elders who had made the trek long ago. When they reached the coast they had to walk back, and they did so in the winter. They had no maps and little food other than what they had cached.

We were anxious now for the amenities they had not known. We'd accomplished our goals. We learned much about the Gwich'in and ourselves. We'd learned to rely on our own ingenuity in a way never required before. Several times we'd been concerned about our welfare. But at those times we remembered that once a 13-year-old boy had journeyed north. Issac Tritt, Moses Sam, and other now-deceased elders had relied on their ability to live with the land. We had been visitors, whereas they had been one with the w ilderness.

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