By Randy May
As we stood on the gravel landing strip in Arctic Village, Alaska, my two new friends and I watched as the tiny tundra plane descended from the Brooks Range, executed a steep hairpin turn, and landed using only the first 100 yards of the strip.
We were at the beginning of a planned eight-day backpacking journey high into the Romanzof Mountains in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before traveling down to the Hulahula River, and our guide, Brooke, had left on the first run of bush plane while we awaited our own shuttle to the upper Jago River.
Our bush pilot, Daniel, emerged from the plane with a smile. “Welcome aboard…but we’re not going to the Jago.”
It was unseasonably cold for mid-June, and the night before had seen nearly a foot of fresh snow, creating severe avalanche hazard and hiding the small landing area along the Jago River. Instead, we would have to land on the banks of the upper Hulahula River and reverse our route, hiking as high as safety would allow. This was the Alaska Factor in action — ambitious plans are fine, but you had better be flexible if you want to make it home.
An hour later our group was on its own above the Arctic Circle, in the center of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as Daniel and his aircraft disappeared in the distance. At first, we saw little movement around us and felt like intruders in this vast wilderness. That first night, camped a couple miles to the south, we were serenaded late into the night by a pair of howling wolves denning in a canyon across the river. At midnight, I emerged from my tent to capture my first memory of the perpetual Arctic summer day .
In the morning, the Porcupine caribou finally began to come into view, first in the distance but ultimately coming within 200 yards of our location as they realized we were not a threat. Dozens of Dall sheep became visible on the slopes as well, high above the valley, knowing that we feeble humans had neither the speed nor strength to chase them down. Two grizzlies lazily picked berries across the river.
Our group of five visitors and two guides day-hiked up to a pass from which we could see just how snowbound the upper elevations had become.
On the way back to camp, a herd of about 100 caribou grazed peacefully above the far riverbank, suddenly looked agitated, and then sprinted downriver at breakneck speed. Behind them appeared two smaller shapes, grayish and furry, hot on their heels — wolves.
The train briefly disappeared behind a small hill, then the caribou re-emerged, less panicked and free of their pursuers. Was there a kill behind that rise? We’ll never know for sure.
During our first two days, with temperatures in the low 30s and high 20s, we saw many mountain avens, familiar flowers in the Arctic as the first harbingers of spring, but other flowers were either tightly closed or yet to emerge. Then, on the third morning, we awoke to blinding sun and 60-degree weather. Spring had come overnight. Within two more days, the tundra was covered with purple mountain saxifrage with its starburst seed pods, woolly lousewort with its fuzzy heat retaining core, and many others. With just a few bumblebees around, it was definitely a pollinator’s market, so the new flowers had to put on their most colorful show to have a chance to be noticed during the short spring.
Our abbreviated route had worked out for the best, as we now had the time and flexibility to explore side valleys and canyons without the burden of heavy packs, and to appreciate even the most minute details in this grand wilderness. Digging down below the collection of spring flowers, the tundra active layer is a 6-12-inch maze of moss and lichens that cover another 6 inches of soggy black mud. Just below that is the impermeable permafrost, hard as rock year-round, that blocks drainage and traps the rainfall and snow-melt at the surface.
As relayed by Debbie Miller in her memoir “Midnight Wilderness”:
“Exploring tundra vegetation is just like walking through a jungle, except this jungle is only a foot high.”
Late in the trip, we returned to the airstrip on the Hulahula and camped about a mile below it on the riverbank. At 6:30 am, our guide Brooke was dealing with morning chores a respectful distance from the camp when in the corner of her eye she noticed something dark grey, low in the tundra and about 30 yards away. Then she saw the pointed ears and the deliberate paw-over-paw crawling motion toward her. She was being stalked by a wolf!
With bear spray at the ready, Brooke stood tall and soothingly explained, “I am not a caribou! You are beautiful and I love you, but please go away!”
The disappointed grey wolf realized its mistake, slowly rose and trotted away in full view of the camp, casually showing off its nonchalance to the rest of our group.
Anyone lucky enough to savor a taste of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will realize that it is truly sacred ground — one of the few remaining reserves on the planet large enough to let nature be nature on the grandest scale. Large enough to provide calving grounds for hundreds of thousands of caribou, and — together with adjoining land in Yukon, Canada — to allow a typical individual caribou to migrate thousands of miles in a year without constraint by roads, pipelines, structures, fences or drilling platforms.
With 19,000,000+ acres and only 1,500 visitors per year, it is also a test of our personal values. We are challenged to demonstrate that we can rise above commercial interests and political expediency to respect and honor this land and the creatures on it for their own sake, not just for what it can do for us personally.
Randy May is an Alaska Wilderness League member.