Shin deep: the cold is like a jolt of electricity as we step into the water. Thigh deep: skulls-sized rocks roll beneath our feet. “A person wouldn’t last a minute in this,” Carol Kasza yells over the roar to Beth Wald and I who have hooked arms with her in our third attempt to cross the storm-swollen North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. Waist deep: the river shoves at us like a living thing. If one of us slips now, all three of us will be swept away. Even in the clutches of the current, I catch myself almost smiling at the thought of explaining this to anyone — waist deep in an ice cold river in the middle of a trackless wilderness all in a search for a place called ‘Perfect Beauty’.”
It began this way: March, 1987. I was dogsledding up the frozen back of the North Fork following a braided thread of wolf and caribou tracks when the lead musher stopped ahead of me pointing at a gap in the mountains to the west. “There’s a valley somewhere up in there,” he said, his moustache striped with ice, “with a Nunamiut name that means something like ‘Place of Perfect Beauty’.” With that, he clucked to his dogs and moved off, leaving me to watch the pass vanish like a mirage in a curtain of blowing snow. Even as it disappeared, I knew what I had to do, someday.
Twelve years later, I step off a plane at the Nunamiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass with Carol Kasza, a long-time friend and Arctic wilderness guide. This time it is high summer. Songbirds call from the tundra. The peaks rimming the village blush with fireweed as if embarrassed at their own lush beauty.
Our plan is to meet up with photographer Beth Wald and set off through Gates of the Arctic National Park. We’ll hike over a pass, down the other side, then ford the North Fork to a raft dropped by a bush plane. Then, we’ll paddle to the village of Bettles. Two weeks that will take us through the eastern part of the park, and put us in the heart of that mountainous country I’ve been dreaming of for years, the land of “perfect beauty”.
Gates is a place filled with wild beauty. At 7.5 million acres it is one of the largest protected wild places left on the continent. Here, there are grizzly tracks still warm on a riverbank. Wolf howls drift with the tatters of fog, unnamed peaks ripple from the tundra like waves gone to stone. With just 5,000 visitors a year, caribou outnumber humans 100 to 1 in the park.
“This is wilderness,” Park Superintendent David Mills told me before our trip. “We get people who’ve been to Katmai or Denali and are looking for some place more removed from the beaten path.” With no roads, and no trails, they find it here. This is, as one ranger describes it, a “black belt park”.
We shoulder our packs and hike the gravel road out of town. The village of Anaktuvuk is raw-edged and young, settled just 50 years ago as the permanent home of the last nomadic culture on the continent. The pass it sits in, however, has been in use for thousands of years. The evidence is everywhere.
“Here’s one,” Beth calls before we’ve walked even a few miles. At her feet, a pile of caribou bones glows chalk- white in the tundra. With my binoculars, I count 17 such piles. Bones, skulls, and antlers litter the valley like piles of exotic driftwood. Atop a large boulder splattered with orange lichen, the skulls of three huge caribou bulls are lined up, their hollow eye sockets looking out over a valley of bones.
Twice a year, spring and fall, as many as 500,000 caribou stream through the park – snorting, trotting, kicking rivers of life. It is the caribou that bring many visitors to Gates. It is also what brings life to the people of Anaktuvuk.
“We need the caribou,” says Lela Ahgook, camped in the valley with her husband Noah. A swarm of mosquitoes makes us brush our hands in front of our faces as we talk as if we are constantly waving “hello … goodbye … hello.”
Lela, with her round face, deep half-moon eyes, and whole-face smile, does the talking. Noah, the hunter, scans the horizon and slips a cigarette into the gap where his front teeth used to be. “It’s like this spring,” she says. “The hunting was not good so people don’t have enough meat.” The Nunamiut still own most of the valley and retain hunting rights in the park. “We need the caribou,” Lela says again, smiling. Noah nods and slips in another cigarette.
“Do you know the name of that canyon?” I ask as we turn to leave, pointing to a cut of gold-brown rock that ends in a dizzying rise to a peak. “Amaoiak”, Lela says. “Place where the wolves have pups.” As we hike away I notice wolf tracks in the mud.
I could have just checked a map to find out which, if any, of these canyons is the one I am looking for. But I don’t want it to be that easy. In too many places guidebooks and interpretive signs have rubbed the sense of discovery right out of our national parks. Here, I want it to be different. Here, I want to be surprised.
We get a surprise as we hike onto a reach of ice that covers a river channel. It is glacial blue, sculpted by meltwater, and free of bugs. The sound of flowing water hangs in the air like bells. We skate across it, laughing, splashing, until – WHOOSH – a huge lens of it suddenly collapses in front of us. Without a word we move off the ice and back into the mosquitoes.
“Look at those peaks,” I say to Carol miles later, still thinking about names. “If those were in the lower 48, they’d have their picture on coffee mugs. There’d be a scenic turnout and a visitor center. Here,” I say, slapping the map, “they don’t even have names.”
“Isn’t it great?” Carol laughs. “In other states you have pockets of wilderness. Some of them are beautiful. But, they are still just pockets. Here, we have a whole, intact ecosystem, a true wilderness. I don’t want to see that diluted or made too easy.”
As if in a grace note to that thought, a grizzly walks through camp that night – blonde as dry grass, its belly dark from crossing the creek. It is 50 yards away, separated by just a knee-deep creek, yet moves with the confidence of a king. Once, it glances our way, but keeps moving upriver until it climbs a backlit ridge and disappears into those wild, and nameless, mountains.
It is noon the next day when we follow the tracks. We are on what Carol calls “Arctic Time”. This far north the sun will not set until August. We break camp late, start dinner at nearly 11 pm, wake at 3 am to photograph a sun still lingering in the sky. It takes some getting used to. But, Carol says, “Once you get people shifted off their old addiction to schedules, wonderful things can happen.”
One of those wonderful things happens as we climb Ernie Pass. For days rain clouds have clung to the peaks in bruise-colored patches. But now, the sun breaks through turning the sky pastel blue. The light goes soft gold on the green swell of the pass, brilliant white on the tufts of cotton grass that fringe a tiny lake like dabs of paint. Every color is rich and thick. The land seems painted in oils.
It happens so quickly that I think of something Ursula Schneider, a New York artist, once told me about painting in the Arctic. “The land reveals itself in unexpected ways,” she said. “It is like an animal observing you, but you have not seen it yet.” Although we’ve only hiked a few miles today, we drop our packs and set up our tents, waiting until midnight to set out on a walk up a long ridge behind camp.
“Ahhh,” Carol says standing atop that ridge. “I think you’ve found your perfect beauty.” Eyes closed, head back, she spins slow circles cupping her hands to the midnight sun as if the light itself is showering down upon her.
By morning, the sky has closed up again. Rain clouds hang like gray skirts showing only the knobby knees of the mountains. We hike through air so heavy it is as if we are carrying the sky. Once, I watch a reddish-brown grizzly through my binoculars, the lenses so soaked with rain that the animal seems to be moving underwater.
We walk in the rain for days — over Ernie Pass where dall sheep drift like white clouds against black rocks, past a circle worn in the grass where a grizzly has been resting. We pass through the Valley of the Precipices, each peak shrouded in gray, and stumble through endless fields of “tussocks” (unstable hillocks of Arctic vegetation) that snag our ankles like leg-hold traps.
With every step, locked beneath the hood of my rain jacket, I wonder if the cloak of clouds is masking the valley I am looking for. What if I walk right by the “place of perfect beauty” in the fog? Carol senses my frustration and is philosophical about it. “You have to be willing to accept this place as it is,” she tells me as we duck behind a boulder out of the wind. “The bugs, the rain, the rivers flooding, and the beauty. The land is what it is, not what we might want it to be.”
Her mention of flooding rivers articulates something we are all thinking about. In the rain the creeks are running full-throated and wild. Waterfalls seep off every hillside as if the land is weeping. With every raindrop, the river crossing we will soon have to make becomes more dangerous.
Two days later, when finally we step to the banks of the North Fork, it is obvious that the crossing is not only dangerous, but impossible. It is a torrent, flowing thick with mud, rolling rocks like bones. We link arms and step in to test it. The current nearly rips us off our feet. “It’s no use,” Carol shouts in the middle of our third try and we flounder back up the bank, slapping our numbed legs, yelping from the cold.
Moments later, a 30-foot tree uprooted by the storm comes careening downstream through the channel that moments ago we tried to cross. “If we were in there when that thing came …” all of us are thinking though we watch in silence as the snag disappears in the current.
And so we wait, for the rain to stop, for the river to go down. Each raindrop on the tent is like the tick of a clock. Drip: Beth shooting pictures of her socks dripping in the tent. Drip: Carol asking, “Hey, did you know that when a mosquito walks it moves its middle legs first? After two days, we can sit still no longer. We push our way through three miles of thick willows upstream searching for a place to cross and then, not finding one, hike three miles back to the very same spot to camp. And the rain is still falling.
Sometimes the wilderness can leave you reeling with joy. Sometimes it can make you very, very humble.
On the third day, we awake to the sound of wolves howling, and nothing else. No rain drumming on the tents.
The river is down. Not much, but enough. Once again, we loosen our pack straps for safety, link arms, and step in. The current still throbs at our legs, but not as much. The current still tears at our waists, but not as hard. In minutes we are safely across. High water will still mean a nine hour hike to make the 5 miles to where we pick up the raft, but that doesn’t matter: we are on the right side of the river, coffee is brewing to warm us up.
We find the raft set on a gravel bar directly between the “Gates”. A pair of peaks – Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags – swoop several thousand feet up on either side of the river, cupping us like a pair of hands folding for prayer. Walking to her tent that night, Carol yells to us. I think perhaps a bear has found the raft and shredded it, but she is calling us to look at a huge rain puddle on the gravel bar that is reflecting the peaks salmon-pink in the evening light. The Arctic reveals itself in unexpected ways. “Like an animal observing you, but you have not seen it yet,” I think to myself, the peaks staring down at their faces in the puddle at my feet.
Being across the North Fork means we are out of the country pointed out to me so long ago as the hiding place of “perfect beauty”.
As we drift on a quiet stretch of the North Fork several days later Carol breaks the silence with a question. “So, do you think you found your ‘perfect beauty’?”
I hesitate. “Certainly not a place with that name that I can point to on the map.”
“I think people are too hung up on labels,” she says still paddling. “It’s like calling this a ‘national park’ and what is east of us a ‘national wildlife refuge’. It is all just the Brooks Range. We need to learn to see things as a whole if we ever hope to understand or protect them. The names on a map don’t matter to the mountains.”
Perhaps she is right.
Downstream, through the thinning fog, a mountain peak appears from inside of a cloud as if behind frosted glass. My first thought is to grab the map, to look up the name. But, this time I don’t. I stop, set the map down, and just watch. Beauty isn’t found on a map. It is wherever you find it. And at this moment it is in a wild, nameless mountain right in front of me unwrapping itself from the fog.