[Book Excerpt] Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-Mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range by Michael Engelhard

This is a guest post by Michael Engelhard. Arctic Traverse is out on 1 April 2024.

Arctic Traverse, by veteran wilderness guide, outdoor educator, and trained anthropologist Michael Engelhard, recounts a long-held dream come true: a 58-day solo trip through North America’s northernmost mountain range, from Canada’s Yukon border to the Bering Strait at Kotzebue.

Drawing on the knowledge of scientists and Indigenous elders and on conversations with guided clients, this book shines a light on the spirit of Alaska. The following adapted excerpt describes the author’s approach of Anaktuvuk Pass, a Nunamiut Eskimo village of 400 in the heart of Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Melissa Guy photo

Excerpted with permission from Arctic Traverse by Michael Engelhard.

A Close Encounter of the Strange Kind

Day 36 (9 miles)

Quad: Chandler Lake

Clouds jellyfish low on the hills on this cold, sunny morning—an ambiance spelling the brink of fall yet typical of summer here. It’s too chilly for bugs, but I’m sure they will swing by later. Watching a red-throated loon afloat in “my” front yard, I wonder how a lake with a single bird can appear more lonesome than one with none at all.

Last night, the heckling of a jaeger—a scythe of a gull with a “stinger” tail and grappling hook bill—betrayed an arctic fox inspecting my tent. It snuck off when I poked my head out. As I wash breakfast dishes, two golden plovers distract me. A mew gull is trying to snatch their leggy chick. The parents dive at the Goliath intruder in loop after loop, running it off. Virgil envisioned hell as a place without birds. I think our world without birds would be hell.

Melissa Guy photo

While the rest of America goes to work, I reach Graylime Creek and the broad Anaktuvuk River valley carved by Pleistocene glaciers. Only twenty more miles to the village post office where I’ll collect cache number five, mailed to myself. I salivate at the prospect of cookies my girlfriend Melissa baked and some new books; I’ve burned pages from the one Dave traded me after reading them to lighten my load but have long since run out of unread material.

Past noon I hit the alder-lined ATV track on the riverbank east of the settlement, one of the webs with Anaktuvuk Pass as their node that connects villagers and their hunting and fishing grounds. Stream gravel under the sod drains the tire scars along much of this stretch except for occasional mud pits causing multilane bypasses. Civilization’s debris welcomes me back: fire rings, tin cans, broken sled runners, a rusting snowmachine with its Plexiglas windshield, a Star Wars plastic laser sword

… I imagine village kids mounted on four-wheelers, round-faced Nunamiut Jedi fighting galactic battles.

These miles before the next cache hold many memories. Friends from Germany joined me here for one of my earliest arctic excursions. And with a client I tried to exit from the steep walls of river aufeis here. Most poignantly, I did not climb any peaks girding this valley while guiding a Swiss couple from Shainin Lake in the northern foothills to Anaktuvuk. What was the point with wildfire smoke voiding the views and us breathing harder than we would have under normal circumstances? Even nearby heights loomed barely visible, bleached shadows, while the sun’s ember glowed like a red giant in an eerie fast-forward of five billion years. Only after that 2007 trip did I hear about a fire that lightning had started, a blaze unrivaled in modern times that over almost three months burned four hundred treeless square miles on the Anaktuvuk River, well north of the range. It left “a forest of knee-high black pillars,” the remains of charred tussocks.

In a chapter on freaks—including diamond dust, fallstreak holes, horseshoe vortexes, and Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, serried breakers—Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloud Collector’s Handbook covers pyrocumuli. Tumultuous air columns sprouting from wildfires, these grow large enough to produce their own weather, lightning, land- or waterspouts, even fire tornados looking like computer-generated special effects. The “fire-breathing dragon of clouds” can suck up burning branches and drop them miles ahead of the flaming front, where they start spot fires. Some pyrocumuli now reach above the troposphere, the atmosphere’s bottom layer, and bloom into the stratosphere, disgorging soot particles that cause asthma. Flying north in small planes, I’ve watched them rear monstrous gray heads among cotton crowns of neighboring towers. Bush pilots detour to avoid them. With contrails, not counting amorphous smog, these are the only clouds we imprint, visible proof of our reach beyond the planet’s biotic skin.

Cadence Cook / NPS photo

Making good time on the ATV track, I camp off-trail eight miles short of town at a kidney-shaped lake pocketed between a mountainside and ridge of hills. Having stayed here before with the Swiss couple, I enjoy claiming it for myself.

I am procrastinating, delaying my arrival at the village, dreading even the briefest reentry, the punch to quiet solitude that four-wheelers, generators, an airstrip, or the Native corporation-store will deliver. In this, I am kin to the conservationist Robert “Bob” Marshall, who called for the protection of the central Brooks Range while exploring it. Finishing one splendid summer string of forty-nine nights camping out, he halted just outside of the miners’ hamlet Wiseman on the range’s southern side upon his return. He supposedly tried to rack up a nice even fifty days, but I doubt that motive.

It has been the first bluebird day in more than two weeks. Taking advantage, I rinse my skivvies and socks, which on this trek passes for laundry day.

“Gates,” as Alaskans fond of abbreviations know the park, has another surprise treat for me. As I recline bare-chested on fragrant tundra, absorbing warmth and mulling the lack of fat in my diet and the resulting shrinkage, a canine, coal black like a hellhound, trots along the far lakeshore without noticing me. Whose dog is this? Not an outlandish question given the proximity of huskies and town. But something feels off, a feral spring in this animal’s gait, a hint of flexed steel in its bearing. Could it be a rare blue-morph arctic fox? Then it hits me: another wolf, though a skinny one.

Afraid that he will leave, I softly call out to him. “Hey. Where are you going?”

Not at all startled, he stops and gazes at me. “The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary,” the art critic John Berger writes in About Looking. The animal, Berger avers, “does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. . . . Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.”

Penny Knuckles / NPS photo

While I agree with Berger that seeing and being seen by animals and telling stories about them shed light on the human condition, I reject his claim that the wolf looks at us the same way it would at a ground squirrel. The wolf, fathoming deep into you, weighing intentions if not your soul, was always predestined to become a guardian spirit and powerful helper of Eskimo shamans. Differing from the Nunamiut’s dogs, wolves were believed to possess souls and, as Barry Lopez relays in Of Wolves and Men, share other traits with humans, hence that personal pronoun: “Amaġuq is like Nunamiut. He doesn’t hunt when the weather is bad. He likes to play. He works hard to get food for his family. His hair starts to get white when he is old.” He regards us as one predator does another.

This wolf approaches gingerly, as if the ground were not solid. Perhaps, I am tickled to think, he detects the faint echo of an ageless bond between his kind and mine.

I keep talking calmly, staying in my mattress-chair, and he comes closer still. He freezes again, his curiosity piqued. The lean body signals no tension, only openness to the moment’s possibilities. I can sense the allure that has linked two species since North Siberians first gentled wolves twenty-three thousand years ago. His ancestors carried packs, cornered game, and guarded the camps of the Nunamiut forebears on their push out of northeast Asia by way of Beringia.

Deciding that this is too weird, the wolf then circles downwind of me to catch my scent. A shallow ravine conceals the maneuver. Losing sight of him but wanting to prolong the connection, I stand up for a better view. Amaġuq jolts at this fellow-predator rude, slightly aggressive move, loping off into the blue yonder.

Sometimes you sit, and good things come to you. Most of my wolf encounters happen that way. Once, on the Aichilik, another north-draining arctic river, I was chatting with a client after dinner while scanning our surroundings over his shoulder as I always do. “There’s a wolf, by the way,” I slipped into our conversation, casual, as if such a thing were an everyday occurrence.

With my hiking pole I now measure this untamed one’s comfort zone. Thirty yards. Our society’s small footprint in this expanse seemed to bother neither him nor his pal, whom I’d encountered a week before near the road to Prudhoe Bay.

About the Author

Tuti Minondo photo

Michael Engelhard worked for twenty-five years as an outdoor instructor and wilderness guide in Alaska and the Canyon Country. He received a Master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where he also taught very briefly—indoor classrooms just weren’t his thing. His books include No Walk in the Park: Seeking Thrills, Eco-Wisdom, and Legacies in the Grand Canyon and What the River Knows: Essays from the Heart of Alaska. The author currently lives in a cabin on the outskirts of Fairbanks.

Featured image: Mountaineers Books

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