Arts December 8, 2008

Caribou Rising

Rick Bass

In Caribou Rising, hunter, environmentalist and writer Rick Bass journeys from his beloved Yaak Valley in Montana to Alaska, into one of the sole remaining landscapes on Earth where wilderness is entirely untrammeled—America’s Serengeti, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is a place where great caribou herds gather, calve, and migrate as they did in the Pleistocene, and where the ancient bond between animals and human hunters still informs daily life. Rather than fighting in the abstract, Bass argues with passion and logic for the preservation of the besieged caribou land of the Gwich-‘in, putting forth the simple question: Which is worth more to humankind, an insignificant amount of oil (more could be conserved with improved fuel economy standards) or an ancient culture and a glorious ecosystem? Bass’s Arctic sojourn brings surprises and unexpected rewards, not the least of which are the lessons learned when this vastly experienced backcountry traveler gets lost deep in the very wilderness he fights to protect.

When you enter a stretch of woods like this one, you are not manipulated by anyone or anything, nothing is being misrepresented or withheld, you are not being lobbied,
no affection (or resentment) is being dispensed or withdrawn based on what you do or don’t do; there are no demons or past history in nature’s relationship to com­plicate yours, and, perhaps most reassuring of all, nature is largely democratic—if not quite blind to the color of your skin, or any other physical characteristics, then at least nonjudgmental, impartial. The latter quality, in my opinion, is increasingly rare.

Time falls away like an old snakeskin shed, like useless anger released and then blown away by the wind. Time is not even so much scrubbed clean and bare, out on this landscape, as it just vanishes—as if it never existed. As if here, it never even developed in the first place.

Following old moose trails through the willows, trying to work around the big lake from the west, and trying to stay dry—avoiding the buggy patches and puddles—I soon encounter another, smaller lake, and, circumnavigating it in an effort to remain dry, another, and then another. And though I do not yet know it, I am lost, in a specific sense, though not in the general, for I know that I am still in Alaska, still somewhere above the Arctic Circle, and still some­where on the east side of the North Fork of the Chandalar River.

But in the moment, I’m not even yet aware of the specific loss of direction and location. Instead, I’m merely pushing on, being drawn deeper into the sparkling, glinting lakeland, each new pond or lake more brilliantly blue than the last, its reedy shores more vibrant green, and with more and more waterfowl resting on its waters, beginning to congregate in flocks and rafts for the annual trip, so many thousands of miles south, and then so many thousands of miles back. A thing like bliss, like euphoria, begins to fill me—I can feel it rising within me—and then it does fill me, and I keep walk­ing, wandering toward the mountains, which are closer now, and sometimes I navigate around the eastern shore of a sparkling lake, and other times, around the western shore: and the lakes and ponds are unending, are all connected, I see—I’m leaping the little channels and creeks that conjoin them—and soon my clothes are stained pur­ple from passing through so many blueberries, and though I’m not seeing any caribou, it feels good to be hunting them, to be walking and looking for them.

And there are times when, in my pleasure and in the intensity of watching for them, and believing that they might be there, it seems that for half­-an-­instant I catch the shuttered glimpse of their movement, passing between trees, or slipping farther into the forest, just at the edge of my vision. I have never had such a thing happen to me, as a hunter, before—either the animals are there or they aren’t—but it happens several times on this walk, glimpses moving through the brush like the ghosts of caribou: and while those images might well have been generated exclusively from my own mind, I am not at all certain that is the case; I would not be surprised if land­scape and even time had something to do with it as well, so that perhaps a hundred years ago, or two hundred, or longer, a caribou had passed through, between those two trees where, for just the blink of an eye, I thought I saw the flash of an antler, or the glint of a hoof or an eye; or that perhaps in a few years hence—ten, fifty, a hundred—one might yet pass through that one point in space, and with me trailing it, somehow, only a hundred years or so behind. >>>



By mid­morning I am lost; or, rather, I have been lost for some time but only now realize it, as I begin to think about turning around and heading back. Moments earlier, I had been riding another wave of euphoria mixed deliciously with sweet calmness—I remember having the distinct thought, I could stay out here for a month—meaning, with nothing more than the little pack I had on my back, and my rifle and box of bullets, my knife and matches—meaning, when I had that thought, I could stay out here a month and really like it. 

But now, beginning to tire, and wondering if Charlie is coming back, or already in camp—say, where is camp, anyway?—I realize I’m not just lost but confused, too. The mountains look different, the way they always do when you’re lost, and though I get lost sev­eral times each year, even in my own valley (lost in the sense of knowing at a watershed level where I am, but not a physical route home), this lost­ness, down in the willows and tundra beneath those big mountains sitting motionless on the skyline in the shape of sleeping animals, possesses a different quality to it, an intense con­fusion—not panic, just confusion—and I find myself looking around for the ancient caribou trap that Jimi had described, as if I’ve encountered some Bermuda Triangle tilt of landscape that con­spires to move the mind to disequilibrium.

I know the drill. Stay calm. Establish the compass points, and a general direction toward the big river, which cannot be seen, cannot even be intimated, in so flat a floodplain, but which surely must lie somewhere out there, hidden within the willows.

I will not build a fire. I will not fire three shots.

Even in the intense beauty of this bright landscape—the incred­ible mosaic of the tundra in autumn—the old primitive feelings suf­fuse the blood: the discomfort of being lost, the first faint carbonation of panic.

“When we are lost we lose our peripheries,” writes the poet and novelist Jim Harrison. “Our thoughts zoom outward and infect the landscape. Years later you can revisit an area and find these thoughts still diseasing the same landscape. It requires a particular kind of behavior to heal the location.”

Infect the landscape: I’d have to agree. The quality of being lost is the quality of not fitting. Since it can sometimes take between a life­time and ten lifetimes to negotiate a fit in any given landscape, how can we do anything but panic? 

I think that one of the things we might love most about the Arctic is the fact that it might—barely, now—be one of the very few places that still lies beyond our reach, beyond our control. 

A place where, if we were somehow to find ourselves upon it, as I am now, we would indeed promptly become lost, unfamiliar with boundaries.

To our great and good credit, we still recognize—instinctively—that such places paradoxically hold value to us, in that they are, sadly, among the last places that exist still separate from our needs and desires.

Who in this day and age would ever have imagined such a land­scape—or a people—still existed, and in the United States, no less? 

“Perhaps getting lost temporarily destroys the acquisitive sense,” writes Harrison. “We tend to look at earth as an elaborate system out of which we may draw useful information. We ‘profit’ from nature—that is the taught system.”

I don’t mind being lost. It’s the sweet time of year, and there’s nothing more delicious than ptarmigan and berries. Eventually I’d get found, or would find a way out myself. 

But I’m chagrined that I might be messing up the schedules of the others, and so, with that carbonation still fizzling within me, I push on, circumnavigating one lake after another, as if following what seems like a thousand different dropped stitches, deadends to me, even as I’m aware that, according to the rest of the world, everything else is arranged per­fectly, in its most precise and meaningful position. That I am extra­neous here, not fitted.

I set my course toward where I think the river is, and strike for it. My progress continues to be thwarted, however, by the appear­ance, always, of more lakes, some small, others immense—and I have to zig and zag around them, always watching the sun and try­ing to count those zigs and zags, trying to balance them out, even while fearing that, like a poor knitter dropping stitches, I’m going in circles.

There’s a brief moment of humiliation when I have the feeling that someone’s far above me, high in the sky, looking down at my mad­dog wanderings, and laughing—but then it passes, and I feel calm again, wondrously clean.

Eventually, I find the river, feeling ridiculously awed by the beau­ty of it, and the expanse. In the gratitude of rediscovery, every bank­side stone seems extraordinarily lucid and the sound of the shallow rapids melodic. I imagine this is a tiny taste of the charge that must have gone off in Lewis and Clark when they finally reached the Pacific, which they knew all along had to be out there. But there’s still one small problem, I don’t know whether to turn upstream or downstream.

Complicating things is the intestinal oxbow nature of the river; on one curve of a bow, I could go downstream and end up more norther­ly, or could go south by traveling upstream, only to round the severe bend and have it all unravel, and find myself traveling vice­versa.

I stamp out my initials and the time—high noon—on the river­damp mud at water’s edge, amidst fresh moose and grizzly tracks.

My logic, my intellect, my body, is telling me to travel down­stream, and so, knowing how disoriented I am, and how frail and fickle the human body really is before the face of wild nature, I turn and travel upstream.

By mid­morning I am lost; or, rather, I have been lost for some time …

There are fresh bear tracks everywhere, including, at one creek crossing, prints indicating where a bear slipped and rolled down the hill—tracks so oozing­fresh that it seems certain it was my own approach which startled the bear, and I find myself worrying that I’ve pissed it off now, and that it lies just ahead of me, waiting.

After about twenty minutes of shore­side bushwhacking, I find a stump that was cut long ago by an ax.

Ten minutes more, and I come to a large lake with two white swans resting upon it. A thread of campfire­blue smoke rises from the trees.

I walk on into camp just as Charlie comes putt­motoring around the corner, the two of us arriving at the precise same place, at the precise same point in time, more smoothly than could ever have been planned or choreographed. We’ve already broken camp and have our gear ready and waiting down by the river. Jimi and Allen ask if I saw anything. 

“No,” I tell them, “just some tracks.”


Rick Bass is the author of eighteen books including The Ninemile Wolves, The Hermit’s Story, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, Winter: Notes from Montana, and The Book of Yaak. He is also the editor of an anthology, The Roadless Yaak Valley, one of the wildest and most biologically diverse landscapes in the northern Rockies.


Excerpted from Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-’in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by Rick Bass, published by Sierra Club Books and distributed by The University of California Press. © 2004 by Rick Bass.



This article appears in the Winter 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.