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Ambler

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Carving your own slice of wilderness Standing on the bank of an arctic river, you gaze down into water so clear you can see char ghosting at the bottom of a 10-foot pool. The river pours downstream, cutting its way through a valley hewn of rock and tundra—a hard, beautiful place cast in surreal light. Your inflatable raft lies skidded up on the gravel, and a pot of water steams over a fire. You’ll make a few casts for dinner and spend the night here, not far from fresh-edged tracks of wolf and grizzly. There’s no one but you in this valley; nor in the next, or the one beyond. It’s been six days since your bush plane drop-off, and another half dozen until the river swirls past an off-grid village. You’ll take your time as you go, making side hikes, pausing often to watch and listen, to feel yourself…

The Bitter Winter Wind Chills of Howard Pass Weather gauges that scientists installed in 2011 have recorded phenomenally cold wind chills at Howard Pass (called Akutuq in Inupiaq) in the far western Brooks Range. The pass, which sits at 1,647 feet, forms a tundra plateau between the sprawling Colville and Noatak watersheds. It lies within the Noatak National Preserve over 100 miles north of the villages of Ambler and Kobuk. Early on February 7, 2022, the weather station reported an air temperature of 43 degrees below zero and a 52-mph sustained wind speed, for a ridiculously cold wind chill of 91 below. In February 2013, the wind chill was 99.8 below. Nearly every year, scientists record wind chills colder than minus 70 at the pass. Wind speeds at Howard Pass can exceed 100 mph, especially when atmospheric pressure differences set up between Alaska’s North Slope and the state’s interior. Wind…

Following the old timers’ trail I pulled alongside my traveling partner Clarence Wood. Following his lead, I tapped my snowmachine’s kill switch. Break time. As I unscrewed the cap of my thermos and poured steaming cups of coffee for us both, melting snow hissed on our mufflers. The upper Redstone valley stretched northward into a blue-white ache. Ahead lay Iviisaq Pass, known for its terrain-driven winds; and beyond, an expanse of treeless, unpeopled country, not so much as an inhabited cabin until the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, 200 more miles to the northeast. Our laden sleds, the sort once pulled by dogs, bore gas, food, and gear to sustain us for nearly double that distance. This was our first break since we’d set out from our village of Ambler, on the upper Kobuk, outward bound on a great loop that would carry us to Anaktuvuk, south to the Koyukuk, then…

A photographic journey of the heart I knelt behind my camera tripod, gazing from the edge of a sandy knoll, northward up the Nuna valley. A few yards away, a fortyish Japanese man did the same. Before us, a weathered caribou skull lay in a blood-red swath of bearberry; beyond, an immense sweep of autumn tundra glowed beneath a furling expanse of clouds, squalls, and sun. Occasionally moving his lips without speaking, my companion seemed adrift in a trance as he studied land and sky, making adjustments and squeezing the shutter release. I divided my time between scanning the country for caribou and studying him—emulating lens choice and angle, trying and failing to mimic both his technical command and his absolute-in-the-moment absorption. At last, he turned toward me with a smile that seemed to mirror the land’s radiance. Oh look, Neek, look! It is all so beautiful. The man was…

Absolute Perfection The jet skiff skimmed up the Ambler River, my guilt fading with each bend. I’d sworn to myself to stay glued to home, attending to a pile of now-or-next-year chores. But here I was, heading out into the country instead. The day had started with the same grungy, rain-spattered weather that had defined the past month; but by afternoon the clouds had dissolved into a blue sprawl of sky, colors glowing, the breeze sighing of summer—the best day of the whole damn fall. As a bonus, the hordes of mosquitoes and gnats that had plagued us had evaporated. So, what to do—spend this afternoon patching and painting a storage shed desperate for it five years ago, or take a river run somewhere? Not much of a decision. The shed was good at waiting, after all.  Soon as I’d decided to duck out, I knew where I was going—up…

The challenges of capturing your Alaskan story A line of folks leaned against the cruise ship railing, staring toward Harvard Glacier. An all-day blanket of fog and drizzle had dissolved; shafts of sun cast the glacier, the surrounding mountains, the water, even the air itself in magical, silver-tinged tones—the sort of scene that would stop anyone in their tracks. You could practically hear a whispered, collective wow hanging over the fjord. Naturally, pretty much everyone in the crowd held cameras—mostly cell phones and compacts, with a few advanced amateur and pro-grade rigs mixed in. Some took careless-seeming, rapid-fire snapshots; others worked on selfies and group stuff with the glacier as a backdrop; a few studied the scene, composed careful images, then stood, lips pursed, staring into their screens, then tried again. And again. I didn’t have to peer over shoulders to know that the more serious photographers were struggling to…

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Loss beyond years and miles I’ve just checked my box at the Ambler post office on a mid-August afternoon; Sarah Tickett might have smiled and handed me my mail; instead, it’s someone else. Just across the trail stands Nelson and Edna Greist’s plywood cabin. The door is open, an armload of wood on the stoop; a familiar, fireweed-framed clutter fills the yard. But there’s no sign of Nelson sitting in his spot to the right of the door, working on a piece of spruce or jade; no huge, squinting, gap-toothed smile as he invites me in with his signature “Gonna coffee!” and he and Edna welcome me like a long-lost relative; no Inupiaq legends or tales of his youth, living from the land in the wind-raked Killik River country, his family sometimes on the edge of survival. Another couple hundred yards toward my place on the downstream edge…

An Arctic Miracle on Hold Seth Kantner and I sat, leaning into our binoculars. The sandy knoll commanded a huge sweep of autumn-bright country—rolling tundra banded with willow and spruce, framed by the ragged, snow-dusted heave of the western Brooks Range. Working near to far, we scanned each crease and hummock, studied clumps of brush and jumbles of rock, searching the blue-tinted distance for shimmers of movement, anything that stood out or reflected light a bit differently. This place was far more than a fine view in a landscape defined by countless others. Half a lifetime had passed since I’d first looked out from this crest, and I’d returned more times than I could count. Seth’s attachment lay deeper still. He’d been born just a few miles to the east and knew this place from childhood. Each of us, together and alone, and in varying company, had spent time here…