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 home. We were hunting as we traveled, to be sure—Clarence was always hunting—but the main pull for both of us was nuna, the land itself, and the going for its own sake. Over the past three hours we’d covered 40 miles. The first 15 had taken minutes on the packed trail up the Ambler River’s frozen, serpentine course until the turn north up the Redstone. From there we were on our own, breaking trail through fresh snow. We’d dropped our sleds and forged up a narrow slough, drifted chest deep, then slammed up a cut bank through a tangle of willow and alder, where we spent a stuck and sweaty half hour horsing our machines forward to reach the rolling tundra on the Redstone’s west side. After a mile, we’d looped back to retrieve our sleds; and several times after had to drop them again to fight through more brushy gullies and soft spots—tough going but no worse than we’d expected.
Marlboro dangling from his lip, Clarence made a forward-sweeping gesture from the brushy shelf where we stood toward the pass, marked by a billow of windblown snow. “Old timers’ trail,” he murmured reverently. “Tough sonofabitches, I tell you.” I knew Clarence didn’t mean a precise pathway; rather, a general route passed down from traveler to traveler across generations. There are dozens of such invisible trails crisscrossing the northwest Arctic, some specific to an area and known to just a few; others, more broadly recognized—the equivalent of highways in a roadless land. Each affords the most efficient (though sometimes scarcely easy) passage through hard terrain. Knowledge of such trails was once vital among the Inupiat, most of whom were semi-nomadic, moving with the seasons to intersect seasonally available resources at specific spots—migrating caribou, waterfowl, and fish; and animals valued for their pelts. Traveling by dog sled or on foot, paddling light kayaks or building makeshift rafts when needed, The People ranged far in all seasons, moving up to several times a year out of necessity-driven habit. And from each camp or seasonal dwelling spot, there was daily gathering of wood and water, berry picking, hunting, tending of snares and more on shorter, local trails—some personal, others communal—that offered the best going. In a world where energy was exchanged for survival, none could be wasted.
There were no trailside markers or maps other than those etched in memory. One learned the route to a specific place, or to a general area, by following those who knew the way; and once shown, that person was expected to remember and impart it to others. Parts of these trails were obvious, suggested by the terrain; others, like some of the slot canyons and creek passes Clarence and I would traverse on this trip, nearly invisible—some openings just a few feet wide, requiring precise navigation just to locate and follow. Routes were known within the context of a broader topographical knowledge, a mental image of the land that might range from general to exquisitely specific, with a web of shortcuts and options depending on local conditions and the traveler’s preferences. As with any set of skills, there were people who rose above mere competence toward something approaching genius. Clarence was one of those.
A true master of the land didn’t just know a web of passages between destinations, shapes of valleys and mountains, and the connections between drainages. He or she carried not only a cognitive map spanning thousands of square miles, but the ability to navigate that landscape with pinpoint accuracy in seemingly impossible conditions. Once, out on the Selawik flats—a wide jumble of sloughs, tundra, and lakes with few distinguishing landmarks—Clarence and I were returning to our camp at dusk in a whiteout so complete that even gravity seemed in question. A clump of brush loomed before us, one of thousands like it, and Clarence made a course correction that led several meandering miles to our tent. I asked him how he’d known the way, and he just shrugged. “I dunno,” he muttered, irritated by my as-usual, dunderheaded failure to grasp the obvious. “Right there, camp.” Another time, some years later, Clarence had been part of a search party looking for overdue travelers caught in a screaming blizzard. Ranging out dozens of miles in zero visibility, long past midnight, Clarence somehow found the missing people, led them home, then went back out and rescued a pair of searchers who had become lost themselves. An almost supernatural feat of navigation for a human; for a caribou or salmon, an act we’d label as instinct.
When I’d first arrived in northwest arctic Alaska 40-some years ago, there were others across the region with similar abilities. In a culture where basic competency in the land was taken as a given, every village was home to at least a few people known for their elevated, intimate grasp of the country. The oldest were among the last generation of Inupiat born into a traditional nomadic past, now settled in permanent villages created by missionaries, traders, and the assent of The People in the half-century since 1900. Their traveling days done, they had relayed their knowledge to younger, still-active men twice my 20-ish years—men like Clarence, whom I emulated and followed, hoping to grasp a fraction of what he knew. I still remember the thrill of Johnny Rolland and Raymond Paneak of Anaktuvuk Pass striding into the Ambler Trading Post where I was manager in 1980, their frost-scarred faces bearing witness to 250 or so trail-breaking miles across the spine of the Brooks Range in just two days to attend a funeral for distant kin. “Tough buggers,” Clarence had breathed appreciatively. “Drive all day, rough trail, cold, don’t give a shit about nothing.” Though the leap had been made from dog teams to snowmachines, the tradition remained secure, seemingly inviolate.
That bright April day drinking coffee with Clarence at the foot of Iviisaq seems just a few years ago, but more than three decades have passed. My friend and traveling partner over thousands of miles is dead, along with his friends Johnny and Raymond and many more. The masters of the land are lost in time, and with them, their encyclopedic knowledge of ancient, unmarked trails. Younger men and women, many from distant places, now range the country guided by satellite-driven GPS, which some Inupiat call Elder in a Can. And though a dwindling few still range far in search of the land’s riches, it’s been two decades since anyone has traveled the old timers’ trail between the upper Kobuk and Anaktuvuk Pass, guided only by their inner map. The last I know of was Clarence, and there may never be another. His sons, traveling a different world of brightly lit screens and the sort of comforts most of us take for granted, never learned. I close my eyes, trying to feel the way.
Nick’s new, all-ages color photo storybook, Romeo the Friendly Wolf, is available at nickjans.com.