Leaning into the slope, shoulder almost brushing the snow as I rode, I strained to keep eight hundred pounds of snowmachine and sled from sliding over a canyon wall. Traveling Amakomanak Creek, a rolling tundra pass riddled with gullies and sudden drops, I’d hit ice fog and strayed onto an exposed pitch of ice-slick snow. Answering the call of gravity, my sled chattered sideways toward that yawning edge, dragging machine and me with it. There was no time to think, hope, or fear—just grab the throttle and throw all I had into that instant. I could smell my drive belt burning as the engine screamed, the studded track spun, and then bit. Suddenly as it had come, the moment was past. I continued outward, a four-day, 300-mile solo loop into the upper Noatak, looking for whatever the country offered.
All these years later, I shake my head. Who the hell was that guy, and what was he thinking? Not like that was an isolated incident. He did stuff like that over and over and survived dozens of dicey scrapes over decades, spread over uncounted thousands of wilderness miles—camping at 40 below zero, dodging avalanches, rapids, blizzards, grizzlies, frostbite and thin ice, breaking down a hundred miles from anyone—much of the time, alone. What was he trying to prove, and to whom? My 66-year-old self recalls those moments, and cringes. But I wouldn’t dream of taking any of them back.
A deep love of the unexplored
I know I was lucky. And I knew it back then, each and every time. From the vantage point of years, I mull over what pushed me not only to northwest arctic Alaska, but into journeys that few people—not even most local Inupiaq hunters—were willing to take or even consider. Not because they couldn’t, but because they saw no practical need in going so far, at such effort, and with so little in the way of return. There were a few exceptions, including my now-gone traveling partner of many years, Clarence Wood; and my friends Lynn, Carol, and Seth, who felt the same.
What guided me, back before I even glimpsed the Brooks Range, was a deep, unreasoning love of an idea, a place I’d never seen: a land far beyond roads, mountain-rimmed tundra valleys drained by clearwater rivers, roamed by wolves, caribou, and bears, and all that went with them. Don’t ask me where it came from. I suppose I was born with that notion and honed it as I went. As a college student, I read books, pored over atlases, and zeroed in on the upper left-hand corner of Alaska’s immense sprawl. I didn’t want to just live in such a place; I wanted to meet and know that country on its own inscrutable, uncaring terms.
I never suffered from youthful illusions of immortality. From early childhood, I understood the concept of death all too well, and over the years, was provided with frequent reminders—friends, family, and acquaintances—that dying was all too easy, sudden, and permanent; and I had several narrow brushes of my own. At age 17, I remember lying tangled in a motorcycle, someone asking if I was alive, and me not being able to answer; another time, teetering on a ledge halfway up a cliff, unable to go down or move upward; and damn near drowning after dumping a canoe—all before I glimpsed the Great Land. Impetuous and pedal-to-the-metal, sure. I loved not death, though, but the onrushing adventure of being alive; and that love is what guided me toward arctic Alaska.
Once there, living in Inupiaq villages far off the grid as I’d dreamed, I was never some adrenaline junkie or chest-beater playing some extended game of chicken with the wild, deliberately throwing myself into trouble and reveling in the near misses. I sure as hell felt far from fearless. From the very first canoe and portage trip in 1979 along the Kobuk-Noatak divide, I was haunted by all kinds of real and imaginary menaces, with bears topping the list. That 750-mile expedition traced far, hard county I would return to again and again, and come to know as home. I lived for wilderness travel, but at times, can recall practically shoving myself out the door, especially on solo trips where the idea was all mine, with no one to hold me to it. Once, in the last steps of packing for a journey north, past the edge of known country, I got so nerved out I was sick to my stomach, and almost called it off. But after heaving in the snow by my sled, I roared off, drawn by my heart.
Four decades later, I can’t avoid facing a fact: I don’t go out as far, as hard, or as often; neither do I feel that inexorable pull as I once did, though my love for the land is no less. If anything, it’s grown, turned inward, become the center of all I am. Of course, slowing down with age is all natural enough. I know I lack the strength, stamina, and reflexes that I once took for granted, that saved me time and again. And everything’s relative, I remind myself. I still go. Fishing alone last fall, I accidentally walked within 10 feet of a big grizzly, and the autumn before, drove a jet skiff 200 miles across an inlet of the Chukchi Sea and up the Kobuk. I don’t know how long I have, any more than I ever did. Until then, there’s only the going.