The hunt for the perfect photo.
IT’S 1981, a mid-August evening on the spine of the Kobuk-Noatak divide, 70 miles above the Arctic Circle. It’s hard, wind-scraped country: tundra valleys webbed with caribou trails, rolling away beneath a wide sky.
A lean young man climbs into a sharp north breeze, a thirdhand .243 slung over one shoulder, a cheap film camera and lens over the other.
On a brush-verged bench on the mountain slope above him, a blond grizzly and a lone gray wolf skirmish in silver, slanted light: the wolf circling, dashing in to snap at the bear’s rump, the bear whirling and swatting, its roars lost in the wind. The bear can’t catch the wolf, and the wolf can’t hurt the bear, and neither will back off. It’s been going on that way for at least a half hour. Maybe they’re arguing over a kill; or the wolf might be defending a den, or just deviling the bear on general principles.
He first spotted them with binoculars more than a mile away, then stripped off his pack and ran toward them, across braided river channels and over cotton grass tussocks, up the mountain through bands of frost-red dwarf birch and patches of loose shale.
Sweat-drenched and shivering, he slowed as he closed the last 200 yards through head-high willows, camera at the ready and a bullet in the chamber, though shooting, let alone hunting, was never a plan. He knew, too, the odds of getting any sort of picture were thin. And he wasn’t answering a self-imposed dare or personal test. If you asked why, he’d have been hard-pressed to explain why he ran straight toward that fracas, hoping to get as close as he could.
Of course he was afraid— alone, on the start of a solo 350-mile canoe trip, farther from another human than he’d ever been, and far closer than ever before to not just a riled grizzly, but a wolf, too. If something went wrong, no one would miss him for weeks. He had no way of hailing the outside world, and only the Bush pilot who dropped him off had any idea of where to find him. But still he moved uphill toward the bear and wolf, drawn by his heart.
I squint back through the weathered lens of three decades and smile as I watch myself scramble up that mountain in my surplus camouflage and leaky boots, alive as I’d ever be.
That one moment, reckless or not, was reason enough to have come to Alaska; I knew it then, and even more, now. I’d read about and watched big wild carnivores in my sleep since I was a kid, growing up in a procession of landscapes where such creatures didn’t exist outside zoos. Rural Maine, where I ended up as a college student, learning and honing outdoor skills, still wasn’t far enough to find them. I’m going to Alaska, I told family and friends. And I headed straight toward one of the wildest chunks of country I could find on the map: the western Brooks Range, in the upper left-hand corner of the state, hundreds of miles off the road grid: a landscape defined by grizzlies and wolves, and all that came with them. There was no decision. I just went.
By the time I went loping up that hill, I’d lived in an Eskimo village for more than two years—still green around the edges, leaning on luck and youth to help balance out all I didn’t know.
Instead of going back to school to become a biologist, I’d worked managing a trading post and packing for a big-game guide, and traveled a few thousand Bush miles by snowmobile, skiff, canoe and on foot.
But this trip, going off into deep wilderness without traveling partners, to meet this country I’d come to love, was another step outward. The sheer aloneness of it all—not for a few days or miles, but many and far, through a landscape roamed by apex carnivores— changed the way you heard a twig crackle, appraised an eddying scent, caught the shine of something moving on a far ridge.
Then, within minutes of being dropped off, the wolf and bear materialized out of the land like a welcoming committee. Of course I ran toward them.
By the time I reached the bench where I thought I’d find the scuffle, they’d disappeared. I wasn’t even sure it was the right spot. I’d underestimated the thickness of the brush, so dense I couldn’t see more than a few yards. I stood, trying to hold down my breathing, straining the world through my senses.
When I finally spotted the wolf, it had been watching me for a while. It stood 50 yards above me, perched on a rocky knob in its ragged late-summer coat. It lifted its muzzle and howled, less a challenge than a general announcement that the klutz everyone had been smelling and hearing for the past 15 minutes was right here.
Then the wolf trotted away up the ridge, lean-ribbed and light-footed, without wasting another glance my way. I watched gray wolf merge into gray rock, then remembered: somewhere there was a bear—maybe just beyond that alder clump. I hunkered against a rock, wide-eyed, lousy camera and too-small rifle at the ready.
Meanwhile, the unseen grizzly had circled to get above me and downwind. When I first heard a low wuff, the bear was at my back, 30 feet away, sniffing the spot where I’d just stood.
At my first motion, he raised his head and stared straight at me, barrel chest contracting with each huff. As I fumbled back and forth between camera and rifle, he snorted and crashed uphill and away, sparing me a decision, and perhaps a good deal more.
I never did come close to getting a picture, but it doesn’t matter. The moment where I met my dream is right where I can see it—now and always.
Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor to Alaska and author of the award-winning memoir e Giant’s Hand, available from nickjans.com.