Just like that, I had company: four bull caribou trotting down the far bank of the Ambler River, 200 yards and closing fast. I slithered over to my beached jet skiff, dug out my medium telephoto setup and scrambled up the bar. The September light, diffused and luminous, was perfect. Right on cue, the bulls ran out of easy traveling on that far shore and forded the pouring current, shook off, and headed downstream, straight for me. With no cover handy, I crouched in plain sight, watching through the viewfinder as they trotted closer, hooves clattering on gravel, leg tendons clicking, the faint scent of caribou wafting toward me. At least I had the wind in my favor. Thirty yards. Twenty. Ten.
At the first whir of my shutter, the bulls spooked, whirled, and galloped up the bar. Well, that was that—less than what I’d hoped for, but about what I’d expected. Then, as I watched, one bull paused to gaze back toward me. Turning from his retreating buddies, he reversed course and began making his way right toward me, antlered head bobbing with each deliberate step. I held my breath as he advanced, filling the frame as I squeezed off a series of shots. Pausing with no more than three or four yards separating us, he flared his nostrils and studied me, eyes bulging as I stared back, both of us suspended in a weightless moment. At last he turned north and trotted after his companions. Hard to say exactly what passed between us, some sort of interchange that stays with me still.
Face time of any sort with a wild creature is a way cool experience on multiple levels; it’s the essence of what lured me to Alaska. But meeting that bull, like a few dozen other animal interactions over the years, stands out as an object lesson: that bull was clearly a living, breathing, sentient individual. Though worlds apart, we had more in common than not: oxygenated blood coursing through our veins, and a similar array of organs and senses, basic wants and needs. He went out of his way to meet another fellow traveler on this rock hurling through space, seemingly as curious about me as I was about him. We met and parted as equals.
I’ve had similar experiences with animals ranging from grizzlies to red squirrels, the size or nearness of the creature far less important than the substance of our meeting. What was unique each time was a two-way, relaxed sense of recognition and connection, a desire to know. I recall a cow moose up the Noatak who strolled up to my camp at dusk and stood on a cutbank for long minutes staring into my campfire and gazing at me, so close at one point that she scared me, and I shooed her off; or the young white wolf at Kukak Bay who trotted up, looked into my eyes from a dozen feet, and gave a polite, acknowledging wolf grin before continuing on his way. Above all, in my travels in the land, I hope for more of those magical, stand-out encounters marked by some sort of mutual recognition and kinship between species, however brief.
Austrian philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, writing a century ago, put it this way: In dealing with others, we have a choice between establishing an I-It and an I-Thou relationship. I know, this swings pretty far from Alaska and wildlife encounters, but hang with me for a moment. If we choose the I-It deal, the other becomes an object—an entity without feelings or soul, ours to do with as we please without concern, as we would with, say, a rock. The relationship is one-way, utilitarian, and without any sort of mutual interchange, let alone moral obligation. That creature is just a thing. But if two lives meet, and one recognizes the other as an individual and fellow being, as surely that bull and I did, we’re on a completely different level: I-Thou. By the way, Buber didn’t draw the line between human-human versus human-animal relationships, in fact, he insisted they were the same. Both can be I-It or I-Thou. He wrote, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” Millions of pet owners who consider them family would surely agree; so, why not wild creatures as well?
The traditional Inupiat had their own expressions of the same idea and took it even further. In the Inupiaq cosmology of centuries past, all animals were equal to humans; the ancient oral traditions brim with people and animals trading and shifting forms as a normal course of events, not only in death and rebirth, but also instantaneously. Minnie Gray’s father, Robert, recorded a number of tales with anthropologist Donald Foote about souls flowing back and forth between land creatures, fish, and humans, different species sometimes aiding each other. In Eskimo Legends, Inupiaq storyteller Lela Kiana Oman recounts the tale of a woman named Nathlook who became a wolf, then a caribou, then a wolf again, and returned to human form over the course of several lifetimes, describing her time in other bodies with profound empathy. In fact, many of the now-gone elders I knew spoke of individual species as people, with their own cultures and customs. I recall David Adams in Noatak village, four decades ago, explaining the habits of ptarmigan to me: “Yah, them people always do that.”
Them people. That offhand statement, and all that it implied, stuck in my 20-some-year-old head and never left.