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Author

Nick Jans

Browsing

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…

More than you see, fewer than you think peered around a boulder and there they were: a half dozen Dall rams bedded down, the nearest so close I could see my reflection in an amber eye framed by a curl of horn. They turned their heads to regard me but didn’t rise; instead, they gave what seemed to be a collective shrug as I settled in and raised my camera. I spent the next hours among them in the late August sun as they napped and grazed along the edge of that rock-strewn ridge, the air so still I could hear the echoing rush of the creek 2,000 feet below. That afternoon, still vivid after decades, explains as well as any why I came to Alaska: to meet wild animals in big, wild country. Pretty much everyone Alaska-bound hopes, even expects, the same. No doubt they’re out there, millions of…

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…

High Tech I stood on a cut bank bright with autumn, the hoarse shouts of ravens echoing in the silence. Across the Kobuk’s clear, tannin-tinged flow rose a prominent, birch-spangled knoll; and beyond stretched an expanse of country, rising toward the looming, cloud-brushed pyramids of the Jade Mountains. This place, Onion Portage, known to the Inupiat as Paatitaaq (for the wild, onion-like chives that grow here), is marked by a great looping bend several miles long where the Kobuk reverses direction and almost circles back on itself before resuming its meandering westward flow. I lingered here as people have since time forgotten—not just centuries, but millennia according to the work of archeologist Louis Giddings. Roaming alone through the upper Kobuk in the early 1940s, Giddings, a researcher from Brown University, found his way to Onion Portage as so many had before him, following the river, drawn by the shape of…

Remembering Alaska’s “Moose Man” I got the hard news in a group email last September—biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe was gone. I could practically feel the collective sigh as the news radiated outward across Alaska, the Lower 48, and worldwide to scientists, conservationists, writers, filmmakers, and others who had known him, or his work. His passing hadn’t come as a surprise; at age 78, he’d been struggling with Parkinson’s for years. But letting go of Vic and imagining Alaska without him would take a while. Though they should, most Alaskans probably wouldn’t recognize his name. A short version of Vic’s bona fides goes like this: he was regarded as a (some would argue the) premier moose biologist, especially noted for his keen observational skills and uncounted thousands of hours of boots-on-the-ground field research stretching over a 50-year career. He published scores of peer-reviewed scientific papers, editorials, and articles, plus a fine,…

Meet the Rodney Dangerfield of Alaskan wildlife I’m casting for a dinner along a cut bank across from camp, evening colors reflected in the Nuna’s clear, purling current. The arctic stillness is broken by a wet, resounding crash, as if a rock had just been chucked from the sky. Though startled, I’m hardly surprised by my noisy company. Floating 30 feet away, a pair of unblinking eyes set in a wet, furry head regard me, radiating curiosity-tinged indignation. I can practically hear a Disneyfied, bucktooth nasal voice: Hey buddy, what the hell you doin’ in my yard?  Another tail slap followed by a shallow dive, and the head pops up closer. I’m again fixed by that beady-eyed stare. I said, beat it! and with a final slap and a swirl, it vanishes. I track the bubble trail a few dozen yards down the bank to a mound of peeled, interlocked…

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…

Right place, wrong attitude I stood on the walkway over Steep Creek, in the shadow of the Mendenhall Glacier. A popular spot for Juneau locals and visitors alike. This late summer afternoon, sockeye salmon finned in the clear shallows, flashing their deep red spawning colors; a bald eagle perched in a spruce, framed by the autumn-tinged slopes of Mount McGinnis: the whole scene a giant, living postcard. I gazed out, feeling my pulse and breathing slow to match my surroundings. An incoming clump-clump of footsteps signaled an end to my moment alone. No big shock. After all, the bus-packed parking lot for the Glacier Visitor Center lay just a hundred yards away. Amazing, I told myself, that this little chunk of country could absorb so much traffic, day in and out, and stay this good. “Where are the bears?” A New Jersey voice in the crowd demanded. “They said…