Author

Nick Jans

Browsing

It was a hard day for going anywhere, let alone up the Redstone Valley and over Iviisaq Pass. My Eskimo buddy Clarence Wood and I plowed through loose, rolling drifts from the previous day’s blizzard, our snowmachines dragging basket sleds loaded with gas, gear and grub, bound for a week in the upper Noatak. Barely making headway on my long-track Arctic Cat, I leaned forward over my skis, teeth gritted as the engine howled. Clarence, with his shorter, heavier machine, was having even more trouble. He lagged behind—totally uncharacteristic Clarence behavior— then stopped. I doubled back to where he stood by his half-buried rig. “No use, buddy,” he shrugged. “Need to drop our sleds and break trail.” People who have never driven a snowmachine might have the impression they float like boats, and cross-country travel amounts to riding some sort of mechanized flying carpet. But anyone who’s driven long distances…

You could travel the wildest reaches of Alaska for a lifetime and not witness a scene like this—a pack of wolves feeding on a caribou kill on the edge of a rushing river. From the crest of a tundra bluff, I watched the gray alpha male tug at a hindquarter as others waited their turns. Then a female grizzly with two cubs arrived and drove the pack off. As she and one cub fed, the other hammed it up, standing on hind legs, rolling his eyes, gnawing on an antler. I sat transfixed behind my camera tripod, glued to the eyepiece, squeezing off shot after shot. It was easy to imagine that I sat alone somewhere up some far arctic valley, hundreds of miles from the nearest road. But to my right and left, crowds gathered—several busloads of people jammed against he windows, plus a half dozen professional photographers and…

“This doesn’t look good,” Seth Kantner muttered, peering at the pale gray end of a spark plug, then passing it to Vic Walker and me for inspection. The top plug on my side looked even worse—grains of aluminum piston speckling the electrode, sure signs of a damaging, possibly fatal, engine overheat. My jet skiff lay against a cut bank up the Nuna River in northwest Arctic Alaska on a fading September evening. Globs of icy rain hissed on the still-hot engine. At the very least, we were bound for a three-mile slog over swampy, slush-coated tundra to Seth’s cabin, and after that, a chain of logistical headaches trailing over the horizon, featuring a crippled skiff far from home. It was one thing if an impossible-to- dodge boulder or a twitch of fate had caused the mess. But none of it had to happen. I had three rapid-fire chances to avoid…