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kobuk river


Capturing the spirit in the sky

A SHIMMER OF LIGHT FLICKERS OVER THE KOBUK RIVER AND THE CURVE OF THE BORNITE HILLS. Then another. As I gaze eastward, yellow-white tongues of fire rise from the horizon, accelerate in pulsing curtains that blaze overhead, shred and vanish, then form again.

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…

Loss beyond years and miles I’ve just checked my box at the Ambler post office on a mid-August afternoon; Sarah Tickett might have smiled and handed me my mail; instead, it’s someone else. Just across the trail stands Nelson and Edna Greist’s plywood cabin. The door is open, an armload of wood on the stoop; a familiar, fireweed-framed clutter fills the yard. But there’s no sign of Nelson sitting in his spot to the right of the door, working on a piece of spruce or jade; no huge, squinting, gap-toothed smile as he invites me in with his signature “Gonna coffee!” and he and Edna welcome me like a long-lost relative; no Inupiaq legends or tales of his youth, living from the land in the wind-raked Killik River country, his family sometimes on the edge of survival. Another couple hundred yards toward my place on the downstream edge…