Testing the Waters
I am paddling the western channel of a dozen rivercourses, running at maybe 2 miles an hour. Honey brown and quiet as slow wind, it is more tilted swamp than river. My eyes flit between the maps and the mudbanks, trying to figure out where I am on the Mackenzie River. Maps are deceiving here in these shifting channels. The delta is 45 miles wide and a sweltering 75 degrees-too hot for 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
It is mid-July 1997. I am not exactly lost because I know that I'm three days below the village of Aklavik ("place of the grizzly"). I'm alone and trying not to be scared. Fortunately there are other distractions to keep me occupied.
If I step out of my kayak without probing the bank with a paddle, like testing the texture of a baking cake with a knife, I will plunge deep into dry-looking ground. Still, I can't help myself when I spy another potential bird's nest: wispy strands of grass lying in a depression on sage-colored tundra several yards above the river.
I paddle along the shore and feign indifference to being absorbed by the brown cloud of mosquitoes waiting in the riverbank lee. I plant my paddle behind to span the cockpit and then pry myself up and out. As soon as I step out in my rubber boots, I sink up to my thighs in mud while a blinding mass of thirsty insects brandish their proboscises.
I lever up and out of the black silt by pushing down, handstand style, on a driftwood trunk. While perched like a frog on a log, contemplating the leap to dry ground, I unwittingly open my mouth and inhale a crunchy mouthful of mosquitoes that will keep me blowing my nose all night. While trying to clear my throat, waving away the cloud to see, I discover that the nest is merely a caribou print, squashed grass.
During my first outings twenty-five years ago, I started using insect repellents containing the virulent and unpronounceable chemical combination called DEET. Now I've given it up, thinking it might be responsible for my receding hairline; wearing a head net makes me claustrophobic.
Local Inuit also scorn head nets. Aside from hindering one's vision, Inuit think that trapping anything but fish inside a net is the mark of a fey Kabloona. Still, no race is immune to aggressive swarms of mosquitoes that shoot up your face at each step on the tundra, like bits of ax-splintered wood. One story of an unattended baby "eaten by the mozzies"-the autopsy determined the baby had been "exsanguinated"-cannot be dismissed as fable. A scientist here recently removed all of his clothes to show that "the mozzies" are as bad as Canadians say. An assistant stood by counting with the aid of a video camera. The scientist took nine thousand bites each minute, showing that a grown man's blood could be removed in less than two hours. This northern species is prolific because of their ability to reproduce without drawing blood and unlimited egg-laying groundwater.
I am no stranger to bugs. Alaska, whose state bird is the mosquito, used to be my home. Now I live in Colorado, where it's too dry for such aggressive clouds of insects. Accepting such things as bug bites seems a fair trade for my favorite pastime, exploring stretches of remote wilderness.
Although I've planned this trip for too long to remember, I'm not sure how to handle being alone, totally alone without another human soul for many miles. During the weeklong drive north I wanted to turn around every day. Now that the trip has really started I can hardly paddle back against the current. To add to my misgivings, yesterday I sawed the cast splinting a torn thumb ligament off my right hand because it interfered with my paddle strokes. Now I am tremble-fingered about how quiet and huge my undertaking is. It seems that the path of least resistance is to try to become a conduit for all that I will experience in this trackless wilderness.
Downriver, a bevy of least sandpipers appears. The light is brilliant yet soft enough that I don't need to pull on my sunglasses. As the kayak skims soundlessly, the sandpipers alight like flies, barely rippling the water's surface tension. Their buff primaries are lit cleaner than in Audubon's perfect lilting brushstrokes. Their eyes are black orbs. I blink and hold my eyes shut to dispel the illusion that the sandpipers are on fire. When I open up, they are still burning, twittering and bobbing in the warming light. They cavort just in front of my bow. They move their heads together, collectively, like soldiers marching in parade review. But Calidris minutilla will not fly off as the current pulls me past close enough to touch them. It's still too early for them to migrate. As the birds twitter in primeval and measured joy under the spongy light, I honor the moment by holding still, keeping my hands belowdeck and whispering, "Hello, everyone."
I'm crazy, I know.
On this, my third day into solitude, approaching the ocean, I am learning to shut down all the emotional noise in my head and exist quietly and without complaint. After all, I can't lose my center. So, lacking birds to watch, I turn to anxiety-reducing tasks. Pitching the tent. Cleaning the stove. Immersing myself in a novel. Then, when all else fails, I lie down and breathe deeply until sleep carries me away from the stress of absolute silence.
Hours later, my dream of a Great White Bear is interrupted by a barren ground grizzly tripping over a tent line and snorting with surprise. Before I can zip down the tent door, I hear his bowels erupt wet berries. His claws throw gravel as he sprints away. Looking out, I can still smell his sour, fishy breath.
The tundra sweeps south in an infinity of green swells, not dissimilar to the blackened ocean to the north. In an early-morning mirage, distant pack ice is undulating like an accordion (Inuit call such visual phenomena puikartuq ["rising up for air"]). I catch myself holding my breath as the sun's thick saffron glow brings to life otherwise inanimate objects: oblong stones, bleached driftwood and the distant British Mountains. The landscape is as untouched by civilization as several millennia ago, when the first Paleo-Eskimos wandered past with their stomachs clutched by hunger.
I am now north of the trees, just south of an immense ice pack that slides across the sea like grease in a hot pan. If one were to spend enough time alone here, one's thoughts could similarly slide off into the mysterious waters of Inuit myth. Linear thinking holds little coin to those who linked their souls with animals and never had their own written language. Many Inuit still do not understand banks, credit cards, or forty-hour workweeks; I often feel the same way.
This is all too much to grasp while half asleep at three in the morning. So I stand up and bow to the bear's hindquarters disappearing into the vastness. I don't normally bow. I am emulating the author Barry Lopez, who used this technique to show his respect, and to cope with all that is infinite and enigmatic. The bear, and the landscape, demand no less from me.
Inuit back in the village of Aklavik had scolded me for not carrying a gun or a radio. When I showed them my bear deterrents-air horn, flares and pepper spray-they laughed long and hard. Like many adventurers, I am indebted to Inuit for the kayak, the feathered and double-bladed paddle, the dry top and the iglu, to name only a few of their innovations. So I listened, even though I believed they had lost their shamans and their nomadic lifestyle.
They told me that bears might not respect an unarmed Kabloona, that grizzlies were more dangerous than polar bears and that dreams about polar bears were really dreams about sex. One Inuk described three knocks out on the door of his hunting shack along the ocean. He found a polar bear, eight feet tall, "asking" for food. He handed her a frozen fish.
I lie back in the tiny tent and try to sleep, my mind spinning. I would like to look into a wild polar bear's eyes, without holding a rifle. But what would I have done if this morning's visitor had been a polar bear, whose huge footprints litter the beaches? On the basis of no personal experience and few statistics, I am trying to believe that polar bears won't harm me.
In Canada during the last two decades only a half dozen people had been killed by polar bears, while people "in defense of life and property" had destroyed 251. In Alaska, from 1900 to 1985, bears (mostly grizzlies) killed only twenty humans. Although a polar bear caused one injury in that time period, they caused no fatalities.
The Russian biologist Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov lived alone in the high Arctic and used only a driftwood stick to rap several bears on the nose during hundreds of polar bear encounters. This is the sort of polar bear story that Inuit tell.
Inuit carvings feature Nanuq-the Great White Bear-as an animal above all beings. Two-thousand-year-old ivory carvings (as well as modern soapstone pieces) feature the polar bear flying through the air as if it had supernatural powers. Often small, but incredibly detailed, the carvings are engraved with lifelines and anatomically precise skeletons. You can hold one of these tiny bear amulets in your hand and sense the supernatural power behind it, the carvings as robust as fifteen-thousand-year-old European works.
In Aklavik, an Inuk described to me how a lone bear boxed a twelve-foot-long beluga over the head, hooked its paws into the blubber and dragged the half-ton whale up out of the water onto an ice floe. Another day he had seen it on the sea ice kicking a child's rubber ball back and forth.
From the Kabloona perspective, the polar bear sits on top of the animal kingdom. Ursus maritimus fears nothing and is adept on both land and water. Pilots have reported bears swimming more than 100 miles from the nearest land or ice. They dog-paddle on top of the water at several miles an hour and cavort underwater like seals. They can sprint at 30 miles per hour, and mature boars stand over 10 feet tall. Mothers will fight to the death to save their cubs, and "sportsmen" shooting the bears with high-powered rifles have reported eerie screams that these hunters, when pressed, will concede sound like those of terrified women.
In 1988, in the Alaskan village of Kaktovik, I had seen a skinned polar bear. It had been prepared for a Kabloona, decapitated and emasculated, nailed by its forearms to a high meat rack. Soot-colored clouds rushed above the two-by-fours bracing this crucifixion against the sky. Years later I still feel embarrassed for having looked at it, like a voyeur interrupted, and not just because the body seemed obscenely naked and vulnerable. The white fat belly, distinctive rear end, red-muscled biceps and bulging quadriceps looked remarkably human.
The only intact wild polar bear I have seen was in the living room of an acquaintance in Alaska. The eleven-foot mounting typifies the disrespect (and perhaps fear) with which we commonly regard the animal. Its mouth leers unnaturally, displaying two-and-a-half-inch canines. The hunter has the sort of close-set eyes and aquiline nose you might expect in a cartoon caricature of such predators, and if you spend enough time in the North, it is surprising how many Kabloona you will meet who are like him. Along with polar bears, this particular hunter finds sport in shooting wolves from his airplane. He told me that he had no choice but to shoot his bear (while braced on his Super Cub wing strut) before being ripped from limb to limb. No matter how many times I heard or studied these bear stories, they always seemed false. Kabloona myths surrounding the bear just didn't make sense. It was no better than trying to understand the animal by watching the overweight and diseased polar bears in most zoos.
In a balmy dawn I pull down the tent and try to find inspiration to continue. I reassure myself with the knowledge, from previous expeditions, that I still have not tapped my limits. I can go for a week without food and perform lucid, route-finding decisions. I have learned how to avoid frostbite and hypothermia. I have also figured out one essential, if forgotten, truth: As a species we are still able to draw on remnant instincts to avoid natural dangers. I finish packing the kayak and jump in, batting at the growing crowd of mosquitoes.
On the cusp of a new century ruled by machines and technology, I want to do something unequivocal, by myself, something that will leave me satisfied into old age. I want to perform a journey utilizing instinct and soul, combining my love of sub-zero mountaineering, backcountry skiing, sea kayaking, dogsledding and ocean sailing. A week ago, just in case I was making a mistake, I handwrote a will that included instructions for wildlife officers not to destroy the bear that killed me-if this is how I meet my fate.
In a half-serious way I think of the polar bear as the animal that I seek in my modern-day vision quest. It seems that if I keep this inquisitorial dream going-like my fantasy of seeing an Eskimo curlew (an endangered shorebird, with a long downcurved bill and cinnamon wing linings, last seen on this delta in the 1980s)-then my hoped-for crossing of the Northwest Passage will mean far more than covering two thousand miles.
Out in the shallow delta I turn west toward the distant Prudhoe Bay. If I can handle the solitude and obstacles of this summer's shakedown cruise, next year I'll come back to the Mackenzie and spend the next two springs and summers traveling east.
The river's flood is so extensive here in the ocean that I can pot a breaking wave and still drink fresh water from Canada's interior. With no warning at all, a mile from shore, I ground out in two inches of water. I check my map location: Shoalwater Bay. Then I lever myself out and begin dragging the kayak through the mud. Anyone watching from the distant shore will think, initially anyway, that I'm walking on water.
Being alone, harried by mosquitoes and then flushed into
the Beaufort Sea by this country's mightiest northern river
give me pause, particularly after telling friends that I am
attempting this long solo voyage to see a polar bear and watch
birds. On a grant application, I suggested that identifying
with (rather than simply identifying) birds might lend a new
viewpoint on adventuring. My application was rejected. It's
never easy finding sponsors....