Bob’s Country

Dragged behind one crazed nag, he shot at the bear from the hip and, after letting go of the halter, managed to wound it. He then chased the escaped horses on foot. The next day a cold rain fell, and he got soaked and saw little, as fog mantled the “ragged giants” bracing this glen. The only excitement came when a soggy slope crashed into the creek two miles below camp, once more spooking the horses.

I as well go unarmed on this dreary day and don’t meet any wildlife but, bathed in doomsday light, pitch my tent by a lake before the sky’s floodgates yield with booming claps.

It is cold yet sunny the following morning, and clouds drift low on the hills—conditions spelling the brink of fall. Watching a red-throated diver afloat in “my” front yard, I wonder: How can a lake with a single loon appear more lonesome than one with no birds at all?

Last night an arctic fox inspected my tent, betrayed by a jaeger’s yakking. When I wash the breakfast dishes two golden plovers distract me while a gull tries to snatch their leggy chick. The parents dive at the rapacious intruder, running it off. Virgil envisioned hell as a place without birds; I think our world without birds would be hell.

Plodding up the valley of precipices (Marshall’s “great gorge of the north”) and over low Ernie Pass, studded with tussocks, I reach Graylime Creek and the broad Anaktuvuk River valley, which Pleistocene glaciers carved. Only 20 more miles to the village at whose P.O. I’ll collect cache #5, mailed to myself. I can’t wait for the cookies my wife, Melissa, baked and for new books—I’ve been burning pages from the ones I brought after reading them, to lighten my load.

A hamlet of 400 inland Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass forms a grid among peaks at the sinuous, watery crossroads where Contact Creek and Inukpasugruk join the Anaktuvuk and John. Thirteen families moved there 10 years after Bob Marshall died. In November 1939, at the age of 38, his dynamo heart gave out on a midnight-train ride from Washington, D.C. to New York. This insular village was established three decades before the national park that engulfs it. Grandfathered in, its Inupiaq residents are entitled to hunt, fish, and trap within park boundaries, an exception made for Alaska Native communities.

I soon pick up the alder-lined ATV track on the riverbank east of the settlement. Gravel below drains the tire ruts along much of this stretch, except for occasional mud pits and their multi-lane bypasses. Civilization’s rash of debris welcomes me back: fire rings, tin cans, broken sled runners, a rusting snowmachine, a Star Wars plastic laser sword.

Making good time I camp off-trail a few miles short of town, at a kidney-shaped lake pocketed between a mountainside and a hill. I am procrastinating, dreading even the briefest reentry, the punch to quiet solitude delivered by dumpsters, engines, an airstrip, or stores. In this, I am kin to Marshall. Finishing one splendid summer excursion of camping 49 nights out, he halted just outside of Wiseman upon his return. He supposedly tried to rack up a nice, even 50, but I doubt that motive.

It’s been the first bluebird day in over two weeks. Taking advantage, I rinse my socks and skivvies, which on this trek passes for “doing laundry.”

“Gates,” as the park is fondly known among Alaskans, has another treat for me.

As I recline bare-chested on fragrant tundra, absorbing warmth and mulling the lack of fat in my diet, and the resulting shrinkage, a canine, coal-black like a hellhound, trots along the far lakeshore without noticing me. Whose dog is this? Not an outlandish question given the nearness of huskies and town. But something feels off, a feral spring in this animal’s gait. Could it be a rare “blue morph” arctic fox? Then it hits me: Another wolf, though a skinny one.

Afraid it will leave, I softly call out to it. “Hey there, where are you going?”

Not at all startled, it stops and looks at me. Then it approaches, gingerly, as if the ground were not solid. Perhaps, I’m tickled to think, it carries the deeply buried memory of a former bond between its kind and mine.

I keep talking calmly, staying in my Crazy Creek folding-chair, and it comes closer still. It freezes again, its curiosity piqued. The lean body signals no tension, only openness to the moment’s possibilities. I can sense the age-old allure that links our two species.

Deciding that this is too weird, the wolf then circles downwind to catch my scent. A shallow ravine conceals the nifty maneuver. Losing sight of it but wanting to prolong the connection, I stand up for a better view. Amaguq jolts at this rude predator move, loping off into the blue yonder.

Sometimes you sit, and good things come to you. Most of my wolf encounters happen that way. With my hiking pole I measure this untamed one’s comfort zone. Thirty yards. Like its pal near the Haul Road it did not seem bothered by our society’s limited footprint in this expanse.

“There is just one hope,” Marshall wrote in a seminal article, “of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”

While there can be no room for the possessive in wilderness— land “gloriously fresh” with “no musty signs of human occupation”—the rough paradise he helped to preserve will be Bob’s Country forever.

Michael Engelhard is the author of American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. Like Marshall, he fell for the Brooks Range the first time he set foot in it, in 1990, and shares his “childlike” enthusiasm and sense of humor.

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