by Michael Engelhard

Everything is flowing—going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water.
—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

Encounters with wildlife can feel like payback for karmic points earned and keep some of us buzzing for days. Perhaps more than in its weather or plants, the land’s life force concentrates in its creatures, sharpened to poignancy, similar but foreign enough to our own to be captivating. To a few people it—or a thing closely related to it—becomes audible. A fellow wilderness guide describes it as a low frequency sound, “like a didgeridoo,” which she has come to expect in certain places and greets as an old friend. Of course, the humming just might be tinnitus, or our mind wanting to hear something, anything, beyond sub-polar silence.

One fall day on a Canning River raft trip I guided, at the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will always remain special to the trip’s participants for what the land offered up without asking for anything but our attention.

Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we had pitched our tents, I noticed a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I did not believe my eyes. A polar bear! The clients popped from their nylon cocoons like ground squirrels from their burrows when I alerted them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. My co-guide Cyn insisted on getting the shotgun from its waterproof sleeve by my tent. We stood and watched the bear sniff and root around. To the marine mammal-dependent carnivore (the largest on land), ground squirrels, foxes, or birds could have been the only morsels of interest there. But as mere flashes in its metabolic pan, they would never provide enough calories for this blubber-burning powerhouse.

The bear’s wedge of a head swung on the pendulous neck, snakelike, gauging god-knows-what. Thirty miles from the coast, radiant against willows and heather, the bear looked more displaced than it would have in a zoo. The previous year, sea ice—a haul-out for seals and hunting platform for the bears—had shrunk to the third-lowest extent on record. Hunger or curiosity could have driven the bear this far inland. It appeared healthy and fat, but if the spring ice had broken up early again, it would be in for a long fast.

Polar bear near the Eskimo village of Kaktovik by Rich Wilkins

In the spring of 2008, Native hunters had killed a polar bear near Fort Yukon, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Beaufort Sea coast. Its inland excursion was the longest ever recorded for an Alaska polar bear. Normally at that time of year the animals would be foraging on the sea ice. I only found out after our trip that our sighting qualified as the farthest inland sighting of a Polar Bear in the Arctic Refuge. In 2011, a scientific study reported a polar bear marathon swim. A GPS-collared female with her yearling cub had paddled 426 miles—from east of Barrow to near the Canadian border—across the Beaufort Sea. In search of an ice floe to haul out on, she spent nine days straight in barely above-freezing-point water. Her cub did not survive. Clearly, as far as northern species and their behavior go, we now should expect the unexpected.

Without a care in the world, the bear we’d been watching lay down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope. What was there to fear?

We sat and kept our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily have been mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifted its head to sample the air. We crouched downwind from it, and it remained unaware of our presence.

Before long, a golden eagle stroked past. Mobbed by some songbirds but regal in its bearing, it scrutinized the bear, which did not wake up. Then another bright spot heading downstream caught my eye. A cub? But the gait was different, a trot with a mission more than an ambling; the mark of canine determination, not of the larger carnivore’s easy opportunism. A scan with my glasses revealed a white wolf.

Animals congregating near us for no obvious reason leave us mystified and in awe, even more so when they are charismatic or rare. They represent connections we have lost, evoking lineages and life ways that once were familiar but now seem arcane. They appear as sudden emissaries, omens, or uncanny messengers, although most of us no longer speak their language. At our layover camp, tracks of caribou, wolves, moose, bears, foxes, and a wolverine had stamped the mudflats with the animals’ hidden intentions. The day after, we had observed a black Arctic fox, a moose built like a bulldozer, and a peregrine striking a ptarmigan on the fly and passing it off to a juvenile bird—all within one hour. Animals even sought contact with us on occasion, mirrors of our own curiosity: mew gulls escorted the rafts, shrieking blue murder and sounding like rusty door hinges. Caribou high-stepped closer, curious, eyeing us nervously. I baited them by waving my paddle overhead. A red fox—non-native like myself and likely to cannibalize its smaller arctic cousins if it came upon them—investigated our dinner setup. Even in the continent’s frugal margins, the paths of animals had changed. We had changed them by our mere presence.

Sure, there were explanations for such meetings, for the overlapping of agendas in space and time, or at least the beginnings of explanations. Caribou are known to be curious, gulls and terns aggressive toward intruders. Mornings and evenings, warm-blooded animals tend to be more active, avoiding mosquito peak times or heat, fueling up for a cold night or the day ahead. With their patchwork of habitats, rivers provide food and cover for predators and prey alike. Their corridors ease travel, funneling animals—and humans—from the boggy and lumpy tundra onto natural highways. In part, our encounters were signs of the land’s seasonal abundance, the narrow window for blooming and birthing, maturing and mating, that winter too soon slams shut. We also had to account for selective perception, our minds’ intense focusing. The more we yielded to our surroundings, the better we learned to look and listen for signs and shed our civilization’s blinders, the more animal sightings were our reward. When our attention strayed to daydreams or to each other, wildlife must have slipped past us unnoticed. Despite our desire, the landscape seemed lifeless for hours at a time and miles around. We frequently surveyed it from a hilltop or standing up in the rafts, finding no movement except in the river’s slippage beneath scudding clouds. What orchestrated the meanderings across this land? What tangled invisible paths at greater than random frequency? Did life attract more life, beyond caloric or reproductive rewards? Was there some animal magnetism, some orbiting of terrestrial bodies about which we knew nothing but which included us?

Shadowing the Porcupine Caribou Herd on their migration for a thousand miles, the writer and wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer heard a “guttural thrumming” at significant moments in the herd’s migration. Low-frequency “infrasonic” exchanges across distances much greater than those covered by high-frequency sounds have been documented for elephants and whales. Heuer believes the phenomenon he witnessed could be a key to understanding communication that orchestrates the Porcupine herd’s moves and even transcends species boundaries. This strongly resonates with the beliefs of Gwich’in Indian hunters who, regarding caribou as distant kin, claim that they can converse with them.

Unconcerned with attempts to make sense of it all, fully present here and now, the wolf approached the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, it then sauntered over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory.

Because the bear was not moving much and posed no immediate threat, I had breakfast and broke down my tent. Then, I acted as lookout while the rest of our group took their turn and loaded the rafts, screened by the bluff and prevailing wind. As I contemplated Sleeping Beauty with some voyeuristic unease, I realized once again that, out there, who spots whom first amounts to a matter of safety. Vision, hearing, and sense of smell have been refined to various degrees in the tundra’s denizens to ensure survival of the most sentient. Exposure and this landscape’s spare natural soundtrack awaken instincts long dulled in us. Alert, we become fully, if at times frightfully, alive.

As if to drive home that point, a camouflaged couple we’d run into below the Marsh Fork confluence came floating around the bend. Velvety caribou antlers in the raft’s bow attested to their prowess as hunters. But they drifted by with their bloody cargo, oblivious to the predator outside their field of vision that had just bumped them to a lower rank on the food chain. I shuddered to think how often I had courted disaster unknowingly, like this.

When we shoved into the current a few hours after the initial sighting, the bear was up and moving again, sniffing and pawing through bushes on the bench. We snuck away like thieves, enriched by an encounter that luckily stressed none of the parties involved.
Over the next fifteen miles, our course intersected with that of a northern harrier, a rough-legged hawk, more peregrines, and low-flying, yammering loons. Another arctic fox popped from between tussocks and then sat on its haunches with erect ears, intrigued by the bipedal transients.

Hours later, a tundra airstrip and a water flow gauge perched on a terrace on river right announced the end of our journey. They were the first manmade structures we had seen since we launched, a week before.

After a dinner upgraded by fresh grayling and salmon-red char, I dumped dishwater down the cutbank, scattering ground squirrels that had staked out riverfront property by tunneling below the rim. Straightening up, I faced a grizzly nosing along the opposite shore. As we were gathering to keep tabs on its progress, furtive movement on our side caught my eye. Some dark troll momentarily rose on its hind legs for a better view of us. Bear cub, my thoughts clicked into the familiar groove; but Cyn correctly identified the creature: “It’s a wolverine!” Loping toward us on flat feet, it stopped repeatedly, as if considering a dare. This allowed us to check the bushy tail, burly legs, and brawler’s face characteristic of one of the North’s most elusive animals. I stared in disbelief until my eyes watered. This was only my second run-in with the weasel on steroids, and the first time, in Denali, it had been a mere glimpse. At roughly a hundred yards, the wolverine hesitated. Deciding that it had crossed some kind of threshold, it bolted, jumped into the river, and dogpaddled to the other side. Onshore, it shook its backlit coat, sending a burst of droplets flying in all directions. By then, the bear had bedded down for the evening. The wolverine continued upstream where it spied the bear. Like its wolf counterpart before, it detoured around the shaggy, sleeping mound. Then it clawed from the gravel bar up onto a bench and vanished behind a rise.

What a strange variation of a theme—like an Animal Planet rerun with a different cast. But to capture scenes like the ones we had witnessed in a single day, a documentary film crew would have to spend weeks or even months in the wilds.

Sunset had turned the northwestern horizon into a garish smear. A string of geese sailed right through it, black cutouts pulled by instinct to their fall staging grounds near Beaufort Lagoon. The river shone gunmetal blue, braiding and unbraiding into its delta, enticing us to carry on. Struck by oblique rays, sea ice glowed in the distance. The bear was still snoozing. When it got too dark to make out its shape, the clients crawled into their tents, trusting in our arsenal of pots and pans, pepper spray, and assorted firearms.

As evening river sounds will, the Canning’s monologue made me pensive. In my fifty-two years on the planet—much of them spent in the backcountry—I had never seen a federally endangered species. This summer, I had seen two, the polar bear and a passel of humpback chubs in the Grand Canyon. I wondered if the odds simply increased as more animals ended up on that shameful list, or if, on some subconscious level, I sought out the rare and the blighted before it could disappear. The thought that my clients essentially funded my wildlife viewing and that the carbon footprint I left on the way possibly outweighed any awareness I hoped to instill further complicated matters.

“A few recovered species don’t compensate for the lost company of great beasts,” the marine biologist Carl Safina writes. Sadly, he’s right. But here there still were some, and we in their company found a measure of solace in these seamless days on the river. I knew that whenever the refuge played big in the media, because yet another attack on it was being launched, visitor numbers rocketed. Many people with whom I spoke confessed that they wanted to see this place while there was still time; a refuge for wildlife, we needed it just as badly. What we all felt, I’d like to believe, was a mixture of helplessness, guilt, and regret rather than morbid, rubbernecking curiosity. Like conscientious criminals, we were drawn to the scene of the crime, witnesses and perpetrators rolled into one, forever haunted by our deeds and sins of omission. Perhaps, in the great beasts’ presence, we were hoping to somehow be forgiven.

Before I turned in, the realities of our streamside world dissolved into those of another, one by then almost forgotten. To the north, near the coast, orange gas flares and red strobes turned the night into a mad carnival. Flames split, fused and twitched in the crystalline air like some live alien thing. They spelled the undoing of everything we had experienced this past week. They proclaimed the place where sanctuary yielded to busyness, where extraction passed for production, where the earth and its creatures took second billing. They hawked the stuff that became our gear and got us to the river: Prudhoe Bay crude.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the forthcoming essay collection American Wild (Hiraeth Press) and of Ice Bear, a cultural history of the polar bear (University of Washington Press). He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and still works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

Header Image: With no natural enemies except humans, polar bears often take naps in the open. Their clean lines and flowing form inspired the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan in 1903 to this untitled sketch. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.