Coming into the Country

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Coming into the Country is an unforgettable account of Alaska and Alaskans. It is a rich tapestry of vivid characters, observed landscapes, and descriptive narrative, in three principal segments that deal, respectively, with a total wilderness, with urban Alaska, and with life in the remoteness of the bush.

Readers of McPhee’s earlier books will not be unprepared for his surprising shifts of scene and ordering of events, brilliantly combined into an organic whole. In the course ...

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Coming into the Country

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Coming into the Country is an unforgettable account of Alaska and Alaskans. It is a rich tapestry of vivid characters, observed landscapes, and descriptive narrative, in three principal segments that deal, respectively, with a total wilderness, with urban Alaska, and with life in the remoteness of the bush.

Readers of McPhee’s earlier books will not be unprepared for his surprising shifts of scene and ordering of events, brilliantly combined into an organic whole. In the course of this volume we are made acquainted with the lore and techniques of placer mining, the habits and legends of the barren-ground grizzly, the outlook of a young Athapaskan chief, and tales of the fortitude of settlers—ordinary people compelled by extraordinary dreams. Coming into the Country unites a vast region of America with one of America’s notable literary craftsmen, singularly qualified to do justice to the scale and grandeur of the design.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“It is a reviewer’s greatest pleasure to ring the gong for a species of masterpiece.”—Edward Hoagland, The New York Times Book Review

“Justly celebrated…By showing us what Alaska is like, McPhee reminds us of what we have become.” —The Washington Post Book World

“What is really in view in Coming into the Country is a matter not usually met in works of reportage . . . nothing less than the nature Of the human condition.” —Benjamin De Mott, The Atlantic Monthly

“McPhee has acted as an antenna in a far-off place that few will see. He has brought back a wholly satisfying voyage of spirit and mind.” —Paul Grey, Time

“With this book McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America.” —Editor's Choice, The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374522872
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/1991
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 128,057
  • Lexile: 1060L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

John McPhee

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Coming into the Country



My bandanna is rolled on the diagonal and retains water fairly well. I keep it knotted around my head, and now and again dip it into the river. The water is forty-six degrees. Against the temples, it is refrigerant and relieving. This has done away with the headaches that the sun caused in days before. The Arctic sun—penetrating, intense—seems not so much to shine as to strike. Even the trickles of water that run down my T-shirt feel good. Meanwhile, the river—the clearest, purest water I have ever seen flowing over rocks—breaks the light into flashes and sends them upward into the eyes. The headaches have reminded me of the kind that are sometimes caused by altitude, but, for all the fact that we have come down through mountains, we have not been higher than a few hundred feet above the level of the sea. Drifting now—a canoe, two kayaks—and thanking God it is not my turn in either of the kayaks, I lift my fish rod from the tines of a caribou rack (lashed there in mid-canoe to the duffel) and send a line flying toward a wall of bedrock by the edge of the stream. A grayling comes up and, after some hesitation, takes the lure and runs with it for a time. I disengage the lure and let the grayling go, being mindful not to wipe my hands on my shirt. Several days in use, the shirt is approaching filthy, but here among grizzly bears I would prefer to stink of humanity than of fish.

Paddling again, we move down long pools separated by short white pitches, looking to see whatever might appear in the low hills, in the cottonwood, in the white and black spruce—and in the river, too. Its bed is as distinct as if the water were not there. Everywhere, in fleets, are the oval shapes of salmon. They have moved the gravel and made redds, spawning craters, feet in diameter. They ignore the boats, but at times, and without apparent reason, they turn and shoot downriver, as if they have felt panic and have lost their resolve to get on with their loving and their dying. Some, already dead, lie whitening, grotesque, on the bottom, their bodies disassembling in the current. In a short time, not much will be left but the hooking jaws. Through the surface, meanwhile, the living salmon broach, freshen—make long, dolphinesque flights through the air—then fall to slap the water, to resume formation in the river, noses north, into the current. Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins.

A cloud, all black and silver, crosses the sun. I put on a wool shirt. In Alaska, where waters flow in many places without the questionable benefit of names, there are nineteen streams called Salmon—thirteen Salmon Creeks, six Salmon Rivers—of which this one, the Salmon River of the Brooks Range, is the most northern, its watershed wholly above the Arctic Circle. Rising in treeless alpine tundra, it falls south into the fringes of the boreal forest, the taiga, the upper limit of the Great North Woods. Tree lines tend to be digital here, fingering into protected valleys. Plants and animals are living on margin, in cycles that are always vulnerable to change. It is five o’clock in the afternoon. The cloud, moving on, reveals the sun again, and I take off the wool shirt. The sun has been up fourteen hours, and has hours to go before it sets. It seems to be rolling slowly down a slightly inclined plane. A tributary, the Kitlik, comes in from the northwest. It has formed with the Salmon River a raised, flat sand-and-gravel mesopotamia—a good enough campsite, and, as a glance can tell, a fishing site to exaggerate the requirements of dinner.

There are five of us, four of whom are a state-federal study team. The subject of the study is the river. We pitch the tents side by side, two Alpine Draw-Tite tents, and gather and saw firewood: balsam poplar (more often called cottonwood); sticks of willow and alder; a whole young spruce, tip to root, dry now, torn free upriver by the ice of the breakup in spring. Tracks are numerous, coming, going, multidirectional, tracks wherever there is sand, and in gravel if it is fine enough to have taken an impression. Wolf tracks. The pointed pods of moose tracks. Tracks of the barren-ground grizzly. Some of the moose tracks are punctuated with dewclaws. The grizzlies’ big toes are on the outside.

The Kitlik, narrow, and clear as the Salmon, rushes in white to the larger river, and at the confluence is a pool that could be measured in fathoms. Two, anyway. With that depth, the water is apple green, and no less transparent. Salmon and grayling, distinct and dark, move into, out of, around the pool. Many grayling rest at the bottom. There is a pair of intimate salmon, the male circling her, circling, an endless attention of rings. Leaning over, watching, we nearly fall in. The gravel is loose at the river’s edge. In it is a large and recently gouged excavation, a fresh pit, close by the water. It was apparently made in a thrashing hurry. I imagine that a bear was watching the fish and got stirred up by the thought of grabbing one, but the water was too deep. Excited, lunging, the bear fell into the pool, and it flailed back at the soft gravel, gouging the pit while trying to get enough of a purchase to haul itself out. Who can say? Whatever the story may be, the pit is the sign that is trying to tell it.

It is our turn now to fish in the deep pool. We are having grayling for dinner—Arctic grayling of firm delicious flesh. On their skins are black flecks against a field of silvery iridescence. Their dorsal fins fan up to such height that grayling are scalemodel sailfish. In the cycles of the years, and the millennia, not many people have fished this river. Forest Eskimos have long seined at its mouth, but only to the third bend upstream. Eskimo hunters and woodcutters, traversing the Salmon valley, feed themselves, in part, with grayling. In all, perhaps a dozen outsiders, so far as is known, have travelled, as we have, in boats down the length of the river. Hence the grayling here have hardly been, in the vernacular of angling, fished out. Over the centuries, they have scarcely been fished. The fire is high now and is rapidly making coals. Nineteen inches is about as long as a grayling will grow in north Alaska, so we agree to return to the river anything much smaller than that. As we do routinely, we take a count of the number needed—see who will share and who can manage on his own the two or three pounds of an entire fish. Dinner from our supplies will come in hot plastic water bags and be some form of desiccated mail-order stew—Mountain House Freeze Dried Caribou Cud—followed by Mountain House Freeze Dried fruit. Everyone wants a whole fish.

Five, then. Three of us pick up rods and address the river —Bob Fedeler, Stell Newman, and I. Pat Pourchot, of the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, has not yet cast a line during the trip. As he puts it, he is phasing himself out of fishing. In his work, he makes many river trips. There will always be people along who want to fish, he reasons, and by removing himself he reduces the number. He has wearied of take-and-put fishing, of molesting the fish, of shocking the ones that, for one reason or another, go back. He says he wonders what kind of day a fish will have after spending some time on a hook. John Kauffmann has largely ignored the fishing, too. A National Park Service planner who has been working for five years in Arctic Alaska, he is a New England mastertouch dry-fly fisherman, and up here his bamboo ballet is regarded as effete. Others taunt him. He will not rise. But neither will the grayling to his Black Gnats, his Dark Cahills, his Quill Gordons. So—tall, angular—he sits and observes, and his short gray beard conceals his disgust. He does agree to time the event. He looks at his watch. Invisible lines, glittering lures go spinning to the river, sink in the pool. The rods bend. Grayling do not sulk, like the salmon. They hit and go. In nine minutes, we have our five. They are seventeen, eighteen inches long. We clean them in the Kitlik, with care that all the waste is taken by the stream. We have a grill with us, and our method with grayling is simply to set them, unscaled, fins intact, over the fire and broil them like steaks. In minutes, they are ready, and beneath their skins is a brown-streaked white flesh that is in no way inferior to the meat of trout. The sail, the dorsal fin, is an age-old remedy for toothache. Chew the fin and the pain subsides. No one has a toothache. The fins go into the fire.

When a lure falls into the water, it can become arrested at the bottom, and you tug and haul at the line and walk in an arc, whipping the rod, four-lettering the apparent snag that has spoiled the cast and is stealing your equipment. Tug some more. Possibly a small boulder or a sunken log has stopped the lure. Possibly not, too. You may have a pensive salmon. He contemplates. He is not yet ready to present his response. Not long before this river trip, I was fishing in lake-and-stream country northwest of Anchorage and the line became snagged in a way that to me suggested big things below. When I tugged, there was a slight movement at the other end, a gesture in my direction, the signal—obviously—of an irritated salmon getting ready to explode. I strained the line. It moved a bit more in my direction. A couple of minutes later, I landed a Safeway Stores Cragmont orange-soda can, full of silt and sand.

Over the fire now, I tell that story, and Bob Fedeler responds that that country near Anchorage, where many people have summer cottages, has long since been virtually fished out and is now supplied with stocked rainbows from a state hatchery. “That is the myth of Alaska,” he says. “The myth is that in Alaska there’s a fish on every cast, a moose behind every tree. But the fish and the moose aren’t there. People go out with high expectations, and they’re disappointed. To get to the headwaters of a river like this one takes a lot of money. The state needs to look to the budgets and desires of people who cannot afford to come to a place like this.”

John Kauffmann, sitting on the ground and leaning against his duffel, shifts his weight uncomfortably. “You can charter a lot of aircraft time for the cost of summer cabins and Winnebagos,” he says, and he bangs his pipe on a rock.

Fedeler shrugs. He scratches his cheek, which is under a mat of russet beard. He is compact, sturdy, not particularly tall, with a wide forehead and intelligent brown eyes. He would resemble Sigmund Freud, if Sigmund Freud had been a prospector. Fedeler says that he and his wife, Lyn, almost left Alaska during their first year, because they saw so little, and could afford so little, of the outdoors, of the wild—let alone of wildlife. In 1972, he took an advanced degree from South Dakota State and straightaway headed for Alaska. To support themselves, he and Lyn found jobs in Anchorage. He worked at McMahan’s Furniture. He is a wildlife biologist. The state work he sought was given preferentially to people who had been resident in Alaska for at least a year. Meanwhile, in Anchorage—a city sealed away by water and mountains, a city that would be right at home at the west end of the George Washington Bridge—he had to go to the movies to see anything wild. He did not have the hundred dollars an hour needed for air charter. He did not have a hundred dollars. He knew the wilderness was out there—several hundred million acres of it—but he lacked the means to get to it, and his soul began to stale. Fortunately, he stuck out the wait, went on shoving McMahan’s furniture around. At last, he got the work he wanted, his present job as a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, based in Fairbanks.

Pat Pourchot, of Anchorage, puts in that he finds plenty to do near home. He climbs cliffs. He kayaks on fast white rivers.

Stories emerge about others like Fedeler—for example, a young man I know from Arkansas, who came to Alaska a year and a half ago specifically to fish and hunt. Where he could afford to go he found no fish and nothing much to hunt. He drove a cab in Anchorage until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Taking a two-month vacation, he went home to Mountain Home. Then he came back to Alaska and his taxi. “It was the prettiest spring I’ve ever seen,” he reported. “The dogwoods and redbuds blossomed and they just stayed and stayed. I got all the fishing I wanted, in Arkansas. You need the bucks for the good hunting and fishing up here. Fishing is supposed to be, you know, so out of sight here. It really is out of sight for me. I haven’t made the bucks.”

People from outside write and say to friends in Alaska that they want to come stay with them and fish. “Fine,” says the return letter, “but you’ll have to charter. Air charter.” “No,” says the next letter. “We just want to stay at your place and fish from there.” Urban Alaskans shake their heads at such foolishness and say, typically, “These people in the Lower Forty-eight, they don’t understand.”

Something in the general drift now has John Kauffmann on his feet and off to the river. He assembles his trout rod, threads its eyes. Six feet three, spare, he walks, in his determination, tilted forward, ten degrees from vertical, jaws clamped. He seems to be seeking reassurance from the river. He seems not so much to want to catch what may become the last grayling in Arctic Alaska as to certify that it is there. With his bamboo rod, his lofted line, he now describes long drape folds in the air above the river. His shirt is old and red. There are holes in his felt hat and strips of spare rawhide around its crown. He agitates the settled fly. Nothing. Again he waves the line. He drops its passenger on the edge of fast water at the far side of the pool. There is a vacuum-implosive sound, a touch of violence at the surface of the river. We cheer. For two minutes, we wait it out while Kauffmann plays his fish. Adroitly, gingerly, he brings it in. With care, he picks it up. He then looks at us as if he is about to throw his tin star in the dust at our feet. Shame—for our triple-hooked lures, our nylon hawsers, our consequent stories of fished-out streams. He looks at his grayling. It is a twenty-five-ounce midget, but it will grow. He seems to feel reassured. He removes the fly, which has scarcely nicked the fish’s lips. He slips the grayling back to the stream.

Grayling are particularly fast swimmers. In Arctic Alaska, where small rivers like this one for the most part freeze solid, grayling can move big distances rapidly to seek out safe deep holes for winter. They are veterans of runs for life. They are indices, too, of the qualities of a stream. They seek out fast, cold, clear water. So do trout, of course, but grayling have higher standards. Trout will settle for subperfect waters in which grayling will refuse to live.

The sun, which two hours ago was behind the apex of a spruce across the Kitlik, is now far to the right of that and somewhat closer to the ground. All day, while the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, the light is of the rich kind that in more southern places comes at evening, heightening walls and shadowing eaves, bringing out of things the beauty of relief. It is ten-thirty, and about time for bed. Everything burnable—and more, too—has long since gone into the fire. We burn our plastic freeze-dry bags and we burn our Swiss Miss cocoa packets. If we have cans—devilled ham, Spam—we burn them, until all hint of their contents is gone. This is in part tidiness. Everything the fire does not consume is later put into bags that will go with us all the way through and out of these tens of thousands of square miles of wilderness. Nothing is buried. Also, the burning of the cans is an expression of regard for bears. The scent of the food is scorched away. It is not necessary for us to string up our meat high in the air. What meat we have is either dried or canned, and is presumably without odor. I can think of places where all these foil-lined packets and plastic containers might be an affront to the woods, but in Alaska their advantage is great. They are a way to move through bear country without drawing bears. More accurately, I should say “without in all likelihood drawing bears.” Unopened cans of sardines have been found in the scat of grizzlies.

Bear stories, for a time, traverse the campfire. John Kauffmann remembers when Ave Thayer, the refuge manager of the Arctic National Wildlife Range, surprised a grizzly one day and when the bear charged stood his ground. In a low voice, Thayer said, “Shoo!” The grizzly stopped short. The two faced each other ten feet apart, neither making a move. Thayer cautiously stepped backward. The grizzly slowly advanced. Thayer said, “Shoo!” The grizzly stopped. Thayer walked backward, with no sudden starts. The grizzly followed. In such manner, Thayer walked backward about two hundred yards. Then the grizzly moved off a distance and walked parallel to him all the way—a mile or so—to his camp, where it lost interest and turned away.

Fedeler makes the point that grizzlies in general will avoid people and people should avoid them, by not foolishly getting in their way—by not, for example, pitching a tent on a bear trail. Once, not long ago, a writer visiting Alaska pitched his tent on a bear trail. A bear removed the writer from the tent, ate him, and left nothing much but the pencil.

“All right, that’s enough!” decrees Pat Pourchot, official leader of the trip. “No more bear stories. It is never a good idea to tell bear stories at night. I’ve known people to wake up screaming in their sleeping bags.”

As it happens, there is behind the tents a dry channel, a braid of the river when the river is in flood, and now a kind of corridor that comes through the woods and past the tents to the river. Tracks suggest that it is something of a trail. I am mildly nervous about that, but then I am mildly nervous about a lot of things. We get into the tents and zip them up. Mosquitoes, while not overwhelming, are much around. We slap a few inside, and prepare for sleep. In moments, nearly everyone else is snoring. I look up through the mesh of the tent window past spruce boughs and into the sky. Twilight sky. The sun is down. It is falling nine minutes earlier per day. In three months, it will have ceased to rise. Now, though, in the dead of night, the sky is too bright for stars. I cannot quite read by the light at two.




7 A.M., and the water temperature is forty-four, the air fifty-six, the sky blue and clear—an Indian-summer morning, August 18, 1975. Pourchot, after breakfast, goes off to measure the largest of the spruce near the campsite. He finds a tree twenty-two inches in diameter, breast high. Most of the spruce in this country look like pipe cleaners. The better ones look like bottle washers. Tough they may be, but they are on the edge of their world, and their trunks can grow fifty years and be scarcely an inch through. Yet here is a stand of trees a foot thick. A specimen nearly two. Pourchot says he will write in his report that there is one tree of such girth. “Otherwise, the Forest Service might think there’s timber here.”

Two of our boats—the kayaks—are German. They can be taken apart and put back together. They were invented long ago by someone known as the Mad Tailor of Rosenheim. The Mad Tailor, at the turn of the century, was famous for his mountain-climbing knickers and loden capes. It was in 1907 that he went into naval architecture on a diminutive scale. Every major valley in Bavaria had a railroad running through it. The forests were laced with small white rivers. It was all but impossible to get boats to them, because boats were too bulky to accompany travellers on trains. Wouldn’t it be phantastisch, thought the tailor, if a boat could fit into a handbag, if a suitcase could turn into a kayak? His name was Johann Klepper. He designed a collapsible kayak with a canvas skin and a frame of separable hardwood parts. In subsequent manufacture, the boat became an international success. Klepper might have stopped there. Not long after the First World War, he designed a larger version, its spray cover apertured with two holes. Where the original boat had been made for a single paddler, this one was intended for a team. We have with us a single and a double Klepper. The smaller one is prompt, responsive, feathery on the stream. The double one is somewhat less maneuverable than a three-ton log. Stell Newman, of the National Park Service, began calling it Snake Eyes, and everyone has picked up the name. Snake Eyes is our bateau noir, our Charonian ferry, our Höllenfahrt. Throughout the day, we heap opprobrium on Snake Eyes.

Pourchot and I have the double Klepper this morning. The ratio of expended energy to developed momentum is seventy-five to one. This is in part because the bottom of Snake Eyes at times intersects the bottom of the river, which is shallow at many of the riffles. The hull has become so abraded in places that it has developed leaks. The Grumman canoe is wider, longer, more heavily loaded. It carries at least half of all our gear. Nonetheless, it rides higher, draws less water, than Snake Eyes. Fortunately, the pools are extensive here in the lower river, and are generally a little deeper than a paddle will reach. Pockets are much deeper than that. Miles slide behind us. A salmon, sensing the inferiority of Snake Eyes, leaps into the air beside it, leaps again, leaps again, ten pounds of fish jumping five times high into the air—a bravado demonstration, a territorial declaration. This is, after all, the salmon’s eponymous river. The jumper moves on, among its kind, ignoring the dying. These—their spawning done—idly, sleepily yield to the current, their gestures slow and quiet, a peaceful drifting away.

We have moved completely out of the hills now, and beyond the riverine fringes of spruce and cottonwood are boggy flatlands and thaw lakes. We see spruce that have been chewed by porcupines and cottonwood chewed by beavers. Moose tend to congregate down here on the tundra plain. In late fall, some of the caribou that migrate through the Salmon valley will stop here and make this their winter range. We see a pair of loons, and lesser Canada geese, and chick mergansers with their mother. Mink, marten, muskrat, otter—creatures that live here inhabit the North Woods across the world to Maine. We pass a small waterfall under a patterned bluff—folded striations of schist. In bends of the river now we come upon banks of flood-eroded soil—of mud. They imply an earth mantle of some depth going back who knows how far from the river. Brown and glistening, they are virtually identical with rural stream banks in the eastern half of the country, with the difference that the water flowing past these is clear. In the sixteenth century, the streams of eastern America ran clear (except in flood), but after people began taking the vegetation off the soil mantle and then leaving their fields fallow when crops were not there, rain carried the soil into the streams. The process continues, and when one looks at such streams today, in their seasonal varieties of chocolate, their distant past is—even to the imagination—completely lost. For this Alaskan river, on the other hand, the sixteenth century has not yet ended, nor the fifteenth, nor the fifth. The river flows, as it has since immemorial time, in balance with itself. The river and every rill that feeds it are in an unmodified natural state—opaque in flood, ordinarily clear, with levels that change within a closed cycle of the year and of the years. The river cycle is only one of many hundreds of cycles—biological, meteorological—that coincide and blend here in the absence of intruding artifice. Past to present, present reflecting past, the cycles compose this segment of the earth. It is not static, so it cannot be styled “pristine,” except in the special sense that while human beings have hunted, fished, and gathered wild food in this valley in small groups for centuries, they have not yet begun to change it. Such a description will fit many rivers in Alaska. This one, though, with its considerable beauty and a geography that places it partly within and partly beyond the extreme reach of the boreal forest, has been thought of as sufficiently splendid to become a national wild river—to be set aside with its immediate environs as unalterable wild terrain. Kauffmann, Newman, Fedeler, and Pourchot are, in their various ways, studying that possibility. The wild-river proposal, which Congress is scheduled to act upon before the end of 1978, is something of a box within a box, for it is entirely incorporated within a proposed national monument that would include not only the entire Salmon River drainage but also a large segment of the valley of the Kobuk River, of which the Salmon is a tributary. (In the blue haze of Interior Department terminology, “national monument” often enough describes certain large bodies of preserved land that in all respects except name are national parks.) The Kobuk Valley National Monument proposal, which includes nearly two million acres, is, in area, relatively modest among ten other pieces of Alaska that are similarly projected for confirmation by Congress as new parks and monuments. In all, these lands constitute over thirty-two million acres, which is more than all the Yosemites, all the Yellowstones, all the Grand Canyons and Sequoias put together—a total that would more than double the present size of the National Park System. For cartographic perspective, thirty-two million acres slightly exceeds the area of the state of New York.

Impressive as that may seem, it is less than a tenth of Alaska, which consists of three hundred and seventy-five million acres. From the Alaska Purchase, in 1867, to the Alaska Statehood Act, of 1958, Alaskan land was almost wholly federal. It was open to homesteading and other forms of private acquisition, but—all communities included—less than half of one per cent actually passed to private hands. In the Statehood Act, the national government promised to transfer to state ownership a hundred and three million acres, or a little more than a quarter of Alaska. Such an area, size of California, was deemed sufficient for the needs of the population as it was then and as it might be throughout the guessable future. The generosity of this apportionment can be measured beside the fact that the 1958 population of Alaska—all natives included—was virtually the same as the population of Sacramento. Even now, after the influx of new people that followed statehood and has attended the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the supposed oil-based bonanza, there are fewer people in all Alaska than there are in San Jose. The central paradox of Alaska is that it is as small as it is large—an immense landscape with so few people in it that language is stretched to call it a frontier, let alone a state. There are four hundred thousand people in Alaska, roughly half of whom live in or around Anchorage. To the point of picayunity, the state’s road system is limited. A sense of the contemporary appearance of Alaska virtually requires inspection, because the civilized imagination cannot cover such quantities of wild land. Imagine, anyway, going from New York to Chicago—or, more accurately, from the one position to the other—in the year 1500. Such journeys, no less wild, are possible, and then some, over mountains, through forests, down the streams of Alaska. Alaska is a fifth as large as the contiguous forty-eight states. The question now is, what is to be the fate of all this land? It is anything but a “frozen waste.” It is green nearly half the year. As never before, it has caught the attention of conflicting interests (developers, preservers, others), and events of the nineteen-seventies are accelerating the arrival of the answer to that question.

For a time, in the nineteen-sixties, the natives of Alaska succeeded in paralyzing the matter altogether. Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts, in coordination, pressed a claim that had been largely ignored when the Statehood Act was passed. Observing while a hundred and three million acres were legislatively prepared for a change of ownership, watching as exploration geologists came in and found the treasure of Arabia under the Arctic tundra, the natives proffered the point that their immemorial occupancy gave them special claim to Alaskan land. They engaged attorneys. They found sympathy in the federal courts and at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior. The result was that the government offered handsome compensations. Alaska has only about sixty thousand natives. They settled for a billion dollars and forty million acres of land.

The legislation that accomplished this (and a great deal more) was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, of 1971. Among events of significance in the history of Alaska, this one probably stands even higher than the Statehood Act and the treaty of purchase, for it not only changed forever the status and much of the structure of native societies; it opened the way to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is only the first of many big-scale projects envisioned by development-minded Alaskans, and, like a jewel cutter’s chisel cleaving a rough diamond, it effected the wholesale division, subdivision, patenting, parcelling, and deeding out of physiographic Alaska.

Because conservationists were outraged by the prospective pipeline, Congress attempted to restore a balance by including in the Native Claims Settlement Act extensive conservation provisions. The most notable of these was a paragraph that instructed the Secretary of the Interior to choose land of sufficient interest to its national owners, the people of the United States, to be worthy of preservation not only as national parks and national wild rivers but also as national wildlife refuges and national forests—some eighty million acres in all. Choices would be difficult, since a high proportion of Alaska could answer the purpose. In the Department of the Interior, an Alaska Planning Group was formed, and various agencies began proposing the lands, lakes, and rivers they would like to have, everywhere—from the Malaspina Glacier to Cape Krusenstern, from the Porcupine drainage to the Aniakchak Caldera.

Congress gave the agencies—gave the Secretary of the Interior—up to seven years to study and to present the case for each selection among these national-interest lands. Personnel began moving north. Pat Pourchot, for example, just out of college, had taken the Civil Service examination and then had wandered around the Denver Federal Center looking for work. He had nothing much in mind and was ready for almost any kind of job that might be offered. He happened into the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. Before long, he was descending Alaskan rivers. He had almost no experience with canoes or kayaks or with backpacking or camping, but he learned swiftly. John Kauffmann (a friend of mine of many years) had been planning new Park System components, such as the C.&O. Canal National Historical Park and the Cape Cod National Seashore. Transferring to Alaska, he built a house in Anchorage, and soon cornered as his special province eight and a third million acres of the central Brooks Range. When confirmed by Congress, the area will become Gates of the Arctic National Park. It is a couple of hundred miles wide, and is east of the Salmon River. For five years, he has walked it, flown it, canoed its rivers —camped in many weathers below its adze-like rising peaks. Before he came up here, he was much in the wild (he has been a ranger in various places and is the author of a book on eastern American rivers), but nonetheless he was a blue-blazer sort of man, who could blend into the tussocks at the Metropolitan Club. Unimaginable, looking at him now. If he were to take off his shirt and shake it, the dismembered corpses of vintage mosquitoes would fall to the ground. Tall and slim in the first place, he is now spare. After staring so long at the sharp, flinty peaks of the central Brooks Range, he has come to look much like them. His physiognomy, in sun and wind, has become, more or less, grizzly. Any bear that took a bite of John Kauffmann would be most unlikely to complete the meal.

Now, resting on a gravel island not far from the confluence of the Salmon and the Kobuk, he says he surely hopes Congress will not forget its promises about the national-interest lands. Some conservationists, remaining bitter about the pipeline, tend to see the park and refuge proposals as a sop written into the Native Claims Settlement Act to hush the noisome ecomorphs. Those who would develop the state for its economic worth got something they much wanted with their eight hundred miles of pipe. In return, the environmentalists were given a hundred and thirty words on paper. All the paragraph provided, however, was that eighty million acres could be temporarily set aside and studied. There was no guarantee of preservation to follow. The Wilderness Society, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and other conservation organizations have formed the Alaska Coalition to remind Congress of its promise, of its moral obligation, lest the proposed park and refuge boundaries slowly fade from the map.

The temperature is in the low seventies. Lunch is spread out on the ground. We have our usual Sailor Boy Pilot Bread (heavy biscuits, baked in Tacoma), peanut butter, jam, and a processed cheese that comes out of a tube—artifacts of the greater society, trekked above the Arctic Circle. Other, larger artifacts may be coming soon. The road that has been cut beside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline will eventually be opened to the public. Then, for the first time in human history, it will be possible to drive a Winnebago—or, for that matter, a Fleetwood Cadillac—from Miami Beach to the Arctic Ocean. Inevitably, the new north road will develop branches. One projected branch will run westward from the pipeline to Kotzebue and Kivalina, on the Chukchi Sea. The road alignment, which Congress could deflect in the name of the national-interest lands, happens to cross the Salmon River right here, where we are having lunch. We are two hundred and fifty miles from the pipeline. We are three hundred and fifty miles from the nearest highway. Yet here in the tundra plain, and embedded in this transparent river, will stand perhaps, before long, the piers of a considerable bridge. I squeeze out the last of the cheese. It emerges from the tube like fluted icing.

There is little left of the river, and we cover it quickly—the canoe and the single kayak bobbing lightly, Snake Eyes riding low, its deck almost at water level. The meanders expand and the country begins to open. At the wide mouth of the Salmon, the gravel bottom is so shallow that we get out and drag Snake Eyes. We have come down through mountains, and we have more recently been immured between incised stream banks in the lower plain, and now we walk out onto a wide pebble beach on the edge of a tremendous river. Gulfs of space reach to horizon mountains. We can now see, far to the northeast, the higher, more central Brooks Range, blurred and blue and soft brown under white compiled flat-bottomed clouds. There are mountains south of us, mountains, of course, behind us. The river, running two full miles to the nearest upstream bend, appears to be a lake. Mergansers are cruising it. The Kobuk is, in places, wide, like the Yukon, but its current is slower and has nothing of the Yukon’s impelling, sucking rush. The Yukon, like any number of Alaskan rivers, is opaque with pulverized rock, glacial powder. In a canoe in such a river, you can hear the grains of mountains like sandpaper on the hull. Glaciers are where the precipitation is sufficient to feed them. Two hundred inches will fall in parts of southern Alaska, and that is where the big Alaskan glaciers are. Up here, annual precipitation can be as low as fifteen inches. Many deserts get more water from the sky. The Arctic ground conserves its precipitation, however—holds it frozen half the year. So this is not a desert. Bob Fedeler, whose work with Alaska Fish and Game has taken him to rivers in much of the state, is surprised by the appearance of the Kobuk. “It is amazing to see so much clear water,” he says. “In a system as vast as this one, there is usually a glacial tributary or two, and that mucks up the river.”

Standing on the shore, Fedeler snaps his wrist and sends a big enamelled spoon lure, striped like a barber pole, flying over the water. Not long after it splashes, he becomes involved in a struggle with something more than a grayling. The fish sulks a little. For the most part, though, it moves. It makes runs upriver, downriver. It dashes suddenly in the direction of the tension on the line. His arms now oscillating, now steady, Fedeler keeps the line taut, keeps an equilibrium between himself and the fish, until eventually it flops on the dry gravel at his feet. It is a nine-pound salmon, the beginnings of dinner. Stell Newman catches another salmon, of about the same size. I catch one, a seven-pound adolescent, and let it go. Pat Pourchot, whose philosophical abstinence from fishing has until now been consistent, is suddenly aflush with temptation. Something like a hundred thousand salmon will come up the Kobuk in a summer. (They are counted by techniques of aerial survey.) The Kobuk is three hundred miles long and has at least fifty considerable tributaries—fifty branching streams to which salmon could be returning to spawn—and yet when they have come up the Kobuk to this point, to the mouth of the Salmon River, thirty thousand salmon turn left. As school after school arrives here, they pause, hover, reconnoitre—prepare for the run in the home stream. The riffles we see offshore are not rapids but salmon. Pourchot can stand it no longer. He may have phased himself out of fishing, but he is about to phase himself back in. Atavistic instincts take him over. His noble resolve collapses in the presence of this surge of fish.

He borrows Fedeler’s rod and sends the lure on its way. He reels. Nothing. He casts again. He reels. Nothing. Out in the river, there may be less water than salmon, but that is no guarantee that one will strike. Salmon do not feed on the spawning run. They apparently bite only by instinctive reflex if something flashes close before them. Pourchot casts again. Nothing. He casts again. The lure this time stops in the river as if it were encased in cement. Could be a boulder. Could be a submerged log. The lure seems irretrievably snagged—until the river erupts. Pourchot is a big man with a flowing red beard. He is well over six feet. Blond hair tumbles across his shoulders. The muscles in his arms are strong from many hundreds of miles of paddling. This salmon, nonetheless, is dragging him up the beach. The fish leaps into the air, thrashes at the river surface, and makes charging runs of such thrust that Pourchot has no choice but to follow or break the line. He follows—fifty, seventy-five yards down the river with the salmon. The fish now changes plan and goes upstream. Pourchot follows. The struggle lasts thirty minutes, and the energy drawn away is almost half Pourchot’s. He wins, though, because he is bigger. The fish is scarcely larger than his leg. When, finally, it moves out of the water and onto the gravel, it has no hook in its mouth. It has been snagged, inadvertently, in the dorsal fin. Alaska law forbids keeping any sport fish caught in that way. The salmon must take the lure in its mouth. Pourchot extracts the hook, gently lifts the big fish in his arms, and walks into the river. He will hold the salmon right side up in the water until he is certain that its shock has passed and that it has regained its faculties. Otherwise, it might turn bottom up and drown.

If that were my fish, I would be inclined to keep it, but such a thought would never cross Pourchot’s mind. Moreover, one can hardly borrow the rod of a representative of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, snag a salmon while he watches, and stuff it in a bag. Fedeler, for his part, says he guesses that ninety-five per cent of salmon caught that way are kept. Pourchot removes his hands. The salmon swims away.

Forest Eskimos, who live in five small villages on the Kobuk, do not tend to think in landscape terms that are large. They see a river not as an entity but as a pageant of parts, and every bend and eddy has a name. This place, for example—this junction of rivers—is Qalugruich paanga, which, tightly translated, means “salmon mouth.” For thousands of years, to extents that have varied with cycles of plenty, the woodland Eskimos have fished here. The wall tent of an Eskimo fish camp—apparently, for the time being, empty—stands a mile or so downstream. We find .30—’06 cartridge cases sprinkled all over the beach, and a G.I. can opener of the type that comes with C rations. With the exception of some old stumps—of trees that were felled, we imagined, by a hunting party cutting firewood—we saw along the Salmon River no evidence whatever of the existence of the human race. Now we have crossed into the outermost band of civilization—suggested by a tent, by some cartridge cases, by a can opener. In the five Kobuk River villages—Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, and Kobuk —live an aggregate of scarcely a thousand people. Kiana, the nearest village to us, is forty miles downstream. In recent years, caribou and salmon have been plentiful nearer home, and the people of Kiana have not needed to come this far to fish, else we might have found the broad gravel beach here covered with drying racks—salmon, split and splayed, hanging from the drying racks—and people seining for the fish going by.

We get back into the boats, shove off, and begin the run down the Kobuk. Paddling on a big lake is much the same. You fix your eye on a point two miles away and watch it until it puts you to sleep. The river bottom, nearly as distinct as the Salmon’s, is no less absorbing. It is gravelled, and lightly covered with silt. In shallow places, salmon leave trails in the silt, like lines made by fingers in dust. Eskimos know that one school of salmon will follow the trails of another. In shallow bends of the river, fishing camps are set up beside the trails. “We must have fish to live,” the people say; and they use every part of the salmon. They eat the eggs with bearberries. They roast, smoke, fry, boil, or dry the flesh. They bury the heads in leaf-lined pits and leave them for weeks. The result is a delicacy reminiscent of cheese. Fevers and colds are sometimes treated by placing fermented salmon on the skin of the neck and nose. A family might use as many as a thousand salmon a year. To feed dogs, many salmon are needed. Dogs eat whole fish, and they clean up the fins, intestines, and bones of the fish eaten by people. Dog teams have largely been replaced by snowmobiles (or snow machines, as they are almost universally called in Alaska), and, as a result, the salmon harvest at first declined. Snow machines, however—for all their breathtaking ability to go as fast as fifty miles an hour over roadless terrain—break down now and again, and are thus perilous. A stranded traveller cannot eat a snow machine. Dog teams in the region are increasing in number, and the take of salmon is growing as well.

Now, for the first time in days of river travel, we hear the sound of an engine. A boat rounds a bend from the west and comes into view—a plywood skiff, two women and a man, no doubt on their way from Kiana to Ambler. A thirty-five-horsepower Evinrude shoves them upcurrent. They wave and go by. There are a few kayaks in the villages, small ones for use in stream and lake hunting, but the only kayaks we are at all likely to see are the one-man Klepper and Snake Eyes.

Four miles from Qalugruich paanga, it is five in the day and time to quit. We are, after all, officially an extension of bureaucracy. Walking far back from the water, Kauffmann picks tent sites on beds of sedge. A big cottonwood log, half buried in sand, will be a bench by the fire. Mosquitoes swarm. They are not particularly bad. In this part of Alaska, nearer the coast, they sometimes fly in dense, whirling vertical columns, dark as the trunks of trees. But we have not seen such concentrations. Kauffmann talks of killing forty at a slap in the Gates of the Arctic, but the season is late now and their numbers are low. I slap my arm and kill seven.

The temperature of the Kobuk is fifty-seven degrees—so contrastingly warm after the river in the mountains that we peel off our clothes and run into the water with soap. However, by no possible illusion is this the Limpopo, and we shout and yell at the cold water, take short, thrashing swims, and shiver in the bright evening sun. The Kobuk, after all, has about the same temperature—at this time of year—as the coastal waters of Maine, for which the term most often heard is “freezing.” Wool feels good after the river; and the fire, high with driftwood, even better; and a dose of Arctic snakebite medicine even better than that. In a memo to all of us written many weeks ago, Pourchot listed, under “optional personal equipment,” “Arctic snakebite medicine.” There are no snakes in Alaska. But what if a snake should unexpectedly appear? The serum in my pack is from Lynchburg, Tennessee.

The salmon—filleted, rolled in flour, and sautéed on our pancake grill—is superb among fishes and fair among salmon. With few exceptions, the Pacific salmon that run in these Arctic rivers are of the variety known as chum. Their flesh lacks the high pink color of the silver, the sockeye, the king salmon. Given a choice among those, a person with a lure would not go for chum, and they are rarely fished for sport. After sockeyes and humpbacks, though, they are third in the commercial salmon fishery. Many millions of dollars’ worth are packed each year. Athapaskan Indians, harvesting from the Yukon, put king salmon on their own tables and feed chum salmon to their dogs. Hence, they call chum “dog salmon.” Eskimos up here in the Arctic Northwest, who rarely see another kind, are piqued when they hear this Indian term.

We look two hundred yards across the Kobuk to spruce that are reflected in the quiet surface. The expanded dimensions of our surroundings are still novel. Last night, in forest, we were close by the sound of rushing water. Sound now has become inverse to the space around us, for we sit in the middle of an immense and almost perfect stillness. We hear the fire and, from time to time, insects, birds. The sound of an airplane crosses the edge of hearing and goes out again. It is the first aircraft we have heard.

Kauffmann says he is worried, from the point of view of park planning, about the aircraft access that would probably be developed for the Salmon River. “It’s not a big world up there. I’m not sure how much use it could take.”

This reminds Fedeler of the cost of travel to wilderness, and makes him contemplate again who can pay to get there. “The Salmon is a nice enough river,” he says. “But it is unavailable to ninety-nine point nine per cent of the people. I wouldn’t go back to Fairbanks and tell everybody that they absolutely have to go and see the Salmon River.”

“It’s a fine experience.”

“If you happen to have an extra six hundred bucks. Is the Park Service going to provide helicopter access or Super Cub access to some gravel bar near the headwaters?”

“Why does there have to be access?” Pourchot puts in.

“Why do there have to be wild and scenic rivers?” Fedeler wants to know. “And why this one—so far up here? Because of the cost of getting to it, the Salmon Wild River for most people would be just a thing on a map—an occasional trip for people from the Park Service, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Meanwhile, with pressures what they are farther south, the sportsman in Alaska is in for some tough times.”

“His numbers are increasing.”

“And his opportunities are decreasing, while these federal proposals would set aside lands and rivers that only the rich can afford.”

“The proposals, up here, are for the future,” Kauffmann says, and he adds, after a moment, “As Yellowstone was. Throughout the history of this country, it’s been possible to go to a place where no one has camped before, and now that kind of opportunity is running out. We must protect it, even if artificially. The day will come when people will want to visit such a wilderness—saving everything they have in order to see it, at whatever cost. We’re talking fifty and more years hence, when there may be nowhere else to go to a place that is wild and unexplored.”

I have a net over my head and cannot concentrate on this discussion, because something worse, and smaller, than mosquitoes—clouds of little flying prickers that cut you up—are in the air around us now and are coming through the mesh of the head net. They follow us into the tents, ignoring the netting there. They cut rashes in our faces all through the night.




For two days, we stare at the hypnotizing vistas of the Kobuk, while its spacious novelty wears off. Uncannily, the river comes in almost precise two-mile segments, bend to bend. We move downstream a little more than twenty miles one day, only sixteen the next, in part because of stiff western headwinds. Having had one bad night with insects, we next choose to pitch our tents far out on a gravel point, on a dry part of the riverbed, two hundred yards from the nearest blade of vegetation, confident that the water will not rise, and preferring anyway to be drowned outright than consumed piecemeal. The instant the bows touch shore, mosquitoes in grosses try to settle upon us. As we finish putting up the tents, a light rain begins to spit. The sky is slate gray in the east. We are camped on an island, and we fish the slough that goes behind it. Nothing there but six-inch grayling. Kauffmann and I try to walk around the island, but it is bigger than we imagined. Moreover, the beach runs out some distance down the slough. Plowing on through dense willow and alder, soaking wet, we give up the circumambulation and traverse the island to return to camp. We see wolf tracks seven inches long—amazing size, but there is a tape measure in my pocket and that is what it says. Less than a yard separates one set of prints from another—the tracks of a slow loper. Earlier in the day, fishing by the mouth of the Kallarichuk tributary, we saw wolf tracks intricately intertwined with the tracks of a running moose. There were changes of direction, overlapping circles. No other sign. The calligraphy seemed to report some unresolved encounter—unless two extremely odd animals had been through there at different times. Now, after dinner, in light rain, we look upriver and see a cow moose walk out of willows. She drinks from the river. She stands, for a while, immobile, and stares across the water. Slowly, she retreats into the thicket. Moose are so numerous now in this part of northwest Alaska that it is difficult to imagine them absent, but they have been here scarcely fifty years. The patterns of other creatures—the bear, the fish, the caribou—run in long cycles over time, cycles of waxing, cycles of waning; but they have been in the region for ten thousand years, and when they have locally been gone for a time they have always returned. In the case of the moose, though, there is no evidence that they were ever here before the early part of this century, and now they are established in the milieu and in the native economy.

Eight boats, outboard-powered, going upriver, passed us in the course of the day—all with at least three people in them, some with children. Four have come back, and passed us again, during the evening. It seems to be the rhythm of the Kobuk that Eskimos go by about once an hour—at least on this part of the river, many miles from the nearest village. I remember Bob Waldrop saying how he counts on random Eskimos to pick him up near the finish of certain trips he makes. Waldrop is a Brooks Range guide, who leads long journeys, mainly on foot, on both sides of the Arctic Divide. Much of the time, he does not know exactly where he is. Maps lack detail, he explains; many mountains are unnamed. He generally has a fair idea of his position, within eight miles or so, but he finds it impossible to plan things more precisely than that, and people who expect to know just where they are and to follow an exact schedule, who are (in his words) “set in their ways,” are likely to be unhappy on such trips, and unenjoyable company. Waldrop, like Kauffmann, does not want his Brooks Range any other way. He wants it imprecise. He wants to preserve its surprises. When he goes up nameless mountains and finds on their summits containers identifying someone or other as the first visiting conqueror, he puts the containers in his pack and hauls them out. If you say to him, “You’re altering history,” Waldrop says, “The people were altering history who put the registers there.” When Waldrop comes out of, say, the Sadlerochit Mountains, and makes his way across the wet tundra toward the Arctic Ocean, he has no idea when or where he will come to the water; nevertheless, he relies on “flagging the nearest Eskimo” for a ride to Barter Island, where mail planes land. An hour here, a day there, he waits with patience until one comes along.

The Eskimos on the Kobuk never seem surprised when they come upon us, as if nothing could be less extraordinary than the Grumman canoe, the small blue single kayak, and Snake Eyes—all afloat under five white faces. And now, as we watch from our campsite, another skiff approaches, coming downriver. It passes the sandspit where the moose was standing. A couple of hundred yards from us, a heavyset man in the stern cuts the motor. There are three people—two men and a woman. They drift and observe us. The woman is wearing a long calico dress, fringed at the bottom, rubber boots. The men are wearing short parkas with fur ruffs. There is an exchange of waves. At length, the man in the stern picks up an oar and sculls the boat toward the edge of the river. The boat is plywood, about eighteen feet long, apparently homemade, with a flat bottom, a square stern, and a thirty-five-horse Evinrude. The woman jumps out, into a couple of feet of water, where she firms the skiff against the current. She acts as an anchor while the heavyset man—her husband—talks with us. His name is Clarence Jackson, and he is from Noorvik. The other man is his uncle. In the boat is a full cartridge belt and a .45-calibre pistol. This is their annual trip upriver, he says, to visit his great-grandmother’s grave. We ask about fish, and he says the runs have been mediocre this season. He says the caribou were plentiful near Kiana. He smiles amiably, somewhat diffidently, as he speaks. He wonders if we happen to know anything about a party of white people, far down the Kobuk, who had no boats, and who summoned a young Eskimo to shore and when he got out of his boat were extremely rough with him. We are surprised, and as dismayed as Clarence Jackson. He says, grinning, that if he had not seen our boats he would not have come so close. Up in the country where we have been no one much goes in summer, but Kobuk people sometimes hunt there in winter, he says, his friendly tone unaltered. His wife gets back into the boat. With toothy smiles, they say goodbye and move on down the river.

The people of the Kobuk are among the few Eskimos in Alaska whose villages are well within the tree line. They have a culture that reflects their cousinship to Eskimos of the coast and that borrows also from the Indians of the Alaskan interior. The combination is unique. At first glance—plywood boats, Evinrudes—they may seem to be even more a part of the world at large than they are of this Arctic valley. Much of their clothing is manufactured. They use rifles. They ride on snow machines. They seine whitefish and salmon with nylon nets that cost upward of four hundred dollars. Now and again, they leave the valley in search of jobs. They work on the pipeline. Without the river and the riverine land, though, they would be bereft of most of what sustains them. Their mail-order likeness to the rest of us does not go very deep. They may use Eagle Claw fishhooks from Wright & McGill, in Denver, but they still know how to make them from the teeth of wolves. They may give their children windup toys, but they also make little blowguns for them from the hollow leg bones of the sandhill crane. To snare ptarmigan, they no longer use spruce roots—they use picture wire—but they still snare ptarmigan. They eat what they call “white-man food,” mainly from cans, but they also eat owl soup, sour dock, wild rhubarb, and the tuber Hedysarum alpinum—the Eskimo potato. Some of them believe that Eskimo food keeps them healthy and brown, and that too much white-man food will turn them white. Roughly half their carbohydrates come from wild food—and fully fourfifths of their protein. They eat—and, more to the point, depend on—small creatures of the forest. Rabbit. Beaver. Muskrat. Thousands of frozen whitefish will be piled beside a single house. At thirty below, whitefish break like glass. The people dip the frozen bits in seal oil and chew them. From fresh whitefish, as they squeeze, they directly suck roe. They trade mud-shark livers for seal oil from the coast. Mud sharks are freshwater, river fish, and for maritime Eskimos the liver of the mud shark is an exotic and delicious import. The forest Eskimo has a reciprocal yen for seal oil. When a Kobuk woman goes “fishing for seal oil,” mud sharks are what she is after. Loon oil is sometimes substituted for seal oil, there being a great deal of oil in a loon. Sheefish, rare in the world and looking like fifteen-pound tarpon, make annual runs up the Kobuk. They are prized by the people.

On nothing, though, do the forest Eskimos depend so much as on caribou. They use the whole animal. They eat the meat raw and in roasts and stews. They eat greens from the stomach, muscles from the jaw, fat from behind the eyes. The hide goes into certain winter clothing that nothing manufactured can equal. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the number of available caribou gradually declined in the Kobuk valley. Why the herd avoided the region perhaps had to do with climatic cycles and their effect on vegetation, but nobody knows. From the turn of the century until about 1940, people of the Kobuk had to go into the Brooks Range to find caribou, making prodigious journeys in winter, and feeding much of the kill to their dogs, on which they depended for the trip home with essential skins and sinew. In the nineteen-forties, the herd began to return—in numbers that increased each year. The caribou cycle—dearth to plenty and back again—seems to close itself in sixty to a hundred years. The Arctic herd numbered two hundred and forty thousand a few years ago, and has been fast decreasing. Some fifty thousand come over the mountains now.

With the rise and fall of such cycles, the people of the Kobuk from earliest times expanded and contracted over the riverine lands. Whenever caribou were plentiful, people were able to congregate in relatively large winter villages. Where caribou were scarce, people had to spread out—up and down the river in small family groups—for hunting small game and for fishing through the ice. Pursuit of furs for trading purposes tended to disseminate them as well. The arrival—seventy, eighty years ago—of white missionaries, schools, and trading posts tended to force the Eskimos together in places like Noorvik and Kiana, but Kobuk River people have not traditionally thought of their homes as permanent in location. Through much of their history, they built new houses—on sites shiftingly appropriate—each fall. With their Evinrudes and their Arctic Cat snowmobiles, their range has been extended—they can cover more miles from a fixed base—but cycles of climate, of salmon, of caribou cannot be levelled by gasoline. In order to continue existence as they have known it, the forest Eskimos must follow where the cycles may lead. So they are worried. It is difficult to see how the essential flexibility of their history is going to be advanced by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the so-called national-interest lands. By the terms of the law, the Eskimos must choose specific land—to become theirs according to the settlement—and the land must, by and large, be contiguous to the villages. When a boundary is established around native land, what if the caribou go somewhere else? Suppose the caribou concentrate for a time in the Kobuk Valley National Monument? Hunting is not permitted in national parks. Oh, but exceptions will be made in Alaska, where people can hunt on their traditional grounds. A tradition of 1920 may not be a tradition now, but will be again, in all likelihood, some decades in the future. The government understands that. The government may understand that today, but officials change, regulations change. Will the government understand in 1990? The Eskimos undeniably got a good deal in the Native Claims Settlement Act, but it was good only insofar as they agreed to change their way—to cherish money, and to adopt the concept (for centuries unknown to them) of private property. “No Trespassing” signs have begun to appear up here, around villages where those words would once have not been understood. Boundaries now have to be adjusted, adjudicated, where boundaries never existed. Kobuk societies once functioned like the clans of Scotland. Terrain was common to all. Kinship patterned things; ownership did not. Use determined use. If you had been using a place—say, a fishing spot—it was respected as yours while you used it. Now the enforced drawing of lines on the land has created tensions among the Kobuk villages that did not exist before. Under the ingratiating Eskimo surface is a sense of grave disturbance.

There is, as well, an added complication. In 1906, the Native Allotment Act provided that any Alaskan native could file a claim for a hundred and sixty acres of Alaska. This meant next to nothing to the people of the Kobuk valley, since they were not attracted to private ownership, and, in any case, could make little use of such a minuscule amount of land. Few people bothered to file. When the Native Claims Settlement Act came along, however, a final deadline was set for native allotments, and many people, thus pressed, decided to register claims after all. They took the allotments in violation of their own customary principles. Bad feeling inevitably followed and to some extent soured their society.

The sense of private property that has been jacketed upon them is uncomfortable, incompatible with subsistence harvesting and its changeful cycles. It is ironic that while the land-claim settlement is being effected relative plenty has been close to the villages. In 1900, the people could easily have shown that they needed a vast area in which to subsist. Of late, they have needed less. They will need more again. It is impossible to draw lines around a situation like this one, but the lines are being drawn.

The people of the National Park Service, for their part, seem to be amply sensitive to the effects their efforts might have. They intend to adjust their own traditions so that Alaskan national-park land will not abridge but will in fact preserve native customs. Under the direction of Douglas Anderson, of the Department of Anthropology at Brown University, an anthropological team commissioned by the Park Service has recently described and voluminously catalogued what must be every habit, tic, and mannerism, every tale and taboo—let alone custom—of the Kobuk River natives. The anthropologists make a convincing case for helping the people preserve their modus vivendi, but the most vivid words in the document occur when the quoted Eskimos are speaking for themselves:

Eskimos should make laws for those people outside. That would be just the same as what they try to do to us. We know nothing about how they live, and they know nothing about how we live. It should be up to us to decide things for ourselves. You see the land out there? We never have spoiled it.

Too much is happening to the people. Too many outside pressures are forcing in on us. Changes are coming too fast, and we are being pushed in all different directions by forces that come from someplace outside. People thought that the land-claims settlement was the end of our problems, that it meant the future was secure; but it was only the beginning. Even before the lands were all selected the government wanted pipeline easements and road corridors right through our territory. These would take away strips miles wide, cutting right across our land. And instead of open access to the land, the Eskimos might be surrounded by huge pieces of country that are declared national resources for all the people. Land that has always belonged to the natives is being parcelled up and divided among the takers.

The forest Eskimos’ relationship with whites has made them dependent on goods that need to be paid for: nylon netting, boat materials, rifles, ammunition, motors, gasoline. Hence, part of the year some Eskimo men leave the river to find jobs. These pilgrimages to the wage economy are not a repudiation of the subsistence way of life. They make money so they can come back home, where they prefer to be, and live the way they prefer to live—foraging the wild country with gasoline and bullets. If subsistence living were to be, through regulation, denied to them, the probable result would be that the government would have to support them even more than at present —more aid to dependent children, more food stamps—for they would not be able to find sufficient work, at home or on seasonal trips outside, to support their families.

As long as I have the land and nobody tries to stop me from using it, then I’m a rich man. I can always go out there and make my living, no matter what happens. Everything I need—my food, clothes, house, heat—it’s all out there.


And another thing, too. If we have nothing of our Eskimo food-only white-man food to live on—we can’t live. We eat and eat and eat, but we never get filled up. Just like starvation.

Breakfast in the frying pan—freeze-dried eggs. If we were Kobuk people, one of us might go off into the watery tundra and find fresh eggs. Someone else might peel the bark from a willow. The bark would be soaked and formed into a tube with the eggs inside, and the tube would be placed in the fire. But this is not a group of forest Eskimos. These are legionaries from another world, talking “scenic values” and “interpretation.” These are Romans inspecting Transalpine Gaul. Nobody’s skin is going to turn brown on these eggs—or on cinnamon-apple-flavored Instant Quaker Oatmeal, or Tang, or Swiss Miss, or on cold pink-icinged Pop-Tarts with raspberry filling. For those who do not believe what they have just read, allow me to confirm it: in Pourchot’s breakfast bag are pink-icinged Pop-Tarts with raspberry filling. Lacking a toaster, and not caring much anyway, we eat them cold. They invite a question. To a palate without bias—the palate of an open-minded Berber, the palate of a travelling Martian—which would be the more acceptable, a pink-icinged Pop-Tart with raspberry filling (cold) or the fat gob from behind a caribou’s eye?

It is raining. A wind is rising and pushing back a morning fog. The air—fifty-four—is cooler than the Kobuk. We have twenty miles to cover, downriver to Kiana. Each of us has put in identical time in the various boats, so now we draw lots to see who goes where, and Fedeler and I are the losers. We draw Snake Eyes. Even before we shove off, whitecaps have formed on the river, and waves two feet high. They are coming from the west, and that is where we are going. As we pack up, Fedeler and I are subjected to intense gratuitous ridicule because we are condemned to Snake Eyes; and, indeed, a chill wet day on a half-sunk log is about all we can expect. So we plow westward, into the waves, and the wind is so strong it brings tears to the eyes. They mix with the rain and the spray of the river. The length of a mile varies. These are three-league miles. The current flows west, the wind and waves come east, and they more than cancel the force of the river. To stop paddling is to move backward. The waves are so big they wash over the bow of the Grumman. Light and bobbing in its ride down the Salmon, the canoe here is too much up in the wind. John Kauffmann and Stell Newman have to bend their paddles on every stroke. The single Klepper, with Pourchot in it, is better off, but not much. It is so light that he has to strain to drive it. Snake Eyes, however, is thirty per cent submerged in its own leakings, another third by the natural depth of its draft. Snake Eyes is in and of the river. The wind cannot get to Snake Eyes, because the wind can’t swim. The waves that wash over us roll over the deck, asserting an upstream thrust of zero. Snake Eyes, property of the United States government, is today straight out of Groton, Connecticut—a nuclear-powered submarine. Fedeler and I, the nuclei, begin to suffer in a way unimaginable before. We become chilly, and a little stiff, waiting for the others—idling at the river bends, scanning the gray river through its flying spray to see where the others might be. After six or eight miles, we are so cold we stop. We build a bonfire of drifted cottonwood, and stand downwind of it at the edge of the flames.

The wind gradually subsides through the afternoon, and the low gray sky begins to pull itself apart. The weather here is like the weather in Scotland. It can change so abruptly—closing in, lifting, closing in again—that all in an hour, let alone a day, wind-driven rain may be followed by calm and hazy sunshine, which may then be lost in heavy mists that soon disappear into open skies. We pass under a high bluff and go around a final bend; then the water spreads open before us in a three-mile reach to Kiana. The village is quite lovely from this perspective, lifted on its own high bluff above a confluence of rivers—the Squirrel and the Kobuk—and with a European compactness of buildings that contributes emphasis and irony to the immense wilderness in which it is a dot. We stop three miles away and camp on a flat gravel bar. The sky over supper is shot with color —with washes of salmon light on accumulating clouds. Their edges are gray to black, growing heavy. To the north, we hear thunder and see lightning. Such storms are rare in much of Alaska, but they are common here. This one rolls on into the Brooks Range and leaves us bright and dry. The talk over the campfire is entirely about Alaska. We are at the end of this trip now, and from the moment it began no one has once mentioned anything that did not have to do with Alaska.




In the morning—cool in the forties and the river calm—we strike the tents, pack the gear, and move on down toward Kiana. Gradually, the village spreads out in perspective. Its most prominent structure is the sheet-metal high school on the edge of town. Dirt-and-gravel streets climb the hill above the bluff. Houses are low, frame. Some are made of logs. Behind the town, a navigational beacon flashes. Drawing closer, we can see caribou antlers over doorways—testimony of need and respect. There are basketball backboards. We are closing a circuit, a hundred water miles from the upper Salmon, where a helicopter took us, from Kiana, at the start. Under the bluff, we touch the shore. Kiana is now high above us, and mostly out of sight. The barge is here that brings up supplies from Kotzebue. The river’s edge for the moment is all but unpopulated. Fish racks up and down the beach are covered with split drying salmon—ruddy and pink. We disassemble the Kleppers, removing their prefabricated bones, folding their skins, making them disappear into canvas bags. I go up the hill for a carton, and return to the beach. Into envelopes of cardboard I tape the tines of the caribou antler that I have carried from the mountains. Protecting the antler takes longer than the dismantling and packing of the kayaks, but there is enough time before the flight to Kotzebue at midday. In the sky, there has as yet been no sound of the airplane—a Twin Otter, of Wien Air Alaska, the plane that brought us here to meet the chopper. Stell Newman has gone up the beach and found some people at work around their fish racks. He now has with him a slab of dried salmon, and we share it like candy.

Children were fishing when we were here before. They yanked whitefish out of the river and then pelted one another with the living fish as if they were snowballs. Women with tubs were gutting salmon. It was a warmer day then. The sun was so fierce you looked away; you looked north. Up at the airstrip behind the town—a gravel strip, where we go now with our gear—was the Grumman canoe. It had been flown in, and cached there, long before. The helicopter, chartered by the government and coming in from who knows where, was a new five-seat twin-engine Messerschmitt with a bubble front. On its shining fuselage, yellow-and-black heraldry identified it as the property of Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. The pilot removed a couple of fibre-glass cargo doors, took out a seat, and we shoved the canoe into an opening at the rear of the cabin. It went in halfway. The Grumman was too much for the Messerschmitt. The canoe was cantilevered, protruding to the rear. We tied it in place. It was right side up, and we filled it with gear. Leaving the rest of us to wait for a second trip, Pourchot and the pilot took off for the Salmon River. With so much canoe coming out of its body, the helicopter, even in flight, seemed to be nearing the final moment of an amazing pregnancy. It went over the mountains northeast.

There was a wooden sign beside the airstrip: “WELCOME TO THE CITY OF KIANA. 2nd Class City. Population 300 … Establish 1902 … Main Sources: Bear, Caribou, Moose, Geese, Salmon, Shee, Whitefish, Trout.” The burning sun was uncomfortable. I walked behind the sign. In its shadow, the air was chill. I dragged the helicopter seat out of the sun and into the shade of a storage hut, sat down, leaned back, and went to sleep. When I woke up, I was shivering. The temperature a few feet away, in the sunlight, was above seventy degrees.

What awakened me were the voices of children. Three small girls had followed us up from the Kobuk, where we had watched them fish. They had crossed the runway and picked blueberries, and now were offering them from their hands. The berries were intensely sweet, having grown in the long northern light. The little girls also held out pieces of hard candy. Wouldn’t we like some? They asked for nothing. They were not shy. They were totally unself-conscious. I showed them an imitating game, wherein you clear your throat—hrrrum—and then draw with a stick a figure on the ground. “Here. Try to do that.” They drew the figure but did not clear their throats. “No. That’s not quite right. Hrrrum. Here now. Try it again.” They tried twice more. They didn’t get it. I sat down again on the chopper seat. Stell Newman let them take pictures with his camera. When they noticed my monocular, on a lanyard around my neck, they got down beside me, picked it off my chest, and spied on the town. They leaned over, one at a time, and put their noses down against mine, draping around my head their soft black hair. They stared into my eyes. Their eyes were dark and northern, in beautiful almond faces, aripple with smiles. Amy. Katherine. Rose Ann. Ages nine and eleven. Eskimo girls. They looked up. They had heard the helicopter, and before long it appeared.

I sat in the co-pilot’s seat, others in the seat I had been napping on. We lifted off, and headed out to join Pourchot, who was waiting on a gravel bar in the upper Salmon. The rotor noise was above conversation, but the pilot handed me a pair of earphones and a microphone. He showed me on a panel between us the mechanics of communicating. I couldn’t think of much to say. I was awed, I suppose, in the presence of a bush pilot (mustache akimbo) and in the presence of the bush itself —the land and the approaching mountains. I didn’t want to distract him, or myself. He kept urging me to talk, though. He seemed to want the company. His name was Gene Parrish, and he was a big man who had eaten well. He smoked a cigar, and on the intercom was garrulous and friendly.

Before us now was the first ridgeline. Flying close to ground, close to the mountainside, we climbed rapidly toward the crest, and then—crossing over it—seemed to plunge into a void of air. The ground ahead, which had been so near, was suddenly far below. We soon reached another mountainside, and again we climbed closely above its slope, skimmed the outcropping rocks at the top, and jumped into a gulf of sky.

Parrish said, “Y’all ever seen these mountains before?”

Some of the others had, I said, but I had not.

“Me, neither,” he said. “Aren’t they fabulous? Alaska is amazing, isn’t it? Wherever you go, everything is different. These mountains sure are fabulous.”

Indeed they were something like it—engaging, upsweeping tundra fells. They were not sharp and knife-edged like the peaks of the central Brooks. They were less dramatic but more inviting. They looked negotiable. They were, as it happened, the last mountains of the range, the end of the line, the end of a cordillera. They were, after four thousand miles, the last statement of the Rocky Mountains before they disappeared into the Chukchi Sea.

Parrish went up the side of a still higher mountain and skimmed the ridge, to reveal, suddenly, a drainage system far below.

“Is that the Salmon River?” I said.

“Oh, my, no,” he said. “It’s a ways yet. Where y’all from?”

“I’m from New Jersey. And you?”


He said he had come to Alaska on a kind of working vacation. At home, where his job was to fly back and forth between the Louisiana mainland and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, he seldom flew over anything much higher than a wave. Because the Messerschmitt had two engines, he said, he would not have to autorotate down if one were to fail. In fact, he could even climb on one engine. So it was safe to fly this way, low and close —and more interesting.

We flew up the sides of mountain after mountain, raked the ridges, fluttered high over valleys. In each new valley was a stream, large or small. With distance, they looked much alike. Parrish checked his airspeed, the time, the heading; finally, he made a sharp southward turn and began to follow a stream course in the direction of its current, looking for a gravel bar, a man, a canoe. Confidently, he gave up altitude and searched the bending river. He found a great deal of gravel. For thirty, forty miles, he kept searching, until the hills around the river began to diminish in anticipation of—as we could see ahead —the wet-tundra Kobuk plain. If the river was the Salmon, Pourchot was not there. If Pourchot was on the Salmon, Parrish was somewhere else.

The Salmon had to be farther east, he guessed, shaking his head in surprise and wonder. We rollercoasted the sides of additional mountains and came upon another significant drainage. It appeared to Parrish to be the right one. This time, we flew north, low over the river, upstream, looking for the glint of the canoe. We had as much luck as before. The river narrowed as we went farther and farther, until it became a brook and then a rill, with steep-rising mountains to either side. “I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe it,” Parrish said. There was nothing much below us now but the kind of streak a tear might make crossing a pilot’s face. “This just isn’t right,” he said. “This is not working out. I was sure of the heading. I was sure this was the river. But nothing ever is guaranteed. Nothing—nothing—is guarandamnteed.”

He turned one-eighty and headed downstream. Spread over his knees was a Nome Sectional Aeronautical Chart, and he puzzled over it for a while, then he handed it to me. Maybe I could help figure out where we were. The map was quite wonderful at drawing straight lines between distant airstrips, but its picture of the mountains looked like calves’ brains over bone china, and the scale was such that the whole of the Salmon River was only six inches long. The chopper plowed on to the south. I held the map a little closer to my eyes, studying the blue veiny lines among the mountains. The ludicrousness of the situation washed over me. I looked back at Kauffmann and the others, who seemed somewhat confused. And small wonder. A map was being handed back and forth between a man from New Jersey and a pilot from Louisiana who were amiss in—of all places—the Brooks Range. In a sense—in the technical sense that we had next to no idea where we were—we were lost.

There are no geographical requirements for pilots in the United States. Anyone who is certified as a pilot can fly anywhere, and that, of course, includes anywhere in Alaska. New pilots arrive steadily from all over the Lower Forty-eight. Some are attracted by the romance of Alaska, some by the money around the pipeline. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, soon after it began its construction operations, set up its own standards for charter pilots who would fly its personnel—standards somewhat stiffer than those of the Federal Aviation Administration. Among other things, Alyeska insisted that applicants without flying experience in Alaska had to have fifty hours of documented training there, including a line check above the terrain they would be flying.

One effect of the pipeline charters has been to siphon off pilots from elsewhere in the Alaskan bush. These pilots are often replaced by pilots inexperienced in Alaska. Say a mail pilot quits and goes off to fly the pipeline. His replacement might be three days out of Teterboro. The mail must go through. Passengers in such planes (passengers ride with bush mail) sometimes intuit that they and the pilot are each seeing the landscape in a novel way. Once, for example, in the eastern-Alaska interior, I rode in a mail plane that took off from Fairbanks to fly a couple of hundred miles across mountains to Eagle, a village on the upper Yukon. It was a blustery, wet morning, and clouds were lower by far than summits. As rain whipped against the windshield, visibility forward was zero. Looking down to the side, the pilot watched the ground below —trying to identify various drainages and pick his way through the mountains. He frequently referred to a map. The plane was a single-engine Cessna 207 Skywagon, bumping hard on the wind. We went up a small tributary and over a pass, where we picked up another river and followed it downstream. After a time, the pilot turned around and went many miles back in the direction from which he had come. He explored another tributary. Then, abruptly, he turned again. The weather was not improving. Soon his confidence in his reading of the land seemed to run out altogether. He asked in what direction the stream below was flowing. He could not tell by the set of the rapids. He handed the map to a passenger who had apparently visited the region once or twice before. The passenger read the map for a while and then counselled the pilot to stay with the principal stream in sight. He indicated to the pilot which direction was downhill. At length, the Yukon came into view. I, who love rivers, have never felt such affection for a river. One would not have to be Marco Polo to figure out now which way to go. I had been chewing gum so vigorously that the hinges of my jaws would ache for two days. We flew up the Yukon to Eagle. When we landed, a young woman with a pickup was waiting to collect the mail. As the pilot stepped out, she came up to him and said, “Hello. You’re new, aren’t you? My name is Anna.”

That was a scheduled flight on an American domestic airline. The company was Air North, which serves many bush communities, and its advertising slogan was “Experience Counts.” Another Air North pilot told me once that he liked being a bush pilot in Alaska—he had arrived from New York several months before—but he was having a hard time living on his pay. He said there was better money to be made operating bulldozers on the pipeline than operating planes for Air North. As a result, experienced, able pilots had not only been drawn away to fly pipeline charters; experienced, able pilots were also flying bulldozers on the tundra.

Some people I know in the National Park Service who were studying a region near the upper Yukon chartered a helicopter in an attempt to find the headwaters of a certain tributary stream. When they had been in flight for some time and had not seen anything remotely resembling the terrain they were looking for, they grew uneasy. When they looked ahead and saw the bright-white high-rising Wrangells, mountain peaks two hundred miles from where they were going, they realized they were lost. The pilot, new in Alaska, was from Alabama. “This is different, unique, tough country,” a pilot from Sitka once told me. “A guy has to know what he’s doing. Flying is a way of life up here, and you have to get used to it. You can’t drive. You can’t walk. You can’t swim.”

In Anchorage, John Kauffmann had introduced me to his friend Charlie Allen, a general free-lance bush pilot with a wide reputation for having no betters and few peers. From the Southeastern Archipelago to Arctic Alaska, Allen had been flying for twenty-five years. He was dismayed by the incompetence of some people in his profession, and was not at all shy to say so. “Alaska is the land of the bush pilot,” he said. “You have to think highly of this bush pilot, because he’s dirty, he has a ratty airplane, and he’s alive. It’s a myth, the bush-pilot thing. It’s ‘Smilin’ Jack.’ The myth affects pilots. Some of them, in this magic Eddie Rickenbacker fraternity, are more afraid of being embarrassed than they are of death. Suppose they’re low on gas. They’re so afraid of being embarrassed they keep going until they have no recourse but to crash. They drive their aircraft till they cough and quit. Kamikaze pilots. That’s what we’ve got up here—kamikaze pilots from New Jersey. Do you think one of them would ever decide the weather’s too tough? His champion-aviator’s manhood would be impugned. Meanwhile, he’s a hero if he gets through. A while ago, some guy ran out of gas at night on the ice pack. He had been chartered for a polar-bear hunt. He chopped off his fuel tanks with an axe and used the fuel tanks as boats. He and the hunters paddled out. He was then regarded as a hero. He was regarded as Eddie Rickenbacker and Smilin’ Jack. But he was guilty of outrageous technical behavior. He was the fool who got them into the situation in the first place.

“Aircraft-salvage operators have a backlog of planes waiting to be salvaged in Alaska. Helicopters go out for them. In the past year and a half, I have helped salvage six planes that have been wrecked by one pilot. Don’t identify him. Just call him ‘a government employee.’ Why do passengers go with such pilots? Would they go to the moon with an astronaut who did not have round-trip fuel? If you were in San Francisco and the boat to Maui was leaking and the rats were leaving, even if you had a ticket you would not go. Safety in the air is where you find it. Proper navigation helps, but proper judgment takes care of all conditions. You say to yourself, ‘I ain’t going to go today. The situation is too much for me.’ And you resist all pressure to the contrary.”

Allen paused a moment. Then he said, “You don’t have to run into a mountain. Only a pilot is needed to wreck an airplane.”

Of reported accidents, there have lately been something like two hundred a year in Alaska. Upwards of twenty-five a year produce fatal injuries, killing various numbers of people. Another fifteen crashes or so produce injuries rated “serious.” The figures seem to compliment the fliers in a state where a higher percentage of people fly—and fly more often—than they do anywhere else in the United States. Merrill Field, a light-plane airfield in Anchorage, handles fifty-four thousand more flights per year than Newark International. On the other hand, if you get into an airplane in Alaska your chances of not coming back are greater by far than they would be in any other part of the country. Only Texas and California, with their vastly larger populations, consistently exceed Alaska in aircraft accidents. Government employees in Alaska speak of colleagues who have been lost “in line of duty.” In air accidents during the past two years, the Bureau of Land Management has lost four, Alaska Fish and Game has lost one, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has lost three, the U.S. Forest Service has lost five, and the National Park Service has lost seven (in a single crash). A gallery of thirteen of the great bush pilots in the history of Alaska was presented in an Alaska newspaper not long ago. Of the thirteen, ten—among them Carl Eielson, Russ Merrill, Haakon Christensen, Big Money Monsen—died flying. I dropped in at a bar one day, in a small Alaskan town, where a bush pilot had one end of a plastic swizzlestick clamped between his teeth and was attempting to stretch it by pulling the other end. He had apparently been there some time, and he was challenging all comers to see who could stretch a swizzlestick the farthest. Jay Hammond, governor of Alaska, was himself a bush pilot for twenty-eight years, and a conspicuously good one. In an interview with him, I mentioned the sorts of things that cause disgust in pilots like Charlie Allen, and Hammond said, “There is nothing you can do by statute to assure competence.” I wondered if that was altogether true—if, at the very least, regulations such as Alyeska’s regarding pilots who come in from outside could not be extended to the state at large.

All this applies, of course, only to bush pilots and not to the big jet-flying commercial carriers, whose accidents are extremely rare and are not outstanding in national statistics. As we flew from Fairbanks to Kotzebue to begin the trip to the Salmon River, we were in a Boeing 737 of Wien Air Alaska. One Captain Clayton came on the horn and said he would be pleased to play the harmonica for us as soon as he had finished a Fig Newton. A while later, he announced that his mouth was now solvent—and, above clouds, he began to play. He played beautifully. The speaker system in that particular aircraft seemed to have been wired especially to meet his talent. He played three selections, and he found Kotzebue.

“This is not right. This just is not right,” Gene Parrish said again, giving up on still another river and moving (west this time) to try again. Apparently, one of the streams he had passed over was, in fact, the Salmon. “I do my best,” he said. “I do my best. I had the right heading—I’m certain of that. I do my best, but there ain’t no guarangoddamntee.” Of the next river he looked over perhaps twenty miles, without success. Then he began to mention fuel. He thought we should go back to Kiana and tap a drum. So he continued west, and crossed another mountain. Now he flew above a stream with a tributary coming into it that had a pair of sharp right-angled bends that formed the shape of a staple. Pictured on the Nome Sectional Aeronautical Chart was a staple-shaped pair of bends in a tributary of the Salmon River. The stream on the map and the stream on the earth appeared to be the same, but there was no guarangoddamntee. Forgetting Kiana for the time being, Parrish headed up the river. Down near the spruce, swinging around the bends, we hunted the gravel bars, looking for the shine of metal. There was much gravel but no aluminum. He turned once more for Kiana. There had been a hill on our left, and according to the map there should have been another tributary coming in on the far side of the hill. If the smaller stream was there, this was surely—so it seemed—the Salmon. Parrish could not resist having a look. He turned again, and flew north of the hill, which sloped down to the right bank of a tributary stream. We went on up the river. “This must be the Salmon, but it sure don’t look right,” Parrish said, and in the same instant Pourchot and the Grumman came into view. The chopper set down so near Pourchot it almost blew him over. We pulled out our gear, and wished Parrish well in his continuing tour of Alaska. In a whirling dust storm, the Messerschmitt took off, spattering us with sand and flying bits of dry debris. The dust would take a lot longer to settle than the laws of physics would suggest. Now we were alone between fringes of spruce by a clear stream where tundra went up the sides of mountains. This was, in all likelihood, the most isolated wilderness I would ever see, and that is how we got there.




The river was low, and Pat Pourchot had picked a site as far upstream as he judged we could be and still move in boats. We were on an island, with the transparent Salmon River on one side—hurrying, scarcely a foot deep—and a small slough on the other. Deeper pools, under bedrock ledges, were above us and below us. We built our fire on the lemon-sized gravel of what would in higher water be the riverbed, and we pitched the tents on slightly higher ground among open stands of willow, on sand that showed what Bob Fedeler called “the old tracks of a young griz.” We would stay two nights, according to plan, before beginning the long descent to the Kobuk; and in the intervening day we would first assemble the kayaks and then be free to disperse and explore the terrain.

There was a sixth man with us, there at the beginning. His name was Jack Hession, and he was the Sierra Club’s only salaried full-time representative in Alaska. Pourchot had invited him as an observer. The news that he was absent at the end of the trip could instantly cause hopes to rise in Alaska, where the Sierra Club has long been considered a netherworld force and Hession the resident Belial. Hession, though, was not going to perish on the Salmon. Pressures from Anchorage had travelled with him, and before long would get the better of him, and in cavalier manner—in this Arctic wilderness—he would bid us goodbye and set out early for home. Meanwhile, in the morning sun, we put together the collapsible kayaks—two single Kleppers and Snake Eyes. Hession’s own single was the oldest of the three, and it had thirty-six parts, hardware not included. There were dowels of mountain ash and ribs of laminated Finnish birch, which fitted, one part to another, with hooks and clips until they formed a pair of nearly identical skeletal cones—the internal structures of halves of the boat. The skin was a limp bag made of blue canvas (the deck) and hemp-reinforced vulcanized rubber (the hull). The concept was to insert the skeletal halves into the skin and then figure out how to firm them together. We had trouble doing that. Hession, who ordinarily used rigid boats of fibre glass in his engagements with white water, could not remember how to complete the assembly. Stiff toward the ends and bent in the middle, his kayak had the look of a clip-on tie, and would do about as well in the river. We all crouched around and studied amidships—six men, a hundred miles up a stream, above sixty-seven degrees of latitude, with a limp kayak. No one was shy with suggestions, which were full of ingenuity but entirely failed to work. By trial and error, we finally figured it out. The last step in the assembly involved the center rib, and we set that inside the hull on a tilt and then tapped it with a rock and forced it toward the vertical. When the forcing rib reached ninety degrees to the longer axis of the craft, the rib snapped into place, and with that the entire boat became taut and yare. Clever man, Johann Klepper. He had organized his foldboat in the way that the North American Indians had developed the construction of their bark canoes. Over the years, the Klepper company had simplified its process. Our other single kayak, the more recent model, had fewer and larger skeletal parts, and it went together more easily; but it was less streamlined than the first. Snake Eyes, for its part—all eight hundred dollars’ worth of Snake Eyes—was new and had an interior of broad wooden slabs, conveniently hinged. Snake Eyes had the least number of separate parts (only fifteen) and in the way it went together was efficient and simple. Its advanced design had been achieved with a certain loss of grace, however, and this was evident there on the gravel. The boat was lumpy, awkward, bulging—a kayak with elbows.

Toward noon and after an early lunch, we set off on foot for a look around. Pourchot went straight up the hills to the west, alone. Stell Newman and John Kauffmann intended lesser forays, nearer the campsite. I decided I’d go with Bob Fedeler, who, with Jack Hession, had the most ambitious plan. They were going north up the river some miles and then up the ridges to the east. I hoped my legs would hold up. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, off somewhere in the hills, by snapping something, but I could not resist going along with Fedeler. After all, he was a habitat biologist, working for the state, and if the ground around here was not habitat then I would never be in country that was. The temperature had come up to seventy. The sky was blue, with moving clouds and intermittent sun. We stuffed our rain gear into day packs and started up the river.

Generally speaking, if I had a choice between hiking and peeling potatoes, I would peel the potatoes. I have always had a predilection for canoes on rivers and have avoided walking wherever possible. My experience, thus, was limited but did exist. My work had led me up the Sierra Nevada and across the North Cascades, and in various eras I had walked parts of the Long Trail, the Appalachian Trail, trails of New Hampshire, the Adirondacks. Here in the Brooks Range, of course, no one had been there clearing the path. A mile, steep or level, could demand a lot of time. You go along with only a general plan, free lance, guessing where the walking will be least difficult, making choices all the way. These are the conditions, and in ten minutes’ time they present their story. The country is wild to the limits of the term. It would demean such a world to call it pre-Columbian. It is twenty times older than that, having assumed its present form ten thousand years ago, with the melting of the Wisconsin ice.

For several miles upstream, willow and alder pressed in on the river, backed by spruce and cottonwood, so the easiest path was the river itself. Gravel bars were now on one side, now the other, so we crossed and crossed again, taking off our boots and wading through the fast, cold water. I had rubber-bottomed leather boots (L.L. Bean’s, which are much in use all over Alaska). Fedeler was wearing hiking boots, Hession low canvas sneakers. Hession had a floppy sun hat, too. He seemed to see no need to dress like Sir Edmund Hillary, or to leave the marks of waffles by the tracks of wolves. He was a brief, trim, lithe figure, who moved lightly and had seen a lot of such ground. He stopped and opened his jackknife, and stood it by a track in sand at the edge of the river. Other tracks were near. Two wolves running side by side. He took a picture of the track. We passed a deep pool where spring water came into the river, and where algae grew in response to its warmth. Grayling could winter there. Some were in the pool now—bodies stationary, fins in motion, in clear deep water as green as jade. Four mergansers swam up the river. We saw moose pellets in sand beyond the pool. I would not much want to be a moose just there, in a narrow V-shaped valley with scant protection of trees. We came, in fact, to the tree line not long thereafter. The trees simply stopped. We took a few more northward steps and were out of the boreal forest. Farther north, as far as land continued, there would be no more. I don’t mean to suggest that we had stepped out of Sequoia National Park and onto an unvegetated plain. The woods behind us were spare in every sense, fingering up the river valley, reaching as far as they could go. Now the tundra, which had before been close behind the trees, came down to the banks of the river. We’d had enough of shoelaces and of bare feet crunching underwater stones, so we climbed up the west bank to walk on the tundra—which from the river had looked as smooth as a golf course. Possibly there is nothing as invitingly deceptive as a tundra-covered hillside. Distances over tundra, even when it is rising steeply, are like distances over water, seeming to be less than they are, defraying the suggestion of effort. The tundra surface, though, consists of many kinds of plants, most of which seem to be stemmed with wire configured to ensnare the foot. For years, my conception of tundra—based, I suppose, on photographs of the Canadian north and the plains of the Alaskan Arctic slope —was of a vast northern flatness, water-flecked, running level to every horizon. Tundra is not topography, however; it is a mat of vegetation, and it runs up the sides of prodigious declivities as well as across the broad plains. There are three varying types —wet tundra, on low flatland with much standing water; moist tundra, on slightly higher ground; and alpine tundra, like carpeted heather, rising on mountains and hills. We moved on, northward, over moist tundra, and the plants were often a foot or so in height. Moving through them was more like wading than walking, except where we followed game trails. Fortunately, these were numerous enough, and comfortably negotiable. They bore signs of everything that lived there. They were highways, share and share alike, for caribou, moose, bears, wolves—whose tracks, antlers, and feces were strewn along the right-of-way like beer cans at the edge of a road. While these game trails were the best thoroughfares in many hundreds of square miles, they were also the only ones, and they had a notable defect. They tended to vanish. The trails would go along, well cut and stamped out through moss campion, reindeer moss, sedge tussocks, crowberries, prostrate willows, dwarf birch, bog blueberries, white mountain avens, low-bush cranberries, lichens, Labrador tea; then, abruptly, and for no apparent reason, the trails would disappear. Their well-worn ruts suggested hundreds of animals, heavy traffic. So where did they go when the trail vanished? Fedeler did not know. I could not think of an explanation. Maybe Noah had got there a little before us.

On the far side of the river was an isolated tree, which had made a brave bid to move north, to extend the reach of its progenitive forest. The Brooks Range, the remotest uplift in North America, was made a little less remote, fifty years ago, by the writing of Robert Marshall, a forester, who described several expeditions to these mountains in a book called “Alaska Wilderness.” Marshall had a theory about the tree line, the boundary of the circumboreal world. He thought that white spruce and other species could live farther north, and that they were inching northward, dropping seeds ahead of them, a dead-slow advance under marginal conditions. Whatever it may have signified, the tree across the river was dead, and out of it now came a sparrow hawk, flying at us, shouting “kee kee kee,”and hovering on rapidly beating wings to study the creatures on the trail. There was not much it could do about us, and it went back to the tree.

The leaves of Labrador tea, crushed in the hand, smelled like a turpentine. The cranberries were early and sourer than they would eventually be. With the arrival of cold, they freeze on the vine, and when they thaw, six months later, they are somehow sweeter and contain more juice. Bears like overwintered berries. Blueberries, too, are sweeter after being frozen on the bush. Fried cranberries will help relieve a sore throat. Attacks in the gall bladder have been defused with boiled cranberries mixed with seal oil. The sedge tussocks were low and not as perilous as tussocks can be. They are grass that grows in bunches, more compact at the bottom than at the top—a mushroom shape that can spill a foot and turn an ankle. They were tiresome, and soon we were ready to move upward, away from the moist tundra and away from the river. Ahead we saw the configurations of the sharp small valleys of three streams meeting, forming there the principal stem of the Salmon. To the east, above the confluence, a tundra-bald hill rose a thousand feet and more. We decided to cross the river and go up the hill. Look around. Choose where to go from there.

The river was so shallow now that there was no need for removing boots. We walked across and began to climb. The going was steep. I asked Jack Hession how long he had been in Alaska, and he said seven years. He had been in Alaska longer than two-thirds of the people in the state. He was from California, and had lived more recently in western Washington, where he had begun to acquire his expertise in boats in white water. Like Fedeler—like me, for that matter—he was in good condition. Hession, though, seemed to float up the incline, while I found it hard, sweaty work. From across the river it had looked as easy as a short flight of stairs. I went up it a trudge at a time—on reindeer moss, heather, lupine. The sun had suddenly departed, and a cool rain began to fall. At the top of the hill, we sat on a rock outcropping and looked back at the river, twelve hundred feet below. Everywhere around us were mountains—steep, treeless, buff where still in the sun. One was bright silver. The rain felt good. We nibbled M&M’s. They were even better than the rain. The streams far below, small and fast, came pummelling together and made the river. The land they fell through looked nude. It was all tundra, rising northward toward a pass at the range divide. Looking at so much mountain ground—this immense minute fragment of wilderness Alaska—one could wonder about the choice of words of people who say that it is fragile. “Fragile” just does not appear to be a proper term for a rugged, essentially uninvaded landscape covering tens of thousands of square miles—a place so vast and unpeopled that if anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be a place to hide it. Meanwhile, earnest ecologues write and speak about the “fragile” tundra, this “delicate” ocean of barren land. The words sound effete, but the terrain is nonetheless vulnerable. There is ice under the tundra, mixed with soil as permafrost, in some places two thousand feet deep. The tundra vegetation, living and dead, provides insulation that keeps the summer sun from melting the permafrost. If something pulls away the insulation and melting occurs, the soil will settle and the water may run off. The earth, in such circumstances, does not restore itself. In the nineteen-sixties, a bulldozer working for Geophysical Service, Inc., an oil-exploration company, wrote the initials G.S.I. in Arctic Alaskan tundra. The letters were two hundred feet from top to bottom, and near them the bulldozer cut an arrow—an indicator for pilots. Thermokarst (thermal erosion) followed, and slumpage. The letters and the arrow are now odd-shaped ponds, about eight feet deep. For many generations that segment of tundra will say “G.S.I.” Tundra is even sensitive to snow machines. They compress snow, and cut off much of the air that would otherwise get to the vegetation. Evidence appears in summer. The snow machines have left brown trails on ground they never touched.

Both sunlight and rain were falling on us now. We had a topographic map, of the largest scale available but nonetheless of scant detail—about five miles to half a thumb. Of the three streams that met below us, the nearest was called Sheep Creek. A rainbow wicketed its steep valley. The top of the arch was below us. The name Sheep Creek was vestigial. “Historically, there were Dall sheep in these mountains,” Fedeler said.

“What happened to them?”

“Who knows?” He shrugged. “Things go in cycles. They’ll be back.”

Alders had crept into creases in the mountainside across the Salmon valley. I remarked on the borderline conditions in evidence everywhere in this spare and beautiful country, and said, “Look at those alders over there, clinging to life.”

Fedeler said, “It’s hungry country, that’s for sure. Drainage and exposure make the difference.”

We ate peanuts and raisins and more M&M’s—and, feeling rested, became ambitious. On a long southward loop back to camp, we would extend our walk by going around a mountain that was separated from us by what looked to be the fairly steep declivity of a tributary drainage. The terrain sloped away to the southwest toward the mouth of the tributary. We would go down for a time, and then cross the tributary and cut back around the mountain.

We passed first through stands of fireweed, and then over ground that was wine-red with the leaves of bearberries. There were curlewberries, too, which put a deep-purple stain on the hand. We kicked at some wolf scat, old as winter. It was woolly and white and filled with the hair of a snowshoe hare. Nearby was a rich inventory of caribou pellets and, in increasing quantity as we moved downhill, blueberries—an outspreading acreage of blueberries. Fedeler stopped walking. He touched my arm. He had in an instant become even more alert than he usually was, and obviously apprehensive. His gaze followed straight on down our intended course. What he saw there I saw now. It appeared to me to be a hill of fur. “Big boar grizzly,” Fedeler said in a near-whisper. The bear was about a hundred steps away, in the blueberries, grazing. The head was down, the hump high. The immensity of muscle seemed to vibrate slowly —to expand and contract, with the grazing. Not berries alone but whole bushes were going into the bear. He was big for a barren-ground grizzly. The brown bears of Arctic Alaska (or grizzlies; they are no longer thought to be different) do not grow to the size they will reach on more ample diets elsewhere. The barren-ground grizzly will rarely grow larger than six hundred pounds.

“What if he got too close?” I said.

Fedeler said, “We’d be in real trouble.”

“You can’t outrun them,” Hession said.

A grizzly, no slower than a racing horse, is about half again as fast as the fastest human being. Watching the great mound of weight in the blueberries, with a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around, I had difficulty imagining that he could move with such speed, but I believed it, and was without impulse to test the proposition. Fortunately, a light southerly wind was coming up the Salmon valley. On its way to us, it passed the bear. The wind was relieving, coming into our faces, for had it been moving the other way the bear would not have been placidly grazing. There is an old adage that when a pine needle drops in the forest the eagle will see it fall; the deer will hear it when it hits the ground; the bear will smell it. If the boar grizzly were to catch our scent, he might stand on his hind legs, the better to try to see. Although he could hear well and had an extraordinary sense of smell, his eyesight was not much better than what was required to see a blueberry inches away. For this reason, a grizzly stands and squints, attempting to bring the middle distance into focus, and the gesture is often misunderstood as a sign of anger and forthcoming attack. If the bear were getting ready to attack, he would be on four feet, head low, ears cocked, the hair above his hump muscle standing on end. As if that message were not clear enough, he would also chop his jaws. His teeth would make a sound that would carry like the ringing of an axe.

One could predict, but not with certainty, what a grizzly would do. Odds were very great that one touch of man scent would cause him to stop his activity, pause in a moment of absorbed and alert curiosity, and then move, at a not undignified pace, in a direction other than the one from which the scent was coming. That is what would happen almost every time, but there was, to be sure, no guarantee. The forest Eskimos fear and revere the grizzly. They know that certain individual bears not only will fail to avoid a person who comes into their country but will approach and even stalk the trespasser. It is potentially inaccurate to extrapolate the behavior of any one bear from the behavior of most, since they are both intelligent and independent and will do what they choose to do according to mood, experience, whim. A grizzly that has ever been wounded by a bullet will not forget it, and will probably know that it was a human being who sent the bullet. At sight of a human, such a bear will be likely to charge. Grizzlies hide food sometimes—a caribou calf, say, under a pile of scraped-up moss—and a person the bear might otherwise ignore might suddenly not be ignored if the person were inadvertently to step into the line between the food cache and the bear. A sow grizzly with cubs, of course, will charge anything that suggests danger to the cubs, even if the cubs are nearly as big as she is. They stay with their mother two and a half years.

None of us had a gun. (None of the six of us had brought a gun on the trip.) Among nonhunters who go into the terrain of the grizzly, there are several schools of thought about guns. The preferred one is: Never go without a sufficient weapon—a high-powered rifle or a shotgun and plenty of slug-loaded shells. The option is not without its own inherent peril. A professional hunter, some years ago, spotted a grizzly from the air and—with a client, who happened to be an Anchorage barber—landed on a lake about a mile from the bear. The stalking that followed was evidently conducted not only by the hunters but by the animal as well. The professional hunter was found dead from a broken neck, and had apparently died instantly, unaware of danger, for the cause of death was a single bite, delivered from behind. The barber, noted as clumsy with a rifle, had emptied his magazine, missing the bear with every shot but one, which struck the grizzly in the foot. The damage the bear did to the barber was enough to kill him several times. After the corpses were found, the bear was tracked and killed. To shoot and merely wound is worse than not to shoot at all. A bear that might have turned and gone away will possibly attack if wounded.

Fatal encounters with bears are as rare as they are memorable. Some people reject the rifle as cumbersome extra baggage, not worth toting, given the minimal risk. And, finally, there are a few people who feel that it is wrong to carry a gun, in part because the risk is low and well worth taking, but most emphatically because they see the gun as an affront to the wild country of which the bear is sign and symbol. This, while strongly felt, is a somewhat novel attitude. When Robert Marshall explored the Brooks Range half a century ago, he and his companions fired at almost every bear they saw, without pausing for philosophical reflection. The reaction was automatic. They were expressing mankind’s immemorial fear of this beast —man and rattlesnake, man and bear. Among modern environmentalists, to whom a figure like Marshall is otherwise a hero, fear of the bear has been exceeded by reverence. A notable example, in his own past and present, is Andy Russell, author of a book called “Grizzly Country.” Russell was once a professional hunter, but he gave that up to become a photographer, specializing in grizzlies. He says that he has given up not only shooting bears but even carrying a gun. On rare instances when grizzlies charge toward him, he shouts at them and stands his ground. The worst thing to do, he says, is to run, because anything that runs on open tundra suggests game to a bear. Game does not tend to stand its ground in the presence of grizzlies. Therefore, when the bear comes at you, just stand there. Charging something that does not move, the bear will theoretically stop and reconsider. (Says Russell.) More important, Russell believes that the bear will know if you have a gun, even if the gun is concealed:

Reviewing our experiences, we had become more and more convinced that carrying arms was not only unnecessary in most grizzly country but was certainly no good for the desired atmosphere and proper protocol in obtaining good film records. If we were to obtain such film and fraternize successfully with the big bears, it would be better to go unarmed in most places. The mere fact of having a gun within reach, cached somewhere in a pack or a hidden holster, causes a man to act with unconscious arrogance and thus maybe to smell different or to transmit some kind of signal objectionable to bears. The armed man does not assume his proper role in association with the wild ones, a fact of which they seem instantly aware at some distance. He, being wilder than they, whether he likes to admit it or not, is instantly under even more suspicion than he would encounter if unarmed.


One must follow the role of an uninvited visitor—an intruder—rather than that of an aggressive hunter, and one should go unarmed to insure this attitude.

Like pictures from pages riffled with a thumb, all of these things went through my mind there on the mountainside above the grazing bear. I will confess that in one instant I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” There was nothing more to the question, though, than a hint of panic. I knew why I had come, and therefore what I was doing there. That I was frightened was incidental. I just hoped the fright would not rise beyond a relatively decorous level. I sensed that Fedeler and Hession were somewhat frightened, too. I would have been troubled if they had not been. Meanwhile, the sight of the bear stirred me like nothing else the country could contain. What mattered was not so much the bear himself as what the bear implied. He was the predominant thing in that country, and for him to be in it at all meant that there had to be more country like it in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that. He implied a world. He was an affirmation to the rest of the earth that his kind of place was extant. There had been a time when his race was everywhere in North America, but it had been hunted down and pushed away in favor of something else. For example, the grizzly bear is the state animal of California, whose country was once his kind of place; and in California now the grizzly is extinct.

The animals I have encountered in my wilderness wanderings have been reluctant to reveal all the things about them I would like to know. The animal that impresses me most, the one I find myself liking more and more, is the grizzly. No sight encountered in the wilds is quite so stirring as those massive, clawed tracks pressed into mud or snow. No sight is quite so impressive as that of the great bear stalking across some mountain slope with the fur of his silvery robe rippling over his mighty muscles. His is a dignity and power matched by no other in the North American wilderness. To share a mountain with him for a while is a privilege and an adventure like no other.

I have followed his tracks into an alder hell to see what he had been doing and come to the abrupt end of them, when the maker stood up thirty feet away with a sudden snort to face me.


To see a mother grizzly ambling and loafing with her cubs across the broad, hospitable bosom of a flower-spangled mountain meadow is to see life in true wilderness at its best.

If a wolf kills a caribou, and a grizzly comes along while the wolf is feeding on the kill, the wolf puts its tail between its legs and hurries away. A black bear will run from a grizzly, too. Grizzlies sometimes kill and eat black bears. The grizzly takes what he happens upon. He is an opportunistic eater. The predominance of the grizzly in his terrain is challenged by nothing but men and ravens. To frustrate ravens from stealing his food, he will lie down and sleep on top of a carcass, occasionally swatting the birds as if they were big black flies. He prefers a vegetable diet. He can pulp a moosehead with a single blow, but he is not lusting always to kill, and when he moves through his country he can be something munificent, going into copses of willow among unfleeing moose and their calves, touching nothing, letting it all breathe as before. He may, though, get the head of a cow moose between his legs and rake her flanks with the five-inch knives that protrude from the ends of his paws. Opportunistic. He removes and eats her entrails. He likes porcupines, too, and when one turns and presents to him a pygal bouquet of quills, he will leap into the air, land on the other side, chuck the fretful porpentine beneath the chin, flip it over, and, with a swift ventral incision, neatly remove its body from its skin, leaving something like a sea urchin behind him on the ground. He is nothing if not athletic. Before he dens, or just after he emerges, if his mountains are covered with snow he will climb to the brink of some impossible schuss, sit down on his butt, and shove off. Thirty-two, sixty-four, ninety-six feet per second, he plummets down the mountainside, spray snow flying to either side, as he approaches collision with boulders and trees. Just short of catastrophe, still going at bonecrushing speed, he flips to his feet and walks sedately onward as if his ride had not occurred.

His population density is thin on the Arctic barren ground. He needs for his forage at least fifty and perhaps a hundred square miles that are all his own—sixty-four thousand acres, his home range. Within it, he will move, typically, eight miles a summer day, doing his travelling through the twilight hours of the dead of night. To scratch his belly he walks over a tree— where forest exists. The tree bends beneath him as he passes. He forages in the morning, generally; and he rests a great deal, particularly after he eats. He rests fourteen hours a day. If he becomes hot in the sun, he lies down in a pool in the river. He sleeps on the tundra—restlessly tossing and turning, forever changing position. What he could be worrying about I cannot imagine.

His fur blends so well into the tundra colors that sometimes it is hard to see him. Fortunately, we could see well enough the one in front of us, or we would have walked right to him. He caused a considerable revision of our travel plans. Not wholly prepared to follow the advice of Andy Russell, I asked Fedeler what one should do if a bear were to charge. He said, “Take off your pack and throw it into the bear’s path, then crawl away, and hope the pack will distract the bear. But there is no good thing to do, really. It’s just not a situation to be in.”

We made a hundred-and-forty-degree turn from the course we had been following and went up the shoulder of the hill through ever-thickening brush, putting distance behind us in good position with the wind. For a time, we waded through hip-deep willow, always making our way uphill, and the going may have been difficult, but I didn’t notice. There was adrenalin to spare in my bloodstream. I felt that I was floating, climbing with ease, like Hession. I also had expectations now that another bear, in the thick brush, might come rising up from any quarter. We broke out soon into a swale of blueberries. Hession and Fedeler, their nonchalance refreshed, sat down to eat, paused to graze. The berries were sweet and large.

“I can see why he’s here,” Hession said.

“These berries are so big.”

“Southern exposure.”

“He may not be the only one.”

“They can be anywhere.”

“It’s amazing to me,” Fedeler said. “So large an animal, living up here in this country. It’s amazing what keeps that big body alive.” Fedeler went on eating the blueberries with no apparent fear of growing fat. The barren-ground bear digs a lot of roots, he said—the roots of milk vetch, for example, and Eskimo potatoes. The bear, coming out of his den into the snows of May, goes down into the river bottoms, where overwintered berries are first revealed. Wolf kills are down there, too. By the middle of June, his diet is almost wholly vegetable. He eats willow buds, sedges, cotton-grass tussocks. In the cycle of his year, roots and plants are eighty per cent of what he eats, and even when the salmon are running he does not sate himself on them alone but forages much of the time for berries. In the fall, he unearths not only roots but ground squirrels and lemmings. It is indeed remarkable how large he grows on the provender of his yearly cycle, for on this Arctic barren ground he has to work much harder than the brown bears of southern Alaska, which line up along foaming rivers—hip to hip, like fishermen in New Jersey—taking forty-pound king salmon in their jaws as if they were nibbling feed from a barnyard trough. When the caribou are in fall migration, moving down the Salmon valley toward the Kobuk, the bear finishes up his year with one of them. Then, around the first of November, he may find a cave or, more likely, digs out a cavern in a mountainside. If he finds a natural cave, it may be full of porcupines. He kicks them out, and—extending his curious relationship with this animal—will cushion his winter bed with many thousands of their turds. If, on the other hand, he digs his den, he sends earth flying out behind him and makes a shaft that goes upward into the side of the mountain. At the top of the shaft, he excavates a shelf-like cavern. When the outside entrance is plugged with debris, the shaft becomes a column of still air, insulating the upper chamber, trapping the bear’s body heat. On a bed of dry vegetation, he lays himself out like a dead pharaoh in a pyramid. But he does not truly hibernate. He just lies there. His mate of the summer, in her den somewhere, will give birth during winter to a cub or two—virtually hairless, blind, weighing about a pound. But the male has nothing to do. His heart rate goes down as low as eight beats a minute. He sleeps and wakes, and sleeps again. He may decide to get up and go out. But that is rare. He may even stay out, which is rarer—to give up denning for that winter and roam his frozen range. If he does this, sooner or later he will find a patch of open water in an otherwise frozen river, and in refreshing himself he will no doubt wet his fur. Then he rolls in the snow, and the fur acquires a thick plate of ice, which is less disturbing to the animal than to the forest Eskimo, who has for ages feared—feared most of all—the “winter bear.” Arrows broke against the armoring ice, and it can be heavy enough to stop a bullet.

We moved on now, in continuing retreat, and approached the steep incline of the tributary valley we’d been skirting when the bear rewrote our plans. We meant to put the valley between us and him and reschedule ourselves on the other side. It was in fact less a valley than an extremely large ravine, which plunged maybe eight hundred feet, and then rose up an even steeper incline some fifteen hundred feet on the other side, toward the top of which the bushy vegetation ceased growing. The walking looked promising on the ridge beyond.

I had hoped we might see a den site, and this might have been the place. It had all the requisites but one. It was a steep hillside with southern exposure, and was upgrown with a hell of alders and willows. Moreover, we were on the south side of the Brooks Range divide, which is where most of the dens are. But we were not high enough. We were at something under two thousand feet, and bears in this part of Alaska like to den much higher than that. They want the very best drainage. One way to become a “winter bear” is to wake up in a flooded den.

The willow-alder growth was so dense and high that as we went down the hillside we could see no farther than a few yards ahead. It was wet in there from the recent rain. We broke our way forward with the help of gravity, crashing noisily, all but trapped in the thicket. It was a patch of jungle, many acres of jungle, with stems a foot apart and as thick as our arms, and canopies more than twelve feet high. This was bear habitat, the sort of place bears like better than people do. Our original choice had been wise—to skirt this ravine-valley-but now we were in it and without choice.

“This is the sort of place to come upon one of them unexpectedly,” Hession said.

“And there is no going back,” Fedeler said. “You can’t walk uphill in this stuff.”

“Good point,” Hession said.

I might have been a little happier if I had been in an uninstrumented airplane in heavy mountain cloud. We thunked and crashed for fifteen minutes and finally came out at the tributary stream. Our approach flushed a ptarmigan, willow ptarmigan; and grayling—at sight of us—shot around in small, cold pools. The stream was narrow, and alders pressed over it from either side. We drank, and rested, and looked up the slope in front of us, which must have had an incline of fifty degrees. The ridge at the top looked extremely far away. Resting, I became aware of a considerable ache in my legs and a blister on one of my heels. On the way uphill we became separated, Hession angling off to the right, Fedeler and I to the left. We groped for handholds among bushes that protruded from the flaky schist, and pulled ourselves up from ledge to ledge. The adrenalin was gone, and my legs were turning to stone. I was ready to dig a den and get in it. My eyes kept addressing the ridgeline, far above. If eyes were hands they could have pulled me there. Then, suddenly, from far below, I saw Jack Hession lightly ambling along the ridge—in his tennis shoes, in his floppy cotton hat. He was looking around, killing time, waiting up for us.

Things seemed better from the ridge. The going would be level for a time. We sat down and looked back, to the north, across the deep tributary valley, and with my monocular tried to glass the grazing bear. No sight or sign of him. Above us now was a broadly conical summit, and spread around its western flank was a mile, at least, of open alpine tundra. On a contour, we headed south across it—high above, and two miles east of, the river. We saw what appeared to be a cairn on the next summit south, and decided to go to it and stand on it and see if we could guess—in relation to our campsite—where we were. Now the walking felt good again. We passed a large black pile of grizzly scat. “When it’s steaming, that’s when you start looking around for a tree,” Hession said. This particular scat had sent up its last vapors many days before. Imagining myself there at such a time, though, I looked around idly for a tree. The nearest one behind us that was of more than dwarf or thicket stature was somewhere in Lapland. Ahead of us, however, across the broad dome of tundra, was a dark stand of white spruce, an extremity of the North American forest, extending toward us. The trees were eight hundred yards away. Black bears, frightened, sometimes climb trees. Grizzlies almost never climb trees.

At seven in the evening, after wading up a slope of medium to heavy brush, we came out onto more smooth tundra and reached the hilltop of the apparent cairn. It was a rock outcropping, and we sat on it in bright sunshine and looked at the circumvallate mountains. A great many of them had such outcroppings projecting from their ridges, and they much resembled the cairns shepherds build on bald summits in Scotland. For that matter, they suggested the cairns—closer to the Kobuk—that forest Eskimos once used in methodical slaughter of caribou. The cairns were built on the high tundra in a great V, open end to the north, and they served as a funnel for the southbound herd. To the approaching caribou, the cairns were meant to suggest Eskimos, and to reinforce the impression Eskimos spaced themselves between cairns. At the point of the V, as many caribou as were needed were killed and the rest were let through.

Before us now, lying on the tundra that stretched away toward the river we saw numerous caribou antlers. The Arctic herd cyclically chooses various passes and valleys in making its way south across the range, and of late has been favoring, among other places, the Salmon and Hunt River drainages. Bleached white, the antlers protruded from the tundra like the dead branches of buried trees. When the forest Eskimo of old went to stalk the grizzly bear, he carried in his hand a spear, the tip of which was made from bear bone or, more often, from the antler of the caribou. A bearskin was the door of an Eskimo’s home if the occupant had ever killed a bear, for it symbolized the extraordinary valor of the hunter within. When the man drew close and the bear stood on its hind legs, the man ran under this eave of flesh and set the shaft of the spear firmly on the ground, then ducked out from under the swinging, explosive paws. The bear lunged forward onto the spear and died.

Eskimo knife handles were also made from caribou antlers, and icepicks to penetrate the surface of the river, and sinkers for the bottoms of willow-bark seines, and wood-splitting wedges, and arrowheads. All caribou, male and female, grow antlers. The horns of sheep, cattle, buffalo consist of extremely dense, compactly matted hair. The antler of the caribou is calcareous. It is hard bone, with the strength of wrought iron. Moving downhill and south across the tundra, we passed through groves of antlers. It was as if the long filing lines of the spring migration had for some reason paused here for shedding to occur. The antlers, like the bear, implied the country. Most were white, gaunt, chalky. I picked up a younger one, though, that was recently shed and was dark, like polished brown marble. It was about four feet along the beam and perfect in form. Hession found one like it. We set them on our shoulders and moved on down the hill, intent to take them home.

We headed for the next of the riverine mountains, where we planned to descend and—if our calculations were accurate— meet the river at the campsite. The river, far below us, now and again came into view as we walked abreast over open tundra. Fedeler, even more alert than usual, now stopped and, as before, touched my arm. He pointed toward the river. If a spruce needle had been floating on the water there, Fedeler would have seen it. We saw in an instant that we had miscalculated and were heading some miles beyond the campsite and would have come eventually to the river not knowing—upstream or downstream—which way to go. Fedeler was pointing toward a gravel bar, a thin column of smoke, minute human figures near the smoke, and the podlike whiteness of the metal canoe.

Another two miles, descending, and we were barefoot in the river, with pink hot feet turning anesthetically cold. We crossed slowly. The three others were by the campfire. On the grill were grayling and a filleted Arctic char. The air was cool now, nearing fifty, and we ate the fish, and beef stew, and strawberries, and drank hot chocolate. After a time, Hession said, “That was a good walk. That was some of the easiest hiking you will ever find in Alaska.”

We drew our route on the map and figured the distance at fourteen miles. John Kauffmann, tapping his pipe on a stone, said, “That’s a lot for Alaska.”

We sat around the campfire for at least another hour. We talked of rain and kestrels, oil and antlers, the height and the headwaters of the river. Neither Hession nor Fedeler once mentioned the bear.

When I got into my sleeping bag, though, and closed my eyes, there he was, in color, on the side of the hill. The vision was indelible, but fear was not what put it there. More, it was a sense of sheer luck at having chosen in the first place to follow Fedeler and Hession up the river and into the hills—a memento not so much of one moment as of the entire circuit of the long afternoon. It was a vision of a whole land, with an animal in it. This was his country, clearly enough. To be there was to be incorporated, in however small a measure, into its substance—his country, and if you wanted to visit it you had better knock.

His association with other animals is a mixture of enterprising action, almost magnanimous acceptance, and just plain willingness to ignore. There is great strength and pride combined with a strong mixture of inquisitive curiosity in the make-up of grizzly character. This curiosity is what makes trouble when men penetrate into country where they are not known to the bear. The grizzly can be brave and sometimes downright brash. He can be secretive and very retiring. He can be extremely cunning and also powerfully aggressive. Whatever he does, his actions match his surroundings and the circumstance of the moment No wonder that meeting him on his mountain is a momentous event, imprinted on one’s mind for life.

In the night, the air and the river balanced out, and both were forty-six at seven in the morning. Walking in the water promised to be cold, and, given the depth of the river at the riffles, that was apparently what we were going to do. We took a long time packing, as anyone would who apparently had twenty per cent more cargo than there was capacity in the boats. Duffel was all over the gravel bar. I had brought my gear in a Duluth sack—a frameless canvas pack in every way outsized. It had a tumpline and shoulder straps, all leather, and, stuffed to the bulge point, it suggested Santa Claus on his way south. My boat for the day was one of the single kayaks. I spread out the gear on the gravel beside it, turned the empty Duluth sack inside out and rolled and trussed it so that it was about the size of a two-pound loaf of bread. This went into the bow of the kayak. I poked it up there with a stick. Anyone with a five-foot arm could easily pack a Klepper. The openings in the rib frames were less than the breadth of two spread hands. Stowing gear fore and aft was like stuffing a couple of penholders, but an amazing amount went in. All excess was taken by the canoe, and it was piled high—our aluminum mule. I tied the caribou antler across the stern deck of the kayak, and we moved out into the river. The current was going about four miles an hour, but we travelled a great deal more slowly than that, because we walked almost as far as we floated. If we had a foot of water, we felt luxuriously cushioned. Often enough, we had an inch or two. Pool to riffle, pool to riffle, we rode a little and then got out and walked, painters in our hands. The boats beside us were like hounds on leashes, which now and then stopped and had to be dragged. Getting into a kayak just once is awkward enough, let alone dozens of times a day. You put your hands behind you on the coaming, then lower yourself into place, all in the same act removing your legs from the river and shaking off water. Hession, at the start, showed me how to do this, and then he sat down lightly in his own kayak and floated away. I flopped backward into mine and nearly rolled it over; but the day would hold, if nothing else, practice in getting in and out of a kayak. When the boats scraped bottom at the tops of riffles, we got out, sought the channel of maximum depth, moved the boats through, and then got back into them where the water was fast and deepening in the lower parts of the rips. The problem of getting in was therefore complicated by generally doing so in the middle of rapids. In the first such situation, I lost all coordination, lurched backward onto the boat, nearly sat in the river, and snapped a toe, ripping the ligaments off the second joint. By noon, however, I was more or less competent, and further damage seemed unlikely.

I was not disappointed that the Salmon was low. In a lifetime of descending rivers, this was the clearest and the wildest river. Walking it in places made it come slow, and that was a dividend in itself. A glance at the gravel bars, ledges, and cut banks told where the river at times would be—high, tumbling, full of silt, and washing down. I would prefer to walk in water so clear it seemed to be polished rather than to ride like a rocket down a stream in flood. For all of that, another two inches would have helped the day.

The water was cold by anyone’s standards, for had it been much colder it would not have been water. Pourchot and Hession were wearing sneakers, and I did not envy them. Fedeler and Newman wore hip boots. Kauffmann and I had wet-suit boots—foam-rubber socks, more or less, that keep wet feet completely warm. The water that is arrested in the foam takes on the temperature of blood. I had on thick wool socks as well, and my feet were never cold. The sun was circling a cloudless sky, and needles of light came flashing off the river. The air went into the seventies. We walked along in T-shirts —feet warm, legs cool in soaking trousers, shoulders hot in the Arctic sun.

A couple of tributaries came into the river, the first from the east, the second from the west, and they deepened the pools and improved the rips. Somewhere up the easterly stream, said Pourchot, nineteen placer gold claims had been filed in 1968. The claims had not been kept up with yearly “assessment work,” however. No mining had begun, and now would not begin as long as the claims were in national-interest land. This was not important gold country. Perhaps the most unusual event in the experience of the forest Eskimos was the arrival in 1898 of more than a thousand prospectors who had heard glistering rumors about the Kobuk valley. They looked around, did not find much, and lasted, for the most part, a single winter. About ten years later, gold of modest but sufficient assay was discovered on a creek near Kiana. Claims there were worked by placer mining—sluicing gravels, flushing out the gold. Where gold is mined in Alaska now, bulldozers, for the most part, move the gravels. The clear water that comes in from the upstream side goes on its way—brown and turbid—with a heavy load of fresh debris. Early in Fedeler’s time with the Habitat Section of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, he was shifted from pipeline surveillance to gold-mining surveillance—going from one site to another to check effluent standards in placer operations. He might better have waltzed with grizzlies than approach some of the miners, who told him to pack up his permit applications and get the hell off their claims. So what if some fish got a gutful of silt? Fedeler was only a few short years from his family’s farm in Iowa, his master’s thesis on the life cycle of pheasants, but he was quickly learning the folkways of Alaska. “Get out!” the miners suggested. “We’ve always done things when we want to, where we want to, how we want to, and that is what we’re going to do now.”

The forest around us, to the extent that it could be called forest, consisted of bands of spruce and cottonwood. Occasionally, it made sallies up the hillsides onto protected slopes or into dry ravines, but mainly it pointed north like an arrow, and gradually it widened as we moved downstream. Close to the river edge, much of the way, were clumps of willow and alder, backed by the taller trees, which in turn had bands of alder backing them, before the woods gave way altogether to open, rising ground—to the lichens, the sedges, and mosses of the high tundra. The leaves of alder, chewed to break out the sap, relieve itching when rubbed on mosquito bites. The forest Eskimos make red dyes from alder bark—American green alder, the only species that grows so far north. Willow, as a genus, is hardier. The Sitka spruce is the state tree, in recognition of its commercial distinction, for Sitka spruce is the most negotiable thing that grows from roots in Alaska. It grows only in the south, however, and while the Sitka spruce goes off to the sawmill, the willow vegetates the state. There are only a hundred and thirty-three species of trees and shrubs in all Alaska, and thirty-three of those are willows. Before the importation of nylon, fishnets were made from willow—from long pliant strips of the bark, braided with the split roots of spruce. Rope, dog collars, and hunters’ bows were made from willow, and snares for small game and birds. Willow still goes into snowshoe frames, and fish traps, and wicker baskets. Young leaves, buds, and shoots of willow are edible and nourishing. The inner bark, chewed like cane, is full of sugar. Willow sap, scraped together with a knife, is sweet and delicious. At least twelve kinds of willow were growing along the Salmon—among them little-tree willow, halberd willow, netleaf, skeleton-leaf, and diamond-leaf willow, Arctic willow, barren-ground willow, Alaska bog willow. Oranges are easier to tell apart. We called all willows willows. The wood was agreeable in fires, and became almost as hot as the coals of alder.

On a broad acreage of gravel, we stopped now for lunch, and built a fire of willow and alder. The sun was hot to the point of headache, but there was a factor of chill in the day. Gradually the kayaks were acquiring water, dripping from us as we got out and in. One’s buttocks, after several hours in cold kayak bilge, began to feel like defrosting meat. However warm one’s head and shoulders might have been, a shiver went into the bones. The fire was piled high with wood that had bleached on the gravel in the sun, and a light breeze tilted the flame. Standing in the downwind heat was like standing in the Grand Canyon on a summer day. In a few minutes, our clothes had dried.

Three more tributaries came into the river, and its navigable stretches lengthened through the afternoon. Still, though, we did a lot of walking. Mergansers—a mother and six—fled ahead of us, running on the water like loons. Now and again, big ledges of bedrock jutted into and under the river, damming water, framing pools. Below one ledge, where water ran white from a pool, we stopped to fish. Stell Newman caught an Arctic char. Bob Fedeler caught another. They were imposing specimens, bigger than the Salmon’s salmon. They were spotted orange and broad-flanked, with lobster-claw jaws. Sea-run Arctic char. They could be described as enormous brook trout, for the brook trout is in fact a char. They had crimson fins with white edges and crimson borders on their bellies. Their name may be Gaelic, wherein “blood” is “cear.” The Alaska record length for an Arctic char is thirty-six inches, and ours were somewhat under that. I tossed a small Mepps lure across the stream, size zero, and bringing it back felt a big one hit. The strike was too strong for a grayling—more power, less commotion. I had, now, about ten pounds of fish on a six-pound line. So I followed the fish around, walking upstream and down, into and out of the river. I had been walking the kayak all day long, and this experience was not much different. After fifteen minutes or so, the fish tired, and came thrashing from the water. I took out my tape and laid it on him, from the hooking jaw to the tip of the tail. Thirty-one and a half inches. Orange speckles, crimson glow, this resplendent creature was by a long measure the largest fish I had ever caught in fresh water. In its belly would fit ten of the kind that I ordinarily keep and eat. For dinner tonight we would have grilled Arctic char, but enough had been caught already by the others. So, with one hand under the pelvic fins and the other near the jaw, I bent toward the river and held the fish underwater until it had its equipoise. It rested there on my hands for a time, and stayed even when I lowered them away. Then, like naval ordnance, it shot across the stream. The best and worst part of catching that fish was deciding to let it go.

Floating for a time, we moved on downstream. When Eskimos returning from long summer hunting trips rode down the Salmon River, they travelled on rafts. In June, when they had established their seine-fishing camps along the Kobuk, the men left the women and went off into the mountains in small groups to spend the summer killing creatures whose skins were needed for winter—marmots, lone caribou, caribou fawns (for undergarments). The hunters had long hours of leisure, and they sat around campfires, as we do, telling tales. They repeated the narratives night after night, yet no one ever told someone else’s story; a sense of copyright was inherent, and plagiarism was seemingly unknown. Sons inherited stories from their fathers. Needless to say, many tales had to do with the hunt—hunting the wolf, hunting the caribou, fall and winter hunting the bear. Tramping up the mountains on snowshoes, they searched for signs of denning—watching, in otherwise uniform snow, for a glaze of ice, the product of the vapors of breath. Finding such evidence, they carefully removed the ice, quietly, gingerly, revealing a vent hole. An exploring spear was inserted in the hole and moved about until it touched something soft. Resting there, the spear would slowly move up and down. The hunter then rammed it home, and leaned on it with all his weight as the bear heaved in torment, lifting the hunter off the ground. The modern method is to poke for the bear with a long rod and when contact is established place a rifle by the rod and fire. When the bear is still, the hunters go into the den. Sometimes, living bears are in there, too—new cubs, or full-grown cubs, or a living mother and a dead cub. There is no need for fear, the hunters say, because a bear will not fight in its den. The bear is the animal whose intelligence they respect above all others’, and around which they have spun over centuries skeins of ritual and taboo. In times past, the skull of a killed bear was ceremonially touched to the bear’s heart and was then placed atop a living spruce and left in the forest with its eye sockets facing north.

With signs of autumn, hunters came down from the mountains to the upper waters of the river. They cut dead spruce, built their rafts, and piled them high with fur. In the upper river, in shallow water, rafts consisted of just a few logs, tied together with thongs of bear hide. The narrow ends of the logs all faced downstream; the wide ends formed the stern. Thus, the raft was a wedge, pointing down the river. Afloat, it was guided with a spruce pole at the bow. When it ran aground, it was dragged, like a Klepper, through the shallow rips. As the river deepened, the rafts of two or more parties were joined together. The bigger the river, the bigger the total raft—a stable vessel anytime, even in thundering flood.

Some of the wood in the rafts was for winter fires, but most was used for housing, a need that has waned on the Kobuk. Houses now come from the government, in three choices—A, B, and C—at so much a month for twenty years. They are frame structures, gabled, nondescript. They could be garages with windows. In winter the walls sweat, and show a frost line four feet high. Their exterior sheds are not large enough for the storage of meat and equipment. There is a new house today in Kiana made of river-floated logs.

We stopped for the night below a bedrock pool, pitching the tents on a sandy bank under woolly mountains whose ridgelines were a couple of thousand feet above the river. The forest now filled in most of the valley floor and went up the slopes maybe three hundred feet. Bear tracks in the sand by the river were eleven inches long, six inches wide. We fished-take-and-put —catching and releasing half a dozen grayling and several char. Eskimos, on their journeys, now cook char in aluminum foil, which is what we did. The pink flesh steamed in its own moisture, and each of us ate at least two pounds. Looking up from dinner, we saw a black bear, long and leggy, crossing a steep hillside at a slow lope. It stopped to graze for a time, and then, apropos of nothing, suddenly ran and took a crashing leap into a stand of willow and alder, breaking its way through, coming out the other side onto a high plain of pale-green caribou moss.




In the morning there was wind. A front as dank as an oyster was moving in over the eastern mountains. Rain was coming —an uninviting day to frog kayaks in the river. We ate oatmeal, and then, after coffee, Jack Hession said he thought he’d be going. He had deadlines to meet and simply had to get back to the office. The office—in Anchorage—was six hundred miles away. If there was a wild place in the United States, we were in it, and Hession was about to take off on his own, pressed for time. Terribly sorry, he said. He would have enjoyed staying with us, but he had pressures from home. He had decided to make the trip with us more or less at the last moment, and now he was deciding to leave at the last moment plus one. He would take the mail plane from Kiana, which was something like ninety miles downstream. With a packet or two of freeze-dry and six pieces of pilot bread, he got into his single Klepper and bobbed down the river. The two blades of his paddle wagged like a semaphore, and he was gone. He had no tent. Rain fell through much of the day, and all through the night.

Hession told us, many days later, stories of his solo run. Not long after he left us, he became preoccupied with his thoughts and overshot a channel in a riffle. Near the far ends of pools, where loose-stone deposits had built up as dams, the river would characteristically become fast and shallow and would tumble to one side over a brink of gravel—racing white toward a lower pool. The knack of navigation was to read the riffle, sense the heaviest flow there, and get into it before the broad general current could take the boat a little farther and run it aground; for while much water went down the riffle even more simply disappeared into the earth, passing into the porous basements of high, dry bars of gravel. Often enough, there was just a narrow slot, angling left or right, through which the kayak could proceed, and now Hession had missed such a place, so he would have to backferry—moving, stern first, across the stream, to realign his course and shoot the rip. He was close to a bank. Realizing his mistake, he reached backward with his paddle. He happened to look up as well. On the bank above him were a sow grizzly and a huge two-year-old cub. Across a distance of no more than fifteen feet Hession and the mother grizzly looked each other in the eye. Staring steadily at her, he slowly moved the paddle, retreating at an angle to the current. He felt helpless, because he could think of nothing to do if the bear attacked. He thought of turning the boat over in order to disappear beneath it, but there was nowhere to hide in less than a foot of water. Therefore, all decisions belonged to the bear. Hession kept on gazing fixedly into her eyes, making no gesture of fear or flight. The bears themselves retreated. But after a few steps they turned, and both stood up on their hind legs, squinting. Hession thought they were going to come for him, after this second look. But they dropped down, turned, and went. He told this story without modulation, without a hint of narrative excitation; and in the same flat manner he went on to say that he had later seen a pair of sandhill cranes and, some time after that, a golden eagle. It was all wildlife to him. When you are the Sierra Club’s man in Alaska, the least of your problems is bears.

That evening, when he decided it was time to sleep, the rain was steady and miserable, and he looked around for shelter. He looked for big driftwood. He finally came to an uprooted spruce, washed downriver probably in June. Resting on its root structure, it was partly off the ground. He tipped the kayak so that it leaned against the tree, and put his sleeping bag in the space formed between them. (As an alternative, he might have cut a number of young spruce and arranged them in a circle with their tips together at the top—a form of tepee that the forest Eskimos call “poor people’s camp.”) Hession slid himself into place. The rain fell on the boat and tree. “I passed out,” he said, “and the next thing I knew it was morning.” When he arrived at the confluence of the Salmon and the Kobuk, two Eskimos were fishing there. They shared their boiled salmon with him, in a sauce of seal oil. Their Evinrude took him to Kiana.

John Kauffmann and I paddled Snake Eyes the day Hession left, and we spent a lot of time in the river beside it, making Klepper trails in the gravel. We had to bail frequently, because water was accumulating inside the hull not only from the rain and from our dripping boots but also through leaks in the vulcanized rubber. The shallow river was grinding Snake Eyes down. The hull, advertised to be as “strong as a heavy-duty conveyor belt,” was losing its capability to convey us. We were coming into many deep pools and fine stretches of water now, but the momentum and response of Snake Eyes afloat were not much better than of Snake Eyes aground, so the others—in their maneuverable, shallow-draft canoe and light kayak—often had to wait. On the slope above the left bank we saw a lone grizzly walking north in the rain. Since the river was narrow and bending, the boats were sometimes out of sight from one another. Fedeler, in the single Klepper, saw a grizzly that was gone when the rest of us came along. There was no telling how many bears we may have failed to notice—or, for that matter, how many bears we may have seen twice. The Nikok, a tributary, came into the Salmon from the west, and we stopped for lunch beside it, and cast lures from smooth ledges into deep holes that were clear and green.

After the Nikok, there was more river to float us. The rain turned to mist and put a soft gray light on the hills. No matter what the weather might be, Kauffmann said, the Brooks Range for him was the best of Alaska—in the quality of its light, in the clarity of its flowing water, in the configuration of its terrain. He did not much care for the glacier country—the south. “It’s too raw,” he went on. “Up here in the north, you have all the effects of the glacier land forms without the glaciers themselves. You have clear streams.” Studying the Salmon as a national wild river had been Kauffmann’s idea. If Kauffmann could have his way, at least a quarter of Alaska would be held as wilderness forever. After his five years of study and planning for Gates of the Arctic National Park—an area twice as large as the state of Hawaii, four times the size of Yellowstone—odds seemed favorable that it would be congressionally confirmed. Kauffmann’s total plans for the park’s development—his intended use of airstrips, roadways, lodges, lean-tos, refreshment stands, trash barrels, benches—added up to zero. The most inventive thing to do, as he saw it, was nothing. Let the land stand wild, without so much as a man-made trail.

Kauffmann, among Alaskans, represented only a small arc or two in a wheel of attitudes toward the land. For one thing, he was a “fed” and thus an “outsider,” who—in the view of some —was trying to “grab” and “lock up” prime terrain. Yet he was also an Alaskan. In a state largely populated by aggressive transients, he was at least as Alaskan as most. He had built a home and had become an earnest Alaskan citizen. As such, and not merely as a fed, he did indeed favor locking up land, if that meant saving it for the future of the future.

In the time Kauffmann had lived in Alaska, the number of voters with views sympathetic to his own had risen from very low to modest. Yet the presence of this minority (backed by support from outside) had produced a tension that underlay much of what was happening in the state. It was tension over the way in which Alaska might proceed, tension somewhat reminiscent of the matters (water rights, grazing rights) that divided earlier pioneers. In its modern form, it was the tension of preservation versus development, of stasis versus economic productivity, of wilderness versus the drill and the bulldozer, and in part it had caused the portentous reassignment of land that now, in the nineteen-seventies, was altering, or threatening to alter, the lives of everyone in the state.

The federal government, long ago, used to watch over Alaska with one eye, and with so little interest that the lid was generally closed. In all that territorial land, so wild and remote, emigrants from the United States easily established their frontier code: breathe free, do as you please, control your own destiny. If you had much more in mind than skinning hares, though, it was difficult to control much of a destiny—to plan, for example, any kind of development on a major scale—since the federal government owned more than ninety-nine per cent of the land. The push for statehood was seen as a way to gain more control; but, to their frustration and disappointment, Alaskans found that the big decisions continued to be made (or postponed, as the case might be) in Washington. After some years, and under pressure to find new energy resources, the federal government awakened to the potentialities of Alaska. With the development of the oil field at Prudhoe Bay, state and federal interests at last seemed to complement each other. The discovery of oil felt like the discovery of gold, and the future seemed lighted from behind. With the pipeline, however, Alaska suddenly had more development than it could absorb. It suddenly had manifold inflation and a glut of trailer parks. It had traffic jams. You could pick up a telephone and “dial a date.” In the reasonably accessible bush, fishing and hunting—the sorts of things many people had long sought in Alaska—became crowded and poor. A boom was on, money was around, and buildings were going up; but a dream may have come too true. Most of the money was passing over the heads of Alaskans long established in the state. Confused and disillusioned, many were forced to ponder if big-scale development meant bonanza after all.

The people’s new hesitation about the wisdom of development was expressed in 1974 in the election, by a narrow margin, of Jay Hammond as governor. Hammond had homesteaded land in Alaska. His wife was an Alaskan native. His approach to Alaska’s future was to attempt to go slow, to build with caution, to try to find a middle course—not only between conservation and economic development but within them as well. He appointed Robert Weeden, a wildlife biologist from the University of Alaska, as State Policy Development and Planning Director, and set him the task of drawing together a state proposal for the future of the designated national-interest lands. Unsurprisingly, the state soon informed Congress that it would like to participate in the management of these lands, and hence was willing to put some of its own land into the total. The state would like various options to be left open for the future and not to be written away in legislation. “We’re interested in sharing in the decisions on federal lands forever,” Weeden told me one day in the capitol, in Juneau. “The federal proposals reflect the territorial imperative of agencies rather than the long-term interests of the state as the nation relates to it. The state has gone from a development urge to development plus conservation, while the federal trajectory—in general—has been from neglect and preservation to exploitation of resources. We’ve almost changed roles. Meanwhile, federal agencies are scrapping among themselves. The National Park Service wants the land as it is, and the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management would like to see it exploited. The Fish and Wildlife Service is closer to the middle. Their lands are available for ‘compatible uses.’ For example, their Kenai National Moose Range has oil wells in it. The Moose Range was the first oil field in Alaska. The National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife are the conservationists’ favorites. Developers favor the Bureau of Land Management. We need an additional approach. Suppose you have good parkland that also has minerals. You say a firm decision should not be made there—not right now. There are places where a reasonable man would not want to make decisions yet. Our position has been described by some as a middle-of-the-road stance. Perhaps so, but in this road all the traffic seems to be hugging the two ditches. These days, man should be somewhat humble about his capacity to make permanent decisions.” On a wall in Weeden’s offices, a sign said, “Earth, this is God. I want all you people to clear out before the end of the month. I have a client who is interested in the property.”

I had lunch one day in Anchorage with an entrenched Alaskan boomer—Robert Atwood, editor and publisher of the Anchorage Times. If the state government and its Robert Weedens were about ninety degrees around from the attitude represented by John Kauffmann, Atwood was a hundred and eighty. “We should preserve wilderness only in areas that are without other resources,” he said. “The U.S. needs our oil. We’re not going to prevent it going. God damn it, they should take it. They need it. The ultimate destiny of Alaska is to help the nation be self-sufficient. We should bend and help, not tie the land up in a knot to save a tree or a bear or a fond dream. A state develops by developing its resources. Prudhoe Bay was a big start for this little state. Then what happened? The pipeline was stopped for years by conservationists. It was the first time in history that a state was told it could not take its resources to market. Some people think anybody who wants to do anything with a shovel is bad. They should see Prudhoe Bay. It’s so damned clean and neat and sterile—with refrigerated pilings, so the tundra won’t melt. The pipeline will be the biggest tourist attraction in Alaska. Caribou will move close to it for heat. Meanwhile, these wilderness buffs, like your friend Kauffmann, have an insatiable appetite for wilderness. They have drawn lines on the map according to what is best and beautiful from their point of view. What they are trying for is a land grab, but they see it as the last chance to preserve something. From their point of view, it is the last chance. But locking the land up is unfair to future generations. Nobody knows wholly what is under it, in coal or oil or minerals.”

Alaskan natives, for their part, were somewhere on the way back to Kauffmann. They saw the federal park and refuge proposals as possibly—but not necessarily—the least disturbing of the changes that could come to, for example, the Salmon River and the Kobuk valley. Willie Hensley, an Eskimo leader, once described it this way for me: “If we can hunt, fish, trap, we’re not concerned. We don’t have that assurance yet. If we can’t drive our boats up the river, we’re going to have problems. If we can’t take our dog teams or snow machines after caribou, we’re going to have problems. Now is a time of transition for the native people. We have long used the land as if we owned it. We thought we did own it. We had lived here ten thousand years and assumed it was ours. But in the past we never had the political or economic clout to make a single bit of difference in Alaska. The Native Claims Settlement Act has given us a voice that we did not have before. It has also given us the problem of the national-interest lands. If these lands can be used for subsistence hunting, fishing, trapping, we don’t have many qualms.” No less wary of the coming of the parkland were any number of whites living in the bush, who had also been trapping and hunting and fishing for (in many cases) generations, and who now found themselves confronted with much the same worries the natives had—but without the incidental benefits of a billion dollars and forty million acres of land.

Paddling on through the light rain, Kauffmann now began to fulminate. He said he had once drawn up an Alaskan coat of arms, its shield quarterly gules and gold with a motto written in each quarter, expressing what he took to be the core attitudes of the people of Alaska toward—as the Aleut word “Alaska” means—“the great land.” The motto written on one quarter of the shield was “Dig It Up.” On another, “Chop It Down.” On another, “Fish It Out.” On the fourth, “Shoot It.” He said the forty million acres involved in the Native Claims Settlement Act amounted to something over six hundred acres for each native. He said the Statehood Act had provided what now amounted to two hundred and fifty acres for each Alaskan. And that left roughly one acre of Alaska for each citizen of the United States as a whole—an amount he considered minimal. “People who have come to Alaska, worked hard, and grubbed out a living feel resentment toward people whom they call ‘Lower Forty-eight meddlers,’” he went on. “People here take a proprietary attitude. They say, ‘Don’t tie our hands.’ They forget that we all own Alaska. They call it their land, but it’s everybody’s land. Alaska is the last great opportunity this nation has to set aside adequate chunks of natural landscape for a variety of conservation purposes. The land is still open. It is uncommitted. Think what the East would look like if Thoreau had been heeded. Think of the rivers and lakes of New Hampshire and Maine—Lake Winnipesaukee, Moosehead Lake. The opportunity exists in Alaska on a scale incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen it. Local interests should be satisfied, certainly, and state interests as well—but so should national interests. This river, this land around us, is of national interest, and it belongs to everybody in the United States.”

In part to make him paddle harder, I said, “Yes, but why do all you sneakerfaces, you ecocentrics, think you need so much of it? Why do you need eighty million acres?”

“Everything in Alaska is on a bigger scale,” he said. “There is a need for a place in which to lose yourself, for more space than you can encompass. It’s not sufficient just to set aside sights to see. We need whole ecosystems, whole ranges, whole watersheds.”

“Entire mountain ranges?”

“We’re going to have to live in close harmony with the earth. There’s a lot we don’t know. We need places where we can learn how. The carrying capacity for plants and animals is limited here. They need plenty of space and time. Think of the years it takes a grayling to grow. If we do our thing, if we exploit shortsightedly, we impoverish even the biggest landscapes. There is no such thing as superabundance. I think many people have come to realize this. A sense of spaciousness has shaped the character of this country. We don’t want to let that sense entirely pass. The frontier society feels it is here to exploit the land, though—to grow, to build, to tame, to extract, to realize the wealth that is here. They don’t like regulation. They don’t like to be told they can’t do something. They want to do what they want to where and when they please. Between their interests and the interests of the nation as a whole the Native Claims Settlement Act tried to strike a balance.”

“Some balance,” I said. “The map is covered with proposed parks.”

“The parks are ten per cent of the state, God damn it. Tithed to the future. The proposals are not repetitious. They are different. They complement each other. This river and the Gates of the Arctic are at the wilderness end of the spectrum. This is the last big piece of magnificent mountain wilderness we have left. First it was the Appalachians, then the Rockies, then the Sierra Nevada, then Alaska, and this is the last part of Alaska. This is America’s ultimate wilderness; it goes no farther. This is our last opportunity to provide, admittedly in a contrived way, the chance to go adventuring in country so wild that valleys and mountains are without names.”

“But why lock it up forever?”

“It will not be locked up. The resources aren’t going to go anywhere. In some dire situation, they are there. People say, ‘Study it first.’ This is a delaying tactic by people who want to exploit it later. There’s always someone who wants another look. Meanwhile, the time has historically come for preserving major pieces of land in Alaska, to have the freshness of Alaska —large landscapes, habitats—perpetuated, not tarnished and degraded as man grubs his way along with awesome power. The locations of oil reserves are largely determined. The national-interest lands include very little oil. What the contention comes down to is mining. Nineteenth-century laws let the miner onto most government land, but the miner is no longer the quaint old man with the burro and the pick.”

Having goaded him, I thought I should reward him. I said, “In Alaska, we appear to be recapitulating ourselves. This may be our last chance to suggest that we’ve learned anything at all.” I felt the momentum of Snake Eyes perceptibly increase.

We came to the end of a pondlike pool, and Snake Eyes ran aground. Salmon were thrashing up the riffle there—backs exposed, sculling against water and stones. Toward the bottom of the rip, water collected, becoming heavy and white and two feet deep. The river then curved right—a bending chute with a cut bank on one side and an apron of gravel on the other. Over the cut bank a sweeper had recently fallen, a spruce whose trunk reached into the river. Its green boughs spread over the white water. The swiftest of the current went under the branches, so the problem presented to Kauffmann and me was to get into the kayak in fast water and then collect ourselves at once for a move around the tree. Sweepers tend to trap boats and hold them almost broadside to the current while the weight of the river rolls them over. Kauffmann and I attacked the situation with the same easy confidence we had displayed over the years on a number of analogous occasions, beginning with a near double drowning in 1955. Standing in the rain in the fast water, we settled into Snake Eyes and flew at the sweeper. In concept, we would skirt it to the right. In practice, we hit it dead center. Kauffmann was still reminding me that this was our last opportunity to save the final American wilderness when Snake Eyes bought the river. The thought occurred to me as I pitched head first into the rushing water that I had not often involuntarily overturned on a river trip, and that on almost all the occasions when I had the last thing I had seen on my way to the bottom was Kauffmann. Tact restrained me from mentioning this to him until he had come up out of the river. Meanwhile, I jumped to my feet. The water was waist deep, cold as a wine bucket. I retrieved Kauffmann’s hat. Under the gin-clear water, his head, with its radical economy of hair, looked like an onion. Snake Eyes was upside down. I wrenched it right side up, then took its painter and hurried out of the river. From the moment we spilled until I was standing on dry gravel, scarcely fifteen seconds went by. Kauffmann was soaked, but I was not. My rain gear had been drawn tight at the neck and had elastic cuffs. I was half wet—in harlequin patches, and not much on the chest or the back. A piece at a time, we floated our duffel out of Snake Eyes—sleeping bags, clothes bags. Then we dumped out the water, repacked the duffel, and got back onto the river.

We were chilled, and that was a long cold afternoon. Snake Eyes continued to move downstream like a sea anchor, and in the miserable rain we chose not to stop and build a fire. A few hours later, we embraced the fire that ended the day.




Pourchot, after dinner in the bright evening light, began repairing the Kleppers. The hulls were so abraded, the damage so extensive, that he interrupted the job for his night’s sleep and finished it after breakfast. Kleppers afloat, it is only fair to insert, are tough and sturdy boats; and, as someone pointed out, an almost identical twin of Snake Eyes in 1956 had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. “Good God!” Kauffmann said on receiving this news. But the Salmon River in low water—with its limestones, its dolomite, its sharp miscellaneous schists—was too much for the rubber-coated kayaks. Both had been leaking seriously, and as I watched Pourchot taping their hulls I could not help thinking that we would be a stone’s throw from nowhere without them. He worked slowly, with fibre-glass tape, trying through applied friction to enhance the strength of the sticking.

“We’re up some creek,” I said, “without those boats.”

Pourchot said, “I always pack an extra day’s food in case everything does not go right.”

Since he had advised bringing emergency rations, I had along a bacon bar, a can of mixed nuts, a bag of dried fruit, and half a dozen packets of M&M’s. Their octane seemed low for a walk to Kiana. I had waterproof matches strewn around in various places in my pack. I asked Pourchot if he ever took along a radio, and he said no. He said there was a choice of two types and both were disadvantageous. One was an FM transmitter that was much like a walkie-talkie, but it worked only on line of sight, and, even from a ridge, would at best carry twenty miles. Twenty miles is not an impressive radius in Alaska. Anyway, almost no one ever monitored the frequency. On the other hand, if you had a single-side-band, you could, with a properly laid-out antenna, call anywhere in Alaska. But the single-side-band was big as a breadbox, bulky, heavy (thirty pounds), and extremely expensive. So Pourchot could not be bothered with that, either. We had no axes with us, which at least reduced chances of injury. Pourchot said he had brought along a ten-dollar first-aid kit, but it had no sutures and no prescription drugs, and “a doctor would laugh at it.”

He cut a short piece of tape and laid it over a particularly open break in the hull of Snake Eyes, then put a longer strip over that. “These trips are not fail-safe,” he went on. “You can get hurt and not get attention for several days. There’s nothing you can do, short of staying home all the time.”

“You come to the place on its terms,” Kauffmann put in. “You assume the risk.”

“When people come to Alaska, there’s a sifting and winnowing process that follows,” Pourchot said. “Some just make day trips out of Anchorage into the bush. Others go out for more than one day—fishing or whatever—but they stay in one place, at an established camp or lodge. After that come the hikers and canoers, and from them you get many stories of, say, the boat that breaks up and the guy who sits on the gravel bar for two weeks and walks out in five miserable days. He makes it, though. It’s a rare day when somebody starves or bleeds to death. You’re just not going to make a trip perfectly safe and still get the kind of trip you want. There are no what-if types out here. People who come this far have come to grips with that problem.”

Pourchot was apparently unaware that he was addressing a what-if type—an advanced, thousand-deaths coward with oakleaf clusters. If I wanted to, I could always see disaster running with the river, dancing like a shadow, moving down the forest from tree to tree. And yet coming to grips with the problem may have been easier for me than for the others, since all of them lived in Alaska. Risk is everywhere, but it is in some places more than others, and this was the safest place I’d been all year. I live in New Jersey, where risks to life are statistically higher than they are along an Arctic river.

Fedeler pointed out that on the back of Alaska fishing licenses are drawings of a signal system for people in trouble who are fortunate enough to be seen by an airplane. I looked at my license. It showed a figure holding hands overhead like a referee indicating a touchdown. That meant, “Please pick me up.” A pair of chevrons, sketched on the ground, was a request for firearms and ammunition. An “I” indicated serious injury. An “F” called for food and water, and an “X” meant “Unable to proceed.”

“To get a plane to see you, a big smoky fire will help,” Fedeler said.

What had struck me most in the isolation of this wilderness was an abiding sense of paradox. In its raw, convincing emphasis on the irrelevance of the visitor, it was forcefully, importantly repellent. It was no less strongly attractive—with a beauty of nowhere else, composed in turning circles. If the wild land was indifferent, it gave a sense of difference. If at moments it was frightening, requiring an effort to put down the conflagrationary imagination, it also augmented the touch of life. This was not a dare with nature. This was nature.

The bottoms of the Kleppers were now trellised with tape. Pourchot was smoothing down a final end. Until recently, he had been an avocational parachutist, patterning the sky in star formation with others as he fell. He had fifty-one jumps, all of them in Colorado. But he had started waking up in the night with cold sweats, so—with two small sons now—he had sold his jumping gear. With the money, he bought a white-water kayak and climbing rope. “You’re kind of on your own, really. You run the risk,” he was saying. “I haven’t seen any bear incidents, for example. I’ve never had any bear problems. I’ve never carried a gun. Talk to ten people and you get ten different bear-approach theories. Some carry flares. Ed Bailey, in Fish and Wildlife, shoots pencil flares into the ground before approaching bears. They go away. Bear attacks generally occur in road-system areas anyway. Two, maybe four people die a year. Some years more than others. Rarely will a bear attack a person in a complete wilderness like this.”

Kauffmann said, “Give a grizzly half a chance and he’ll avoid you.”

Fedeler had picked cups of blueberries to mix into our breakfast pancakes. Finishing them, we prepared to go. The sun was coming through. The rain was gone. The morning grew bright and warm. Pourchot and I got into the canoe, which, for all its heavy load, felt light. Twenty minutes downriver, we had to stop for more repairs to the Kleppers, but afterward the patchwork held. With higher banks, longer pools, the river was running deeper. The sun began to blaze.

Rounding bends, we saw sculpins, a pair of great horned owls, mergansers, Taverner’s geese. We saw ravens and a gray jay. Coming down a long, deep, green pool, we looked toward the riffle at the lower end and saw an approaching grizzly. He was young, possibly four years old, and not much over four hundred pounds. He crossed the river. He studied the salmon in the riffle. He did not see, hear, or smell us. Our three boats were close together, and down the light current on the flat water we drifted toward the fishing bear.

He picked up a salmon, roughly ten pounds of fish, and, holding it with one paw, he began to whirl it around his head. Apparently, he was not hungry, and this was a form of play. He played sling-the-salmon. With his claws embedded near the tail, he whirled the salmon and then tossed it high, end over end. As it fell, he scooped it up and slung it around his head again, lariat salmon, and again he tossed it into the air. He caught it and heaved it high once more. The fish flopped to the ground. The bear turned away, bored. He began to move upstream by the edge of the river. Behind his big head his hump projected. His brown fur rippled like a field under wind. He kept coming. The breeze was behind him. He had not yet seen us. He was romping along at an easy walk. As he came closer to us, we drifted slowly toward him. The single Klepper, with John Kauffmann in it, moved up against a snagged stick and broke it off. The snap was light, but enough to stop the bear. Instantly, he was motionless and alert, remaining on his four feet and straining his eyes to see. We drifted on toward him. At last, we arrived in his focus. If we were looking at something we had rarely seen before, God help him so was he. If he was a tenth as awed as I was, he could not have moved a muscle, which he did, now, in a hurry that was not pronounced but nonetheless seemed inappropriate to his status in the situation. He crossed low ground and went up a bank toward a copse of willow. He stopped there and faced us again. Then, breaking stems to pieces, he went into the willows.

We drifted to the rip, and down it past the mutilated salmon. Then we came to another long flat surface, spraying up the light of the sun. My bandanna, around my head, was nearly dry. I took it off, and trailed it in the river.

Copyright © 1976, 1977 by John McPhee

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2012

    One of the best alaska books out!

    My favorite Alaska book. A must read for anybody going or interested in AK. Or people looking for a classic John McPhee read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2005

    Bought it again 20 years later

    I first read the book 20 years ago. Last year when my father-in-law took us on an Alaskan cruise, I bought the book again because I figured that I would be bored stiff on the cruise. Besides giving a history of Alaska, the thing about the book most notable is the depiction of the people that moved there from 'Anytown' USA. Very trippy.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted February 11, 2015

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