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Caribou Rising

Rick Bass

Photograph: Howie Garber

(page 1 of 2)

In Caribou Rising, hunter, environmentalist and writer Rick Bass journeys from his beloved Yaak Valley in Montana to Alaska, into one of the sole remaining landscapes on Earth where wilderness is entirely untrammeled—America’s Serengeti, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is a place where great caribou herds gather, calve, and migrate as they did in the Pleistocene, and where the ancient bond between animals and human hunters still informs daily life. Rather than fighting in the abstract, Bass argues with passion and logic for the preservation of the besieged caribou land of the Gwich-‘in, putting forth the simple question: Which is worth more to humankind, an insignificant amount of oil (more could be conserved with improved fuel economy standards) or an ancient culture and a glorious ecosystem? Bass’s Arctic sojourn brings surprises and unexpected rewards, not the least of which are the lessons learned when this vastly experienced backcountry traveler gets lost deep in the very wilderness he fights to protect.

When you enter a stretch of woods like this one, you are not manipulated by anyone or anything, nothing is being misrepresented or withheld, you are not being lobbied,
no affection (or resentment) is being dispensed or withdrawn based on what you do or don’t do; there are no demons or past history in nature’s relationship to com­plicate yours, and, perhaps most reassuring of all, nature is largely democratic—if not quite blind to the color of your skin, or any other physical characteristics, then at least nonjudgmental, impartial. The latter quality, in my opinion, is increasingly rare.

Time falls away like an old snakeskin shed, like useless anger released and then blown away by the wind. Time is not even so much scrubbed clean and bare, out on this landscape, as it just vanishes—as if it never existed. As if here, it never even developed in the first place.

Following old moose trails through the willows, trying to work around the big lake from the west, and trying to stay dry—avoiding the buggy patches and puddles—I soon encounter another, smaller lake, and, circumnavigating it in an effort to remain dry, another, and then another. And though I do not yet know it, I am lost, in a specific sense, though not in the general, for I know that I am still in Alaska, still somewhere above the Arctic Circle, and still some­where on the east side of the North Fork of the Chandalar River.

But in the moment, I’m not even yet aware of the specific loss of direction and location. Instead, I’m merely pushing on, being drawn deeper into the sparkling, glinting lakeland, each new pond or lake more brilliantly blue than the last, its reedy shores more vibrant green, and with more and more waterfowl resting on its waters, beginning to congregate in flocks and rafts for the annual trip, so many thousands of miles south, and then so many thousands of miles back. A thing like bliss, like euphoria, begins to fill me—I can feel it rising within me—and then it does fill me, and I keep walk­ing, wandering toward the mountains, which are closer now, and sometimes I navigate around the eastern shore of a sparkling lake, and other times, around the western shore: and the lakes and ponds are unending, are all connected, I see—I’m leaping the little channels and creeks that conjoin them—and soon my clothes are stained pur­ple from passing through so many blueberries, and though I’m not seeing any caribou, it feels good to be hunting them, to be walking and looking for them.

And there are times when, in my pleasure and in the intensity of watching for them, and believing that they might be there, it seems that for half­-an-­instant I catch the shuttered glimpse of their movement, passing between trees, or slipping farther into the forest, just at the edge of my vision. I have never had such a thing happen to me, as a hunter, before—either the animals are there or they aren’t—but it happens several times on this walk, glimpses moving through the brush like the ghosts of caribou: and while those images might well have been generated exclusively from my own mind, I am not at all certain that is the case; I would not be surprised if land­scape and even time had something to do with it as well, so that perhaps a hundred years ago, or two hundred, or longer, a caribou had passed through, between those two trees where, for just the blink of an eye, I thought I saw the flash of an antler, or the glint of a hoof or an eye; or that perhaps in a few years hence—ten, fifty, a hundred—one might yet pass through that one point in space, and with me trailing it, somehow, only a hundred years or so behind. >>>

 

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