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By midmorning I am lost; or, rather, I have been lost for some time but only now realize it, as I begin to think about turning around and heading back. Moments earlier, I had been riding another wave of euphoria mixed deliciously with sweet calmness—I remember having the distinct thought, I could stay out here for a month—meaning, with nothing more than the little pack I had on my back, and my rifle and box of bullets, my knife and matches—meaning, when I had that thought, I could stay out here a month and really like it.
But now, beginning to tire, and wondering if Charlie is coming back, or already in camp—say, where is camp, anyway?—I realize I’m not just lost but confused, too. The mountains look different, the way they always do when you’re lost, and though I get lost several times each year, even in my own valley (lost in the sense of knowing at a watershed level where I am, but not a physical route home), this lostness, down in the willows and tundra beneath those big mountains sitting motionless on the skyline in the shape of sleeping animals, possesses a different quality to it, an intense confusion—not panic, just confusion—and I find myself looking around for the ancient caribou trap that Jimi had described, as if I’ve encountered some Bermuda Triangle tilt of landscape that conspires to move the mind to disequilibrium.
I know the drill. Stay calm. Establish the compass points, and a general direction toward the big river, which cannot be seen, cannot even be intimated, in so flat a floodplain, but which surely must lie somewhere out there, hidden within the willows.
I will not build a fire. I will not fire three shots.
Even in the intense beauty of this bright landscape—the incredible mosaic of the tundra in autumn—the old primitive feelings suffuse the blood: the discomfort of being lost, the first faint carbonation of panic.
“When we are lost we lose our peripheries,” writes the poet and novelist Jim Harrison. “Our thoughts zoom outward and infect the landscape. Years later you can revisit an area and find these thoughts still diseasing the same landscape. It requires a particular kind of behavior to heal the location.”
Infect the landscape: I’d have to agree. The quality of being lost is the quality of not fitting. Since it can sometimes take between a lifetime and ten lifetimes to negotiate a fit in any given landscape, how can we do anything but panic?
I think that one of the things we might love most about the Arctic is the fact that it might—barely, now—be one of the very few places that still lies beyond our reach, beyond our control.
A place where, if we were somehow to find ourselves upon it, as I am now, we would indeed promptly become lost, unfamiliar with boundaries.
To our great and good credit, we still recognize—instinctively—that such places paradoxically hold value to us, in that they are, sadly, among the last places that exist still separate from our needs and desires.
Who in this day and age would ever have imagined such a landscape—or a people—still existed, and in the United States, no less?
“Perhaps getting lost temporarily destroys the acquisitive sense,” writes Harrison. “We tend to look at earth as an elaborate system out of which we may draw useful information. We ‘profit’ from nature—that is the taught system.”
I don’t mind being lost. It’s the sweet time of year, and there’s nothing more delicious than ptarmigan and berries. Eventually I’d get found, or would find a way out myself.
But I’m chagrined that I might be messing up the schedules of the others, and so, with that carbonation still fizzling within me, I push on, circumnavigating one lake after another, as if following what seems like a thousand different dropped stitches, deadends to me, even as I’m aware that, according to the rest of the world, everything else is arranged perfectly, in its most precise and meaningful position. That I am extraneous here, not fitted.
I set my course toward where I think the river is, and strike for it. My progress continues to be thwarted, however, by the appearance, always, of more lakes, some small, others immense—and I have to zig and zag around them, always watching the sun and trying to count those zigs and zags, trying to balance them out, even while fearing that, like a poor knitter dropping stitches, I’m going in circles.
There’s a brief moment of humiliation when I have the feeling that someone’s far above me, high in the sky, looking down at my maddog wanderings, and laughing—but then it passes, and I feel calm again, wondrously clean.
Eventually, I find the river, feeling ridiculously awed by the beauty of it, and the expanse. In the gratitude of rediscovery, every bankside stone seems extraordinarily lucid and the sound of the shallow rapids melodic. I imagine this is a tiny taste of the charge that must have gone off in Lewis and Clark when they finally reached the Pacific, which they knew all along had to be out there. But there’s still one small problem, I don’t know whether to turn upstream or downstream.
Complicating things is the intestinal oxbow nature of the river; on one curve of a bow, I could go downstream and end up more northerly, or could go south by traveling upstream, only to round the severe bend and have it all unravel, and find myself traveling viceversa.
I stamp out my initials and the time—high noon—on the riverdamp mud at water’s edge, amidst fresh moose and grizzly tracks.
My logic, my intellect, my body, is telling me to travel downstream, and so, knowing how disoriented I am, and how frail and fickle the human body really is before the face of wild nature, I turn and travel upstream.
There are fresh bear tracks everywhere, including, at one creek crossing, prints indicating where a bear slipped and rolled down the hill—tracks so oozingfresh that it seems certain it was my own approach which startled the bear, and I find myself worrying that I’ve pissed it off now, and that it lies just ahead of me, waiting.
After about twenty minutes of shoreside bushwhacking, I find a stump that was cut long ago by an ax.
Ten minutes more, and I come to a large lake with two white swans resting upon it. A thread of campfireblue smoke rises from the trees.
I walk on into camp just as Charlie comes puttmotoring around the corner, the two of us arriving at the precise same place, at the precise same point in time, more smoothly than could ever have been planned or choreographed. We’ve already broken camp and have our gear ready and waiting down by the river. Jimi and Allen ask if I saw anything.
“No,” I tell them, “just some tracks.”
Rick Bass is the author of eighteen books including The Ninemile Wolves, The Hermit’s Story, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, Winter: Notes from Montana, and The Book of Yaak. He is also the editor of an anthology, The Roadless Yaak Valley, one of the wildest and most biologically diverse landscapes in the northern Rockies.
Excerpted from Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-’in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by Rick Bass, published by Sierra Club Books and distributed by The University of California Press. © 2004 by Rick Bass.