I wake in my van in the loamy shaded forest of the west side of Washington’s Olympic peninsula and flick my campstove aflame to heat water for instant coffee. The dogs wriggle awake under the heavy blankets and turn, in a moment, from sweet sleeping hot water bottles to zesty, firey chihuahuas, ready to fight anything, even a bear. I open the side doors of the van and the dogs tumble out and circle the other vehicles parked in the clearing, barking. Barking comes from inside the vehicles, their side doors open and more dogs emerge, mostly small dogs, and now there’s a pack of dogs swirling in the forest in the dappled morning light, making more noise than anyone is really ready for.
I’m at a land party on a friend’s land, with a bunch of other queers and their dogs, many of them related to Quito, because queer culture is your dog having more blood family than you do. We all stayed up late last night playing The Village around the fire. Most everyone died. The werewolf won. It was a great game. Now I’m folding away my camp chairs, brushing my teeth, peeing on a fern, packing up. This evening I fly out of Seattle to Fairbanks, Alaska.
The three hour drive to Port Townsend passes easily along the shining water, huge conifers throwing bands of shade over the road. I listen to the same Meatloaf song six times in a row, make phone calls and masturbate to pass the time. In Port Townsend it’s hot and I turn the roof fan on high for the dogs and throw my laundry into a washer at the laundromat. I run into Lee at the laundromat, who I know from Tucson, but who also lives out here. Lee is doing laundry and their huge pitbull is chilling in their truck.
“I’d let my dog out,” says Lee, “but my dog is a bully.”
“It’s alright,” I say. “Mine are too.”
It’s a small world, everywhere I go I see people I know or people who know people I know. The older I get the more common this becomes. It feels good. It makes the world seem contained, less random and chaotic. If we’re all trapped on the titanic and the titanic is sinking at least we’re trapped here together, you know?
At the coop I buy the last few things I need for my Alaska trip- protein powder, bulk granola. I get some gf muffins for the flight, the carrot raison ones made from flax that I used to find in the dumpster all the time in my twenties, the ones that molded so easily. I gather my clothes from the dryer and we head to the ferry terminal, to wait in line. I need to get to Whidbey island, where Heather lives. Heather is an incredibly kind woman who has been watching my dogs and van this summer when I’m hiking. Heather has a big house on a lake and it’s basically summercamp for the dogs. My hiking this summer is only possible because of Heather. Thank you Heather!!
The only issue today is that the Port Townsend ferry, on Sunday, is completely booked except for 10% of each boat which is set aside for standby vehicles. I don’t have a reservation- the ferry, on weekends, books way in advance- so I just have to park my van in the long line of cars and hope there’s space for me on one of the boats. My flight out of Seattle isn’t until 9:30 tonight, but once I’m on Whidbey Island I still have to drive to Heather’s, take another ferry, and then take a 1.5 hour shuttle to Sea Tac, and those run on a limited schedule. It’s 2 p.m. now, with boats every 45 minutes.
I pack for Alaska while I wait, sweating in the hot van unless I’m directly under the roof fan, where the dogs are sprawled out. I’m packing for a hike in the Brooks range, a route I made that goes from the Haul Road to the Nunamiut Inupiat village of Anaktuvuk Pass. The route is part of the larger Brooks Range traverse that I made and attempted last year, but ultimately only finished part of due to the weather that made the river crossings extra dangerous. I didn’t really “make” the route, though, and as I pack I think of how easy it is, as a white person, to claim ownership of something like a route. “I’m hiking a route that my friend made. I’m making my own route.” The thing is, though, that indigenous ppl have lived in North America for thousands of years, and indigenous ppl in that time figured out all the best ways to travel overland here- which mountain passes were easiest to cross, which valleys had the least impenetrable brush, where the reliable water sources were. Indigenous ppl have always lived in every single part of North America, and they have always intimately known all the contours of this land. White settlers came in their wagons and on foot, and it was the indigenous ppl who told them which ways to take, how to get around the mountains, where to water their horses. White ppl walked ancient indigenous routes and claimed them for themselves, named them after generals sent to slaughter indigenous ppl and, later, after racist conservationists. White ppl put their white names over mountains, rivers, valleys. They drove indigenous ppl off their lands and then changed the narrative entirely, made it as though indigenous ppl had never even been there. They claimed to have “discovered” things. They created the concept of “pure” wilderness, where there were no people at all, not even indigenous ppl. Wilderness without humans, though, is not a real thing. Humans have been in wilderness for the entirety of human history. Wilderness without humans is a fantasy, a place for colonizers to play make believe.
Hiking routes in the Arctic are not shared publicly. There are no trails or roads in the Brooks Range, save for the Haul road that bisects the range en route to the Arctic Ocean. If you want to travel in the Arctic, you have to hobble a route together yourself. Which means you have to find someone who either lives there or who has hiked there extensively, and you likely have to call them on the literal telephone and ask them questions while staring at your map, squinting at topo lines until your eyes water. This requires building relationships with individuals and communities, as opposed to googling things (no shade on googling things! I love googling things). The knowledge of which passes to cross in the high jumble of (unnamed by white ppl) mountain peaks between the Haul Road and Anaktuvuk is knowledge that is held by the Nunamiut Inupiat people who live there. The people I called for route advice were all white people, but their knowledge of mountain passes in the Brooks Range did not belong to them, just like it does not, now, belong to me. All of us are drawing on a well of knowledge held by the Nunamiut Inupiat, and in other parts of the Brooks Range by the Gwich’in, Koyukon, Kuuvan KaNianiq and other peoples. I may have “made” my route in a sense, but actually I did not make it. I selected my valleys and passes from an assortment of valleys and passes that have been good walking for the Nunamiut Inupiat for thousands of years. I am just a guest, a colonizer, fumbling around.
If you’re looking for general advice on how to hike in the Brooks Range, what you’ll find is mostly this: stay close to the continental divide, where the rivers are being born, and are therefore small and often crossable on foot. If you go too far from the continental divide, you’ll need a packraft. North of treeline is best. Pick a pass that you think goes and then ask someone who’s hiked there if it actually does. Stay out of the trees and brush, because they are tangled and difficult and also increase your chances of surprising a grizzly. Stay above huge expanses of flat land, because these often harbor swampy tussocks and ice cold marsh that never drain due to the permafrost. If you cannot stay above the bog, walk on the gravel beds of the river itself. If the river has no gravel beds… you’re going to suffer. You’re going to slog through deep spongebog until your feet go numb from cold and your ankles swell from being rolled on the tussocks. This intensely squishy ground, IMO, is the hardest part of walking in the Brooks Range. Otherwise it’s actually really really nice. And when you find that high bluff of crispy, well drained tundra that can actually support your weight and are able to simply walk, with the magical wild enchanted mountains all around you- euphoria!
I’m the second to last vehicle allowed on the 4:30 ferry, the last possible ferry I can take and still make my connections on time. Whew! I make minute adjustments to my gear as we rumble over the water, the distant mountains low and draped in fog.
A winding road on Whidbey island takes me to Heather’s, and once parked Quito lets out a scream- it’s his happiness scream, the one he saves for people he’s bonded to. Quito is very aloof at first, very “stranger danger”. When he bonds to you, though- which usually happens if you are responsible for his meals and also cuddle him at night- he bonds to you extremely. And every time he sees you, from then on until the end of both of your lives, he will SCREAM- as though the love he has for you cannot be expressed in any way but this most primal of ways, as though the feels are too big for his smol heart and it pains him, and they must be released. It makes people feel good when he screams for them, and that makes me happy. Heather has become their grandmother of sorts, and she deserves his screams. Kinnikinnick is also excited- she races back and forth in the sun on the lawn and then runs inside and settles on their other dog, Coco’s, dog bed. Kinnikinnick shows her love by stealing things from other dogs.
I make it to seatac with two hours to spare before my flight. I’m meeting Callie and Nova here, two other rad outdoors queers I mostly know from the internet. Callie is a long distance hiker, and Nova is a mountaineer. I’d been looking for rad queer folks to come on this hike and they had agreed at the last minute, bought plane tickets, and now we’re here- in the Alaska lounge of the airport. I’ve never been in the Alaska lounge, or any other airport lounge- Nova has access because she flies so much for her work in the tech industry, and she’s allowed to bring us into the lounge as her disheveled peasant guests. The main part of the airport is crowded and noisy, full of jostling humans and marked up bottles of water and snacks, but inside the Alaska lounge it’s quiet and still. Modern furniture is arranged cozily along the huge windows that face the tarmac, and there’s a glass sculpture that is also a small waterfall. The other occupants look up from their phones and stare at us curiously as we enter. We’re all wearing faded hiking clothes and carrying rumpled packs stuffed with gear. There’s a long counter with hot soup, coffee and tea, cookies, veggie sticks, cheese cubes and a pancake machine, and a bar with drinks at the end of the room. Everything is free. We load small plates with snacks and Nova orders two glasses of champagne.
“Don’t judge me,” she says, as she drinks one flute quickly and starts in on the other.
Nova is really cool. She’s summited Tahoma (Mt Rainier) and Wy’east (Mt Hood) multiple times each, via almost every possible route. She and Callie go ice climbing on glaciers in Iceland. Nova is starting a new job as the VP of a tech company in a week, and so while I’d originally planned to bring seven days of food on this 70 mile hike, in case it was swampy, boggy, tussocky 1mph tundra the whole way, we’ve now committed to finishing in 5.5 days, so that Nova can get back for work. I feel pretty good about this- the days are still long (I wonder, aloud, if there’s any night yet in the Arctic, this first week of August- we will discover, once there, that there is not) and we can hike late into the evenings if we need to. I wonder to myself, as I eat chicken tortilla soup in the Alaska lounge, if Nova will be bored- struggle bussing through tussocks, while a real challenge unto itself, is not as thrilling and glamorous as mountain climbing. Callie, I’m guessing, will do great- Callie finished the Oregon Desert Trail this spring, which I have heard is majestic but somewhat hard to love. Callie had a great time on the ODT, which means that they probably have a high tolerance for the unsexy, pedestrian grinding that makes up so many routes.
The route we’re doing is in Gates of the Arctic, which is the most accessible part of the Brooks range. It’s accessible because that’s where the haul road/Dalton highway (known colloquially as “the road”) bisects the northern part of the state en route to the oil drilling on the Arctic ocean. The haul road is the only road around, and it crosses the Brooks range only briefly. If you want to go anywhere else in the Brooks range, you have to take a small, expensive plane. There are a few indigenous villages in the Brooks range, and you can fly into one of these villages on their daily flights or charter your own, even more expensive plane to somewhere else. Our route starts on the haul road and heads west to the Nunamiut Inupiat village of Anaktuvuk. Our plan is to rent a car in Fairbanks, drive six hours north on the haul road to Coldfoot, a small settlement with a restaurant, gas station and ranger station, leave the car in Coldfoot, get a ride an hour further north to our starting point off the road, hike west to Anaktuvuk and then fly back to Coldfoot and the car.
On my flight I select the movie 127 Hours, but have to stop it at the part where a boulder falls on his arm and he’s trapped in the canyon. I switch to something animated. I can’t watch that shit right now. In Fairbanks I split from Nova and Callie, who are headed to their hotel room, and take a lyft to my friends Allison and AK’s house. The driver is a military dude, which makes me wary at first, but then he tells me that he recently stopped drinking and started driving for lyft so he would have a way to hang out with people at night, and my heart breaks a little. I let myself into Allison’s house and climb into bed at 2 a.m., so happy to finally get to go to sleep.
In the morning Nova and Callie scoop me in the rental car and we do a whirlwind of chores- REI for ursacks and bearspray, Fred Meyer for our bars and chips, Carls jr for burgers and diet coke. By the time we’re headed north on the gravelly and potholed haul road, the clouds low and the boreal forest stretching on forever in all directions, I am buzzing with caffeine and excitement. We make good time, stopping once so Nova can take a picture of the sign at the arctic circle, speeding over the potholes maybe a little faster than we should (it’s a rental car!) and we reach Coldfoot in time for the dinner buffet; meatloaf, roasted zucchini, broccolini and a berry cobbler. I have eaten here before and I will never get over how good the food is, in this farthest north truckstop in the world. At the ranger station we fill out a detailed form with our entire itinerary; every pass, every river drainage we plan to walk. I show the ranger the track on my phone.
“That’s a good route,” she says, and I feel proud.
We pitch our tents for the night in a slight drizzle; in the morning a woman who works at the truckstop will drive us an hour north to our starting point for $150. It’s a lot of money but we can’t afford to spend an entire day trying to hitch on the quiet gravel highway; we’re on a tight schedule. And it’ll be nice, anyway, to just have a ride.
I wake too early, my sleeping bag wet from condensation and my tent wet from the rain. I heat water for instant coffee and we head back to the restaurant, with it irresistible breakfast buffet. The sky clears on our ride north, our driver offers to stop at every pullout so we can look for wildlife.
“Nah,” we say. “We just want to get there.”
It’s 10:30 when we leave the highway, push through some alders and cross the swollen Dietrich river, which will likely be our sketchiest crossing. It’s not bad at all with the three of us, which bodes well for the rest of the route.
It is, however, very cold, and I stomp my feet in the peat on the other side, willing the blood to return. There are mountains in front of us, now, and we hike straight up the steep slope, huffing and puffing in the low blueberries and using alders for handholds until we reach the top, a gentle green ridge. We sit and eat snacks, looking down at the highway, the pipeline that runs alongside it and the mountains to the east, rising up towards the sky. I’m here, in the Brooks range, and I feel elated. Remote, magical, enchanted place. Full of mysteries and wonder.
We traverse springy, soggy tundra down the other side of the mountain to a a creek, and we walk the creek to a river, which has good gravel for walking. We follow the river uphill until it grows tiny again near its headwaters, crossing it many times. So it goes. This is how you travel in the Brooks. Our feet, I know, will be wet until we get on that plane in Anaktuvuk.
We’ll cross the continental divide, which makes up the spine of the Brooks range, a number of times on this route, but all our crossings will be mellow. We reach our first crossing in the late afternoon, a quiet pass with a small, still lake, and decide to camp. I gather water and pitch my shelter, and Callie and Nova spread their things to cowboy camp. There hasn’t been a single mosquito so far, and there likely won’t be many. August is the end of the mosquito season, or so I have been told. The warmth of the bright evening light fights with the chill of the wind and three caribou appear and pick their way past us, around the lake.
Callie and Nova go for a long walk and when they return they tell me that they’ve decided to break up, and that in the morning Nova will walk back the way we came, to the road.
“I’m too stressed about my job starting soon,” says Nova. “I can’t be in my head this much right now. I can fly from Coldfoot back to Fairbanks, and leave the car for you two.”
“The breakup is chill,” says Callie. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
“Do you still want to do this hike?” I ask, worried.
“Oh yeah,” says Callie. “This is exactly where I want to be right now.”
I wake throughout the night and always the world is cast in the same, grey light, never any darkness. At 6 a.m. I sit up, chilly from the condensation that’s gathered on my bag. Nova sets out for her return journey and Callie and I walk the other direction, headed west. It’s cool, and I’m wearing all my layers. Just beyond the lake a trickle springs from the ground, headed downhill. It’s the fetus of a river, a small stream that will grow in volume until it becomes formidable, until we have to pay attention to which side of the river we’ll ultimately need to be on so we don’t get stuck on the wrong side when it’s too large to cross. It’s so neat to follow a river from it’s headwaters down, or vise versa. I will never tire of it. And here, on the continental divide, beginnings are everywhere. This is the mother of rivers.
The creek rocks are good walking, or else the spongy banks. We’re making good time. The sun crests the ridge and I’m warm now, taking off my layers. I add shot bloks to the instant coffee in my system until I’m once again shaking with caffeine. Why do I do this? My feet ache from the cold river crossings, and I breathe through the pain. At a bend in the river are a few dozen strange mounds of rocks, as tall as us. This creates a maze of deep pools and we pick our way from rock pile to rock pile, arctic terns wheeling overhead. Then the river rocks are gone and we’re forced into tussocks- type three tussocks, the kind that suck your foot in with each step and also try to roll your ankle. We wrench our way through the tussocks to a bit of crispy lichen, firm enough to hold our weight. We take a break, and I eat wavy lays while Callie smokes weed. We see a cabin on our base maps on the next pass, which means that a cabin existed there… in 1973. Whether or not the cabin is still there is anyone’s guess. We become obsessed with this cabin, imagining what kind of shape it might be in and what it might look like.
We follow another river to its headwaters and reach a huge open area between mountains. This valley is almost entirely marsh. We don’t realize this until we’re mired in it, standing in deep water and looking around us, water as far as we can see. We wrench our feet from the water and sink again, laughing, our toes turning to ice. We struggle to a slope of talus and work our way across the lichen spotted rocks. I see what looks like a cairn. I kick it over, and then feel terrible. Was that actually a cairn? If so, how old was it? These passes are ancient caribou migration routes, and the Nunamiut Inupiat have been hunting caribou here for thousands of years. Was that cairn theirs? Who am I, to project my white colonizer idea of wilderness onto these lands, to which I have no ancestral connection and whose flora, fauna, seasons and moods I do not know.
The shack is a burnt out husk next to a large, still, perfect lake. The door of the shack is gone, as is the windowglass. The inside is smeared with ash and littered with sunbeams from the loose boards of the walls. A sleeping bag in a stuff sac hangs from the ceiling. To protect it from the mice, probably. Several caribou sheds have been thrown onto the tin roof.
We search the shore of the lake until we find a spot out of the wind, in the lee of a hill. We pitch our shelters in the soft peat and I marvel at the way my tent stakes sink into the earth, the complexity of this plant and lichen community that we call tundra. Miniature pink flowers, lobes of pale green lichen, feathery moss. Everything knitted together in a living, springy mat that exists sometimes underwater and sometimes in full sun, moving easily between states of being as the earth heaves, floods, freezes and thaws.
The bright evening sun turns my tent into a greenhouse and I take off my clothes and lay on my sleeping pad, letting the warmth sink into my bones. Callie gets a text from Muffy for me on their inreach- Muffy got off the PCT because she was feeling sick; turns out her iron levels are super low and she’d become very, very anemic. So anemic that she’s now barely able to function. She’ll need iron transfusions, iron supplements, lots of rest. She’s not quite sure how she got this sick, and it’s going to be awhile before she feels better. I wish I could be with her, that I could walk her dog for her and cook her meals. Take her to doctor’s appointments. I feel impossibly far away. I feel frustrated. There’s nothing I can do right now, I tell myself. I’m here. That’s ok. I close my eyes and eventually the fog of my worries dissipates, no match for all this peaceful, open space.
Rain comes in the night. I wake in an indeterminate hour and rearrange my things for the inevitable drip drops that wick through the more worn spots in the cuben fiber and then sleep again, to the nice white noise. At 6 a.m. I have my hot instant coffee and then pack up under a sky that’s overcast, but dry. We’re walking up another river today, taking our layers off and on as the sun plays games with the clouds.
Late morning is the one high pass of this hike, a smooth steep slope of scree so deep and soft I sink into it like snow. Near the top of the ridge I can see the tracks of caribou, and grizzly bears- Callie says they climb up to peaks to hunt.
I’m listening to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The creek tumbles down the drainage on sharp black rocks and I cross the icy water again and again. James Baldwin, or rather the main character of the novel, is at a gay bar in Paris. There’s a wealthy older man who pays for his drinks but he’s in love with the strapping new bartender. They share a coca cola. He’s rude to a trans woman and she tells him that he’ll always be miserable, that he’ll never find love. The tumbling creek disappears underground. I can see Callie, sitting on the pass smoking a cigarette.
My feet sink into the scree. I reach the top and the next kingdom we’ll traverse unfolds before us on the other side. This magical unfolding is something else I’ll never get tired of.
We go plunging down the other side, running and sinking again into the scree.
When the scree turns to rocks we pick our way around a small pouroff. We contour on moss. I’m rushing, rushing but my legs have been emptied by the climb. We stop for lunch but it’s too cold. We see our river valley down below and choose to stay high, on a bluff that’s drier, the swamp in clear patches that are easier to avoid. This is ideal- this high, drier bluff above the swampy river valley. It doesn’t always exist, though. Sometimes if you try to follow a high slope you’ll find it to be cut with huge drainages, and you have climb in and out of these drainages, which are sometimes cliffs.
There are so many caribou sheds up on this bluff, in various stages of being consumed by the moss. I think if I laid down and didn’t move for long enough I would be consumed by the moss, too. A cold drizzle comes and goes and the high peaks all around us look like melting icecream, on account of all the scree. We side hill and swim our way through blueberry bushes, wrench through tussocks and camp on a bench of land overlooking the valley, as sheltered from the wind as we can find. In my tent I boil water in my vestibule and eat hot dinner and I am finally, finally warm. We’re making great time. At this rate, we’ll finish this route in four and half days. I look through my food bag and realize I fully brought seven days of food, which makes me laugh. How many times have I needed to pack seven days of food, and totally failed. And this time I’d meant to bring five and a half. I laugh again, and eat more of the chocolate truffles I found at the Fred Meyer in fairbanks. No need to ration. I can eat whatever I want.
“Callie,” I shout through the rain. “Do you want my bag of Juanitas?”
“Hell yeah,” says Callie.
I fall asleep at 7, and wake throughout the night to the rain alternating with the wind. I imagine my shelter blowing off the cliff and sailing over the river valley but no, it’s not really that bad. At 5:30 I can’t doze any longer and I make my hot coffee, the one bright spot in the cold grey of the morning. We set out in the cold drizzle, morale low. That’s just what this kind of weather does. The bluffs end, depositing us in the river, which has no good gravel beds, so we struggle through a huge field of tussocks on the other side to the slopes of the mountain, hoping to contour. But alas, the drainages that cut the slopes are too steep, and after climbing in and out of a few of these we return to the river and pick our way through the low-monched willows that line the bank. The river bank turns into a lumpy, frost-heaved mess so we walk the granite rocks of the river until my feet turn to ice blocks and I’m crying a little from the pain. I get a sharp pain in my hip, at the top of my hamstring, and I stop to stretch. Then more working our way from gravel island to gravel island, crossing the channels in the huge river floodplain. We’ll hop gravel islands all the way to Anaktuvuk, I guess. We have lunch in our tents and the sun comes out, drying us and them. After lunch we see tents in the distance, way off in the north, across a broad valley at the base of the mountains. We stare at them, curious. We can’t go over there. Can we? What if it’s tussocks all the way? Only one way to find out!
It is not tussocks. The valley is, somehow, completely dry, crispy tundra that fully supports our weight- some of the easiest walking we’ve had so far. We open our strides, stoked, and before we know it we’ve reached the tents. They’re sturdy, four season tents, staked into the tundra with massive stakes. Inside are heavy sleeping pads, the kind I’d never want to carry on my back, and huge, fluffy sleeping bags. Everything looks brand new. There’s a kitchen tent with chairs, a table, several stoves, and eight bear cans full of food. We poke around and then leave, feeling like creeps.
We follow the easy walking tundra along the river, feeling stoked that the swamp has not, for some reason, returned. The tundra is so easy it’s almost roadlike, and we zone out and just walk.
“We should’ve made hot chocolate at that camp,” I say to Callie.
“We should’ve pranked em!” Says Callie. “Put their stuff in different tents! Hid their shoes!”
“Oh my god you’re right,” I say. “A missed opportunity!”
The rain has stopped and the sun is out, bathing everything in the purest yellow light. A perfect arctic august afternoon. At an overlook that is useful, I imagine, for hunting caribou, I find a pack of marbloros and a lighter. The cigarettes are soaked but otherwise intact. Did someone stop here to smoke a cigarette, and then just disappear? I don’t understand.
The mountains around us are growing taller, steeper, more folded in on themselves. I feel sad that this trip is ending tomorrow. I feel like I could spend a lifetime out here, and I still wouldn’t learn half the secrets these mountains hold, wouldn’t witness a fraction of their magic. I wonder how long I can come back, and for how long I can stay. For the hundredth time I find myself wishing that I was more than one person, that I could exist in more than one place. Live more that one life. I guess I can. Just not all at once.
We camp next to the river, on a flat piece of land that’s been torn up by bears digging for roots, grubs, whatever it is they dig for. I position my neo air just so among the lumps. I am warm and cozy and dry, and three fat mosquitoes bump against the mesh of my shelter, keeping me company as I drift off.
The rain and I fall in and out of sleep all night, and by seven a.m. I am shitting in the peat bog, and then I am ready to go. Fog roils around the peaks, fighting with the sunlight. The river we’ve been following downhill is huge now in its massive flood plain and we have to cross it- which consists of wading through many, many ankle to knee deep channels which are very, very cold, until I am once again gasping in pain. The mountains grow more epic as we edge towards Anaktuvuk, and the fog burns away, leaving us draped in long arctic light.
We plunge into swamp and despair, climb out onto good solid ground again, plunge back into swamp, and repeat. By noon I can see Anaktuvuk in the distance, a scattering of white boxes across the plain, and I have a shred of AT&T reception, miraculously.
I call Muffy, so happy to hear her voice. She tells me about her iron infusions, her fatigue. I want to go to Portland and be with her. I want to stay here in the Brooks Range forever. What even is a life. There are caribou sheds everywhere, and here and there a pelt, discarded on the ground.
The Nunamiut Inupiat, before colonization, were a nomadic people who subsisted entirely off of caribou. Other indigenous folks in Alaska have always harvested salmon and/or sea mammals, in addition to caribou, but the Nunamiut Inupiat, before colonization, lived just off of caribou. Caribou are much leaner than salmon or sea mammals, so living off them entirely is really fucking hardcore. That makes the Nunamiut Inupiat really fucking hardcore. The caribou herds weren’t doing so great in the middle of the 20th century, and the Nunamiut Inupiat left the area, joining other tribes in other parts of Alaska. The caribou herds recovered eventually and the Nunamiut Inupiat returned and built the village of Anaktuvuk pass, their first and only permanent settlement. The pass is part of an ancient caribou migration route, and they still hunt, and subsist off of, the caribou here.
The mountain dumps us into a gravel pit on the edge of town and then we’re walking a gravel road that is surprisingly solid underneath our feet. The houses of Anaktuvuk are small, square, neat, some of them brightly colored. The yards are cluttered with snow machines, pickup trucks, dogs howling on chains. It’s early afternoon and quiet, hardly anyone around. We find the store and I buy a can of chicken rice soup and three small bags of cheetos. We sit on the dirt yard in front of the ranger station and eat our treasures, watching families rip by on fourwheelers, their groceries in boxes strapped to the front.
I want to go to the museum, but it’s closed today. We learn the last flight to coldfoot is in an hour, and there won’t be another for two days. We can buy tickets and get on if there’s room.
There is room. Our pilot is a woman, and she points to the rivers as we tool over the high passes, saying
“Was this your route? Was this your route?” I press my face to the glass, trying to drink in everything I see. High valleys, waterfalls, slopes of impossible green, the shimmer of bogwater.
At the restaurant in Coldfoot I find Franny, my friend from the PCT in 2013 who works as the camp manager here. She’s been here for seven years but she’s leaving in a few weeks, she says. She and her partner are moving to Michigan. Last time I was here I got to hang out with her too. I love that I can come to this remote place, and see someone that I know. To paraphrase a meme I saw recently, we all just up in this bitch being born, making connections, and dying.
Callie and I order huge plates of food- salad, tater tots, chicken strips, french fries.
We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, six hours of potholes and gravel back to Fairbanks. I don’t mind, though. We’ll have the car heater and bluetooth, and I left sandals and snacks in the trunk. I can listen to Giovanni’s room and we’ll likely see a moose. I feel strong from this trip and also sore, as though I’ve been doing crossfit, on account of all that wrenching in the bog. I’m already thinking of next summer, of in what lifetime I might be able to come back. But first there are matters of the heart, of the human world.