Text and Images by Tama Baldwin
We flew low all the way back to Kotzebue. Dodging the clouds, our pilot said. We were flying under the weather this day, at an altitude where the material world was still visible--for the most part. More or less. Somewhere around 1,500 feet. Rain sheeted the windscreen, the wings, the window next to my head where I sat, my hand on the plastic handle I was to never let go of were we to land upside down and underwater (one hand is your anchor while the other liberates you from the tangle of belts and latches and handles and headset cords and knobs until somehow against the pressure of all that black water pressing in on your crippled plane you manage to open the door.) I kept rehearsing the lesson in my mind--choose one hand for a hand-hold and do not let go until you have a way out of the plane, until you know which way is up, until you know where the surface is and how you are going to get there. This quick lesson in underwater egress was based in someone else's very real misfortune--a frightening tale we were told in detail and which we very much took to heart. I appreciated the care with which our pilot instructed us in this matter every single time we boarded his float plane. I accepted it--I welcomed it as part of the risk I knew you have to take when you are going where there are no roads, where there are no easy ways in, no easy way out, where your pilot lands and takes off only on water or tundra or gravel bars. These are the kinds of places I absolutely adore for the way in which they remind me of what it really means to have a body that inhabits this world. The kind of places where you have to suffer a little for your travel and where the reward of rest and a cup of tea at the end of a long day are all the more sweet. Where you have to plan long and hard as you calculate about how you going to get where you are going, who you are going to trust to take the journey with you, the kinds of places where you have to be your best self, as strong as you can be and evermore smart.
When the rain eased we could see more of the Noatak National Preserve unfurling beneath the plane, the drenched tundra still holding on to the last little bit of its summery yellow green. As one of four parks in the 11 million acres of wilderness that make up the Western Arctic Parklands, the Noatak lies in its entirety above the Arctic Circle and is still considered to be so pristine it has been included in the International Biosphere Reserve--which is to say it constitutes one of our planets' most precious and rapidly diminishing resources: a true wilderness and by wilderness in this case I mean only a place that occasionally rewards the prepared and punishes fools who sadly can sometimes in blink of an eye become one and the same. Its namesake river crosses over from the Gates of the Arctic in the east and empties hundreds of miles to the west through Kotzebue Sound and on into the Chukchi Sea. It is roadless and utterly undomesticated in our current sense of that word even though we were all amazed by the significant evidence of the long history of human habitation we had just born witness to in our second archeological survey. Those ruins evoked a lost era when the wall between human beings and nature did not really exist, a wall we now call civilization. Etymologically "wilderness" means nothing more than "a place where the deer are." I would imagine that if you were to live in a skin tent, if you were to move with the seasons--following fish and game as they follow their own ancient migrations--you might know the word wilderness in its older merely descriptive sense, a word that means little more than the world beyond the walls of whatever shelter it is you have built around yourself--the place where the deer--or the caribou--or the bears--or the wolves--or the muskoxen--are not. Maybe we should measure the purity of a wilderness by this idea of the distance between your body and its vulnerability to that part of the world that has nothing to do with being human. Maybe we should rank our National Parks in order of importance starting with the least visited and ending with the most paved. I say this because once again I was allowed such a privilege, the privilege of feeling that old vulnerability--a good vulnerability I might add, the kind of awareness of my smallness which is merely a matter of being reminded once again of the fundamental interdependency of all things.
Much of the time I was on the ground out in the Noatak I revisited the idea that time is not as linear as we have been given to believe--that it is in fact a mosaic in which these convenient categories like "prehistoric" and "modernity" utterly overlap. There was, for example, the miracle of flight and the technological precision of the pilot who ushered me into that wild place navigating with an iPad strapped to his thigh coexisting with the fabulous technology of the past--the stone blade of the atlatl that Hannah found in the pit next to mine--the tip of what proved to be a nearly perfect artifact jutting from the wall she had carefully carved with her trowel. If any of us had had any sense of how to use it we could have for it was as strong today as it was the day it was made 6,000 years ago. I will never for as long as I live forget the silken lightness of aeolian loess as I helped sift a screen for what the park service archeologist Mike Holt referred to as "datable material." We had found so many stone tools beyond Hannah's blade that we set ourselves to sifting for evidence of a hearth--a fleck of charcoal from a campfire that kept someone warm and drove away mosquitoes from that very spot five or six or seven or eight or ten or twelve or fourteen thousand years ago. The soil in my hands had been made by the wind working the earth for hundreds of thousands of years Mike said. That earth might well have been made of feathers for all I knew--it was so light it was like a dream of soil, it was earth as it is weightless in the expanse of the universe. Somewhere in the clouds above us I heard the sound of an engine--a plane making its way through the nearby pass somewhere very close to our work site and out over the North Slope--and in that sound my dream of what the wilderness had been to the person who had made and used that blade was zipped up tight and I was back in my time again, this time of digitized being. Before departing for the Noatak we had been asked to tweet from the field--a request we all had a good laugh about for the tweeting would have required we charge the satellite phone with a solar charger in order to make the extra call itself to some willing soul on the grid probably back down in the lower 48 who would make the tweet for us by which point the essence of our isolation--the force of the distance we had traveled to get away from the tweeting world and all it signifies--would have been utterly lost. We joked fake tweets to one another over our cups of tea and felt much the closer for our shared refusal. We were beyond the twitersphere for those few blessed days of our life, and I know that I for one am much the richer for that brief separation from the wired world, the very isolation that is one of the great gifts our protected wilderness areas continue to give us. I'm the last person to resist new technologies--but if this summer has taught me anything it is that we have always been intensely technological--sometimes for good and sometimes not. The people who lived here along the Noatak before the advent of the Holocene had to have been strategic geniuses if only in the ways they learned to work well within the boundaries of the weather and the seasons and the latittude--forces that in the far north still deter visitors.
If I had the time to walk the Noatak from end to end as others have done many times and for many reasons during the last 14,000 years I would do it. As much as I loved flying I longed to be on the ground almost all the way and flying closer and closer to it only made me yearn more to turn back, to land on some quiet misty lake where I could reflect on all the issues my time in the Aldo Leonardo Wilderness Residency has raised. There's something about the speed of a human being moving according the the mechanics of his/her own body that allows a kind of sanity that itself seems to be a diminishing resource. Near the end of our flight our pilot steered the plane through a narrow pass just as the storms we had been dodging began to assert themselves again. I stared at the rock face that seemed much too close to the wings of the plane--this to take my mind off the fact that I couldn't see very much through the rain veiling the windscreen--an observation that spiraled into imaginary catastrophe, the worst kind of panic, panic based in the kinds of facts I've gathered over the years, facts like the average survival time of pilots who find themselves suddenly without an adequate view of the horizon: those not trained in instrument flying last about 90 seconds before the brain says up is down and down is gone. I cursed myself for having spent all those hours in air traffic control towers interviewing controllers for a book I've been researching for as a lot they love nothing more than to share flight disaster stories all of which I listened to much too closely. I must have crashed our plane a dozen times in my mind before I noticed the stone shouldering the plane had begun to shift in color from slate to lavender, as sure a signal as any that the sun was somewhere near and would return shortly, the color prompting a long ago stored memory in which I am on one of a dozen or so of my childhood vacation pilgrimages to our nation's parklands. Trapped in the back of that station wagon with three siblings singing the song my parents were singing along with us--"America the Beautiful." My cynical self would like to say that song is little more than the anthem of the mid century middle class who set about worshipping nature even as they violated it at an unprecedented rate and with a kind of abject totality. And it may well be about manifest destiny and merely a pretty propagandistic veneer for all the horror that comes with that, but those mountains beside me truly were purple and they were majestic and I right then and there decided to never apologize for thinking that we've lost something good in the fact that it is no longer as common for parents to bring their children to the wilderness as it used to be--and worse yet no longer teach them a song to sing praises to our nation's physical beauty, a song to be committed to memory just like the pledge of allegiance and any number of essential poems and prayers that can be used to carry a body forward in this life.
Exiting the pass we flew even lower over the Kobuk River. I could just make out the glow of the Kobuk Sand Dunes a couple of miles to the south, their white folds gloaming and ghostly in the dark rain-wrapped light. I have read so much about them I dreamed all summer of setting foot on them--but that was a dream that will have to be deferred until another summer. The glimpse in the rain was a tease, just exotically beautiful enough to lure me back--again, again undoubtedly by hook or by crook and hopefully by way of Kotzebue. As the rain intensified we dropped lower still over the river. I heard Jim through my headphones on the radio announcing to the village of Ambler our altitude and course and soon we could hear other pilots somewhere in the air nearby respond, each giving their location and altitude, outlining in speech their respective flightpaths so we could avoid a collision on what had become nothing less than a wilderness highway. Above the village of Kiana Jim radioed again to give our location, but this time no one answered. The sky had began to open up a little and by the time we reached Kotzebue Sound we could see the kind of weather the sea had in store for our return: the wind was busy doing its millennial work, worrying rock into till, shoveling the clouds out off the coast and on in to the interior.
|Noatak National Preserve|
|Camp Two, Noatak National Preserve|
|At the day's end we make one final survey. Noatak National Preserve|
|the jaw of a caribou--another means of keeping time--such reminders were everywhere|
|for those few short months of summer the arctic tundra contains a feast|
|making our way back to camp on caribou trails through muskeg--an honest mode of travel; Pictured: Mike Holt, Hannah Atkinson, Andrea Spofford, Robin Gibbs|
|bad weather moving inland over Cape Krusenstern|