By Michael Engelhard
Where tectonic upheaval flatlines and the Brooks Range runs out, infinite space welcomes the traveler like a door thrown open. Blue as the Caribbean, the Canning River spills our two rafts from between foothills into the arctic coastal plain. Aufeis encases the banks where the river rose and pooled atop ice and hardened, repeatedly, into armor against spring; in some places, it might last until snow falls again. Water so clear that you see every cobble, so pure that you drink straight from the stream, and so cold that it induces headaches, slides around graveled bends. Once in a while, it crests into riffles or feathers into rapids.
At our fifth camp, tracks of caribous, wolves, moose, bears, geese, and a wolverine seamed the mudflats with the animals’ hidden agendas. Today, we’ve already spotted a black arctic fox, a moose built like a bulldozer, and a peregrine killing a ptarmigan and passing it off to a juvenile bird—all within one hour. Animals even seek contact with us on occasion, mirroring our own curiosity: mew gulls have escorted the rafts, shrieking blue murder and sounding like rusty hinges. Caribous have stepped closer, eyeing us nervously. A red fox—nonnative, as are we—investigated our dinner setup last night.
Nevertheless, despite our close attention, the tundra seems lifeless for hours at a time and miles around. We frequently survey it from a cutbank or while standing in the rafts, detecting no movement except in the river’s slippage beneath scudding clouds.
Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we pitched our tents, I notice a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I cannot believe my eyes. A Polar Bear! The clients pop from their nylon cocoons when I alert them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. We stand and watch the bear sniff and root around. To this carnivore, accustomed to fatty seals and other marine mammals, the only morsels of interest here would be ground squirrels, foxes, or birds—none of which could satisfy the hunger of this blubber-burning powerhouse.
The bear’s wedge of a head swings on its pendulous neck, snakelike, gauging god-knows-what. Thirty miles from the coast, radiant against willows and heather, the bear looks more out of place than it would in a zoo. The previous year, sea ice—a haul-out for seals and hunting platform for the bears—shrank to the third-lowest extent on record. Hunger or curiosity could have driven the bear far inland. It appears healthy and fat, but if the spring ice has broken up early again, it will be in for a long fast.
We sit and keep our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily be mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifts its head to sample the air. We crouch downwind from it, and it remains unaware of our presence.
Before long, a Golden Eagle strokes past. Mobbed by some songbirds but still regal in its bearing, it scrutinizes the bear, which sleeps on, unconcerned. Then I catch another bright spot heading downstream. A cub? But the gait is different, a trotting more than an ambling, the mark of a true carnivore’s determination, not of an omnivore’s relaxed opportunism. A scan with my glasses reveals a white wolf.
Indifferent to our attempts to make sense of it all, the wolf approaches the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, the wolf saunters over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory.
Because the bear is not moving much and poses no immediate threat, I have breakfast and break down my tent. Then I act as lookout while the rest of our group takes their turn and loads the rafts, shielded by the bluff and prevailing wind. As I contemplate Sleeping Beauty with some voyeuristic unease, I realize once again that, out here, who spots who first amounts to a matter of safety. Vision, hearing, and sense of smell have been refined to various degrees in the tundra’s denizens to ensure survival of the most sentient. Enhanced by broad arctic vistas and a spare natural soundtrack, this deep involvement of the senses contributes to the human wilderness traveler’s sensation of being fully, if at times frightfully, alive.
As if to drive home that point, a raft bearing two camouflaged figures comes floating around the bend. Velvety Caribou antlers in the bow attest to the couple’s prowess as hunters, but they drift by with their bloody cargo, oblivious to the predator just outside their field of vision that has bumped them down a notch on the food chain. I shudder to think how often I’ve courted disaster unknowingly, like this.
When we shove into the current a few hours after the initial sighting, the bear is up and moving again, sniffing and pawing through bushes on the bench. We steal away like thieves, abuzz with adrenaline and enriched by an encounter that luckily stressed none of the parties involved.
Perhaps more than in its weather or plants, the land’s life force concentrates in its creatures, sharpened to poignancy, similar but foreign enough to our own to be captivating. We find refuge in their company, in these seamless days on the river.
This story is featured in the December 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, under the title “Convergences.”