Introduction: Message from Mike Matz: Will the Western Arctic Continue to Thrive As of Old?
In the Inupiat language, Utukok means “old” or “ancient.” Floating the Utukok River in far northwestern Alaska, as I did this summer with some compatriots from the outdoor industry, one certainly gets the sense that this place has weathered the ages unfettered, with only the forces of nature shaping the primordial. When you are in a place like this—all too rare these days—it's something magical.
On our first night, after the bush pilot in his droning DeHavilland Beaver had dropped off eleven of us and our gear on a gravel bar just downstream from Archimedes Ridge and everybody had climbed into their sleeping bags except my buddy, Jim Campbell, and me, the magic came alive. The light, even with the cloud cover, at eleven or midnight or one o'clock is dim, but the sweep of the ridge and the swirling of the river were still visible.
And so was the bear.
The grizzly came from upriver and walked through the willows atop a cutbank only fifty yards or so from our gravel bar. The willows—the tallest brush on the tundra—obscured the bear's hulk for a long minute or two, then it emerged into view upriver again, a little farther back from the bank. It stood on its hind legs, its front legs crooked at the elbow in front of a massive chest, dark brown fur underneath, its bulk imposingly proportioned, to get a better look at and smell of these intruders. We stood together, our binoculars now trained on the grizzly, and involuntarily emitted “oohs” and “wows” in marvel at this magnificent animal. The grizzly had figured out enough of what it was trying to ascertain because it dropped back onto all fours, its hump blonder and aglow in the soft late light, and jogged across a marshy swath of tundra. Looking back over its shoulder, it slowed to an amble, angled its way over a lingering snow patch in the high Arctic and disappeared up a gulley onto the tundra above the river.
We both looked at each other, eyes wide, and smiles brimming.
None of our party saw bears again until a couple days down river, and then miles off, through the spotting scopes and binoculars. The wolves, though, were a different story.
Where the Utukok River slices through another in the series of sloping ridges, all of which offer easy hiking and spectacular views to every point on the compass, some twenty miles or better downstream from where we started it's almost a canyon, but not sheer-walled. The ridges just hemmed in the camp here. On the very top of a ridgeline straight downstream, Jim noticed a wolf loping along, marvelously silhouetted against the sky. The animal came along that ridge, stopped and looked back, before running down and back up a tributary stream's narrow V cut. Sure enough, a second wolf appeared behind the first, following the same route. They emerged atop the ridge now to the northwest of camp, traversing the blocked top of the ridge and, looking back once more, finally went over and were out of sight. The eleven of us were spellbound, jubilant, feeling intensely rewarded.
How many places are there yet where bears and wolves roam in their open and unaltered natural habitat? In the contiguous states, a few such places still exist. Yellowstone has bears and wolves and herds of elk. The front range of the Rocky Mountains in Montana has grizzlies yet. Northern Washington reputedly has wolves that have migrated down from British Columbia.
But the Western Arctic has it all, in nearly unimaginable scale: wolves and bears, peregrine and gyrfalcons, golden eagles, a massive herd of caribou and wolverines, though they kept hidden from us on this trip. For me, however, the most poignant part of the experience was how interconnected it is. Hiking atop Archimedes and another of the ridges, we came upon these pits. Large slabs of the rock just underneath the surface had been excavated and piled up, and I thought the bears had probably been ambitiously digging up Arctic ground squirrel or marmot tunnels and dens.
In the middle of this vastness, though—we knew he was on the river, too—we ran into Richard Nelson, the sociologist and author, who as a young man spent a year in Wainwright, a village on the coast. In Wainwright, Richard befriended an elder, a 70-year-old Inupiat hunter, who told him about hunting caribou in the Utukok Uplands from blinds atop the ridges when he, too, had been younger. As Richard related this story to us standing on a gravel bar near the river, it suddenly dawned on me: those putative bear digs, those were the hunting blinds used by this Inupiat hunter, and others, down through the ages to the Neolithic period, some five or seven or ten thousand years ago.
The Old. The Ancient. Will it continue? Can future generations of Inupiat, now with their rifles, no longer with bows and stone-tipped arrows, hunt the caribou in coming years? Can a grizzly race through a herd of caribou to bring down a calf? Can a pair of wolves, and the next pack of wolves, and the next, continue to thrive in this place?
Time will tell, but the time to help decide is coming up. The Bureau of Land Management, which takes care of this land for all of us, is currently formulating a land management plan for this region. You can participate. You can help provide the answers to those very questions. Keep an eye out in future newsletters for the opportunity to comment on the plan. The wolves and bears are counting on you. The Inupiat, too.