Alaska's Ultimate Wilderness

Wildlife and Free
By Buck Tilton
  |  Gorp.com
Page 3 of 5   |  

Grizzly bear! Undisputed monarch of the far north, if you don't count humans with big guns, and sometimes even then."Do nothing to attract or surprise bears," warned the ranger in Bettles. Silently I applauded the wisdom of her words. But the bears of the Brooks see few humans, and, so far, have always run away when an encounter seemed imminent. There has, to say it another way, never been a recorded bear attack on a human in Gates of the Arctic. Still, I thought, Zachary weighed in at about the size of an hors d'oeuvre for a hungry griz. So I worried, from time to time, about bears. Needlessly, it turned out — and disappointingly in the end — for we saw no bears. Comforting but needless, also, were the 44-magnum strapped to Chris's hip and the shotgun leaning beneath the cook tarp when we camped.Around a wide bend in the Noatak, though, and not too long after shoving off on the first day, the river appeared to be filled with dry sticks floating upright from shore to shore. Caribou, their antlers towering above their heads. A herd of around 200 swimming to better grazing. As they emerged to climb the rocky bank, they stopped and shook the icy water from their thick fur, like large Arctic dogs. And, speaking of dogs, Chris pointed. A gray wolf sat watching on a rise of ground, then turned to walk away and out of sight with a final flick of his bushy tail. My heart sang. This was what we came for.

Growth takes place slowly here, and sparse food for wildlife limits the number of animals. We were extremely pleased to see hawks often drifting overhead, and several times, from camp and from the river, we watched as foxes, tails tipped in white that would eventually spread over their bodies, nosed through the brush. Dall sheep, a ram here and there in full curl of horn, draped themselves at ease on ledges cut from bold rock faces that leaned slightly away from the river. The migratory caribou, numbering around 200,000 total in this area, proved ubiquitous, always in motion, grazing in herds of hundreds or ambling along in threes or fours with the ever-present click of their ankles as they lifted wide hooves.

Then there was the musk ox, densely covered in black hair that dragged along the ground. Broad, flat horns sweeping down from above the eyes to mingle with the hair. Slow, silent, heedless, powerful — nothing spoke "Arctic" more to me than the musk ox.

Camped near Matcherak Lake, another dream came true. The Arctic char were biting. Beautiful fish, highlighted with red and white, the four that were filleted for dinner stretched almost as long as my arm, the flesh firm and delicious.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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