SOMEWHERE ON THE KOBUK RIVER -- In Ambler recently, Alvin Williams told me, "If a four-footed creature shows up at your place, drop it for me. I'll come down and get it."
"Four-footed? Porcupine, you mean?" I said.
We had a good laugh. My wife and daughter and I were visiting at his parents' place and his mom was just serving caribou backbone soup, meat Alvin had no doubt hunted in spring.
He dug into the soup and never said what kind of four-footed creature he'd meant. He only teased, "Well, at least you've always got the old standby. Red squirrel!"
Later, we headed downriver in my dad's old plywood boat. The river has been very low, about as low as I've seen it, and along the way the sandbars stretched long and wide and everywhere. The willows and alders lining the shores were extra healthy, leafy and thick and tall. We didn't see any bands of caribou swimming or even fresh trails where herds had come down off the banks.
Fifteen miles downriver, above Jade Creek, an aluminum boat was tied up along the north shore -- the only boat we'd seen. I recognized Clarence Wood and wasn't surprised. In the last half a century, he's spent about as much time out along this stretch of country as everyone else combined.
He had the cowling off his big outboard, so we motored up and drifted close.
"Ha! Where you going?" Clarence challenged in his deep voice. His face was wizened and weathered dark, his hair cropped in his customary butch cut. He smiled big, squinting upriver through his scratched glasses, already harassing me for taking the old (shallow) channel above Sigliauruk.
He had his finger down in the oil reservoir of his motor and was monkeying with a greasy plastic filter. Under the boat canopy, one of his little grandgirls stared. Another smaller girl was nestled in a heap of jackets, asleep. Up on the bright tundra in the distance a tall boy with a rifle walked toward us.
We chatted for a short while. I asked Clarence if there were any caribou around. "No caribous!" he said. "When I see caribou I gonna fill my boat up with fat patik bones. Drive home, no meat, jus' patik bones!"
"How about bears?"
"Bears all over. Lotta bears everwhere. All of 'em got my name on it. If I hear you shoot black bear down at your place I'll turn you in! Haha!"
Clarence never changes; he just gets older. He then wanted to know where we'd found gas, and how much it cost. I told him the Ambler Fuel Project had just gotten fuel in: 12 gallons cost $130.00. He shook his head, stuck his huge finger back down in the blue-green two-cycle oil. "Shuck. That place sure always headache me."
As we boated away downriver, I thought about how much things have changed here in the valley in the last 40 years with all the new boats and gadgets, iPhone connections and airplane travel, and how good it always is to see Clarence, in his late 70s now and still roaming the Kobuk. All my life he's had that same wit, that same humorous way with English. One difference though -- when I was a kid he had a tiny scrappy wooden boat with bent nails along the gunnels, a 20 horsepower Evinrude and a transom that he was constantly hammering back on.
As we motored past Onion Portage -- still without seeing a single caribou -- I started thinking of other old hunters and hunts. My mind wandered back to wondering what kind of animal Alvin had meant for me to shoot. I'd thought black bear. Now I was wondering if he'd meant a caribou.
The next day, at home, my wife and daughter and I walked up the ridge. The spruce and birches and alders had grown a lot since spring. It was all a tall forest, with the underbrush green and dense. "This is reminding me of Fairbanks," Stacey said. "The vegetation even smells like Fairbanks."
We came out of the spruce into thigh-high blueberry bushes and a tunnel of tall dwarf birches, their leaves glowing orange like a million little neon smiles. Ahead the sprawl of tundra opened in front of us, aglow in fall colors -- burgundy, yellow, red and green, with berries like jewels and the sky overhead brilliant blue.
On a ridge, for long minutes I glassed the rolling rises, stretching miles to the Jade Mountains and further northwest into nameless peaks. One other thing was like Fairbanks: there were no caribou out there. Not a single animal.
Labor Day weekend brought boats up the river, hunters headed for Onion Portage and other favored camping spots to wait for the big and small caribou herds that have so consistently crossed here all our lives. The weather was warm and pleasant, then it snowed and the mountains turned white and it was cool; it rained and got warm again. The tundra fall colors passed and the birches started to turn yellow. Every day the land was huge and beautiful, perfect in so many ways, yet day after day still no caribou appeared.
We ate a few ducks. We set a net, caught some fat trout. Stacey boiled beans and rice and China baked a cranberry pie. We didn't starve. But something important was absent, some integral part of fall missing.
Eventually a few moose strolled into view and a big bear in the distance. Flocks of geese crossed the valley, and red squirrels chattered at us from the spruce. More and more I kept an eye out for that porcupine I joked about, to welcome into the soup pot.
Picking cranberries one day, I heard China's voice nearby from behind a small clump of birches. "I'm sure hungry for fried caribou heart," she mused. "And itchaurat and onions and fried caribou liver."
I'd sort of forgotten about all the caribou meals of a normal fall -- now so busy every day staring into my binoculars for the tiny dots of living animals. I'd had time for my mind to roam a thousand caribou memories: caribou butts running away, caribou flowing across the tundra, the sound of big bull antlers coming in the willows, ravens announcing their presence, the herds pouring into the river.
It was a good opportunity to contemplate how lucky I've been, so much of my life so entwined in caribou herds. Caribou, I realized, define fall to me. And even now, it's their absence defining this season.
I tried to think of an animal, bird or bug whose absence would feel this noticeable. Nothing, not even the black ravens in the sky could compare in numbers or connections. The funny thing was, just two months ago in the mountains north of Kotzebue, from an airplane, I'd seen the biggest herd I've ever witnessed -- a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand caribou in one mass of animals. That image from the sky is still uneasy in my head. Like so much else nowadays, it feels strange to possess two very different kinds of knowledge: what science and technology show and tell us, and the other kind -- what we see and hear and feel out here on the land.
Those caribou are somewhere; still to the north, presumably. Rumor says sport hunters are north, fanned out up there, flown in by aircraft and getting animals. Locally, we've come to call those outsiders the Cabela's Army. We know that they will leave when it gets cold. We know Fish and Game has collars on hundreds of animals, and they too surely know where the herds are. The rest of us, for now, stare north and simply believe that other knowledge, what we've learned over the years: caribou will come.
Finally, late one night just before sunset, in my binoculars I spot the distant wake of swimming animals, to the north on the calm water of a beaver slough. One or more creatures have disturbed the smooth water and already passed from sight; three more are swimming across the slough. Instantly I recognize these are not beaver.
The front animal climbs out on the shore. I see golden spray as it shakes off. I see something else but I'm excited and my mind only vaguely acknowledges the detail as I glass to the next animal. That one shakes off, too, and immediately disappears. Wait a minute! The third one climbs out. For a second it's dripping and perfectly silhouetted.
Suddenly I have to laugh at what I'm seeing and at my slow-witted self. I think of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale and the story I'll have to tell Alvin. Those tails are way too long and bushy to disguise. And of course these wolves, too, are waiting for caribou.