Book review: Every mile through this wild landscape is filled with more than a walking adventure

“Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range”

By Michael Engelhard; Mountaineers Books, 2024; 304 pages; $21.95.

Michael Engelhard, a longtime outdoor instructor and wilderness guide as well as a cultural anthropologist and writer (including “Ice Bear” and “American Wild”), spent two months in the summer of 2012 solo-crossing Alaska’s Brooks Range. From the Canadian border he trekked over mountains and across tundra for 48 days and 600 miles. Near the headwaters of the Noatak River he switched to a rowing canoe for the last 400 miles to the coast.

Along the way Engelhard relied on six resupply caches and minimal technology — GPS and a satellite phone, neither of which worked perfectly. He traveled as lightly as he could, without even a camera. He avoided places where he might encounter other humans and stopped, briefly, in a single community, Anaktuvuk Pass, where he picked up a package from the post office and indulged in a pint of ice cream from the local store.

“Arctic Traverse,” written with a decade’s reflective retrospective, is not by any means a guidebook or a journal-like travelogue of day-to-day movements. It is, instead, an exceedingly well-crafted work that combines travel with natural history, anthropology and cultural concerns, literary references, philosophy, personal history, science, linguistics and humor. By intertwining details from the journey with his significant knowledge of the region from both guiding and anthropological work and with impressive observational skills, research and insight, Engelhard has fashioned a text that should appeal to multitudes of readers.

For starters, there’s enough drama for the most demanding of armchair adventurers. On the topo maps that doubled for journal pages, the author kept track of bears he saw and tried to avoid — often several in a day. For his very first day, he leads with his knowledge that his drop-off point along a creek was a very “bear-y” place and tells the story of a prior time, with clients, when they were charged by a mother bear and two cubs. Back in the present, “A total of seven bears, counting cubs, cross my path within the next four hours. Number five gallops up to me from the stream bottom, curious and confident, looking very excited. I unholster my spray can, the fastest gun in the North, before this sub-adult flees.”

Early chapters demonstrate the mix that Engelhard employs throughout. Chapter two, for example, includes more about bears, a narrative history of marking the border between Canada and the U.S., a brief biography of geologist Alfred Hulse Brooks (for whom the range is named), info about other surveys of the region, an account of customs agents preventing the passage of funeral-potlatch gifts between countries, beautifully rendered descriptions of the life around him, forays into thoughts about goal-oriented travel (Grand Canyon, Mount Everest), and reflection about his own expectations.


Typical of Engelhard’s keen observations and botanical knowledge is this passage layered within so much else: “I indulge in a summit nap among butterflies, cream-colored dryas, and Lapland rosebay, a fragrant, heathery bonsai-rhododendron with fuchsia blossoms and relatives in the Himalayas.”

Mosquitoes, ankle-twisting tussocks, alders, rain, cold, swift rivers, blisters, hunger, a painful foot, an aging body, getting lost — there were all those to contend with. In the two-page chapter (day 39) titled “Weakest Member of the Herd,” the author records zero miles covered and considers footgear, the amputated feet of Peter Freuchen, mobility in America, and a favorite song called “The Ramblin’ Rover.”

Sublime moments are also captured, including this one in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: “After I top out, the sun splits the sky’s scrim about glaciers that melt into the river. It spotlights two rams bedded down on an outcrop not far below as if pointing them out. ... Above the sheep but below me, a golden eagle gyres, wings locked... The configuration of sheep, bird, river, and mountains is perfect, a reward for three days of ankle busting. I’ve seen enough beauty for several lifetimes in one.” Later that day, migrating caribou surround his camp.

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Engelhard is absolutely an advocate for wild places, generously quoting conservation forebears like Mardy and Olaus Murie, Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Ellen Meloy, Barry Lopez and Edward Abbey, as well as Gwich’in and Inupiat elders and others he has known. He shows the magnificence of the country he traverses (which includes, besides the Arctic Refuge, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Noatak National Preserve) without too much editorializing, but in his final pages, a postscript from the present time, he lets loose about his need to speak up “when some idiocy threatens the Brooks Range.”

The author specifies damages to be incurred to rare and essential wildernesses from the Willow Project’s oil development and the Ambler Access Project, with its plans for a 211-mile road to massive mining operations. He also laments the carbon pollution that’s visibly warming the north, the accelerating extinction of species, and the role we all play in harming the Earth. He finds consolation in the fact that, in the long geological view, “our misdeeds and monuments shall become dust, or rather, a toxic stratum to be superceded.”

As bonuses to his spirited, wonder-inducing account, Engelhard includes both an extensive bibliography and a notes section that expands on his sources and will encourage readers to search out additional writers and historical reports.

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Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."