NOATAK RIVER — It's a chilly night here along the river. Snow squeaks under my boots and the sting of the air against my nose says minus-30. Standing near the grave markers behind my little cabin, I shiver and glance over my shoulder.
A crescent moon touches the mountain across the river. The glow illuminates smoke from my stovepipe, riding a north breeze. Beside me, shrubs and grasses glitter with frost. I pull off a glove to try to take a photo with my iPhone, but it's too dark. At my woodpile, I grab an armload and take another glance across the dark tundra, involuntarily checking for any movement — something I've done a lot of in recent weeks.
Inside, the barrel stove is down to coals. I fill it and arrange a pair of snow pants along the bottom of the door. Everywhere that cold can come in, it does. My boots are hard, slipping on the plywood floor. In the dimness, I fumble with the 12-volt battery under my counter. A small LED bulb comes to life, throwing shadows behind chairs and shards of light against the black windows.
I make sure the large stainless-steel pot on the stove has water heating and then head back outside to rifle in a box for a chunk of caribou. The cardboard box is misshapen, crusted with ice, drifted full of snow. A sack of cranberries spills dark marbles. Hurrying back in, I accidentally drop the Ziploc. It's hard as stone and clatters along the floor behind the stove. I leave it there to begin thawing while I arrange the snow pants again and push my tub of perishables against the door.
Finally, I take off my beaver hat, pluck frost out of my eyelashes, and hang up my gloves. Winter has a way of winnowing life down to basics; in my case, that has meant wood, water, light and food. It's been a few weeks since I've seen a person. I've heard airplanes and seen jet contrails, but no faces. I have a mirror — Amazon Prime, $9, free postage — and every few days I remember to take a look into it. It never fails to surprise me that first instant, to see eyes staring back.
After my book tour ended in October, I came here to my scrap-lumber cabin on the Noatak for freeze-up, and to get away from email and interruptions while working on a writing assignment on caribou. Freeze-up had started in late September, as it should, but was washed out by weeks of rain. I had to charter a plane; river ice was unsafe and Kotzebue Sound was wide open and gray. The day I left, it was 15 above, sunlight glinting off the lagoon ice, winter feeling like it might finally be here. Eric Sieh, the pilot, loaded my stuff in the back of his 206. I mumbled an apology about having so much.
"Lots of room," he replied. "You could have brought more. I like the back heavy this time of year. Keeps the nose up."
"Oh?" I murmured wistfully. I eyed a green box of Alaskan IPA under my rifle and snowshoes, a case of beer I'd brought along. "I, uh, wish I'd known that."
The flight was beautiful, the sky blue and the tundra white with fresh snow. Circling the cabin we saw two window shutters were missing. Down along the river, a bear had slogged trails in the snow. "At least he didn't break your windows," Eric commented cheerfully, peering down.
"Yeah, I guess that's true." Still, I wasn't quite as sunny as I had been a minute ago.
On the snow-covered bar, we unloaded duffel bags and boxes: my winter gear, cameras, notebooks and a laptop, food and fuel, and even a small sled and wind generator — Amazon Prime, $39 for the sled; $349 for the generator.
Dragging my first of four loads, I heard the roar. I stopped to watch Eric lifting off. I recognized that soon-to-be-alone sound. He gunned in a tight turn and flew off downriver, the drone of the engine and the dot of the airplane disappearing at the same time. I turned and continued dragging my sled. Anyone who has spent time alone in the Bush knows those first minutes — hearing an engine fade away toward the world of people, while you're enveloped by the silence of the big wild land.
Lugging bags up the ridge took longer than expected. Totes and boxes were awkward and heavy, the trail steep and slippery. I strapped on my .22 pistol and left my rifle.
When I finally dropped my first load at the cabin, I stood panting, looking across the miles of view, the river and mountains lit in sun. In front of me, my porch was littered with kindling — shutters and frames, splintered and chewed. Around back was more junk — pink foam, fiberglass, plastic, plywood, and my beautiful homemade spruce boards — all clawed and chewed. I poked through heaps; my solar panel had to be under there somewhere. A hole in the back wall was dark and gaping.
I didn't look in. It was too depressing, and I had too much to haul.
Cabin seemed violated
The sun set. I was down to a T-shirt — arms scratched, hair caked with ice, boots slipping on tussocks — carrying each load shorter and shorter distances. It reminded me of playing Chinese checkers, that part at the end where you have to make a lot of short moves to get your marbles home. I didn't want to leave any of my marbles. (I don't have many left to lose.) I kept stumbling over tussocks, with the last bucket of tools, tripod, eggs, cheese, Amazon mirror, rifle, rope, clothes, binoculars.
The screws holding the door shut were bent. Inside the floor was strewn like an abandoned cabin: bitten cans of spray foam and starter fluid, the Coleman stove flattened, nails, screws, rice and shredded paper towels all stuck in pools of chain saw oil, mixed with tools and trash. I was chilled and in the cone of my headlamp, my beautiful little cabin seemed violated. Nothing about this felt like the quiet writing retreat I needed. But, Eric was right — the windows weren't broken. My barrel stove stood upright. And the bear had made me a lot of nice kindling.
I built a fire, stuffed bags of trash and jackets and everything I could find into the hole to keep the cold out. I started picking up, cleaning, and marveling at what the bear hadn't touched. I was thankful he hadn't tried the fire extinguishers, or tipped over my 12-volt battery, or chewed through the hose to my propane burner. I checked the loft; he hadn't gone up. I was glad I'd removed my caribou sleeping skins in July, and taken all the food except rice.
In the night, cold flowed in. I kept the stove roaring, realizing that writing would again be put off for days. I fried some caribou and washed down frozen carrots with beer. On the floor in a heap of trash I spotted something silver. My toothpaste! The bear had bit through the tube of Colgate. Nearby the Tom's of Maine was untouched. I nodded, smiling in agreement, and hacked off an inch at the bottom and threw the bitten part away.
I crawled into my sleeping bag, worn out, chilled and lonesome, questioning all my decisions. Lying on my back, listening for unwanted company, thinking about today and the days ahead. I fell asleep wondering, why was I squeamish about sharing my toothpaste with a bear? I'd shared with complete strangers, with less hair on their arms.
In the morning, I awoke to a nervous vision. I'd only seen one pen last night. It was bitten in half, and I'd shoveled it in the stove with trash. Shivering, I got up and built a fire. I made coffee, and searched my bags and the cabin. Eventually, I found a broken stub of yellow pencil. It was small, hard to hold. I was disgusted with myself. I brought fishhooks, skinning knives, tasty black muktuk, dried caribou meat, and home-grown turnips and carrots. But not a single pen.
At the stove, I reheated my coffee and sat down to drink it and try to not think. "I'm not a real writer," I've explained so many times to people who asked. "What makes you think I'd have a pen?"
Miserable musk ox
The next few days were sunny and bright. Ravens flew overhead, keeping an eye on me. In the distance a band of musk ox were dark dots on the tundra. The snow cover was soft, easy to paw aside to feed — if any caribou showed up — and loose enough to blow away, too.
Sure enough, a storm blew in, ripping the ridges bare, and then coating them with wet snow and rain — messy weather, and depressing because it was wrecking freeze-up again. I checked my mudshark hooks under the ice, hauled water, and then walked the skyline overlooking Noatak Flats. It was hard to see where I was going. I felt bad for the musk ox, somewhere out here, caked in slush. Two years ago, I'd found them in February with no hair in the middle of their backs — rain-rotted from soggy winter conditions.
Pellets of slush crusted on my face and clothes, stinging my eyes as I turned for home. Back at the cabin I was still terribly restless. I sorted through shards of pink foam — like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together, except it was my windward wall. It was addictive in a way, although I was disgusted with myself for still not writing. I went inside for my only daily routine — to eat muktuk and dried caribou while the news played on KOTZ radio.
During a story about Syria, my hands started scrolling through my iPhone, peering at pictures — a year of traveling the land, snowgoing, hunting, fishing, photographing caribou, and my book tour to the States. I felt my thoughts scatter to other places and people. The shiny little contraption made me WANT. I wasn't sure what, but I was relieved to have no service. All year I'd felt the device had a hold on me, as if it had become my main source of connection, while at the same time fragmenting every connection I'd ever had. Something about being able to reach directly into the center of people's heads to plant words — skipping visits, voices and all social requirements — has been too addictive.
I clicked the phone off and got up. Still, I was restless, wanting. Was I detoxing from that other world? The one with so much WANT.
In the morning it was windy, snowing and raining. I walked the rocky slopes out back as the tundra turned brown under my feet. Cranberry leaves showed through, not green anymore but gray. The snow was wet, my boot tracks gray. Something about this was sad: November in the Arctic should not be wet. In the weak light, I looked over my shoulder more than usual. Glancing around, I had a sudden thought. Caribou look over their shoulders their entire lives. Of course, now they also had to be out here with rain freezing to ice on the tundra.
I was hungry and crusted with frozen slush. I wondered what it would be like to live out here without shelter? How little I'd actually lived outdoors compared to a caribou. They had to be so much tougher, a different level of hardness, strength and connection to the land. So much of their lives spent living in the moment.
On my recent book tour, I missed caribou meat terribly. Burgers didn't help. In restaurants the chefs had their garnishes, rubs and drizzles — whatever they do to improve fairly tasteless beef — but it didn't satisfy. I couldn't help but wonder what it was about caribou and other wild meat. Was that taste I missed, the taste of life? Those chickens trapped in cages with no room to turn around or do anything beside poop and eat — was I tasting death? Was that why that meat made me sick?
Brown bear in distance
One evening drying off by the fire and staring out the window, I see an unfamiliar dot on white ice. I grab my binocs. "Well, I've been expecting you."
The brown bear moves slowly back and forth, a strip of overflow stopping him from crossing the river. He stands up, sniffing the wind, indecisive. I find my .243 cartridges, slide a few in my pocket. I watch, wishing the world would just get cold, as it should. Wishing the land would freeze. I have no way of knowing if this bear was the culprit here, and I'm not going to go out of my way to shoot random animals for retribution. I want him to go to bed.
Thirty minutes later, it's getting dark and he's still out there, trying to find drier ice. I find my pencil and scratch a few words. One thing they say about people is every one of us is different. One thing people forget about animals is that every one of them is different.
I remember a bear once peering over my shoulder while I was pounding with a hammer. I would have confidently advised anyone that a bear along the Kobuk wouldn't come near that much noise. I was wrong. He'd walked within 7 feet of me, silent.
Now I wonder, does having a bear spend time using your house leave a presence? All these years, I think I've gotten used to them playing by certain rules and not breaking in. But here on the coast there have been a lot of bear break-ins lately. Halfway to Kotzebue, Doug Neal's cabin got broken into this summer. The bear got a jug of maple syrup, pancake mix and a gallon of cooking oil. A soon as I heard, I boated up here and got my remaining food and caribou hides.
I joked about it at the time: "Thanks, Doug. Did you loan him your spatula, too? By the time he gets to my cabin he's going to be thinking about another batch of pancakes."
Occasionally eyeing the ice, I do evening chores. The bear moves west along the shore. The light says November -- getting dark early -- but the land remains slushy. I think how we used to store caribou meat when I was a kid; we shot animals in late September and left them whole, outside, frozen for winter. That would never work nowadays. I know I'm lucky to have all my technology to help deal with so much climate change: my nice Amazon.com stuff with the free postage — the wind generator, LED bulbs, headlamps, sled, propane burner, etc. I'm glad I'm not that bear, out there wet in the dark trying to find dirty, rotten salmon frozen into the sand. I'm glad I'm not a big soggy musk ox or a caribou looking over its shoulder every minute, in every storm.
Finally, calm cold
A second storm follows the first, with winds gusting to 70, near-zero visibility and heavy driving snow. Up on the exposed ridge where my cabin sits, the roof shudders 40 hours straight. In the loft, it is hard to sleep, even with earplugs. Snow whistles in under the door, the windows are plastered, the stovepipe blows off and the house fills with smoke and ash — all normal for my quiet little writing retreat.
Finally, calm cold weather moves in. I discover I've lost half my hours of sun since it last appeared — it bumps along the mountain directly across the river. In a few days, it will be gone until 2016. The ice gets thicker each day, and I contemplate walking the 30 or so miles to town. Meanwhile, the radio tells of bombings in Paris, refugees trying to find places to live, and thousands of caribou on the ice in front of Kotzebue. I picture the poor people, and the herds getting chased and scattered by hunters on snowmobiles.
A wolf passes through in the night. Then a wolverine, lynx, rabbits, moose and, finally, a few caribou. I think about my daughter, down in California in college studying, and other loved ones, and those people in Syria with a messed-up country and the big nations all bombing them. The bear is out there somewhere. I have two new friends — a fox and an ermine — both with glowing eyes in the beam of my flashlight, both very much wanting my frozen caribou bones and seal oil. I stare back into the dark, feeling a little off balance to think all these different lives are happening simultaneously on this planet.
Tonight the moon is gone, and the aurora is out. It's colder, minus-35 or so. I'm back on the ridge, alone as I've ever been, shivering beside my camera and tripod. My fingertips and one of my cheeks are freezing. Still, I can't quite give up. I wait on the dancing lights, hoping for a photo and for some insight to fit it all together: life and struggles, people and caribou. The only truth that's plain in this green darkness: It's not an easy world out here for the animals. Times are changing fast under their feet — same as it is for us — but with no Amazon Prime, iPhones or one tiny blip of technology on their side. If we value caribou, and want these animals in our future, we might realize that. I'm not sure how, though. It seems like all those things are carrying us apart.