Monday, June 22, 2009

Chechaquo in the wilderness: Encounters with beaver and wolf

While assembling our tent, just twenty feet away, a wild animal hunched in a shallow brook stared at the strange bipedal green-and-grey-clad hominids who were setting up camp along his creek.

He seemed indifferent to the short expanse of space between us and him, confidently inspecting our every move. While Lucy, my patrolmate and fellow ranger, slung the poles through the lining of our tent, I stood agape, deliriously captivated with this unexpectedly close brush with a wild animal.

As I mesmerized the plump mound of fur in front of me, I whispered to Lucy, in grave monosyllables: “Oh. My. God.” She shot me a frantic look; the sort of frantic look that says, “Please don’t tell me there’s a bear in our camp.” Even better. It was a beaver and it was ogling us with the same intensity of wonder and curiosity with which I looked upon it.

Lucy, a Fairbanks resident who has seen her fair share of beavers, teased me for being so fascinated with what is so common to her.

Still, I couldn’t look away. Right in front of me, just a few steps away, was wild nature; a creature that may have never set its eyes on mankind before. Deeming neither I nor Lucy a threat—and rightfully so—it waddled to the lake where it swam to and fro, always with one eye locked in on us.

There was something confident, even conniving about him. It was as if he knew something that we didn’t. Given our relative inexposure to the arctic, this could have very well been the case.

Though I’ve lived up in the arctic for a few summers, I am still in many ways a chechaquo—a term used by the natives during the gold rush to describe a newcomer, tenderfoot, or someone who, more or less, doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing.

While I like to consider myself a step above a chechaquo, I don’t pretend to know much of anything about the country. It's easy for me to admit that I know far less than the beaver whose life is intricately connected to the complexities of the ecosystem and whose ancestors have called this lake home for centuries.

What was going through the beaver’s head while it stared at us? In the last few centuries, North Americans have devastated beaver populations in quest of pelts that were perennially in vogue. Why—as it ambled just feet away from me—didn’t it view me as a predator too? What is life like spent under water. How do they stay warm in winter? The beaver could have very well swam away with as many questions as I had. Still, I relished our little parley and, to our good fortune, it would not be our only encounter with a wild animal who knew more than we did.

Lucy and I went on a five-day patrol on and around a little lake on the south side of the Brooks Range.

Our job duties are fairly minimal: basically, we explore the country at whim, talk to visitors about leave-no-trace and bear safety (though it’s exceedingly improbable that we’ll see anybody), and clean up any trash or “human impact” that we may come across.

This may sound like a dream job to some, and in many cases it is. But we do work in conditions that many Americans would deem inhumane at worst, masochistic at best.

When walking with a 60 lbs pack through clouds of mosquitoes and over miles of tussocks (“nature’s herpes,” or big round mounds of sedge that are impossible to walk over)—conditions that might elicit sympathy from Sherpas, pyramid slave laborers, and third-world textile workers—sometimes, for just a glimmer of a second, the job loses its luster. But, for the majority of the time, I am everlastingly grateful to get paid to do something I love.

While paddling across the lake we happened upon a rusty 55-gallon drum submerged in muck along the shore, probably left by some chechaquo decades before me. Coming across garbage or any sign of human habitation is rare as well, so I hoisted the barrel out of the mud with gusto, knowing that I’d leave the park a little cleaner.

Later, in lieu of proper tools, I beat the hell out of the barrel with a log I extricated from the ground, hoping to impound it flat so that we could fly it away on our float plane.

A few days later we paddled across the lake, hacked our way through dense alder thickets, sidled along creek canyons and glided over aufice to a wide river valley where we set up a new camp.

We decided to climb a large hill just in front of us—a plump green mound with a bald, treeless top that probably wasn’t any taller than 3,000 feet.

Halfway up, we heard barks and howls in the distance. We were hundreds of miles from roads, trails, and civilization. There was no question that it was a wolf. This time, we were both enchanted with our brush with the wild.

We continued hiking upwards. But as the howls got louder and more discernable in pitch, our fascination was supplanted with anxiety. Was it just a lone wolf? Was there a pack? And, worst of all, were they hungry?

I reminded Lucy that a local just told us that wolves are no threats to humans up here. Allegedly, there has never been a recorded instance of a wolf killing a human. But then I remembered how the local also mentioned that a wolf’s jaws are powerful enough to snap a femur with ease. Concerned for the health of my femurs, I did my best to mask my apprehension in a ludicrous fa├žade of bravado and self-confidence.

We were ensconced in a thick brush of willows and dwarf birch; we couldn’t see anything, but the wolf’s howl seemed so loud it felt like it might be just around the corner, perhaps a mere twenty yards away.

I started going over the steps to discharge the shotgun I carried. It should have put me at ease knowing that I held a deadly weapon in hand, but keep in mind that I’m a mere chechaquo whose only shooting experience has been in the controlled conditions of a shooting range. Never have I shot a living thing, let alone a rapacious, femur-crushing, wolf, charging at thirty miles an hour, who may wish to set a precedent as the first man-killer up in the arctic.

I imagined that the howling wolf was playing decoy, as other, more silent, stealthy, salivating wolves, watched us from all sides, waiting to pull some Jurassic Park, velociraptor-shit where they’d attack us on our flanks right before I, out of respect for their superior intelligence and hunting prowess, respectfully remark, with my last words, “clever girl.”

We scurried above treeline and looked down into the river valleys on each side of the mountain. Lucy wanted to confront it; I wanted to get the hell off the mountain: both plans had their merits. We opted to go with hers, so we yelled and yelled, hoping to scare it off.

Then we saw it. It was a lone white wolf. It was down below us on the path that we had just traversed. It had a speckled grey mane and was running away from us. It stopped every ten yards or so, looked at us, barked, then howled.

From our humble experiences up in the high north, this was, to us, exceptionally strange animal behavior. We weren’t sure what the wolf was trying to do exactly. Regardless, we were relieved that it was going away rather than toward us. Invigorated, I let out a few barbarian roars to celebrate our victory.

We decided to finish our mountain climb, by heading up a game trail. However, we soon stopped dead in our tracks when we noticed that all along the trail, every fifteen feet or so, was wolf fur and wolf scat. The wolf’s ghostly howls still echoed through the valleys, lifting languid neck hair into fields of bristling barbs.

There could be a den or a whole pack up there, we worried. We quickly decided to go with Plan B: to get the fuck off the mountain as quickly as possible. Lucy told me that her adrenaline was pumping and suggested that we keep a conversation going. I pulled out some of my A-material, sharing some erectile dysfunction stories that had us laughing and forgetting about the wolf in no time.

We propelled down the mountain—ducking and weaving through thick brush en route to a wide-open river valley where we knew we could see around us and feel safer. When we got to the river, relieved, we began retelling the story, laughing at our “close call.” It was already a story we couldn’t wait to share with the rangers back at base.

Then, just from the edge of the woods that we escaped from, the wolf unleashed another shrill, ear-piercing wail.

For the rest of our hike, we walked in a defensive formation, always looking behind, in front, and to the sides of us, unsure of where the attack would come from. But luckily there was no attack. The wolf, I think, was merely saying, “Stay off my mountain and out of my country. This is my home; go back to yours.”

And that’s just what we did.

Our ride

Our outdoor patio to evade bugs.

Wolf print.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Mosquito Macarena

While waiting for our float plane at Grayling Lake, my fellow rangers and I were engulfed in a cloud of ravenous mosquitoes. Conditions were perfect for a feast: balmy weather, no wind, a large standing pool of water, and six warm-bodied, succulent humans ready to be tapped into.

At first, I tried to tough it out, refusing deet and a head-net like a true Alaskan might. But as the swarm thickened and hundreds of mosquitoes plunged at exposed morsels of flesh and poked their needle-like straws through thin layers of clothing, I began slapping body parts furiously and indiscriminately—my arms, shoulders, neck and buttocks—a sort of demented dance, the mad man’s Macarena.

I rummaged through my pack to retrieve my net, and generously doused myself with some high-powered deet.

This wasn’t an uncommon scene. Mosquitoes are a part of daily life in Alaska. While people may develop a tolerance over time, as with a canker sore or effluence from a nearby factory, it’s impossible to put them out of your mind entirely.

When I’m back home in New York, around a campfire or on a porch, and I hear someone gripe about the few trifling mosquitoes that occasionally tickle our necks and flutter amidst our hair, I politely hold my tongue. Oh how I want to relay what horrors I’ve endured without sounding condecsending—how flocks of them, while hiking, would cling to my shoulder blades—just the spot where they’re unswattable—and sink their proboscises through clothing and skin, gluttonously sucking out my sweet crimson nectar.

Or I'd recall those times when hundreds would elliptically orbit around head and body like tiny frenetic meteorites; wings whizzing, whirring, and beating a frenzied tune, a discordant symphony performed by violinists gone mad that can drive the center of this universe—you—insane.

As friends or family reach for the bug dope and shower their heads and necks under its spray, I hold my tongue, leaving the disparity in what ails us unacknowledged. If they just for a moment stood amongst the squadrons of mosquitoes that I see today, then maybe they’d laugh off these few, harmless visitors and enjoy their bonfire, stars, and conversation more.

Unlike some places, mosquitoes here only stick around for a few months during the summer. But because there is perpetual daylight, they make up for lost time by terrorizing man and animal at all hours.

As the land begins to thaw, big, slow, dumb mosquitoes are the first harbingers of summer. More pathetic than threatening, these lolling, aerial cows can be plucked out of the air and crushed between thumb and forefinger with ease.

But in a week’s time, they get smaller, quicker, more agile. To kill these ones, it’s best to wait until they settle in and penetrate skin before smashing them into a gooey black ball of pulp.

When I return to town from a patrol, I stuff towels under my bedroom door at night and place clothes over my vents. Still, a few of them always manage to find their way in. Some taunt me throughout the night, snapping me into wakefulness by blasting their abrasive power-drill buzz directly into my ear. Others gently, stealthily, steal from me while I slumber.

In the morning I’ll find a few of them lounging complacently on my walls. These ones are plump, juicy and drunk. Carrying the weight of a translucent pink pouch of hemoglobin, they are slow to take off and easy to target. Even though they have had their fill and won’t bother me anymore, I still hunt them, crazy-eyed, determined to gain vengeance for what they’ve taken from me.

I become psychopathic, gleefully squeezing their chubby red bottoms like zits, delighting in the scarlet juice that smears on my fingers. I seek for more to squash and feel empty inside when I have no more enemies to vanquish. I imagine myself on a virtuous crusade to extinguish this incorrigible species from the earth. No, it will not be my blood that helps birth new generations of these crepuscular blood-bandits.

Mosquitoes do, of course, have a function up here. Dragonflies feast on mosquitoes. And song birds, from as far as Asia and South America, gorge on the limitless buffet of insects. Mosquitoes help pollinate the flowers that color the landscape each summer with yellows, reds, blues and purples. They even deter creeping civilization and curious travelers from sharing these valleys with me.

They can be terrorizing out in the backcountry. Rare moments of solace--on mountain passes, and wide, windy river valleys--are truly savored. When I get in my tent, I go on a rampage, slaughtering each and every one that followed me in. I remember watching one flutter to the floor, watching it helplessly writhe in circles. I look close at her tiny eyes and dangling legs and am reminded of our kinship, our distant family ties, our blood. Having sprouted from the same trunk eons ago, I probably have more in common with her than I’d like to think. A moment of guilt? Maybe so, but it won't stop me from commiting fratricide on sisters who only wish to preserve themselves, their progeny, and, tied to their existence, the birds, flowers, and ecosystem to which they and I are inextricably linked.

As I continue on, trudging through the wilderness alone, concerned with my preservation I'll continue to swat away, squishing five, ten, twenty, sometimes more with each slap. I’m at a crossroads of both misery and joy, not sure which emotion will triumph over the other. I look across the treeless mountain valley, still and motionless, seemingly without a flutter of life except for dashing birds and flowers undulating in the wind.

And for that moment, I think I ought to stuff my hands in my pockets, allowing them to take what they need to keep these valleys both full of life, yet utterly barren.

Training Week

This is my second summer as a backcountry ranger and my fourth living in the arctic. I work at the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Even though the Gates is the second largest park in the nation (about the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined), I am one of only five backcountry rangers who paddle its rivers and climb its mountains.

I’m not sure exactly why I left New York to come to the arctic. I think it had something to do my complete and utter disconnection with nature as an adolescent. Alaska was less a venue for mindless sightseeing and more a fundamental need, a burning desire that had gone unfulfilled for far too long. Suburbia and its schools and roads and commercial sprawls; its safety; its immaculate homes and protective roofs—all of it: the hegemony of order that had kept me in check for far too long, called to be undermined with one desperate and extreme blow. Driving to Alaska would become my ultimate goal.

Alaska beckoned me like a pair of moonlit thighs and a shadowy set of curves. Oh how I dreamt of mountain summits, and charging grizzlies. I wanted pain and glory. Something real, damnit. That’s why I drove up here five years ago and that’s why I’ve returned again and again.

But I’m getting off topic. I really only wanted to mention my training this past week.

Six of us rangers drove up the Haul Rd to Galbraith Lake which is situated at the northern, treeless edge of the Brooks Range. Just a few miles to the north, the mountains level out into endless flatlands of muskeg, ponds, and insufferable tussocks. But here the mountains are still prodigous and intimidating; the sort of mountains that deserve to be introduced with the sounding of a Chinese gong.

We drove through the Brooks Range to give us scope of the variegated landscape that we’ll traverse over this summer.

I’ve driven the road hundreds of times as a tour guide and I’ve found that even the most awe-inspiring scenery can get tiring after a while, especially when you’re herding around a few heifers from Louisiana. But there are still moments that snap you back into wakefulness, when appreciation for the land is rightfully restored.

Just a mile outside of Coldfoot, seconds into our trip, I had one of those moments when we caught sight of a Moose cow and her calf idling next to the road. She was likely biding her time close to town because she knows predators like wolves and grizzlies won’t bother her offspring here, who’s still just gaining his footing. We paused to take pictures but the grumble of a semi sent them off into the woods. The moose lurched and lumbered to the forest coverings as gracelessly as the semi that thundered down the road.

I was struck by its incalculable body mass. The cow’s bulky brown muscles heaved to and fro while her young trotted alongside.

The size of a moose is astounding. Not only is its size difficult to fathom, but the fact that it exists, to me, is even more stupefying. The creature seems like it belongs less to a world dominated by man and his machine and more to the Pleistocene alongside its mammalian brethren, the Woolly Mammoth and the Sabre-toothed Tiger: species that died long ago, but are fantasized about in children’s books and movies set in prehistory. To see moose today seems refreshingly anachronistic: they make me feel as if I am part of an enchanting, disorganized world where Neanderthals can fix my plumbing and pterodactyls soar through our skies.

At Galbraith, we practiced stream crossings and learned the intricacies of our communication devices. Afterwards we went on a day-hike above a river that still held remnants of winter in the form of aufice, which is layers of snow and ice frozen above moving water.

The triangle method.

Dall sheep at Atigun Pass. Also staying near the road to avoid wolves.

Ptarmigan eggs.

And so begins another summer in Alaska, the home of my dreams.