Marginalia: an essay

On a trek across the Arctic, a writer's map becomes a record of the journey.

  • A Brooks Range topographic map (with the author's annotations), the first of several the author used during his trek.

    Michael Engelhard
  • Eagle feather at roost on the Hulahula River.

    Michael Engelhard
  • Eskimo hunter in Alaska.

    Library of Congress
  • An Eskimo hunter carries the haunch of a caribou, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, c. 1962.

    Ward Wells, Ward Wells Collection; Anchorage Museum, B1983.091.S3421.081
 

When I put the maps of my Arctic traverse end to end, as I sometimes do to relive the experience, all the wilderness I could ever want spreads across my living room floor. Riven by glacial valleys, shoaled by the Coastal Plain, Alaska's treeless Brooks Range spans the state's entire width, arcing east to west, a thousand miles scaled down here to just 13 feet. To save weight on my 60-day trek, I kept a journal on the maps' backs and in their margins. The dot-and-dash line of the Continental Divide, which I'd crossed numerous times, squirms on the mountainous spine, splitting waters headed north, to the Arctic Ocean, from those southbound for the Bering Strait.

The map sheets are battered, taped at the folds, as I consulted them often, and often in a drizzle, seeking guidance from two-dimensional oracles. The occasional bloodstain or smushed mosquito speaks of ground-level torments. All formerly blank spaces now crawl with my handwriting, life transposed into text -- the work of a nature accountant or a mobile graphomaniac. The map panels, too, are heavily annotated, with my symbols for caches, campsites, airstrips -- a lifeline to civilization -- and my route worming into the wilderness. What from a pilot's perspective looked like a forbidding labyrinth over time had become a second home to me.

Uncluttered space, which I first perceived through maps and explorers' accounts, was part of the attraction that had brought me north. Long sightlines, the lack of forests or human populations in the Arctic electrified me. Air like a glass lens deceived about distances, made details and truths stand out like grayling in fishing-holes. Never before had I seen nighttime constellations that felt within reach. The landscape could afford patience, did not need to overwhelm with lush exuberance. Absences largely defined it. Noise seldom intruded. Even daylight went missing for part of the year. The land lay bared to all senses.

I had first set foot in this country more than two decades ago, as an anthropology student doing research. The National Park Service wanted to know which areas of Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic national parks Eskimo and Athabaskan Indian hunters and gatherers had used in the past. If those tribes could establish prior claims, they would be entitled to hunt and trap in the parks. I had learned much about the region's topography from an Inupiaq elder in Alatna, a village north of the Arctic Circle. When I visited for the first time, I found his mudroom cluttered with the implements of a bush life. There were slumping hip waders, foul-weather gear, snowmachine parts, dip nets, a shotgun, beaver-skin mittens, and a chainsaw with a chain that needed tightening. Two wolf pelts hung from the rafters -- complete with tails, legs, ears and muzzles. Before I knocked on the inner door, I stroked the silver-tipped fur. The eyeholes and the hides' steamrolled appearance left me slightly unsettled, as did the landscape, soggy muskeg and black spruce that hid grizzlies and mischievous spirits.

A dead beaver sprawled on the kitchen floor, half-skinned on a piece of cardboard, to keep blood off the linoleum. The elder asked me to sit. Before I unrolled my maps on the table, we snacked on jerked caribou dipped in seal oil -- a liquid-amber delicacy sent by relatives on the coast.

He pointed out the routes of his hunting and trapping expeditions. During the Depression, his forays had taken him farther north into the snowy crags of the Brooks Range, and as far south as the willow-choked banks of the Yukon River. In the mountains and uplands, his semi-nomadic ancestors had hunted Dall sheep and caribous for thousands of years, in friendly competition with packs of wolves. The meanders he drew on my maps, with felt pens of various colors, resembled the maze of animal wanderings and territories wildlife biologists chart on their maps. The elder's eyes took on a distant expression, as if he were re-living each mile on the trail. His crinkled, leathery face relaxed in reminiscence.

Other ethnographers who worked with Arctic hunters noted that, even though these had never seen a map, they easily found their way around one, recognizing the terrain in its abstraction. Before printed maps of the region existed, explorers elicited mental ones from the locals, who drew them by heart. Sketches that the polar explorer Knud Rasmussen gathered in this way impress with their great detail -- the landscape, both a larder and a refuge for the spirit, had been fully internalized. The distortions also are telling. The Inuit depicted familiar settings, their bays, lakes, lagoons, and inlets, in a scrimshaw of travel and toil. The periphery -- coasts and plains they had never traveled -- appeared vague and diminished in size compared to the homeland. Women knew areas near the camps more intimately, orbits for rabbit snaring, berry picking, digging roots. Conversely, men knew distant trade sites, passes and portages, the itineraries of furbearing animals and the trails caribou inscribed in the tundra.

I also had read about tactile Inuit maps of the Greenland coastline; fashioned from driftwood, they could be "read" in one's pocket, upside-down, in wet and whiteout conditions or in polar darkness. Denoting the island's navigable fringe, the artifacts' prows and indents -- capes and inlets of the sculpted coast -- rise up one side and descend the other, as if north didn't matter. A man named Kuniit carved them before his roaming band saw the first European, in the 1880s, and the notched lumps manifest Native ingenuity.

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