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Know the West

Marginalia: an essay

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


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.

From early adulthood on, I've shared the elders' peripatetic streak. Looking at my own set of maps, my eyes flick to my journey's beginning 20 miles from the Canadian border. I'd hiked east for a day just to toe the line that divides what cannot be divided. I found none of the stone markers that cairn the cleared corridor. Streams cross it without passports, as do snow geese and caribou, flowing forever between winter and summer ranges. Kin by blood and by custom, but divided by politics, indigenous peoples dwell on each side. On my easternmost map sheet, Canada -- "not us" -- had been amputated, flush with the grid. Invisible, the boundary -- the longest straight shot in the country -- runs from Demarcation Point south to Mount Saint Elias, where it jigs into the littoral of Alaska's panhandle; for nearly 700 miles it follows the 141st meridian west, another filament of cartographic imagination.

Following map contours step by laborious step, I quickly wised up to the cartographers' code. Bunched, chocolate-brown lines meant steep climbs or descents; hedgehog marks promised squelchy swamps; robin's-egg blue stood for lakes, ponds and rivers, or finely striated snowfields and glaciers -- the same hue spelled the same substance, also wet crossings, coffee breaks by a creek, slippery footing. Black airplane icons, lettering, or squares announced human influx. Still, when, from a notch in the Philip Smith Mountains, the westernmost range of the refuge, I saw the glint of the tube that siphons a nation's lifeblood from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, a lump tightened my throat. I knew then that, short of an accident, I could finish this trek. Roughly two-thirds of the hiking now lay behind me, and, strangely, the silver line in the distance conjured up the comforts of civilization and my one-time home Fairbanks, located on that very same pipeline.

What even my USGS quadrangles fail to show: tussocks, the knee-high humps of vegetation that taxed my knees, ankles, and spirit; the section of Ekokpuk Creek -- the worst bushwhacking of the trip -- not even hinted at by the usual mint-green patches on the map; the depth of streams I had forded, with hiking poles humming in the current; the veils of mosquitoes that shadowed me, eager for a meal; the grizzlies that circled downwind for a rank whiff of me (which normally sent them bolting). Though I did not mark wolf encounters on these sheets, I could still pinpoint each one to within a mile, even without my dense notes. The maps do not hold the metal taste of spring water so cold it induced ice-cream headaches. They do not carry the perfume of crushed heather or Labrador tea, the soughing of breezes or the tang of August blueberries. They omit the fog that blotted out Peregrine Pass, the wind gusting in the Noatak valley, the rain that soaked me for 30 consecutive days. Nor do they include the small corner of the one quadrangle map I chose not to buy, out of thrift, which, out there, sent me into a cursing and scouting frenzy. You cannot find in them either the image of me afterward, reduced by 25 pounds yet refined, somehow, distilled to an essence. Together with those pounds, mental dross and routines had been stripped away. Six hundred miles walking and 400 rowing the Noatak River, all by myself, had reopened my eyes to nature's small, quiet wonders.

The blue swath on my westernmost map -- the Bering Strait, endpoint of my traverse -- stretches south to encompass my hometown Nome, a base-camp of sorts. Roughly one hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, on the continent's edge, on the western prow of Alaska and the brink of tomorrow (with only a short plane ride to the dateline), I still feel close to the Brooks Range, locus of my desire. Snowmelt from its south faces courses down rivers to lap at my doorstep. The Beaufort Sea to the north blends seamlessly with the Bering Sea, which I see from my living room window. In this world, I realize once again, there are no topographic margins. Unlike a sphere rendered in two dimensions -- a Mercator projection -- Earth has no here or there, no beginning or end. The center is everywhere. More so than the maps arrayed in my living room, the world they encrypt is connected.