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

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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.

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