(scribbled in a notebook on August 31…)
We are talking when Justin halts mid-sentence for a moment and then says it’s stopped raining, pointing at the roof of the truck cap. I pause and listen. Sure enough, the drilling of raindrops that has been ever present since last night has stopped. We smile at each other and I turn to wipe the film of condensation from the window closest to me and peer out. I start laughing.
“That’s because it’s snowing instead!”
We open the back window wide and look out at a world turning white before our very eyes. The enormous crags of the looming mountains of the Brooks Range that surround us on three sides are completely obscured by mist and snow and clouds and it is entirely possible in this moment to believe that we are the only people left on earth.
Tessie wakes herself up with a snore and burrows deeper under Justin’s sleeping bag before flopping over and back to sleep. We pull out apple slices and cheddar cheese to snack on while we talk about what to do next.
We are perfectly safe for now. We have warm gear and plenty of food and water. We have a truck with both four-wheel drive and the ability to provide us with sturdy shelter against wind and snow. No need to rush.
But winter has clearly arrived here on Alaska’s North Slope, even if it’s beginning a bit slushy. It’s the end of August, but we are unlikely to make it as far into Gates of the Arctic National Park as we’d hoped and the fishing here at Galbraith Lake isn’t looking great either. We’ll have to settle for touching the edges of these wild places this time around, with a promise to return to this landscape that has captured our hearts.
With some debate and what little we know of the forecast, we decide that tomorrow is likely our best bet to get back over Atigun Pass and to the “warmer” (read: not snowing) climate on the other side of the range. Pouring over the map, we decide to find a place to camp on the Koyukuk River's middle fork and continue introducing ourselves to this land.
As the wind rocks the truck, my breath catches a bit. We are in the wild here.
We aren’t deep in the mountains, but even from the confines of the back of our truck, there is no mistaking that this land is untamed, raw, unapologetic. It bears the scar of a single road following the pipeline south from the gaping wound of Deadhorse and the oilfields there on the Arctic Ocean, but it’s clear that keeping that scar from being overtaken by re-wilding requires constant work.
It stirs something deep in me, this land. A remembering of sorts. Though my brain makes the rational call and I remain zipped into my zero-degree sleeping bag under my shelter, there is an elemental pull toward that Arctic wind, to know what the bears and the wolves who live here know about survival in this environment, to touch for a moment the indigenous knowing of the Athabascans who have called this wild place home for thousands of years.
As we drove north along the Dalton Highway through Arctic wilderness, we were always in view of the Alaskan oil pipeline, pumping crude oil south to Anchorage from 160 miles north of where I sit and write in this winter storm. I know our modern relationship to oil is complicated (this truck of ours is gasoline-powered, after all…), but as I look east into Arctic Wildlife Refuge and west into Gates of the Arctic National Park, as I traverse this land that many would call unimportant due to its lack of human development, I’m struck anew by how vital the preservation of these unbroken places is.
These are the safety deposit boxes of our own wild natures, our own untamed spirits. It is in these places that our souls can remember what it is to be connected to all that is greater and bigger and more timeless than ourselves. We carry these places with us as we go about our daily lives and depend on their vastness to release us from the crushing weight of our own self-importance.
This wind cares nothing for my Instagram following. These mountains are utterly indifferent to how many Facebook “friends” I have. The permafrost underfoot, the wolverine waddling far across the valley over there, the snowshoe hares with their white feet and ears busily preparing for winter’s arrival- none of them have the slightest interest in how much money I made last year. In its utter vastness, this land lacks the space for such trifles entirely. My failures and my foibles are less than insignificant.
This is the land where mountains are born. Where glaciers carve valleys and rivers change course on the whim of the snowmelt each spring. Moose lumber low across the ridge and muskoxen range across tundra and fox tilt to hear the ground squirrels in their burrows deep under the snow.
We sat, years ago, on our sofa at home in Maine and whispered “maybe” and “someday” and “Alaska” at the edges of what we dreamt possible for our life.
Huddled in down jackets and sleeping bags and watching the snow fall around us on this last day of August, we smile at each other in the shadow of these mountains that are our dreams made manifest.