by Cameron M. Smith
He spent a month—in winter—on Alaska’s North Slope.
I knew that polar bears tore apart cabins every winter, so the first crunch—the sound of a large animal stepping carefully in deep snow—stopped my breath. The second crunch tripped a dozen primal alarms, jolting me out of my sleeping bag to stand with the cocked 12-guage aimed at the door, the plywood cabin’s weakest point. A month before I couldn’t have found the gun’s safety switch, much less brandished the big Remington like Rambo, but when you go to Alaska, alone, in Winter, you learn about guns. It was nearly 40 below, but I didn’t move for the next ten minutes as the crunches slowly circled the cabin. It knows I’m trapped. It’s patient. I have to do something. I have to act.
When I’d arrived in Barrow to begin my month-long winter expedition on the North Slope, everyone—from visiting sea-ice scientists to native hunters—had warned me about polar bears. And everyone had different advice: they hunt at night, they hunt in the day…they don’t go inland, they go inland all the time…you can deter them with a warning shot, no, they don’t care about guns, they just keep coming. The only consensus was that polar bears were smart—smarter than a lot of people.
One Inupiat hunter, Billy Leavitt, swept aside all speculation as we tore down an ice road in his battered pickup. The sixty-below wind-chill roaring through his window cooled Billy nicely but just about froze me solid.
“Nanuq—the polar bear—does what it wants,” he explained, smiling as he spoke in the long vowels and soft consonants of Native American English.
“You can’t predict it. Nanuq doesn’t speak. If it wants to eat you, it don’t matter what kind of gun you got. It’s not in the world of man.”
Billy gestured at the flat white landscape rushing by.
“If you go out there, you’re in the polar bear’s world. You just got to live with that.”
‘Out there’ was Alaska’s North Slope, a windswept flatland that expanded for miles before knuckling up or dimpling down here and there. The nearest mountains, or even hills, were a hundred miles south. But up here, three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where Alaska was drawn to its uttermost northern tip, the land was flat and open, cloaked by snow most of the year. In the short summers the snow soaked into the tundra and countless shoelace streams trickled into countless shallow lakes. To the north the land ramped down to the Arctic Ocean, its surface frozen for much of the year. I’d come to explore this wilderness alone in winter, dragging a sled containing my food and other supplies. My last expedition, to Iceland, had been three years before—too long. I needed to get out. I needed to breathe again, to fight for my life again.
I have to act. But I was paralyzed, imagining the polar bear crashing violently through the doorway like they crash into seal dens. Death would come faster if I didn’t resist. I have to act. It could be waiting for me to come out. But I have to act. Are you prepared to kill? Yes.
In record time I dragged on my clothes and cracked the door, squinting against the snowlight and wind before leaping outside. Knee-deep in a drift, I sighted down the gun’s fat black barrel, swinging it from side to side. Nothing. No bear. Only blowing snow. Blood roared in my ears. Cold knives carved into my face. I edged around the corner of the hut, still sighting down the barrel. Nothing. Then I saw prints in the snow. Laughing, I let the gun barrel swing down. Caribou tracks. Caribou! Paralyzed by herbivores! I went inside to make breakfast.
Later I headed out for firewood, part of my daily routine. There wasn’t a tree within 300 miles, but the little hut overlooked an Arctic Ocean beach where driftwood piled up in summer. Tramping down to the snowed-over beach, I stopped to turn full circle, scanning for polar bears.
Wood pointed out of the snow here and there like the prows or rails of sinking ships, twisted and splintered by shifting sea ice. This wood had journeyed far, entering the Arctic Ocean either from Siberia or one of the great Canadian rivers that drain forested lands hundreds of miles east. Some pieces came free easily; others were permanently frozen in, curving down through the snow like tusks. I used an axe to hack out the wood and chop it to pieces. Sometimes the axe bounced off the icy wood with a clang, as though I’d struck metal. Bent over the work, I felt uneasy, watched like prey. I began to behave like an herbivore, compulsively popping up to scan for predators.
Kneeling to examine natural wonders—a crack in the sea ice, or a galaxy of glittering snowflakes blowing like a stream of stars funneled between two snowdrifts—I always felt watched. I didn’t feel more comfortable as time passed. A bear could be watching me, learning my patterns. Each day I felt more vulnerable. I was terrified of becoming complacent. Exercising vigilance for my very life charged my spirit. I was alive again.
But I was an infant in this brutal world, where a breeze might corkscrew the temperature down to 70 below, which is about 140 degrees below room temperature and freezes exposed flesh in seconds. My food froze before I could get it to my mouth. My heavy boots, and drifts of deep, ash-fluffy snow, demanded a new gait. And Nanuq was always in mind, subtly factoring into every decision. I was re-learning the basics: how to eat, how to walk, even how to think.
My master for this re-education was Cold itself, a ghost, defined only as the absence of heat energy. Great heat is tangible, pressing like stacks of smothering blankets. Great cold is its opposite, a vast absence, the earth’s blanket stripped away, empty space in arm’s reach, ready to brand and sear, wither and cripple. All accomplished simply by an absence of energy. Cold is death, either approaching or upon you. You calculate every action to elude it. I wore gloves in my sleeping bag, ready to hop out in any emergency—like the hut catching fire, or a polar bear tearing down walls—without losing my fingers.
Fiddling with sound recording equipment, or my tripod and cameras, I learned how to work with my back to the wind, how to windmill my arms to drive blood back into my fingers, and how to run in place with the Remington slung over my shoulder.
In the evenings the driftwood blazed and popped in the hut’s little iron stove, collapsing into piles of irregular cubes with pulsing red cores and blackened corners. They radiated pure bliss into my opened palms, warming my blood and they my very heart. Some of the wood burned cool, hissing and spitting salt-water, the pale green flames edged with white.
After a week alone I began dragging my sled back to Barrow for more film and supplies. From a jetliner this land was a featureless white blur, but on the ground I found it endlessly varied.
Sometimes I crossed fields of sastrugi, waves of snow arranged in orderly ranks, one after another. To cross them I trudged up one side and then loped down the other before the 200-pound sled could bomb down and break my legs.
Sometimes I traveled on sea ice, my boots crushing a million ice flowers, spiky, two-inch crystals that stuck up in bristling clusters. Cracks in this part of the frozen ocean were small, only inches wide, but shot as far as I could see. They formed when the moon drew at the sea beneath the foot-thick ice.
I also crossed frozen lakes, the black ice, six feet thick and hard as bottle-glass, screeching under my crampons. I often knelt to examine shapes that seemed to move beneath the surface. Through the thick, irregular lens of frozen water, spectral gray bubbles seemed to wobble if I moved my head from side to side, and I did this to keep them in their surreal, drunken motion. Some were big as balloons, others like marbles. Deeper forms were blurry. In some places, multitudes of star-white points clustered like rising soda fizz. And there were isolated specks, lonely as interstellar dust. The surface of the space-black ice was often broken by inch-wide cracks that shot and jagged like lightning bolts hurled from the sky and caught in the ice. Most of the cracks were filled with snow and the broad gray slots dropping into the ice looked like curtains or gray guillotines. Occasionally the scenes would be obscured as a gust-driven swarm of sparkling grains slid across the ice.
I knew that each bubble and crack, each ripple in the ice, had a story, was information. But this was an encyclopedia I could not read. I didn’t know the language. I hadn’t observed enough.
Once I spent ten minutes gazing into the ice. Had I been on a mission to devour miles and make records, to compare myself with other people or turn this wilderness into a race track, these treasures would have gone unnoticed. I would have trampled over them while columns of numbers—representing calories, miles traveled, ounces of fuel consumed, miles yet to go—ticked and streamed in my mind. I’d played that game before, dragging my sled like an automaton across the lifeless, 100-mile wide expanse of Iceland’s Vatnajokull ice cap. It had been a good challenge, serving its purpose, but I had a different quest, now—to learn the language of the ice. So if I traveled slowly, I didn’t care, and it took me nearly three days just to haul my sled 20 miles back to Barrow. By luck, Billy Leavitt picked me up just outside town and drove me in.
“It’s too warm this year,” he said. “When I was a kid it would be 70 below even before the wind-chill!” I couldn’t imagine it.
Standing in a hot shower, almost incapacitated by ecstasy, I dimly wondered how the native Inupiat had adapted to this land. Hundred-below windchills, blinding billows of drift snow, the world’s largest land predator…what were these folk? How could I understand them? An opportunity at some glimpse of understanding arose. I learned that the Inupiat Messenger Feast, ‘Kivgiq’, would take place over then next few days, and that I could attend. Kivgiq was a social, economic, and cultural gathering of native people from across the Arctic. I couldn’t miss it. Rather than re-supply and rush back out, I stayed in Barrow for the three-day spectacle.
A thousand or more natives from across Polar Alaska and Canada had gathered children, adults, teens and the elders, who told the legend of the Messenger Feast.
When the Inupiat were young and learning to live in this place, life was hard and they hunted all the time. But when they knew how to live, Eagle Mother taught them to drum and sing and dance, and how to build a large feasting house. She told them to invite neighbors to listen to the songs, and dance to the drums. The invitations were delivered by Messengers, who also made requests of the invitees: here is what the sponsor of the feast, respectfully, wishes from you.
Drums—fifteen at a time—beat slowly, directing the subtle movements of dancers’ bodies, a shoulder shrug, an arm or wrist gently turned. The slow beat was the invitation to let go, to be taken by the spirit of the dance. After a time, suddenly, like a bomb, the pace and volume increased—BOOM BOOM BOOM…BOOM BOOM BOOM—accompanied by wailing and chanting, as the dancers were taken, stamping their boots hard, locking their bodies in stiff postures of shock or terror. Sometimes there were sweeps, syncopated paddling motions, the communal pursuit of a whale. Sometimes arms were hauled joyfully towards the chest, pulling in a whale, sustenance for a whole village, starvation staved off or another season. There were pantomimes of hunger and plenty. Conflicts were acted out, and resolved. And there was always respect for the land and its animals, the gravitational center of this culture around which all else revolved.
These performances were as important to Inupiat survival as any harpoon or kayak; they were instructions for a proper life. How did they survive here? I’d asked. It was a question only a wholly-urbanized person could ask. How did they survive here? Easy. Keep your population low. Don’t mow down your resources. Manage the plants and animals so their populations will be healthy for your descendants, as your ancestors did for you. Be respectful of the land. It is not rocket science.
And have a sense of humor! Some of the greatest applause at Kivgiq came for ‘Eskimo Elvis’, a dancer outfitted in a caped jumpsuit, sunglasses and pompadour. ‘E’ rocked the crowd with a fusion of Inupiat and Elvis moves complete with a karate-kick ending that sent the crowd through the roof. Kivgiq ended with solemnity, but laughing was just as important. Life is short, after all.
Soon I was pulling my sled again, south and east from Barrow, out for more lessons. Thirty-below temperatures left my facemask caked with ice by the time I crawled into my tent in the evenings. The snow crunched and squeaked underfoot, as if I were crushing styrofoam blocks with my boots.
One day I spotted a Thing ahead. I couldn’t identify the shape, but it was an object in the snow, its outline different from anything else in the snowscape; although there were plenty of regular shapes here, like the legions of sastrugi, this one didn’t belong. It stood up from the snow, whereas most everything here seemed to lay low. And the color wasn’t right; it was an off-white, almost yellow. When the color registered, my most primitive alarms were tripped again—polar bear!
But it didn’t move, and soon I was close enough to see that it was wood, and then the shape resolved into a dogsled. I stepped closer. It was almost entirely swallowed up by the snow. The wooden walls were peeling, and rusty nails bent out here and there— someone had salvaged pieces from it. I wondered when it had been abandoned, and why. Was it months ago, years? Decades? A hundred years? In this dry environment, wood might easily last that long. And this thing might be here for centuries more. It reminded me that it was us humans who came and went, while the things we build remain long after we’ve moved on, like ghosts.
One morning a stiff wind drove the temperature down to seventy degrees below zero. The wind rushed through my face, bypassing skin and muscle to directly attack the bone. It felt as though a screwdriver had been jammed between plates of bone in my skull and was prying them apart. Stunned and gasping, as though I’d been punched in the face, I crouched with my back to the wind, raising my neoprene frostbite mask and lowering my goggles. I could only function here when completely insulated from my environment, like an astronaut on the moon. In this sense, my appreciation for the environment was filtered. It was different than when climbing on rock, for example, when my finger-tips were a direct interface with the natural world, taking in, as Craig Childs has written, ‘a limitless flow of information’ from every crack and crystal. And it was different from scuba diving, when my entire body was submerged and in contact with fickle currents and temperature gradients. In the Arctic my body was insulated from these sensory inputs and learning was slower. It was alright, though. I would come back. There were riches here.
On my 20th morning in this frozen world the Earth rolled another fraction and the rind of the sun flooded up and over the snowy horizon, a syrupy slash of bloody red and molten copper. Turning from the roiling blaze, I saw that the snowscape was now an irregular checkerboard of hues. A million wind-scalloped hollows brooded watery green, cold cups patterned regularly between battalions of small wavelets and whips of windblown snow that stood up a little, their peaks catching the light and glowing as if lit from within. The snow radiated a misty pink and the expanse of delicate shades leaping away from my boots in all directions seemed so buoyant that the entire snow-capped tundra might just rise and gently float away, an immense flying carpet. For a moment I forgot the cold and the wind and allowed myself to believe that I was in a magical place.
I recalled the wonders of the past weeks. I’d watched a herd of caribou trample the snow to get at the tundra beneath, and I’d been entranced by the lunar stare of a snowy owl perched on a distant hummock of snow. I’d come across dozens of arctic fox trails, frantic scatters of paw-prints that bounded across crystalline snow before abruptly changing direction, or commencing gigantic loops.
Once, I’d heard the Arctic described as a ‘wasteland’. Having walked slowly here, having taken time to kneel and wonder at the wolverine and caribou tracks, or lemming nests, I knew that this was the evaluation of someone who had been here but had never really opened their eyes. Perhaps they had flown over in a jet, or torn along the surface in a snowmobile. But nobody who’d taken the time to walk here, to get down on their knees and learn, could call it anything less than a thriving biome. Cold, yes, but without question thriving—crackling like the ice under my boots, electric with life.
Cameron M. Smith has traveled from the equator to the Arctic, reporting his experiences in many magazines, includingArchaeology and South American Explorer, and in the book They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Legendary Explorers Club (Lyons Press, 2007). He will return to the North Slope in Winter 2008 to fly a paraglider over the tundra, and in Winter 2009 to SCUBA dive beneath the sea ice. He is currently completing The Frost Giants, his account of several winter expeditions to Iceland. “Ghost on the Ice” won the Grand Prize Silver in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.