Nonfiction / Spofford

:: Wilderness ::

1. An uncultivated land, this region is wild in character. [i] Along the coast of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve the beach erodes into water—logs, their ends worn into points, emerge from the soil, and the wood drops into pieces as it disintegrates. These logs are shattered manuports—stumps after a storm breaking from sand, remnants of a shelter built along the coast miles from the tree line. They are not what they appear to be—masts of tall sailing ships or even driftwood pushed ashore by the Arctic water. The first time I see this tumble is from a speeding boat heading toward Chamisso Island. I’m not in the national preserve, but the effect is the same—huge swaths of land falling into ocean, desiccated walruses littering the shore, mammoth bones eroding, and long spires of wood pinpointing the cliff sides. Because it is easier than imagining what happened to the walruses, I think about how I would feel if my house fell into the ocean. Shallow as it is, the water is cold. I think about what would happen if our boat capsized, how we’d swim to shore—the dogs outpacing us all, the wild screech of seabirds, the darkness of water camouflaging what’s beneath. The cliff sides are soupy because the permafrost is melting, and if I think about that too long I can’t breathe.


The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Northwestern Alaska comprises one part of a four-part system: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Noatak National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Coastal Iñupiat societies—direct descendants of nomadic and tribal social groups—still live and work within this landscape. These logs signal a site of archeological importance, and they are quickly washing away. But history isn’t stagnant, nor is it alone. This year the population of Shishmaref, Alaska, just below the Arctic Circle, voted to leave their ancestral home and relocate further inland. The village, located along a swatch of barrier islands west of Shishmaref Inlet, is tumbling quickly—full houses dipping into the water. For thousands of years the Iñupiat have lived and worked along the Alaskan coast and, because of global climate change, that coast is eroding and disappearing at an alarming rate. It is not enough to simply say move—movement is loss, is distance, is the disappearance of home. These centuries-old societies have lived along the coast for a reason—for subsistence, for food, for history—and to say move is an erasure of cultural identity.

Alaska is called the last frontier partially because wilderness is the same as civilization; there is no line between them, no fence separating lawn grass from bear grass, Kentucky Blue never seen but tundra rolling soft and free. Houses are sided with plywood, built on adjustable feet to accommodate the malleable permafrost, walls two feet thick, windows double paned, double-hung. Many houses have fuel-burning stoves, and subsistence hunting keeps the freezers stocked. Here, if you were to wander, if you were to lose your way, your neighbors would know and they would find you and they would bring you home.


2. Beware or we will all become so lonely [see: disambiguation—the clarity of carefulness]. While I am in Kotzebue, Alaska, for an art/science collaboration, I meet Tommy, a scientist focused on melting permafrost. Using ground penetrating radar technology, he sends a signal into the ground, and by comparing the numbers he receives to the numbers he has previously recorded, he determines the rate of thaw. It’s melting quickly, the permafrost, and when it’s gone we’ll pass the point of no return, the event horizon of climate change when greenhouse gases cannot be stopped. Then, it’s go time—there’s nothing we can do, no amount of carbon emissions testing, no amount of green credits, no recycling. Tommy, and scientists like him, worry we’ve already passed that point and that our stop-gap efforts, while valiant, are in vain. We need to reverse the change, we need to innovate, or we will all sink into the ocean.


Here, north of the Arctic Circle, whaling is still legal, and each year villages are allowed a certain number of subsistence kills. Muktuk—whale blubber and skin cut and cured—is hard and oily, and, like seal oil, it dilates blood vessels. The captain’s cut is the best, and it is the captain’s wife who decides with whom it will be shared. Muktuk isn’t something you refuse to eat—it is a privilege and a gift—and a single whale can feed an entire village for a winter. The effect is a rush of warmth throughout the extremities, including the face and hands. In climates where winter regularly reaches negative eighty degrees Fahrenheit, this warmth is important and necessary.

In August the sun shines for over eighteen hours a day. This doesn’t compare to June when the sun remains mid-sky for twenty-four hours straight—eternal sunshine to match the eternal darkness of mid-winter. On the Fourth of July we ride bikes around the eight-mile loop road, eat snow cones dyed red and blue, and watch the yearly tug-of-war and blanket toss. The borough mayor participates in the blanket toss and flips as he’s thrown into the air, bouncing as he lands on the taut caribou hide, the entire town gathered around him holding the blanket tight. When he was a young man, he won events in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics—leaping acrobatic and free. The tug-of-war pits men against women, salt against fresh—people from Kotzebue against people from river villages. Later, we watch the Miss Arctic Circle beauty pageant; contestants participate in the blanket toss, too, their glittering, fur-lined clothes flashing as they fly.

In August we sit at a round table eating muktuk, indulgent and foolish in this heat; we sit, our faces burning red, our hands sweating, and share the bounty—seal oil heavily musked and rich as we swallow it, the pieces floating in the jar the texture of licorice but not the flavor. We eat frozen raw caribou dipped in vinegar and mustard. Here, mid-summer, it isn’t hard to conceptualize the necessity of cold.

In January, our bodies swaddled in fleece and wool, synthetic, waterproof, and natural, we walk along the seawall. The pack ice—sheets as thick as concrete blocks—pushes up against the wall and, in many places, is six feet thick. On New Year’s Eve we gather around bonfires and celebrate darkness, now near twenty-four hours, as the Aurora dances above us. Later we ride snow machines across the sound to the tree line, bouncing over divots and waves in the ice, trading tundra for a boreal forest. We watch for polar bears because they are ruthless and walk along the ice shore killing anything they can catch. I watch for polar bears because I want to see one, want desperately for the ice to hold and sustain both bear and human.

The ice road links village to village and opens up transportation in an otherwise isolated region. The people who live here respect the bears, and they, too, worry the ice is shrinking too quickly. This year the freeze happened a month later than usual and breakup—the loud cracking of ice thawing—happened earlier than usual as well. When it rains during the winter instead of snows, the snow that’s already gathered turns to ice, and the caribou and moose suffer most. Ungulates accustomed to cold, they can gather and step across snow—there’s traction, and softness, and they can nose beneath it for food. But when it rains and freezes, rains and freezes, they lose their traction and ability to forage, and the herd begins to die. Again, here, during the winter when everything is shuttered and the animals are hunkered, it is easy to see the necessity of cold.


3. Of open sea, of air, the place where land is sky. Kotzebue, Alaska, houses the National Park Service headquarters for Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Noatak National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Onion Portage, one of the most well-known and important sites of archaeological interest in Northwestern Alaska, is located in Kobuk Valley National Park. Named from the Iñupiaq word Paatitaaq, meaning “wild onion,” Onion Portage has been a site of archaeological interest since the early 1960s, but has been occupied by humans for at least the past 10,000 years. [ii] Incomplete back-filling of the dig site has created a space particularly susceptible to erosion—and a site particularly exposed to changing weather patterns. Douglas Anderson, Professor of Archaeology and one of the most prolific and respected social scientists of his era, describes Onion Portage as such:

A sand knoll dominates the wooded landscape at the site. Hunters both ancient and modern have used this vantage as a lookout for the thousands of caribou that cross the river at Onion Portage, moving north in the spring and south in the fall. From the knoll the approaching animals can be seen soon enough for men to be stationed for the kill at points where the herd is likely to cross the river. The fishing at Onion Portage is also good; several species of salmon migrate upstream during the summer. The prized sheefish, which is scarce in other Alaska rivers, is also caught by the local Eskimos. [iii]

Onion Portage is important because it holds pieces of the historical record—early human settlement can be seen along the banks of this oxbow, the place caribou cross the Kobuk River. Today, still, people camp along the banks of the Kobuk near the portage and wait for the caribou migration; subsistence hunters can take seventeen caribou a day back to their communities. In isolated villages—far from road systems and grocery stores—this annual hunt is necessary. In Kotzebue, milk can cost more than $13.00 a gallon, and gas is about the same. Subsistence hunters need the annual migration as much as the caribou need the seasonal change. Far from desolate waste, the northern parts of Alaska teem and pulse with life. I’ve seen videos of caribou rushing water, a herd of hundreds swimming across a river’s width, their gangly legs thrashing. The reindeer introduced to Alaska in the 19th century swim with the caribou, too, their stout bodies more compact, their heads held slightly lower to the water—the herd moves quickly and efficiently north and south.

Along Desperation Lake, the last respite for pilots flying north of the Brooks Range, heading further and further over the Slope, there are remnant game drive lines called Inuksut. Tall rocks set along the ridge, these lines direct the migrating caribou toward the lake itself. They resemble the heads of men peering over the edge of the mountain, and they are spaced a few feet apart. When they were used, and they were used for many, many years, hunters would gather at either side, convincing the caribou their numbers were many and driving the herd toward the water. From there, the herd could be culled and gathered, game dragged to shore, butchered, and stored in rock circles, caches that line the lake’s edges. The beginning of the Brooks Range looms over the lake so clear and dark the smooth rocks along the shore are visible through the water.


From the air, the silted oxbows of the Kobuk River, the Noatak River, the Nigu River—the myriad crisscrossing rivers that span Alaska—are orange and red and even brown, bottomed out or almost blocked in streams of clear turquoise water. They redirect water not sporadically—think the Mississippi River jumping course in the lower forty-eight—but by necessity: melting glaciers, overfull rivers, surging rainwater all caused by an increasingly warm climate. When this happens, ground that has been present for thousands of years, sites that have been frequented by humans for thousands of years—these places are washed away, and the history they hold is flushed into water.


4. The wilderness was full of danger. It was all so full of danger. A year after my first visit to Kotzebue my partner Mike, an archaeologist for the National Park Service, and I take a canoe trip up the Kobuk River to Gidding’s cabin, a Park Service structure located above the site of Onion Portage. In a year, the permafrost has continued to melt, and Tommy’s ground penetrating radar is recording distressing results. The previous winter’s snowfall was at an all-time low, and excessive summer rainfall has caused the Kobuk to rise by eight to ten feet. We land in Ambler near midnight, stalled repeatedly by torrential rain. Low-wing planes, like the Piper Chieftan we board first, can’t land in muck, so twice we are turned back to Kotzebue. We deplane and board, deplane and board, and finally arrive via Cessna Caravan, a raised wing plane capable of landing in mud, in Ambler.

Another small Iñupiat village, Ambler is set along the Kobuk River. A local man drives us to the riverfront. “And do you have a nautical radio?” he asks. “The river’s really high.” We have a satellite phone this trip and a GPS. He looks distressed, and he’s right—we aren’t prepared, we aren’t from Ambler, I’ve never been on the Kobuk, and we’re about to set off into an overfull river with backwash so fast we watch logs running by us upstream.

The water bursts along the river’s banks, biting away dirt edges in chunks, submerging every gravel sandbar—we’re watching, in real time, the same thing that happens along the Arctic coast. We decide to try anyway, a push of foolishness driven by a desire for adventure. We inflate our SOARS canoe and head downriver, our initial goal of forty miles a day squashed by the reality of a current moving backward—the backwash carries logs against the current, the current itself slowed from a projected 7-10 km/hr to a sluggish 1-2 km/hr. I shiver and steer as Mike paddles and rain beats upon us. Every time a log swims by we worry our canoe will be punctured, but we’ve come this far and we need to make it to safety and shelter. We hug the disintegrating shore.

There’s a point where we attempt to make landfall. Trees falling down crumbling banks sound like gunshots. A grizzly jumps from the bank and swims behind us, curious about our paddles thrashing. Mike stops paddling, and the bear, uninterested, swims away—further from villages bears are less habituated. They don’t yet associate humans with food and, when handled safely, will usually turn away when their curiosity is sated. Mike and I carry bear spray and trash bags (when unfurled they are unexpected and scary to bears) as well as a shotgun, though neither of us would ever shoot a bear. Out here on the backwards-running, thick and cold river, the rain is ceaseless, and, despite Arctic summer’s endless sun, the temperature continues to drop.


This rain, though typical for an Alaska summer, is atypical in its magnitude. A significant amount of Alaskan precipitation happens during the winter in the form of snow. The ecosystem relies on this snow, the cycle of freeze that allows both humans and animals to travel far wider distances than otherwise possible. The permafrost, too, relies on this weather pattern, and Shishmaref is the first to admit defeat to a changing climate. Kivalina, Alaska, will be next, sinking into the Artic Ocean. Point Hope will follow, eventually, and even Kotzebue—though protected by barrier islands and Kotzebue Sound, the rising sea levels will soon encroach.

The concept of “wilderness” does not exist in Iñupiat culture the same way it does in the English dictionary; people are part of the wilderness, part of the landscape in very integral ways, and when the land itself begins to dissolve, it is humanity and wilderness that are affected—in Alaska, there is no separation between them. When we talk about climate change, we talk about a distant future of higher seas, of a disappeared Florida, of what-ifs and somedays. But the occupants of Northwest Alaska are feeling the effects today—the subsistence hunters and conservationists and pilots, the visitors and permanent residents and polar bears and walruses and puffins.

As an anthropologist, this is Mike’s concern:

Coastal Iñupiat societies—dependent upon these imperiled ecosystems for survival—struggle to maintain subsistence independence and cultural identity. Places like the Native Villages of Kivalina and Shishmaref are among the most heavily impacted, as their traditional use areas, homes, and community infrastructure are ravaged by coastal erosion.

This is not simply a matter of history. While the history of these sites and the clues they provide about early human land use and the migration to and from Beringia is important, it is the current state of this landscape that is most troubling. These are not renewable resources and are, rather, what Mike identifies as “static resources”: paleontological sites and deposits that record and represent events in time. As these coastal zones are systemically impacted, an important record of human land use and migration in Eastern Beringia is being erased at an unprecedented rate. These remarkable resources are critical for understanding the history of humanity and for preserving the future of wilderness for humans, for flora, for fauna.


5. This wilderness, this life, is contrasted with the future life, so guard this wasting land, the land we can’t recall. Alaska, for me, is a near-religious experience. The landscape and air are different than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and when I return to the lower forty-eight, I always feel a sense of sadness, a resistance to the neatness and borders of my suburban neighborhood. I long for the large wooden crosses in Kotzebue cemeteries, the loop road and its weather stations, the way tundra feels as I lay in it collecting cranberries left over from last season.

On the trip to Chamisso our captain miscalculated our fuel, banked us along the coast, the boat run aground. We tied a rope to the hull and pulled the vessel along the shore, six of us in a line, waist deep in water near the keel, pulling around a point until the radio could signal Kotzebue. The captain’s brother came with extra fuel, and we trailed the shoreline as we returned to town.

At Gidding’s cabin Mike and I waited out the storm after hauling our gear uphill. We set up sonic alarms around the SOARS canoe because bears like to chew rubber and then unloaded the bear barrels inside the cabin door. We huddled near the stove, cold until we started shivering, then shivered again for a few hours until we were warm—the sun never set. The next morning we decided to call for a floatplane pickup, our forty-mile-a-day goal thwarted by the rain and flooded river, all sandbars submerged. We couldn’t camp along the banks, couldn’t pull the canoe to safety. We felt beaten by the Kobuk, by the weather, by the unexpected torrents of water, and foolish because we were so lucky. We found the cabin despite the breakdown of the shore, pulled to safety and climbed the hill despite the rain and cold. We dried our clothes along lines strung by the stove and set our boots by the fire to warm.

The thing of it all is that we could leave—the floods and the backwash and the heavy branches and logs. We could leave the gunshot crack of pine trees falling into water, the heavy splashing of cliffs eroding, the shores of the Chukchi Sea degrading into ocean, pieces of long-extinct mammoths falling whole from the sides of mountains, the dead walruses and the increasingly rare polar bears. Our house hasn’t been affected by glacial runoff, the meltwater of oxbowed rivers nor the shrinking space between land and sea. We have the privilege of distance to put between ourselves and the inevitable flood.

And yet we can’t leave; we can’t pretend we are sheltered from this ever-growing storm. We can’t decide we’re going to ignore the melting permafrost because we, humanity, are also wilderness. There is no line between us, and when one collapses, so too does the other. The death of the caribou, the lost herd, is also the death of a village, a relocation into increasingly crowded urban environments. We are intrinsically tied to these wild places, not separate from them. These ordered rows of bentgrass, bluegrass, red fescue, and rye can’t save us. The threat is already here, and the floods will wash us all away.


[i] All definitions modified from the Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[ii] Hardes, Jon, “Peeling back the layers at Onion Portage,” National Park Service 12 Sept. 2013, http://www.nps.gov/kova/blogs/Peeling-back-the-layers-at-Onion-Portage.htm.

[iii] Anderson, Douglas D., “A Stone Age at the Gateway to America,” Scientific American 208, no. 6 (1968).


From the writer

:: Account ::

My trips to Alaska are, as cliché as it sounds, life changing—it is awe-inspiring to witness the effects of a warming climate firsthand, but, as I explain in this essay, I am always aware that I can leave. And there’s something to that, the privilege to leave, to return to the lower forty-eight and go about my daily life in a way that is very different than the lives of people faced with an immediately changing climate. This summer was the hottest on record, and while Tennessee wasn’t pleasant, I didn’t have to worry about something as physical and personal as my house falling into an ocean. When we consider the changing climate, I don’t think we consider this immediacy—so many people have the privilege to leave danger, and that’s the point I’m trying to make in this essay. I’m constantly revisiting these themes because climate catastrophe is always on my mind.

Woven into this idea is the false sense that humanity and wilderness are two distinctly different concepts—we often forget that we came from wilderness and that we still exist within it (consider the coyotes on your street, the deer in your yard, the ferns you always cut back from your fence). This idea repeats over and over in my writing because I want to explore how we got here, how we see wilderness as a separate construct—the definitions, the lines, the borders we create between ourselves and the natural world, the separation we impose and imply as if we are not intimately connected.


Andrea Spofford writes poems and essays, some of which can be found or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Midwest Quarterly, inter|rupture, New South, Sundog Lit, The Portland Review, Sugar House Review, Vela Magazine, Puerto del Sol, and others. She has chapbooks available from Dancing Girl Press and Red Bird Chapbooks, and her first book, The Pine Effect, is available from Red Paint Hill Press. Andrea is poetry editor for Zone 3 Press and lives in Tennessee. Find her online at http://andreaspofford.com and on Twitter @andspoff.