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.