Aerial view of the transition from the Brooks Range into the coastal plain. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect the unique coastal tundra of arctic Alaska, along with wildlife such as grizzly, wolves, musk ox and the more than 120,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd. Photo: Jad Davenport
The current pushes and pulls. My feet shift, incrementally, muscles tensing and then relaxing to the rhythms of the river. My fly line slides off into the depths, unseen, unknown, tenuous – searching for a seam I can’t quite make out. But it’s there. I sense it. I intuit it. I know it: a living seam in a living river, the same slice of equilibrium that might hold a steelhead on the Dean or a rainbow on the Henry’s Fork. Yet I’m not on the Dean, or the Henry’s Fork, or the Yellowstone, or anyplace else in the known angling universe. I’m hard up against a crumbling rock wall, backed up against a cliff on the icy Kongakut with the Brooks Range all around and the Arctic Circle a dim memory to the south.
Yesterday, I saw fresh wolf tracks on a gravel bar. The day before, I pitched my tent a couple yards from where a grizzly bear had ambled through, leaving prints the size of children’s nightmares in the sand. And everywhere I’ve wandered, from the river’s edge to the mountains that overlook the valley floor, I can feel the eyes of Gwich’in elders – men and women who no longer walk in the flesh but who still guard this inviolate land. They’ve watched over this place since the end of the last ice age, when my distant ancestors were still living in caves on the other side of the world.