Of Dogs & Wilderness: Immersion

A ski-equipped bushplane on snow in the mountains during winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Flying over the North Slope on my way to May Lake, all looks vast and lifeless, a land with its breath upheld. I have seen neither road nor cabin for what seems like hours. Suddenly, I see snowmachine tracks below. They look playfully whimsical, like the drivers are on a lark of some kind but then I realize that they are following a winding river drainage. Soon after, I spot the two tiny machines parked parallel to mark a landing field. The flat, afternoon light makes it difficult to judge depth and distance and the snow looks deceptively soft so when the plane touches down on skis, it is with a thump that is unexpected! In an instant, I have been spilled into a 3 dimensional wilderness world. My belongings are quickly unloaded from the plane and piled into a sled. Nick and Gary, the Law Enforcement rangers that have traveled by snowmachine from Galbraith to lay tracks for the dog teams to follow, give the plane a helpful push and it takes off with a frigid spray of ice crystals.

 
A bluish daytime hue in the Brooks Range mountains during winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

The bright yellow of the Arctic Oven tent makes a vivid splash in the bright white landscape. The camp site has been carefully selected. It is at the base of an embankment that protects the tent from the prevailing winds and situated to receive the biggest slice of the daily sun pie as possible. One of the first things I notice is a set of fox tracks coming down the hill and passing right by the tent. The signs of life are everywhere! Ptarmigan tracks wind in and out of the willow thickets, like the stitching on a crazy quilt, holding the land together. A group of chickadees fly over the bluff looking impossibly tiny in the vast, vast land, but filling the air with sounds of life.

 
An aerial view of snowmachines on the arctic tundra in winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

'Wilderness.' The very word can raise goose bumps and now I am in a place where some of the wildest of wild areas is just beyond the next rise. I can't wait to explore and the snow machine tracks make a tempting highway that even the ptarmigan cannot resist. I also follow the tracks along for a while, but soon see where a ptarmigan has stepped off the track and has headed across the deep snow toward a far patch of willow. I envy it the freedom its 'snowshoe' feathered feet gives and wistfully look toward the far horizon. Then I remember that there are snowshoes in camp! I return and borrow Nick's and head out again. It isn't the willow patches that draw me off the track though, it is the far horizon.

 
A ski-equipped bushplane lands on the snowy arctic tundra next to a snowmachine

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

As I snowshoe across the landscape, it occurs to me that if people who inhabit the arctic have many names for snow, they must also have many names for white! The snow that stretches in every direction is tinged by sun and shadow, creating a rainbow of whites. That snow holds the shape of the air that has sculpted it throughout the winter, like petrified wind. A silence lies over the land as well; a light, crystalline silence. It is as if every space between the billions of snowflakes is vibrating with it, amplifying it with a beautiful, singing resonance. The solitude is absolutely luminous.

 
Looking across a vast tundra landscape into a distant mountain valley in winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

On any hike, it is always hard for me to decide when to turn around and head for home, but here, it is almost impossible! Finally, my good sense kicks in and I head back to camp. There is a plume of smoke rising from the 'Arctic Oven' that makes it almost as inviting a destination as that far horizon did. Entering the tent, I see Nick doing one of those chores that always needs doing, melting snow into water. The tiny stove is red-hot and there is a pot on top that we continually feed in order to keep 3 people well-hydrated in this dry arctic air. Just as any fire has always done where people sit around it, the flickering flames and cozy warmth invite stories of the day's activities, which invite stories of other days and other activities which invite others yet and soon I feel like I have known Gary and Nick far longer than just one day. In the warmth of this tent community, I drift into sleep, letting the vast silence of the arctic night fill my dreams.

 
Smoke rises from the stack of an arctic oven tent on the snowy arctic tundra

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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