Near the eastern boundary of Kobuk Valley National Park, the Kobuk River makes a wide bend, creating a long, narrow peninsula that juts out into the water. Local residents call it Paatitaaq, or Onion Portage, for the wild onions that grow along the banks of the river. For most of the summer, the gravel shore is picturesque and calm. A blue river drifts pass under a blue sky with the peaks of the Jade Mountains rising up in the background. The only sound is the wind rustling in the birch trees that line the steep banks and the occasional commotion from a flock of ducks landing on the river or a bear splashing into the water in search of a salmon.
Twice a year, however, the caribou arrive, pouring across the tundra and down the steep slopes before plunging into the Kobuk River on their biannual migration across the Brooks Range. The caribou are followed by hunters. On land, even a newborn caribou is far faster than a person, but a swimming caribou can easily be taken down by a single hunter. Buoyed by air trapped in their fur, the dead animals then float downstream and wash ashore at Onion Portage’s gravel beach. When archeologist Louis Giddings first arrived on the Kobuk River in 1940, elders in the villages of Kiana and Shungnak told him their families had been hunting caribou at Onion Portage for as long as they could remember.