Dwarf fireweed blooms along the Canning River in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, feeding and sheltering wildlife beside the rushing snowmelt. | Patrick J. Endres/AlaskaPhotoGraphics
"Everything is flowing—going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water."
Where tectonic upheaval flatlines and the Brooks Range runs out, infinite space welcomes the traveler like a door thrown open. The Canning River, blue as the Caribbean, spills our rafts from a foothill valley into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain. Ice sheets encase the banks, where the river repeatedly rises, pools, and hardens into armor; in some places, the ice lasts all year. Water so clear that you see every cobble, and so pure that you drink straight from the stream, slides around graveled bends. Once in a while, it crests into riffles or feathers into rapids.
At yesterday's camp, tracks of caribou, wolves, bears, geese, and a wolverine seamed the mudflats with the animals' hidden agendas. Today, we've already spotted a silver arctic fox, a moose built like a bulldozer, and a peregrine killing a ptarmigan and passing it off to a juvenile bird—all within an hour. Some animals seek contact, mirroring our own curiosity: Mew gulls escort our rafts, shrieking blue murder and sounding like rusty hinges. Caribou step closer, eyeing us nervously. Last night, a red fox investigated our dinner.
And yet, the tundra can also appear lifeless for miles around. We frequently survey it from a cutbank or by standing up in the rafts, detecting no movement other than the river's slippage beneath anvil-headed clouds.
Which is why encounters with wildlife can keep us buzzing for hours. They feel like a karmic reward. More than in its weather or its plants, the Arctic's life force concentrates in its creatures. We find refuge in their company, and in this day on the river. —Michael Engelhard