Journey to Anaktuvuk

“Cocktail Hour in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” our most recent book, is now available as a digital book at Amazon. Before writing, I spent weeks pawing through my vast closet of memories to come up with the most fun items stored there. These went into the book, but there were dozens that did not make the cut, often because they were too short. So to help promote “Cocktail,” we are putting up a string of these “little” memories for your enjoyment, in hopes you will be interested enough to buy the book.  — Ed

The John River flows south from Anaktuvuk Pass through Alaska's Brooks Range to the Koyukuk River just below Bettles Field/Evansville. The river runs through beautiful areas and a variety of ecosystems. (National Park Service photo)

The John River flows south from Anaktuvuk Pass through Alaska’s Brooks Range to the Koyukuk River just below Bettles Field/Evansville. The river runs through beautiful areas and a variety of ecosystems. (National Park Service photo)

I didn’t feel I was in imminent peril, but the view from our airplane of the forbidding Brooks Mountain Range still had a high pucker factor.

The Brooks stretches about 700 miles east to west along the top of Alaska.

The further north we flew, the thinner the vegetation became until as far as we could see in any direction were snow-covered rock peaks that looked like daggers of ice. How terrible it would to crash there and not be fortunate enough to die on impact.

I was headed for the Brooks Range village of Anaktuvuk near the mouth of the south-flowing John River. We flew north along the John, sometimes between rock walls that were higher than the airplane; the mountains parted, opening to a wide plain upon which we could see the bleached bones of caribou that had been killed by Anaktuvuk residents. This has been a migration path for caribou herds for time unfathomed, and probably has been feeding natives along the route nearly as long.

“Anaktuvuk,” formally translated, means “place of caribou droppings.” The residents, at least those I asked, were somewhat more direct. “Caribou shit,” they said.

I went to Anaktuvuk to meet a crew of biologists who were studying barren-ground grizzly bears on the North Slope, but that’s another story. You can read it in the digital book Cocktail Hour in the Land of the Midnight Sun available at Amazon.com.

As I understood it, probably wrongly, the village maintained a shack where visitors could roll out their sleeping bags, and that was where we stayed. While we were trying to sleep, the village was surprisingly noisy as dogs barked and children played until dawn. And why not — there wasn’t anything dangerous and nothing to wreck in that village of probably fewer than 250 people.

This is the village of Anaktuvuk , located on the north-south divide of the Brooks Range. The John River flows south, and the Anaktuvuk River flows north to the Arctic Ocean. (National Park Service photo)

This is the village of Anaktuvuk , located on the north-south divide of the Brooks Range. The John River flows south, and the Anaktuvuk River flows north to the Arctic Ocean. (National Park Service photo)

Just after dawn the next morning, I noticed the door was open a crack, and in that crack was a bright brown eye. I smiled, and the door opened wider to reveal a whole platoon of bright brown eyes. It was the curious kids, checking out us “white guys.” I greeted them with a cheerful good morning and that’s all it took. They swarmed in, scrutinizing everything and everybody in the place, chattering like birds, deluging us with questions. I was wearing a tee-shirt, and the kids were amazed when they saw I had hair on my arms. They were used to seeing only their slick-skinned relatives.

I guess the devil made me do it, and from time to time I feel a (tiny) twinge of guilt. “Your arms are all hairy. Why are your arms all hairy?” they demanded.

It just popped out of my mouth: “We white guys hair out every winter. I’ve actually shed most of it.”

Bugeyed, they raced out of the shack to announce their discovery to the general populace: “White guys hair out in the winter, white guys hair out in the winter,” they trumpeted.

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