In the Footsteps of the Muries

Many of my best personal memories of wilderness were created while backpacking in the Brooks Range with my son or base camping at a remote cabin with my daughter.  Another memorable moment came a few years ago when I joined a group of friends on an expedition to the Sheenjek River in the far northeastern corner of Alaska.

The general idea was to commemorate a trip that Olaus and Mardy Murie had made to the Sheenjek in 1956.  They were two of the great conservationists of the 20th century and their purpose was to draw attention to the richness of the land.  The Muries wanted the area designated as an Arctic Wildlife Range.  We know it today as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Mardy described their journey with lyrical prose in her memoir, Two in the Far North.

Our trip started and ended with bush planes as we shuttled between Arctic Village, the southern gateway to the Refuge, and our drop-off and pick-up locations in the valley of the Sheenjek.  We made three camps over eight days, enjoying local hikes from each base and then rafting to a new location downriver.  We followed the meandering path of the languorous Sheenjek, which is old and heavily oxbowed as it flows through a broad tundra valley flanked by ancient ridges of limestone. 

In August, the low tundra flowers blazed with fall colors, so that psychedelic reds, oranges and yellows were sprinkled brilliantly among the greens and browns of fading summer.  Even with autumn in the air, the sun circled low above the horizon for all but a few twilight hours during the night, creating a constantly shifting pattern of light and shadow on the surrounding mountains.  

Our first day on the water, after three days in camp, provided the most memorable animal sighting.  As the two rafts navigated around a bend, we saw a large, dark wolf standing on a gravel bar ahead.  We were paddling into a strong wind, so neither our voices nor our scent carried to the animal and we were afforded a really good look.  Eventually, the animal saw us approach and took off like a shot through some braids of the river and across the open tundra beyond.  Then we saw what had been holding his attention:  a bull caribou, handsomely antlered, grazing on the opposite bank.

This encounter prompted an extemporaneous commentary from one of our group: 

“Every time you come around a bend in the river, you might see an animal.  It’s great when you do, but even when you don’t, there is still the possibility, the expectation and anticipation, the thrill of the unknown.  At every bend of the Sheenjek, there is the possibility of an animal, and the certainty of great landscapes.  And it is by design.  We have this opportunity due to the foresight of people like the Muries who fought to preserve wilderness.” 

See and hear more of Richard Nelson’s wildlife comments at his website, www.encountersnorth.org


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