It is in our nature to survive.
My brother asked me for help. What I gave him instead was rage.
I am addicted to rage.
My brother and I are both addicts. If you looked into our eyes,
you would see no di=erence. We are not bad people. We are people who feel badly about things we have done.
Sex. Money. Oil. Drink. Aren’t we all addicted to something, someone, some secret shame we harbor?
In wilderness, there is no shame.
In wilderness there is acceptance in the evolutionary processes of life. No plant or animal petitions for
mercy. There are no complaints rendered or excuses
made. There is only the forward movement of life and
the inevitable end.
The end of wilderness scares me.
I am unsteady on my feet. Tussocks on the tundra covered in
dwarf willow bring me to my knees. My eyes drop down to the
level of lichen, reindeer lichen, and I note the branching of one is
reminiscent of another. I look up. Nothing. Everything.
With the help of my hands, I rise, and keep walking toward the
knoll, visible from camp. Brooke is ahead of me. We scramble
up scree. From the top, we count five drainages and three lakes,
knowing from the map that there are four more beyond our view.
It is this kind of scale that protects us from smugness. At our
feet, a bleached caribou antler embedded in the ground appears
as a graceful curve.
We fall asleep on a bed of bones—bird bones, rabbit bones,
the bones of voles—and nestle inside one another as we have
a thousand times in wild places. The small feathers that remain
beneath the whitewashed outcropping of stone, a testament
to death, suggests the perch we found for ourselves is also the
perch of falcons, eagles, or owls.
My brother bands birds of prey during fall migration. As I am in
the Arctic, he is on Commissary Ridge in the Salt River Range
in western Wyoming, where it is not unusual to see 125 golden
eagles pass through in a matter of days. He told me before our
splintering that it takes three men to hold an eagle down while
placing a band around its leg. He described the day he watched an
eagle from afar, who was watching him, as he twirled a pigeon on
a string above his head like a feathered lasso designed to catch the
eagle’s eye and lure him in; how the eagle, a mile and a half out,
“Sorry to interrupt,” our friend Kyle said, appearing on the knoll
and out of breath, “but I wanted to be three instead of one.” He
had startled us awake. We sat up from our bed of bones. Below
us was a grizzly, upright.
Brooke stood, the bear caught him in view and dropped on all
fours and ran a few yards, turned, stood up again, faced us, sni=ed
the air, and then fell into a gallop across the terrain of dwarf birch,
willows, and black spruce, never looking back. We watched the
golden bear until she became a point of light moving across the
great expanse. Who knows who else was watching us.
“Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches in a forest with eyes,” writes Richard Nelson in Make Prayers to the Raven. “A person moving through nature— however wild, remote,
even desolate the place may be — is never truly alone.”
We are in a country of eyes.
We are walking in a country of eyes; a world intimately known
by the Inupiat people, the Koyukon people, and the people who
came before them. There is no such thing as a wilderness without humans. Our imprint on the land is a matter of time and
scale and frequency.
The Gates of the Arctic Wilderness sits inside a national park
bearing the same name. Covering over 7 million acres, including much of the Brooks Range, it is bordered to the west by
the Noatak Wilderness, making this the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States. Go east and you will find
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Go northwest and you will
cross into the National Petroleum Reserve. Within this national
park, native lands remain intact where native people exercise
their subsistence rights as they have done for generations.
The Wilderness Act is the act of loving
beyond ourselves, beyond our own
species, beyond our own time.