Hearts & Bones

This article originally appeared on the website of SIERRA magazine.

By Rick Bass

Photo: Sierra Magazine

We fly north toward the big mountains, the Brooks Range, and then through rather than above them. Sitting up front with the pilot, I hold a paper map in my lap like an old-school navigator. The names of the lakes and narrow valleys scroll past and melt away like our days themselves. What we do in this world matters; what can we leave behind that is beautiful? A filigree of Dall sheep trails across the windswept snow of the night before — one of the season’s first — looking like delicate fringed necklaces on the mountain. We see a few sheep bounding away from us: smart sheep. Our pilot is Dirk, a third-generation bush pilot. His eyes take in all the mountains at once; if a stone is overturned, he will know it. He sees everything from up here. Wolverine, often. Bears, sheep, mountain goats, and always caribou. He can spot a lone bull when it is still just a speck. His job, his life, depends on seeing everything, and, for the time being, we are in his care. He is making decisions that affect us profoundly.

It’s the best time of year: the clear light from above spilling, shifting gold, pouring, washing in sheets down the red and tallow-faced tundra, ribbons of yellow-colored willows like lace fringing the white froth of the hard-charging creeks, and all the rivers suddenly flowing north. So close to the top of the world now.

Dirk points out fresh digs in the mountainside, where the grizzlies have been chasing ground squirrels. It’s serene up above like this, and the day is extraordinarily clean and bright. There’s so much life! So much activity, even in the broad midday light, which, in September, still lasts plenty long. All the daytime movements, animals busying themselves for migration or hibernation, give the strange impression of passing over a suburban neighborhood on a fine autumn weekend. Oh, look, the grizzlies are out tending their garden. A flock of white-fronted geese, a wide triangle of them, slides past below us in that way birds do when you’re going one direction and they’re going the other — a pulse of white being pulled away like a tablecloth trick. Gone.

We’re almost through the mountains. We’re flying through the last valley, the little plane buzzing — coming out of the mouth of the last canyon, heading north, the tundra sprawling flat before us as if to eternity — and as we pass the last ridge, we’re astonished by what we see: a polar bear up in the mountains, striding bow-legged like Colossus straight up that steep slope, going up into the Brooks Range, heading south.

September is the best time of year in Alaska’s Broooks Range, with clear skies and golden lights spilling out on the tundra.

Because we’re coming out of the mountains, flying between the two flanks that form the mouth of the canyon — being disgorged from the canyon — we’re really, really close to the white bear. We can see his eyes — I want to call it a him, and if it were a grizzly, I’d identify it as a male. We’re not that far above the bear. We can see the afternoon westerning sunlight in its eyes. Unlike a grizzly, he doesn’t turn and run as the plane passes, but instead bows his legs in even tighter and pauses, as if wishing we’d come just a tad closer so he could stand up and swat us from the sky. You don’t have to be an animal behaviorist to know he’s pissed.

He is twice the size of the biggest bear I have ever seen.

We fly past him, and he continues up the mountain, not in a hurry but steadily, as if he knows precisely where he is going. Because we have a photographer with us — one who has come like a hunter looking for that unique shot that might help turn the tide of madness that has us considering oil development in the Arctic, and in the Arctic Ocean, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — Dirk lands the plane on the tundra, on a meandering riverside gravel bar, and we pile out, hoping to hurry up the slope and see the great animal again.

There is no way we are going to catch up with that animal on foot. I would have little compunction about following a grizzly — a gentle, sensitive animal so long as it’s not protecting cubs, and usually able to broker a deal of peace, able to negotiate — but about this gigantic white bear, who, the last time we saw him, was pissed, I’ll be honest, I have qualms.

We have no rifles. We don’t even have bear spray. All we have are camera lenses. There’s a tiny emergency flare gun in the back of the plane; that’s all. We hadn’t planned on stopping — -we were going to fly straight to the coast, to Kaktovik, another 30 miles or so farther on, to the place where the land ends and the sea begins. The country gets big quickly down on foot. Just us, weaponless, and a thousand-pound bear that we’re hurrying after.

Dirk ties the plane down, drives stakes into the time-packed gravel outwash as if setting up a tent. The wind lifts the wings of the little plane and rocks it, thus buckled, so that it seems it is straining to lift off again. Dirk is professional, nonplussed, as if seeing a polar bear up in the mountains, instead of down in the plains, is, though unusual, an ordinary occurrence. As if chasing after the bear on foot is normal.

We do not catch up with the migrating, or wandering, polar bear. He’s had a half hour and a mile head start. His (or her) stride outpaces ours with every step. He and his kind may be disappearing from the earth, but he is leaving us behind. We do not see him again.

I love the airplane culture of the Alaska bush, and am not unaware of the dark irony of using a plane or a car in order to celebrate the far north. Landing on gravel bars from which sometimes protrude the tips of mastodon trunks, and the stone or carved-wood points of awls and spears. The tinkling spray and clatter of sun glinting on beach sand and gem shards, prop-washed upon our landing. The plane bouncing, skittering like dice rolled hard.

We fly over the conflict zone, a much-contested, 1.5-million-acre section of land known, unimaginatively, as the 1002. That’s government-speak, all these decades later, for the crypt of tundra beneath which oil is believed to lurk. It’s an obvious misnomer, that geometrical, straight-line, mechanical signature of mankind in a landscape that is curved, sinuous, organic, unmanipulated, seething with life, and doing so very fine without us. Doing better than fine.

I do not want the drilling to proceed here. I want the oil to stay beneath the snow forever.

Snow geese graze below us like, well, a field of snow, there are so many of them. As we pass over, some of them — a few at first and then a lot — stir and scatter, the white block of them kaleidoscoping into a mosaic of autumn, blood-red and butter-gold tundra, and the soft brown of melting earth. The white fragments of their flock disperse in mesmerizing, swirling currents, all directions at once — like an ice floe falling apart, I think, except that after we are gone, they will reassemble.

And in the curious way of our species, I try not to look at it, the blurring ghost of the 1002’s artificial line — the signature of old politicians who are dust and bones now — and instead look past it, pretending not to see it, focusing on the beauty, not the wound. Not the mistake.

The Iñupiat residents of Kaktovik, Alaska, butchering one of the four whales they are permitted to take each year.

After waiting one’s life to see it, of course one should discover that the Arctic Ocean is guarded at its gates by a white bear. Just as there should be a place in our minds where time and events move differently, and where old rules and routines fall away — a place of vibrant imagination — so, too, must there be a physical correlative somewhere in this world, even if only at the top of the world. The alternative, I think, would be too lonely to withstand.

The flight over the last remaining tundra almost goes too fast — another 15 minutes? We spy a grizzly galloping through willows in the flat mosaic of vegetation — from the sky, the subtle wrinkles of old river channels vanish, as if here the land is ironed smooth by the severity of time — and already, we’ve reached the place we’re bound for. It’s as if the world and its distances are suddenly getting smaller up here; the ocean is ahead of us before I know it. Is this what the end of life is like, I wonder?

It does not feel like the end. It is the top of things, the top of the world, but it does not yet feel like the end.

The water’s bluer than I had imagined. I had been envisioning slate-gray waters so cold that they would be entirely void of color. But on this day in early September, the cloudless blue sky is reflected in the Beaufort Sea to present a surprisingly placid deep blue, a great and tranquil beauty.

I try to imagine these waters stippled to the horizon with drilling rigs — the last place in the world where we have not yet pierced and paved and torn and sucked — but that is the future, and right now, here in this moment, there is only beauty.

“Look,” Dirk says, angling the plane’s wings — we’re coming in on the tiny village of Kaktovik. Out here, in all this space, the settlement looks like a child’s sandbox play area. Only that, and then everything else, the great world beyond, the great world surrounding the one hammered-together, storm-tossed little village.

“They’ve already got a whale,” Dirk says.

We’re flying low, coming in for a landing — low enough and slow enough, it seems, that we could parachute safely with nothing more than bedsheets gripped in our hands, ballooning upward — and again the scene appears to be as right and natural as it is surreal and never-known. This is not metaphorical beauty. More than any place I’ve ever been, this is the abstraction, beauty, made physical.

There are different kinds of beauty. Ideas can be beautiful — but so, too, are things that are yet unattached to our ideas and are instead living under their own lights. A stone, this sky. A bear, a narwhal. Beautiful beyond us and our idea of beauty. Beautiful whether they are seen or not: a bear moving through the willows, curling up for a nap in the sun beneath a willow. A different kind of beauty up here.

Twenty or more Iñupiat villagers surround the upturned carcass of a bowhead whale, its belly white, the meat of its body bright red in the clean, yellow September sun. The lighting below us is luminous — the blue water, red meat, snow-white belly, sunstruck orange beach sand, wet black rocks here and there by the jetty — and the villagers are swarming the whale, hungry animals feeding themselves. Their bare arms are coated to their elbows with bright blood, and we float past, above them, on toward the runway, though I want to linger, to hover. But time will not have it. Time will not stop.

Of course everything should be different at the top of the world. Suddenly the airstrip before us is disturbingly militaristic, preposterously large — broader, it seems, than many Arctic airstrips are long — and our little plane lands like a helicopter, feels lost, out on all that tarmac, taxiing past all the old hangars and warehouses large enough to house dirigibles. These are the ghosts of war, remnants of Russia-as-enemy. Now the actual foe, the ocean that separated us, is lapping at our feet, soon to claim so much of what we sought once with such ferocity to defend.

The first whale of the year: what a feast. We hurry to the scene as it’s winding down in that beautiful, slow, softening equinox-approaching light. Such clarity of the primary colors, the blood so red. The young men are cutting off double-armful chunks of whale steaks, whale roasts, with cleavers and machetes, handing them out on gaff hooks as if passing out cotton candy at a carnival.

Everyone gets their meat.

One young woman wears a Gap hoodie; an older womanwears a kuspuk, a traditional coat with a wolverine ruff. Bloodstained hands are working steadily. The ball joint of the whale’s fin — vestigial legs and feet — gleams as white as our own, white as a buoy. Propane fryers roar, hissing fry bread burbles in the hot grease, and the cooks pass some to the meat cutters, who take it with their bloody hands and eat with one hand while cutting with the other. The red blood is beautiful in that light. When they are not holding the meat hooks, they smoke a quick cigarette; the smoke rises from their lungs as if winter has already arrived. There is a sense of urgency now, because the bears have learned that they can scavenge the giant carcasses once night falls, and the bears are impatient. The workers need to be done by dark, which, at this time of year, has finally started coming around again.

It’s time. Dusk is here, the hour of bears.

The sound of the young men sawing on the carcass is like that of carpentry, or, strangely, the rhythmic scoop and lift of a snow shovel lifting frozen snow. Sometimes they set down their fry bread and share a quick cigarette, but they’re working steadily, quickly. Night, the opposite of white. There are no lights on in any of the village’s bright little clapboard houses — blue, red, yellow, white — but that’s only because everyone’s down at the water. Impossibly big bear tracks — cartoon big — are everywhere along the shore. A land of giants, with us, tiny, along shore’s edge.

A young man in sweatpants comes riding up on a four-wheeler, not in much of a hurry but not leisurely either, and says, “He’s in the water.”

A bear, swimming toward shore: nose up, head up, coming for what’s his, now.

The villagers are finished with the carcass. They know; the bears know. They load the carcass unceremoniously (as if there could be a ceremony for this next part) into the bucket of a giant backhoe and wheel away, rumbling and oil smoke straining, to drive the carcass out to the edge of town, where a structure surely like no other on Earth has been built.

The only thing remotely like it is Stonehenge. But there are no stones here, only bones — the skulls and ribs and flukes of whales, a skyscraper of whale bones. There are so many skeletons, so tangled together by time — geological strata of giant bones, heaped in a vast tower — that form and order has begun to emerge from the dumping, and I have to wonder if the backhoe driver, over the years, does seek to arrange the great carcasses with some respect, some sense of order reestablished. Ribs stand vertical like the framed studs for a house-to-come, or a house that once was. The bears themselves — after gnawing ligaments and cartilage and drying red flesh — have shoved flukes into positions that look like the sills and jambs of windows and doors.

It’s an edifice of tangled bones, and yet it seems that some of the skeletons, as they lean into and against one another, are supporting and caring for the others. With the immense skulls, particularly, there is a festive quality: Some are almost upright, giving the appearance of dancing, or spy hopping, rising from the earth as they did from the sea.

Within minutes, half a dozen white bears are swimming through the bay, making landfall on this little sandbar in the blue dusk, shaking off like seawater dogs, then striding into the sprawling building of bones. They pass through the white ribs, the white skulls, giants among giants. They approach the new carcass, the red one, and begin chewing on it.

From a distance, we watch from our trucks. Again, as when we landed on the tundra, I’m tingling with awareness. What if our truck won’t start when it’s time to leave? What if the soft sand under our tires becomes slick from a rising tide and we become stuck? I am acutely aware of being protein, only protein, so far north, and it is a strange sensation: In some ways it’s as if I have renounced my old citizenship, as if I am perhaps being granted entrance into a much older kingdom. A phrase from the poet Mary Oliver — “announcing your place in the family of things” — comes to mind.

How to describe seeing a polar bear for the first time? What mosaic of words, and in what arrangement, what order? White, huge feet, long neck, shape of head, length of head, shoulders, forearms, fur, flank, eyes? Eyes. Time has spent forever making these animals, these beings, time and circumstance. Time, at the top of the world, and life, the fire of life, the belly-breath ingot of it, blossoming its tongue of fire even from beneath so much snow and ice. A magnificent yawp, magnificent demand, to live.

I find myself thinking of that one thin surgical scar, the line of the 1002. A thin scalpel across the belly.

Other bears are swimming to the beach, which is now becoming an island. The tide is coming in, and a tiny bridge of water separates us from them, at perhaps a hundred yards’ distance. Maybe less. I’m dizzy. They look like white beavers as they swim. Pleistocene beavers. How many times can I use the word giant? We’ve seen YouTube videos of polar bears swimming — an underwater ballet, as if riding a bicycle, and gracefully, with their giant paws displacing vast currents of cold blue water.

It’s quite touching, watching them swim. The thing to not think about is that we are asking them to swim almost all the time now. Their land, their firmament, over which we hold stewardship, is vaporizing.

Over time, predator and prey shape each other to be near-perfect mirrors of one another — muscularly and skeletally — and the white bears are in this regard seal-like, with their long sloping necks. Over time, predator and prey shape each other to the same destinies.

How can they make it? How can there be a white bear without a white land? I do not think there can be. The snow is why they are here, only here. The task of remaining forever alive in such a hard land is expensive, extravagant, bold, as is their commitment to all-whiteness, all the time. Without the snow, what was once an asset for the bears becomes a liability. Without the ice, the white bears will go away.

Their arms and shoulders are so large — what any of us used to looking at black or grizzly bears would think of as over-proportioned — as to be mesmerizing. So too is their long, easy gait, once they make landfall, after having swum so far.

The first bear on the island is the largest, and when it bites into the side of the whale, I feel further diminished; this is an animal that should be eating entire seals like appetizers, not chewing the red rind off bones already carved. This is an animal made for eating seal steaks, not cold bone broth.

The bear crawls inside the rib cage — its muzzle is bright red now, like a mask, one of the last things we’ll see in the fading light — and as the bear strains upward for some tiny delicacy (the equivalent of you or me straining to eat half of a split peanut) the ribs of the whale shake and quiver, and I’m reminded strangely of summer up in the mountains, of a blossom shuddering as the bumblebee within pollinates it. The entire whale is moving again, as if reanimated, reinspirited, as if this far north, at the top of the world, the rules of the world are different. How important it is for our culture of narcissism and unaccountability to believe those childish myths — as if our every wish, our every desire, will always come true. As if nothing will ever go away, and if it does, it will come right back. As if we can do no harm. As if we are not beautiful monsters.

It’s true dark now. The lights of the little whaling village — no more than four whales per year, then long winter — glimmer. In the night, perhaps, they will pad silently, huge-footed, white ghosts, through the little town, where no dogs bark, sniffing each house, each yard, to see if someone might have mistakenly left their whale steak out on a picnic table. The bears walking right up to the doors of the houses, perhaps, and sniffing, looking for anything. A smear of blood on the door, perhaps, from where a villager pushed it open. Licking the doorknobs, then passing on.

The hour of bears: When the sun goes down, polar bears swim over to claim what’s left of the whale.


Originally published at www.sierraclub.org on August 15, 2016.