SAME BEAUTY, DIFFERENT BEHOLDER


As the Cessna 206 flew northward over the western Brooks Range, dark clouds ahead, I was thinking that we weren’t going to see the caribou migration from the air.  We might have to soon turn around, but at least we had already seen spectacular scenery that few are fortunate enough to view.

We had flown to Kotzebue, Alaska, for the express purpose of seeing the caribou migration from the air.  The Western Arctic Herd fluctuates in size, now about 275,000.  I have seen pictures of the herd bunched together from the air; I have heard stories of having the caribou go through one’s campsite.  The chances of being in the right place on the ground, however, are small.  The animals may come early, late, or take a different migratory route.

Jared, our pilot, had told us a year ago on a prior visit that it might be possible to see the migration from the air, suggesting we come about the second week in July.  We decided to spend six days in Kotzebue.  If weather were an issue, or Jared busy, which all pilots are in summer, we would have flexibility.  We arrived on the evening of the sixth and walked one block from the airport to their office.  Jared had just finished a trip and told us the caribou had migrated 2 weeks earlier this year.  Much of the herd was far to the northeast, he said, but a significant number were still due north of us in one of the valleys.  He thought we might be able to fly out the next afternoon, proposing a triangular leg that would put us near the first group and then move westward to see the others.

The next day Jared was still busy at 3, and my wife and I were beginning to think we’d wouldn’t go until the following day.  Maybe. I have dealt with Alaskan bush pilots for a decade, and things are predictably unpredictable.  One needs to expect anything, be ready immediately, and ascribe any untoward event as “It’s Alaska.”  We took a short walk down the beach, waiting. At 4:30, we were asked if we were ready; at 5, we were in the air heading north. We were going to try to find the tail end of the migration.

We overflew the valley where the caribou had been the day before, now empty, except for a stunning rainbow, which suggested we might have some sunshine in between showers.  I wasn’t expecting much, my long standing philosophy being that seeing wildlife is a gift and not an expectation.  We turned east, passing by mountains of the western Brooks Range. I think we saw six rainbows.

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Rainbow over the Brooks Range

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Not uncommon view in the Brooks

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Canyons of the Noatak River.

Suddenly, Jared said, “There are 10.”  I didn’t see anything.  “There are a few more. Wow, they sure have put on their hiking boots.”  My wife then saw them.  I hadn’t configured my eyes yet for what I should be seeing from the air.  I’ve seen thousands of caribou, but mostly from the ground.  I looked and looked.

Then I saw them, a couple of small dots, moving.  Then I saw several brown lines on the tundra, animal trails, with a line of brown moving on them. Caribou.

 

 

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There are about 400 caribou in this picture.  The dark lines are animal tracks.

The valley narrowed into a canyon, and the river, its banks, and the narrow sides of the canyon appeared alive.  It was.  The ground itself was moving, lines and lines of caribou moving east.  We weren’t standing still watching them move.  We were traveling 80 knots, 1.5 miles a minute, and for at least five minutes we saw lines of caribou.

Everywhere.

Jared banked at a fork in the canyon, and we turned back to a valley where a hill marked the entrance.  Flying much lower now, we could see the hill covered with caribou, a sea of brown, some lying on the ground in the 24 hour a day sunlight.  It was stunning.  I like to take pictures, but from a moving plane through a window, I looked, videoing while looking more carefully with my eyes.  If the pictures came out, fine.  If they didn’t, well…it’s Alaska, and the scene was now embedded in my brain.

All too soon, we banked away from the caribou, leaving them to their migration, heading south.  Nearby, the prior night, Jared had dropped off a guide with 3 Australian clients, telling them to camp by a small, shallow river and hike over to a nearby hill and wait for the caribou.  “I hope I was right,” he said.

We approached the camp and overflew it, then banking and landing on a gravel bar near the group.  The guide, a young woman, appeared with the three others in tow, young men.  She was ecstatic, slapping hands with Jared, saying they had spent much of the night, sun up of course, watching the migration from a quarter mile.  The clients seemed more muted. Wow, I thought.  What an experience, hours of caribou viewing from the ground.

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Ground view about 10 miles from Caribou viewing.

 

We took off and flew back to Kotzebue, thrilled that on our first full day we saw what we came—and hoped— to see.  No, we didn’t see 200,000 caribou in a valley milling around.  I’ve seen those pictures, and they are amazing.  We saw instead something more subtle, nothing I expected to see, but to me every bit as memorable.  We saw miles and miles of caribou on the move, covering the hills, the streams, moving through a valley and a canyon.  One doesn’t see that when they are bunched up.  We saw a migration.  Would I like to see it from the ground?  Yeah, I would. But I saw something special.

The next day, we happened to run into one of the Australians in the hotel, not surprising, since there is only one major one in Kotzebue.  He said nothing about the caribou, not one word, but spoke about the Wildebeest migration in Tanzania, telling us at least 3 times that we really ought to see it. I’m 3 1/2 times his age, but I get excited about nature like a kid.  At 19, he saw something rare and beautiful, but as Steve Prefontaine said, “sacrificed the gift.”  His father paid for his trips; the flight alone (not including guides, food, or the trip from Australia) were $6600.

We subsequently took two more flights with Jared, one to Kobuk Valley National Park, where we were dropped off while he flew elsewhere to shuttle a group from one area to another.  We had free “ground time,” because he had to be out there anyway, and spent three hours hiking in perhaps the most remote park in the country, quiet, beautiful and alone.  Two days later, we flew down to the Seward Peninsula to see Serpentine Hot Springs, part of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Jared, very familiar with the area, had never been in the water. Come to think of it, he had never seen such good weather there, either. While we were hiking, looking at the many tors, granite that appeared as the ground above it eroded, he soaked.

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Bush growing on sand dune in drainage where there were a remarkable number of wildflowers and a 15 year-old spruce tree.

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Western edge of Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

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The wind causes changes in the sand, changes in the clouds.

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Crop circle effect of wind’s blowing grass. Foot tip for perspective.

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Changes in the color and texture of sand occur just like in snow.

 

We came to see the caribou migration, seeing it in a way I had not expected.  Additionally, I got to see Kobuk Valley a second time, with adequate time to explore.  And I flew down to Serpentine Hot Springs, a place I hoped some day I might see but figured I never would.

I won’t ever see the Wildebeest migration, although I’m certain it’s remarkable, as are both North American migrations, caribou and crane.  Some of the best experiences come not from managing a trip to Tanzania or Alaska, but from managing one’s expectations.

 

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