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IDAHO – MARCH 2021
It’s barely spring, and I’m out for a training hike. Summer and Alaskan caribou are on my mind. My son, August, squirms and twists in my pack, and my wife, Theresa, walks beside me. Our second son blooms in her belly, fresh and unformed — a cluster of cells, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and trace elements. We are a stone’s throw from our home in the woods of North Idaho, where a hard crust of ice still covers the flanks of Hoodoo mountain. Our feet punch through it to the soft snow beneath, doubling the effort of each step. I am grateful for the uneven terrain. It will strengthen my legs for the tussocks I’ll encounter on the tundra.
Alaska. It has beckoned all my life, calling to some unnameable longing in my soul, a whispered invitation passed down on tales my father and uncle told. I have yearned for it, though I have never seen it.
In late 2020, a client of mine learned I was rediscovering hunting and hungry for mentorship. She said I should meet her friend Steve Opat — an Alaska resident, and expert hunter — so we set up a call. I recounted my longing for Alaska, and something in my voice resonated with him. A few months later, he called again. “Elias, it’s Steve. I’m planning a Haul Road caribou hunt in August 2021 with my hunting partner Todd. Do you want to join us?”
I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to keep up with two seasoned hunters in the Alaskan wilderness, but fear is a poor excuse to offer up to destiny, so I accepted. I soon learned that Todd trains a special ops unit for a living, and had developed a program tailored for the demands of backcountry hunting. He agreed to train me in exchange for some design work, and set me on a six-month course trekking the logging roads that criss-cross the public land behind my property.
Theresa and I moved to Idaho abruptly in 2014 when Theresa’s father, Dan, was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma and given six weeks to live. Within a week, we’d packed up our apartment in Long Beach, California and moved back to be with her mother, Mary, and sister, Andrea. There beneath the tamarack and cedar, we watched Dan crumble and fade before the ravages of an enemy we were powerless to stop. We got six months. Then he was gone at 60.
He was the best of us, the old loggers would say — a son of Priest River, born and raised — and the words would catch in their throats as they choked back the tears.
Not long after he passed, Mary had their 40 acres partially logged. “Our retirement fund,” Dan always said. When the scale slips came back from the lumber mill, Dan’s lifelong best friend came by to look it all over.
“Mary, I’ve been logging my whole life, and I can tell you, we haven’t seen scale like this in 30 years. Either you have some incredible trees, or somebody’s doing you a favor.”
Theresa and I bought twenty acres and the old house — the one Dan built himself in the evenings after long days in the woods. Mary used the logging money to build a little place up the road on the other twenty. New construction. Paid in full. We never found out who called in the favor, but people around here look out for their own.
Now Theresa and I leave the house Dan built and walk past the house Mary built. Across the field, then up the logging cut. Straight up, so our legs burn and the sweat beads. Up to the gravel road and past the knob with the big pines. Farther up and farther in.
Dan was supposed to be here. Walking with us. Teaching my boys. Teaching me — how to fell a tree, and split and stack wood. How to sight a rifle, and gut a deer. How to make a home in these north woods. Instead, I don his old hiking boots and tread my own path to belonging.
All through the spring and into the summer, we walk the gravel roads, and talk, and don’t talk — of hopes and dreams and fears, and the great wide world. Up past the valley view, then left to the aspen grove where the leaves quake in the breeze, or right on the gated track where the moose sign is thick.
We have come to know the mountain. It forms us, bodies and minds, and it gives us small gifts. An elk spike in the snow. A flushing grouse. Wild strawberries. A light rain, and the scent of damp pine needles. A bobcat on the trail.
Our legs grow strong, and Theresa’s belly grows round.
We wonder if our unborn child has come to know the rhythms of this place; if he can feel the mountain beneath us. We wonder if he and August will love these woods as their grandfather loved them. If one day they too will crane their necks up at the big trees, and learn their names by heart.
We think he has. We think they will.
Meanwhile, thoughts of caribou pace my mind.
THE HAUL ROAD
ALASKA – AUGUST 2021
“Elias, I don’t know how to tell you this without sounding weird,” Steve says, “but caribou just come to me.”
I’m sitting shotgun in a dented Chevy express cargo van, mud-caked, packed to the roof with enough food and gear to sustain three grown men for ten days in the arctic tundra. The dashboard is littered with discarded snack wrappers, three sets of binoculars, two ball caps, a beanie, a grimy bluetooth speaker, and one bobblehead moose that nods and jerks to the pothole rhythms of the Dalton Highway, “The Haul Road” — portal to the Alaskan Tundra.
Over the course of 14 hours, Steve, Todd and I watch the landscape graduate from the mixed forests of paper birch in the south to the black spruce of the boreal forest in the north.
At the Yukon we stop to stretch our legs and fill our bellies with cheap, hot coffee. We walk to the river and bat rocks into the milky, silt-laden current with driftwood clubs. I dip my hands in the water and streak it across my face: a greeting. Finally. Thirty years of longing, thirty years of dreaming, and now I stand on Alaskan soil, Alaskan water on my fingertips, Alaskan air in my lungs.
We continue north. Past the tree line and up the shoulders of the Brooks Range into a primal land of rock and mist, where dall sheep haunt the crags, and whispers of grizzly are carried on the wind, then down the north slope as it tilts gently toward the Arctic Sea. Caribou country. The tundra.
I turn in my seat and see a feral glint flash in Steve’s eyes. “How much do you know about organic chemistry?”
“Enough,” I reply.
“Great,” Steve says, “so picture a water molecule — H2O, two hydrogens and one oxygen. Their electrons are attracted to each other, but they aren’t touching like this, so to speak.”
He clasps his two hands together.
“It’s more like this.”
He holds both arms out wide.
“Like they’re slow dancing at a seventh-grade dance. Attracted, but not touching.
“Now, you have the electrons in this water molecule — held together by electrical bonds — and this water molecule joins with other molecules, mainly carbon compounds, trace elements and so on. And together, without touching, these molecules form a tissue. That tissue works with other tissues to form an organ, that organ works with others to form an organism, and that organism joins others like it to form a community. That community may be a tribe of humans, a field of grass, or the herd of caribou we’re going to be hunting. And these communities interact with each other, and the non-living materials around them. We call that an ecosystem. Multiple ecosystems make a biome, multiple biomes comprise a planet, and it just keeps expanding out infinitely: solar system, galaxy, supercluster, and who-knows-what-else that we have yet to discover. Everything in the known universe, made of molecules, interacting, interconnected, and not touching.
“Here’s where I tend to lose people — some might say this is hippy-dippy bullshit — but zoom back in on you and me, and that herd of caribou. If a caribou is just a mass of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and trace elements forming an organism over there. And I’m just a mass made of the same stuff over here. And we are separated by nothing more than a blanket of tundra grass, lichens and moss — all made of the exact same stuff — all held together by invisible electrical bonds. Well then, it seems clear to me that I’ve got an electrical circuit connecting me directly to that animal.”
“And if that’s true, it’s not a leap for me to say that I believe, no different than I can pick up a phone in Alaska and call Elias in Idaho, I can communicate with that animal … if we speak the same language.”
As we sit in silence, my rational brain fires up its anti-mystical defense system:
Human brains are meaning-making machines!
Evolution-based survival mechanisms …
Pattern prediction and r e c o g . . .
I hear the still-small voice. It pulses and flutters and rises above the din, then warms and spreads into a full-body wave of joyful recognition. My heart knows.
This is true.
We are all one.
ALASKA – AUGUST 2021
Steve and Todd and I have pitched a spike camp on the bluffs overlooking the Sag River. We are deep in the tundra, far from the Haul Road and the Trans Alaska oil pipeline that runs beside it, well clear of the five-mile-wide bow-hunting-only corridor that protects the pipeline from stray bullets.
We’ve been standing here for hours. The arctic wind bites our cheeks, and gray rain mists our coats. We strain our eyes into the vast expanse of the tundra, searching for dark specks on the horizon. Specks that might be caribou.
The cold creeps in. I can’t imagine ever being warm here. My arms and shoulders ache from holding binoculars. My thoughts begin to wander. I wonder if I belong here. I wonder if Steve and Todd see me as an equal, or if they regret inviting me. I wonder what language the caribou speak, and if ten days is enough time to learn a word or two.
I don’t know, so I attempt an odd experiment. I take off my boots, and socks, and sink my toes into the soft tundra grass. I close my eyes and imagine a blue light in the center of my chest, radiating down through my body, out the soles of my feet and into the earth. I imagine it spanning out across the landscape, where it connects with caribou lights, and I call to them.
I am here.
It feels silly. Ridiculous even. A grown man barefoot in the tundra, trying to summon a caribou via an imaginary mystical-electrical connection.
It also feels, somehow, right.
This is the way.
The following days are marked by the purposeful intensity innate to predators. We watch. We walk. We hope. We wait. All our being is focused on a single, white-hot point: caribou.
Some evenings, we stand out on huge clumps of tundra sod, peeled from the river bank by the seasonal currents, and cast wooly buggers and shining lures into clear boils. Grayling strike and pull hard. We roast them over an open flame and are grateful.
A musk ox at sunrise, close to camp.
A cacophony of snow geese above in the gray.
Grizzly tracks in the mud.
I carry Dan’s Remington 700 .30-06 and an old Finnish knife that belonged to my grandfather. The gun is beautiful — walnut stock, blue steel. It is the rifle I took my first deer with, the one my boys will learn to hunt with. It was not made for the relentless damp of the tundra, but it’s what I have, so each night I cradle it in my lap, dry it, and clean it with gun oil. It feels right to have brought his gun to this place. I hope I’ll get to use it.
The days pass, and our legs grow weary as the tussocks roll and shift beneath each step. My hands are always cold, my feet ever wet. We roam far, and when we tire, we rest — in our tent while the wind howls, or in the soft tundra grass at midday. Then up again to watch and walk and wait once more.
We hike away from the river up the shallow gullies that cut a path to the main stem. The water here is pure, filtered through miles of tundra sponge. We carry small collapsible cups in our pockets and dip water straight from the creek.
Ptarmigan flush. White wings gleam in yellow sunlight.
Grayling scales, and blood in the shallows.
Wind and rain. A lone gull on the breeze.
We find a young bull up a gully and set up for a shot. He crosses the shallow creek and arcs out to 150 yards, then sees us and works his way back, curious — 125 yards. One hundred. Seventy-five.
But it’s early in the hunt and he is young, so I content myself to watch him through my scope.
The caribou turns and disappears below a crease in the land. Steve is up in an instant with his lever-action 45-70. He sprints across the flat and up the bank. The bull reappears, 50 yards out. Steve raises his rifle, and a metallic *clack* pierces the air. The little bull starts, then trots away. A minute later Steve is back, grinning like a little kid. “I just had to see how close I could get. I was never going to shoot him. He wasn’t meant for me.”
We range to the north, and the south. We see caribou often. But they are spread out in small bands, mainly in the bow corridor where we cannot hunt. I was happy to pay for a pricey out-of-state tag a week ago, but now it grows heavy in my pocket. I wonder if I should have taken the young bull. Cold clear water, in our bellies. in the air, dripping from the walls of our tent.
Our hunger for red meat grows.
Steve is unworried. “We’re doing it right, man. You’ll see. They’ll come.”
Todd takes two brace of ptarmigan with a .22 pistol.
River water, grayling, ptarmigan. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon. Clean water, white flesh, red flesh — it becomes food, becomes red flesh in us. The tundra is in us, a part of us now. And we, a part of it.
I barely notice the cold anymore. My hands have grown hard, chapped by the wind and rain, my entire being tempered by the hunt.
Eight caribou to the southeast, a mile from camp. Clear of the bow corridor.
We move with purpose, down to the riverbed where we can close the gap unseen. The caribou are maybe a half mile inland. There will be no cover once we climb back up on the ridge. A long, wet belly crawl will be my only chance. I hope I won’t blow the stalk.
We approach the top of the bank and huddle below the horizon line. Steve moves ahead, just over the rise, then ducks low and crawls back quickly. “We’ve got to move! Now! They’re right there!”
We crouch-run a few hundred yards back in the direction we’ve come, then spin around and lie flat against the earth.
“Get ready, Elias,” Todd says under his breath. “I’ll range for you.”
A caribou crests the rise, a cow. And a young bull. Then another. They are less than 100 yards away. The group stops, aware of us. Then another small bull appears. I hesitate, unsure of which animal to take. Then I see him. The fourth bull. He’s the oldest of the group, toward the back. And I know. He has answered my call.
Here I am.
“Seventy-two yards,” Todd whispers.
The bull crosses in front of the group. I wait. All the world collapses in on itself. There is only he and I, drawn into each other’s orbit.
Steve was right.
Suddenly the bull is clear. A clean shot, broadside, and he’s down. Blood streams from his nostrils, slick on the tundra grass. My eyes never leave him. He does not move again.
That night, back at the tent, we gorge ourselves on fresh heart and tenderloin, until we can eat no more and collapse in exhausted, satiated heaps.
“You know, I don’t think anyone ever deserves an animal,” Steve says, “but I do think it’s possible to earn one.”
I know what he means. I know now, I am a hunter. I always have been. The language of predator and prey runs deep in my bones. The language of love. The language of life.
Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon. Blood, flesh, bone.
This is how the caribou speak.
IDAHO – DECEMBER 2021
On December 12, Sylvan Hart Carlson is born.
Not long after his birth, a lumpy brown package arrives in the mail. It contains two blue Nalgene bottles and a note from Steve:
“Making this gift got me through 25 days in Deadhorse. 25 days during the coldest, darkest days of the year. I haven’t seen the sun but still I found light. This is pure Alaska water. I’ve gathered it from all around the drainage we hunted, from the purest sources I could find. I know August is old enough to eat caribou meat, but it will be gone before the baby can have some. Mix this water up with some formula and give it to him so he can start building his Alaska body. The second bottle is for you. When you need it.”
I turn one of the Nalgenes in my hand. For weeks after I returned from Alaska, the skin on my fingers peeled, shreds of the state sloughing away. I was glad to be home, but not ready for my hands to return to the soft work of the office, or my eyes to the harsh glow of the screen. I’m reluctant to let the wildness fade. I want blood under my fingernails, and tundra sky above me.
I want the same thing for my sons.
One evening, I walk down the hallway by August’s bedroom, past the chalkboard where he scrawls uneven letters and drawings of family. At the top of the board, Theresa has inscribed a quote from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard:
“When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.”
The words strike me like an arrow in the chest. During the months after the hunt, I had often wondered, did the caribou come to us? Or was it blind, dumb luck? Upon reading those words, my doubt fades, and I believe.
From a mile and a half out, they seemed to come. Straight to us. Each of us — human and caribou — connected, heart to heart by thin blue lines, drawn together. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and trace elements, on a landscape of the same. Attracted, but not touching. All one.
Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon. Blood, flesh, bone.
To Have a Hero