Winter 2005, Volume 22.2
Shaun T. Griffin
Letter From the Blackstone River: Under Fog with the Porcupine Caribou
—for Pete Nagano
Shaun T. Griffin lives at the Western edge of the Great Basin with his family. Recently, he wrote in his journal, "There are probably not words to sing the chorus of the Porcupine caribou but we look to them, even as they disappear in fog, for the signal of survival." A previous contributor to Weber Studies, and winner of the O. Marvin Lewis Award (2001), his latest book is The River Underground, an anthology of Nevada fiction. Other work by Shaun T. Griffin previously published in Weber Studies can be seen at: Poetry Vol. 11.3 "I Am More Afraid of Wind than Rain—of Travel, Poetry, and Sons," Vol. 16.1, and "From the Ash of Human Feeling—Teaching Poetry Behind the Fence," Vol. 18.2, poetry Vol. 21.1.
Nine months passed before I returned to the Porcupine caribou. The spring migration of June last seemed a country away—and it was, yet some part of their journey stayed with me through the fall and winter. Like the mammal I watched from a distance, I had come from many places to reach the Yukon.
In the brief time since Bob and I had been on the Coastal Plain, he had not stopped reading about the caribou. At 8:30 Thursday evening, he dropped his duffle bag in my kitchen and kissed his wife good-bye. I woke him at 4:30 the next morning and then it was on to Vancouver, and two more hours north to Whitehorse, where we rented a car and drove to a small café across from the airport. We were anxious—Bob, his old teaching friend, Dave, and I. The waitress pointed us to the one highway out of town. She was the welcome party, the purveyor of a fine bean soup and homemade bread. She took the cold off my hands and understood, intuitively, we were lost.
In the Super A Market we bought lightweight food—not knowing whether we would be snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or sitting in a lean-to waiting to see caribou. Again, kindness swooped down—the shopkeeper directed us to Coleman fuel at Canadian Tire, a combination hardware and outdoor store. After securing the obligatory Canadian Mist, we left for Carmacks late in the day.
It was nine degrees when we arrived at 5 p.m., first cold, but not cold to those who called this small community home. All the way up the Klondike Highway, I wrote an old friend, a poet, the one man I knew who would understand this landscape without instruction. Dave was driving when a wolf crossed the road. The wolf stopped and peered into his eyes. Bob saw his tail; I saw nothing but two grown men howling at their good fortune.
In the room, we packed for the morning drive to meet our guide, Pete Nagano, on the Blackstone River. Our gear seemed paltry—Army surplus fleece and outerwear. Even the weighty bags felt inadequate. We did not know what to expect, only that we would report from the snow and ice in the morning.
Frozen Bones, a Whitehorse country-rock band, was setting up for the Saturday night gig. They had driven in from Dawson, four hours to the northwest. The road could not be that bad. We had a beer, and we then left for the one café across the ice. There were two young women who served what seemed a hotel full of men. How they survived the endless surveying I will never know. One of them wore a sweatshirt that happily pronounced: "Canadian Women Rock." I believed it. So did Dave; he wanted to take it to his daughter.
In the morning, it was near zero, and we tried to eat breakfast before the drive to the Dempster Highway. At the highway junction stood an outpost of dry goods and gas—and the last place you could call for help. The attendant said to us, "It'll be 200 gallons if I have to come get ya." Sure, I thought, we might get lucky and see him twice in the same day. I bought a fake Yukon plate to put in my garage collection, doubting any car I own could make the journey here and back. The Dempster has a reputation: almost 500 hundred miles of crushed stone, and in March sanded ice and snow pave the way for the occasional rig connecting the few stops between here and Inuvik.
The road up was opaque; there was no measuring this distance. We had come to the land of cloud and wind and snow. This was the hundred-year forest of "drunken" black spruce, all of them smaller than pine saplings. Poplars lined the riverbeds, and further north, birch colonies stood the roadside. We surrendered to the indifferent rolling ridges. On one bluff, a car was stranded. Dave peeked in the window—not knowing who might lie below the fogged glass. It could have been any of us in that car, waiting for the next vehicle, waiting for the one sign of flesh. But the car was empty, and we moved on.
At kilometer 121 in the middle of a valley east of the Ogilvie Range, we saw a Canadian flag blowing at the edge of the frozen Blackstone. We turned on the ice and found Pete's Toyota, heavy with a gas drum wedged in the back. Then Pete appeared, dressed for "forty below," as we would find him the next four days. He had a sled hitched to the back of his snowmobile. We threw our overstuffed bags and groceries on the icy carpet and walked to the cabin, still incredulous there was shelter in the vast open of this land. I heard echoes of Robert Service, and I heard the spittle of the bemused miner in Jack London's "To Build a Fire" crack in mid-air. I wondered how long the cold gave you before it stopped hurting.
I remembered flying onto the Coastal Plain the previous June. We let go of the familiar to wake on a riverbank, and like that day, this land, where man and mammal have co-existed for several millennia, flooded in. It was not a foreign land to Pete. His eyes were small orbits of acute observation. This was his birthplace, a long and singular existence with rivers and mountains that sculpted his people, the Ta'an Kwäch'än Nation. He drew on a napkin to describe the seven tribes in this valley—all trying to co-exist, to hunt and survive the onset of outsiders. He said it was stressful, and I wished that word had not found its way north. I wished he did not have a definition for what we had left behind.
In the cabin we warmed to a pine fire and sipped tea. Pete tried to imagine us in the Ogilvie Mountains on snowmobiles. In a few hours, he found out: we were pretty much worthless. I likened riding them to goosing a Harley in the sand. They were responsive if you knew motors and balance. Richard, Pete's brother, showed up a day later and told me: "Ride it like a horse or a woman." Having insulted half of the readers, he meant, ride like you mean it.
Pete sipped black tea, as taciturn as a man must be in the north. When he opened the smoked salmon, we thought the moon had risen in our cabin. He started dinner, and asked what we brought. We remembered the few thin chops in the bag. Pete snickered, "That's barely enough for me," then cooked all of the chops—his and ours. Our bellies were full. We offered cookies and thimbles of whiskey. We sat by gaslight with Blackstone water in drums and a barrel stove six feet from the table.
Pete arose in the gray light, put water on for tea, and percolated a large pot of coffee. He fried bacon and eggs, apologized for not having enough to share, and we sipped river coffee and oatmeal from tin cups. Before we left the table, he went outside, filled the tanks with gas and oil, and started the ski-doos. We took our snowshoes, thinking there might be an opportunity to use them. Dave packed cheese and apples, still crisp from the Whitehorse market. To our eyes the terrain was empty, without features because the clouds were low and unforgiving. But to Pete and Richard, it was more like a house they had lived in for 40 years: it had context in low light, white light, and darkness. It was home to dozens of species, not just the caribou but most large mammals that have dwindled or died out in the Lower 48. It was Pete and Richard's home. More than once Richard said, "I don't have any ambition to leave here." We respected their desire and understood the failure of our notion of travel. To be of a place is to be more than what it promises… and they were.
At one point I went ahead with the two of them to break trail, and when they circled back for the others, it was completely devoid of earth and sky and tone. The cloud had come to my feet. I couldn't see twenty yards, and I realized as they rode away this was my moment alone. I had no compass, and I could not have told a mountain from a bone in that light. I could not hear the least living thing. My heart was a strobe of heat. I took my jacket and hat off, hot from riding the few miles. I imagined it would be an hour before they arrived. I put my camera on the pile of clothes and took an automatic shot, not believing the solitude. I tried to find their tracks but saw what looked like prints from two long poles—my front skis. This is how you come to lie down in the snow I thought, but I quickly put the thought to waste. If I had to get out, I would do more than lie before a sunless sky. Cold is a weather of few mistakes. I waited.
They came. We rode farther on and had lunch. Emboldened by our progress, we rode to the next ridge where the caribou were. This was the surreal moment Bob had hoped for: to see them in their natural habitat 1,500 hundred miles from the Coastal Plain. We edged up the backside of a slope, shut the ski-doos down, and walked to the ledge. Below were 40 caribou, attentive and prominent in the treeless landscape. Richard sat, told us to do the same, and made the sign for quiet. The herd split, and one group began to come up the ridge we were on. They walked closer and stopped. They heard my boot on the snow, then loped down the ravine. Richard said they had come to him many times—we needed to be still. I fumbled with the camera; they were bountiful and I could not capture them.
Riding back we were filled with the unexpected: we had begun to witness their migration. On the ridge-top was fresh scat and paw prints. Beneath them, the tiny lichen against the rock. This was their diet for the winter—lichen sustained them. I think of lichen as painted rocks. Caribou are larger than deer, weigh up to 400 pounds, and live for seven years… on lichen and tundra once they reach the Plain. They move across the most forbidding territory in North America, survive wolf, fox, coyote, and hunters. They have done so for more than 10,000 years on a diet of plant matter that is barely a plant.
Coming back, the clutch in my ski-doo gave out, and we doubled up for the last miles. Richard rode as if he were alone. There was no wasted effort. I began to understand how close he was to the snow and ice beneath us. For him, this was a day off, a way to let down and relax. He wanted nothing more than to be in this wilderness.
At the cabin, we were tired but happy. Pete was in the kitchen, the gaslight soft above the stove. "Do you like moose?" turning his knife on the fat. He sliced the flank into chunks that simmered for more than an hour. It was sweet, tender meat mixed with pasta. On the table was a bowl of salad. We ate slow and quiet. By the end we could hardly move to our beds.
The next day there was sunlight and very little wind. I saw Pilot Mountain to the south, the Ogilvies to the east, and the runway where hunters flew in to the north. A perspective on the land returned to us: we could ride in this weather. We wanted to go as far as we could. We rode over snowfields for miles. A helicopter tracked the caribou. Pete wasn't happy—the helicopters traumatized the herd. We spread out, and for the first time I had no desire to follow closely. I floated behind until we reached Seela Creek and angled through the poplars. Pete stopped to make sure we saw the water. He did not want us to puncture the ice. We went up a ridge that looked to Mt. Skukom. The creek bed flowed south; the lines of poplars were like Sumi strokes on the white field. Pete shut his engine down. In a pocket diary given to me by Richard, I wrote, "Sun and blue spots. Today we can see. All of us are learning to ride. Everyone's doing well. There's wolf scat here—a caribou was killed."
A hoof remained on the snow. "They killed him here," Pete said. I tried to imagine that wolf on this crag of rock satiated with fresh caribou. Bob put the hoof in his jacket, and, foolishly, I kept two scat pebbles, believing they would tell me of that day.
Pete turned and said, "I don't bring many people here." We were in the private of his homeland, and he had opened the one door few visitors went through. He uncovered what we came to observe, trusted the strange new faces in his backyard.
Bob and Dave ate and shot picture after picture, and I hoped my black and white roll would render a small part of this beauty. I flicked away an apple core, and we set off for the next valley. My limbs tingled with joy. I had no thought for miles, the snow a cushion below me. On the ridge above us Richard rode in sunlight, forcing the herd toward our sleds. We stopped and watched—hundreds of caribou in all directions, a kingdom of hooves and horns and brown and white fur. At the base of a chute, there were 40 caribou right above our heads, incredulous that we were in this place with them. This was the last time I doubted their magnificence: they lived without the twentieth century. They fell prey to one instinctual need: to procreate and give birth on the Coastal Plain. What more could a species hold before the skeptical?
Our journey had taken us 50 miles, and, unbelievably, we had come full circle to my broken ski-doo. Richard towed it back, breaking trail all the while. I might have said fearless, but he would defer—"This ain't nothing." Then sleep came to us on our bunks—we were too tired to eat.
In the morning I fumbled my thermometer—ten degrees in the thin green bunkhouse. I lit the Yukon News and the pine stacked from the night before. I was fully dressed and tried to warm my Sorels on the stove. My fingers and toes felt the burn. Outside it was 35°, a gray sky and light snow. I closed the door and stoked the fire. No one moved. A shaman had come to the Blackstone. His name was Cold. He had been in the book of many peoples. There was a silence in the room. The smoke rose from my hands and socks. A crack in the window glass defeated my glowing fire. Dave had the heavy bag. He swore by it that morning. Bob and I had drifted in and out of sleep, our limbs like swallows in the wrong spring.
The door opened to a smoke-filled bunkhouse with three old men. It was Pete with coffee and hot water for oatmeal. This is what comes from river water: the end of isolation. Pete said, "It's a little cool today; we may have to wait." Waiting seemed fine. We tested the air. My mustache froze as I made my way to the woodpile. In a few hours, if the car started, Pete thought we'd drive to see Elephant Peak, and beyond if the weather and gas held out.
We passed a desolate road crew outpost and two itinerant campers. Nothing more than a canvas shell and a stovepipe between them and -25°. At the hot springs I took my first shot of running water, but I could not be idle outside. We pulled the car off on a bluff above a valley. On the Plain, I had painted, but here my fingers were crude instruments. I tried to store all of it in memory.
That night, at the lodge, we ate tacos with the hunting clientele. A dozen of us were at the table, and the food was almost as good as Pete's. There was an uneasy quiet—we were separated by the idea of wilderness, and despite the cold, there was little to say. The lodge was home to those who paid for the privilege of coming to this landscape, and neither group could lay claim to living with the caribou. We wanted the wild on our terms. I am not the angel who would dispel belief in guns—I would shoot a bear if my life were endangered. I found a natural affinity in the rank way we decided not to converse. Each came for time in his temple and each would leave without hesitation for the world left behind—work, wives, and every postage stamp accorded to the eyes of children. Are we different? I think not. We are animal and prey, but we want different silences.
Dave woke at 2 a.m. and lit the fire. For an hour I listened to it sputter and release its combustion to stars. Wrapped in fleece in the Army surplus bag, rest came with the hoofprints of caribou, their "split-heart" tracks and scat in the snow.
For the first time I painted in the sunlight of our bunkhouse. I wanted to heave the door open and paint on the step, but the cold forced me to the stove where I found the color green, the first primary color beyond the dinner table. Mostly the paint was smoke, the disappearing gray to white that confounded our eyes for four days. Then, the primordial effort to hike the duffle bags to the Toyota, which Dave started at 28°. A good thing I thought. The generator would have taken hours to warm the block. I was not inclined to diagnose the mechanics of dead motors. The day before I barely held the gas nozzle for Pete to pump enough fuel into our tank to get to Stewart Crossing. Silly me, a tool in this cold was a piece of wood that did not burn, except when it touched flesh.
We settled up, an awkward punctuation to the days of living by other cycles, and started down the Dempster. The sun was out. We saw the landmarks that had been hidden from view—the Tombstones, the lakes and rivers twisted to land. But the car Dave spotted on our journey up was gone. Perhaps the owners had come to retrieve it before spring cast its snowmelt on the highway, or perhaps they were lost still, and the car had been hauled to a Whitehorse junkyard.
We snapped photos as if the view would escape us and drove into Dawson for a burger and a beer at the Eldo'. Dressed in fatigues and a snow hat, I looked in the mirror behind the bar: my gray and black speckled face, my eyes wrinkled with happiness. Bob and Dave phoned their loved ones in the country below, and I bought a few cards for the disbelievers. We crisscrossed the icy streets of Dawson, tried to imagine how Pete and Richard lived, but could do little more than imagine a shower and a bed. In our stupor, we came upon the cabins where London and Service stayed for a brief time. Their log homes barely stood and, yet their words remained. Is this what a writer does—relinquish his spirit to the river that he may lie in peace?
Not high-minded modernists, London and Service let us into the Yukon, let us live beyond the four walls of routine. The Call of the Wild is the dream song of a dog and an explorer, the affirmation of greed in the wilderness, what we face today with different prose and in different guises. That night in the bar in Carmacks, the drunk Indian was a daguerreotype for the hunger these and other men left behind. We left the bar, left the young women pouring coffee the next morning, and my friends posted me safely in the hangar in Whitehorse.
In Vancouver, I sat at the window watching rain. We flew in by the river of logs, and the city was overcast but beautiful in the way all gray things are beautiful: it held no pretense, it was part of a tradition of clouds. I remember walking the dock days before, that same river home to boats and shipbuilders and the first daisies of March. I remember meeting Dave, half-asleep in our room, and the cold Guinness that marked our gathering for travel north. I have lived in the sanctuary of poetry and wished for one simple truth to affect me: without declamation, we go to river and mountain and sky. And this day, this rain-gorged day, I boarded the last plane for home. Miles below, a city of thousands ran to their destinations. For a moment I was free of mine, knew only the cardinal time of caribou hunched in the white mountains. I was part of the other landscape, a sapling left in their midst.