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The time of great cold is no more
I was up in Beringia on the solstice: no sunrise, no sunset. The days passing in a place so lonely on the map—a place where the trees run out, where the tundra begins, and where, just a little farther north, the Beaufort Sea rests with its bobbing floes and drowning polar bears and luminous bubble-headed belugas and narwhals. The Peel Watershed—a treeless area of mountains and rivers the size of seven Yellowstones—is a place so lonely that to behold it wrenches something out of you. The wrenched thing begins unwinding and unspooling from you and whirls away as if it was never attached in the first place. As if you were never really in possession of it but were merely the most inconsequential vessel for it.
It’s nothing personal. The wind, and the place, do that to everything. Mastodons, gone; dire wolves, gone; saber-toothed tigers, gone. Even the stones are gone, or going, the mountains being worn down by great rivers carving at their flanks as if in the most enthusiastic of feedings. The rivers carry the sudden disassembly northward in glittering braids, which, when seen from above, resemble precisely the dendritic splay of blood vessels that nourish, nurture, sheathe, and oxygenate the human heart, or the caribou’s stomach, or the wolverine’s brain. It is as though there is only one pattern and one story, though perhaps with infinite combination and character.
The crazy thing about Beringia is that there was never any snow. You’d think that so far north, there’d have been nothing but snow. Instead, it was like a frigid garden of Eden, the one place in the far north where there wasn’t any snow at all. It was too cold—so cold the moisture could not leave the air in the form of snow—and too windy, and the Beaufort gales kept away what little snow might fall, scouring and polishing an area about the size of Montana, with man and beast occupying that open ground in a desperate experiment together.
The great mammals of the Ice Age were in the world long before we hominoids—we got a late start—but now they’re gone, while we’re still left with their absences—they’re so gone that to call them ghosts isn’t quite right—and that howling wind, and the new roster of creatures. Strangely enough, one of the things that has endured the longest in recent millennia is the frail human species. For at least 10,000 years, humans have survived by always moving: across the Bering land strait, from eastern Asia to North America, during a time of such cold that the ocean was almost gone here, the water shrunken up into a time of great ice.
How did we get here? Many if not most archaeologists will propose that during the time of great cold, the oceans were so low—with so much water bound up in ice—that folks could walk back and forth across the Bering Strait as easy as you please; that a fit individual could travel it nonstop in but a day or two, spilling into this howling loneliness.
From there, it’s a mystery. Did they keep traveling, up and across the vast plains of snow and ice, drawn southward, or did they wait patiently for a slowly warming world to melt the ice and make that southerly drift easier? It’s hard to imagine a creature with any semblance of our identity trafficking much in patience, then or now.
The time of great cold is no more. The Peel country is burning, thawing, sliding, melting; there is only one road traversing its eastern flank, but that road—built upon a bed of permafrost— is slumping, slipping, huge sheaves of earth sliding down the south slopes of mountains, mud oozing where for tens of thousands of years it has remained frozen and waiting. The first big gold rush occurred in Dawson City, just to the south, where miners dug down through the soft sediments, straining nuggets and flecks of gold from among the ribs of mastodons and the skulls of mammoths. Now there’s a new gold rush just to the north, up in the Peel—and not just gold, but copper, coal, and uranium—and the ancestral travelers of these lands, the Gwich’in people, are being asked to give up 20 percent of their homeland to the cause of development. The roads the mining companies depend upon will not be able to hold them, though still they push on. Some of the Gwich’in want to protect 100 percent of their land—and I don’t see why not—though others feel that to give away 20 percent would be modest and agreeable. It’s a generous response from a nation whose young people were forced under Canadian law to leave their homes in the outback and attend residential schools for the purpose of deculturing their native lifestyles and acculturating Christianity and the newer economic model of the times.
Walking the ridges of the Peel, I can’t see any reason the Gwich’in should give up one square foot. In many ways this is the cradle of Now—not the tree where man was born, but the garden where North Americans first came, some think, as soon as we could reach it—and I think it should all be protected.
Caribou stride the melting plain, moose prowl the braided willow bottoms. Sometimes, as the earth melts, the soil slips back and reveals old skeletons, old campfires, old arrowheads. How in the world did we get here, how strong were our ancestors, what fires must have burned in their hearts, for them to survive, and what is our obligation and legacy, if any, for their having done so?
Sometimes, as the little caps of glaciers that frame and surround Beringia melt, mastodons tumble out, like dice thrown crookedly, and tumble down the hills, ambulatory again.
I think 20 percent is too much. I think it is all right to revere it all, and to watch, and marvel.
Rick Bass is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction. He lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana.
Photography by Juri Peepre/courtesy of the Yukon Conservation Society. See www.protectpeel.com for information about the campaign to protect the peel watershed.