We set off down the Noatak River again, each paddle stroke carrying us closer to the Chukchi Sea, and the end. We understood in principle that it wasn’t possible to disappear into the northern wilderness for half a year and come back unchanged. What we couldn’t envision was what this return might look like in practice. Suddenly, I knew it didn’t matter. There are some things we can’t understand until we live them. To have been among the caribou was all the closure I would ever need.
Like all of us, I’m grasping for connection in a time of uncertainty. I hear the school bell ring down the street and listen reflexively for the children’s voices that don’t come. I stand six feet from my sister and feel the void stretch deep and aching between us. I hug my children close, because I still can. And then I shut my eyes and imagine the caribou bedded down in the snow, trusting the sun to rise and warm their backs, knowing that the night will pass.
We are not caribou. We don’t pound our hooves against the earth each spring and fall, in search of food and shelter. We can’t survive on frozen lichen and the warmth of our fur coats. Mosquitoes and wolves aren’t our greatest foes. The ordinary facts of our human lives do matter, and deeply. But even now, when I most want to believe in happy endings, I find myself turning toward the harshness of an Arctic river. In the wild eyes of a floundering calf separated from its mother, in the bleached white skull of last season’s casualty, I take solace in simply being present. The caribou remind me that we must reconcile the tenuousness of our existence with the preciousness of what we stand to lose.
In the end, perhaps we aren’t so different from the caribou crossing the river. As we struggle against the current, we’re buoyed by the fact that we’re not alone. We greet our neighbors on the screen, through windows, at distances that feel strained and unnatural, and exchange silent blessings, recognizing that for us, like for caribou, community is everything. Even cloistered in our own invisible bubbles, we sense the momentum of the herd pouring down the hillside. We know that there is no one to save us except ourselves.
By gathering the courage to jump, waiting for the shock of the cold water to pass, and feeling the ripples of our individual choices, we begin to move as one. To survive together, we must be brave. We must be compassionate. We must learn when to step forward as leaders and when to step aside so others can pass safely. And during those moments when fear steals my breath, I will remember the steam rising from the backs of caribou, see the mothers plunging boldly into the cold water with their calves by their sides, and let myself believe that we, too, can find our way.
Caroline Van Hemert is a wildlife biologist and the author of “The Sun is a Compass,” which was released in paperback in February.