By Frank Keim
We’re camped on the Hulahula River,
and after dinner
on a balmy night
five of us marched like caribou
along a narrow animal trail
to a tall pingo
sculpted long ago from ancient ice melt,
and there we sat
on its blunt rim,
peering into a black clearwater pond
The mirror of the little lake
shimmered in the slanting rays
of the Arctic sun,
and we wondered
about the Inupiat hunters
who had once sat here, too,
over so many hundreds of years,
watching and waiting for the caribou,
patiently hoping to see them
in their slow ambling and feeding
up or down the Hulahula Valley.
As they waited,
these Inupiat men bantered
and chipped flakes from a stone core
for their stone-tipped arrows and spears.
We sit here now,
holding one of those stone cores,
trying to imagine how it was for them
who lived lives so much harder than our own.
While they worked they surely heard,
as we do,
of Upland sandpipers
in tundra still brown from the long winter snows,
or the haunting winnows of the snipe overhead
as he undulates up and down
in the pellucid blue Arctic sky.
Maybe their children
picked the mountain avens
and tossed their white petals
into the wind,
watching them land
and float like little boats on the black water
toward the other shore.
Their shamans just as surely listened to the Ravens
to predict the movements of the caribou,
to know if luck was with them,
or whether the people had to pick up stakes
and walk to the coast
to hunt for seals there.
Because for them meat was survival.
as they waited,
they probably ate the ancestors
of the parky squirrels now living on the rim
of this cratered pingo.
They also must have watched the Mew gulls
cruising above the river,
studying them for signs
the Arctic char
salivating at the thought of fresh fish
and full stomachs.
And much more
in our own wild imaginings
out here on this pingo crater
on the Hulahula River,
as we muse about the past,
near and far,
and speak about how it might be
in the future.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Frank is an educator, nature writer and environmental activist. He worked for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia, as an anthropologist in Ecuador for four years, and as a secondary school teacher of Yup’ik Eskimos in Alaska’s Lower Yukon Delta for 21 years. He has published three poetry books, Voices on the Wind (2011), Today I Caught Your Spirit (2014), and Trails Taken…so many still to take… (2018). In 2012 he published White Water Blue, Paddling and Trekking Alaska’s Wild Rivers and in 2020 he published Down Alaska's Wild Rivers. He lives north of Fairbanks, Alaska.
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