In August and September of 2010, during a long solitary trip across the Central and Western Brooks Range, I heard and felt mysterious pulsations. It took a couple of days hiking to exhaustion, dodging grizzly bears and being stalked for hours by a sick and starving wolf before I noticed them. They came on quietly at first, so softly I was barely aware of them. They sounded, and felt, like the reverberations of a giant irregular heartbeat.
By the fifth day, when I found a lost and very hungry Nunamiut man who had been trying to walk from the Haul Road to Anaktuvuk Pass, I heard and felt the pulsations every time I stopped hiking or was far enough away from the sound of a rushing creek or the wind. I gave the man my extra clothes and food and we walked together for a day and half towards his village. I didn’t notice the pulsations for the most part then, but as soon as two Anaktuvuk men on four-wheelers rescued my companion and left me to solitude, I heard and felt them even more deeply than before.
Fifteen days and thousands of caribou later, I sat above the headwaters of the Noatak River waiting for my friends Ed Shanley and Ben Muse to fly in with boats and food so we could float out to Kotzebue. I’d been waiting for three or four days and had nothing besides a few tart blueberries to eat. Were they teaching me a lesson for all the times I ticked them off? Had one of them gotten drunk and been thrown into jail? Had they decided to go to Cancún instead? The pulsations had grown so strong that at times they were overwhelming. Besides a wolf family denned a distance away, two grizzlies and a small group of horrified bull caribou that nearly ran me over (I’m pretty sure the wolves had just culled a member of their group) I’d had only my thoughts for company. And they were bad company.
Ben and Ed finally showed up (they’d been delayed due to marginal weather). We put our boats together, I ate cookies our friend Hillary Wilson had made for me and we took off down the Noatak River. I mentioned the pulsations. They quickly began making fun of me. Ben related long and comical stories of me losing my grip on reality and having different conversations with animals, most of them consisting of trash talk. The pulsations became less frequent, and when I did hear them, they were softer.
One particularly quiet morning, after we’d had our coffee and oatmeal, I heard them.
“Listen,” I said. “Don’t you hear it?” After a minute or two, they shook their heads. Toward the end of the trip, as we neared the village of Noatak, I hiked away from the river one evening. I hadn’t heard the pulsations for days, maybe because of my lack of solitude and the constant sound of a rushing river. Three or four hundred yards in, I sat on a tussock. I heard and felt it softly for the last time. Feeling a strange nostalgia, I walked back to the river and my friends.
Afterward, I asked a few people that had experience in the Arctic if they’d heard anything like it, or knew of anyone that had. At best, I got compassionate blank stares. One hunting guide mentioned something about “the generator” but I think we were talking about different phenomena.
I returned to Brooks Range for a ski traverse in spring of 2012. One of my reasons for making the journey was to see if I’d hear the pulsations again. Despite my solitude, which at times was a little more extreme than I’d have liked (I went four days without seeing another animal), I didn’t encounter the pulsations. This August, with my friend Ben Crozier, I returned to the Eastern Brooks Range to make a trek across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Near the continental divide, I strained my ears hoping to hear the pulsations.
“Do you hear anything?” I asked Ben. Both of us had lost a bit of our hearing since the last time we visited the refuge seven years ago.
“No,” he said. I didn’t hear anything either, besides the deep silence. I shrugged, we shouldered our backpacks and continued walking up into mountains that looked like a desolate dreamscape.
I’ve considered different explanations. Did the pulsations have something to do with the permafrost melting? Or oil companies developing the National Petroleum Reserve to the north? Or was I having auditory and sensory hallucinations from being alone? I’ve never had that before during any solitary trips and I’ve made several, some of which were much harder and more lonely. Those are the three scenarios that make the most sense to me, but the truth is I have no idea.
Some day soon, I hope to return to the Brooks Range and, if I’m lucky, have another mystery discover me.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.