ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska — Bob Fox was reading in his tent one evening when he heard the sounds. They were coming from somewhere outside the tent in the 24-hour light of the Arctic midsummer night.
“I kept hearing what I thought were woodcock peenting,” said Carlton’s Fox. “I thought, ‘What the heck?’ I looked out the tent door, and there were caribou all over the place.”
The migration of the Porcupine caribou herd, 200,000 strong, was flowing past the camp. The sounds were the soft grunts of the caribou migrating south from their calving grounds near the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
This was what Fox, 62, and his companions, Chris Evavold, 54, and his wife Ingrid Johnson-Evavold, 52, of Foxboro, had hoped they would encounter on this 10-day, 60-mile backpacking trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this past summer. That’s why they had planned their trek for late June and early July, when the migration likely would be under way.
They had been dropped off by bush plane nine days earlier in this 30,000-square-mile wilderness that stretches to the coast of the Arctic Ocean in northeastern Alaska. Carrying 40- to 60-pound backpacks, they would hike from the Sheenjek River watershed, over the Brooks Range and toward their pickup point near the Hulahula River. Their trip would take them from the Yukon River watershed to the Arctic Ocean watershed.
The hikers expected to see grizzly bears and hoped to come upon the caribou migration. They weren’t disappointed on either count.
“Initially, we just wanted to go up there and experience the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Evavold, a science teacher at Esko. “As I started thinking about it, I really wanted to put ourselves into position to see these caribou.”
The three had researched and planned the trip on their own, choosing not to join a guided group in part to save money. The Evavolds and Fox had made many wilderness trips separately in the past and felt comfortable being on their own in this refuge nearly 20 times the size of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
They hiked on firm tundra, through soggy hummocks, up and down rocky slopes and over an occasional ice shelf. They forded several streams. In their 10 days, they saw just two other parties, one young couple and two men. The weather was good, ranging from lows in the 30s to highs in the 70s. Some aspects of this trip pushed them beyond their previous experiences, notably the likelihood of seeing grizzlies.
“Everyone’s mind always goes to the bears,” said Johnson-Evavold, a math teacher at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Superior. “I’ll have to say we were a little out of our comfort levels. We’d been in grizzly country before, but not where sightings were almost guaranteed.”
They encountered three grizzlies, one as close as 50 to 75 yards away. They each carried bear spray as a precaution but never used it. The closest grizzly wheeled and sprinted away when it detected the hikers’ presence, Evavold said.
“In each case, it seemed they were fearful of us,” Johnson-Evavold said. “That was reassuring.”
Beyond their chance encounters with wildlife, all three of the hikers were struck by the sheer immensity of the wilderness.
“It was the whole expanse, just to see that much wild land, to know you can still get away from things and see what few people have seen before. It feels good,” said Fox, a chemistry teacher at Denfeld High School who has paddled to the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay. “It was an honor to be up there,” Johnson-Evavold said. “A privilege and an honor. That place is valuable whether we’re there or not. Sometimes it seems we think we bring value to a place if we go there or it’s developed. But what’s valuable about it doesn’t require our presence. Probably the fewer of us who go there, the better. I would acknowledge there’s some selfishness in wanting to go to these places.”
The caribou arrive
When Fox opened his tent and saw the mass of caribou before him that July evening, he shouted to the Evavolds in their tent.
“Chris, they’re here,” Evavold remembers Fox calling.
All the hikers came out of their tents to witness the throngs of caribou.
“There were thousands and thousands and thousands,” Fox said. “We had little calves running by us. We saw a wolf chase a calf and not catch it.”
Evavold, an accomplished photographer carrying 10 pounds of camera gear, began documenting the migration.
“They made little grunts as they moved past, little murmurs and grunting,” Evavold said. “You could hear the tendons in their legs clicking, snapping past a bone.”
The hikers credit their bush pilot, Kirk Sweetsir of Yukon Air Services in Fairbanks, for helping them select a route that gave them a good chance to see the caribou.
“He knew where they had been migrating the past three summers, but he said, ‘You never know,’ ” Evavold said. “We hit it right.”
Silence in their wake
The following morning, they awoke to see few caribou.
“We thought it was over,” Evavold said. “I got up on a ridge, and went up to get a little higher. Just over the ridge, 100 yards away or less, there were thousands of caribou.”
After the hikers were picked up, Sweetsir, who had seen the migration from the air, estimated the hikers had seen one-third to one-half of the entire herd, Evavold said.
The herd would continue on to its wintering grounds in the southern part of the refuge or in Canada’s adjacent Yukon Territory. The caribou might cover up to 3,000 miles in their annual migration circuit, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Johnson-Evavold said she often thinks of the encounter — and what happened afterward.
“I’m so in awe we were able to see that,” she said. “As it was happening around us, it was thrilling. Probably what had the biggest impact was when it was over. It was an emptiness pretty impactful for me. You have all that life around you. The calves are being playful. A calf is nursing. You’re trying to appreciate all the thousands of years that this has been going on.
“All of that and then — just footprints and tufts of fur. You really feel that nothingness in a way that you didn’t before you saw those animals.”
Destination: Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 30,000 square miles on the North Slope
The backpackers: Chris Evavold and Ingrid Johnson-Evavold of Foxboro; Bob Fox, Carlton
Length of trip: 10 days, 60 miles
Dates: June 28 to July 7, 2017
Logistics: Commercial air from Minneapolis to Fairbanks; charter bush plane 240 miles northeast from Fairbanks into the refuge, and return by same flights.
Highlights: Vast and lightly traveled wilderness; Porcupine caribou herd migration; grizzlies; wolves.