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Image of the Howlin Wolf

The Gathering Place
by Kathy Turco
(dedicated to Erica Pomeroy, a 15 year explorer of nature)

No, Kathy Turco does not sell cotton candy to polar bears! She just uses extra-fuzzy microphones to record the sounds of the Arctic tundra.

On the south side of the Brooks Range, the Kongukut River moves quickly from snow melt in June. I stand alone on it's bank, listening to the low hum of the water moving it's wide bed of stones down river. My legs are feeling a springy tightness from carrying a 65 pound load for 70 miles through the Brook's Range... my back is strong, my face feeling warm and brown from the intense Alaskan summer sun. My ears are stretching with the hope of hearing the louder hum of Don's Supercub.

I helped guide seven hikers from the north side of the Brook's Range, through the mountains to this riverbank just barely flat and wide enough for a bush plane to land and take a load away. I didn't hop on the two small planes that showed up this morning to take the hikers south to Fairbanks. The hike was a warm up for the next five day recording trip I've been waiting for. I'm now alone with my gear, and heading north.

In the last 10 days we heard only one small plane as it flew high over the mountains, looking down on us I thought, as though we were caribou- nine strong, following the river towards the coastal plain, being driven by some force of instinct and nature. If I were a caribou, I'd be pregnant now, and probably feeling the ache of the added weight, and the urge to get out of the mountains, past the foothills, and on to the coastal plain. Over the last few days we've seen small groups of caribou walking in the riverbed, keeping some kind of ancient pace. No one really knows what comfort they'll soon find by joining thousands of other travelling caribou in what is known as one of the largest gathering of antlered animals in the world. It's the gathering that I'm hoping to record.

Savanna sparrow songs distract me from the deafening silence surrounding the riverbed's hum. These and other tiny-winged migrant species, such as tree sparrows, migrate to the Brook's Range from across Canada and points to the southeast. Yet other small birds, such as Yellow wagtails, arrive west from across the Bering Sea to nest and raise their young.

The tinkling of Savannah Sparrow notes presently yields to a low, distant hum. Presently Don's Supercub appears on the horizon, draws closer, and begins its descent to the tundra. Soon I'm sitting next to Don at 1000 feet, now above the Achilik River which branches into the Kongukut River, weaving our way through one of the most rugged mountain ranges in North America. From here the river looks like an easy trail, and it now seems obvious to me how these birds find their way. We fly through wispy clouds hugging the steep rock-faced mountains, and over deeply carved valleys, their bottoms covered by thick green vegetation. I feel more like an angel than a bird. The sound of the engine and metal vibration keeps me close to the seat of my pants, reminding me that I am neither an angel nor a bird.

Soon I begin to notice the steep rock faces fanning wide and extending out to an endless flatland, and know I no longer need to ask Don if we are near the coastal plain. The hills roll in waves as far east and west as I can see, and to the north the plain begins its sojourn to the Beaufort Sea. Alaska is as big as I imagined. It is a land so vast that the edge of the horizon blurs as it seems to lean forward, offering us more space. Moving at a speed of almost 100 mph, the clouds become thinner, and seem to hold time in a kind of suspended animation until we break out closer to the skyline. We keep scanning the tundra below us, trying to see movement. Soon Don spots a group of about 2000 caribou moving across the flattest part of the foothills. They too must feel the open sky and the vastness of the plain: a savanna of tundra and lichen, the soft footing of living carpet that surprises me when I crawl out of the Supercub, after we land on the edge of an unnamed river.

I am alone again as the engine noise takes a long time to disappear. It's sound actually blends into an incredibly soft ringing silence, known by the Gwitch'in people of the Arctic as something to be revered, not feared. I can see the caribou keeping their distance as they watch me set up my tent. These small groups are skittish at this time of theyear, because brown bears roam the foothill edges waiting for the late calves to drop; the grand feast that they must dream about while in hibernation all winter. Soon I am crawling low like a bear, yet trying to act like a willow in the wind, so I can work my way close. The caribou must sense me near, and are keen to keep their distance while feeding on the lichen. I lay as still as I can, and breath in the magnificent view of the north side of the Brook's Range. The clouds move across it's face; moisture whipped white, draping itself over the peaks, as if in waiting for an auspicious gathering of the Gods. Before I know it, the clouds hide the sky, huge flakes of snow litter the tundra, and I am inside my dome tent, soon white and heavy from the wet snow. I'm not sure how many hours tick by as I lay quiet in my tent waiting for the storm to pass, listening to the snow fall softly on my nylon shelter, the distant hooves clicking, and the distant grunts and bleats of mothers and calves. It's a moment that's taken me years to have the chance to hear. I point my Sennheiser microphones towards the sounds, turn on my DAT recorder, and watch the digital seconds tick by. The sound waves take the form of squares in a line moving to the right, as the grunts and clicks get louder, then softer, and softer, and soon I fall asleep.

At this time of year in the Arctic, right before the summer solstice, there is no darkness at any time of the day. The only way I can tell it is "night" is by the air. In the middle of the "night" the air seems stiller. yet the activity of the tundra continues: birds call, bees buzz, and wildflowers seem to bloom, and seed before my eyes. All day and "night" I feel very alive, yet my body aches for rest; to lay horizontal; to get on earthly terms with the tundra. Alone in the wilderness, my survival can often depend on my wit and my ability to read the landscape, to truly know my limits, to be smart, and to respect, moment by moment, the forces around me. My body speaks loudly- where's the warmth?, water?, food?, when will I rest? I notice the wind direction, the drop in temperature, the stillness, the smells, the movement in the distance. Nature asks the best of me. I must be fearless and "confidently" alive to survive here.

I awaken to the buzz of a few mosquitoes which found some secret way into my tent, but I hear no grunts. Slowly and quietly I unzip my tent, first just a one eyeball glance out at the bare, wind dried tundra. Then I begin to see shapes of caribou close to, and surrounding my tent. I count 100 mothers and calves nodding to sleep nearby. A small breeze keeps the mosquitoes away as I slowly push my head though the small tent opening and lay my ear down on to the tundra. I want to hear the earth, and to smell the dusky oder of the lichen-laden tundra which keeps the caribou coming back here. Soon the sun warms my face, (continued page 7) and my mind becomes pleasantly empty. Moments like this, I think, completely invigorate the body and soul- how could they not? I soon drift into sleep, dreaming of thousands more caribou.

When my eyes finally open, the air is like a kind of seamless silence. There's not a mosquito buzz, nor bird chirp, nor sound of a breeze against my tent, to be heard. They're gone- my time and recording opportunity with the caribou so fleeting, and now over for another year. They've all moved past me and along the edge of the foothills, like they have for centuries, soon to gather again, and to move towards the coast, and into Canada.

I crawl out of my tent to see the sun's golden light shining on the tundra. From the east, I begin to see a huge cloud bank from the Beaufort Sea, moving towards, and then across, the foothills. My insides begin to settle in a way I've never felt before. The natural world before me is immense, wild, and changing, and at my core I feel very much a part of this place. I close my eyes for a minute and I feel as though I am an ancient nomad, moving with the caribou, looking up at this same mountain, and watching the weather change. I am comforted by an overwhelming feeling of quiet confidence: a birth-right obligation to respect the nature in and around me.

This moment has changed me forever. I now understand that, to keep nature and this great gathering place close, I must rid my mind of fear and desire, and make room for this magical and sacred memory.

Articles from Spring 1997

  Dawn Songs of the Flycatcher

Poetic Expression

Letter From the Chair 5/97

Editor's Note: The NSS Website

The Gathering Place

Why Do We Sound Record? - A View From Kathy Turco

Nature Sounds Newsletter

NSS Home Page

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