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The snow dappled Brooks Range faded behind us as wide vistas of tundra beckoned ahead. Camp came on a breezy gravel bar. A long mesa called Poko Mountain glowed in the northwest. We sat by the fire past midnight, unwilling to say goodnight to the beauty.
Slow but steady, we floated the small upper Kokolik with plenty of wildlife distractions. A golden eagle soared nearby. A peregrine falcon flapped overhead. A red fox stared from the bank, then dashed away upstream. When Lisa turned and pointed, I fumbled for the shotgun, but somehow I knew it wasn’t a bear. A musk-ox stood up from its bed, staring at us with droopy eyes and a dangling coat, a helmet of horn and curved yellowing tusks.
Wildlife watching was at a minimum the next day as we hunkered beneath our raincoats, chasing Lisa downstream through cold rain and occasional hail. After the river penetrated some hill country near Tupikchak Mountain, a bedrock shelf appeared. Chilled, we pulled ashore, grabbing handfuls of driftwood.
When the rain stopped, the wind began. It pushed us downstream, out of the hills and into a transverse valley that the river cut directly across. Jer pointed out a group of caribou on a hillside, then fifty of them crossed the river in front of us.
Two hundred feet above the river, we stood in the wind and looked over a valley sprinkled with migrating caribou. The nearby herds caught our eyes first; 50 here, 100 there, 20 crossing the river over there. Then as we looked farther across the broad valley with binoculars, the movement of white and tan animals seemed to appear everywhere; in the bottoms, on the slopes, a long string of them trailing out of sight over the eastern horizon. My rough estimate came to 5,000 ungulates.