On the way out of town, Dennis Sinnok saw fresh marks on the snow, stopped his snowmobile, and asked, “Do you want to go track a wolverine?” We said yes, but since we were no match for his driving skills, we immediately fell way, way behind.
As an outsider to the north, it was my first chance to see a wolverine cruising across the tundra. It was also my first chance to see an expert hunter closing in, and to have the weight of a dead wolverine in my arms. Later, I asked Dennis what it feels like when he’s hunting. “I feel free,” he said.
By the time we reached Dennis’ hometown of Shishmaref, Alaska, we’d traveled to five Arctic nations over two years, and we’d met a lot of people. Each one of them—in some way—had altered my vision of the north. Our visit to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, a strip of land up to 1,000 miles wide that joined Russia and America during the last ice age, was a way of putting the pieces together.
Yet every journey also plays out at the individual level—one person at a time.
This area represents a much larger story of relationships between different Arctic people and how the north was settled. Though the landscape looks much different now than during the last ice age, themes of travel, interconnectedness, and land-based livelihoods still come through loud and clear.
Dennis led us to the Serpentine Hot Springs from Shishmaref, an Inupiaq village that sits on a barrier island facing the Bering Strait. The ocean has been eroding the community for years now, making it an important place for stories of climate change. But while this little town has made big headlines about climate and relocation, the people remain closely connected to their surroundings.
The migrations that first brought Dennis’ ancestors to this area are sometimes represented by big arrows on a map, and we imagine entire populations passing by. Yet every journey also plays out at the individual level—one person at a time.
Yes, caribou, muskox, foxes, wolves, bears, and wolverines crisscross the tundra; so do people. Dennis helped us imagine beyond the harsh conditions that most outsiders usually dwell on. With his help, we arrived in a land of plenty where hunting cultures have thrived, and where land and people cannot be separated.
This article was first published in the Explorer’s Journal at National Geographic on April 13, 2017.