The Places Where Life Begins


Kindly contributed by Michael Engelhard, author of the forthcoming Ice Bear, The Cultural History of an Icon. The product of meticulous research, his cultural narrative examines over 8,000 years of polar bear history. Engelhard probes the narratives of the Inuit, hunters and settlers as well as modern science to show the many forms the powerful, elusive animal has taken. In his book American Wild Engelhard documents his travels between the two areas of the world he identifies as his "soul-scapes," canyon country of the American Southwest and Alaska's great wilds.

    Polar Bear at Kaktovik

The highlight of a two-week backpacking trip in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which I guided this summer and from which I just returned, were thousands of caribous from the Porcupine Herd that streamed past our camp on two consecutive days. They were the vanguard of the annual fall migration, during which the herd returns south to congregate near the tree line for the rut. We were first alerted to their presence by grunts from the lead animals. Emerging from our tents, we watched in awe as the brown tide flooded the hillside, pulled by millennia-old urges.

In some Brooks Range valleys and passes, the earth looks as if plowed by caribou hooves—North Americas largest land mammal migration aptly suggests what bison herds on the Great Plains must have looked like. Congress is currently reviewing a proposal, to preserve the caribou calving grounds—the famous 1002 Area of Alaska’s Arctic coastal plain—as a wilderness area. I hope the American people will preserve the refuge, this amazing world heritage, for future generations of humans and caribous (and of bears, wolverines, wolves, eagles, plovers, etc.). NAM78

Together with the Grand Canyon, the Arctic Refuge is my favorite place in the world. I encountered my first polar bear in the wild there also, 30 miles from the coast, the farthest inland sighting ever recorded for the refuge. The story of that chance meeting—and of many others (including one in which I came close to dying)—can be found in my new essay collection Arctic Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean.

My longstanding obsession with bears and wilderness also motivated me to research and write Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, to be published this fall. While there are many books about polar bear biology and ecology, this lavishly illustrated one is the only title that deals exclusively with the shared history of people and polar bears—8,000 years of it. It covers the Viking trade in polar bear cubs; their possible appearance in Shakespeare plays; attempts to train bears to pull sleds to the pole; starlets and babies on polar bear rugs; shaman-bear shape shifters; animatronic circus bears; and much more. snake

I firmly believe there are landscapes that speak to certain individuals more than others do, even to the extent where only one place ever makes a perfect match for such a person. A first exposure to this “soulscape” feels like a homecoming. Fortunately, I have found not one, but two. Unfortunately, lying 2,500 miles apart, they have sentenced me to a lifetime of wandering. But I consider myself lucky, as a wilderness guide of twenty-five years, to have spent the best days of that life in those two magnificent regions. You can find reading samples from both books (and more) on my website:

Image credits:
Polar bear outside of Kaktovik, an Inupiaq-Eskimo village on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. (Photo by Rich Wilkins)
The author holding a baby gopher snake in the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Melissa Guy)