Over the past week, as each thread of our ordinary existence unravels and travel feels like something we used to do, I’ve been holding tight to a single mental image. The deep brown gaze of a caribou calf as it passed inches from my face. The whites of its eyes as it glanced at me in surprise. The animal’s fear of the unknown dwarfed by its clarity of purpose.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, my husband and I had set out on a 4,000-mile, human-powered journey from Bellingham, Wash., in the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue, Alaska, far above the Arctic Circle. For nearly six months, traveling by rowboat, ski, packraft, foot and canoe, we’d made our way across some of the most remote landscapes on earth.
When a caribou calf stopped to sniff me then skittered away to join the others, I realized I’d found what I was looking for. Faith in the unknown. Beauty when I least expected it. The visceral relief of bearing witness to something much larger than myself. After nearly starving on a riverbank, the delay in our food resupply felt serendipitous beyond belief.
Like all of us, I’m grasping for connection in a time of uncertainty. I hear the school bell ring down the street and listen reflexively for the children’s voices that don’t come. I stand six feet from my sister and feel the void stretch deep and aching between us. I hug my children close, because I still can. And then I shut my eyes and imagine the caribou bedded down in the snow, trusting the sun to rise and warm their backs, knowing that the night will pass.
We are not caribou. We don’t pound our hooves against the earth each spring and fall, in search of food and shelter. We can’t survive on frozen lichen and the warmth of our fur coats. Mosquitoes and wolves aren’t our greatest foes. The ordinary facts of our human lives do matter, and deeply. But even now, when I most want to believe in happy endings, I find myself turning toward the harshness of an Arctic river. In the wild eyes of a floundering calf separated from its mother, in the bleached white skull of last season’s casualty, I take solace in simply being present. The caribou remind me that we must reconcile the tenuousness of our existence with the preciousness of what we stand to lose.
In the end, perhaps we aren’t so different from the caribou crossing the river. As we struggle against the current, we’re buoyed by the fact that we’re not alone. We greet our neighbors on the screen, through windows, at distances that feel strained and unnatural, and exchange silent blessings, recognizing that for us, like for caribou, community is everything. Even cloistered in our own invisible bubbles, we sense the momentum of the herd pouring down the hillside. We know that there is no one to save us except ourselves.