Bob Marshall once spoke to a Kobuk man named Tobuk, who explained to him how the world works.
“Tobuk told me about the ‘dooneraks’ who were something like spirits, but a little less personal, who were responsible for everything that transpired on earth. There were thousands and thousands of dooneraks, each with different ideas and objectives, often thoroughly antagonistic, and the happenings of the world represented the balance between their innumerable objectives,” he wrote in his book “Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range.”
Born in New York in 1901, Marshall was a remarkable man who, among many other things, explored and named many of the mountains, rivers and forests of the Central Brooks Range in the 1930s. He recorded the Native names for many of the geographic features, and frequently used Inupiaq or Athabaskan instead of English words. He was a powerful and indefatigable champion of wilderness and civil liberties, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society and, perhaps most impressive, both a bureaucrat and a rambler. His efforts helped lead to the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act, preserving a chunk of America’s wild heritage.
Bob was in his late 20s when he traveled to Alaska and fell in love with people and the country of the Brooks Range. His first venture left from Wiseman, then a small mining community, and headed into the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River. He coined the term “Gates of the Arctic” to describe the valley between Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, which would later become the name for the second largest national park in the United States.
He made numerous expeditions into the Brooks Range and spent a year living at Wiseman. After a seven-year absence, during which he worked for the Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, he returned to his beloved valleys and mountains.
He wrote in “Alaska Wilderness” that “For seven years I had been longing to return to the arctic Koyukuk. I had been thinking of the most glorious year of my life which I spent up there. I had been recalling thousands of square miles of wilderness scenery, large creeks and even rivers unvisited by man, deep canyons and hanging valleys glimpsed from a distance but never explored, great mountains which no human being has ever ascended. But most of all I had been thinking of Mt. Doonerak.”
It was his second attempt on the peak, which he believed was the tallest in the entire range. That expedition too would end without reaching the summit. Of abandoning his effort to climb the peak, Marshall wrote: “One in a million, perhaps, could be a Nobel Prize winner or a President of the United States. The other 999,999 might burden their lives gnashing their teeth over unrealized ambitions for greatness, or they might adjust to limitations and fate and get the greatest possible happiness out of the North Dooneraks, the Amawks, and Apoons (smaller mountains around Mt. Doonerak that Bob climbed) which they could attain. Perhaps this philosophizing on a windswept pinnacle of rock might seem a little forced, but I could not help it, because I had talked only recently with an assistant manager, an associate professor, and a division chief whose lives for several years had been unhappy because they had not been promoted to head manager, full professor, and bureau chief.”
A few months after Marshall wrote this in his journal and returned to civilization he died from a heart attack on a midnight train from Washington, D.C. to New York. He was 38.
I knew nothing of Marshall when I first ventured into the Brooks Range nearly a decade and a half ago. A cocky kid with big alpine dreams, I planned to climb Mt. Doonerak and as many other peaks as I could in the few weeks before my classes began at the University of Fairbanks. Despite perfect weather and conditions, I did not make the top of Doonerak. I returned to the Haul Road humbled and awed by the landscape and its wildlife.
Something in me changed after that journey. My monomaniacal approach to climbing mountains was replaced with a desire to experience rather than conquer the landscape and its wildlife. I made a few more trips through those Arctic mountains before I learned of Marshall.
My last trek in the Brooks this August retraced Marshall’s favorite region from Anaktuvuk Pass, over the Arctic Divide and down the North Fork of the Koyukuk to Bettles. My friend Ben and I allotted extra time to make hikes up the same drainages and peaks Marshall had. If the stars aligned, we planned on making an attempt to get as high on Mt. Doonerak as we could. I carried an old copy of “Alaska Wilderness.” It had no cover and was broken in half from another adventure I’d brought it on. By the end of this journey, I’d tear it into fourths so Ben could read it too.
It was alternating between raining and snowing when we left the Nunamiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass and began hiking east. A grizzly with spring cubs stood up, huffed and jogged a half circle around us.
“I’m sorry,” I said. The family ran for a mile until they reached the protection of a willow thicket.
A few hours later we came upon an abandoned pepper spray lying on the tundra with its safety off. Naturally, a bear appeared on the other side of the shallow river. Swirling storm clouds revealed snow-covered faces and ridges of jagged mountains. We hiked on and made camp in the late evening near Gray Lime Creek.
I thought constantly of Marshall and the dooneraks responsible for shaping our lives. Something akin to grief came over me as we traveled the same country, climbed the same peaks and camped in the same spots he did. Before we inflated our pack-rafts and began floating the flooded river, we spent two days near Mt. Doonerak. We hoped the weather would clear so we could at least get a view of the mountain, but it remained hidden in the clouds.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” Contact or follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.