Searching the Arctic for a long-lost world of woolly mammoths and Giant sloths, a traveler discovers a new one disappearing fast
By Edward Readicker-Henderson | Illustrations by Aleks Sennwald
The Bering Sea lies mirror-flat. I've left Nome and, after a seriously roundabout route, come to the Pribilof Islands. These islands were once hills on a plain and tall enough to reach above where the sea is now. St. Paul, St. George, and a couple of smaller islands are all that's left of what once connected an entire world. I've come to stand on the actual Bering Land Bridge.
This also happens to be one of the last places where mammoths walked Beringia, and St. Paul contains the remains of one. At around 5,000 years old, they're the newest bones I'll ever have a chance to see.
I seem, though, to be the first person ever to come here for the mammoth. The few other people who make it to the Pribilofs through the fog come to work a crab boat or to see rare birds. I'm okay with the birds, and it amuses me that for the rest of my life I'll be able to make serious twitchers cry in envy because I've seen a red-legged kittiwake, which breeds almost nowhere but here. (For the record, they look just like every other kittiwake in the world, but with red legs.)
Everybody's happy to talk about birds. But nobody wants to tell me about the mammoth, and the locals evade the question of exactly where it is. I hear a rumor that it's on airport property, but I'm warned that if I go out looking on my own, I'll probably fall into a lava tube and never be heard from again. I have to admit that has an odd appeal, the idea of someone stumbling across my bones 5,000 years from now and wondering what the hell I was up to.
Every place I stop on the impossibly green island, fur seals bark at me. Some of the adolescents make false charges, but never more than a token lunge. They are surprisingly gentle, especially considering that St. Paul was the center of fur sealing for 100 years and countless seals were slaughtered here. On one end of the island is a sand drift, 50 feet high, and anywhere you push your hand into it, you'll grab bones.
Ten years ago, long after the sealing had stopped, more than a million fur seals would come to the island each year to breed. Now the island sees maybe a quarter of that number, and, like the Gwich'in waiting for the caribou, nobody thinks the rest are coming back. The water's gotten too warm, and the southern fish species now invading the Bering Sea have altered feeding patterns; the seals can't find the fish they're used to. And lately, a woman with traditional Aleut facial tattoos tells me, there aren't even many orca offshore waiting to snack on young seals.
Meanwhile, shipping in the Bering Strait is increasing, and there's more drilling in the warmer Arctic. Migration patterns are being disrupted, even for the animals that can still take the weather. And as the thermometer ticks up, the navigator's dream of an open Northwest Passage comes ever closer to reality, and the people in a place where there have never been enough people to matter are about to be joined by a whole lot more folks.
Which still leaves the question of the last mammoth, which I never do get to see, never even get close to. What the hell was it up to? What lured it here, like Hemingway's leopard on Kilimanjaro? Was it following the taste of a flower patch or simply searching for a taste it remembered and couldn't find anymore? Was it trapped by rising water as its world disappeared? Was it looking for a last spot to ride it out?
"Perhaps it is not coincidental," writes the surprisingly poetic Beringian scholar Savelli V. Tomirdiaro, "that in the Biblical and Sumerian legends the Flood may be ascribed to a period of the early Holocene. . . . In the Arctic, a vast, super-marine landmass . . . comparable in size to some continents did, indeed, simply vanish by melting."
I sit on a whale rib bone, push up my sleeves in the sunshine, and stare into the slowly rising sea.
Somewhere between Nome and Teller, a three-street village on another shrinking sandspit where salmon are hung to dry on satellite dishes, I walk into Beringia.
Lichens that look like the smudge of burned rubber grow along the line of the sun. The rivers that were formed when the bridge disappeared are full of dying salmon, and the rocky streams play stones like the notes of a concerto. The wetter world. Birds that wouldn't have been here 5 years ago flit through bushes that wouldn't have been here 10 years ago. Mushrooms with warty nodules across their tops tower over saxifrage, and bones are never more than a few feet apart. Reindeer bones, mink, musk oxen, bear—only the tiniest fraction of the diversity that once filled the mammoth steppe.
I walk, thinking about how Dale Guthrie has lately been looking at paleolithic art, the way mammoths and bison and other Beringian animals were drawn on caves, carved on rocks. And what he's found are animals painted at all different stages of life, in all conditions, in nearly flawless detail, right down to the upright fighting posture of the mammoths.
"These Paleolithic people had to know large mammals well, almost as extensions of themselves," Guthrie said. "When how you live is resource-based, you have to be wholly encyclopedic."
After spending more than 10 years in this landscape, I'm still far from encyclopedic. I can't even name half the plants I'm stepping on—neither the ones that should be here nor the ones that shouldn't. We've lost that fine and necessary discrimination; we're not resource-based anymore. How many people can name half the plants outside their front door?
I do know that the next time I come here, the trees will be taller, the streams wider, and maybe even the taste of the carpet of Arctic blueberries—what sunshine would taste like if it were edible and blue—will be different.
I started coming here because I wanted to understand if there could be gain in loss. And even as I watch the cracks in the last entire earth widen, it's still so very beautiful.
One world is gone; this one is going fast.
And my mammoth is still out there somewhere. The ever-rising vivianite sea at my back, I walk deeper into Beringia. If I get high enough into the mountains, I might at least find a musk ox browsing on buttercups.
Edward Readicker-Henderson has been writing about Alaska for more than 30 years. He's currently working on a book about his mammoth search.