An ode to Alaska odors

By Michael Engelhard - July 3, 2017
Tourists watch polar bears scavenge whale remains near Kaktovik, Alaska, Sept. 6, 2016. In fall, polar bears devour the leftover whale meat and roam the town as climate refugees, on land because the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals is receding. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)
Tourists watch polar bears scavenge whale remains near Kaktovik, Alaska, Sept. 6, 2016. In fall, polar bears devour the leftover whale meat and roam the town as climate refugees, on land because the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals is receding. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

A sprig from a creosote bush infuses the steam in our shower stall with notes of the western Grand Canyon: tarry, resinous, bitter but rich. I carried it carefully wrapped in my luggage the last time I returned to the sub-Arctic from the high-desert Southwest, my former home. More sudden than fossil or feather or driftwood burl on a desk, the sprig’s scent conjures a dear place and time, jump-starting memory like satiny wildflowers chanced upon between pages of a book.

Call it scent nostalgia, aromatherapy for the homesick. Outside, leaden winter prevails, with the dearth of smells symptomatic of that season’s deprivations. There, the olfactory monotone of old snow reigns supreme. Vapors carry scent molecules that move more freely and in greater quantity in warm and humid —rather than cold and dry — air. But knowledge of the facts does not make such absences easier to bear.

We are predominantly visual beings, underestimating or taking for granted what the nose knows until a head cold leaves us not blind, not deaf, not mute, but — what? There is simply no word (or solace) that comes to mind, for impairment of smell.

Moreover, our descriptions of scents lack refinement, perhaps suggesting disinterest, a focus elsewhere. A hierarchy of the senses also buttresses place names. Names derived from smell, such as Rotten Fish Slough (near Chalkyitsik), are rarer than those we get from hearing (Thunder Bay on the Kenai Peninsula), which in turn are vastly outnumbered by those in visual shorthand.

Northern smells

Unlike the rest of sensory input, scent impulses bypass the thalamus, flitting straight to the brain’s centers for emotion, decision-making, memorization and navigation, where they coalesce into “odor maps.” Scents can transport us instantaneously in space or time. When I travel south from wintry Alaska in the stale interior of a jet — a pressurized climate bubble, like those cored from a glacier — Phoenix enfolds me as soon as the cabin door opens, welcoming me with a cocktail of heady particulates, to a different place as to a different season.

After 25 years in the North, I can tap into a file of place-specific odors and complementary memories: a dwarf lupine field in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, like wading knee-deep through perfume. Pine-y whiffs from Labrador tea crushed underfoot on the tundra. Strengthened by these memories as much as by Earth’s ingredients, I am deeply inhaling their essence, trying to safeguard each one.

At the opposite end of spring’s floral awakening lingers the rot of deciduous fall: the putrescence of stranded, spent salmon; the sweet stench of walrus or whale melting on Nome’s driftwood beaches.

Scents ground us in nature’s cycles, in death and rejuvenation.

Scents mark us emotionally, even physically — fetid river muck, or mud glazed by the tides.

Each scent of a treasured place to me evokes an embrace, a friendly hand on the shoulder at least. Except for the reek of the Cordova cannery, which wraps the entire town in seal’s breath, there is not a stinker in the bunch.

A person made homeless by flood or wildfire, I’m sure, would disagree. Indisputably, the charred-barbecue air tickling bronchia in Fairbanks most summers connotes the town’s flammable setting as unambiguously as the veiled view from College Hill. Even the smell of an outhouse, braided with skeins of cigarette smoke, fondly connotes rustic life, my stint in a cabin in the black spruce here. (The odor weakened during cold snaps, when frost furred the walls with sparkling sequins.)

Salmon smell home rivers

Biologists have long considered the quilt of fragrances that informs some creatures’ wayfinding. Floral spoors guide butterflies to their food. Ants lay down scent trails for other ants to follow. Pigeons, petrels, honeybees and possibly bears and mice use odor maps of their neighborhoods to return to den sites or nests.

An olfactory prompt from a beloved location — a waterfall in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains fragrant with mosses and columbines — led a University of Wisconsin biologist to discover how salmon “smell” home in the water. Imprinted in their youth, mature salmon get reeled in by a stream’s unmistakable chemistry, the “scent” of their natal waters.

Smell and taste, of course, overlap: To be tasted, a substance has to dissolve in a liquid. To a forager, his diet must appear like a map, each flavor bound to a place of origin, with its congruent scent.

“For many animals, scent is the primary window to the world,” Bernd Heinrich writes in “The Homing Instinct.” Its signs and signals orient us, too. Our ancestors heeded the dinner bell of ripe or fermenting fruit. A dash of decay could lead to a predator’s kill. Scent still bestows survival advantages, as it did in our species’ past. A few people can smell nearby grizzlies in the brush, but I have to watch caribou’s body language for reassurance. They can sniff out lichen under 5 feet of snow, and when they are at ease — heads down and grazing — so am I. In my hometown in Alaska’s interior, I often detect forest fires before they visibly thicken the atmosphere.

Scents reveal the hidden as much as they recall the almost forgotten. Gaminess betrays out-of-sight caribou trekking upwind. Musk spells a weasel in the bushes or marmot close by. Once, at the end of a 10-day trip on the Noatak River, the sea announced itself to me through a breeze redolent of sex, before the first gull had winged in overhead.

Like signature sounds, the signature scents of landscapes are a sadly neglected aspect of place. We take pictures, record seashores or birdsongs, but depend on the spoken or written word for the archiving of scents. Scents truly need the storyteller, the writer, to endure and have their praises sung.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, “American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean,” and of “Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon.” He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.