I first learned about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when I was five years old when my father made a series of trips to Arctic Alaska to write about, and live with, his cousin Heimo Korth, a hunter-trapper living as the last frontiersman on the Coleen River with his wife and family. From the moment he returned, every night before I went to bed, I would beg him for an Alaska story and I made him promise that one day he would take me with him.
Ten years later, I got my chance.
Heimo was building a new cabin after his old one was washed away by the river, and needed my dad’s help. My dad agreed, but under the condition that he could bring along his 15-year daughter, me. Heimo was hesitant, warning my dad that the Arctic was no place for a teenage girl, but ultimately, he agreed.
And truthfully, for the first 10 days, Heimo was right. I wasn’t happy. I was smack dab in the middle of nowhere, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle and 70 miles from the nearest neighbor, living out of a tent with no one but my dad and Heimo for company. On top of that, it was not the great adventure I had dreamed of. I worked seven hours a day alone in a clearing peeling 90 25-foot poles using only a drawknife. I spent most of my days sweating under the sun, swarmed by mosquitos, and worried about grizzly bears. At night, exhausted, I dreamed of home.
But something changed about two weeks in. After 10 days in the same sap-stained, sweat-soaked clothes, I finally decided to take a bath. But the only place to bath in the bush is the Coleen River, a glacier-fed, ice-cold river. I told my dad my plan and walked down to the river bank to test the waters. I dipped my foot in and quickly withdrew it. Even the banks of Lake Superior could compare to cold of the Coleen River. Rather than prolong the pain, I decided to take the plunge. I set down my towel, got into my sprinter’s stance and jumped off the river bank like the Olypmic Swimmer Katie Leideky, springing from the blocks. The water felt like hailstones sending shock waves up my spine. I washed up as fast as I could, ran out of the water, grabbed my towel, and sat down on a big piece of drift wood by the bank. I was under the sun looking north to the Brooks Range, the tundra spread out before me, and in that moment, I remember feeling complete and utter joy. For the first time on my trip, I realized where I was, that I was in 20 million of raw wilderness. And, in that vast landscape, our human presence amounted to no more than a trio of tents tucked into the trees.
As the days passed, I started to think of my time in a new way. The daily grind that I dreaded before became meaningful: building the fire in the morning, picking salmon berries on the tundra, fishing for Arctic grayling for supper, waking up at 2 am when the sun was still up. After that month, my dad and I returned home, and I finally had everything I had longed for. I was back to the world of wifi and running water, phones and friends. And yet, I missed Alaska, because in Alaska, I felt alive. I was alert and aware, and there was just this awe. It’s what Wallace Stegner talks about in his Wilderness Letter, “the birth of awe.” After that, there was no going back.
I returned to the Refuge again in the middle of winter, arriving just days before the sun set for two months and with the thermometer consistently around 30 below. For some the cold and lack of light can feel isolating, but this time, I had a companion, Heimo’s wife, Edna. Edna is a Yupik Eskimo from Saint Laurence Island and grew up in the native community of Savoonga. Her father was one of the leaders of the community, but he didn’t have any sons, so she became his side kick. He passed all his wilderness skills on to her, and while I was up in Arctic Alaska, she passed some of them on to me. She taught me how to identify tracks in the snow, how to set snares, and snare snow-shoe hare, how to read the different colors of the river ice and listen for open water, and how to butcher a caribou at 35 below. That day, it was so cold, I could barely hold the knife and my hands shook as I slit open the intestinal cavity. Edna saw me shaking and took my bare hands into hers and guided them inside the steaming opening. She held them there until they were tingling and the warmth returned to my body. When I took them out, they were wet with blood and dripping and steaming in the snow, but I could finish the task. Edna taught me that the woods was more than just a man’s world. Growing up, I read the stories of men who made forays in the wilderness and wandered west on great adventures. But, Edna proved to me that I could be a wilderness woman in my own right. With her, I stopped feeling afraid and doubting myself and my abilities. I saw myself not as a 16-year-old girl following her father’s lead, but as a confident, independent woman.
I needed every bit of that strength on our last trip in which my father and I backpacked over the Brooks Range and paddled the Hulahula River through the Refuge’s coastal plain to the Arctic Ocean. That was the trip where I really learned what it meant to be bold, to face physical challenges despite my fear. I still remember the anxiety I felt before running a set of Class III rapids, as the current pulled at the canoe and the last eddy disappeared from sight. Or, the trepidation as I watched a polar bear lumbered toward our tent. But I also found another kind of courage on that trip: courage of conviction. For the first time in my life, I discovered something truly awesome, not in the modern sense of the word, but according to its original meaning: something inspiring a mix of reverence and fear. When I think back to my time in the Refuge, I remember the feeling I had that I was witnessing a life force up close: hundreds of caribou from the Porcupine Caribou herd running beside a river, two excited grizzly cubs toppling over each other while watching us make camp; a wandering musk ox grazing among young willows at the edge of a stream; and a thousand ducks spooking from a tundra pond as we portaged our canoes across the coastal plain.
It’s been two years since my last trip to the Refuge. During that time, I’ve graduated high school, gotten accepted into college, and embarked on a gap year around the world and back again. In the past year, I’ve traveled to some of the greatest cities in Europe, trekked through the jungle of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, climbed some of Peru’s highest peaks, and lived and worked as a white-water river guide on the banks of the American River. In each place, I found adventure, audacity, and awe and lived my life ten times over in the span of six months. But, it is my experiences in Alaska that I remember most. In Alaska alone, I left a piece of my heart.
I’ve given up my vagabond life for awhile and am currently settled in New Haven, Connecticut, studying at Yale University. When I’m not cooped up in the library, I head north to the woods of New England to find my bit of wilderness far from the bustle and buzz of the cities of the East Coast. Walking through the forests of Vermont, I think of home: of our farm house, the great white pine outside my bedroom window and the marsh outback where the frogs sing all night, and of the cabin on the Coleen River, the summer sky as clear as water and the shadow of the Strangle Woman mountains reaching across the tundra.