I am sorry Alaska! I have betrayed you. You are no longer the only love of my life. I have found some place else, a civilized, sophisticated city, pulsing with energy. Its name is Amsterdam.
Those who say love at first sight is a lie have never been to Amsterdam: The narrow cobblestone streets, the three-story stone houses, the open-air markets winding through the city, the canals crisscrossing the neighborhoods, the musicians serenading the tourists on the bridges, the bikers zigzagging through cars, the people smoking in the green leaf cafes. Maybe it was the fact that the whole city smelled of marijuana, but there was no resisting it, I was high on Amsterdam.
The city gave me a rush that I had not experienced since Alaska. There, it was the quiet, a silence as big as the tundra. But in Amsterdam, it was the noise. The torrent of people and traffic, expanding and contracting like the bellows of an accordion.
That first day in Amsterdam, I explored every street corner and canal I could. Five hours later, I returned to my room and collapsed on my bed. Outside my window, the lights of the city danced over the water like the Aurora Borealis in the Alaskan night sky.
I was just about to fall asleep, when I realized I had forgotten something. I grabbed my purse from the window sill and started digging. Finally I found it at the very bottom, my Leatherman. Every night when I was in the Alaskan bush, I slept with it by my side. It made me feel secure.
Next to me, my cousin turned over in her bed, and stared at me, her eyes wide open. “Are you kidding me, Aidan!?” she asked, glancing at the knife. I laughed and tucked the Leatherman under my pillow. I may have fallen in love with the city, but it couldn’t change the fact that the habits I learned in the wilderness stayed with me. I was still an Alaska girl.
On our first morning on the Hulahula, I woke to the sun and the howling of wolves. The day before, close to camp, we had spotted their fresh tracks, prints bigger than my hand.
I noticed that Dave, Chris, and my dad were all facing southwest. Chris had his binoculars out. He let them fall and turned toward me, motioning for me to come forward slowly.
“Just below the ridge,” he said, pointing. “Three of them.”
I held the binoculars to my eyes, and scanned the hillside. Then, I spotted them. A trio of wolves throwing back their heads, their bodies curved like crescent moons. They were calling to one another. The sound rolled through the valley.
For fifteen minutes, we stood at the base of the hill just listening, thrilled.
The conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
This year, 2014, marks the 50th Anniversary of The Wilderness Act, a landmark legislation that set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of land for preservation and established our current definition of wilderness. In honor of this, my dad and I will be embarking on our 3rd and final trip to the Arctic. Once again, we will be heading into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My dad and I, along with two friends, will be hiking over the Brooks Range to the mouth of the Hulahula River and then paddling our canoes north to the Arctic Ocean.
Before heading out, I’d like to leave you with a little history on the Wilderness Act and its connection to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
What was to become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was the inspiration for the Wilderness Act. The northeastern region of Alaska was regarded as one of North America’s last great wildernesses. But it was unprotected. Olaus Murie, a native Alaskan and director of the Wilderness Society, recognized the necessity of preserving this land. Accompanied by his wife, Mardy, he led a summer-long biological expedition into the heart of the region, in the hopes of obtaining scientific evidence to support his campaign to protect it.
He was awestruck by the areas wildness. In the foothills of the Brooks Range he discovered thousands of free-roaming caribou, wolves, grizzly bear, and Dall sheep.
Emboldened by their experience, the Muries roamed Washington D.C., lobbying Congressmen, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Thanks to the Murie’s efforts, the Arctic Refuge was established in 1960. Four years later, the Muries celebrated another victory, the creation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. While campaigning for the creation of the Arctic Refuge, Olaus Murie was working with his Wilderness Society partner, Howard Zahniser, to craft a bill that would protect wild lands across the country. Murie understood that few people would have the privilege of traveling to Alaska. What they needed was the opportunity to interact with nature in their own backyards and experience it’s physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits.
Today, Murie’s dream is a reality. The Wilderness Act has set aside over 109 million acres of recreational land in over 25 states.
Growing up, I dreamed of going to Alaska, but the places that I loved, where I hiked, camped, canoed, hunted, and fished were close to home. Tomorrow, I will be traveling to the largest wilderness refuge in North America, but it was those formative childhood trips with my family that instilled in me a love of the outdoors.
When we arrived at the Fairbanks airport, with our backpacks and fishing rods, an airport employee took a look at us and asked where we were headed. “To the Arctic,” I said. He grimaced and then proceeded to launch into a bear story, sparing us none of the gruesome details.
“My friend and I were hiking in the mountains,” he began, “and we saw this bear in the distance, but you know, it’s Alaska, this is bear country, so we just kept walking. Anyway, I hiked up ahead a bit, and then I heard a scream in back of me. I turned around, and there was a 800-pound grizzly attacking my friend. The bear took a swipe at him and he went down. I ran back yelling as loud as I could and somehow I chased the bear off. It saved him, but his face is a mess now.”
The brutal story was one I didn’t need to hear. I already had bear on the brain. Even before we left Wisconsin I was having bad bear dreams; they were following me through the woods, stalking me. I’d wake up whimpering and clutching at my pillow.
My dad told me, we didn’t need to worry, unless we came across a grizzly guarding his kill, or a sow and her cub. Bears, he said, would be more afraid of us than we’d be of them. It was cold comfort. So on our first morning in Fairbanks, I woke early and surfed the internet, determined to learn everything I could about Ursus arctos horribilis before heading for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My goal: to have a bear-proof plan for survival.
What I learned was unnerving at best. There is little hope of out-running, out-swimming, or out-climbing a bear. An angry grizzly can out-sprint Usain Bolt and swim faster than Michael Phelps. As for climbing, there are few trees at 67 degrees latitude that a grizzly in hot pursuit couldn’t uproot as fast as a bulldozer.
Later that day, we talked with a bush pilot who laughed when he heard that I would be wearing bear bells. “That’ll help us with identification,” he said. When I gave him a puzzled look, he added, “When we find a big pile of bear shit with bells in it, we’ll know it’s you.”
On our second day in the Arctic, I learned that the wide, well-packed trail we were camped near, was neither a caribou trail nor Heimo’s snowmachine path, but a veritable bear highway. I felt like Goldilocks, but instead of three genial porridge-eating bears, I had a big, bad, potentially man-eating grizzly to worry about. I could only hope that Papa Grizzly wouldn’t find me asleep in my tent, and wonder, “Who’s camped on my trail?”
That night, before I went to bed, I placed a can of bear spray next to my pillow. Nevertheless, I tossed and turned until finally I rolled over and whispered to my dad on the other side of the tent, “Daddy, you up?” He groaned in his sleep, and slowly opened his eyes.
And that was when I had my revelation. I felt guilty because it was so foolproof, my ace-in-the-hole. And I slept well for the rest of the night. I knew that if we encountered a charging grizzly, I needed to do only one thing to stay alive: I needed to out-run my old man.
I was 2 ½ weeks into our trip, when the first sign of food-deprivation set in. My dad, my uncle, and I had nearly finished off the last of our chocolate. We had one bite-sized Snickers bar left, which, after supper, we’d agreed to split three ways. After that, there’d be nothing sweet till Fairbanks. To make matters worse, I had to conserve my cocoa, my lone indulgence. I had just enough for the mornings. So while my dad sipped his coffee and Heimo cradled his cup of Raman broth, I sat empty-handed.
Heimo glanced at me as I sat pining away, and smirked, “Someone’s got a bad case of bush eyes!”
“Bush eyes? What’s that?” I asked.
“I’ve seen that look on your face; your head’s full of food.”
It was true. I was not homesick or lovesick; I was foodsick.
All week, I had been dreaming of frappes, chocolate malts, cheese, juicy watermelons and fresh-baked bread. I couldn’t wait to get back to Fairbanks and eat something other than fish and pancakes.
Heimo continued, “I remember my girls, Rhonda and Krin, going through the same thing. Understand, they weren’t here for just a month. We were out from August till June. And in winter, there’d be nothing but meat. All they could think of – dream of – was food. I remember them writing long grocery lists and making up menus. Man, were they happy when they got to town.”
I thought of what my life had been like compared to Heimo’s daughters. I grew up with access to restaurants, stores, supermarkets, where anything my heart desired was just a shelf away. And now I had bush eyes – and I had ‘em bad.
I wasn’t the only one. My dad had them, too. Like a good Cheesehead, he craved dairy. Even Heimo had his cravings. He wanted salmon and moose tacos and Diet Cokes.
When we finally did get back to Fairbanks, I walked through Fred Meyer eyeing the mountains of food. I wanted it all: fruits from Chile, Alaska-grown vegetables, 20 kinds of cereals and sodas, nuts, chocolate, and cheese! I marveled at the selections and the excess that most of us never think twice about.
That evening, after doing our laundry, my dad and I made our way down to College Road and found a Thai restaurant and ordered chicken skewers with peanut sauce, spring rolls and rich, spicy curries. Then we made a bee-line for Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream and bought the biggest chocolate malts they had. Nothing ever tasted so good. We walked back to our hotel, sipping our malts, with full bellies and bush eyes temporarily sated.
Spent my first day at the Fairbanks dump—don’t ask. Not exactly the wilds of Alaska, but still I met many wild and colorful characters, scroungers, and vagabonds, with their vehicles full of all their worldly possessions. They mistook me for one of them and inducted me into their club. We talked scrounging, self-sufficiency and how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. One guy said he’d decorated his entire cabin with stuff scrounged from the dump.
I got a quick tour of Fairbanks, as my dad and I rushed across town in Heimo’s gas-guzzler of a truck gathering cabin-building materials for Heimo and provisions for our trip. We went on a wild goose chase for some twelve-inch cabin spikes and a Thermacelle insect repellent lantern, guaranteed to keep all mosquitoes away. Apparently it works, though, because every store we went to was sold out. Our search led us all across the city and to the far corners of town. It was here that I found probably the most amusing of Fairbanks’ many quirks: “Show Girls,” the local club. I couldn’t resist including a photo. I guess everything is wild in Alaska.
I find myself at the beginning of a journey, bound for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s last great wildernesses. My father will be my travel companion and together with my dad’s cousin, Heimo Korth, a veteran of the Alaskan bush, we will learn how to survive life in the wilderness.
In Alaska, my home will be my tent, my bed will be a mat, my bathroom will be a hole in the ground, my water will come from the river or from a spring, and my food will be whatever we manage to kill, catch or gather. Over the course of the next year, I will be making four trips to the Alaskan Arctic, staying for one month each season. For my first trip, we will help Heimo Korth build a new cabin from scratch and then head for the high country in search of caribou.
And, so, unlike most kids my age, I will not be spending my summer vacationing at a summer-house, tanning at the pool, shopping with friends on State Street, or binge-watching Pretty Little Liars for hours (as I may have under normal circumstances). Instead I will be 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, 3 hours by bush plane from Fairbanks, in one of the most remote and isolated places in the world, swatting clouds of mosquitoes, and praying I won’t encounter an angry mother grizzly (a sow) protecting her cubs or a territorial moose. In other words, I will be in the middle of nowhere. There is a better chance of reaching Santa at the North Pole than reaching Aidan Campbell in the Arctic.