Grrrr—it

 

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Near the top of the globe, at the slipping edge of Alaska, on the southern coast of the Arctic Ocean is a small barrier island called Arey.  It is nothing more than a six-mile-long scrap of land pounded by whitecaps crashing in from the open water. The island is entirely bare; the only evidence of life, the birds overhead and the dinosaur-sized polar bear tracks pressed into the sand. Yet, the thought of this island was what I imagined every day as I paddled down the Hulahula River, shivering from a core-deep cold, the bill on the hood of my raincoat pulled down to shield  my face from the stinging shards of sleet.

When we were backpacking over the Brooks Range, and all I wanted to do was be rid of my sixty-pound pack and throw it into a ravine, I dreamed about being on the river—and this island.  But when I got to the Hulahula, I discovered that the river was sometimes dangerous and always demanding. Each morning, before packing up camp, I’d pull on my cold, damp clothes and rub my hands together to get the blood circulating. Then, I’d take down the tent, pack up our gear, and load the dry bags into the canoe. Three hours later, we’d finally push off and then for the next 20 miles battle the river’s rapids and the biting wind to the coast. 

After 14 days on the river, when we’d finally reached Arey Island, I waded to the edge of the Arctic Ocean and gathered snail shells, thinking I’d soon be going home. But, then the winds blew up, and we were stranded for another three days. The cold on Arey was worse than anything I’d imagined. The non-stop winds came straight off the North Pole and cut threw everything – our tent, my clothes, and the driftwood shelters we’d erected. We even built bonfires, but still it was impossible for me to get warm. Sometimes, I felt like there was no end to it.

When I tell people about our trip, they often ask me how I managed it, physically and mentally. The word that always came to mind was Grit.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and educator, popularized the word with her TED talk. Grit, she said, is the single best predictor of success in life. She got the word from the John Wayne western True Grit, in which a girl hires a gruff, one-eyed, alcoholic sheriff to hunt down her father’s murderer. Despite her age and gender, the girl refuses to let the sheriff go alone and against all odds, sets out with him to take on the rugged west. This, Angela Duckworth points out, is what grit is about: “passion and determination” for long-term goals. While most people seek immediate gratification, with grit there often is no “aha” moment, just hard work and a long wait.

I found grit in Alaska, but you don’t need Alaska to get grit. Grit is the mile runner who guts it out in the last 200 meters; it is the stutterer who returns to the classroom everyday despite being teased; it is the farm kid who trudges to the barn every morning before school; it is the dyslexic who finishes all seven Harry Potter books; it is the girl who trains to make the high school football team; it is the boy who shovels snow all winter and mows lawns all summer to pay for college.

Grit sounds like what it means — a mixture of purpose and perseverance. Grrrr—it.

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Wolves of the Hulahula

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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.”

I will never be a mountain.

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“We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”

100_0739100_0720100_0734When I was child, my favorite book was “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” Every night before bed, I’d make my dad read it to me. I got so good that I could finish the sentences for him. To this day, I still remember it: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared. Oh oh! Grass. Long, wavy, grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve gotta go through it!

In Alaska’s Brooks Range, the words came back to me, but with a few new twists. This was my version: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a miserable day. I’m sure scared. Oh oh! Mountains. Towering, jagged, cold, rugged mountains. I can’t go over them. I can’t go under them. Darn it! I’ve gotta go through them.”

I’d tramped through tundra, waded through rushing glacial streams, and wrestled my way through willows, but July 30, 2014 was the pivotal day–the Continental Divide. And, there was only one way to get over: through Gilbeau Pass.

The sky was dark and daunting. We were walking high up in a gray mist, following caribou trails through snow fields and talus slopes lining a cliff edge. I refused to look down. One misstep and I would be over.

Behind me, my father teetered back and forth, trying to balance his 70-pound pack and a 10-pound shotgun that was lashed to the side of it. His march was that of an oversized penguin waddling up the slope. Compared to him, I looked like a mountain goat. But, no matter how many times I offered to carry the shotgun, no matter how many times Chris and Dave, our backpacking companions, offered, he refused. He’d brought it along, so he was determined to lug it. Plus, if we saw a bear, he wanted to be the one holding the gun. “No bear in his right mind would be up here,” I told him. He smirked, “No person in his right mind would be up here.”

Coming down from Gilbeau, I spent a lot of time skidding on loose rocks. When the ground leveled out, I was eager to put distance between me and the high mountains, and I drifted ahead of the group. As I rounded a turn, there in front of me was the huge, brown-haired, hump-backed form of a grizzly. Ursus Arctos Horribilis! I wanted to yell for my Dad and Chris and Dave, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt like I had just fallen into “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” “OH NO IT’S A BEAR!” Except this was the real thing. I couldn’t hide under the covers. I couldn’t bury my face in my dad’s chest and beg him to protect me. I couldn’t skip to the end, because this time I didn’t know the end. And, unlike the characters in my book who ran back to their house and hid, I had nowhere to go. My only escape was up the side of a mountain, but I knew I couldn’t outrun the bear.  Even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear.

Rather than chasing me up the mountain, however, the grizzly took one look at me, turned, and fled up the 60-degree slope, looking more like a prima ballerina than a 700-pound giant. I had just come face-to-face with my worst fear, the monster of my childhood nightmares, and what had it done? It ran. I never would have guessed.

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A Bear!?

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Prior to this trip, I’d never actually seen a grizzly. I’d been in bear country and had seen fresh tracks and steaming scat, but never a bear. So, on this trip, I was intent on spotting a grizzly. I didn’t need a long look at one, and I sure didn’t want one close up, but I was not going home without catching sight of a griz.

As we hiked up the Chandalar River toward Gilbeau Pass, I was constantly on the lookout. We tramped across gravel bars thick with willows, and I scanned the branches for a bear. When we stopped for a break, I looked downwind to see if one might be tracking us. While my dad, and Chris and Dave ( our two companions) quizzed each other about old 70s and 80s music to pass the time, I stayed silent and focused. They could have their fun, but I would be the one to spy the bear in the thicket ahead or to send out the warning call when one came stumbling out of the brush.

But after 4 hours of steady hiking over the tundra, always climbing higher, I grew tired. The only things on my mind were if we’d stop, how long we’d rest, and if I might dip into the trail mix or the hummus when we did. So, when I came up out of a ravine, I was not prepared for the brown-haired, humped- back form of a grizzly.

“Bear!” Dave yelled, turning to my dad who was carrying our only shotgun. Startled, I jumped into action. I pulled out my pepper spray and put my thumb on the trigger. I was prepared to stand my ground. And then, the bear turned.

It was then that I saw two very un-bear like horns emerge from the animal’s enormous head. This most definitely was not a bear. In fact, we had stumbled upon an even more unlikely beast — a muskox, thrashing its head back and forth as it browsed among the willows.

I felt surprised, thrilled, and then a bit disappointed. But I needn’t have worried. I was going to see grizzlies – a number of them – and quite possibly a polar bear, too.

Stay tuned for more bear sightings.

 

The Summer That Never Was

 

Brrr!
Brrr!

In previous blogs, I’ve written about a condition called “bush-eyes” in which I dreamed perpetually of food I could not have. On this trip, a three-week trek/paddle over Alaska’s Brooks Range and to the Arctic Ocean, I developed something I call “summer longing.”

On the second day of our adventure, I awoke to snow. It was July 26 and all around me I saw – snow! My hiking boots were frozen solid, my clothes, left in the corner of the tent, were cold and wet, and my water bottle had a layer of ice an inch thick. Had this been winter, I would have shrugged my shoulders. No big deal, just another day in the Arctic. But, this was supposed to be summer; yet, here I was buried in a 0-degree sleeping bag, wearing a winter hat, ski gloves, thick wool socks, and four layers of clothing. The Arctic cold scratched at the walls of the tent. As I unzipped the rain fly and stood looking at the icy mountains, I tucked the T-shirt I had set out to wear that day into my pack. In the following days, I would dig it out and hope that summer might come. But, day by day, that hope dwindled and I pushed my shirt farther down into the depths of my pack. By day 5, I realized that summer, despite my fervent wishes, would not come, and I contented myself with little fantasies — lying in the hammock, a cool dip in the spring-fed creek across from our house after a hard midday run, picking blackberries in our back field, and eating watermelon, fresh from the garden. I could not banish the cold, but for a few minutes every day, I could have a small slice of summer.

 

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My Home Is On My Back

 

Looking out over the Chandalar River Valley
Looking out over the Chandalar River Valley

On the outskirts of town, in the shadow of a great white pine, my farmhouse awaits my arrival–my bed with its fluffy pillows and summer sheets, the screened in porch safe from the bugs, from where I can watch the fireflies floating over the meadow, the pantry with my secret stash of dark Lindt chocolate. But, for now, and for the next 3 weeks, my home is on my back: 55 pounds of my dearest possessions. It’s basically like carrying around a less winy version of my little sister. When I’m wearing it, I’ve got a hump akin to the Hunch Back of Notre Dame. But once the beast comes off I feel the spring in my step return, and I assume the posture that would make my mother proud. But we have mountains, rivers, bogs, and tundra in Alaska’s Brooks Range to cross. So that leaves the question: Will I get stronger or will I break?

My Backpack

The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

IMG_2116This 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.