A Lesson from the Alaskan Wilderness


The wilderness scares the shit out of me. This wasn’t always the case. I used to appreciate nature from the safety of civilization, our tamed and conquered version of the great outdoors. But in conquering nature by baby proofing the wilderness, running out bears and cutting down forests for our big, suburban homes, we have completely lost a vital respect for the most powerful force in the world. The cure for this abusive relationship is to leave all safety and certainty and go to the backcountry to get your ass kicked by nature. But, I’ll spare you the time (and money) by giving you the second-hand learning experience. Enjoy. Last July, I flew to Anchorage to go to National Outdoor Leadership School. We sea kayaked through the Kenai Fjords for two weeks, and backpacked in the Chugach Mountains for two weeks. We slept in tents, carried all our rations and gear, and had lecture around a fire, or more typically, in the rain. Our lectures covered information on “Leave No Trace” principles, risk management, leadership techniques, environmental ethics, communication, and first-aid. Class topics ranged from the tundra ecosystem to how to poop in a plastic bag. Some lessons were taught when the perfect application arose, like our lesson on crossing frigid rapids with a 50 pound pack on, and the one on how to avoid the wrath of a grizzly bear.

Humans sit at the top of our Evanstonian food chain. In Alaska, that’s not the case. This struck me after our twelfth of 28 bear sightings. We had struggled down miles of steep terrain for hours, almost losing a few roll-away packs of vital gear. The vegetation was thick and sopping wet, but smiles stretched across our sweaty, dirt-caked faces because our camp was sitting pristinely in the valley below us.

“Oso! Oso!” We heard Yuri’s bear calls from a few hundred yards back and inched our way across the slick greenery to join with the rest of the group. There we spotted the grizzly cubs, bounding innocently across the stream. Then we saw a larger cub, and another, and then the momma. We had about a hundred yards of slip-n-slide to cross before we could make a sharp right turn and beeline to camp, but any sudden movement toward the bears could be seen as a threat. They looked so far away but were showing off their incredible speed as they bounded up and down the other side of the valley. They kept stopping to rise up on their hind legs, a threat to charge. We students reacted with our best coping mechanism: humor, but Yuri was clearly stressed. “Guys, this is serious,” she pleaded. A few kids continued to laugh as an unloaded pack escaped us. It rolled, gaining speed, then finally stopped. Yuri explained that the rolling pack could look like a charging animal to the grizzlies, and that if they felt challenged, they wouldn’t hesitate to charge. Momma bear rose up on her hind legs as I whispered to Yuri, “How long you think it’d take her to get over here?” “Twenty seconds.” Holy shit. That distance would have taken our group over an hour to cover, especially with the elevation gain. Respect took the form of fear. We waited for what felt like days until Momma Bear stopped doing her dance of dominance and took her cubs back up the valley. We walked back to camp with our eyes wide and our bear spray close, our laughter coming more from fatigue and desperation than anything else.

This wasn’t the only humbling experience, but the easiest to explain. The rest falls along the lines of aching feet, growling stomachs, bundled in rain-soaked sleeping bags, shivering between two other stinky teenagers, trying to fall asleep in the never-ending Alaskan daylight, dreading waking up to the cooking, cleaning, and packing that would proceed tomorrow’s 8-mile trek through shoulder-height bushes, across freezing rivers, through snow despite the sweat that trickles down your back. Or the nudge of a mysterious animal under your kayak followed by a 35-degree wave crashing into your boat as you paddle through your seventeenth mile toward a camp offering cold, sharp rock to sleep on and hungry flies waiting to feast on your flesh. But it wasn’t all bad - it was the most rewarding and humbling experience I’ve ever had. There’s no better peace than arriving at camp after six hours of uphill bushwhacking. Pizza has never tasted as good as in the small town of Seward, after two weeks of instant potatoes and cashews, when we traded in our kayaks for hiking boots. A shower had never felt as good as the four minutes of trickling, cold water my two tokens bought me in the Miller’s Landing public restroom. And I cannot describe the bliss that swept over all of us when our taxi boat was surrounded by a pod of Orcas. Go find your respect for nature. It’s the best type of love you can have for a thing, and this thing (nature) is pretty darn important considering if we keep abusing her, she’ll ruin our lives. Plus, she’s really pretty. Peace.

Another bonus: you can earn college credit through the University of Utah, which transfers to Northwestern, maybe that will convince you nerds.

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