Gifts from the land

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” -Annie Dillard

The Northern Lights were out in force above Talkeetna the other night, all night long for all I know. I also went my entire first summer in Alaska without seeing a grizzly bear. What do these two facts have to do with each other? Or with me, for that matter? After all, I had no real control over either of them. I can’t force the Lights to come out, and I can’t force a bear to cross paths with me no matter how long I spend in grizzly country.

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Will your trip look like this?
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… or this? (These photos were taken just a few days apart on the same trip.)

When I first arrived in Alaska, I quickly learned that that’s the way things are here. Without access to a weather forecast, a car to reliably get places, or even a map, I simply hitchhiked around the state, never quite sure what I was getting myself into. Maybe it was raining the whole time, or I couldn’t catch a ride, or maybe I ran into an old friend, or the clouds finally parted for a sublime view, or I stumbled across a herd of Dall sheep. Every day was new and fresh because I had no plan. Alaska simply happened to me.

In the process, I got the ground-truth on what it means that Alaska has twice Texas’s size and 3% of its population, that Alaska’s mountains rise a mile higher than Colorado’s, that its rivers run wild and free for hundreds and thousands of miles… From the icefields of the Kenai Peninsula to the lonely forests of the Interior I’ve explored huge swaths of country, and somehow only just scratched the surface.

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The Harding Icefield

Here the landscape looms larger than life, larger than you, me, everyone. Where I grew up, New York, the attempts to turn the land into something relatable, understandable, and controllable have largely succeeded. Not so in Alaska. The place retains an aura of incredible power, the feeling that we are here by permission and that at any moment a landslide, earthquake, volcano, anything could sweep us from the landscape without fanfare.

This is also a place of great mystery, where Northern Lights sweep silently across winter evenings and the wolverine prowls ridges yet unseen by man. To step into this world, to truly engage with it, is to accept the mystery and take your place as a mote of dust in the air, ready to be blown where the wind pleases. In a place that will never be mastered, you must accept your own powerlessness, and be happy for everything that comes your way. Personally, what’s come my way has often been unexpected, delightful and unforgettable. So forget your plans, and listen to what the land is telling you. Get outside, get wet, get muddy… maybe you’ll see the Lights, or find that perfect blueberry patch, or catch a lasting glimpse of alpine glory. Or maybe none of these will happen; there is no guarantee. But the only way to receive the land’s gifts is to get out there and be ready for them.

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The Journey North, Part II: Return to Alaska

Continued from Part I…

There I was, just across the border into British Columbia, with nothing but the world’s second largest country between me and my destination. After leaving Washington, the landscape became noticeably bigger, with wider valleys and rugged, snow-capped peaks.

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Landscape in southern British Columbia

With nobody left to visit along the way, I stopped dawdling and focused on the miles. After a long push into the Fraser River Valley, I excitedly pulled out my map to gauge how far north I’d gotten. As I located myself on the paper, my heart sank. I had only chipped away a tiny amount of the remaining distance, and had hundreds of miles to go before I was even at the same latitude as anywhere in Alaska, let alone near Anchorage. There were long days ahead.

Now I slept in the back of the car, as a cost-saving strategy to avoid hotels. As I drew further away from the border, patches of snow began appearing on the ground, and before long I was back in the depths of winter again. By the time I got to the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, the cars around me on the road had plugs sticking out of the grills: evidence of engine block heaters, to help cars start when temperatures plunge far below zero. I certainly felt out of place with my New York license plate and near-complete lack of winter clothes. Thankfully, though, I never saw temperatures below twenty degrees Fahrenheit on this trip.

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Scenery near Liard Hot Springs

Miles piled on and civilization slowly dropped away. Loneliness ebbed and flowed, but mostly I felt glad to finally be working directly towards a goal again: returning to Alaska. My excitement rose as the landscape took on a more northerly character, spindly spruce trees piercing the sky and sunsets lingering long into the evening. I still had some trepidation about my future, but at least I knew it was going to be an adventure.

I tracked my progress by noting which Alaskan towns I was on equal latitude with. Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau… slowly but surely, I was getting there. Highlights included crossing the Canadian Rockies, with spectacular winter scenery, and taking a luxurious soak at Liard Hot Springs, where I finally met some locals to chat with.

The Alaska Highway gradually meandered into the Yukon, bending westward and plunging through huge swaths of snow-covered wilderness. As I woke up one morning outside Whitehorse, I realized that I might actually reach Alaska the that day. After months of plans, failures and frustrations, my moment of triumph was at hand. I still felt a little apprehension, though. It had been a long time since I left Alaska, and besides, I had never been there with snow on the ground. It would undoubtedly be a completely different place. Would I still like it? Would it meet my expectations, which had never been higher? Was my summer in 2015 a singular event, never to be replicated, leaving me forever trying and failing to repeat it?

No other way to answer these questions than to go. I floored the gas and surged towards the border. Just as when I crossed from Washington into British Columbia, the landscape widened, and by the time I passed Kluane Lake, it was epic in scale. Rows of mountains marched off into the horizon, and the boreal forest displayed a scraggly toughness that only comes from the harshest of winters. I was close.

At the border, when questioned about my purpose, I muttered something about the only potential job lead I had, possibly making birch syrup in Talkeetna. Apparently the customs agents were satisfied, and just like that, I was back. After driving a mile or two beyond the border, I pulled over to celebrate. The fact that I had no friends within 300 miles to share this with did nothing to diminish my happiness. Finally back!!!

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I made it!

After reaching the tiny town of Delta Junction, I turned left (my first turn in over 1,000 miles) and drove south to the Black Rapids Lodge, situated in the middle of the Alaska Range. As I approached the mountains, the sun began to set, casting a sea of jagged peaks in brilliant rays of orange and pink. Mount Moffit, over 13,000 feet in height, surged above the clouds.

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By the time I actually reached the lodge, it was getting dark. I figured I shouldn’t stay long, say hi and then find somewhere to camp. On the contrary, however, the owner immediately sat me down with a warm bowl of soup for dinner and we began swapping stories. He was friends with my only contact in Alaska, Doug White of Anchorage. I told him who I was and stories from my journey so far, and in turn he regaled me with tales of backcountry skiing among the peaks surrounding us. Before long he was setting me up to stay overnight in the downstairs hostel area. Alaskan hospitality at its finest!

I played cards with some lodge guests, then dozed off to sleep, happy to have a warm bed for once. But soon I was shaken awake again. “Anthony! Come look outside!” It was Jim, one of the guests that I had met earlier. I asked Jim what this was all about. “Just come,” he said. I stumbled out of bed and groggily staggered upstairs towards the balcony. There was already a crowd outside. I joined them and looked up: a great ribbon of green light wove across the clear night sky. The Aurora.

We spent the next few hours watching the display, as the ribbon spun and multiplied, breaking into a thousand spears of light and then re-forming again. As I stood watching on my first night in Alaska, I felt confident about the future. It was good to be back.

Epilogue: Ultimately, I ended up landing the birch syrup job in Talkeetna, and ended up living there through spring and summer. Turns out my anxiety about finding a job and getting established was cured by simply showing up in Alaska first, and figuring things out afterwards. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past year, but I’m proud to say this wasn’t one of them!

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Sunset over the Alaska Range from Talkeetna, Alaska

 

The Journey North, Part I: Leaving the Lower 48

Time: Early 2016, Place: Flagstaff, Arizona

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The San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff. Taken on the way back from an ill-fated solo winter attempt on 12,637 foot Humphreys Peak

My job had everything I thought I wanted: I was outside every day, surrounded by outdoorsy peers, in a place that did not lack for snowy peaks or spectacular scenery (see photo above). Still, things weren’t right. I found myself poring over my Alaska Atlas, dreaming of valleys nobody has yet seen and mountains no one will ever climb. Out of sync with the bustling city of Flagstaff and my happily comfortable friends, I began to feel a nagging sense of stagnation. After an incredible summer in Alaska in 2015, I was eager to return, and unlock the potential I knew lay in the North.

Due partly to my primitive living situation last summer and partly to my own lack of confidence, I had been unable to secure a position in Alaska for the winter. Hence, Arizona. In coming south I concocted a dozen rationalizations: that I needed a winter Outside in order to learn to ski, that I wanted to explore the rest of the country, that I would save up money to go back next summer. The reality is that I still don’t know how to ski, that exploring Alaska was always the priority, and that I already had enough money saved. The saving grace was that I now had access to a car, a quantum leap in my traveling abilities.

It only took a weekend of reminiscing with an old Alaska compatriot to make me realize that Arizona was merely a holding pattern. Ultimately, there was nothing for me here. It was time to return now. Not next summer, now. Before I rationalized myself out of ever going back, before my courage faded, before I forgot my memories of the North.

And that was it, basically. I left my job, paid a visit to my family back East (I did not want to leave before making sure they were in good health), and departed solo from Phoenix on March 3rd in my trusty Honda.

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Saguaro cacti outside of Phoenix, Arizona

I went west first, hitting the Pacific at San Luis Obispo, California. From there I turned north, meandering along the coast, with the occasional zig or zag. When I drove out to Flagstaff from New York, I left myself with too little time to see anyone along the way. Now I had nothing BUT time. So I called everyone I knew from California to Canada, and bounced from one bed or backyard to the next. It was a fascinating cross-section of my friends’ lives, ranging from oblivious, fun-obsessed college kids in San Luis Obispo, to the rarefied, monastic world of Berkeley’s mathematics department, to the ski bums of Portland, Oregon. I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in years, and in my role as a transient, I got to see sides of them they might not have revealed to an everyday face.

A brief, tempting look at the ways other lives have gone, and how mine might still go. But all the same, I wasn’t bound for Berkeley or Portland. I was headed to Alaska, and before I knew it I was past my friends, preparing to cross the United States border into Canada. The thing was, I had no job lined up yet, no idea of where I would be in a month, and no clue of the snow conditions through British Columbia and the Yukon (after traveling from Phoenix to Bellingham, I was less than halfway there). Inevitably, after leaving all my friends behind in warmer climes, I began to question myself. Just what am I getting into? Continued in Part II…

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Cloudy skies over Portland, Oregon
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Sequim, Washington