August 1, 2019
“Wilderness itself is the basis for all our civilization. I wonder if we have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness the right to live on.” -Margaret Murie
Here I am, starting the eighth month of my journey. The end is advancing and I feel a welling sadness knowing this adventure will have its finality. But that is for another day. Today, I am happy to be lost in Alaska. Lost in a land of magic and raw natural power unlike anything I have ever seen. I thought I had experienced wilderness. I thought I had seen untamed places. I thought my standards for natural grace and beauty had long been established, but no. Alaska has shattered my preconceptions so completely that all seems new again. A new standard, new depths of love and appreciation, new eyes and mind to see and understand. This place will mash your soul like wet clay, then rebuild you ten times stronger. Alaska is not for the weak of mind or body, not for the timid, not for the sea-sickened or air-sickened, not for the squeamish, not for those reliant on creature comforts, and not for those who do not have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness the right to live on. Alaska is for the bold and brave, for those who see the same power in the tallest mountain and in the smallest berry – and that the two are inextricably linked by natures flawless calculus in a land of perfect balance. Alaska is for eyes wide open. Alaska is for the infinitely patient.
Ten days ago seems like a lifetime away, but in that brief time I have seen more amazing wonders than my mind and emotions can process. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is our largest park. It is six times larger than Yellowstone, and twice as large as the state of Maryland. It is not just a huge tract of wilderness, but everything in it is enormous. Gigantic mountains, valleys, and rivers. Glaciers so wide and long that you fight to comprehend their scale. Sprawling hills of glacial moraine larger than many parks I have visited – remnants of mountains chewed to dust by relentless ice. Hiking on Root Glacier was a particular highlight. Feeling the dense ice below my crampons, the crunch of each step completely unnoticed by the 600-foot-thick river of ice. Meltwater trickles across the surface of the glacier and channels into rivulets and moulins. An undulating landscape of ice and silt and water. A pale blue beautiful beast, alive and dying and alive in every moment. In Denali, the caribou, the Grizzly Bears, Dall Sheep, Moose, and Wolves are at home and peace underneath the soaring peak of the highest mountain in North America. It consumes the horizon, when it can be seen. The shy mountain hides behind the clouds appearing now and then, only to make the sight of her even more special and magnificent. Walking on the tundra is like falling into an infinite fractal of minutiae. The closer you look, the more detail you see. Closer and closer, more and more. The resolution seems immeasurable. Lichens, and mosses, and berries, and a galaxy of detail under each footstep. A humpback whale named Morgan LeFay puts on a thirty-minute show in the middle of Resurrection Bay, for all to see. Repeatedly breaching out of the water, rolling from side to side waving her 20-foot-long pectoral fins high in the air, dozens of tail splashes in rapid succession. Even the locals at Kenai Fjords National Park said they had never seen anything like it before. Kayaking the fjords at sunset as Bald Eagles and Puffins circled overhead. And then, my last Kenai wish fulfilled as a pod of Orcas gracefully swam past. In Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, the glassy mint green glacier-fed lake waters are still and filled to the brim with Sockeye Salmon. That is why the bears are here – fishing and feeding on these salmon all day long. That’s why the people are here too. You get a completely new perspective on the meaning of ‘wilderness’ when you watch a Brown Bear catch, kill, and eat a twelve-pound salmon in 60 seconds. Then they go back for more. These are just some of the highlights from the past days, and I barely scratched the surface. These places are important, not just to protect the incredible animals and landscapes and beauty, but to remind us what wilderness actually is. To wash our souls in that cold green water and to find our hearts at home with the bears and whales and caribou and salmon.
There are many reasons why I took this trip, but more than any other, I needed to heal. I needed to mend a broken heart – a heart turned to stone. Cold and hard inside a fractured man. Beaten by love and bruised, I needed a diversion. I needed a reminder of what life was all about, what beauty there still is in this world. What possibilities. Somewhere on a pebbled beach, with Morgan LeFay dancing in the distance, surrounded by strangers I now call friends, I found that stone heart. Realizing that it was never inside me, but only a symbol – a manifestation of my fear and insecurity. We all have a wilderness inside us. An untamed and raw landscape to navigate. Full of dangers, and full of wonders. Only when the fog of fear has lifted can we see the path forward, and come to peace with our wilderness within.
Parks visited since July 21st:
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park and Preserve
Kenai Fjords National Park
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve