What the hell am I doing here? Well, I know what I’m doing here, but why? Why am I hunkered down in a small Isolated Inupiat town at the tip of Northern Alaska looking out at the Arctic ocean on a rainy day? I was hoping by some minor miracle that an isolated storm would whip through the village and destroy our pop up canoes, leaving us no choice but to fly home the next day where martinis and creature comforts awaited?
No such luck. The knot in my stomach tightened as I sat as an outsider amongst a bunch of seasoned Yukoners who as far as I gathered, lived off the grid, foraged for food and canoed to their jobs every day under the midnight sun wearing raccoon hats and Grizzly bear jackets that they had sewn by hand.
The 6 of us sat to chat about the upcoming 10 days. Me and Tom Clynes, a writer from Vermont, were the American team. Pete, Steve, Wendy, and Joe rounded out the Yukoners. Together we equaled 2 writers, 3 photographers, and 1 videographer.
I was fucked. They asked me how much experience I had camping and canoeing. I flat out said, “I don’t.” No reason to lie to these people at this point. I tent camped in my teens with the girl scouts and canoed in ponds around New England.
As we sat and chat about the expedition, guns, bear spray, and air horns were passed around.
What was the expedition really? The voyage I was accepted to go on was to document the bird migration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). More than 200 migratory birds make landfall here, then disperse across the globe, relying on the fragile tundra for food and breeding grounds.
This was one of many expeditions put together to explore, document and spread the word about the struggle to save ANWR from drilling once again, now in jeopardy by the current Trump Administration.
The rain continued, and everyone was adamant about packing up our canoes and leaving our sheltered house into the freezing rain to canoe to our first camp spot.
I felt the eyes of them looking me up and down, assessing my small frame and weight.
I was being underestimated, or at least that is what I was projecting onto them.
This brings me to why I guess. The short and sweet story is, I let myself become complacent. ‘Complacency Kills,’ is a phrase I’ve often heard of, and now I know how true that rings in my world. I was now in my late thirties coming out of a miserable job where I sat at a desk 8 hours a day, looking out the window into the world as a prisoner. Dramatic, I know, but I’m just not meant for the 9-5 world.
I was sad, angry, sick; physically and mentally and not living up to who I thought I should be. I actually lost who I was. I didn’t even know who I was anymore, or how I was supposed to get it back. My only escape from that world were small bits of time in nature that I protected fiercely and cherished like the last few drops of water from a cup.
I hoped that going on the trip would help me find myself and find more of that time in nature that I loved so much…And it did.
So it began. I dressed in my 7 layers, topped off with a raincoat and started huffing gear down to the boats in the rain. When we finally had the 3 canoes loaded with food, tents, guns, clothing and camera equipment, the 6 of us shoved off into the Arctic Ocean.
It was cold, probably in the 40s and it was raining. Raining on our bodies, our shelters, and our transportation.
We started to paddle, and so began the rhythm.
I thought in my mind that there was no way I could paddle miles on the Arctic ocean each day, but I was wrong.
My mind quieted, and the water and shore stretched out before me. My arms and upper torso began to take on a rhythm quite like a metronome. Each day of paddling proved that I was getting stronger. It was almost a craving, and now I know why these Yukoners loved to paddle so much. It’s a song that your body, mind, nature and the earth fall into. It’s a moving meditation. I also had no choice and nowhere to go. A small plastic seat in a questionably put together canvas canoe was where I was to sit for this journey.
The arctic ocean reminded me of the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Maine. There are no rolling waves, but chop and deep shades of greens and blues. Icebergs float in the distance. The ocean blends with the shoreline where permafrost resides. There has been a century-long warming pattern that has been affecting the coastline along ANWR with a staggering increase in temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 or so years. As we paddled along, we literally saw chunks of permafrost or frozen ground lean into the ocean, tipping forward as if at any moment they would break into the sea.
We continued this journey each day, looking for signs of birds, caribou or any other species burley enough to call this place their home.
We paddled. We played 21 questions. We talked a lot about food. What sort of food we loved, what we would eat when we got home. What are favorite meals to cook were, and what ingredients we used.
Days went by like this.
We were about 8 days in. The 4 of us were departing from the spit where we had been camping for 2 days.
At this point, we had lost 1/3 of our crew. We started at 6, and we were now 4. It wasn’t a tragic situation. They wanted to forge ahead, and we decided to stay another night at our campsite. In a way, it was tragic. We lost a part of our rhythm and flow. Tom and Joe canoed East to Demarcation Bay. I felt it wasn’t right, but I accepted it.
As we left our campsite, A caribou mom and a very young calf watched us depart from the shore. We took pictures of watched a bit as we floated. We continued on. As we did, right in front of us, the mother wades into the water and begins to swim towards the shoreline of the tundra. The small calf did not. It stood and watched it’s mom swim away. Within a second she was in. She looked so little, and the journey from the spit to the tundra seemed so far. It was probably 800 yards, but you could sense in her ways, it was endless to her. She eventually caught up with her mom, and the two clambered onto shore, soaked and dripping the arctic ocean into the tundra below.
That was a fantastic moment in that day, in my life and in the lives of the people I was sharing it with.
We paddled on.
It was glass on the ocean that day and blue skies stretched before us. The Icebergs in the distanced danced from the heat waves. Giants booms rang out as chunks of ice dumped into the Ocean.
The 24-hour sun was out. It looked like 5 pm back in New England, but it was 10pm on the Arctic ocean. We covered our faces as best as we could. “It’s as if there are two suns out today,” Pete says. The actual sun, then the reflection of the sun on the sea. I licked my lips, hoping to add some moisture and protection.
I was paddling West on the Arctic with 3 Yukoners.
Bobcaygeon by Tragically Hip came on Steve’s phone. Wendy says to me… “you are in for a Canadian Treat” They were the Dave Mathews Band of Canada in the 80s.
“I saw the constellations reveal themselves, one star at a time” rang out over the water. All was quiet except Gord Downies’ voice and the sound of our paddles mingling with the sea.
We paddled on
This brings me back to nature. I grew up learning to respect nature, and the sentient beings we shared it with. I was always in the woods. I was never scared of the woods, never scared of swimming across lakes, and never frightened of the animals that surrounded me, watching me cautiously while I wandered the woods.
The term I stumbled upon in my early thirties was ‘BIOPHILIA.’ It’s fun to say, but also explains so much of my existence.
Biophilia:: a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature
In the late 1970s, American biologist Edward O. Wilson extended the word’s meaning, seeing it as the perfect word for “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.
Biophilia | Definition of Biophilia by Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biophilia
I believe in this wholeheartedly and absolutely want to protect and conserve these pockets of land sprung from the earth. Politicians and tribes before my time fought for this land as many other pieces slipped through their fingers to development, oil fields and farmland, now lay barren stripped of the earth’s natural soils.
The connection that people create in a Nomadic setting like this immensely outweighs the relationship that those same people would make when being influenced by outside distractions and prejudgment thoughts of society.
I spent 2 weeks with these people, and they hold a special place in my heart.
Our current settings were so raw and foreign from our usual realities at home.
We paddled together, had conversations with each other and sat quietly with each other. We set up shelter each night with each other and built fires for warmth and cooked meals together. We walked around each other quietly and respected each others time in that current environment.
Connect with nature, explore and sit in nature. Take time to realize how amazing this earth is. We each can make a difference in our everyday lives to support and conserve mother nature.