There is a fullness to the circle of events that only occasionally reveals itself to the human actors in the drama. From my whimsical idea of going camping with my young son one spring weekend in Chicago came a recreational interest in fishing that in turn led to my friend Jerry’s suggestion that we celebrate our midlife birthdays by going to Alaska. For several years thereafter, my travels revolved almost entirely around Bristol Bay and the trophy-hunting sportsmen’s mentality that Aldo Leopold remarked on as being, one hopes, just a way station in an individual’s or a society’s developing relationship with the natural community.
At some point, my personal focus began to evolve away from the tactical objective of catching salmon and trout on a fly rod and moved toward a more holistic delight in the natural world, its wild inhabitants, and the human companions with whom I had the opportunity to share my little adventures. I still enjoyed fishing on its own terms, but it was no longer central to my experience of wilderness, to the point that most of my travel, especially in the arctic, no longer involves fishing in any important respect. I have come almost entirely full circle, back to the simplicity and purposeful aimlessness of hiking and camping.
There was no blinding flash of light, no Damascene epiphany, no one event that I would point to as a turning point. However, an important first step in this personal journey was the fortuity of dropping by The Nature Conservancy’s office in Anchorage, as recounted in Missions and Niches, Part 2. That meeting at TNC set me on a path of thinking about conservation and greater engagement with related policy and land use issues, eventually including the land ethic.
Many years later, I had occasion to visit my daughter, who was working for the summer on the housekeeping staff of a fishing lodge on the border of Wood-Tikchik Park. It was Sarah’s weekly day off and we had various options to consider, including joining groups of lodge guests who were flying out to trophy fishing destinations. However, we opted for some quality time together and ended up packing lunches in our daypacks and hiking up the mountain that sits behind the lodge.
The hike started on an improved trail through spruce forest where Sarah had come face to face at close quarters with a brown bear just the week before. It then required us to cross an extended body of open and sometimes tussocky and wet tundra before we reached the foot of the small mountain. Previous hikers and perhaps other animals had worn the outlines of a trail up the initial slope, which soon gave way to trailless rock and then to boulders and finally to loose scree as we scrambled higher.
While I cannot pinpoint any precise moment at which I fully comprehended the significance of the natural community and the intrinsic value of the land and its inhabitants, one of the first times I can explicitly remember doing so was sitting atop that mountain peak, recovering my breath from the strenuous climb, sitting side by side with my daughter, our legs draped over an outcropping of rock at the summit, taking in the view for miles around.