“Let me get this straight. Have you really never been camping before?”
“That’s right. I’ve never even slept in a sleeping bag or a tent.”
“And it’s your first time in Alaska?”
This was not exactly the conversation I expected to have on Day One of a 10-day float trip, but there we were, on the banks of the Kongakut River, discussing my new friend’s lack of a camping background. We were in the remote northeast corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, preparing to raft from the mountains of the Brooks Range down to the foothills that demarcate the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean. Canada’s Yukon Territory was often in sight off to our right.
Judge Two, as my inner monologue would call her, cracked an impish grin and gave a little shrug. Not because she was pulling my leg, which of course she was not. I came to recognize these gestures as characteristic tools in dealing with her unfamiliar surroundings.
Which gave me a perfect opportunity to express my own enthusiasm, if not much more in the way of actual experience. “This will be fantastic!” I said, hoping it would be true.
Flirting with the north side of 70, Judge Two had been invited on the trip by her friend, who I will simply call The Judge. Judge Two had readily agreed, her spirit of adventure and desire to try new things outweighing what must have been a fair amount of trepidation. Fortunately, The Judge was there to help her along the way.
And so we spent 10 days together, our little band of 7 coming to know each other with the easy familiarity of wilderness bonding: The Judge, who is a prominent member of the federal judiciary; Judge Two, only recently retired from the federal bench; two friends of theirs who are lawyers in Seattle; me; and two outstanding guides from Arctic Treks, Jeff “Country” Gillespie and Molly Dullanty, who waited until about Day Three to let us know they had recently married.
We enjoyed what might be regarded as the expected adventures and animal sightings, with plenty of opportunity to borrow Jerry’s ironic catchphrase about cuing various animals. For me, however, the best part of the trip, and a strongly inspirational example, was observing the spirit and gumption that Judge Two brought to what was obviously a difficult and personally challenging experience.
It was cold, very cold, and often wet and buggy to boot, sometimes all of them at once. What’s not to like? Judge Two could give you a few ideas about that. But she weathered it all with style and took the physical hardships in stride, albeit a stride that was sometimes born of necessity. And she was witty, even hilarious, all the while.
The impish grin and little shrug were frequently on display, even while she was paddling with all her might or schlepping loads well beyond her comfort level. Frequently, she burst into song, often accompanied by The Judge, as she labored through the tasks at hand. Judge Two may not have been camping before, but she had clearly led an active and vigorous life, filled with other types of adventure.
From start to finish, the trip was a compelling reminder of one of the regular themes of this blog. That is the psychological value of getting out to experience wilderness at first hand if at all possible. It is the best way I know to cultivate the sense of ownership and personal responsibility that lie at the heart of the land ethic. The esthetics of wilderness lead inexorably to the ethics of conservation.
Topics of conversation in the rafts, on our hikes or around the evening meal naturally ran to the environment and conservation, to the legacy we have received from the Muries, Bob Marshall, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and many others who have fought to preserve the iconic wild lands of America for future generations. We owe them a great debt, and our descendants a commensurate duty.
So here’s a tip of my bug hat to Judge Two. She is a living example for all of us that with a little help and encouragement it is possible for people of a wide range of ages and experience levels to encounter wilderness on their own terms. While she may occasionally have wished to be "out of here" in the moment, it was clear that Judge Two was well on the way to appreciating the beauty and wildness of our arctic lands.
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