In Arctic Loneliness, I wrote about a remark that William O. Douglas, a great 20th century conservationist who also happened to be a Supreme Court Justice, had made after being dropped off in the Sheenjek Valley to visit Olaus and Mardy Murie in 1956. “The arctic has a strange stillness that no other wilderness knows. It has loneliness too – a feeling of isolation and remoteness born of vast spaces. This is a loneliness that is joyous and exhilarating.” It is in pursuit of just that type of loneliness that I have traveled in Alaska's wilderness, including its arctic region.
And yet, I did not make these trips alone. Nor did Justice Douglas. It was a communal form of loneliness that we sought: far from the madding crowd, to be sure, but richer and more textured than simple isolation and remoteness.
I enjoy the feeling of "coming home to a place [I've] never been before," as John Denver sings, when immersed in wilderness. But the most meaningful value for me derives not just from the natural landscapes and the animals, plants, rivers, mountains and tundra that inhabit them. It is rather the shared experience of the natural world, the transcendent wonder and awe in its presence, the intense feeling of being alive as members of the human species, that comes from traveling in wild places with other people.
Aristotle taught that humans are by nature social animals. I admire and respect solo hikers and others who desire to be alone in wilderness. For me, however, it is through social interaction with wilderness that we make it a human encounter, becoming not simply passive observers of the wild, but active participants in it.
We become part of the land, as entitled to be there as the grizzly bears and the moose, the wolves and the caribou, provided that we know and respect the limits of our role and the boundaries of theirs. In doing so, we connect with a deep and integral element of our own nature, rekindling bonds of culture and community that our ancestors have experienced from the dawn of time.
We can only hope that our descendants will have similar opportunities to come together in the shared experience of wilderness and to give full expression to our natural place in it. If we allow that to slip from our grasp, an important part of our human heritage will be lost as well.
Where Are They Now?
As noted above, my sense of wilderness "esthetics" has an important social element. This includes the appreciation of friendships that are forged in wild places. In recent posts, Wild Serenade and Cue the Whales, I have been writing about a southeast Alaska sailing voyage aboard Arcturus in May 2005. I am deeply indebted to all of my traveling companions on that trip for their friendship then, and since. For readers who might be interested in hearing more about them, a brief update follows.
I have shared many adventures with my pal Jerry, in Alaska and elsewhere, over a friendship now spanning more than 30 years. Jerry taught me to fish many years ago and was the instigator for my first trip to Alaska. He has made many subsequent visits to the Great Land, including attending my daughter's wedding last year and joining me in the Gates of the Arctic later in the summer.
Our mutual friend Phil, whose lack of swimming ability I discussed in the context of race and wilderness in Crossing Bridges, is another long-time Alaska traveler and my law partner for many years. He has a particular interest in the aurora borealis. In addition to our time aboard Arcturus, Phil has accompanied Jerry and me on trips ranging from hiking in Denali National Park to canoeing at the Varykino cabin.
The three of us have stayed in close communication with Nels, who has become a friend and confidant since the Arcturus voyage. He has accompanied Jerry and me on more recent trips in Alaska's arctic region, including the Gates of the Arctic National Park as well as the Arctic Refuge. In addition to his Encounters North website, Nels currently provides text, audio and video content for The Salmon Project. His boundless enthusiasm for the wild world makes any adventure more exciting.
David moved from his position as state director of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska to run TNC's Africa programs. We have kept in touch through TNC's Alaska chapter board, on which both Phil and I have served at various times. Sam is also an alumnus of the TNC Alaska board. He and Amy sold Arcturus a few years ago, but still live and thrive in southeast Alaska.
Having worked with cocoa farmers in the Peace Corps, Miles now makes a living selling dark chocolate combined with other nutrients such as ginseng. Since he graciously allowed me to use the photo of him playing an ersatz bull kelp didgeridoo in the Wild Serenade post, I think it only fair to provide a link to his company's website at www.perfectfuel.com.
The day before Arcturus arrived in Gustavus, we were joined by a conservation leader and author, Hank Lentfer, who provided a dash of local color. We explored the waters near the entrance to Glacier Bay, hiked over the crest of a forested island to explore a rocky shoreline, and stayed overnight at a nearby cabin. In Feels So Good, I related an incident that illustrates the aptness of the frigid name, Icy Strait, for the body of water in which we hung out with Hank. Through the wonders of email and an occasional phone call, Hank has become a good friend even though we have not seen each other for years. I reviewed his book Faith of Cranes in Speaking Out.
My heartfelt thanks extend to all of these companions for the opportunity to share their experiences in the wild. As Nels says, "See you next time!"