Anaktuvuk Pass, AK
I grew up in a Masschusetts suburb where I found “wilderness” in abandoned gravel pits and marshy wetlands that had escaped development. Later trips to New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and Maine’s Mahoosuc Mountains made my childhood playgrounds seem tame, and through high school they set my standards for what constituted wilderness. But the goal posts continued to move in synch with the magnitude of my adventuring: North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Colorado’s Indian Peaks, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the Colorado Plateau all seemed as wild as it could get, until I found something that was wilder.
When I plotted the Alaska-Yukon Expedition route I suspected that my concept of wilderness would be reset repeatedly, e.g., Alaska’s northwest coast would set the bar in March but be outdone by the western Alaska Range in April, which might seem mild compared to the Lost Coast in June. But I knew that no section would rival the wilderness along my route through Canada’s northern Yukon Territory and Alaska’s eastern Brooks Range. It was to be 625 miles (the length of Montana) with no road crossings, no village stops, and minimal odds of seeing another human being. I figured it would take 3-4 weeks and I had a food cache flown in beforehand in order to make it calorically feasible.
I pulled into Coldfoot earlier this week after spending 24 days in what I believe is actually a different category of wilderness, as opposed to just being of a higher grade. I’m inclined to call it “big wilderness,” “real wilderness,” or “true wilderness”–or perhaps just “wilderness” if everywhere else I’ve traveled gets demoted to “backcountry.” I’ve never felt so exposed or vulnerable; I’ve never moved with such vigilance and caution; and I’ve never felt so self-dependent–I was way out there and completely on my own, with no chance that my satellite phone or high-tech wardrobe could compensate for stupidity or simple error. And I couldn’t force my will on this wilderness, but instead had to work on its terms, e.g. I traveled when the weather was good and stopped when it was bad, and made huge route detours to follow good caribou trails and to avoid crossing flooded rivers. My prevailing emotion was not joyful bliss like it is when I’m in California’s High Sierra or Wyoming’s Wind River Range, but instead I was apprehensive and frightened.
Perhaps most significant of all, in this “real wilderness” I felt like I was just another creature – on par with the bears and ground squirrels – that had been reduced to the very basic task of making it to tomorrow by surviving the challenges of today (e.g. tussocks and muskeg, powerful storms, floods, predators, hoards of mosquitoes, limited food supply, etc.). The challenges were normally not prohibitive and were sometimes even non-existent, but I nonetheless moved with the constant awareness of the fragility of life, which in this environment is a gift that Mother Nature graciously allows but sometimes cruelly takes away.