Monday, July 14, 2008
If you've seen one ...
True story: While waiting to board my plane leaving Fairbanks I overheard a middle-aged couple telling an airline employee about their trip.
The wife had loved Alaska, hated to leave. The husband had had enough. After you've seen one tree and one mountain, he said, it gets a little redundant.
I suppose. And when you've seen one chubby tourist, you've seen 'em all. Which is way too many.
Two days earlier, I'd made my final hike in the Alaskan wilderness near Galbraith Lake.
It drizzled much of the time. We ended up circling through, at most, three miles of back country and fought off mosquitoes a good part of the way. It seemed too hot when we were moving and too cold when we stopped. After two weeks of camp life, I'd begun to develop a blister on one toe.
And yet I savored the day and, although I was eager to get back to regular showers and the bosom of my family, I dreaded that my time in the foothills of the Brooks Range was coming to an end.
Unlike like the guy boarding my plane, I'd gone about two weeks without seeing a tree because I was living on the tundra. When I headed south over the mountain range from the North Slope toward Fairbanks, I was thrilled to see the dwarf forests of black and blue spruce that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. And not only did the mountain ranges look diverse -- geologists point out what they consider old and new mountains -- but the sun's lazy circles in the sky could make the same rock formation turn different hues throughout the day.
When would I drink fearlessly from a stream again? When would I again walk the length of a stream, a valley, a lake that remained truly wild?
Northern Alaska is not a place for everybody. I'm sure I couldn't cope with the impossibly cold and interminably dark winters. Prudhoe Bay is decidedly unpleasant industrial outpost.
But while the seen-one-seen-'em-all tourist had had his fill, I felt envy for the young researchers spending the entire summer at Toolik Lake -- far from cell phone range and television, up tight with a mostly virgin landscape.
I'll catalog the Alaskan wilderness among the many places I've been to and am unlikely to get back to. After all, it took me 48 years to get there the first time. Still, I'll not remember as a place I got enough of, but as a part of the planet that seems to operate on a different scale, that can't be truly be captured in photographs, and that gives this country a sanctuary for wild things.