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THE WHITE SILENCE OF THE FAR NORTH

THE WHITE SILENCE OF THE FAR NORTH

When I began work on I AM COYOTE, Justin Randolph, a good friend and former classmate, was deep into the formation of the Wildlands Collective. Wildlands is a travel cooperative that connects individuals with extraordinary wilderness travel experiences. Over the past year, Justin crisscrossed the globe rooting out remarkable wilderness areas, locales where, in the words of Emerson, “we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance.” Of all his excursions, the journey to Arctic Scandinavia proved one of the most magical and awe-inspiring. He describes this solitary, arresting region like this:

The above picture was taken at midnight this past April on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard arctic archipelago.  At 79 degrees of latitude at this time of the year, the sun, though low in the sky, will refuse to set tonight. I’ve spent the last six weeks traveling throughout some of the most remote and wild parts of Arctic Scandinavia — Iceland’s abandoned Horstrandir peninsula, the desolate and dramatic Lofoten Islands, the jagged Lyngen Alps of Norway — leading a group of adventurous travelers on roads and paths less traveled as part of a San Francisco-based travel cooperative I recently founded (Wildlands Collective), and I’ve come to Svalbard on a scouting mission in hopes of bringing other lovers of wild places to the far north.

Tonight is my last in this spectacular part of the world — on this trip at least — and in proper dramatic fashion, I’ve left behind the Scandinavian comfort of Svalbard’s sole town for the night and set out towards the alpenglow blooming on Longyearbyen’s horizon. Before setting off, I spoke with an old salt at the local tavern about my need for one final arctic adventure. While he had arrived in Longyearbyen years ago in pursuit of the archipelago’s prolific cod resources, the island had cast its spell on him — a spell that still endures decades yet. Though his explorer’s days were now behind him, and he no longer ventured out into the barren beyond, his wistful gaze out the pub’s window still spoke of a youthful and wild heart. His reflective silence said all I needed to hear. Wanderlust runs deep in these parts, for both Svalbard’s visitors as well as its inhabitants.

I carry with me a shotgun around my back, a flare gun on my hip, and a serrated knife bound around my leg. This is the High Arctic, and while its landscapes can be exceptionally tranquil in their vastness, this is polar bear country, and under the land’s piercing serenity, the seeds of Jack London’s harsh White Silence nonetheless can be found. More bears wander the isle than people, and it is they who ardently sit atop Svalbard’s food chain. Never-mind that I see nothing more ominous than the softly drifting snow and hear only the sound of distant arctic wrens in search of food, driven by the waxing daylight and the promise of life. The bears’ presence, among the endless expanse of white, permeates the landscape in words unspoken. Wild animals that are proud owners of their own domain and destiny are powerful beings to be surrounded by, and from which to learn.

The immensity of Svalbard’s landscape is lonely yet grand, simple but wholesome: endless expanses of white, punctuated by deep, coal-enriched pockets of black, set aflame by an ever-changing blend of soft, low-light hues — oranges, pinks, purples, and blues. Mountains beyond mountains lead me onward, in disappearing parallel lines, absent any signs of humanity’s manicured touch or the taint from technocracy.  I’ve found Stegner’s ‘geography of hope,’ and it has cast its transformative and transcendent spell on me. In spite of the land’s unrelenting harshness, I feel a peculiar sense of being at home, a geographic déjà vu.  The tonic of nostalgia and summit fever — brought on by such extreme northern wanderings — compels my journey onward, through the arctic summer night, along another exploration into the beyond, on the northern frontier of our planet. Before departing these lands, I must feel its wild heart a bit deeper.  My Elysium lays out there, in the soft half-light of the low-hung sun.

Even with the endless light, the cold bites heavily, and a stiff northern gust off the Arctic Ocean makes itself known. Removing my gloves and skis, I stop to take a picture and a further gaze, to breath in the silence and the vast expanse a bit deeper. Without the stiff uphill pace, and, now facing the elements, my clothes become insufficient to heed off the cold, and a primordial panic creeps through my body. I become — if only for a brief yet harrowing moment — the doomed protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” laughing, crying, and cursing at my own insignificance and helplessness.

I keep walking, and the moment passes. I think how the cold is supposed to reduce the excitability of molecules and cellular motion. Yet, why does the arctic often have the opposite effect of sedation? Like a husky excited by the pinch of frost on its fur, the arctic awakens life, passion, and a primordial vitality. Its essence provides sustenance to the soul. The source of energy I’ve tapped into is pure, is sacred, and not to be forsaken. A deep, guttural, primordial howl rises from within. Yes, I too am Coyote.

The words of Whitman ring true: “A rugged land. Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off and smite the sounding furrows, for my purpose holds, to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all western stars. I inhale great draughts of space…I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”

I wonder what wildlands and treasures beg to be unearthed beyond the saw-toothed ridges that disappear softly into arctic fog? What do the poetic musings from Arcadia whisper in my ear? In the relative calm of the midnight sun, the moment is ripe for contemplation as to why these desolate lands possess such power.

Many say that the world is bereft of empty spaces, of the wild that it once was so dominated by. That we as a society have lost our connection to nature and wilderness out of a geographic imperative, that wild places simply don’t exist in the way they once did do to our population’s expanse and hunger for resources. That our modern needs and social constructs derive greater utility from the onward march of the bulldozer than the wild silence. That we have tamed nature, and put it in its rightful place, and that with unsullied wilderness in broad decline, only a myth of wilderness remains. How misguided such thoughts. How callous, foolish, and arrogant.

While we have indeed insulted much of the wild we were once afforded, I beg to object. There are lands that still mystify the imagination within our gaze. If in doubt, simply head north for a start — to the far north, to the arctic north — where raw, untrodden lands words can’t convey still cast their spell, and the wild’s siren call refuses to be tamed. The great irony that you will find, is that with eyes newly-opened, you will recognize that the wild still exists in our own backyards, just beyond our modern paradigms, albeit in a more modest form, in not so faraway places.

I need these lands. We need these lands. We all depend on them. We are a wild species, and as such, we’ve yet to breed out our metaphysical attachment to and spiritual connection with the wild — whether we are conscious of it or not, and independent of the evolution of our industrial march. If and when we do, it will likely be our tower of Babel, our Frankenstein, and our final act of arrogance, for we will be losing a powerful mystic vein in us all that is deeply human and which we’ve yet to replace or find a substitute for within our modern constructs. The seeds of the wild that we gathered over millennia of interdependence with the natural world are still deep within us. There is something primordial still lurking in our cells under a veneer of civilization. We have not lost our lust for wild nature, though our surroundings and circumstances have changed. We ignore such a fact at our own peril, and risk not only the long-term survival of our species, but also our own sanity, happiness, fulfillment, and sense of meaning in the world. As Stegner so properly put it: “Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved —as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The remainder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it — important, that is, simply as an idea.” Or as Mallory said in reference to the notion of exploration, which he found through mountaineering: “if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live.”

A trip to the wilds of Svalbard is, at its most basic, a simple reminder of such.

Technology has undoubtedly provided us with incredible gifts — gifts that we should celebrate and pay homage to. I live in San Francisco the vast majority of the year, at the epicenter of our current technological revolution, and I have a front row seat to witness some of the wonders of modern technology and human ingenuity, from biotechnology to innovations in communication and information technology. But let’s not lose sight of what’s real. Let’s not let the shiny objects of modernity distract us from our most basic elemental truths. Surely a world in which the wilderness becomes merely an abstract concept that only to be experienced through static images and the anecdotes of others is a fool’s paradise. The wilderness and the raw feeling of exploration on a grand scale can never be distilled within an app or even the grandest of Artificial Intelligence creations.

While romanticizing the wild has its own dangers and misgivings, the mere notion that we can apply a principal of worth to our lives independent of the currency of commerce and exploitative considerations is profoundly powerful, enriching, and refreshing in our materially driven culture. I know with certainty that the truest forms of meaning and fulfillment can only come from direct experience, and I’m confident that our retreat within ourselves as a species — whereby we are increasingly living our lives vicariously through the prism of our technological devices and neglecting the wild world beyond — is certainly destroying something special, something priceless. As Stegner so appropriately declared, decades ago: “We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves. We need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. Where the fun houses, bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization and its often vulgar commercialism and technological myopic cloud are shut out.”

I don’t want to live in a world bereft of a deep connection to nature and one that’s spiritually impotent. I don’t want my kids to be raised into such a world. Rather, I desire to follow Thoreau, to live intentionally, and to front only the fundamental facts of life. “To live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that is not life, to cut a board swath and shave close, to drive it into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if sublime, know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it. Be it life or death, we crave only reality…let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities.”

Reality? While desolate wild places like Svalbard seem altogether foreign and irrelevant to our daily lives, perhaps the greatest paradox which I’ve yet to come across involves the fact that these places are perhaps as ‘real’ as we are likely to get. I’ll continue to seek them out, long may they live — vast areas of terrain where we have no idea what lies beyond the horizon, where we are compelled to understand the landscape on nature’s delicate yet beautiful terms. I’ll breathe in their rawness, their ruggedness, their boundlessness. Come, friend, exploration into the untrodden wilds awaits.

 Learn more about the Wildlands Collective at http://www.wildlandscollective.com/

 

America’s Great Undiscovered Wilderness

America’s Great Undiscovered Wilderness

Co-authored with John Ruskey, founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company

Most know the Mississippi River as the powerful, coffee-colored waterway that cuts through the center of America, or as the stomping grounds for Mark Twain’s indelible characters. Many locals know it as a body of water to stay clear of; every year several people who underestimate the strength of the River drown in its undertow. Few know it as wilderness. Wilderness for many means jagged mountains, evergreen forests, and rock-bottomed streams with clear, cold water. Not a muddy, stump filled channel conveying barges through the belly of the country. Described by many as the John Muir of the Lower Mississippi, John Ruskey has arguably done more than any other person to demonstrate that a wilderness worthy of America’s highest conservation ideals exists right under our noses in the flowing form of the mighty Mississippi. John graciously allowed me to include his writings in my recently-published wilderness anthology, I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild. Here’s how he describes the wilderness of the Big River.

The Wild Miles of the Mississippi River

Looking at a map of North America you will inevitably be drawn to the bottom center of the continent where a meandering blue line broader than any other of the blue lines gracefully loops southward and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It reaches out with long fingers and tentacles of other skinny blue lines which branch out eastwards and westwards from the Rockies to the Alleghenies, encompassing the second largest catchment basin in the world. Along the way this line carves elegant river bends and giant oxbow lakes. One of the loops goes twenty miles to make one mile. This enchanting blue line marks the Lower Mississippi River, the largest river on the continent. Expansive swaths of green are seen parallel to the loopy blue line and indicate the extensive and healthy bottomland hardwood forests still surviving between the levees. Its big muddy waters and wide floodplain create a paradise for paddlers, birders, and anyone else seeking the solace of the wilderness. (This assessment discounts the last 235 miles of the river below Baton Rouge where it leaves the wilderness and enters the greater port of New Orleans, also known as Chemical Corridor).

The origins of these waters are found upstream in America’s Heartland, St. Louis, where the Upper Mississippi confluences with the Missouri to form the Middle Mississippi. The Middle Miss separates the Pawnee Hills from the Ozarks and then meets the green waters of the Ohio at the southern tip of Illinois to form the Lower Miss. You can trace the curvy blue line of the Lower Miss southward, deep into the gut of America, the Deep South, down to the Gulf Coast. The valley of the Lower Miss was once an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, then a glacial floodplain, and later a thriving jungle of 22 million acres. Even though it’s been settled for more than 100 years, its forests cut, its back channels plugged and main channel vigorously maintained, the river still rules the landscape with unimaginable power, annually rising and falling fifty vertical feet with fluctuations of millions of cubic feet per second, preparing the stage for an unlikely setting in wilderness travel.

The wonderful, surprising thing about the Lower Miss is that it’s still wild. Paddlers see some industry and agriculture between Cairo and Baton Rouge, but for the most part the experience is of big water, big forests, big sandbars, big bluffs and big skies. Does this sound like Alaska? Or Lake Superior? Or Puget Sound? Yes — but it’s not. It’s nothing but the biggest river in North America, and the longest stretch of free-flowing waters in the Lower 48.

There are 105 Wild Miles on the Middle Miss between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, and 515 Wild Miles on the Lower Miss between Cairo and Baton Rouge. Wild Miles are the places along the river where nature predominates, and nothing is seen of mankind save passing tows and maybe a tiny hunting camp or a single fisherman buzzing by in a johnboat. These are places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless mud banks and sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires. These are places where the big river emanates its creative, wild beauty. Each high water results in shifting sand dunes and re-made sandbars. These are places where only deer and coyote tracks are seen along the sandbars and enormous flocks of shy birds like the white pelican and double breasted cormorant are comfortable enough to make landing for the night. Once-endangered species like the interior least tern and pallid sturgeon have regained a foothold in this fecund landscape. These are places where it’s dark and quiet at night, where the stars fill the skies like brightly shining jewels poured out on a dark purple velvet blanket.

America has an opportunity to find the “wilderness within” by recognizing and preserving its remaining wild places. Few locations are more deserving of recognition and preservation than the gigantic floodplain of the Mississippi. This floodplain has been preserved mostly by neglect, by the power of the river, by its catastrophic rises and falls, and the danger of building anything nearby. Recent flood cycles and declining populations of the lower floodplain make it one of the best places to restore native bottomland hardwood forests, and re-open back channels with notches in the old dikes. Restoring forests in the floodplain creates habitat for wildlife, improves water quality, provides a flooding buffer, and helps reduce the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.” Join me and thousands of others in the effort to preserve our nation’s Big River. Let’s protect its ecosystems by leaving open areas like the New Madrid Birds Point Floodway. Most importantly, get outside and enjoy one of the great undiscovered wilderness areas running through the gut of America.

For more information including detailed reading and photos concerning paddling the wilderness of the Lower Mississippi River visit www.rivergator.org and www.wildmiles.org.

Selections from the writings of John Ruskey are included in I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild, available at www.readingsforthewild.com