By Jessica Segall
July 22nd - Deposited by float plane somewhere within the 6.5 million acres of the Noatak National Preserve. Before our trip, we met with a local elder and Native Alaskan liason for the National Parks Service. He laughed when we mention the word "wilderness," saying that we are about to enter his "backyard". I think about this sentiment on our trip, considering the meaning behind the term "backyard" - familiarity, governance. A demarcation of the view of nature between Native Alaskans, who have thrived by subsistence hunting and gathering on this land for centuries, and the majority of modern Americans, who, if they have familiarity in the wilderness, know it on a recreational level. Times have changed. Motorboats replace the umiaq, snowmachines replace dogmushing or hunting on foot, yet the knowledge for Native Alaskans required to subsist on this land is an intimate, and communal understanding of animal migration patterns, seasons, distance, materiality and necessity.
I re-read the definition of wilderness in The Wilderness Act, stating wilderness is "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain ...without permanent improvements or human habitation." Archeological artifacts are strewn throughout this preserve, dating back centuries. There are lithics, stone formations and cache pits. Yet this only triples the need for protection of these lands - as an important archeological site hosting some of the oldest relics of North American civilization, as a vast reserve of nature in an unaltered state and as the lifeblood and food of Native peoples. I was aiming to write about wilderness and American identity, how the millions of protected acres and varied wilderness biomes could and should define our country as much as the latest media trends and foreign policy. However, the protection of this land is larger than a question of American identity. Alaska was ratified into statehood in 1959, while the indigenous inhabitants have continued to maintain culture here for centuries. Borders may shift again. I see the protection of this place not as an identity, but as a legacy.
And nature provides for us here, as it has for centuries. We pick tundra tea and blueberries, (not too much tundra tea - its a laxative!) and catch brown trout caught with a home-made fly fashioned out of gull feathers. It took us days for us to prepare coming here - to pack food properly, to seal tents, to go through bear training. I am nervous, as this is my second time in a Cessna (the first time of which was very turbulent and nauseating ride in the Nasca Desert, Peru). Also, this is the most remote camping I have done, and the best chance I've had to encounter grizzly bears. Bear spray, a highly potent form of pepper spray dangles from my hip at all times. This hyper-awareness, the carrying of weapons, the shouting of "hey, bear!" every time we walk by a willow tree to warn bears of our arrival reminds me of the same 360 degree consciousness I employ when walking alone to my apartment at night. There is a fear of the outdoors by the urbanite, the suburbanite, yet it presents no more realistic danger than driving to work or taking the subway. Little brown sandpipers run along the lakeside, pecking about and cutely reminding me of my pet starling at home. Later, I realize they have flown here from the southern tip of Argentina for their yearly migration. We are not the only creatures who have traveled the distance to be here.
A close - up of the spongy tundra, walking on it feels as if it wasn't designed for bipeds, leaving us off balance, and tired after a 3 mile hike. Meanwhile, wildlife leave elegant trails, superhighways shared by caribou and fox alike.
A simultaneous view from the east and west. Time is confusing, and the lack of darkness means a lack of urgency.