Wilderness Camp

It’s always a challenge to manage the hectic pace of field work while in a remote camp, but invariably, being in the wilderness brings deep joy as well.

The most obvious source of joy is the beauty of this camp–located six miles northwest of Kuzilvak Mountain, a massive volcanic uplift towering 2300 feet over the tundra and covering approximately 28 square miles. Most of the time, clouds rest on Kuzilvak’s shoulders, though periodically her head peaks out above a fog bank, and we admire her brilliant snowy slopes when the clouds lift higher and a gap permits the evening or morning sun to cast long light across her ridges.

The evening sun sets the tundra aglow as clouds rest atop Kuzilvak’s shoulders. Photo by Metta McGarvey

The evening sun sets the tundra aglow as clouds rest atop Kuzilvak’s shoulders. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

The ridge itself is a mile wide before it hits higher, shrub covered ground, and longer than we can estimate by eye, laced with exactly the right mix of habitats for shorebirds and waterfowl to nest (in high spots with grasses dry enough to keep eggs warm) and forage (in wet grasses, ponds, and bogs that support the staggering volume of insect life that makes it worthwhile for the birds to migrate vast distances to breed). Though most of my time is spent with camp chores, I usually have two or three hours free each day to explore the ridge. I’ve found many nests, mostly Western Sandpiper, but today a Northern Shoveler nest with only 1 egg thus far, and I flushed a female Lapland Longspur from a perfectly formed but still empty nest cup.

The musical song and flight display of the male Lapland Longspur is one of the most familiar sightings on the tundra, but the female (shown here) is not often seen unless flushed from a nest. Photo by Brad Winn.

The musical song and flight display of the male Lapland Longspur is one of the most familiar sightings on the tundra, but the female (shown here) is not often seen unless flushed from a nest. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

The Western Sandpiper full clutch nests (4 eggs) indicate that they are newly laid. The larger shorebirds seem to still be laying. I’ve watched pairs of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel copulate and move widely around the ridge foraging—clearly not yet incubating, but hanging close enough to one area to have hope of finding their nests if we were staying longer.

 

We see Whimbrel along the East Coast during migration, and also nesting here in the Yukon Delta.  They are incredibly stealthy when it comes to hiding their nest, so we are fortunate to be here while they are still laying and therefore displaying and setting up territories. Photo by Brad Winn.

We see Whimbrel along the East Coast during migration, and also nesting here in the Yukon Delta. They are incredibly stealthy when it comes to hiding their nest, so we are fortunate to be here while they are still laying and therefore displaying and setting up territories. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

We know we are in the sub-arctic by the diversity of plants and cushiness of the mosses. The fragrance is glorious, making the occasional moments to sit and watch the clouds a sensual feast. Our boots sink into what feels like heavenly softness thanks to the sphagnum that is so common here. Water wets the rim of our soles in the drier mossy patches, and makes for an extremely comfortable bed so long as the ground tarps beneath our tents function properly. In wetter patches, when we pause to watch birds or do a chore, we sink imperceptibly into the sphagnum, which creates one of the more amusing aspects of camp life this year—the “tundra swim.” Not realizing that my feet have sunk while stationary, turning to go all of my body momentum swings—while the feet stay completely immobile. Down I go, sometimes breaking my fall with only a soaked glove and sleeve, other times grateful for the rain pants and parka that repel most of the moisture as I land flat on my butt. While on surveys in wetter plots, the guys have sometimes had water fill their waders to their knees or higher.

 

Most of the snow was gone by the time we arrived, but patches remain in the ravines and I pack snow into plastic bags twice daily to keep our fresh foods cold. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Most of the snow was gone by the time we arrived, but patches remain in the ravines and I pack snow into plastic bags twice daily to keep our fresh foods cold. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

The weather has been dishearteningly raw and rainy, with temperatures from freezing to upper 40s and what must be 100 variations on grey. We’ve had rain every day, sometimes a light mist with periods of broken clouds and sun, other times downpours coupled with winds blowing steady around 30 and gusting over 40, yet our spirits have paradoxically lifted since arriving in camp.

Brad and Stephen set up a tent against a backdrop of thick fog while Bob Gill secures a guy line to keep his standing in high winds. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Brad and Stephen set up a tent against a backdrop of thick fog while Bob Gill secures a guy line to keep his standing in high winds. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

Why does time in the wilderness bring such a deep sense of renewal? We avoid being outdoors in the kind of cold, wet, raw weather that has dominated these surveys, yet once we are out, spirits lift. Why is that?

Each of us finds our own sources of deep communion outdoors, yet I suspect there are many common elements, and many of those take their meaning at least in part by juxtaposition. Being so remote that there literally are no other human sounds or activity causes something in me to release. We spend so much time in the world of human things and social striving that the simplicity of living close to the elements feels deeply nourishing. That for at least a few short weeks of the year my work is to be fully present and attend to the basics—food, water, shelter—and I get to let everything else go—feels renewing. This is possible in part, of course, because of all the comforts and conveniences we bring. I remain aware that if I actually had to survive (hunt food, build a cabin, clear 5 acres of forest, prepare for winter), it would be a far different experience.

The beauty of our wilderness camp lifts all of our spirits. Photo by Metta McGarvey

The beauty of our wilderness camp lifts all of our spirits. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

We think we can’t live without hot showers, cars and toaster ovens, TV, internet, and phone. We can. I love my “chef’s kitchen” but there is a balance problem. To the extent that I show up with the vibrant foods and tools that life at home in Vermont makes available, cooking can be just as much of a renewal, a meditation, a communion with the simple elements of life that I experience here in the Alaskan wilderness. But these wonderful conveniences and gadgets tend to take up too much of our life, or we use them while our minds are on other things, and then we find ourselves feeling cranky, dissatisfied, not realizing that the problem is too much, not that our email is loading too slowly (mea culpa). We take in too much food, stimulation, and human interaction, making it hard to appreciate all manner of slow things. We control our indoor weather too tightly, making it difficult to enjoy real weather with its glorious balance and diversity. And we devote too little time to physical exertion, too little time just watching, listening, and sensing, too little time for just being in the world as it is, being with each other with full attention.

 

Sandhill Crane forage daily in the wetlands along Boot Lake, and make a rasping squawk of a call while flying over at all hours of the day. Photo by Brad Winn.

Sandhill Crane forage daily in the wetlands along Boot Lake, and make a rasping squawk of a call while flying over at all hours of the day. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

I find that when I show up fully it’s easier to see and admire the goodness in others, whatever our differences of lifestyle, upbringing, politics, and preferences. Being in camp supports the possibility of seeing each other more deeply, and relating more directly and simply as well, though this does not come automatically with being in the wilderness. Attitude is key, and a life or death factor in survival situations, as early polar expeditions have documented. When we are too competitive, or complaining, or controlling, we make life exponentially more miserable than wretched weather and winds, and this is true in the office and home. Having shown up mentally as well as physically, the challenges of the weather and work temper my spirit, deepen my capacity for renewal, appreciation of beauty, and joy, and help me remember to be more fully the kind of person I aspire to be.

3 thoughts on “Wilderness Camp

  1. Brad, Your posts are food for our souls. Your experiences make us want to be there. Your words poetic, reaching inner emotions. The physical beauty of the place is awesome, and the role it plays in making the next generation of shorebirds deeply important. Please keep us fueled with your observations, feelings, and wonderful photos. David Marsh

  2. Reading Metta’s blog, the words and thoughts of HD Thoreau easily come to mind: simplify, simplify. Immerse yourself in nature. Wilderness experiences can be epiphanies and it very much sounds like this one is for Metta. Enjoy and appreciate for those of us who cannot be there too.

  3. Thank-you, Metta.
    As I read your notes from the research trip with time to respond, I want to say how much I appreciate your reflections on the solitude and simplicity of the wilderness. Just as we notice a rise in our energy level when an illness recedes, I suggest that we find an uplift in spirit when the demands of our culture are left behind. Perhaps it is the lack of being scrutinised, judged, the lack of expectations. That may sound funny given that researchers are busy scrutinising and discerning, and much is expected of each member of the team. Yet letting go of cultural demands offers great internal freedom. That you were in solitude in wilderness seems to underscore our need for a great expanse around us to discover the great expanse within us. Anyway, thanks for the chance to mull this, as I sit here in Vermont.
    Warmly, June

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