The Journey’s Story

 

December...
 

It’s dark, even though it’s only 4:00 pm; I walk on along the frozen river, slowly, exhausted.

Bend after bend along the way, I try to sense wherever the stream might run faster; for only in those places will the powdery snow be somewhat less deep, and therefore a bit less wearing when one is breaking trail in large Alaskan-style snowshoes (which footwear I alternated with skis as needed).

The “big white silence”, as Jack London described it, surrounds me, and takes my breath away…In truth, I’m scared to be up here, alone, equipped with only a small supply sled that I pull forward in my wake. She, this little red sled, is my whole world in this place so far from home, from man, from everything. Upon this sled I drag about, with great effort, all I need to survive across these sprawling, beautiful, inhospitable lands.

Another step. Then another. Every single movement here is arduous in the extreme. Simply being here, in -40°C temperatures, seems enough to sap me of al my energies.

The sled, at times, appears to actually sink into the tenuous, snowy trail it’s taken me so much effort to break.

At some points, where the soft snow obscured the feeling of the hard ground beneath it, I stop and try to catch my breath. The icy air enters my lungs, and it is as if they are being seared and burnt on the spot. I turn back to my little red companion, and then I look well beyond it, along the deep, expansive trench I’ve carved out behind me.

The silence is impressive, indeed deafening. All at once, almost with a violence, I am seized by a discouraging thought that renders me dizzy, a thought that deadens my legs and my very heart: I started my journey only a few short days ago, and these few, sorry kilometers of trail I’ve “broken” have already broken me…How will I ever be able to make it to the end, 2000 kilometers further north, clear through the Arctic Refuge and onto its northern coast, to the very top of the State of Alaska?

Once more I face forward and look to the north, where the deep snow awaits, immaculate still. I free myself of the sled harness and move on to break the trail alone for a distance. It’s just so very wearing on the body to be tugging a sled full of supplies along as I struggle to forge a path through undisturbed snow.

Not too many steps later, I look back to find that the sled has become a tiny red dot, barely perceptible from where I now stand. Once again, I experience what can only be described as terror: What if I were to suddenly lose sight of my sled for good? What if a wolf appeared out of nowhere, intent on devouring what little food I carry for myself on that sled? What if ice on a river surface unexpectedly gave way under the weight of that sled, pulling down with it the very keys to my survival so far north? What if...

I concede this: I’m too small and vulnerable up here. I retrace my footsteps along the trail I’ve just broken, almost at a run; as I reach the little red supply sled, I embrace her, I talk to her…after all, she is my sole companion in a vast, icy, white world of silence.

Now I’m skiing along the broad Susitna River during the first weeks of the traverse, and in my mind a ceaseless whispering distracts and disturbs at every turn: The fear-fueled chatter keeps me continually aware that I am gradually striking deeper and deeper into the seemingly infinite Alaskan wilderness, solo, and doing so in the dead of winter. Tales by London and by Jon Krakauer run through my mind as a constant warning: Plenty have been those who arrived up here filled with dreams and drive…but so few have survived!

The trees that now surround me are completely unmoving, wrapped as they are in their heavy white mantle. The very short days make me forget what “the sun” is, and lend the feeling that darkness descends upon the very heels of emerging daylight. For this reason, many hours of my walk are in total darkness, save for the glow of my head lamp, which dutifully illuminates the space a few meters ahead. At times, the light of the full moon quietly keeps me to my path. At other times, the brilliance of the Northern Lights enflames the dark skies, a unique enchantment of the Arctic night which takes my breath away and, for a short time, silences my doubts and fears.

In the evening, as I enter my tent, I fire up the cook stove and begin thawing my beard, one hunk of ice at a time. Then I gratefully slide into my sleeping bag. This final act represents the best, the single most longed-for moment of the whole day. I fall asleep almost at once, lulled by the enduring silence, and by shifting images of the limitless expanses into which I have come. I am once again in the embrace of Mother Earth: strangely, even as I am comforted by her welcome, at times here I cannot help but find the circumstance anything short of frightening.

Another day arrives, and I ski on; as I ski on, I am often reminded of the demanding Norwegian traverse of five years before. Again, I was alone. Again, I made my trek in the heart of winter. Again, I knew real fear. Again, I was plagued by doubt.

But how could I not have been fearful and uncertain? We have traveled so far from our origins in the natural world that the quest to reconnect with Nature cannot possibly be satisfied without considerable labor now, and often at great cost.

That is why here in Alaska, I have determined again to be as trusting as I know how to be in relation to the journey ahead. I speak now of the hard-won capacity for trust that made me stay after touching down on Alaskan soil weeks ago--though at the time I wanted nothing more than to flee the overwhelming apprehension I felt, and return home to Italy.

Of course, I felt an obligation to keep my word to friends among the Gwich’in, to cross Alaska on skis to raise awareness of the Bush/Big-Oil threat to their way of life. But there were other reasons as well...

On December 28th, after the first weeks of my journey, I reach the first sign of man: a bridge over the Susitna River. I arrive at the bridge with the last light of the day; the peaks of the Alaska Range are at last all around me, and from them comes a chilly wind of the sort which actually makes me feel at home.

A few days later, I reach Cantwell, the first village along my route. Here I celebrate New Year’s Eve together with my girlfriend Beatrice; our plan is that she will arrive in each village on the route just ahead of me.

I rest up in Cantwell, eat more than I ought, and by the start of January, I set out once again for the wilderness. Now I have before me the majestic Alaska Range to cross; after the long, hard days spent breaking trail on the Susitna River, this Alpine ski guide looks forward to taking on the mountains once again.

In spite of my eagerness to begin my mountain trek, I do feel the weight of this rest-stop interruption. It is so difficult, each time, having come back in to the company of my fellow men, to then turn away and set out once more for the wild. I find that the bond I am able ultimately to create with the wilderness is in fact a delicate and very fragile one. And every time I reach a village, that tenuous, precious bond comes under threat. Doubt returns and yet again I ask myself: Why am I here?

But finally, as I climb toward these mountains, which are now shrouded in the blue light of the early evening, I begin to remember my purpose here. As the snowflakes sparkle in the beam of my head lamp, I come to actually feel that sense of mission which will drive me forward through the long winter. In my mind, I travel back to my wonderful first encounter with the Gwich’in and their lands.

“It was like being transported into a tale of old”, I wrote in my journal “I could not believe that our poor planet could still harbor pockets of such beauty. What I surrounded me was a land in which I could breathe the powerful, mysterious energy of the vast untouched spaces…of the silence which itself seems a sacred voice, an energy which enters into my heart as a low rumble, and leaves it no more.

I am scared that in a few years, I will have to tell my children, “I once knew a place…” It is preferable that such a place remain as it is. This is a tale still being told, a living tale, even into the present day.”

Further strengthening my resolve was the memory of the following words from Luci Beach, a Gwich’in author and activist piece entitled “Caribou Don’t Drink Oil”:

“Our way of life, our right to life, is inextricably tied to the calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which we call “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”; yes, these grounds, we consider them sacred places.
Drilling there would do nothing to reduce gas prices or alleviate our dependence on foreign oil, yet the harm to wildlife habitat for polar bear, caribou, whale, and millions of migratory birds and to the Gwich’in Nation (whose subsistence culture is based, since time immemorial, on the caribou), would be permanent and irreparable.
When will you listen? When will you understand what this destruction will lead to, for all of us?
The Arctic Refuge must remain off limits to any oil or gas development and must be put in permanent protection status as Wilderness.
We have a moral responsibility to save the Arctic Refuge for future generations.”

 

FEBRUARY 
“The Beaver Days”

By the end of January, I had traversed the Alaska Range and rested for a week in Fairbanks, where several contacts spread the news of my “protest march”, and I spoke to the press at some length.

Now the White Mountains lie ahead and, beyond those, Beaver Creek, the river up which I shall have to ski for over 250 kilometers, all the way to the Alaska Native village of Gwichyazee, also known as Fort Yukon. This will be the most isolated difficult, and risky leg of my journey. By now I have learned, the hard way, that ice atop the rivers here is not always safe, its behavior not always predictable. When it is not covered by the usual deep snow, it is often thin; though perhaps covered by a relatively light layer of snow, it may well be situated over water that doesn’t even freeze at -40°C. This water-ice combo is what they call “slush” in these parts, and it strikes fear in the hearts of Alaska’s mushers in a particularly big way. Should a team wind up charging head-on into slush, everything this ice touches--sled runners, dog paws, musher’s boots--freezes solid in a few seconds flat, presenting a real danger to all involved.

That is why this morning, as I leave a friend’s small cabin north of Fairbanks, I ask myself whether I am knowingly snowshoeing my headstrong way into a trap.

And then, leaving the answer to the winds--trusting in my preparations, such experience as I have accumulated over the years, and the soundness of my objective--I realize I can only go forward, and so I set forth in earnest.

Beatrice accompanies me for a whole day in the march toward the mountains. My load is truly heavy, and she helps me to carry it all the way to the base of the high pass I will have to climb. Her company is precious; I absorb it a little at a time. But I realize that even now, I have already begun the process of detaching from the comfort and security of her presence…I have already begun cultivating “the emptiness”, the mental space that will allow me to enter…inside there, the vastness, when the time comes. And it is near.

Some days later, I reach that soaring pass in the White Mountains. Within viewing distance, half-hidden within deep snow and ice-covered woods, is the expansive Beaver Creek; from here, it seems largely lost in a wilderness which belongs to no time, and which has no end.

The poetic grace of this rare scene is wholly lost on me: The terror has returned. It is fierce, unmitigated by thoughts of mission, conservation, or anything else. This is not a charming postcard; neither is it an idyllic nature shot in a motion picture. I must negotiate a path down a steep, icy stretch of mountainside, right into and through the dense, slush-laden expanse of frozen forest that hides Beaver Creek. I cannot negotiate swiftly or economically with my little red supply sled; and yet I will die without it.

I would love to go back, to follow my footprints to the safety which is now so impossibly far away.

I yoke myself to the sled and move forward, down along the treacherous twists and turns of the mountain.

“THE BEAVER DAYS”, as I will come to refer to that month of unprecedented struggle, require all my physical and mental strength. Now, added to the unique difficulties of breaking trail in this terrain, comes the danger of succumbing to the effects of slush--a constant threat which forces me to stop frequently in order to get, and keep, my snowshoes and sled free of ice as I travel.

My overriding fear in these days is that I will unknowingly find myself treading upon thin ice, conscious as I am that getting wet here--even just one of my feet getting doused--might lead to serious consequences, including death. I try hard to avoid those parts of the river that seem questionable as I enter the woods.

And the woods themselves! In the thick Alaskan bush, with snow that is actually softer and deeper than any I’ve encountered so far, moving forward proves almost impossible. In the evenings, after an arduous day of trail breaking, I generally collapse, exhausted. I sometimes gaze back at the mountains I traversed weeks before…how distant they are, and how vast the space that now surrounds me...

This land…doesn’t let me traverse her…I murmur inside myself.

Anguish fills me; such Herculean efforts afford me so few paltry kilometers a day in progress! How am I going to make it out of here? How can I make my food last through the duration of this stage, and after?

I am keenly aware of my human frailty; I hurry to set up my tent evenings, and to prepare wood for the stove. During dinners in the forest, I find often myself falling asleep between mouthfuls. And some evenings, I simply have no energy to write in my journal.

With the last bit of strength I do have at the end of the day, I zip myself up into my beloved sleeping bag, and search my weary mind for the memory of purpose…and, indeed, for a way to maintain some semblance of what amounts to Self out in this wordless, unforgiving wild.

I know I have no alternative: Only my own two legs, and my own will, can propel me to safety from here. Not only haven’t I the option of giving up now…it is clear that I haven’t even the option of making a mistake.

I silently reiterate my trust in her, Mother Earth, and my confidence in the justness of my mission. I cannot be alone in this, I keep repeating to myself.

By the first days of March, as in a dream, I reach the point at which I can finally emerge from Beaver Creek; I go down to my knees and kiss the surface of this frozen river. I thank him because, after all I endured, he let me pass safely.

In a few days, I arrive at the fabled Yukon River on the Polar Arctic Circle line, and the Gwich’in village of Gwichyazee. There I happily embrace Beatrice, and find myself once again in the company of my fellow humans, to my utter joy. Moreover, news of my march has reached throughout Alaska and some parts of the Lower 48. The people of Gwichyazee provide unparalleled hospitality on my behalf, stocking me up with an endless supply of smoked salmon and caribou. I received many communications assuring me that “The Gwich’in are praying for you!”.

Aside from the wonderful “re-entry” I experience at Gwichyazee is another marvelous reality indeed: After four months of traversing the State of Alaska, I am finally getting close to the Arctic Refuge itself. Next stop: Arctic Village, the most remote Gwich’in community in Alaska, located along the southern border of the Refuge. That will be the last destination before my final push through to the Arctic Ocean.

The warmth and hospitality experienced at Gwichyazee, along with the realization I’d survived “The Beaver Days”--and the fact that the Refuge was truly within reach--gave me renewed energy, and a strong desire to take this dream, this mission to its very end.

 

March
The Arctic Refuge

On March 23, in near-darkness, I come to the end of the broad highland overlooking Arctic Village. Down below, in the distance, a seeming mirage dotted sparsely with lights glowing into these now-deeply-familiar northern Alaskan skies. I can finally see the awe-inspiring Brooks Range from here; it is one of the most spectacular, remote, and untraveled mountain systems on the planet.

And to get where I am going, I will have to cross it.

For now, I set my tent high above the Chandalar River Plains. In the mighty silence which by now is part of my very being, I experience a startlingly clear perception of what ground I have covered, of what has actually been accomplished up to this moment. All about and within me, the chanting of Mother Earth seems to rock me. And voices that once seemed lost return, at long last, to strengthen the workings of my own weary heart: the voice of the wolf, which has endured in these parts always…the voice of all the other wildlife that contributes to the balance and beauty of this great territory...

Most powerfully, however, I perceive the song of the native people of this stark, ancient country, and think: I have walked this vast land as they have done for millennia; their voices echo unmistakably upon these northern winds. Now it feels as if I, too, do also belong.

I remain here the next day; in truth, I really don’t want to move. For the whole day, I listen. The light, the feeling of peace, these are so intense, so rich where I now find myself. A delightful irony occurs to me here: Never in my life have I been so poor in the material sense as I have been during these past five months in the wild…and yet, never in my life have I felt so suffuse with the riches of heart and mind.

But soon, the welcome of the Arctic Village community makes me feel even richer still! Jimmy, a celebrated hunter, bundles Beatrice into his snowmobile and rushes out to meet me on my approach. His gaze reveals a deep respect for, and pride in, my long, unlikely journey. He is keenly aware of the difficulties involved in what I have been able to accomplish; clearly, he knows how hard it has been on my soul.

“The whole village is happy for you!” he beams, “Tomorrow, big potlatch (feast and celebration) for you!”

And the potlatch of the following day falls precisely upon my birthday, in which coincidence I delight. Dishes for the feast are prepared by every family, and brought to a great gathering-cabin warmed well by a single stove. There is genuine and free fellowship across all man-made lines on this night; spirited chants enliven our potlatch, as do bright young dancers clad in traditional dress. Our festivities fill the skies with the deep rumble of steady drumming, the sounds of ancient songs, and those of laughter, shared sentiments, and shared dreams on an ambitious scale. Surrounded by Arctic mountains, rivers, woods, and wildlife, we have come together through a common determination to keep these lands and ways alive, alive and safe from government and industrial greed.

As the Arctic Village potlatch evening unfolds, I am filled with countless emotions. I celebrate, I encourage, I express thanks, I shiver, I cry. My journey is a gesture on behalf of a largely unknown subsistence community perched atop an ever more mechanized, dollar-driven world. It is a combination of physical strength and sheer will that have brought me this far; so why do I now feel so very tiny and insignificant? I am humbled beyond words by all I see around me in these moments, and by all I glimpse beyond the walls of this precious haven in the snow.

Too, I am no doubt sensing the impending challenge of the final leg of this journey across Alaska. I have still to traverse the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to march my way up to the very shores of the Arctic Ocean to conclude this 2000-km odyssey of love.

But in the month that follows this day, I find living among the Gwich’in to be the greatest privilege of my entire journey--indeed, of my life. I have come to feel a part of their land and lives in these days, and this indescribable feeling will fuel my efforts in the final stage of the trek.

By the end of March, after about one week of pure rest and renewal, I greet the whole village in the Community Hall. Not a single soul is missing; the children sit front and center. Their expression tells me they understand this is a special day, a special moment in the life of the village.

“You will walk again over the trails of our ancestors…” These were among the last words spoken to me by Chief Edward, “…and over the trails of the caribou, whose herds soon will reach the Arctic Ocean shores for which you are now headed. There the caribou will calve once more, as they have always done.”

Then, with similar gravity, the chief addresses his people, saying: “This man has come from a very far place in order to save our land; I’d have wished for one among us to do what he is doing now…” After so saying, Chief Edward turns to me; his parting gesture is unexpected.

“I bow before you”, he intones, before removing his hat and bending low.

The colossal lump in my throat drives me from the room almost immediately thereafter, for I can say, I can hear no more. The assembly begins cheering for me at the top of their voices; they follow me out to hug me and wish me safe travels. I harness myself to the little red sled and finally begin to ski away from Arctic Village.

I know all too well that I shall not see the face of another human being again until about a month from now. But the encouragement of the people at Arctic Village will warm me each day of that lone trek as I walk, in the consciousness of love and gratitude, toward Alaska’s northern shores.

 

April
The Arctic Ocean

Once I finally reach the Brooks Range, I note with awe the very well-defined trails that furrow these mountains. These many twisting paths have been in use for millenia. They have long since ceased being merely well-worn "walkways" for the caribou. These trails inform the very flesh, blood, and bone of their vast migrating herds--linking the herds, as they do, to the sacred place where life does indeed begin for their kind, as it has since time immemorial.

And what of my own trail, my own sacred walk through this white wilderness, among these well-worn peaks I see before me now? This mere five-month attempt at driving ever more deeply into the untamed, and untamable, source of my own origin--for the Gwich'in nation and, yes, clearly for myself as well...Has it really been enough to constitute a true return to that primeval home so rarely encountered by modern man?"

My body is beyond weary; it wavers to and fro with the stormy winds. The official flag of the Gwich’in nation has been flying from my battered backpack since the beginning of the long journey; for months, this giant standard has been flapping about behind me, snapping sharply in the wind, treating me all too frequently to its cold yet strangely comforting caress. It has waved in my wake, as it waves now, the embodiment of a constant prayer being offered up to the four winds along every single step of the way.

Now, after five months of trials, fears, and experiences in surmounting both, I feel as if I could go on forever. I know nothing else; I need nothing else. This march has ultimately led me back to my original home, back into the embrace of Mother Earth herself.

On the morning of April 20th, Beatrice is staring southward into the distance, across the Coastal Plain, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”, waiting until the moment she can finally perceive a small, moving dot on the horizon. She waits for me in the Eskimo village of Kaktovik on Barter Island, situated along the northernmost shores of Alaska.

For hours Beatrice looks, but sees nothing. Then I appear as if out of nowhere: Beatrice can eventually make out my swiftly-moving skis, my sled, the waving flag. In time I am close enough for her to note my frozen beard, my tattered, filthy clothes…indeed, she can now see my eyes at last.

And I am in tears as I walk those last kilometers.

How will it be to go back home? How will it be to enter once again into the chaotic noise of a world which no longer listens to the beat of its own heart, a world that takes its cues from politicians, priests, television, and the mass media in general? How will I be able to impart what has happened on this unforgettable trek across a wild, beautiful, and silent land without sounding either immodest, or simply insane?

I stare down at my skis as I run the final meters; I consider my worn-out boots, the trusty old sled behind me, and I think: This is my universe--how marvelous the “poverty” of this breathtaking universe!

Finally, I reach Beatrice and give her a mighty hug…but I am not yet…well, there, it would seem.

The Arctic Refuge, with its ancient chants, its powerful drums, its perfect wilderness, has not yet relinquished me to this other realm.

I know it will be a long time before the Refuge releases its hold and returns me to the ebb and flow of this more well-known world.

It will be a long time indeed.

Ario D. Z'Hoo