It was a moment of pristine peace and serenity that would not last long. In that last half mile of ground that stood between what I had provisionally termed “William Wallace Ridge” and camp, my legs finally failed me. When I got back to my tent, I waited until no one was looking and then collapsed onto my knees, unzipped my tent hatch, fell face first into the prior day’s underwear, rolled over, pulled my legs inside the tent, ate a handful of Advil like they were candy, and promptly fell asleep.
Some time later, I woke up to discover that the rest of our party had returned. I was amazed that I had Aaron had not woken me as he climbed across me to get into the tent. I would later find out that Aaron had discovered that our tent was equipped with two entry/exit flaps, one on each side, which meant those previous half dozen extremely uncomfortable egresses were wholly unnecessary. I felt pretty stupid. We ate dinner, which was comprised of a tacos and beans. I made myself a cup of chai from powder, which I made too strong, as much to my delight, there was a layer of delicious chai-mud to be had at the bottom of my cup. Dishwashing was accomplished by dunking the dining implements in the frigid waters of the Kongakut, then scouring them with biodegradable soap and scrub pads, and then dunking them in the river again. I volunteered to be dunker-in-chief, based on the logic that my ample layer of blubber must also be extant on my hands, and would therefore provide me with a level of protection from the goose-bump raising water. Following our meal, we retired to our tents, where more sleeping was in order. On the way back to Casa Mack and Aaron, it dawned on me (no pun intended) that it was 12:00AM, and I could see my shadow. I paused just long enough to take a picture before I continued to hobble across the untamed Alaskan tundra.
Some hours later, I was awoken not by my bladder, nor by the results of combining several quarts of hearty reindeer stew and sleeping encapsulated within a mummy bag, but by the Little Tussock That Could growing underneath my back. In a rare moment of humility for me, I decided to let Earth win this round, and clambered out of my tent, donned my sandals and jeans, and followed my stomach over to the kitchen.
I should mention here that weather patterns had come to replace celestial movements as a means to track the passage of time. What we call mornings south of the Arctic Circle saw the tops of the mountains, hills, and at certain points, even William Wallace Ridge shrouded in dense fog. Cooler temperatures always accompanied this fog; during the mornings it was cold enough to make me wish that I had worn my sweatshirt, instead of leaving it in pillow mode, but not cold enough for to regret wearing sandals. By noon, the fog would burn off, leaving us open to bright, cheery, but thermally ineffectual sunlight that would either remain until the wee hours of the morning, or else be obscured by the wind-drawn banks of clouds that sometimes arrived in the late afternoon.
It was on this day, too, that the mosquitoes that we had been warned about started to appear, but the little bastards would not truly become a problem until the third day. This delay in their attack was fine with me; on our hike to the dome, I had accidentally crushed one of my two bottles of DEET in my pocket, saturating my jeans and all of their contents, and reducing my load out of bug repellent by half. A word to the wise: DEET is powerful stuff when it comes to repelling bugs, but it is also powerful stuff when it comes to devouring anything made of plastic. My Swiss Army knife, an eighteenth birthday present from my best friend, was riding in the same pocket at the doomed bottle of DEET, and would meet an untimely end as its plastic furniture was chemically modified into black chewing gum. The knife would eventually become so sticky that it stuck to the inside of a pair of shorts I put it in, which caused problems when I attempted to wear those shorts through airport security in Fairbanks, completely unaware of the lethal contraband that was stuck on the inside of my cargo pocket.
After a breakfast of granola/trail mix type stuff (and the rest of the brie when no one was looking), augmented with outstanding, unfiltered coffee that was blacker than night and stronger than Stone Cold Steve Austin, we were treated to a scene that would become one of the highlights of my trip, as Barb attempted to prepare Steve, Tim, Ryane and Aaron for the hike they intended to take to some remarkable land feature they had spotted earlier. She gave them a satellite communication device, (which Aaron was warned not to use for ordering pizza deliveries); extra bear spray, and then demonstrated how to make a Conga line, should they have to cross a swiftly flowing stream. My comrades sidestepped clumsily around the kitchen, hands on one another’s hips, with expressions ranging from mortification (Ryane) to bewilderment (Aaron) to bemusement (Tim), in such a way that you could be forgiven if you assumed that they were Special Olympians rehearsing for a synchronized swimming routine. Their sincere attempt at maintaining a façade of choreographed grace came to a screeching halt when Barb, in an attempt to realistically demonstrate the possibility of line member being pulled away by the current, threw herself in a vector that took her in an opposite direction from the rest of line, and directly into the ground, while maintaining a death grip on Aaron’s hips. Chaos ensued as limbs flailed in ultimately fruitless efforts to maintain balance, boot-clad feet raised small dust clouds as they tried and failed to regain footing, and Barb took Aaron’s pants with her as she dove earthward. In a show of compassion and solidarity with these brave adventurers, the rest of us took pictures as fast as we could when we weren’t doubled over laughing. In fact, Scott was so moved by their interest in safety and subsequent deep embarrassment, that he dedicated himself to catching the entirety of the episode on video.
As much as I wanted to accompany the rest of the crew on their hike, I knew that I had not recovered from the previous day’s excursion and would only slow them down. Besides, after four years of college I only had a little dignity left, and I didn’t want to spend it on Barb’s Conga Class. So, I opted instead to participate in a solo activity that kept me in camp: Extreme Sleeping. Truth is told, despite my commitment to reaching my goal of several hours of uninterrupted REM time, I couldn’t fall asleep easily. The Conga Line incident still had me giggling like a Japanese schoolgirl in a Hello Kitty store.
When I woke up, I felt a strong urge to go forth and take my first wilderness dump. So I sprang out of bed, yanked my pants on, and waddled as quickly as prudence would allow to where we kept the folding military-style entrenching tools. I spotted the high visibility orange tie that Barb had wrapped around a bush to denote the location of the latrine, and set off toward in a bow-legged sprint. Upon arriving at the bush, I spied several stacks of rocks on the ground and unnatural formations of sticks that just had to be Steve’s work. Like a cross between pagan symbols and flags in a minefield, they were there to tell you where not to dig. I found a spot that seemed relatively untouched, thrust my spade into the ground with the strength of the truly desperate, and wailed in despair as it clanged off of the permafrost a few inches down. Throwing modesty to the wind, I got on my hands and knees, and with my pants around my ankles, exposing me the chilly breeze, I clawed a bowl shaped depression into the tundra. I completed my work none too soon, and learned the true meaning of relief as I hovered over my hole. Then I looked up. The afternoon clouds had rolled in, and sunlight was peeking through the thin spots in the marine layer. It looked like the backdrop of a religious painting. Then it started to rain.
I scurried back to my tent, a much happier camper than when I left, despite recent events. Unwilling to venture forth from my dry and relatively warm abode, I sat alone in my tent, reveling in the soothing sound of rain hitting the fabric and the remarkable scent of unwashed scrotum, and did some deep thinking.
I certainly went on that trip biased against any sort of exploitation of ANWR. My science and public policy class had seen this. To their credit, Dr. Frisch and Dr. Denton made a concerted effort to present the issue in a way that examined the background of the Refuge, looked at both sides of the page and encouraged the students to make their own decision. That bit of apple-polishing out of the way, I would like to state here for the record that they were absolutely ineffective in obfuscating how they personally felt about climate change in general and the threats facing ANWR in particular. However, anybody who has ever felt strongly about a given issue will agree that it’s hard not to advocate your own point of view. To be entirely honest, I can’t fault Scott and Amy for their strong feelings nor their abject failure to walk the narrow path of neutrality, not because I am a saint (far, far from it), but because they were, and are right. For me, a city slicker who has always felt hemmed in living in Southern California, where travelling in any direction will inevitably lead you into an endless sprawl of “civilization,” the value of ANWR was apparent to me after walking around it for only a few minutes. I may hate tussocks with a burning passion, and the mosquitoes may be vicious and plentiful, but this place is a bastion of all that is pure and good and unspoilt by human interference. Maybe one of the last. It is home to animals of every description, many so highly evolved to survive in that forbidding landscape that they can survive nowhere else. Even the ubiquitous, despicable tussocks deserve a bit of respect; they’re lumps of grass older than I can hope to be around for, and they’ve done it with growing seasons that are only weeks long, temperature swings that would be normal on the Moon, and pissant college kids trampling them down. ANWR is worth preserving at any cost. It is one of the few places I have been where I have able, despite being a typical angsty twenty-something at war with myself, to find my own piece of heaven and peace of mind.
When the rain stopped and I had finished plumbing the depths of my mind, I followed my stomach back to the kitchen like a bulbous, fleshy divining rod. After perusing the bear cans for delicious snacks and filtering myself some more water with the Infurio-matic ceramic pumps, I watched the rest of the group descend into camp through my binoculars. Amy had donned her all-rubber pants and jacket, and now resembled the world’s first janitor in space. While I was waiting for them to get back to camp, I discovered that ANWR was home to a breed of fat, slow, and arrogant ground squirrels. A word on ground squirrels; I hate them. They are filthy, disrespectful little vermin who are liable to eat your entire two-week supply of Cheez-Its if given even the slightest chance to do so. I learned that on one of my family vacations to a Millerton Lake, in the Sierra foothills. I have done terrible things to ground squirrels. Things I am not proud of. But some things are beyond the pale, and must be avenged, and the outright theft of Cheez-Its is one of them. Still, I realized that I was on their turf, and that if I harmed the little bastards, Scott and Amy would make good on their threats to leave bacon in my backpack and summon the bears. More to the point, despite their girth and their unfamiliarity concerning humans with wicked intentions, they were still faster than me. And I had no string, milk crates, sticks, or any of my Grandma’s seasoned oyster crackers to use as bait. So I contented myself with chasing them between their many burrows and taking pictures of them. Jennifer Moss, you would be proud.
All the hiking had made my fellow campers hungry, and so we set about making dinner, which was an approximation of vegetable curry. I was given the challenging task of cutting up a couple of onions, a head of cabbage with a paring knife. To my credit, I only stabbed myself once. After dinner, we stayed up and talked about a variety of subjects with Scott and Amy, which, predictably, was one of the most fun parts of the trip for me. Topics ranged from the strict rules those who lived in the dorms were faced with to the campus politics, to Olean, the zero-calorie fat substitute that, according to the FDA, causes “anal leakage,” and I have used as an electrical power tool lubricant with great success. My legs may not have been in pain anymore, but as hard and as long as I laughed, my abdomen certainly was.