Denali Dispatch

It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge.

Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.



Small Stories from Big Places

July 31, 2015

How do you capture the bigness of tundra?  The shiver of suddenly spotting a grizzly bear in what, seconds before, seemed merely “landscape?”  The helium-balloon-in-your-chest feeling of being out in a wild place, a place where wildlife holds all privilege, both legally and practically? 

One of the traditions I love at Camp Denali and the North Face Lodge is the evening story hour.  The time during dinner when we all take a few moments to share something from the day.  Each hiking group chooses a speaker—some are comedians, others serious; some detailed and dramatic, others succinct—and that person stands up and tells the rest of us what they experienced when they were out and about.

For me, this moment is one of attention (a hush in the room, ears perked), excitement (what will they say?), and sometimes envy (a wolverine?!! phalaropes on a pond??!!).  More, though, this tradition connects us to the web of our time in this place together.  We were all out, were all surprised by something. To hear others’ stories made our short time in Denali richer, more nuanced and expansive.

On the walks I shared with other travelers, we made collaborative haiku.  What seemed most amazing? We asked ourselves.  At what point did time stop and every color become a bit brighter?  It was a treat to sit and scrawl the responses, each of us counting out syllables on our berry-stained fingers.  We wrote one haiku about the contents of our lunch (so amazingly delicious after a couple hours of walking).  Another about all the poisonous, beautiful plants (bog rosemary, monkshood, death camas).  Most days, one haiku was not enough.  There were too many facets, too many amazing moments to consider.

One of the hikes included a quartet of travelers from Tokyo, and they taught us the words for bear (kuma), for scat (unchi), and—my favorite—bushwhacking (yabukogi).  They said it really translated as “bush swimming” or “bush rowing.”  What a word!  Together, after a ramble that included bouncing through spongy tundra, air spiced with Labrador tea, and a discussion of the amazing strangeness of lichen we wrote:

lichen underfoot

scrambling taxonomy

oh, yabukogi

How do you translate place?  Experience?  Understanding?  How do you share what it’s like to listen to water fall from the scooped palms of a bull moose’s antlers?  In the end, it might  be impossible, but trying is fun.  We laughed.  We nodded when someone captured the spirit of it.  And somehow, the smallness of haiku seemed an appropriate answer to the vast sweep of Denali’s tundra and sky. 

It’s even possible that we experienced bits of our walks more acutely from the attention we tried to pay them as we counted and re-counted and pared down words to what felt essential and right.

—Elizabeth Bradfield is a naturalist and poet whose newest collection of poems is Once Removed (Persea, 2015).  She is the editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press, lives on Cape Cod, and teaches in the MFA program for the University of Alaska Anchorage.  www.ebradfield.com

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