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A Sense of Place

Posted By: Katherine     All Posts by Katherine  

June 11, 2013

Do you belong to a place?

Does the air you breathe root you to the earth? Do the trees whisper familiar thoughts and the landscape, seen from a bird’s eye view as you descend to your home airport, ground you in a way nowhere else can?

And why do you travel? It seems us humans need to leave our homes in order to appreciate them.

Twelve thousand years ago, before agriculture, all humans were hunter-gatherers. Relatively speaking, we have not been a sedentary species for very long. The urge to wander the land is in everyone’s blood. Our nomadic ancestors rest in our genes – our bones ache to explore. Perhaps fear holds you back?

Aldo Leopold, influential conservationist from the 1930’s, wrote the following in A Sand County Almanac:

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, longlife, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time.  Measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.

What a funny species we are, attempting to domesticate our animal: we train ourselves to sleep in isolated buildings, walk only on pavement, spend hours driving cars, and live in cities where green space is an afterthought. Wallace Stegner, while addressing the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1960, wrote the “Wilderness Letter” advocating for the preservation of wild places. Four years later, congress passed The Wilderness Act.

We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call “progress” as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us.

Our souls may need the wildness of the natural world, and yet, we also crave home. Our more recent relatives tilled the earth for generations – this too runs through our veins – to belong to a place, a home where we can work, sweat, love and play. Is the need for wildness and home truly a contradiction? Perhaps it is for these primal needs that the modern human travels, and the reason we return home.

Our guests at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge often comment that the staff creates “a home away from home” atmosphere. The sense of community that evolves over three or four short days astounds our visitors. It is the comfortable amenities– the safety – of a warm bed, friendly hosts, and filling meals that allows the modern person to step out of their comfort zone and into the wilderness of the park.

Hiking through wilderness without trails, exposed to the wind and rain, Denali tugs at something deep in all of us. It may challenge your sense of safety, it may question your significance, but it will certainly quench your ancient, primal thirst to wander – or awaken it.


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Put on a Sweater

Posted By: Katherine     All Posts by Katherine  

November 06, 2012

When one spends a winter in the northern latitudes, one thought takes precedent over all others: heat. How many layers should I put on today? Current hydration, calories ingested, and anticipated activity all factor into my thermoregulation strategy. As I set foot into the cold, wintery world I hope to have perfected my balance of wooly layers- just enough to stay warm, not enough to sweat. 

November 1st and it is 20 below zero at sunrise. Ice crystals shimmer in the low angle light. The spruce boughs droop, laden with snow, while numerous tracks reveal the routes of those mammals who stay active in winter: the dash of a snowshoe hare, the frantic sprint of a vole for cover, the inquisitive path of a red fox. These animals are well equipped for the cold winter months, their little bodies highly evolved to produce and conserve heat. As I examine my closet of jackets and gloves, I can’t help but feel the inadequacy of my body in this climate. I have to steal another’s cold adaptation for my own: the down feathers of a goose or duck, stuffed into a form-fitting fabric I zip tightly around my torso.

Sure, I have a built-in combustion engine. But while my internal heater runs off of salmon, butter, homemade pickles and sourdough bread, my house is another matter. Is it better to heat by burning wood or oil? How warm does my home need to be for comfort, for survival? Comfort is relative. I set my oil-burning heater to 58 degrees Fahrenheit, but I don’t need it this warm. With an extra sweater and the occasional set of jumping jacks, I could live with it at 50 degrees.

These heated musings always follow the same train of thought and grind to a halt at the platform between energy use and energy production. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources recently granted Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. a permit to explore the Healy Basin coal beds for natural gas. This opens up the potential for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) just 15 miles from Denali National Park, and my home. Fracking has erupted across the United States. Excessive amounts of water are used to create a highly toxic, pressurized fluid that is injected into coal beds, shales, and sandstones in order to extract the natural gas. With the enormous quantities of toxic wastewater produced, the high risk of groundwater contamination, and the reality of combustible methane already running through the taps of some northeastern homes, I can’t help but think we are trading water for oil.

From both an ecological and a resource-use perspective, funneling water away from ecosystems and converting it to a toxic substance is a dangerous concept. “Water is Life,” say the people from varying cultures in almost every country I have traveled in. I am 70% water. Water grows the plants that I and billions of organisms eat for calories, which are metabolized for energy. Oil can heat my house, fuel my car, pay a worker’s wages, but it falls drastically shy as a replacement for a substance that every living thing requires. Those employed by the oil industry (directly and indirectly) use their wages to buy food and water. Industrial oil is useless to our biological needs, but we believe we are oil dependent because we have forgotten how to complete certain tasks without it.

It is with pleasure that I would keep my oil-burning heater to a minimum this winter, if it meant the coal bed in my backyard was left unfracked. I want to live in a clean ecosystem much more than I want to live in a society that has stockpiled short-term, artificial “fixes” to an energy dilemma, and I will happily make sacrifices for this. However, my desire is useless if it stands alone.

I wonder, do we have the ability to conserve and distribute resources without damaging the long-term essentials? Conservation of natural resources requires a society of people who strive to understand their neighbor’s plight. I want to live in a community that willingly puts on an extra sweater to ensure their neighbors, even thousands of miles away, live in a healthy landscape.

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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.