I have been to the mountains and the seashores, to the deserts and the forests. They all have their beauty and they all inspire wonder and awe at the power of Nature. But nothing – nothing – has ever shown me the enormity of the Earth and the true meaning of wilderness like the North.
I’m back from a vacation to Alaska, with a side trip into Canada’s Yukon Territory. It was enjoyable, educational, relaxing, and very civilized: with the exception of five screaming children within two rows of me on a three-hour flight on the way home, it was perhaps the most stress-free trip I’ve ever had.
But start with remoteness. Alaska is 2½ times the size of Texas, but less than 700,000 people live there, almost half of them in the city of Anchorage. More people live in my suburban Collin County, Texas than in the whole state of Alaska. The Yukon is the size of California, but only 34,000 live there, with 26,000 of those in the town of Whitehorse. There are huge areas of land where there are very few people, if any. No 9-1-1, no AAA – you’re on your own, live or die.
The terrain is beautiful but harsh – mountains rise from glacier-carved fjords, lakes and streams carry the snowmelt toward the sea, forests are dense at lower altitudes and the land is frozen at higher altitudes and at higher latitudes. Transportation is easy where modern technology can be used (at least in the warmer months), but those who went there only a hundred years ago faced incredibly difficult travels. There is still a fair amount of snow and ice even in late May.
The wildlife is truly wild. Bears and wolves get most of the publicity, but moose and caribou can kill you if you get in their way even though they’re not considered predators.
The Earth is so big, and humans are so small.
And yet this – and environments different in detail but equally harsh – is where we came from. Our earliest human-like ancestors came down from the trees to walk the plains of Africa with animals even more dangerous than bears. They (or more precisely, their human descendants) are still there. The first immigrants to this continent walked across the land bridge that’s now the Bering Sea. Some settled in the North – they’re still there.
Perhaps more relevantly, in the 1890s thousands of ordinary, “civilized” folks – people very much like you and me – went North in search of gold. Only a few struck it rich. Some died trying. But plenty made it work, and they’re still there. We humans can survive – and thrive – in virtually any conditions.
I have no desire to give up modern comforts. But every now and then it’s important to realize – emotionally as well as intellectually – that Nature is big and wild and strong and life-giving and deadly.
Blessed be Nature, and all the living things that are a part of it – including us.