Dear Gram and Gramps / by Caroline Van Hemert


Dear Gram and Gramps,

We find ourselves on an airplane, the Alaskan landscape slides by below, and the tears well in our eyes. 4,000 miles across this land, what a journey it has been.

Love, Pat

Landscape and movement have been the essence of this experience. As the canoe slid past gravel bars on the Noatak River we retraced our route from Bellingham Bay, past islands, up misty fjords, over glaciers, down rivers, along sandy beaches, and between mountains. We recalled each campsite with the exception of only three that we will have to look up in our notes. It was fun to take turns helping the other recall a place we slept. The names of bays and creeks often escaped our memory while the shape and space of our surroundings came easily, usually prompted by experience and conditions. “Remember, there was a cliff behind a rocky beach? We were worried the tent was too close to the tide line…Oh, right, with that beaver swimming along the shoreline. And in the morning the winds shifted south again.”

I first came to Alaska in 1999 straight from high school.  The year I spent remote and alone, building a cabin and experiencing one area through the changing of seasons, had been a dream as a boy. Along our journey I often thought back to this experience 12 years ago. Both were rooted in a desire to leave the tangle of roads for wild places. Such solo experiences are powerful, but, the aloneness can also create a sense that they happened in a vacuum. Caroline and I collectively came up with this one, a joint dream realized by both of our strengths. I shaped wood into boats while she researched our route and counted calories. Separately we carried our loads and rode the backs of waves. Together we navigated our way, fought off a bear, and stayed warm.

Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it seems like a snowpack—each storm cycle laying another layer of memories and experiences over the previous, the new pushing on the old, deforming and bonding. Weak layers from the past can threaten the stability of the present. Over time, the edges become softened and muddled with new and old. The challenges downplayed, and sense of wonder and awe faded. The beauty of this journey is shared, a joint memory between Caroline and me that hopefully many years later we can prompt each other to recall and relive. And the feeling of the experience will always be there. No doubt we will try to find it again. I hope we do. For me it’s the movement, the always going, never the same camp, laying back on the oars in the morning or shouldering a pack. Mind consumed by the texture of the landscape with a glimpse ahead. Each wave and tussock and creek and ridge negotiated, always another horizon. The enormity of the challenge too big to comprehend so focus on holding this caribou trail.


ImageThis blog started as an uncertain, last-minute affair, published only hours before we pushed off from Bellingham Bay. We figured it would serve mainly as an outlet for informing our friends and families about our progress. Somehow, over 6 months and 4,000 miles, it evolved into something much more meaningful.  Often, it was a challenge to send updates—we relied heavily on borrowed computers and spotty internet connections, my brother’s patience for deciphering garbled satellite phone messages, and the generosity of village offices and community centers.  But there has always been so much that we wanted to tell, an urgency to sharing our experiences.  As we walked or boated or lay in the tent straining to hear the drone of a plane engine that would signal the end of our hungry wait, I imagined an endless stream of stories.  My journal entries grew exponentially longer as each day I noticed something new about the landscape or heard yet another incredible tale of grit and survival. Even after six months of near-constant companionship, we still had so much to talk about, both to each other and to others.

We wondered at the movements of hawks and caribou, traced the changes of permafrost in slumping banks, wrestled with the complex cultural and subsistence issues faced by rural Alaskan villages. After several years of graduate school (my PhD defense and submissions to scientific journals still fresh in my mind) I felt that I had entered a crash course of another sort. One that demanded all of my attention, reintroduced an awareness that only children seem to know. Naturally, our excitement found its way into our blog entries, which, like my journal, grew longer and more detailed. In return, to our delighted surprise, we heard from many of you. This interchange offered a sense of connection that has been quite a gift.

But now, for the first time, I am finding it difficult to write an entry. Perhaps it is simply too easy to slip back into the comforts that we usually take for granted; perhaps our parting from this experience is still too raw to acknowledge. Being out on the land, in wild, sparsely populated places, it seems perfectly reasonable to whoop with excitement or relief, to cry from frustration or joy or pain, to spill your guts to a stranger. The moment dictated the response. I felt a deeper sense of love and affection for people I know well, and for those I’d just met, than I can even begin to describe. I felt the purpose of movement as caribou streamed past, heedless of our presence.  I felt the heady rush of summer in the Arctic, a flush of life that would disappear almost as quickly as it arrived in a flurry of wings and hooves. I felt the breath of winter as it swept down the hillsides. I felt the power of the sublime each day. I felt the embodiment of humility and grace. Many days I also felt cold and tired and hungry and occasionally scared. But in every moment of every day I felt so very alive.

This was planned as a journey, so we knew it had to end. But this didn’t mean we would ever really be ready.  I can’t help but think that the bad weather and bad bear and hungry wait conspired to help make this transition easier—a little dose of tough love.  As the string of challenges seemed to stack up over the past month, my sister knows us well enough to think with a bit of relief, “Well, at least they won’t decide to keep walking to Nome.”  And she was right. As we paddled the last stretch, my dad silhouetted on the bridge to town, we knew we had made it to the end, at least for now. Somehow, we had managed to walk and boat and ski the thousands of miles that, six months before, had existed only as a line drawn on a series of maps taped to the walls, snaking from one room to the next. But of course it’s not the goal that truly motivates the journey, and the final destination becomes just one more stop along the way. Except that, suddenly, everything has to change. Many of the changes are incredibly welcome—family, friends, fresh foods, ceramic mugs, answers to some of our burning questions. Others are harder to accept—the usual backlog of administrative tasks, the absence of birdsong, the burden of too much stuff. Our next challenge is to carry with us the patience and kindness and humility we experienced over the past several months. We have thank you cards to write, emails to return, gear to clean, and many hours to share with friends and family, who have made us feel so welcome already. We have tears to brush away as our feet meet carpet rather than tundra, as we wake with a start to unfamiliar sounds and recall the thousands of swans that converged for our final morning crossing.

***MORE PHOTOS ARE ON THE WAY! Now that we have reliable and easy computer and internet access, we will be adding more to the blog—a better trip overview, maps, captioned photos, many thank yous. And this venture has inspired us to post photos and trip reports from some of our previous adventures.  We plan to put together a slide show soon and will work on related projects in the coming months (video, writing). Please let us know if you are interested in this or have suggestions for venues. Also, we know many of you already but if we crossed paths with you only briefly, or not at all, it would be a pleasure to say hello.