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Mesmerized by maps: Dreaming of Alaska adventures

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 7, 2014

Water drained to the hems and cuffs of the raingear that bristled from every peg, dripping into puddles beside the wood stove.

"Hey!" Hig called over from a computer screen of weather charts. "Last night, right when we were out on the beach, it rained a quarter-inch per hour!"

November. I could tell you about the glowing balls of bioluminescent goo we'd squished between our fingers — about how I'm glad we went out camping despite the long black night of tumbling rain. That would be true. And I could recount the last time I went on a major expedition in November -- and made sure to spend the next two Novembers out of state. That would also be true.

November is a better time for dreaming.

Click on Google Earth for jewel-blue lakes and lush green hills, seen from space on a crystal-clear day, for winding tundra ridges without a cloud in sight. Open a topographic map and imagine anything in those concentric crinkled lines. Sun sparkling, snow swishing, skis sliding over shapes the world makes. Boats bobbing beside black sand beaches. Long strides across flowering tundra.

Cryptic, whispered messages

Every adventurer I know loves maps. Loves what those lines advertise. The curves are full of cryptic, whispered messages: "Imagine my bluffs swarmed in nesting puffins." "Imagine my slopes swept in white." "Imagine the swirls of current in my waters." "And just try to imagine how you might get past my cliffs, my boiling rapids, my endless swamps..."

The map holds memories too. I can see our campfire beneath a giant sea arch, where the algae and sandstone turned the rocks into paintings at low tide. I can feel the grit between my teeth — the salty thickness of an endless mud flat. We've drawn lines on that map with our feet and boats, shaped by the zig-zags of inspiration and the halting zig-zags of despair.

A giant poster map of Alaska takes up most of a wall in the tiny cabin of a pair of good friends and fellow adventurers, Bjorn Olson and Kim McNett. Their map is laced with neatly penned lines marking every human-powered journey they've taken. Zooming out, you could see them from space.

"You know," I commented, climbing up on a bench to point out my own next grand plan in the northern reaches of the state, "You've been so far, and we've been so far, and we've barely even touched the same places."

I lay their map — digitally — on top of our own. Then I layer on another adventurer's map, and another, and another: Olson and McNett, Roman Dial, Paxson Woelber, Dick Griffith, Caroline Van Hemert and Pat Farrell, Luc Mehl, Andrew Skurka, Andrew Mattox, Kate Hohman-Billmeier and Caleb Billmeier, Tom Pogson, Sheldon Green.

It's only a handful of people, but between us, we begin to cover the state with a graffiti of footsteps. In small wiggles — that are still a hundred miles or more -- and in great state-crossing traverses. There are patterns in those scribbles. I can see our bias toward the southern coastlines, Dick Griffith's Arctic obsessions and Luc Mehl's mountain-crossing arcs. I can see Roman Dial's feet on every mountain in Southcentral Alaska.

Hidden stories, modern wanderlust

A million steps is only around 400 miles. This map holds tens of millions. Maybe hundreds of millions, including paddle strokes, ski slides and the turns of a fatbike wheel. And every one of them voluntary. Useless. Crazy. Inspired. How many excruciating hours of tussock-walking, alder-wallowing, mosquito-swatting, blizzard-trudging are here? How many stories are hidden in this painting of modern wanderlust?

I can see the spots where we clump together, sharing memories of Lost Coast bear trails, the blasted landscape of the Aniakchak caldera and the fossil-coral mountains between Arctic Village and Kaktovik. But those are exceptions. The lines twist and turn and cross great swaths of country, but only sometimes cross each other. Even going the same direction, no one is following. The lines dance and weave with a million different decisions.

This is only possible in Alaska. Aside from the Iditarod, we have no "long trails" here. Only long journeys, each one born of the map-gazing creativity of an adventurous soul.

Not a speck of this map is truly blank. You could ask scores of modern adventurers I didn't manage to talk to. Or your could turn back to the journals of Lt. Henry Allen, Hudson Stuck and all the other long-dead explorers. Or the U.S. Geological Survey mapmakers who climbed peaks to pound in shining metal benchmark stakes.

If anything still looks blank after that, it's certainly been traveled by a thousand people who knew the country better than a map ever could. But much of it is blank enough that it'll look nearly the same to me as it did to them.

Like a tagger with a can of spray paint, my eyes are drawn in equal measure to spots where others have been before me, and where they haven't. Why have I never traversed the Brooks Range, crossed the Alaska Range or paddled Prince William Sound? What would one see on an arcing thousand miles between the Ogilvie Mountains north of Dawson City in the Yukon Territory and Bristol Bay?

Who needs a flight Outside this fall? Why ever leave, when there's so much of Alaska left to visit? It won't be November forever.

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. She is the author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." The latter won the Outdoor Literature category in the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards. You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.

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