By Andrew Skurka, written from Boulder, Colorado, after finishing his 4,700-mile Alaska-Yukon Expedition
See a photo gallery from the expedition and watch for the article in National Geographic Magazine in spring 2011.
This past weekend, just two weeks after finishing my trip, I moved back to the exceptional city of Boulder, Colorado. My life does not appear to have changed much since I left seven months ago: I’m living in the same house, hanging out with the same friends, and running the same trails; I still don’t get recognized by employees or other customers at REI; and my net worth is still laughable because I still have the same “job.”
The Alaska-Yukon Expedition (AYE) was not my first time at the rodeo and I suspected beforehand that it probably wouldn’t be a game-changer in terms of my personality, goals, opportunities, or outlook on life. If, before this trip, I had been an overworked desk jockey going through a midlife crisis, or a disillusioned youth with overly romanticized ideas about Alaska, the potential for radical transformation would probably have been greater. However, just because the expedition may not have been life-altering does not mean that I haven’t changed—it just means that the changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary and/or that they are simply boosts to longer-term trends. This type of change might be better described as personal growth and development, which I’ve found is accelerated by the intentional stepping outside of my comfort zone, whereby I’m forced to adapt to new realities and to acquire new skills and knowledge.
I want to highlight three ways that I believe the expedition has changed me, as both a wilderness traveler and as a human being.
Finesse over force. During AYE, I had to be very precise and purposeful in how and when I traveled across the land. I used game trails to avoid thick bushwhacks and looked for well-drained soils to avoid tussocks; I waited days for avalanche dangers to decrease, ocean swells to calm, and cold-and-wet storms to pass; and I deviated often from my “planned” route when factors like snowpack, visibility, and bugs made a detour more practical and/or efficient. Operating almost entirely on Nature’s terms was different from my other big trips, when I was more able to force my will on Nature because—with the help of manmade trails and frequent access to civilization—I was less susceptible to Nature’s variability, extremes, and dangers.
Environmental engagement. The experiential education I gain through my long-distance trips is a significant motivation for me to do them. Through my travels I’ve learned first-hand about farming, ranching, logging, wildfire policy, mountain pine beetles, water development, land conservation, homesteading, and much more. On previous trips this education merely satisfied my intellectual curiosity, but during the AYE I found that my understanding of the landscape had tremendous functional value. For example, if I learned why and where tussocks grow, I could minimize travel across them; if I knew the seasonal diets of grizzly bears, I could take steps to avoid encounters; if I accurately predicted the character of a river based on its source and watershed size, I could identify optimal fording locations on the map before even seeing the river; and if understood the snowpack, I could locate the optimal route, i.e., the fastest, most aesthetic, and least avalanche-prone.
Humility. The most remote and inaccessible section of the trip was across the Yukon Arctic and the eastern Brooks Range (also known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). During that stretch I went 650 miles without crossing a road and 3.5 weeks without seeing another human being. That’s true wilderness. It may sound romantic, but frankly it’s frightening—was completely on my own, entirely dependent on the space between my ears and the contents of my pack (12 pounds of gear and up to two weeks of food), traveling across an environment that is hardly conducive to life: it has big rivers, big storms, big wildlife, big swamps, and small but prolific bugs. This new level of self-dependence caused me to tap into a primal, ancient, and mostly lost, sense of humility that dates back to when humans were really just another wild animal on this planet, not a higher or elevated species, when overcoming Nature’s challenges and making it to tomorrow was a noble and fundamental goal.