During the summer of 2013, I spent a month or so in the isolated, remote wilderness of Uyak Bay, on the south end of Kodiak Island, Alaska. During one of those weeks, I ventured through the unforgiving terrain that surrounds the Karluk River. It was an experience that reminded me, quite dramatically, about the reality of Mother Nature’s attitude of indifference, and that while the wilderness can be a sacred place of tranquility and healing, it is also a place where harsh lessons of discipline and wisdom are learned. Below is a journal entry from that experience…
“As I write these words, it’s a miserable summer night. I’m camped out with borrowed gear near the Karluk River in a bug and bear infested Alaskan jungle. I’m hunkered down in a leaky tent that has no floor, other than a small tarp that I duct taped in place. The rain is pouring, as it has been all day. The undersized sleeping bag and mat that I’m using provides little comfort from the uneven terrain and exposed tree roots that my tent is pitched upon. It was the only semi-flat, camp-able spot that I could find for miles around. Though I’ve been trying to sleep for hours, here I am, wide awake, cold, damp, sun and wind burned from the previous weeks spent being exposed to the elements. I’m covered with insect bites and smelly campfire smoke from the rotting driftwood I’ve been burning to stay warm, cook my food, and dry out my clothes.
I have not heard the voice of a friend for a long time now. I’ve been sustaining myself on a steady diet of fish, fat, salt, caffeine and carbs. Though my will has become stronger, my body has become weak and thin. I am dead-dog tired, dirty as can be, stinking, hairy, and sore all over. The few possessions that I have with me are taking a beating and wearing down fast. Every day something breaks. The half-ton bears that roam around don’t alarm me one bit. They’ve become accustomed to my presence, and I to theirs. I’m too exhausted to even think about it all.
Yet, while I sulk in the misery of another prolonged chastising from Mother Nature, the songbirds still sing all around me. Wind-beaten and soaking wet, their sweet, hypnotic melody continues. They belong here…always. They were born here in the wild, and that is where they will die. In this vast, remote land, perhaps I’m the only two-legged creature that has ever heard their particular song.
As much as I love this rugged wilderness, and often call it home for long expanses of time, the truth is that it is not my home, and it will never be. Sometimes, it feels like more of a hell, devoid of, and rejecting, any semblance of love. Even the men and women of modern day who have forced an existence for themselves in truly wild places such as this, they ultimately had to do so by relying on those in the “civilized” world for support.
Although I write these words in misery, someday soon, I’ll look back and smile. I’ll even long for the euphoric discomfort of this moment, and no doubt, I’ll return again for more. While I realize that the wilderness is not, and will never be my true home, it is forever a sacred sanctuary, a place of learning, a school of discipline, as well as a temple of worship. I come here to encounter the Creator…to worship and talk to God, and to listen to the eternal voice. I enter this domain of tooth, fang, and claw, to be more aware of my awareness, to remember things I have forgotten, and to revisit the highlighted texts of my previous years. This is where life returns to its simplest elements, in the daily dynamics of living: attaining shelter, water, fire, food. In some cases, they come easily. In others, one might die first. If you can master their ways, you can master your life. In this place, the raw manifestation of creation is all around me. Books are written here, not read. Even in the midst of storms and great discomfort, these places fill me with tremendous peace. It is here that I absorb and learn the wisdom that is indeed incarnate all around me. Here I am reminded of what truly matters.
But, what truly matters does not matter out here in the wild. The birds care nothing of these words I write. The bears have no idea what I feel inside my soul. The mountains and the trees pay no attention and offer no empathy in regard to my dreams, desires, trials, and tribulations, or anything else for that matter. Long after I’m gone, the sun will rise and set just the same. The creation that I love will one day gladly consume the very flesh from my bones, with no sympathy for my departure. With or without me, the flowers will continue to bloom and the birds will still sing so sweetly. Nature is indifferent to my coming or going and my living or dying. She simply asks (and needs) my reverent respect while I spend time and pass through her domain.
In these times that I live like an animal, I am harshly reminded that I am not one, I will never be, and I don’t want to be one. As these spiders crawl all over me while I lie here in the dirt, and hoards of bloodthirsty mosquitoes and black flies torment me without end, I find myself longing for the things that are not here. Nowhere here is the love of another, and no one to give or receive the gift of the heart. In this cold, wild place, there is no warmth of family or the welcoming smile of a friend. One’s humanity becomes dull in the void of human contact. Joy is not as joyful when there is no one to share it with. Beauty is not as beautiful when it is seen alone. Peace is not as peaceful when a soul becomes as restless as the howling wind. Compassion is not as compassionate when the stomach growls and the throat is parched like the desert sand. Tolerance does not exist when the body pines for essential warmth that slips away so easily. All that matters is sustaining 98 degrees. Indeed, the wilderness teaches the wisdom of what truly matters…fast!”