The Power of Nature

Grand CanyonMy first encounter with real wilderness was in the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska in June of 2016 on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition. The days on the trail were long: hours and hours stomping through mud and across rivers and boggy tundra; enduring cold and rain; and worrying about bears. Though my time on the trail was challenging, I still looked forward to each day. In the morning, I would crawl out of my tent, socks damp, hair greasy, and feet aching. Yet, I was amazed at how good I felt. I felt alive.

Then in the summer of 2017, with my family, I made the round trip hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We prepared as much as we could, but trying to simulate seven hours of descent and then eight hours of climbing at 100 degrees was impossible in Wisconsin. The Grand Canyon is a forbidding place, but also spectacular. The narrow trail we hiked was dusty and red and there were times when it seemed like it would fall off the edge of the cliff. For much of the hike, we were alone, just us and the 300 million-year-old rocks. We spent the night on the floor of the canyon, and the next day, I led the group out. Even though the heat was sweltering, even though I could feel my calves cramping from the steep climb, and even though the last water stop was closed, I felt strong and satisfied, like I could accomplish anything. 

So, when my dad proposed a 3-week trek through the jungles of Papua New Guinea last summer, I didn’t think twice about saying yes. I loved being outdoors and welcomed another challenge. As part of my training, I spent a lot of time cross country skiing in the cold. Despite the brutal wind and the long hills, I felt powerful. Even as I competed in a 30-kilometer ski race, the feeling stuck with me, and motivated me to go harder. In the months prior to our departure, I tried to hold on to that feeling, knowing that I would soon need it in Papua New Guinea’s jungle-clad mountains.IMG_7031.jpg

On the first day of our trek, we pushed boats loaded with our backpacks and supplies up a shallow river. The current was strong, and after a long day, I was tired and unsure of myself. But, on our second day, after climbing a succession of incredibly steep hills, I felt that power again. And, whenever I doubted myself on the trek, I relied on it. Just as it had got me through Alaska and the Grand Canyon, I knew it would get me through this, too. 

Frisbees and Friendship

When my dad and I were packing for Papua New Guinea, we put a lot of thought into what gifts we would carry with us to give to each village. My dad suggested that we bring Frisbees, one for each village that we would stay in. He recounted how my mom and he had brought a Frisbee with them when they visited the island in 1995. They had only brought one, so they could not leave it behind, but the whole village had turned out to play or to watch the magic disc floating on air. So, along with our other gear, we packed into our backpacks 12 colorful Frisbees.LRG_DSC01610

After arriving at a village, reaching our designated grass hut, and settling in, my dad and I would grab a red or blue or bright yellow disc and venture out toward an open area. The plastic toy immediately caught the children’s eyes and they would follow us, excited for a game. My dad would fling the disc as far as he could, and the children, never having seen this object before, chased after it. It took awhile for us to teach them the art of a good backhand or how to finesse a forehand. Some were naturally skilled at it and some were not—so much so that I would often have to cover my head and duck. 

After a few village visits, this became the ritual: unpack, unwind, rehydrate, present the Frisbee, teach, play, and then, the following morning before departing for the next village, get in one last throw, before we left the Frisbee in their hands.

PNG Frisbee #2Playing Frisbee with the kids (and adults) of the village was a way to build a bridge, to gain each other’s trust. We were largely unknown to each other, divided by our dress, our language, our customs, the color of our skin, our education. But through the simple act of play, we could connect with one another, and that gap narrowed. In the process of sharing this flimsy circular toy, flinging it, dropping it, watching it roll, laughing, instructing, and, finally, successfully passing it back and forth among us, we felt more alike than different.

Warriors’ Welcome

On our trek across Papua New Guinea, we walked 8 hours every day through jungles, through rivers, through mud, and up and down mountains. The landscape was rugged and pristine. But whLRG_DSC02125.jpgat made the trek even more meaningful was the isolated villages along the way. As we approached the villages, children covered in mud would spring from dense thickets of brush, shrieking as they charged us with spears, sticks, and machetes. At first it frightened us, but it was a ritual the children loved, and one we encountered each and every time. By the end of our trek we came to expect it and were no longer alarmed.

LRG_DSC01182.jpgOnce we entered the villages, which were often nothing more than a dozen thatch huts surrounding a dirt clearing, the colorful ceremonies began. We’d walk under an arch made of vines, leaves, and petals while women and men, adorned in red paint, headdresses made from bird feathers, and pig tusk necklaces pounded on their kundu drums.  Then the women and young girls of the village would drape flower necklaces over our heads and lead us to the center of the village where the real singing, dancing, and drumming began. That was followed by a series of speeches, which were translated by one of our native guides. 

LRG_DSC02814The gist of the speechess was that the villagers looked forward to seeing more outsiders and to the prospect of eco-tourism. Then the prayers began. After the last blessing, they lavished us with food and coconuts and treated us to more dancing. Though exhausted we felt lucky to be among the kindness and generosity of our Papua New Guinean friends, who had so little but gave so much.