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. 

In the Wildness of Alaska


alaskaIn Last Child in The Woods, Richard Louv writes, “Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.” I know exactly what he means. Last summer, I participated in a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in the Talkeetna Mountains. I thought I understood remoteness until I went to Alaska. My family and I spent a lot of time in the Mountain West and I grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, outside of a town without even a stoplight. We have chickens and bees, a cat and dog, a garden, fruit trees, and fifteen acres.

IMG_5444 (2)I love home, but I found a different kind of bliss in the Alaskan wilderness. I found simplicity. I carried everything I needed in my backpack: food, hiking clothes, a sleeping bag and pad, a WhisperLite stove, and a poop trowel. And I loved the routine, too. After waking up and taking down my tent, I would trudge the 100 yards to the makeshift kitchen, cook, eat, and then clean up. Then I would repack my pack, and set out on the trail with the rest of the group for the next 6-7 hours. When we reached our destination, we would scout out the flattest, driest spot and set up camp. As soon as I could, I would take off my hiking boots and put on my camp shoes and a fresh pair of socks. Only then would I relax and read or write, and sometimes, we would sit around and talk about the food we missed and how nice it would be to have a hot shower and a real bed. Some nights, we would listen to our instructors read and recite poetry and around 11, with the sun still up, I would crawl into my sleeping bag. Often, in the middle of the night, I would wake up and peer out of my tent to see the mist filling the valleys. By morning I could see the Chugach Mountains again and I would sit outside my tent, enjoying the beauty. But I knew that soon I would have to put on my wet, stinky hiking clothes and prepare to trek across mud, rivers, and boggy tundra. We were in grizzly country, of course, and that scared me, but I loved the beauty and wildness of Alaska. It excited my senses.


Gritty Sis

My sister Aidan turned 202nd pic of girls for blog.JPG this summer and is working as a river guide in Gardiner, Montana. We just got back from visiting her there, where she treated us to a rafting trip down the Yellowstone River and to some hikes in Yellowstone National Park.

In many ways, Aidan is my role model. When she was my age (15), she made three, five-week trips to Arctic Alaska with my father and wrote about her experiences at her blog Growing up, Aidan and I attended the same small school, where, despite my admiration for her, I grew increasingly tired of being known as her younger sister. Occasionally her friends would even call me “Little Aidan”, not because we resembled each other, but because that’s how they saw me. I was proud to be Aidan’s sister, but I wanted to be known for my own accomplishments. But that seemed impossible because everybody knew Aidan as a star: as the girl who won state her freshman year in the 800m; as the girl who survived living on an island with a polar bear; as the girl who got into Yale.

For a long time I wrestled with being in Aidan’s shadow until I realized that I had to define my own path, using Aidan as my inspiration. Aidan had followed her dreams and became the person she wanted to be; I was determined to do the same. I started Thai kickboxing classes after school; I joined a sailing club and raced; and I took up phoaidan and rachel blog.JPGtography. These things were mine. But while struggling to define myself, I also needed to allow for the fact that Aidan and I had some of the same interests: Nordic skiing, Indie Folk music , and a love of travel–especially to remote places.

Last summer I took a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) trip to the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska and was as taken with the landscape as Aidan had been. Like Aidan, I am now inspired to write about my adventures–in Alaska, this summer in Papua New Guinea, and wherever else my dreams may take me.

I believe in following my bliss and this is the first in a series of blogs about that. I am hoping that some readers might be as inspired by me as they were by Aidan. I will try to blog as often as I can this summer from the jungles of New Guinea and this fall and winter from the woods of Wisconsin. I hope that you will follow me on my journeys.