Carry an Extra Paddle

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” – Wendell Berry

As I stood in the Arctic twilight I took the clear skies above our camp as a good omen. Before ducking into my tent for the night I laid my drysuit over the packraft to let it dry out. I woke up to the sound of rain just a few hours later.

The following morning as I climbed back into my wet dry suit I couldn’t help but smile, I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything. I’d been planning this trip for eight months. Convincing four friends to join me in packrafting 100 miles between the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Kobuk Valley National Park in the western Brooks Range of Alaska. Our team had spent hours looking at google earth images, pouring over old trip reports and topo maps trying to find the best rivers and mountains to run. Now that we were on the water a little cold rain wasn’t going to bring down our spirits.

I’ve had my fair share of adventures. From thru-hiking the 2,652 mile Pacific Crest Trail, biking the Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico, and exploring many off-trail routes along the Sierra Nevada, Wind River, and Appalachian Mountain ranges. This trip, like many before, was sparked by a curiosity to go where I’d never been and to explore the wilderness under human power in new and unique ways. A life spent outside is marked by the challenges you face. Plans fall apart, gear fails you, weather discourages you, and you must face the uncomfortable decision of whether or not to push forward. This trip was no exception.

The start of our adventure was plagued with misfortune. A lost bag and incoming weather delays caused us to spend an extra day holed up in the Kotzebue hotel kicking our heels and burning time. The challenges only continued as we finally reached the backcountry and within two hundred yards of the put-in, two of our team members were swimming in the arctic waters and an epic yard sale of gear opened up for business. During every project I’ve been on there comes a moment where the screws turn and the level of consequence sharply comes into focus. As we sat on the river bank just downstream of the action and took stock of our situation you could see the gears turning in everyone’s heads.

This wasn’t just a vacation in Alaska. We were alone in the wilderness, hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital and completely on our own. If there is one certainty about the river, it’s that the water will keep moving. Whether or not you choose the correct line or eddy out, eventually, you must rejoin the current. With new respect for the river, we set off again. Paddling close together in the swift-moving current we quickly covered miles as we passed further down the valley. Later that day as the adrenaline subsided and our muscles warmed up the laughter and jokes returned to the group.

Over the following days we floated the turquoise water west towards the coast. The rugged mountains gave way to rolling hills and the river began to slowly snake across the wide open landscape. We paddled through the rain and the cold; through the welcome sun and the warm afternoons. We paddled into headwinds and into the sunset. We paddled because that’s what we came here for.

Alaska is truly the wild and untamed last frontier. You can read all of the guidebooks, spend hours planning your itinerary to a T, and still, you must face the reality that nothing is certain in this northern territory.

As I stare out the window of the bush plane on the flight back to civilization I considered the path my life has taken to bring me to this point. Looking back now I can see where the forks in the road lie. I see a young boy playing in the creek behind the house as the summer draws to an end. The same curiosity is still there – the unanswered question of what lies around the next river bend. I understand now that I’ll always be chasing the unanswered question. The methods may change and the style of travel will vary but the spirit of adventure will live on.


Samuel Martin is a commercial & editorial photographer based out of western North Carolina with a focus on human powered movement and outdoor lifestyle. Learn more at www.spmartin.com or follow Samuel on Instagram (@spmartin_).

Unplugged

In a day and age where time in front of a screen consumes our lives, we are in more need than ever to unplug from technology. How and where each of us do that will be unique and different every time. It could be a trail (my preferred version), a river or a lake, a thicket of azaleas, the magnolia tree in your front yard, or the forest behind your fence. Your version of unplugging could be anything. No matter where you live, nature is all around you and it’s literally busting at the seams, or through the sidewalk cracks, to get your attention. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good Instagram post, perusing Facebook, or a clever Tweet. Too much, in fact. Posting and perusing are woven into the fabric of my life and they’re not going anywhere. I was at a talk recently where the speaker said, “Noise keeps us focused on things that are unimportant.” I’ve been mulling that over for some time now. And in some ways, I disagree. It’s important for me to stay connected to my friends or get updates on my relatives, and social media helps with that. But in other ways, he’s spot on. It’s important for me to stay connected to myself, and the best way for me to do that is to take a hike. What about you? How do you connect with yourself? If you find it hard, these first weeks of spring could be the perfect opportunity for you to unplug for an hour or two. Just sit in the stillness of nature. Instead of tweeting, listen to the birds. Instead of settling for the mountain sunset on your screensaver, head outside and catch a glimpse of the real thing. You can always upload photos of it when you get home.

Large Format: The Himalaya

In 1972, I first visited the enchanted kingdom of Nepal and began photographing the Himalayas. In 2012, I travelled to the 22,000′ advanced base camp north in Tibet and made photographs with the 8×10″ camera of the North Col of Everest(Qomolungma) which represent the highest photos ever made with the large format view camera. Early on, I became aware that the Tibetans have called the mountain Qomolungma, Goddess Mother of the Universe, since the 12th century and the Nepali’s call the mountain Sagarmatha, The Stick that Churns the Ocean of Existence. During their Survey of India in the 1840’s, the British determined the mountain to be the tallest in the world and realizing the geographic significance, named the mountain after George Everest, the Second Surveyor General of India. Although the British may have imposed the name which is most commonly accepted today, this mountain is regarded by its cultures and people with the utmost reverence and regard. It is imperative to recognize the historical and spiritual meanings of names originally given to natural wonders and landmarks by those who live in their shadows. To see more of Jeff Botz’s work, visit jeffbotz.org.