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.

Taking Responsibility

The river is a sage teacher. Her lessons are revealed patiently by the current, but almost always resonate to life in the real world as well. One of the most profound things that the river has taught me is the notion of responsibility. Responsibility comes in many forms. I am responsible for my paddling partners. When we slide into the river together, we are subconsciously looking each other in the eyes and saying, “I’ve got your back, and I know you’ve got mine.” While paddling, we are acutely aware of both our own well-being and that of our partners, because the stakes can be high. Over the years, I have felt the power of this relationship from both sides. My life has been saved by a friend, and I have paid that gift forward to others in their times of crisis. Both experiences are equally as powerful, and they somehow pave the way for deeper and more rewarding relationships off the river. I am responsible for my own decisions and actions. When I decide to run a rapid, that is my decision, and mine alone. Once I paddle out of the eddy and commit, I am on my own, and must deal with what comes…the river (like life) is a one-way street. This actually makes us stronger people, because we learn to keep a level head in chaotic situations. In my experience, the most successful people are those who take responsibility for their mistakes and shortcomings, and don’t pass blame to other people. When I make a mistake on the river, I must acknowledge that I have made that mistake and scramble for plan B. I cannot blame that mistake on anyone else, because I alone am responsible for the decision to be in the rapid, and for my own paddling. The river does not accept excuses. Winston Churchill said “the price of greatness is responsibility.” On the river and in life, we show what we’re truly made of in how we look out for one another, and how we deal with the chaotic times.

Origins of Exploration

It is human nature to take a chance. To step away from the comfortable, from the familiar, and seek an unknown. To ask a question. Often, we don’t know why we are asking these questions, or what we are looking for by asking them. But we ask. Once the question is asked, once the familiar is left behind, an exploration begins. The word explore is defined by the action of traveling through the unfamiliar in order to learn. We typically associate exploration with the great adventurers, thinkers and philosophers of human history. With an unparalleled, modern access to knowledge and information, it is easy to assume there is little left in the world to explore. Little left that is unknown to humanity, (without a genius’ mind, a large amount of wealth to fund such an exploration, or an extraordinary amount of courage). To think like this, however, would be to forget that by our very nature we need to explore. As humans, we are constantly exploring our world, communities, history, natural environment, or even ourselves as individuals. Our personal explorations of what it means to be alive makes us the individuals we are taught to embrace as truly unique people. Because no two people are alike, we each explore something different in every moment or experience. Some seek more, some seek less. Some far and wide, some close and in-depth. The world is full of beauty, wonder and inspiration. No matter what you’re interested in, where you live, how old you are or what you do for a living, allow a passion within to initiate your own chapter to explore.

Contrasts

To be surrounded by people and places that inspire is the essence of what everyone’s looking for in their lives. To live creatively through this true inspiration is what everyone strives for within their lives, jobs, and ultimately their careers. As an artist and photographer, I constantly find myself surrounded by people and places that inspire not only me personally, but my work as well. Adventure and the outdoors collectively drive my creative philosophy, which is energized and inspired through landscapes and being able to show the contrast between humans and nature. There is a striking contradiction in a simple scene from nature versus the emotion and feeling you get with the imposition of the human association. To be in a place that makes you feel small and see what tiny place you hold in the world really leaves a humble and grateful feeling for every moment spent outdoors. We are all visitors here. This earth will be here long after we are gone. With so little time we must experience all that it has to offer, whether it’s a hike, a simple walk in your local park, a day trip to the beach, or a grand expedition. There’s something about sitting in nature and enjoying every moment. There is a simple beauty that can be found in the connection between people and nature that is so obvious and is often taken for granted. For it’s never enough to just observe through a phone or computer, we must get out there, be involved, and fulfill that inspiration with memories with the people and places that matter the most. – Stephen Krawiec is a New Jersey-based adventure photographer. For more of his work, visit www.stephenkrawiec.com  

Consistency

Ma Moehl insisted consistency was the biggest lesson to teach her two daughters, and the message carries through in many aspects of my life. I feel physically my best when I go to sleep around 10pm and wake up around 6-7am. I feel connected to friends when I interact with them on a regular basis. I feel well fed when I cook in my kitchen, three meals and two snacks a day… often dessert too. I feel the most grounded as a person when I cover a few or many miles, human powered, preferably on my own two feet and on dirt. There are so many pulls and distractions that infiltrate our day that I find having consistency in as many aspects of life as I can is the thread that keeps me centered through it all. When travel, work, social engagements, emails, have to’s, to do’s, and other obligations challenge my ability to maintain my l routine, it seems running is the mainstay, the core of the list, the one thing I will always do. I can and do run anywhere and everywhere. The simplicity of shoes and a sports bra enables a dependable interaction with wherever life takes me. It is a way to connect with the land, the people, and the community. It is a way to understand where I am physically – I love a morning run in a new town to find the coffee shop and grocery store – and a way to understand and process the thoughts in my head. “There are not many issues in life that a long run cannot solve. Sometimes the run has to be a bit longer.” Running is one thing I have and will count on for years to come. Running, my parents’ consistent presence, and Ma’s helpful life lesson.