I have no memory of landing in Anchorage, of staying in a hotel, of meeting anyone from the Outward Bound group. There is only a blank space in my head between the plane taking off and me standing at the edge of the Little Nelchina River.
For three months, I did not know what it meant to be alone. I had prepared for crevasses, grizzlies, long days and hard nights. I had not prepared for the proximity of eight individuals pressed up against all of my faults, poking and prodding at my passive nature, my reserve, my desire to stay within my own walls.
Alaska became long stretches of silence; whole days without words. Just the faces of my teammates as we floated down winding grey rivers. When the evening chores were done, I scrambled over rocks to the water’s edge and sat, stubbornly alone. Sam liked to come and sit near me, humming a nameless tune.
In the mornings he did yoga. While the rest of us pulled down tents and dried out sleeping bags, fiddled with stoves and boiled water for oatmeal, Sam was doing sun salutation, greeting the mountains in prayer. When I tried to mimic his movements, he adjusted my hands. “You begin and end in the mountains,” he said. After long days and nights, we all bickered with one another, but we left Sam alone. He was the peacekeeper with hands that greeted the sun.
The group found my silence unnerving. We sat in a circle talking out our communication problems till my spine felt like it was crunching together from sitting still for so long. I just wanted to slip my body and its layers of dried sweat into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes against Alaska’s ever-present light. When the words rose up, like the beginning of a howl arcing into the night, I clamped my mouth shut and swallowed it all down.
A week and a half in, we heard the howling while tying the rafts to shore. Five wolves, tiny dots, trotting along a sandy ridge. The next morning rings of paw prints encircled our camp. Sam poked his head into our tent to tell us and I sat in my sleeping bag, preserving the moment, wanting to glean some spiritual guidance from their presence, but Robert said they were just looking for food.
The next day the Nelchina emptied into the 21 miles of Tazlina Lake. The blue rafts spun lazily into the center, sluggishly evading our efforts to paddle across. Several hours later we constructed a rough sail out of branches and nylon tarps. The sail luffed gently, catching the wind, and we began to move down the lake and toward the Copper River and Cordova.
When we returned to Seward, I sat in the shower for 30 minutes, scrubbing two weeks of river mud off my skin and trying to scrape the scent of capilene and sweat off everything I owned. For two days we made ourselves sick ordering vanilla malts and french fries. Then we were back in the Chugach Mountains pulling on gaiters and staggering clumsily under the weight of our packs.
Robert told me not to bother with the extra weight of a book and my journal, but I brought them anyway. We had nearly three weeks of mountains. These items were my own interpretation of a defensive wolf, ears flattened against its head, lips drawn. With my pen and journal, slightly away from camp, the book in hand meant keep away.
At the end of the first day we dropped in exhaustion, rebelling against Robert and refusing to take another step, our arms and hands lined with the stinging welts of Devil’s Club. In the morning, we moved slowly and cautiously, a chorus of complaints as our stiff muscles protested.
Danielle started talking about vanilla malts and down comforters. Sadie told her to shut up. We split the last two oranges, shoving slices underneath our mosquito nets, licking the juice off our fingers and tasting the tundra.
When we reached the first pass, Robert made us practice our self-arrests. “Nikki should be an expert at this,” Caroline said, smiling broadly to take the barb out of her witticism on my inability to let go. I am not shy or anti-social. I am just an introvert, a bit of a lone wolf. My heart is overly sentimental; I have learned to censor it. I find people wonderful, but exhausting. I have learned to make my excuses.
It took nearly two months for me to crack, but I did. After three weeks in the mountains, we chartered a boat. Forty-five minutes from Seward, the captain dropped us off, plunking nine kayaks into the Prince William Sound. For two weeks, we were saturated with rain and choppy seas, scraping mildew off of clothes, tents, and books.
I was navigating when we realized we were slightly off course and would have to cross an open channel to get to the narrow fingerlet of camp. After a long and exhausting day, the tempers of the others begin to flare, exploding into angry, jabbing comments that speared right into the middle of my insecurity. When we touched land, I ripped off my spray skirt, dragged my boat to shore, and sprinted into the woods.
Robert chased after me.
Slumped at the base of a tree, I stared up at the sky and waited for the tightness in my chest to loosen. I picked up a stick and snapped it in half. “We need you to communicate,” he said. “We need you to share your thoughts with the group, to stop bottling everything up.”
I leaned my head against the tree, pointed at a branch and told him we should mark this spot. It’s a good place to hang our food. He grabbed my hands. “Nikki. Nobody here is going to hurt you or judge you or think any less of you for opening up.”
I didn’t know how to tell him that I find people exhausting, that I spend most of my time at home with my books, scribbling thoughts into my journal. I don’t fully understand it myself. It’s not because I dislike people or because I’m afraid of them. I just prefer the silence of my own space. Danielle thought it was because I’m too passive. She told me if someone stepped on my foot in a crowded place, I’d probably just bite my tongue and hope they moved rather than raise my voice. Sam told me to embrace my vulnerability, that people will love me more for it.
I skipped a stone across the surface of the Prince William Sound when he told me this, but it only skipped once and then sank. Sam sat for a while, waiting for me to respond, but I just kept throwing rocks. When he got up and returned to camp, I raced up and down the shore till my lungs hurt.
This was supposed to be a turning point for me. I was supposed to come home from Alaska with everything turned inside out. My grandmother thought I had trust issues; Sam thought so too. He told me this as he lowered me into a crevasse. Tentatively perched on a snow bridge ten feet down, I pointed out that we were roped together, that if he fell, I would go down with him. He told me I am more willing to put my life in someone’s hands than my thoughts.
“What are you so afraid of?” he shouted. The rope was taut against my harness and I balanced myself against Sam’s weight. The deep blue of the crevasse was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen; my fears echoed against the narrow walls of ice. Every movement sent a volley of ice chips to the floor. Sam told me to leave my fears there.
When I returned home, I switched my degree from wildlife biology to English, abandoning my plan of studying wolves to instead examine poetry and the contents of my own heart. My reserve did not go away, I did not stop seeking refuge within the corners of my own, empty room. I did not stop hiding behind a book. I did not stop finding people wonderful, but exhausting — needing hours or days to recharge the energy sapped from my core.
My Outward Bound pin sits on my desk. I rub my thumb across its surface. “To Serve, To Strive, and not to Yield.” This is the borrowed ideal from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” but it is not the line that best reflects my “gray spirit yearning in desire.” I scrape the truth of Tennyson’s words from my own Alaska memories:
that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
It has been almost ten years to the day since I last saw Sam; it is unlikely I will ever see him again. I can’t even remember his last name. But I carry his message with me, written on a notecard and folded into my wallet. “I challenge you to be bold, to express yourself completely and trust that others will listen and love you all the more for it.”
This is my Alaska lesson; the lesson my solitude could not unfold.