“How about here?” Seth Kantner points toward a small slough off the main channel. I nod, throttle back the jet skiff and idle in. We clamber up the cut bank lugging cameras and binoculars. It’s a spot we both know well—a wide chunk of mountain-framed tundra lying between the rambling arcs of the upper Hunt and Nuna rivers, a fine place to look around and grab a handful of berries, maybe find something worth a picture.
“Bear,” Seth murmurs almost immediately. A silver-blond shoulder hump ripples a quarter mile away—a young adult grizzly, meandering as it grazes. Farther off, we glimpse a larger bear, our fifth of the day. Evening sunlight spills over autumn tundra; we work closer to the first animal, stopping to frame and snap a few shots now and then. Then the bear senses us, and we decide to back off. The September light is fading, anyhow. We call it a day—a fine one at that, in a long string over four decades spent out in one of the last expanses of deep wilderness on the planet.
Twenty-some winding river miles later, we sit in Seth’s sod and spruce cabin, eating fresh-fried char by his woodstove as the north wind soughs and rattles through the birches. In the morning, I’ll boat another 30 miles up the Kobuk to the village of Ambler and still be surrounded by that same sweep of wild country. Aside from the gravel strand of the Dalton Highway, 200 miles distant, the edge of the human grid lies on the outskirts of Fairbanks, 325 miles over the southeast horizon.
A finger snap and there I am, driving up I-75 in north central Florida, Sherrie and our four dogs packed into the SUV, little travel trailer in tow. We’re doing 65 in the right lane, and a steady stream of traffic flows up and around us; pretty much everyone is over the speed limit. Eighteen wheelers suck us sideways, and an occasional lunatic blasts by as if we were standing still. Sherrie’s gazing into her cell phone, trying to distract herself from this heavy metal video game; and though I pretend I’m fine, I have to remind myself to unclench my jaw and breathe.
Ninety minutes later, we’re home, our five park-like acres a mile off the spring-fed Suwannee River near the small town of Bell. Cardinals flit through the live oaks; hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom; the swimming pool beckons. Words like idyllic and remote come to mind. But if you zoomed in on our property with an online satellite map, you’d find us surrounded by that grid of farms, houses, roads, and towns, with decidedly finite patches of native woods and wetlands mixed in. You don’t have to go very far west or south before that checkerboard of human endeavor becomes much more densely packed—and it’s morphing our way.
Florida, Alaska; Alaska, Florida: For the past few years, I’ve been bouncing back and forth, spending roughly six months annually in each. Sometimes I make the round trip twice, even three times a year. Three thousand-some air miles lie between the farthest state south in the continental U.S. and the farthest north; and that’s the easy part. I usually sleep most of the way. The trick is waking up as the wheels jar tarmac and stepping off into another world.
Heading north, I’m faced with contrasts, starting with geography, demographics, and climate—all discombobulating enough, though by now I know what to expect. But the transition stretches far beyond trading t-shirt and flip flops for long johns and jacket, gators for grizzlies, or a people-packed landscape for one of the most thinly populated on the planet. I need to pause my Florida set of memories, skills, and habits, and switch on others. There are not one, but two Alaska homesteads (Haines and Ambler, 1,100 miles apart), each with its own unique systems, equipment, and so on that need to be wakened, used, and maintained for the time I’m there, then winterized and shut down again; two quite different landscapes to navigate; two sets of names and faces, two sets of everything—and my 60-something, addlepated brain struggling to keep it all straight. And meanwhile, our Florida place waits, wife, dogs, and all, tapping its metaphorical foot.
Add on the stuff that follows me everywhere: my next writing deadline, website orders, bills and paperwork, remembering birthdays and keeping long-distance friendships going, and so on. Last year I lugged along our already late, previous year’s taxes—pounds of manila envelopes stuffed with receipts and forms, plus a tape-fed calculator—from Florida to Haines to Ambler, chipping away and finally wrapping it all up back in Florida. That sort of triage wasn’t unusual.
One inevitable byproduct of this movement is that I’m always playing catch-up, always on the ragged edge of leaving. Just about the time I get everything dialed in and going smoothly at one place, it’s time to pack up. And naturally, if I haven’t been through a certain set of rapids, dealt with a rutting bull moose, or driven that travel trailer rig up a crowded stretch of Florida highway in many months, I’m bound to be rusty and not at the top of my game. Splitting time between three places, in two worlds, guarantees you’re always home but never quite at rest.
Am I whining? Hell, no. Yeah, I’ve managed to invent one complicated life for myself. But I can’t imagine it any other way.