They sat leaning over their phones in the Kobuk River Lodge. Clear that the athletic, 30-something couple had just come in from the land; weathered faces and battered gear told the story of miles. At the lodge, they were no doubt catching their first burger and bandwidth in weeks; in the morning they’d hop on the mail plane, back to wherever they’d come from. So sure, I struck up a conversation.
They’d just pulled off a totally audacious trip. Starting off from Anaktuvuk Pass in the central Brooks Range, they’d traveled by a mix of backpacking and paddling southwest to Ambler, on the Kobuk: 177 miles as the raven flies, easily another hundred as they’d come—a procession of unstable slopes, ankle-twisting tundra, flood-prone streams, and gullies of tangled brush—with brutal weather swings, nasty bugs, and an occasional grizzly folded in. As they described their three-week journey, ticking off names of places I knew, memories blurred past—flashes of that seemingly infinite landscape, twined with the emotional charge that only such a journey can bring: a blend of clarity, exhilaration, and exhaustion, a sense of smallness beneath the sky. And, as I stood reliving moments decades ago, I knew that my time for that sort of trip had slid past.
That wasn’t the only thing making me feel like an expired carton of milk. This was a new breed of wilderness traveler, a growing stream that had been passing through Ambler over the past years. Just as fit and ambitious as I’d been, no less enamored with giant, wild country, and more capable in some respects. But different, recognizable enough to be part of a trend: internet-wired-and-networked folks dedicated to making gutsy, hard traverses of wild country, traveling fast and light with a minimalist ethos.
Their trip had depended on technology I hadn’t dreamed of 40 years earlier—super-light, high performance clothing and gear, featuring compact inflatable kayaks known collectively as packrafts, capable of handling whitewater and offering long distance transport, then rolling up small and light enough to fit in the bottom of a backpack for hiking. Food? Carefully planned and rationed, mostly dehydrated stuff. And, to further lighten loads, they’d arranged for a pre-positioned food drop by a flying service.
But by far the biggest technological advancement lay in a couple of small, battery-powered devices: a hand-held GPS (global positioning system) loaded with detailed maps and even shared routes from previous travelers, plus the ability to pinpoint their location or that of their next waypoint; and a GPS-driven communications device which allowed them to share their position with others and send short texts. Pretty major deal, having insurance against getting lost and being able to summon help if you need it.
Flash back to 1979 at Walker Lake, headwaters of the Kobuk. My friend Peter and I stand by a 90-pound canoe and the 400 pounds that make up the rest of our old-school outfit—fishing tackle, ax and saw, waders, gold pan and guns, plus an assortment of military surplus gear, much of it canvas, wool, and rubber. As for food, not one freeze dried bit; instead, pasta, rice, sugar, coffee, oatmeal, hardtack, vegetable oil, and peanut butter, supplemented, we hope, with protein gathered from the country—as it will turn out, heaps of fish, and toward the end, a caribou. After poring over a scroll of USGS maps, we have only a general route in mind—paddle down the Kobuk and range up a couple tributaries draining the Noatak divide, find a portage route that works, then on down the Noatak to Kotzebue. If we don’t make the portage, we’ll roll with it and backtrack. And though we figure our position as best we can each day, we’re utterly alone, adrift on a sea of wild country; and for damn sure, no one else has the faintest idea where we are.
We do end up pulling it off. By the time we show up in Kotzebue, 750-some miles and two months later, we’re nothing short of gaunt. Peter goes back Outside, as I might have; instead, I end up heading back to Ambler and finding home in the country I’d just wandered.
So, what’s the point? Am I about to let fly some sort of rant about how kids these days and the newfangled world have gone to hell on a handcart? Nah. If I were younger now, I might grab all that technology and ride it. There’s no point comparing degree of difficulty, skill level, or parsing who did what, how, and where first; the traditional Inupiat set that bar out of reach centuries before, with technology straight from the land and GPS fused into their being. Railing about change is moot, anyhow; it’s already upon us, and who the hell knows what’s around the bend? Not too hard to imagine wilderness trips supported by drones, or some even cooler, game-changing chunk of gear. Why not? Time and technology march on.
One thing is certain, though: Knowing precisely where we stand on a satellite-imposed grid offers an illusion of certainty, security, and control. Keeping wired alters the entire context of the wild and our journeys through it, trades one sort of connectedness for another. The way we perceive and know wilderness—in fact, the whole point of being there—seems to be shifting out from under us. Don’t think so? Try leaving those electronic gadgets at home. See how it feels.