There on the Arctic tundra I searched my tent frantically for a lighter. Years of wilderness training had taught me the importance of fire, but never before had the need been greater than it was at that moment. Even as the glacial ice melted around me in the heat of an Alaskan summer I shivered in desperate need to turn spark to flame and provide the relief these dire circumstances demanded.
Just the day before I had mused without irony how seldom, if ever, I had lit a fire in an emergency. I kept a disposable Bic in the same bag as the small stove I usually carried to boil water for morning coffee or a bowl of ramen noodles. On countless trips on three continents I had sparked butane gas into a jet of blue flame with just a flick of my thumb. But there in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the necessity of this tiny device then proved more critical than I had ever imagined. On this paddling trip from the Brooks Range of Alaska to the Beaufort Sea I had assumed that infinitely more important would be my tent and sleeping bag, the many layers of insulated clothing, my rain gear, even my camera equipment. All these things, which I had in such abundance, I would have gladly traded for one simple lighter.
I searched in vain as the temperature seemed to drop steadily. I clinched my teeth against the fear I felt should the lighter go undiscovered. With rising panic I dumped the contents of each carefully packed dry bag. Checking and rechecking every last corner of my day pack, my camera bag, every side pocket of my tent. Nothing was all I found. NOTHING!
Then suddenly I heard from behind me the sound of my salvation. The zipper of the tent closest to mine slid open with the chattering sizzle of ten thousand nylon teeth. When the occupant’s head emerged I spoke in the calmest voice I could muster.
“Hey Nells,” I said. “Can I barrow your lighter?”
Turning back he said from inside his tent, “sure”.
With far less urgency than I would have preferred Nells set about the task of finding his lighter. Meticulously he looked through his gear, but all I could see was his butt, as it swayed in the door of his tent to the sound of more zippers, draw strings, fastening snaps and swishing nylon fabric. Desperate for relief I impatiently swayed as well to these noises, shifting my weight from one foot to the other and back again. Standing in a soggy thatch of thawing lichen my rubber boots squished in sympathetic rhythm as teensy beads of perspiration formed on my upper lip. When finally Nells rose from his searching he said nothing. His silence at first filled me with an emotion nothing short of absolute horror. “Could he not find his lighter either?” I thought, as the synapses in my brain fired liked claps of thunder that rumbled down my spine to the core of my being and rocked my aching bowels.
“Here you go,” he said finally, tossing me his lighter. “That’s a spare. You can keep it.”
Catching it in a gloved hand as I turned to walk away, I sighed with sincerity, “Thank you!”
Immediately I set out at a fast pace, almost a run, across the open tundra. Armed with a can of bear spray and no fear I jogged determined beyond the edge of our camp toward a lonely outpost. There in the distance was a Black Diamond Megamid tent, which stood silent watch over my urgent objective. Further north than I had ever been I imagined that this one-pole floorless nylon teepee, like Castle Black in the HBO original series Game of Thrones, guarded the Seven Kingdoms from Wildlings and White Walkers. And here in the land of the midnight sun where winter had come and gone I finally felt safe north of the wall and I dropped my pants.
Four years earlier this similar experience was quite different. Also in Alaska but on the Mantanuska Glacier in the Chugach Mountain Range several hundred miles to the south I squatted, my pants around my ankles behind a protective wall of ice in agony. Osteoarthritis in both my hips had advanced to the point where bending my knees into a sitting position was almost impossible. While flexing my legs into ridiculously undignified postures it was all that I could to do to relieve myself into a biodegradable plastic bag filled with kitty litter. It had angered me in sheer frustration that something as trivial as an inability to take a dump would put an end to my career as an outdoor professional. Each time I hoisted a heavy pack or pulled a paddle blade through the water of a rushing stream I struggled.
But after two successful surgeries to replace my hips with titanium prosthetics I reclaimed in large measure much of the balance my life had lost. Able to carry my fair share of expedition gear with near bionic strength I was back to explore the wild and wonderful world of nature that I so dearly loved. And there camped on the banks of the HulaHula River in the Arctic Refuge with a lighter in hand I rallied my courage to venture north of the wall behind the Megamid tent to find the six-inch trench that was our common toilet, to do what needed to be done.
I understand that many of us have some fear or apprehension when it comes to spending time in the outdoors. Concern over the otherwise simple yet vital function of a successful bowel movement need not be one of them. I am told that fewer than 2,500 people each year visit the Arctic Refuge. Having used the power legislative action and the collective will of the American people to keep out those multinational corporations who would exploit this fragile habitat for its oil and gas resources, I am grateful that the impact of human occupation can be kept to a minimum. With the same deference to the landscape as the caribou, the musk ox or the grizzly bear our little trench will leave no trace of our having passed through.
If only we could keep in mind this same spirit of conservation when managing our habitats closer to home. We might imagine that our local parks are just as precious and delicate. They too are in need of protection and preservation so that they might thrive for millennia like the Arctic. And if every citizen might find their park, that green space in the world so dear to them, we all may discover the peace and freedom we need to survive.
At last relieved I doused the soiled paper with lighter fluid and dropped it into the trench. My pants synched tight to the my waist I squatted again in comfort and sparked Nells’ lighter to life with a flick of my thumb. The paper was set alight with a whompf! of flame and combusting oxygen. As if on a funeral pyre it burned as I stood in reverent silence. Like a fallen soldier of Castle Black “his watch had ended”.
I piled dirt over the smoldering embers. With the flat of a shovel blade I tamped down the earth over this solemn grave. I put the Nells’ lighter into the red stuff sack along with the toilet paper and the can of lighter fluid, ready for its next user. The sack I put a few paces from the Megamid so that it could be clearly seen by anyone who approached, a sign that it was open for business. Turning to take my leave I crammed my hands into the pockets of my down jacket only to be shocked with sudden surprise. Rolling my eyes I walked away shaking my head in disgust. There in the warm folds of feathers and nylon was my lighter.