The Arctic Heals ~ Access to public land to heal the wounds of a nation in pain

The Arctic Heals ~ Access to public land to heal the wounds of a nation in pain


Photo by Carly Harmon

Ahead in the distance I saw seagulls. The birds swooped and dived over the remains of a butchered whale as we walked along a narrow gravel trail lined with ancient gasoline barrels that rimmed the landing trip. On Barter Island with time to kill before our flight back to Fairbanks, photographer Carly Harmon and I went in search of a rumor near the Inupiat village of Kaktovic at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“There was a polar bear sighting at the bone pile,” the fire chief had said with excitement. The tires of his truck churned up a cloud of dust as he sped away from where we stood waiting by the airplane hanger with our luggage and gear. We were heading home after more than a week of exploring the path of the HulaHula River from the Brooks Mountain Range of Alaska all the way to Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. But the twinkle in his eye was all we needed to prompt us on to one last adventure. “You should check it out,” he seemed to say.

The Arctic is one of those incredible places that defies imagination and fills the heart and mind with wonders beyond belief. In a remote wilderness area so far from our lives in the 48 United States it is a shining example how public land can be protected and preserved for future generations to enjoy even though many people will never visit there. Described by some as “a vast wasteland” the Arctic is a complex and fragile ecosystem teaming with countless plant and animal species that mark the carrying capacity of life on our planet. If we can maintain the ecological balance of the Arctic, mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and continue to make this a place where musk ox, caribou, dall sheep, fox and polar bears cannot only survive but thrive, there is hope for the rest of the Earth. We can heal our world.

That’s why it’s important to bring the story of the Arctic into the consciousness of the American people. This week my friend Chad Brown, the creative mind behind Soul River Inc  and his new nonprofit Love Is King will bring a group of young people into the Arctic Refuge to experience this remarkable landscape. In the company of fellow veterans of America’s recent wars Chad aims to use the healing power of nature most profound in the Arctic to bring peace to the shattered souls of fighting men and women of our armed forces as well as hope to a new generation of children whose life circumstances seem to be without the opportunity to succeed.

“As fly fishing as our vehicle on the Ivashik River it is also our platform between urban youth and veterans on our expedition to understand climate change up close and personally,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post.

With veterans as their mentors the youth will learn the subtle art of angling. The skills required to catch fish in the wild include a calm mind and a gentle spirit. And working together in the Arctic Refuge adult and child alike will learn to find that sense of peace and serenity that comes in communion with nature, when the elemental forces of the universe are reduced to the simple priorities of food, water, shelter and the freedom to roam. It is from that consciousness striped of society’s frivolous pretexts of racism, sexism, homophobia, avarice and greed that we might we might heal the wounds of our past and fulfill our destiny to become a united people for whom all life matters equally.

Eager to add a polar bear to our list of fauna photos Carly and I grabbed our cameras and began a steady march to the end of the tarmac. There I could see the spot where the Inupiat people had left the scraps of a recent harvest. Rib bones bleached white in the midnight sun stood taller than a man as the gulls scurried and squawked, picking at what flesh remained after the bears had eaten their fill. But as we grew closer I suddenly realized that I was counting my steps. With increasing anxiety I dreaded the awareness that every pace forward was one more stride we’d have to run for our lives back to the safety of the airport should an angry bear decide to chase us.

“You know there’s no way that we could ever out run a polar bear,” I said trying to stay calm. “Well, I don’t have to out run the polar bear,” Carly said with a sly smile. “I just have to out run you.”

Chuckling without humor at the old joke I looked over my shoulder to see a man in a blue uniform speeding toward us on a four-wheeler ATV. As we turned to face him the Arctic cop skidded to a stop in a crunch of gravel where we stood. In a tone that was not unfriendly he asked without preamble, “You got a pistol or something?”

Carly and I looked at one another each searching for comprehension. Then it occurred to me. “You mean do I have a gun?” I asked the cop. “Yeah,” he said as if in a Sherman Alexi film. “There was a polar bear sighting at the bone pile. They’re really dangerous. You should have a weapon.”

The fire chief likely never thought anyone would be stupid enough to go looking for a polar bear. What he meant to say was “you should be careful.” Not “You should check it out.” The two sentences he omitted from his warning and lost in translation might have kept us from literally walking into the jaws of danger. With abiding respect for the natural hazards of most any wilderness setting I’ve got no compunctions against carrying a firearm and even less reluctance to pulling the trigger should the need arise. Unarmed as I was at that moment though I was pleased to know that members of local law enforcement were there to keep me out of harms way. It’s that social contract that maintains order in a civil society and lays to rest most concerns over our safety and security.

But that’s in the best of worlds and far too often the behavior of citizens and the expectations of police officers contradict one another. The chaos that follows typically leads to death and destruction. Taking the cue from our Arctic cop though Carly and I began walking briskly back in the direction of the hanger. When we arrived a small crowd was gathered around a spotting scope pointed toward a mass of ice far from shore. When I got my turn to look through the lens I could make out the fuzzy image of what could only be a polar bear. In fact there were two. The huge animals lounged like tourists in the melting snow to enjoy the warm sunshine of the Arctic summer.


Photo by Carly Harmon

No longer in danger of being mauled we watched the bears as we mingled with other travelers who had just arrived from Anchorage. Sadly though our stories of adventure on the Arctic tundra were over shadowed by the news that 49 people had been shot and killed in an Orlando nightclub. Dozens more had been wounded. Without internet access and having been out of cellular communications range for more than a week we were blessedly unaware of the tragedies that occurred in our absence. And in the weeks that followed upon our return home the news was constantly filled with one violent outburst of rage and frustration after another. Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again only worse, the anger and hostility seemed to escalate. Since the summer of 2016 we can add to this list the horrible deaths over just the last year in 2020 of George Floyd, Amaud Arbery and Brianna Taylor. 

Though I often return in my thoughts back to the Arctic, to imagine a peaceful world bound together by the laws of nature, I continued to be struck by all that divides us. Economic disparities, poorly funded schools, inadequate health care and a generalized sense of hopelessness all contribute to our society in crisis. Add to that now the racial component of violence perpetrated both by and against police officers it’s difficult to know with certainty how we might proceed on a pathway toward peace. It is not to say the all cops are inherently bad, any more than we should suggest that African-American men are prone to criminal activity. It is better I believe that due to unspeakable harm suffered throughout history within each of our communities we must acknowledge that we are all wounded and in pain. But the Arctic can heal.

Just as veterans and urban children at risk can grow and mend their wounds through their experiences in nature so might our communities and officers of the law. On the complex but even playing field of public land police men and women could work together with youth to learn empowering skills like fly fishing and have positive interactions in a neutral setting. I suggested to Chad that he might include as well one day a trip into the Arctic with cops and kids “to see if (they) could not learn what it had to teach.” And upon their return perhaps they will realize that there is far more that unites us than drives us apart.

“If I were to extend my program I would not just do youth and cops. I would do families and cops,” Chad told me. “The work is generational. And there is a lot of healing that needs to be dealt with that has not been dealt with in many, many years.”

By recognizing the truth of our shared humanity, all that makes us vulnerable and afraid, we can set aside the hostility and violence we use to cry out for help in our desperation to heard. In common celebration of our public land we can come together in the shared experience of adventure and create a new shared history as a nation united. Though remaining cautious and alert to pending danger let us all then venture out into nature, alone or in the company of others, to revel in the silence of the midnight sun like polar bears basking in the warmth of the Arctic summer.


This essay, part of the New Century Vision Project, was made possible with the support of Choose Outdoors & The Sierra Club #inclusivevision4next100