Discovering Oneself in America’s Disappearing Wilderness

9780307461247By James Campbell, author of Braving It: A Father, A Daughter, And An Unforgettable Journey Into the Alaskan Wild (Crown, May 2016)

The Inupiat, of Alaska’s harsh Arctic coast, have a word to express the awe one feels in the presence of raw Nature. They call it uniari. In part, Braving It is about the pursuit of uniari. The book chronicles three trips that my teenage daughter Aidan and I made into the heart of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a far-off place that few will ever see. But some of the book’s other themes—that there is reward in courage and leaving your comfort zone and that often the best relationships are forged by adversity—lay closer to home.

Despite the rigors of our adventures, Aidan was not some super-wilderness girl when we went to Alaska. She was not unfamiliar with the outdoors, but she’d never experienced grizzlies, polar bears, Class III and IV rapids, clouds of mosquitoes, howling winds from off the Arctic ice pack, and temperatures that reached 40 below. Nor had she ever spent weeks at a time cut off from family, friends, and the outside world. At first, she was terrified. Then, she was merely scared. Gradually, as she became more confident, I could see a newborn hope spring up out of the fear. Then, one day, she came alive. I was witness to her joy. When we returned home and I told friends about the changes I’d witnessed in her, they marveled. How, they asked, did it happen? Was Aidan born with extraordinary courage? And, if not, they wondered, how did a normal teenage girl come to love the trials of a wilderness experience?

The point is that Aidan was, and is, a normal girl. She has talents, ambitions, and, yes, weaknesses, like everyone else. I believe that what allowed her to blossom in Alaska was what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck distinguishes between what she calls a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.” People with the latter believe that ability is set at birth and consequently they gravitate to what comes easily for them; they avoid challenges. Those with the former, on the other hand, believe that mental, emotional and physical characteristics can be strengthened through practice. Bill Gates, an admirer of Dweck, wrote that her philosophy might be boiled down to one sentence: “What you believe affects what you achieve.” All of us have much more potential than we know. This is especially true of adolescents. For years scientists thought that brain development ended in childhood. But new research has shown that young adults have an enormous capacity to take new experiences and turn them into long-term skills.

You might ask what adolescence has to do with college students. A lot, it turns out. Neuroscientists have expanded the definition of adolescence to include a period occurring roughly between the ages of 10 and 25. Some call it the “use it or lose it” time. During adolescence, the brain can be stirred and inspired, but afterwards, the brain’s ability to change diminishes significantly. To use an analogy, the brain is like the lens of an eye. After a certain age, the lens can’t focus on small print. Similarly, after a certain age, our brains can’t take in much new information.

Based on my observations of Aidan’s reactions to the wild, I believe that one of the best ways to arouse the brain is through interaction with the natural world, the kinds of experiences students often get when they take their freshmen outings. People often look back on this time as a turning point in their lives. The adventures help to break down barriers, foster long-term friendships, challenge and inspire young adults outside the walls of the classroom, and cultivate the kind of confidence they will rely on for their entire university careers—for their entire lives.

Sadly, this is exactly the kind of experience that is missing from our day-to-day existences. In his book, The Necessity of Experience, Edward Reed laments that, “We are beginning to lose the ability to experience the world directly.” The culprit, according to Reed, is our “fear of uncertainty.” On a daily basis that fear manifests itself in countless ways, from our addiction to ease and second-hand images, to our dependency on machines that separate us from the real world, to our mistrust of the inscrutable nature of life. The question is: How do we recover our courage to seek out experience?

If Alaska has shown me anything, it is that people, and especially adolescents, crave what they can touch, feel, breathe, and see. That world may be frightening, and often it is far less comfortable than the dorm room couch, but, in the end, it is contact with the world around us—the river, the rapids, the midnight sun, even the bitter cold—that has the power to stir our souls.

JAMES CAMPBELL is the author of The Final Frontiersman and The Ghost Mountain Boys. He has written for Outside magazine, National Geographic AdventureMen’s JournalAudubon, and many other publications.


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