August 12th – 5:37 PM – Unnamed Hill, Alaska

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Thatcher Heldring

Jaysanna started the push to the top.  As the only Fresh Tracks participant from Arctic Village, she knew what was waiting for us on the ridge.  “When you get above the trees,” she said.  “You can see everything.”  Her energy spread through the group.  We shook out our arms, zipped up our packs, and started the final ascent.  There was no trail, just a straight shot up over the soft earth beneath our feet. 

It was no walk in the park. Many of us had already walked more than six miles – already much more than some of the participants had hiked in a lifetime.  But we were nourished by hot dogs, fresh stream water, and, in at least one case, a mayo sandwich.  Plus, sunset was past midnight. We had all the time in the world. 

So up we went, in small packs, led by Jaysanna, Jacob, and Charlie.  It didn’t take long to realize the extra effort was going to be worth it.  One-by-one we began to look over our shoulders as the land opened up behind us.  The entire horizon was painted orange, brown, and blue, washed in the distance by rain showers that filtered the sunlight into wisps of rainbows.  There was no end or beginning to it, just vastness, making us feel tiny and larger than life at the same time.

Soon we were all on top of the world. We had come from Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Compton.  From Seattle.  From Anchorage, Arctic Village, Barrow, Chevak, Rampart, and Sishmaref.   None of us had the same pasts and none of us will have same future, but we shared that moment. 

Charlie gathered us for a few unforgettable words about the importance of the land to the Gwich’in people – and invited us to share his message with the world.  What we were staring at would not survive without protection – not the caribou breeding grounds, the permafrost, and not the village itself. Like any community,  Arctic Village needed people with the knowledge, the skills, and the heart to speak up, to be citizens, to make a difference.  In many ways, the call to action – issued there in the spectacular great outdoors – was everything Fresh Tracks represented. 

The Fresh Tracks crew – humbled, empowered, and beginning to ache – turned back for the cabin.  There was miles still to hike, but dinner was waiting in Arctic Village, our home for another day, and part of our story forever.