SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER
Searching For Wisdom On The North American Epic
“Whatever wisdom I would find, I knew, would grow out of the land. I trusted that, and that it would reveal itself in the presence of well-chosen companions.” – Barry Lopez
After a few hours of flying, sitting behind two fighting and screeching kids, their parents occasionally pretending to get my bags, (which showed up a few days later) my two sections of the North American Epic from Tuktoyaktuk to Fort Nelson were behind me. I am now back behind my desk, trying to take it all in.
The North is unlike any place I have been to before. According to scientists, while tropical ecosystems are the oldest on earth, northern ecosystems, due to the advances and retractions of the glaciers, are the youngest. That is very much visible in the limited biodiversity of plants and animals. The North, unlike much of the rest of the world and largely due to the extreme weather, is sparsely populated by humans as well. This allowed the riders on the North American Epic to observe what appeared to be vast areas of untouched wilderness. First, the vast open tundra, then slowly the dwarf birch forests emerged, followed by the vast boreal forest of Northern Canada – black and white spruce, balsam fir and pine trees.
It also enabled us to have unexpected encounters with wildlife. At the end of the day, we would all enthusiastically talk about what we had seen that day: a bear with a couple of cubs, a bison, maybe even a herd of them, an eagle, a glimpse of a fox, caribou, moose, elk and many others. It was the enthusiasm with which we were all talking that made me think of Barry Lopez’s book – Arctic Dreams. Lopez writes, “Few things provoke like the presence of wild animals. They pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry.”
But looks can be deceiving. Everywhere we went, there was evidence of human activity. In his book, written in 1986, for which he won the National Book Award, Lopez writes of an encounter with Yup’ik hunter who stated that what First Nations “fear most about the rest of us is the extent of our power to alter the land, the scale of that power and the fact that we can easily effect some of these changes electronically, from a distant city. They call us with a mixture of incredulity and apprehension, “the people who change nature.”” Lopez wrote this before climate change and its impact was yet to be mentioned in the public sphere.
When our tour began on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk, the temperatures were in the 30C range and walking around the village you could easily been thinking that you were in the Caribbean. “Walking across the tundra,” writes Lopez in his book, “it would be the frailty of our wisdom that would confound me. The pattern of our exploitation of the Arctic, our increasing utilization of its natural resources our very desire to “put it to use,” is clear. What is that missing, or tentative, in us, I would wonder, to make me so uncomfortable walking out there in a region chirping birds, distant caribou, and redoubtable lemmings? It is restraint.”
I didn’t walk across the tundra. I wasn’t dressed for it. I was dressed, as were all my companions on this trip, for cycling on roads built by men. Perhaps because of that, like my previous tours in Madagascar and Nepal where I wrote about searching for enlightenment, I didn’t find much wisdom. What I did find everywhere I went and especially amongst our riders, is what I wrote in Reflections On Cycling the World when I quoted the British legendary explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who once said, “the harder the life, the finer the type.” It is in the harshest environments that one encounters the most interesting people and has the most memorable adventures.
Barry Lopez also quotes Thesiger, who travelled extensively among the Bedouins in Arabia’s harsh Empty Quarter, “I was happy in the company of these men (and women) who had chosen to come with me. I felt affection for them personally and sympathy with their way of life.” I completely agree. Frankly that will do me just fine until somewhere, somehow, I do find even a tiny bit of wisdom.
3 Comments for "Searching For Wisdom On The North American Epic"
Henry great blog. I was fortunate to do those same sections in 2019. Looking forward to the start of cycling on the Trans Caucasus tomorrow.
Glad you like it. Enjoy Georgia and Turkey. Hopefully the heat is subsiding.
Thanks for the blog. My husband is doing the ride and I appreciated seeing the ride and thoughts through your eyes.