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Wildland meditations from
a season on the road

Presented as part of The American Wildfire Experience’s Wildland Fire Digital Storytelling project, On a Roll collects personal reflections, drawings, paintings, photographs, and found objects from a season on the fireline in the American west


Alaska tent.jpg

Excerpted from field journal, Alaska, June 2022


Day 4. Arrival. Mountains are usually miniaturized from the air, but here they tower through the clouds (spectacular in their own architecture), camouflaged by their very enormity so that a negligent observer might look past them as one more ephemeral outcropping of vapor. Descend from the heights, spin to a stop in the dusty airstrip, camp alongside in the trees. A yellow tarp, strung into peaks over birch poles, defines the gathering place outside this isolated village. Eke out tent sites among the understory, the rosehips, and the nettles. Wonderland, or wasteland, we are not yet certain. Mosquitoes hum like an incessant generator—a reminder of nature’s energy exerting itself at grand and minute scales. Us somewhere in the middle.


9. Flying low in a helicopter over rolling country—stands of black spruce and birch fingering up hills that terminate in bald summits of tussock grass, passing level with the skeds as we wind low through saddles. A patchwork landscape, inlaid with the black and orange of fire scar seen from the air. 


Today was the Alaska of my imagination. Bounding along the river in the shadow of unknown mountains, rotors and radios the only barrier to wilderness. My mind’s eye could not have conjured images more spectacular than those I witnessed this afternoon. Miles upon miles of country in which development is the rare exception rather than the rule. How it must have been when this was true elsewhere. Now: a relic of a frontier. The shapes of the landscape tesselate below—ragged edges of spruce, circular depressions of bog and tundra, the pulsing runs of the fire.


11. In camp, light filters through birch leaves, perpetual brightness changing in aspect but rarely in intensity. I listen to the wind in the branches each night under the warm glow of the ever-present sun, the pinkness of its light through smoke a chromatic echo of the curling birch bark. This place seeps into you. The longer we stay the more life settles into the strange norms of this tiny universe. And we too, shaped by it, ourselves coalescing into something different than when we began, caught together like cargo in the nets we sling overhead. 


17. Inertia. Radio briefings do little to close the distance between here and anywhere else, sounding more and more like overheard messages from a fictional elsewhere. The world telescopes down into the village, the helispot, the smokey enclosures under the yellow tarps of our improvised camp. The only ignitions the ones of our own cooking fires, passing time in a place where time has ceased all functioning.

19. Tedium. The feeling of entrapment in purgatory grows with the passing of the days. Marooned by the smoke of an inversion and limited air support, hours slow to a crawl even while the summer itself melts away like salt before a tide. July now. Gone for nineteen days, the outside slowly pries its fingers in the closer we come to departure, permeating into thoughts and dreams about email correspondence, bills, and phone calls. I can’t remember what I did yesterday. 


21. Departure. Rising once more over the wilderness, I trace quagmired oxbows of streams feeding through marshes into the great serpentine of silty alluvium—rivers that carve and carry the landscape to sea. Soon we may follow to the Pacific, once more airborne and headed south to home. Fairbanks is cloaked with a thick shroud of smoke. Atmospheric torpor mirrors the psychological, as I shake the dust from my senses and return to the real world which feels somehow less real than it did before. 


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