Alaska-Yukon Expedition: Three Ways the Expedition Changed Me

Alaska-end
By Andrew Skurka, written from Boulder, Colorado, after finishing his 4,700-mile Alaska-Yukon Expedition

Skurka-200 See a photo gallery from the expedition and watch for the article in National Geographic Magazine in spring 2011.

This past weekend, just two weeks after finishing my trip, I moved back to the exceptional city of Boulder, Colorado. My life does not appear to have changed much since I left seven months ago: I’m living in the same house, hanging out with the same friends, and running the same trails; I still don’t get recognized by employees or other customers at REI; and my net worth is still laughable because I still have the same “job.”

The Alaska-Yukon Expedition (AYE) was not my first time at the rodeo and I suspected beforehand that it probably wouldn’t be a game-changer in terms of my personality, goals, opportunities, or outlook on life. If, before this trip, I had been an overworked desk jockey going through a midlife crisis, or a disillusioned youth with overly romanticized ideas about Alaska, the potential for radical transformation would probably have been greater. However, just because the expedition may not have been life-altering does not mean that I haven’t changed—it just means that the changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary and/or that they are simply boosts to longer-term trends. This type of change might be better described as personal growth and development, which I’ve found is accelerated by the intentional stepping outside of my comfort zone, whereby I’m forced to adapt to new realities and to acquire new skills and knowledge.

I want to highlight three ways that I believe the expedition has changed me, as both a wilderness traveler and as a human being.

Finesse over force. During AYE, I had to be very precise and purposeful in how and when I traveled across the land. I used game trails to avoid thick bushwhacks and looked for well-drained soils to avoid tussocks; I waited days for avalanche dangers to decrease, ocean swells to calm, and cold-and-wet storms to pass; and I deviated often from my “planned” route when factors like snowpack, visibility, and bugs made a detour more practical and/or efficient. Operating almost entirely on Nature’s terms was different from my other big trips, when I was more able to force my will on Nature because—with the help of manmade trails and frequent access to civilization—I was less susceptible to Nature’s variability, extremes, and dangers.

Environmental engagement. The experiential education I gain through my long-distance trips is a significant motivation for me to do them. Through my travels I’ve learned first-hand about farming, ranching, logging, wildfire policy, mountain pine beetles, water development, land conservation, homesteading, and much more. On previous trips this education merely satisfied my intellectual curiosity, but during the AYE I found that my understanding of the landscape had tremendous functional value. For example, if I learned why and where tussocks grow, I could minimize travel across them; if I knew the seasonal diets of grizzly bears, I could take steps to avoid encounters; if I accurately predicted the character of a river based on its source and watershed size, I could identify optimal fording locations on the map before even seeing the river; and if understood the snowpack, I could locate the optimal route, i.e., the fastest, most aesthetic, and least avalanche-prone.

Humility. The most remote and inaccessible section of the trip was across the Yukon Arctic and the eastern Brooks Range (also known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). During that stretch I went 650 miles without crossing a road and 3.5 weeks without seeing another human being. That’s true wilderness. It may sound romantic, but frankly it’s frightening—was completely on my own, entirely dependent on the space between my ears and the contents of my pack (12 pounds of gear and up to two weeks of food), traveling across an environment that is hardly conducive to life: it has big rivers, big storms, big wildlife, big swamps, and small but prolific bugs. This new level of self-dependence caused me to tap into a primal, ancient, and mostly lost, sense of humility that dates back to when humans were really just another wild animal on this planet, not a higher or elevated species, when overcoming Nature’s challenges and making it to tomorrow was a noble and fundamental goal.

Comments

  1. Buzz
    September 28, 2010, 10:52 pm

    Those are very thoughtful and articulate observations. A very welcome relief from the “yeehaw look at me” standard fare.

  2. CLINT
    September 29, 2010, 5:38 pm

    You should write a book. I’m curious if it would be hard to readjust to society after all that. Do you despise suburbia?

  3. Luke Hopkin
    September 29, 2010, 6:01 pm

    Great job Andrew, true inspiration

  4. Rita wilkins
    September 29, 2010, 7:43 pm

    Andy, what you have seen and experienced is truly amazing,
    but it is your humility about these achievements that is even
    more amazing! I hope that never changes.
    So proud of you kid!
    Auntie Rita

  5. Nick wimpy
    September 29, 2010, 8:42 pm

    Amazing

  6. Phil B
    September 29, 2010, 9:16 pm

    A great article, Andrew. It truly is time for you to give serious consideration to getting published. The only question would be whether to cover all of your adventures in one, or to do one each on C2C, GWL and AYE.

  7. Rachel
    September 29, 2010, 9:35 pm

    WOOHOO Tripod Flats Cabin. I did a project for some park panels to go up at that thing. It is in the middle of nowhere.
    You’re probably one of very few people to use it outside of the Iditarod.
    Beautiful pics. Nice story. Thanks!

  8. Rf Skurka
    September 29, 2010, 10:24 pm

    Andy, The expression, “proud of you” seems to hardly espress my feelings about you and your accomplishment. I grew up reading National Graphic. My Dad, your Grandfather gave us the opportunity to explore the world every month from our warm and comfortable home. The stories and adventures of the world’s great explorers were sent to us every month between those yellow covers.
    Here you are, my little nephew, soon to be on the pages, archived in perpetuity with the history of world exploration NG style. As I said “proud of you” hardly seems adequate. Uncle Ed

  9. Thomas Laussermair
    September 30, 2010, 10:27 am

    Congrats Andrew, an amazing accomplishment. The Wrangell-St.Elias and Kluane NP is a remote wilderness which I had the pleasure to immerse myself in as well for a few weeks in summer 2009 during my Panamerican Peaks cycling + climbing adventure. However, your going 650 miles alone between roads is far more impressive. I would be quite frightened as well. Looking forward to the article in 2011.
    Cheers, Thomas.

  10. Muhammad
    October 4, 2010, 10:07 am

    Great accomplishment Andy! Heartfelt congrats.

  11. Will Watson
    October 6, 2010, 12:58 am

    Impressive by ANY standard. Thanks for visiting us in Alaska, hope you come back and tell us about your adventure.

  12. Brian
    October 12, 2010, 12:00 pm

    Andrew, you really need to write a book! It will help with that “net worth” also. I promise my Brother and I will buy a copy each. There you go, man! Two sales already!

  13. Bill Smith
    October 19, 2010, 12:10 am

    very interesting stuff, look forward to hearing more about the trip in the upcoming NG article.
    Were you aware of Buck Nelson’s trek across Alaska in the Brooks Range a few years ago from the Yukon to the Chukchi Sea?? It seems that some of your approaches are similar, going lightweight, alone…

  14. Joe
    December 6, 2010, 7:42 pm

    Kudos Andrew,
    Fantastic Trip. Follow your heart!
    Cheers
    Joe

  15. John
    December 23, 2010, 4:27 pm

    Really comes off as a great trip, but ideally it would be nice to see the inclusion of some of the towns in the region, particularly Dawson City.
    There’s a very distinct flavour to the culture in these parts that merits focus – such as the “toe shooters.”

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