Standing on the Precipice of Destiny: Where life comes unglued

My rootless existence was finally catching up with me. I’d banked on a job in a country I didn’t live in and because of my foolishness I would now be broke and unemployed. Moreover, I’d walked away from a perfectly good job that had paid me decently and allowed me to exist in the seasonal lifestyle without much worry. What would I do now? Broke and unemployed weren’t my thing. I’ll admit that broke-ish might happen occasionally, but only in a semi-calculated moment when employment was always right over the next horizon. But now I’d have to wait. Not only hadn’t I landed an overseas dream job, I’d missed out on all the other desirable jobs this season and would surely have to work some crap cashier job until winter came along. This summer was shaping up to be worse than the work scene I was walking away from, and yet I had worked so hard to cultivate skills and a good work ethic—what had I done?

The Traleika glacier grinds at an imperceptible pace. Geology has all the time in the world.

Elements in flow: The Traleika glacier grinds at an imperceptible pace.

The ground was shifting underneath me, but in the seasonal lifestyle this is a perpetual truth. We seem to always be arriving or leaving. We create a seasonal cadence that meanders somewhat predictably from one place to the other, and occasionally leverage our skills to move up within a company or to move on to somewhere new. It’s just like what everyone else does, only we never seem to fully settle. We cultivate skills and climb employment ladders, yet we can opt out of our current situation pretty easily. We’re constantly re-sculpting our professional lives. It’s a shifting we can control, like the flow of snowboarding through powder in the winter or kayaking through a rapid in the summer. The more masterfully you handle the flow of the elements around you, the more the odds diminish that something could fall apart in the next cycle.

In the seasonal world, sometimes everything comes unglued at once—work, relationship, family issues—it’s the same old human story except it tends to fracture amidst trying to pack up our lives and move a few thousand miles away. Thus we struggle to regain flow in all dimensions of our lives at once; to not fall behind and become reactionary but to surf from one season to the next: flow through powder, dance though life’s rapids, and master the dynamics of each season. The uncertainty and constant redefinition can be scary and that’s why most people don’t pursue it. We nomads do because to us the risks are worth the reward.

Redefinition is scary and intimidating, but it’s also liberating. Who will you be when you remove the constraints of your old self? This is an evolution. Looking back, there will be a point where we could have proceeded down a much different path than we did. I hope we like our vantage point when we get there.

Reflection Pond, roughly 30 miles apart (summer work view)

A pretty spectacular vantage point: Denali looms above Reflection Pond, more than 20 miles apart from each another

I found myself at such a crossroads last spring. As a seasonal employee I’d worked out a rhythm of working in Denali National Park in the summer, and teaching snowboarding at various ski resorts in the winter. I’d burned out on the Denali job, however, and last summer I needed a break.

So I made an agreement with myself to not re-apply to the Denali gig. The job had been perfect for me in many ways for several years. I made decent money in the most beautiful place in the world—a landscape that in turn shaped my adulthood. The job was challenging and I kicked ass at it. Life seemed perfect for many years, but I’d grown and the job had not. I was stifled in some ways and burnt out in others, so if the job wasn’t going to evolve, then I had to. To ensure that outcome I wouldn’t even apply; I wouldn’t let it be an option. I could reassess the following summer, but for this season there was no going back.

A “summer” snowboarding in New Zealand seemed like the perfect antidote to what I was feeling. Once upon a time, in 2005, right after my first seasonal job I’d started looking into the idea of a never-ending summer in New Zealand, but I’d gotten bogged down in the process—too green to the seasonal lifestyle to understand the process—and meanwhile an old friend offered me a job in Alaska. This crossroads felt like the perfect time to return to that dream.

Since I’d last dreamed of New Zealand I’d followed my love of snowboarding and turned it into a lifestyle. I’d become a snowboard instructor and developed that skill set over the next eight winters, simply because it made me happy. I’d earned my snowboarding level-3 certification, accepted a promotion to snowboard co-supervisor, and grown into the training director of the snowboard staff at Alyeska, Alaska’s premier resort. I looked good on paper and to top it off, I had a mentor who certified instructors in New Zealand resorts and would put in a good word. I was in.

Except, I wasn’t. There wasn’t an opening for a full-time snowboard instructor at the resort I applied to because the entire full-time staff was returning. I hadn’t applied anywhere else, and at this point I’d missed my chance to. This was not how it was supposed to work out. When reality hit that New Zealand wasn’t an option and my Denali job wasn’t either, I panicked. And for the first time in my life, I found myself depressed. Yet, soon I came to a realization.

This is the moment that I write about in other people’s lives. Every professional nomad has had at least one important crossroad that shaped them into the people we revere today. During interviews, people divulge their life stories which, without fail, includes a moment in their professional lives when they could have chosen conservatively but instead they chose the path that didn’t make much financial sense at the time.

This was my moment, but it didn’t feel like the precipice of destiny. These things never do. Only in the Hollywood final edit, when the outcome is sealed and the theme music can be selected accordingly, does the hero stand on the precipice of destiny. On the contrary, this was scrambling for bearings in a cloud of disoriented panic. So how did I know it was my moment? Because it was either that or accepting a big ball of failure that given time would settle into complacency—a vegetative state I could not accept.

Hardship does not define us, but what we do with hardship does. The way we react to difficulty reveals ourselves on an intimate level. What will we do with that energy? Will it beat us down or can we employ it in search of an answer? In the moment, we are blind to our future successes. Perhaps all we see ahead is a chasm of possible failures, but we can’t let this paralyze us. Hardship is an opportunity for growth, and however we respond to it we must take the first step with intention.

NPS Ranger, Muldrow glacier Denali National Park

A park service wilderness resource specialist contemplates his route above the confluence of the Muldrow and Traleika glaciers in Denali National Park, Alaska

In some ways I’ve always known this because my mom taught me. She had to. She isn’t a nomad but she is a survivalist. I made sacrifices in my life to make my summer work and explore new options, but I couldn’t imagine having to think about this on a broader scale, like if people were dependent on me. But my mom did.

mom and toddler eating ice cream

Ice cream time with Mom

My mom has followed her passion of making music my entire life. At one point, when I was a little kid, she worked three jobs to support her four children. One of them, the job nearest to her heart, was as a church organist. At the time it was only part-time work, but my mom had realized that she needed to make music every day of her life or something inside of her fell out of tune. So she juggled multiple jobs to orchestrate this. For awhile she taught life skills to inmates at the county jail, such as how to balance a checkbook and how to read a map, and later worked at the local bookstore, which fit with her love of reading. My mom did what she had to do to support her life as a musician. She told us this frequently as we got older; it was kind of her mantra.

But she didn’t have to say it that way. It was when she began working at the bookstore that she came to an important realization. “I could say it one way or I could say it another way. One way I sounded disgruntled: ‘I have to work at the bookstore because I can’t make a living as a musician.’ Or I could change it and say, ‘I work at the bookstore to support my life as a musician.’” By choosing a different outlook on life, my mom changed the world around her.

A very 80s family

A very 80’s family

As an adult, I see the bigger truths in my mom’s words. Many single parents scrape by financially, and at the end of the day those that juggle multiple jobs often feel over-worked, underpaid, and completely unfulfilled. Of those attributes, my mom hid her feelings on the first two from her kids, and the third one just wasn’t her. We couldn’t afford a lot of life’s indulgences but we were taught to feel rich in other ways, and music was one way my mom always made sure she had something of value growing for herself. It brought her joy and strengthened her when the challenges of raising four (adorable) twits wore her down. She supported her dreams and her family, too, and as time went on her positivity and dedication paid off.

My momma

My momma

More of her professional life was absorbed by her passion, until it finally came together at the church that meant so much in her life. After ten years of service, she retired as a full-time organist and choirmaster at the church of her faith that she tried to raise her kids in (a good attempt). Of course, the ten years was just the crown on her career. In total, she has served as a church musician for more than fifty years, and continues to be requested for substitute work all over her Chicagoland area in her retirement. She did what she had to do to support her family while staying true to herself, and she continued to reach new heights of success in her professional career. If she could do all that while raising four kids, the rest of us can adjust our dreams to find similar balance and continue moving forward. Do what you have to do to support your life as whomever you want to become.

So there I was, not standing on the precipice of destiny, but adrift in a swirling eddy in the river of life, and I realized the only way to mitigate despair was to paddle toward something. This was an opportunity to architect something different in my life. I would focus on my website and look for some part-time guiding opportunities. Whatever was next, I felt like I had the support of all the professional nomads behind me.

Alaska Geographic river crossing

The author teaching an Alaska Geographic course participant how to cross a glacial river. (photo credit: Jeffry Hesse)

So I reached out to friends and connections and landed random guiding jobs. I guided backpacking, packrafting, and field-camp based educational courses in Denali National Park. I was asked to volunteer on an intense week-long backpacking trip to locate and retrieve data from long-term glacial monitoring equipment deep in the Alaska Range. I spent a month lake kayak guiding in the Eastern Sierra and hanging out with one of my best friends of all time. And in the spirit of change, I’m now on a new adventure teaching snowboarding in Telluride, Colorado.

Packrafting Denali National Park

Hiking in to the Teklanika River with my boat on my back (a packraft), guiding for Alaska Geographic and Traverse Alaska.

Although I didn’t work much this summer, I did enjoy every single day of work. Every day had value and made me a better person, and I’d lost those feelings in my previous job. I took a risk and steered myself toward something I enjoy, and wherever this was going it was down a good path. My depression faded. I was engaging in the world around me and encouraging others to do the same. I loved every job I took—working outside and sharing the outdoors with fertile minds—each one encompassed similar values that entranced me when I first began teaching snowboarding ten years ago. In between guide work I learned more about behind-the-scenes website operation and wrote incessantly. Every day allowed me to utilize skills I’d acquired in Alaska, through how I chose to engage in Alaska, and this revitalized me. When I doubted myself in some ways these jobs reinforced how far I had come, and even better, continued to propel me forward.

Packrafter, Teklanika River, Denali National Park

A packrafter on an Alaska Geographic and Traverse Alaska trip paddles down the Teklanika River.

What I learned is that it is not just one moment, but a series of decisions that defines us in the long run. This moment—this big crossroads in the lives of the professional nomads I write about—is not a leap of faith or a precipice to drop from, but rather a decision to move forward followed by another one after that, and another after that. It begins when we decide to stop giving up. We pull into the current of life and each paddle stroke maneuvers us toward our future selves. Though we must adapt to survive, it’s up to us to steer the boat toward someone we wish to become.

It’s easy to blame chaos for the hardships and heartaches of life, but that’s not the complete picture. If everything were perfect we wouldn’t have risk—the great cosmic jester that leads to the best things in life, like comedy, love, and personal bravery. Stumbles, even big ones, allow us to grow into our future selves.

For me, New Zealand seemed like the best way to grow. My story felt like it was coming full circle. The stars seemed to align and enshroud me in a moment of destiny, so I was floored when the universe didn’t share that dream. It felt like I fell from the precipice of destiny into a chasm of defeat. Two options lay before me: I could resign myself to failure, snag some simple employment, and slowly drain my spirit into complacency; or I could trudge forward without a road map in search of adventure. At least that’s how I chose to see them—resignation versus blind adventure—so I took the second option, accepted the risk, and went forward whistling an improvised tune. As I see it, the New Zealand mishap aligned me with whatever new direction I’m now headed. Writer, adventurer; I will do what I must to support my life as a professional nomad.

Redefinition is scary, but on the other side lies something good: ourselves. Will we let hardship define us or will we shape it into something else? The only way to come through life unscathed is through apathy—a true failure in this world of countless things worth fighting for. As long as we have passion we are empowered to try, and as long as we try we maintain forward momentum. Therefore, we must keep that internal fire alive; it’s the only way to heal. Life isn’t about an end goal but, rather, enjoying the adventure—even when it winds in unintended directions. Dreams don’t always work out as planned, but a life led with intention embraces adventures not yet imagined.

Snowboarder, Mt. Baldy, Telluride, Colorado

The author embarking on a new adventure in Telluride, Colorado. (photo credit: Dana Miraglia)
[All photos, aside from the 80s flashback photos, my mom’s portrait, and this one, were taken on the job or while volunteering this summer. Life is good]


5 Things I’ve Learned in One Year from Professional Nomads

People ask me what a professional nomad is, and what I’ve discovered is it’s not so much about their profession as the common values that define them. Guided by passion, money is a secondary notion which is precisely what makes them so admirable. For many, the pathway to financial viability was muddled at first, yet these nomads have blended their lifestyle with their career to cultivate something unique in the pressures of this 9-5 world.

The author looking upon the Bering Sea Ice in Nome, Alaska.

The author looking upon the Bering Sea Ice in Nome, Alaska.

I’ve been writing Professional Nomads for a little over a year now as a fun project that’s held me accountable after stepping away from writing for a few years. The people I’ve been fortunate enough to interview this year have been inspirational. Elements of failures and successes, crossroads and dedication, trailblazing, and an overall willingness to say “fuck it” and blindly pursue their own thing echoed in my ears and reinforced how important it is to share these stories with the world. What started as a creative outlet to help me return to writing has guided me through multiple life issues.

From competitive dog musher to glacier pilot to filmmaker, these paradigm shakers continually reinforced several important lessons to me. Now, a little more than a year into this mission of sharing inspiration from professional nomads, I want to pack down what I’ve learned into a few pocketable nuggets of wisdom.
1. Invest in your skills

It’s simple. To fully realize a talent you need to invest time into it. Lots of time. To even consider taking it to a professional level, however, you need to embed it into your everyday life.

It’s not enough to carve time out of your day. Evolve your mindset to infuse that skill/trade/passion into the fabric of your existence. Invite it into all dimensions of your life so that you can learn the skills it demands and become comfortable with them. Events, clubs, books, websites, magazines, and the ProNo skill-building page can steep you in the culture and help you develop a community. Ultimately, though, whatever it is you’re interested in you need to be doing it. A lot. If you want to run dogs then you need to be running dogs. If you want to fly airplanes then you need to be flying airplanes. Investing in your passion deepens your connection with the world around you and strengthens your soul. The more you embrace the thing that you love by respecting it with your time, the more engrained into your lifestyle it will become.

Aliy Zirkle didn’t become one of the most successful dog mushers in the world in one winter, but it took her less than that to discover her passion for it. Over the next several years she dedicated significant time to mushing simply because traveling the country by dog team fulfilled her. She didn’t set out to mush competitively—let alone in thousand-mile races—but by investing her time, money, and heart into the sport she learned all the little tricks and details that experience reveals.  Now Aliy’s a top-five Iditarod competitor and arguably ranks as the people’s favorite musher.

Trent Griffin realized that, more than a college degree, to be the type of pilot he envisioned required real Alaska flying experience. He cut to the core of his dream, left the university setting, and joined a flight club that allowed him to fly tail-draggers on skis. Trent streamlined his education and cultivated his dream career flying ski planes in Alaska and dropping skydivers in Hawaii.

Trent Griffin above the Don Sheldon Ampitheater on Denali's Ruth Glacier

Trent Griffin above the Don Sheldon Ampitheater on Denali’s Ruth Glacier (Photo by Michael DeYoung)

Trent Griffin: I was like, “why do I need to pay all this money to be part of a university setting when I could just be part of a flying club?” And I did. That allowed me to start flying tailwheels. So right at 100 hours flying tailwheels and flying ski planes. it was awesome. Once I started flying on skis it was like I really like doing this. It made flying this total open abyss where you could go, especially in Alaska. You’ve got lakes everywhere, flat surfaces, and tons of snow. As long as you’re being careful, you can get there on skis.

Aliy Zirkle: When I moved [to Bettles, Alaska] I knew nothing about dog mushing except it sounded really cool. So I got one book by this woman, who’s probably from Wisconsin and I figured out the harness and tug lines.  […] I went out probably 12 miles, my dogs probably went 12 miles an hour, maybe. I would set up a little camp with a tarp and a bonfire and I’d cook dog water on a fire and camp out there. That was really cool to me, being totally self-contained with no mechanical anything—fire, dogs, snow shoes, and go. […] After I’d been there a couple years I met these people who were savvy to what dogs could really do which is phenomenal. I keep learning what dogs can do.

2. Create your opportunities

Professional Nomads make their own destinies. These people weren’t born on a golden pathway toward success; they listened to what was important inside them and used that as a starting point. With no clear path in mind, each person found a way to get connected and made their own luck by creating something where only vision and desire existed.

Phil Hilbruner wanted to guide on the Kenai River. Fed up with low paying, dead-end jobs in the city he moved to the river he loved to fish. He brought a keg of beer to lubricate connections within the local fishing community as he learned the fishery. He now owns and operates Catch a Drift, a driftboat guiding business, and is embedded in the Cooper Landing community.

Dirk Collins teamed up with friends and although collectively they had zero background in film they made their own ski movie, broke industry conventions, and began Teton Gravity Research—one of the most successful adventure media brands in existence.

Aliy Zirkle quit her job with Fish and Wildlife to bartend and run sled dogs as much as possible across Alaska.

These people didn’t let life just happen to them, they took the reigns and without knowing where it would ultimately take them, dictated their direction in life.

If you feel something in your heart don’t be thwarted by uncertainty; germinate the idea seedling and bushwack your way toward success. The path may be unclear, but by following your heart you will continually find ways to create opportunity.

Aliy Zirkle on the Bering Sea Coast (photo courtesy of Sebastian Schnuelle)

Aliy Zirkle on the Bering Sea Coast (photo courtesy of Sebastian Schnuelle)

Aliy Zirkle: When I decided to leave Bettles and come back here and be a bartender and work construction instead of retaining my Fish and Wildlife job, that was my decision right there. But my hook was dogs. That was a conscientious decision where I saw myself in twenty years.

Dirk Collins: With business and life I’m always taking the most difficult path because I feel like that’s the one that’s closest to your heart. You’ve got to fight to do what you want to do, and it’s really easy to say “it’s too difficult or I’m too beat down” or whatever and I’m just going to get a normal job or I’m just going to go work for a big company because that would be easy. I’ve just never been able to do that.

3. Trust the universe and ante up

Ante up, especially if you’re broke. Although money can be part of it, it’s far from everything. It means invest yourself, your time, energy, and whatever resources you have available into your passion. The very act of saying “this is worth the risk to me” is a game changer, and when you really commit to trusting the universe people will respond.

Every professional nomad encountered a crossroad in life where logic told them to take the safe road toward a comfortable career and lifestyle—yet something made them go over the line and ask the world for something more. That singular decision put them on the path that solidified them as the professional nomad we admire today.

As a manager for Alaska Wildland Adventures, Brooke Edwards had benefits, flex-time, and all the other perks that signified she’d “made it” in the seasonal lifestyle. But she missed guiding and felt untrue to herself. She stepped down to make room for something new, and within a week she had a job guiding in Antarctica followed by a winter position with her local heli-ski company—both of which sought her out. By making room for opportunity, instead of clinging to a job she felt should satiate her, Brooke’s trust in the universe paid off.

Buckwheat and Louise had to strike a balance outside the traditional family paradigm. Initially, they were scoffed at for disrupting their son’s schooling by moving him from Alaska to Utah and back again every year, yet by doing so they opened up doors for him and for their family as a whole. By trusting the universe and vowing to learn as they went, they invariably taught their son Louis to dedicate himself to what he believes in and trust the universe, as well.

Through opportunities in his migrational lifestyle, Louis can now out-kayak and out-ski most adults, and continues to excel in school. Meanwhile, his parents run a successful rafting business in the summer and have careers they return to in Utah every winter. They could have locked themselves into a sedentary lifestyle to meet the constraints of the school year but that would have created financial hardship. Instead they took the pillars that were most valuable to their success as a family and molded the school year to fit around their family’s migrational lifestyle.

Professional Nomads will risk everything to create success as they define it and it’s that devotion that manifests success from the universe.

Brooke Edwards in Alaska's Chugach Mountains

Brooke Edwards in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains

Buckwheat: “It’s all about risk, all of these things,” Buckwheat says. “It doesn’t always work out, and it doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to, but if you have the fortitude and the gumption to accept the consequences as they be, whatever it is, you know, you learn from it, you grow from it.”

Brooke: “I feel like the older I get the more I trust in that go-with-the-flow approach. I feel like if I just keep living my passion, it will keep unfolding.”

4. Stick to your values

It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. This isn’t gambling on a whim; it’s a calculated decision that you are putting yourself behind. It is because you are in tune with your values that you can do this. If you are pulling from your heart it’s probably a risk worth taking. Life’s cruel joke, however, is that those desires closest to our hearts are most difficult to put out in front of the world. They become vulnerable and subject to ridicule, which feels worse than failure. This very insecurity is partially because we all secretly wonder if we’re good enough and we’re a little afraid to find out—but that mentality only secures failure. When all seems lost and the world too tough, let your values be your guiding force—one step at a time. Do what you have to do to accomplish the next step now. If you stick to your values and believe in yourself, others will, too.

Dirk Collins filming giraffes in Kenya for OneEyedBird

Dirk Collins filming giraffes in Kenya for OneEyedBird

Dirk Collins: If it’s a bad day or a good day or a bad month or a bad year I’m still super stoked to get up and do my job, like, I love it. I get to work with phenomenal people and I get to go to amazing places and I learn new shit every day and, you know, a lot of it’s super dangerous and a lot of it’s hard work, actually probably all of it’s hard work and but I’m living, right? I believe in everything I do.

5. Work hard. Seriously.

This is by far the number one thing that separates successful people from the unsuccessful. It doesn’t matter what is required to get started, professional nomads devote themselves to seeing it through, no matter what the obstacle.

If you really eat, sleep, and breathe what you do you will invest more hours than you ever thought you were capable of giving. You may not enjoy all the day to day tasks, but you find a way to accept them because they are part of the package. Aliy Zirkle didn’t decide she wanted to scoop poop every day of her adulthood, but it came with the dream to explore Alaska via sled dogs.

Invest in what you believe in, not some corporation’s agenda. You will work so hard that financially you may reduce your hourly wage to chicken feed compared to your peers, but what a great thing to invest yourself into: yourself. And that’s just it—it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, and if it’s really a passion you simply don’t have a choice. Passion is more work than you can pay a person for, but the net value is far greater than something as trivial as money.

Aliy Zirkle: I can’t imagine how many hours a week I put into my quote job now, so 40 hours a week is like a pittance. So if you’re really going to have an impact on something, like work really hard at it for the amount of time that it’s needed and then take a little breather.

Dirk Collins films from an airplane for OneEyedBird

Dirk Collins films from an airplane for OneEyedBird (Photo credit Chris Owens)

Dirk Collins: People love to throw around quotes from famous people who took risks. Most of those guys are dead or legends and they’re all about living your dreams and it’s better to have tried and lost than to have never tried at all and it’s like, yeah, those things are easy to throw around but to live that is super difficult and to live that you’re going to get beat the fuck up, and so most people can’t do it. They can put it on their photo on Instagram or whatever but to actually live by that I’ve learned there’s not too many people that do it. And I try, I really try to do that and because of that I do get beat up but because of that I feel like I’m pretty pure to doing what I believe in and I get to do amazing things.

The Takeaway

Every interview invigorated me for weeks at a time. They shook up my writing and began covertly rearranging pathways in my own life—something I was oblivious to initially. Each interview reaffirmed my silly idea, and although I didn’t have a compass I recognized these conversations as cairns on the path I blazed.

My passion is to write about this untrodden subject matter dear to my heart. By sharing these stories, my hope is that I might inspire at least one other person—perhaps that fifteen year-old version of myself sitting in a suburban Midwestern classroom thinking there must be something else possible beyond office life—to pursue what is meaningful for them regardless of what outsiders think. If I can succeed in that, then I will become successful by my own standards, the only measurement that truly matters.

Although I set out to inspire others, these conversations have shifted the sands of my life. They’ve implored me to take positive aspects of my world and reshape them into new trailheads to explore. There’s no map ahead of me, but but like the professional nomads before me I’ll embrace my passions as well as the knowledge that there is still much to learn. If I trust the universe and stick to my values then I can’t get lost.

Click “Follow” on the right sidebar to get notification for the next piece in this series. Next month I’ll share the ups and downs from my own experience throwing caution to the wind at the start of last spring. In retrospect, it’s helpful to know which way the wind is blowing before throwing anything, but I’ve learned that the winds of life are often tricky.

Kilimanjaro ice fin

The author in front of an ice fin on Kilimanjaro last November


Five Hundred Dollars in Rwanda

“They say Mzungu, you are white,” the man sitting next to me informs me.

I shrug, “I know.”

“You see the gorillas?”

“No, it’s too expensive.”

“It’s $500, very cheap.” We are sitting in a small bus in Musanze, Rwanda waiting for it to fill with passengers for the fifteen minute ride back to Kinigi. Every seat is occupied, but max capacity is negotiable in Africa.

“Actually, it’s $750 for one hour. Not cheap.”

“Five hundred dollars, very cheap in the United States, you can earn it very fast.”

“Maybe some people but not me.”

“Everyone has money in America.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Does everyone have a car?”

The last passenger squeezes into our row and pushes a nursing mother slightly onto my thigh. I wiggle closer to the man I am conversing with and notice he is carrying a manilla envelope. If it rains, which it is prone to do in Rwanda in late October, whatever documents he’s carrying will be ruined.

“Most people.”

The bus starts on the second try and departs.

“How much does a teacher make?”

“Maybe $25,000 a year, but then they take taxes from that and you pay for your home and food and there is not much left.”

“Here a teacher makes $50 a month. It is hard to save with only $50 a month. Nothing left to invest.”

I smell sage burning and look outside at a woman carrying a bundle of wood on her head. Agriculture extends in every direction, right up to the border of Volcanoes National Park.

“I see your point. It’s hard to explain. Five hundred dollars can be a lot here but in the U.S. it doesn’t get you so much. One loaf of bread is $5.”

“How much for this?” He nods to his envelope.

“I’m not really sure.”

The bus swerves, honks, and a collective gasp waves through the passengers as we realize a boy still in diapers just ran into the road to touch the bus. Even after our near miss he still reaches for the bus, tottering toward us in the zombie traipse universal to children new to walking. The passengers silence as the intensity dwindles.

“You take nice photos here?” the man asks finally.

“Yes, some.”

“You go back and show your family?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You show them, this is Rwanda this is the black people?”

I pause. “I guess.”

There was no condescension in his tone. Even as I felt led toward a trap I assessed him for the hint of a viper attack, but he wasn’t venomous. He simply wished to know and wished to tell, and in doing so he unwittingly put into words exactly what I’ve been feeling.

A family near Lake Kivu

A family near Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Like many travelers, I enjoy photographing people. There is a challenge in capturing individual expression and the uniqueness of cultural dress. Yet more often than not, I shame myself into leaving my camera in my pack. First of all, I’m not incredibly skilled in photography, and secondly it feels intrusive to pull my camera out and make a spectacle of someone’s life without permission. Although it is not my intention, it feels pompous in the moment as if I am trying to capture an entire people through one photo and show people back home how life is abroad: This is Rwanda, this is the black people.

Such photography is perverse in nature, as if all of Rwanda bears an elusiveness akin to the gorillas in the mist. Behold the intangible beauty of a people so unique and yet almost like me! In truth, we are not all that different. Certainly cultural and lifestyle differences exist but at the core we are strikingly similar in needs and values. Yet we seek evidence of difference when we travel. We have conversations with locals to show we are the same; we take pictures to prove that we are different.

Maasai people in Tanzania

Hoodies juxtaposing traditional robes. The Maasai people in Tanzania.

Before arriving in Rwanda, I visited Tanzania where I preferred to take pictures of the pastoral Maasai people in full traditional robes rather than those wearing jeans. I’d skip photo ops of Maasai using cell phones, even though it was obvious that everyone carried one. Effectively, I edited reality through the framing of my lens. I opted for the photo that provided evidence that I dug to a cultural depth that I didn’t. This is Tanzania, this is the black people.

In Kinigi, I thank the man for talking with me and walk to my hotel, unsure of how to spend the rest of my afternoon. Rwanda has priced me out from its most alluring activities. Even yesterday’s hike up a volcano cost over $100, and looking out for my bank account leaves me slightly remiss. Yet, right or wrong, the price tag makes sense.

During the genocide, only twenty years ago, Rwanda received international support from no one. When France finally did intervene they aligned with the perpetrators in a baffling blunder of international aid. Essentially, Rwandan rebel forces pulled through for the country on their own. Now that politics have simmered and travel in Rwanda is nonthreatening, it’s hard to fault a country for pricing out the international community that consistently abandoned them during their most desperate times.

Bosoke volcano in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Mt. Bisoke, a volcano in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

When I arrived in Kigali’s international airport, I was surprised to declare I had visited an ebola affected country in the previous three weeks: the United States. The punishment was slim—a compulsory online survey to be filled out daily to apprise the government of any symptoms I experienced—and even slimmer in that the mandate was rescinded two days after it was implemented. This requirement was introduced on the heels of two Rwandan students being refused entry into their New Jersey school simply because they visited an ebola affected continent. Details like Rwanda has remained entirely ebola free or that continental flight patterns make it nearly impossible to introduce the disease to the small country didn’t concern the United States, and that obfuscation did not go unnoticed by the Rwandan government. Undoubtedly, pressures from the United States squashed the compulsory survey, but the message was clear: you mess with our people and we won’t hesitate to mess with yours. Simply put, we don’t need you.

Those are the politics but the problem of $500 remains incommunicable. Perhaps the man on the bus was more correct than I. After all, I can travel and he cannot, and perhaps that right there is what $500 represents. Truthfully, I don’t save my money as wisely as many of my peers and instead I opt for occasional, half-assed world exploration, but ultimately I have $500 to use as unwisely as I wish. I could burn $750 in a pile right now should I so choose but much like spending it on the gorillas that’s not going to help me pay rent this winter.

The fact is, I have a choice to be in Rwanda; this is not my home. When the country fell apart it wasn’t the product of some long-standing tribal feud, it was instigated through colonial imperialism. Outsiders stirred up trouble, left the country to its own devices, and the world turned a blind eye. The United States, for instance, wouldn’t even admit the genocide existed in the moment.

But we’ll come to see gorillas, thank you very much.

Although I don’t agree with the price tag of Rwandan tourism, I find it difficult to fault.

Rwandan countryside

Rwandan countryside


4AM Reflections on Why I’m attempting Kilimanjaro

The author backpacking in Denali. Training is not the equal of preparation.

The author backpacking in Denali. Training is not preparation’s equal.

Perhaps these thoughts seethe with pre-dawn drivel, but here’s what i think I know. Among other things, I need this—or something like it—to rejuvenate my soul. I was a burnt out bitch from time to time at my summer job and although my work performance was still top notch, that’s no way to live. It doesn’t have to be Kilimanjaro—in fact, in some ways I am more excited about whatever cultural experience I’ll have subsequently in Rwanda than I am for the climb, but the invitation to climb Kilimanjaro is the welcome mat  that got me through the African door for the first time.

Something must propel me from the safety of my culture, clear my mind and get my head out of my ass. Opportunities abroad make work and life hassles worth enduring, and even prepare us for them in some ways. Travel is integral to the nomadic cadence; it is the antidote for the negativity that infects our lives.


I have no idea why I’m attempting this climb

Some people climb “because it’s there.” I’ve never identified with that phrase, although in some ways it captures the inexplicable. Plenty of people can see “it’s there” but aren’t motivated to climb, so its existence is not a ubiquitous magnet in and of itself. My climbing partner, Peter, is using this climb as a test to see if he might endure climbing Denali in the future. That makes sense. This is a nontechnical, slightly smaller, and shorter climb to provide such insight. While standing in line for my Tanzanian visa, I met an Irish boy and his father who would be attempting this climb, as well. A year ago, the boy’s grandfather died of heart disease and it was twelve-year old Zach’s idea to raise money for the disease. His father thought they’d do something like a 5K, but Zach dreamed bigger. As Zach bounced around the airport in excitement, his father told me the boy had single-handedly raised $11,000 for the cause. Like Peter, Zach’s motivation is linear—if follows a clear path of logical desire from A to B. For me, the reasons are not so opaque.

Personally, I’ve never endeavored to climb anything exceptionally large, however I do seek refuge in the wilderness from time to time and I think I’ve grasped those motivations. I yearn to test myself on a primitive level to more fully understand an environment, and as a human the only method I know of achieving this is through the lens of the self. It is not sufficient to read books and watch nature documentaries, although those mediums are the great instigators. One must look a landscape in the eye and learn it on an intimate basis—traveler’s diarrhea and all. The nomadic element compels me to delve into new experiences both culturally and in nature, and I strive to collect them—not as trophies, but as building blocks to shape my perspectives and comprise my opinions. Through this, I begin to understand the world and learn my place within it.

A worker carries sulphur from Kawah Ijen in Indonesia

A worker carries sulfur from Kawah Ijen in Indonesia


The summit, though alluring, is irrelevant

Trials fortify the soul—it doesn’t matter if one succeeds or fails. I want to know the smells of Tanzania, observe the morning light as it unfolds across the landscape, feel the texture of Kilimanjaro’s soil, and discover if the humidity will make me sweat even at a standstill. Will altitude debilitate me? Will my knees bother me? How will I fare mentally if those hurdles materialize? Am I as stubborn as I think I am or will the mountain call bullshit?

In the documentary 180 Degrees South, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, reflects on the value of immersing in a long term voyage versus climbing Everest. The whole quote is so good I refuse to trim it: “Taking a trip for six months to get in the rhythm of it. It feels like you can go on forever doing that. Climbing Everest is the ultimate and opposite of that. Because you get the high powered plastic surgeons and CEOS and they pay $80,000 and have Sherpas put the ladders in place and 8,000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

Kawah Igen's caldera. Pictures are the great instigator but they cannot fully encompass a moment.

Kawah Igen’s caldera. Pictures are the great instigator but they cannot fully convey a moment.

Kilimanjaro is a nontechnical, guided climb to 19,340 feet. There will be porters and cooks, though hopefully not many. It is because I agree with Chouinard that I must admit those details. I crave a 3-dimensional picture of this place in this time and space intertwined with my mind, body, and soul as they are in this moment. I trained but probably inadequately, and now it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing left to alter the course. It’s my me, my mind, and my stamina, and the mountain will inflict its weather and challenges, and the dance will play out however fate drums up the beat. If I fail, I will fail in truth. Anything less and undoubtedly I would be an asshole.

Denali Highway 157

Alaskan light

Perhaps in some sense I am attempting Kilimanjaro “because it’s there,” but that statement only has value because I’m here; I exist, as well. Curiosity is the cosmic gift from the universe to strive to understand that which is outside our individual paradigm. John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” To me the beckoning is a little broader than that: the world is calling and I must learn its language.


Prosaic in Nature: rejuvenation in transition

The following is adapted from a speech the author gave in Denali National Park, Alaska at a My Seasonal Life showcase—a project by


Exploring the Columbia Gorge in Oregon.

Exploring the Columbia Gorge in Oregon.

This is how it happens. At breakfast, a coworker sits down across from me in the employee dining hall, exhales heavily and says, “Do you want to climb Kilimanjaro with me?” I pause as I swallow my bite of Raisin Bran and—perhaps fueled by my healthy breakfast choice, or delusional from seven hours between work shifts—I respond, “I think so. Give me a week to see if I’m lying.” I resume conversation with my other breakfast buddy and the topic drifts to the possibility of sailing the Virgin Islands with a boat captain friend.

Later that day, I’m in my room with my current and former roommates divulging my new intentions. “I think I might go to Africa this fall,” I clear my throat to consider how ridiculous the next phrase will sound, “and climb Kilimanjaro. Is that weird?” Immediately, one friend responds, “I’m thinking about going to Africa this fall to do some rock climbing!” The other chimes in, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to France and probably touring a great deal of Europe.” So on and so forth as I share my half-baked travel plan over the next few days my friends in this nomadic community share theirs.

Sure enough, no one ever responds, “That’s weird.” No one says, That’s crazy,” because it isn’t. Certainly, no one ever chides, “That’s irresponsible,” although financially they’d be somewhat right. But, fuck it. Africa, ya know?

The author uncertain about a volcano mud bath in Colombia.

The author uncertain about a volcano mud bath in Colombia.

In this community this is normal, even expected, and definitely celebrated. It’s almost easy to lose sight of how adventurous our friends are, because everyone is out there pursuing something badass in the off-season—the time when we’re not working and life really begins. In actuality, there’s nothing really “off” about it.

A good friend once told me, “our friends are better than Travelocity.” He couldn’t be more right. Last year, my friends trekked the Himalayas in Nepal, celebrated Oktoberfest in Germany, explored Colombia, fished from a sea kayak in Hawaii, spent the winter in India, borrowed boats and sailed in the Virgin Islands, taught diving in Indonesia, and mushed the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. The list goes on. All of those adventures—all of that personal expansion and testing of oneself in the unknown—was enabled by embracing seasonal living. Our people place more emphasis on what you do with your time than how you make money.

Keeping things orderly in the Lost City, Colombia

Keeping things orderly in the Lost City, Colombia

As easy as it is to lose sight of how badass our friends are, all we have to do is look to our childhood friends back home for reassurance. They’re getting married and popping out fleets of children. They’re fretting over floral arrangements and the color of bridesmaid’s dresses. Alternatively, our friends living seasonally have the decency to elope, get those pesky vows out of the way, and then save the good part—the reception—for us so we can celebrate their marriage with good food and copious amounts of alcohol. We just value things differently in this lifestyle. Money buys our fun and adventure. It provides for us, too, but our needs span a much different scale than what we once valued, pre-seasonal adventures.

Taking a break on the Matanuska glacier in Alaska

Taking a break on the Matanuska glacier in Alaska

But here’s the downside. The good ones leave. They burn out, move on to new adventures, answer that call to settle down, or become fed up with steadfast corporate idiocy (a funny thing that rears its head even in this lifestyle). Worse yet, some forget how awesome we have it compared to the 9-5ers because the excitement dwindles as adventure becomes prosaic in our world. The reality is that almost everyone bows out eventually. The place, though home for so many of us, is still just a stop along the greater migrational path.

The decision to climb Kilimanjaro really was made that simply. All the subsequent research I did was essentially fodder to support that decision. When else would I plan such a thing for myself? Right now I’m in decent shape with a wide open fall season to decorate any way I choose. Why not select Africa?

Contemplative along the Oregon coastline

Contemplative along the Oregon coastline

The possibilities in this lifestyle are limited only by one’s imagination. The seasonal community is expansive yet tightly knit, so we make new friends but the good ones never leave us entirely. We’ll cross paths on another adventure and crash on each other’s couches down the line. Our friends really are better than Travelocity. Not only can they provide travel advice to everywhere, but they understand why we must continue searching for new horizons.

Want more from Professional Nomads?

Click “Follow” to the right! —>

(Mobile users click the widget at the bottom of the page)


Solo Searching

Five Things I Learned on a Three-Night, Solo Birthday Trip in Denali’s Backcountry

I’m not sure what happened. The last thing I remember was goofing off in my twenties and giggling at people who feared their thirties. I was minding my own business when thirty-two began cruelly mocking me and my lack of direction. I wondered, what am I doing with my life? I had a midlife crisis at 27, so I wasn’t inclined to repeat that struggle, but I needed an adventure that would straighten out my thoughts.

The author on top of Anderson Pass

The author on top of Anderson Pass

Anderson Pass in Denali National Park has beckoned me for years. This pass is nestled in one of the most dramatic sections of the Alaska Range and is one of few nontechnical passes concealed in these mountains. On my first attempt backpacking in that area I hiked into a ping pong ball of fog and the second time I was stymied by snowfall. For my birthday, I would be happy just to see what that backcountry unit looked like, let alone summit the pass. Halfway through the rainiest summer on record, though, it seemed unlikely I would catch a weather break to attempt the trip. Furthermore, on my departure day a 16 year-old tried to thwart my plans by hitting my car at the DMV (he didn’t pass his driving test that day), but miraculously I caught my bus, the skies parted, and the wilderness invited me to explore. This is what I learned.



1. Maps seem quite straightforward, but real life isn’t so obvious. In reality, maps are merely guidelines and as such they may lie to you once in a while, or at least trick you into misinterpretation. If you allow yourself forgiveness for straying from the map, meaningful adventures can follow. During a moment of uncertainty, I hiked up a drainage to assess my situation and soon realized my error. By then I was too mesmerized to quit, and consequently on my birthday I scrutinized the subtleties of a soaring golden eagle, listened to marmots whistle (an animal I think I love because they’re basically wild, overgrown hamsters—the only pet I was allowed to have as a kid) and stood on a glacier. How cool is that?

Headwaters of the Chulitna; south side of Anderson Pass

Headwaters of the Chulitna; south side of Anderson Pass


2. Although the backcountry isn’t exactly trail-less, it does offer the chance to select your own adventure. There is no signage declaring your destination, illuminating your path, or forbidding you from walking on sketchy glacial moraine and ice. If there was a sign, it would simply read, “Caution: Real life ahead.” In this country, no one wants to be safely escorted to a summit. The reward lies in enduring the hardships and misadventures it takes to navigate by your own volition. Whichever route you forge, the backcountry implores authority over each choice. Few decisions in life are more empowering.


Decisions, decisions, decisions


3. If you neglect to interact with nature you don’t simply begin to take it for granted, you build antibodies that reject its luster. Upon first sight, it’s impossible to be insensitive to Denali National Park’s beauty. If nothing else, Mt. McKinley—a massive piece of granite standing amidst six million acres of wilderness—sucker punches even the biggest hard-asses into appreciation. Additionally, giant animals roam freely and because most of them can beat the shit out of you, you observe them with awe. Yet every year local employees forget how beautiful their home is because they don’t engage the landscape. Some will experience less wilderness in four months than tourists who in one day merely observe it through bus windows and video monitors. Indifference is corrosive. If you work in a national park you must get out there, scab your knees, get your feet wet, and poop in the woods. Anything less and you may as well save the hassle and work a year-round, sedentary desk job. Our national parks belong to us as a nation; we deserve people in charge who care enough to experience the hell out of them.

Denali viewed from the Muldrow glacier.

Denali viewed from the Muldrow glacier.


4. It’s easy to overlook how delicate the ground you stand on is until you face a giant crevasse. Conversely, nature’s fortitude is dismissible until you witness flowers growing amidst a desolate scree slope.









5. When you don’t have an adventure buddy available you must still embark. The nuances of a landscape come alive to the solo traveler. Few people spend enough time looking inward anyway, and on a solo trip, you can face your demons and make peace with them. Every action has purpose—from filtering water to setting up shelter—and therefore the simplest things take on more meaning and renews the soul’s sense of effectualness. Ultimately, though, birthdays are still best shared when possible.



Denali Migration

I guess he got a girlfriend. Until today, every morning around seven he started tapping on the window frame outside my bed, claiming my territory as his. I suppose it was romantic. My little romeo approached my window powerfully and with purpose, his chest puffed out with self-importance—tricks that have been wooing women to sleep with men they shouldn’t for centuries. Maybe he thought my territory was his—after all, I’m nomadic and he lives in this spruce forest year-round. Regardless, we’re incompatible, and furthermore he’s not the pecker I want to be awakened by anyway. But this morning he didn’t come, and I can only assume that the northern three-toed woodpecker found a mate. It’s that time of year.

My Romeo

My Romeo

Spring in Denali National Park is an orgy. A few mammals (e.g. moose, lynx, wolves, and snowshoe hare) and a couple dozen birds have been here all winter, but spring beckons the arrival of migratory species. Dall sheep descend from the hills, herds of caribou cows migrate in to deliver their calves while the bulls fatten up for the next rut, and the silent, crisp winter air is broken by the crescendo of 150 or so bird species who literally septuple the local bird population. Just about every single animal rolling into the party is hungry and horny.

Dall sheep rams on Marmot Rock

Dall sheep rams on Marmot Rock

Another species, the transient, crashes the party, as well. Their rut begins almost immediately. This species parties intensely from day one to display to potential mates early in the season and often performs its mating call at local watering holes well into the night as adamantly as a Swainson’s thrush. Transients are known for maintaining a rigorous partying schedule all summer, suggesting that beer is the sustenance needed to carry them to their winter resting grounds. Much like the Bohemian waxwing, the transient has been known to over-indulge on fermented berries and get a little too tipsy—but this is just the transient’s mating ritual. For those who remain in this revolving migration, the lure is more enticing than frivolous sex. After all, a person can get laid anywhere, but there is something unique to this landscape and community that invites transients to stay and evolve.



This landscape brings people together, and without it this community wouldn’t exist. We are all drawn here looking for that thing that we need to nourish and sustain us the other seven months of the year. Birds come for berries, insects, extended daylight, and sex. Transients are not that much different.

For half the year we live alternate identities as global trekkers, dog mushers, snowboard instructors, and dive masters, and around early May this big granite magnet called Denali swoops us back into its orbit. We migrate north (a handful migrate south), dust off cobwebs regarding work and friendships, squeeze our personas back into the mixing pot, and try to pick up where we left off while still remaining true to whatever growth we’ve experienced over the last seven months. Year after year, Denali is the migration station that brings us all together.

On paper, though, how does society classify a man who has lived in Alaska 35 summers  and yet has no physical address? Though he works relentlessly all summer, every September his temporary community packs up faster than a circus act and he, too, must answer the call of migration. If a man travels the globe more than half the year but returns perennially to the same landscape, can you call those nesting grounds his home? In the words of Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” Perhaps then, it is our definition of home that needs to shift to include something more than what is indicated on a driver’s license. After all, it’s about community.

All of us come here running from or toward something—e.g. family, work, or adventure. By throwing caution to the wind we find ourselves immersed in a support system of people who applaud us for doing so. Whatever hackneyed idea you conceive—diving in Bali, trekking in Nepal, trimming weed in Oregon—people applaud you and, moreover, you likely have met someone eager to offer advice about their own experience doing that very thing. The Denali community fosters the adventurous spirit.

The Denali migration is complex. There must be the newbies with cookie-cutter naivety about Alaska as well as the displaced elders with some vague ties to the Lower 48. That is how the populace grows. It culls the ones who cannot or would rather not thrive in this environment and helps those who wish to stay to develop into the most badass version of their selves.

And that’s what we find up here, those of us that stay. We find our people.


Nourished by landscape

The question is, how does the transient fit into the picture with the rest of the species, both local and migratory? Extended daylight and nutritionally rich landscape attract a myriad of species to this breeding ground, but for a relatively short season. The transient is no exception to that, but in retrospect, it’s almost silly that anyone makes the effort to be here at all.

“The most amazing thing about the birds in Denali, as Carol McIntyre points out, is how far they come for such a short summer. Defying all odds and logic, birds fly here from six continents, including Africa. Altogether there are about 150 species that regularly come to Denali. Some just stop and rest, but many stay and raise their young. What is even more amazing, are those birds that stay all year, making it through an unbelievably cold and harsh Denali winter.”

The ratio of people who stay in the Denali area year-round versus those who migrate on is likely similar to the birds. We gather from around the globe to nourish ourselves in this habitat even though spring sometimes doesn’t emerge until late May, it often rains for a portion of every day in July, and by mid-August it’s already full-blown autumn. Therefore, true summer might comprise about a month. Though it is difficult to integrate into this habitat, it is here we find sustenance.

Stony Hill 144

Denali landscape

Backpackers roam mostly trail-less wilderness and let the challenges of river crossings, scree slopes, and curiosity dictate each footfall. The park beckons exploration with enticing beauty, yet the boreal forest is essentially a big swamp, and the tundra a spongy moon-scape. Both bog down the pace of eager hikers who must learn to reduce the scale of their imagination to fit the reality of this place.

Yet none of us would want it any other way. To make it easier—to put in more trails and campgrounds—would cheapen the purity of that experience. To struggle up a riverbank and then watch a grizzly bear bound effortlessly up a steeper embankment is to be humbled by evolutionary adaptation. A grizzly bear has pigeon-toed paws with massive claws, a powerful shoulder hump for digging up roots, and the ability to run 35 mph across the aforementioned landscape. The opposable thumb has nothing on that. It is not until one reels in expectation, learns to move at the pace of the glaciers, and adapt to the conditions of the day that a human lives in concert with this habitat.

Sow and cubs

Sow and cubs

Over time, the initial infatuation matures. Slowly the flighty transient develops an integrated yet nomadic relationship with the landscape. Awestruck feelings about grizzly bear sightings are augmented by knowledge of how Athabascans spear-hunted them, the rituals involved in orchestrating the hunt, and what an honor it meant in that culture. The amazement of seeing spring cubs transforms into excitement that the sow took on enough fat to allow the blastocyst (the thing that is conceived during the spring orgy and ultimately becomes the embryo) to gestate in the fall (delayed implantation). If a sow isn’t fat and healthy enough, the blastocyst doesn’t attach itself to the uterine wall and is instead absorbed back into her body. The nomad is dependent on the land for sustenance even if just in the metaphysical sense.

Returning workers develop geeky interests in less glamorous life forms, as well.I swore I’d never say this, but nine summers later, I’m starting to give a shit about birds. They are the migrators who truly work for their summer in Denali. By examining their compulsory journey we find insight into our own seemingly inexplicable migration. A great one to study is the arctic tern.

During winter, the arctic tern migrates south from Alaska and Greenland to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. This is effectively the longest migrational path of any species, matched by only a few humans. Since the tern can live for over 30 years, The Arctic Tern Migration Project, sums up a lifetime of this audacious trip as, “…equivalent to around 3 return journeys to the Moon! Not bad for a bird with a mass of a little over 100 grams,” (for ultimate geekiness, check out the project’s Google Earth model of the arctic tern’s migration route to and from a larger breeding ground in Greenland).

Since these little dudes are flying almost incessantly, their young must join in the migration at 20-26 days old, ready to adapt to every conceivable weather condition and biome of the globe. This raises important questions such as “what flight characteristics make this bird aerodynamically efficient from such a young age,” “how can it sustain itself metabolically,” and seriously, “why the fuck?” That’s a lot of pressure for a such a little guy, who otherwise can easily be dismissed as just another white bird. Voracious drive toward sunlight, nourishment, and proliferation—it’s crazy what hormones incite.

As transients develop dependence on this landscape, each tidbit we absorb nourishes our insatiable hunger of understanding. We must continue to nourish ourselves anyway, or like the grizzly blastocycst we will not survive in this lifestyle. The more we learn, the more we appreciate the vast intricacies of this habitat, and thereby concede that we can never know it all. Like the arctic tern, we defy logic and keep returning anyway.

Just don’t tell anyone I’m starting to appreciate birds.

Nesting great horned owls

Nesting great horned owls