BLaST Scholar Recaps Denali National Park Expedition: Backcountry BLaST Off

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"Backcountry BLaST Off"

By David Harvey


David Harvey is a first year BLaST Scholar at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is a Geoscience major and as part of his research, he was part of a team that spent a week exploring Denali National Park. Here's his story.

I never imagined I would cultivate such deep and visceral gratitude for blueberries, bridges, or warm, dry socks. Of course, I have always appreciated those things, but after spending a week on an expedition led by Alaska Geographic and the National Park Service in the backcountry of Denali National Park, I have come to realize just how much I take the small comforts of modern life for granted. I am extremely thankful that my participation in this powerful field experience was funded by the UAF BLaST program and Alaska Geographic. As an avid camper and a geoscience student who has been privileged enough to have participated in a variety of fieldwork, I assumed that this expedition would mean spending a week tirelessly traipsing the tundra whilst learning about the geology and ecology of the park. While I did learn a great deal about Denali’s ecology, the localized impacts of a rapidly changing climate, and the geologic phenomena which are actively shaping interior Alaska, I also learned a great deal about myself and what it means to be human. As scientists and students, we can often get so caught up in our work that we live our lives on a kind of auto-pilot mode. Our quest for knowledge and understanding becomes the focus of our lives, and we tend to lose sight of the fact that we are very deeply connected to the systems that we study so scrupulously. Out there in the wilderness, your survival does not really depend on how much you know about the rate of uplift of the Alaska Range or the distribution of black spruce trees compared to white spruce trees; what it does depend on is your ability to connect with, trust in, and work well with your team.

When you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers, regardless of how like-minded you are, how do you connect with them well enough to trust that they will help you to survive? That might seem like a silly question in the age of social media, where we can “connect” with each other through screens and keyboards. Today, we are accustomed to having complete control of how others perceive us, but in the backcountry, there are no filters to perfect our images and soothe our egos. I will never forget the second day of this expedition. That was the day we all forged a deep connection, the likes of which I had never experienced with so many people so quickly. The previous day, our group of nine happy campers had hiked for several soggy hours in a constant downpour. Making dinner that evening was extremely uncomfortable, and most of us would have rather stayed in our tents and gone hungry than gone back out in the rain just to eat a soggy taco. Moods were sour as we headed off to our tents, cold and soaked, waiting for the sandman to soothe our discomfort with sleep.

Needless to say, we all woke up hoping for a better day but were unfortunately greeted by an even grayer and rainier sky. So, to make the best of a frigid and foul morning, we decided to pile into a single tent to share stories and wait for better weather. After some human Tetris, the nine of us were assembled haphazardly inside the small three-person tent. As we went around sharing our stories, people began opening up and sharing things one never shares with acquaintances. We shared stories of homelessness, abuse, self-harm, mental illness, and more. There was no fear of judgment, shame, or retaliation. Tears were shed, hugs were given, then support and encouragement were passed around in excess. We emerged from the tent bound together by our vulnerability. That experience gave us all the ability to trust in each other, which would prove necessary before our water-logged expedition was over.


By the final day of our expedition, the weather had still not changed. We woke up, once again put on our cold, wet, stinky gear and prepared for a quick breakfast. The previous night, I had gone on a scouting hike with two others to try and find a course back to the park road, keeping in mind the widely varying skill levels of all our group members. The creeks and drainages we crossed on our way into the backcountry had become almost as engorged as the grizzly bears we observed feasting at their berry buffets. Each day throughout the trip, individuals filled a different leadership role. This particular day was my day to take the lead in navigating. Keeping people safe was my responsibility. Due to the extremely high water, we had weighed the option of staying in the backcountry longer than anticipated. Of course, that would have meant rationing the remaining food or radioing the National Park Service for assistance.

My outside commitments were driving me to push the group to get across the water and out of the park on time, but I was reluctant to risk the safety of others for my own needs. When it was looking like we were going to end up being stuck in the backcountry for a while longer, I decided to take another person to attempt a stream-crossing in the best-looking spot. The swollen stream split into three separate channels in this specific place, and my logic for wanting to cross there was that those three channels would be easier to cross individually than the full strength of the stream in any other spot. So, before we made a decision, I brought the group together to get their take on the situation. Everyone agreed with my logic and despite many people fearing that they were not skilled enough, they were willing to trust in each other by taking the risk of attempting to cross. That was an incredibly humbling moment. The choice I made as a leader would now either work out for the group or potentially put folks’ lives in danger. As a team, we made our way across the icy and raging waist-deep water.

Now, as I look back, I am so thankful that this expedition turned out to be completely different than I expected. I grew as a leader. I saw how powerful bonds can be forged between strangers in a matter of days. Being out there in that wilderness stripped us of our shells and left us vulnerable to each other, ultimately enabling us to rise to the challenges we were faced with as a team. I believe that those lessons in leadership, vulnerability, and choosing to connect deeply with others in the face adversity will follow me into all sorts of interactions in my life. When the veil of comforts and customs of modern life is lifted, our remaining primal humanity empowers us to weather any storm, if we reach out honestly and openly to those around us.


The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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