Wet, cold, bleak, and grey. In the valleys the wind can be quite still, allowing black hordes of mosquitoes to badger adventurers like ourselves. But often the wind howls—whipping fabrics on faces and stretching tents taut as drums. It is usually raining, or there is impenetrable fog, or maybe it might snow. The weather can change within a few steps or paddle strokes.
The terrain is soft, spongy, and wet. Boots are always soaked. It’s cold, rocky, and desolate. It’s as if an extraterrestrial landscape had sprung to life.
Nonetheless, the body and mind slowly grow accustomed to the harsh surroundings. The arctic soil nourishes roots of the soul. It has become home. Presently, the sun breaks through, shining on a glorious expanse of freedom in every direction.
Above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range you are far away from any other people, services, or any convenience of modern society. Occasionally the hum of a float plane might break through; everyone looks around wildly until one of us calls out its location. It feels odd to see a creation of man command the sky while surrounded by a landscape that forces you to react to it in every moment. What you have with you is what you have until you can cover more than 400 miles by your own power.
Above the tree line not even scraggly spruce obscure the landscape. The animals look stringy. The sun never sets. Everything is pushed to its limits. Everything feels new and raw. I came here for the first time on the NOLS Brooks Range course. Our small group landed on a small lake deep in the arctic mountains. Ten days later we resupplied at Pingo lake. Over the next 25 days we paddled roughly 450 miles for our return journey. I don’t think that any of us left without being deeply touched by the land and each other.
With awe we watched the land slip away below us as the plane’s wheels retracted and the mountains give way to the Bering Sea. I remember consciously unclasping my hands in my seat. For me, the entire experience was a prayer.
Photographer: Stéphane Terrier is a four-time NOLS alumni from Switzerland, having taken his courses in Alaska and the Yukon. He recently finished a PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and is now working as a civil engineer. Follow Stéphane’s Alpine adventures on Instagram, @stephaneterrier.