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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Clare Baldwin

12th Grade, Colony High School,
Palmer, Alaska


Clare Baldwin

Clare Baldwin
Reflections on the Harriman Expedition Retraced
"There is something about uninhabited areas -- especially mountains -- that attracts me." So writes Clare Baldwin about her climb on Mt. Spurr in March of 2000. Clare was part of a four-person team that attempted to reach the 7500-foot summit of this Kenai Peninsula peak. The group was flown in by chartered plane under auspiciously sunny skies, but in the following days they encountered first winds, then blizzards, and finally an avalanche risk that turned them back just 575 feet below their goal. One of the team's final tasks was to stomp out a 32,000 square foot runway for the plane. "After we loaded our gear into the plane," Clare writes, "things began to seem complicated again. In our regular lives there was no such thing as a storm day when you could lie in your sleeping bag watching the frost turn to water droplets on the inside of the tent."

If her first passion is mountain-climbing, her second is writing. The 18-year-old senior from Colony High School in Palmer, Alaska is a founding member of that school's literary magazine, and a reporter for The Frontiersman, a newspaper serving the Matanuska-Susitka Valley. "I love to write -- mostly creative writing, but newspaper reporting is a wonderful experience. In the newsroom I am surrounded by people who are really excited about writing." When asked about her favorite books, Clare cites several: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, The Stars, The Snow, The Fire by John Haines, The Stone Harp, also by John Haines, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. It comes as no surprise to learn that her favorite spot in Alaska is a mountain: "My family has a cabin up in the Talkeetna Mountains, a two-story cedar cabin about a mile below tree-line on Bald Mountain. I've spent a lot of time living there. When you hike above tree-line on a clear day, it seems as if you could step off the edge of the mountains and right into the tundra."

Reflections on the Harriman Expedition Retraced

Writer Richard Nelson was my mentor during the expedition. When I think of Richard, I think of him running around the ship in black Velcro sandals, black pile pants and a lavender sweatshirt with a picture of a raven on it. He is laughing and telling someone about the first time he tried to hook up his dog team.

Chronologically, Richard is old. It shows in the texture of his hands and the color of his hair. But his enthusiasm and his ideas belong to someone much younger. I remember sitting next to him during lecture one day and glancing over to see him using binoculars to examine the details of the slide! I burst out laughing. I think most people would have just moved closer.

I first met Richard two years ago when I ate lunch with him at a writing conference in Anchorage. We were talking about school and I told him about a scholarship I had applied for to travel along the coast of Alaska with writers, artists, naturalists, and scientists, retracing the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 100 years ago. When I finished, he looked at me and grinned, "Hey," he said, "I'm going to be on that. There's another boy in Sitka I know who applied for it, too. I really hope you both make it. Keep me posted."

A few months later, both Jonas and I were asked to join the Expedition and Richard became my mentor. I asked Richard to be my mentor because I like the way he thinks and the way he expresses himself when he writes. When you read something Richard has written, it's like he's right there in the room with you, telling you a story. He writes with the same honesty that he speaks and often puts it in perspective with comments like, "That's pathetic - think of how much of your life goes into something as little as writing a book!" that make everyone around him smile. I also knew he had spent a lot of time working in small Native communities and addressing questions of conservation versus economics. I found out later that he had first come to Alaska to do anthropological fieldwork when he was 19. He ended up getting a degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, then lived with the Koyukon, Kobuk Eskimo, Kutchin Athapaskan, and Arctic Coast Eskimos in Alaska before settling in Sitka, where he lives now.

Whenever Richard talks about these experiences, he does so humbly, pointing out that indigenous people often call an anthropologist who lives with them a "child." Sometimes Richard claims he still hasn't grown up. I agree with him in a friendly kind of way. After we had taken a zodiac trip around the Triplet Islands, I showed Richard a kelp horn Dale had made. He played a few notes, then told me he had a digeridoo in his cabin. That was in addition to the wetsuit, boogie board, and chunks of smoked salmon he had in his fridge!

I admire Richard because he puts so much emphasis on learning to the maximum extent with your whole body. He turned to me once and said, "Taking for granted you are a good writer and write often, it is your most important job to go out and climb Mt. Spurr . . . I can live without writing, but not without what I write about." Hence the boogie board and wetsuit. Richard lives in a way he couldn't live anywhere else.

Richard made it a point to talk to everyone during the Expedition. He would catch people in groups or individually; he would smile if anyone caught his eye. He really seemed to be at home with all the different people on the ship. I thought it was so neat that an adult like Richard would do this. He could be anywhere, talking to anybody, doing anything. Yet here he was, telling me how a northern fulmar skims the top of a wave to catch the updraft, and how it's playful and like a dance, but physiologically brilliant because it conserves energy when the bird is at sea for long periods of time. All of the scholars were more or less like this and it was so nice not to just be dismissed as a kid.

It's been a lot of fun to work with Richard and great proof that age is more of a mind set than a physical condition. When we parted at the airport in Nome, I told him that I wanted to be just as excited about things when I was his age. I also hope I have the opportunity to put as much time and interest into someone else as Richard put into me.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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