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Uncle Donnie Takes On the World

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David "Donnie" Donaldson, skier


Skier David Donaldson ’13 takes a leap of faith, from the carnival circuit to the World Cup

The Georgian Peaks Club is a small ski area in Ontario, carved out of a section of the Niagara escarpment that runs along the south shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. A couple of hours northwest of downtown Toronto, Georgian Peaks has a modest vertical drop of 820 feet. Think of a ski area slightly smaller than the Middlebury College Snow Bowl (1,000 vertical), but with stunning lake views.

David Donaldson ’13, one of the best alpine skiers ever to compete for Middlebury, is a Toronto native and got his start skiing and racing at Georgian Peaks. His parents, Paul and Catherine Donaldson, and his older sister, Sarah, were regulars at the Peaks by the time David came along. His first stop was the day care program. That lasted till he was two and a half.

“I think I made such a fuss in the Peaks day care while my parents, my sister, and all the other kids were out skiing that they finally couldn’t put up with me anymore,” Donaldson said, “and they just let me go, even though I was probably too young to start. The ski areas are all pretty tiny, and you can just let kids go and ski as much as they want. So I was able to just go as fast as I wanted, and I guess I learned how to do that pretty well.”

Well enough to excel in junior racing, make it to the cusp of the Canadian national team, and become one of the most decorated college skiers ever. Now he’s taking on a new challenge: Jumping from NCAA competition straight to the World Cup, hoping to make Canada’s Olympic team for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. And he’s doing it mostly on his own.

Update: Uncle Donnie’s Dream on Hold

A talented athlete, Donaldson played soccer, hockey, golf, and baseball, all at a high level, in addition to skiing. “David played every sport full tilt,” says Catherine Donaldson. “In skiing, you couldn’t get him off the hill. The lifts closed at 4:00 or 4:30, and the kids would always take the last ride, and it would take them forever to come down. They’d go off in the woods, build their own jumps.” Sarah Donaldson Kennedy says it helped her brother to have “an older sister, and all her friends, that he needed to keep up with.”

After thousands of hours on snow at the Peaks, Donaldson rose through the ranks of junior skiers in Ontario. He’s now about 5′ 11” and 175 pounds; at 15 he was tiny, weighing maybe 85 pounds, when he began skiing in races sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, known by its French acronym, FIS. But he persevered—and grew—and soon was competing for a spot on the Canadian national team. He never quite cemented a place on the team, though, and after some frustrating seasons, he was ready to give up on skiing when an old friend from Ontario, Johnny Davidson, called to suggest he consider skiing on the NCAA circuit for the University of Vermont, where Davidson had skied and was then a coach. Two years at UVM ensued, including a fistful of carnival wins, two All-American awards, and an NCAA giant slalom championship.

He spent the next season again trying to make the Canadian team, during which his eligibility at UVM ran out. Then Stever Bartlett, head coach of the alpine ski team at Middlebury, reached out to Donaldson, offering him the opportunity to use his remaining college eligibility skiing for the Panthers. Because of NCAA rules, Donaldson couldn’t ski right away. “First, he had to spend a year in residence at Middlebury,” said Bartlett. “He couldn’t race in carnivals. But he hit the books, and he was out there every day, working with the other skiers. [Assistant alpine ski coach] Abby Copeland and I were floored: Here was a guy who couldn’t race; he could have been pissed off and grumpy. Instead, he pitched in and helped out. He showed some pretty good maturity.”

Katelyn Barclay ’15 was one of five first-year women on that year’s team. “We had a fairly young team, and Donnie was coming in at 25,” said Barclay. “At a place like Middlebury, you don’t usually see a 25-year-old athlete of Donnie’s caliber. . . . We all saw him as the ‘cool uncle’ . . . and we started calling him Uncle Donnie, and eventually the name really stuck around campus and then on the carnival circuit.”

When Donaldson did get a chance to ski for Middlebury, in the 2013 season, all he did was win six carnival races: five in GS, including the first four in a row, and one in slalom. He had a rough time in GS at the NCAAs, held at the Snow Bowl, but rallied to finish second in slalom, leading the men’s team to its second straight slalom title.

The biggest news for Donaldson came after the NCAAs were over. Based on his performance in Nor-Am Cup giant slalom races, he earned a starting spot in every World Cup GS for the 2013–14 season. That made some slightly amazing things at least theoretically possible: He could use his World Cup results to qualify for the Canadian team and perhaps even make the Olympic team for Sochi.

He spent the off-season getting ready, both in the gym and training on snow, in New Zealand and Chile.

His first-ever World Cup start came in Sölden, Austria, in October, and while he had a good first split, his day ended early when he skied out in the first run. In December, the World Cup circuit moved to Beaver Creek, Colorado.

Giant slalom day, December 8, on Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey course dawned cold, with enough snow coming down to cause a race postponement. Once things got going, the fireworks came early. U.S. Ski Team star Ted Ligety demolished the field, and teammate Bode Miller finished second.

For Donaldson, starting 48th in his first North American World Cup, the goal was to finish in the top 30, to qualify for the second run, which is where you can score World Cup points: 100 points to the winner, down to one point for the person who finishes 30th. But even with his parents, his sister, and his brother-in-law in the stands cheering him on, it didn’t happen. He had a good top split on the demanding Birds of Prey course, but he got late and low on a gate about halfway down the course. He finished—the first time he’d finished a run on the World Cup—but missed the second run by four-tenths of a second.

“I just had nothing left in the tank,” Donaldson said in the finish area. “I spent it all up top and got down here and just had to fight to get to the bottom. I felt like I had a good run going. But then I made a big mistake. I had no legs, and I just couldn’t get high enough. I lost my speed there and had no speed for the whole bottom section.”

The day after Beaver Creek, Donaldson was on a plane for Europe and the iron of the World Cup schedule. He competed in GS on the tough track at Val d’Isère, France, known to racers, for good reason, as Val Despair. He didn’t finish the first run. Then it was on to Alta Badia, Italy, one of the most storied GS hills in the world, where he again was a first-run DNF.

The rough start illustrates why skiers rarely jump to the World Cup from college racing. World Cup courses are much tougher, half again as long, with surfaces that are often snow in name only. Race organizers firm up courses by injecting water into the surface or by tilling the snow and hosing it down. It’s not quite skating-rink hard, but close.

And for Donaldson, there is also the matter of tackling the World Cup on his own. Catherine Donaldson says her son “has been his own coach for a long time. He had a brief cup of coffee with the Canadian team. But otherwise he’s had to do it all on his own. He sets up his own trips, rents his own car, works on his own skis.” He does connect with the Canadian team at World Cup sites, but he’s otherwise a one-man band.

Forest Carey ’00 also came to college ski racing after chasing World Cup success. A three-time All-American and later head alpine coach for the Panthers, he’s now head coach of what’s called the World Cup multi- group for the U.S. Ski Team. His charges are Ligety and Miller, arguably the two best skiers in the history of the U.S. men’s team. “It’s cool to see David coming from college to earn a World Cup spot on his own,” Carey said. “He’s got eight starts on the World Cup that no one can take away from him. That being said, the challenge is enormous. The Nor-Am circuit is a good one, but it’s all in the comfort of North America. The courses are shorter and not typically prepared with water; you don’t get the gnarly conditions that you find regularly on the World Cup.”

Carey pointed out the importance of equipment at this level. “He’s probably preparing his own skis, and that adds a lot to the burden. And he’s having to ski on new equipment,” thanks to some FIS rule changes governing World Cup GS skis, making them longer and thinner, with less sidecut. “The guys on the World Cup have it pretty well sorted out. They’re skiing as well now on the new stuff as they did on the old skis. Donnie will still be getting used to them. With all that, and having to deal with his own finances, it’s just a huge challenge. To be ranked in the top 30 on the World Cup at the end of the year would be a huge success.”

Those who know him best will tell you that Donaldson is nothing if not persistent. Which is why he’s determined to come back and finish up the courses he needs to get his Middlebury degree. But first, there’s the matter of chasing the dream that began at Georgian Peaks almost 25 years ago.

Kip Harrington, head coach of the Canadian development team, has coached Donaldson and known him for years. If Uncle Donnie’s quest seems at times quixotic, Harrington reminds us that Donaldson, once just a skinny kid, “has been a little bit behind the curve all the way along. But he’s always gotten there eventually.”

Tim Etchells ’74 is a freelance writer in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. In the winter months he’s more likely to be found on the ski slopes—either at the Snow Bowl or at ski racing events near and far, covering the sport for national magazines.

The Call of the Wild

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Middlebury College student hunters John Montgomery '14, Katherine McFarren '14, and Alexander Cort '14 (L-R)

Middlebury College student hunters John Montgomery ’14, Katherine McFarren ’14, and Alexander Cort ’14 (L-R)

What does it mean to be a Middlebury student—and a dedicated hunter?

At 5:15 am on opening weekend of Vermont’s rifle deer-hunting season, the Mobil Short Stop at the corner of Commerce Street and State Route 116 in Hinesburg is the province of pickup trucks and bearded, camo-clad guys buying coffee from Joanne, the affable cashier who wishes the hunters good luck.

Then there’s John Montgomery ’14, who has a monogrammed bag in the back of his Suburban with Texas plates. A varsity lacrosse player and an international politics and economics major, he already has a job lined up in energy-investment banking in Houston.

But right now, Montgomery is after something even more elusive than gainful employment after graduation: a 12-point buck that’s been seen wandering through a marshy meadow not far from this Mobil station.

Yes, Montgomery is a serious hunter. And he’s not alone at Middlebury. In little pockets around campus, students and faculty members are waking up in the dark to pull on orange caps, load up rifles, and pursue wild animals.

Some, like Montgomery, have been doing this their entire lives; others have picked up hunting as first-years because it’s the most sustainable way to consume meat at Middlebury. They are part of a massive rebound in hunting culture across the United States—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife-related outdoor recreation jumped “dramatically” from 2006 to 2011, with nearly 14 million people now hunting.

And in Vermont, the state’s laws are some of the most hunter friendly in the nation, explains Pat Berry ’91, the Commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “Vermont is founded on the theme of the commons, which is that, yes, land is owned by individuals, but there’s a sense of community and shared ethics around communal land use,” says Berry. He points to Lake Champlain, the Green Mountain National Forest, and the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area as rich hunting resources in close proximity to the College.

Today, hunters spend nearly $300 million in the state, which ranges first among the lower 48 states in wildlife-related recreation rates. Just witness Governor Peter Shumlin grinning over the six-point, 186-pound buck he bagged in East Montpelier in November.

Greg Buckles, the Middlebury dean of admissions and longtime hunting and fishing guide, says that when he arrived in the community from Ohio in 2008, he was pleasantly surprised to find how much of an ethical and responsible hunting culture existed at Middlebury. “It’s a low-key, natural way of life,” says Buckles. “Many more people than I ever could have expected hunted. I’d not seen that before in my 30 years in education, where a progressive, academic community coexisted peacefully with a hunting lifestyle.”

Self-reliant, committed—and culinary wizards with game—College hunters just may be part of the most ecologically minded and coolest (if most socially complicated) unofficial club at Middlebury. It’s one that has fostered friendships with the greater Vermont community and one that teaches lifelong skills about hard work—respect, mortality, time management, and discovering joy and gratitude.

“Everybody goes and hikes Snake Mountain,” says Montgomery of his non-hunting fellow students. But it’s another level of commitment to get up “at 3 am to go duck hunting when it’s 20 degrees out—and then go to class.”

But there’s that social complication, one that can push back against the hunting lifestyle that Buckles describes that has existed at the College for generations.

“I think that there are some really misguided perceptions among people who are not from a rural setting and simply don’t understand hunting and have prejudged it,” says Berry. (While all of the students interviewed for this story were comfortable speaking about their hunting experiences, not all faculty and staff were. One longtime hunter asked not to be identified and spoke of hunting companions who wish “to stay fairly closeted, if you will, for fear of push back from colleagues.”)

This troubles Berry. “Hunters play a critical role in wildlife conservation management; there’s a tremendous ecological value,” he explains. “I think people misunderstand the hunting culture, which is easy to do if you ever turn on any of the hunting shows. Hunting is one of the safest activities; there are fewer incidents of accidents with hunting as a sport than most outdoor activities.”

Hunter-safety education is a prerequisite for a Vermont hunting license, and hunters such as Montgomery and Alex Cort ’14, who grew up practicing target sports while at summer camp in North Carolina, have years of experience under their belt. Those students new to hunting describe an intensive learning experience—state-sanctioned classroom and field-study courses must be completed before being issued a hunting license. Hunting rifles, shotguns, knives, bows, and archery supplies must be registered with the College’s Department of Public Safety and either stored there or at an off-campus facility.

“Some people might look at you like you’re doing something bad, but there’s not too many of those,” says Montgomery. “The majority think it’s neat or cool; they just don’t understand it.”

Cort recalls a time when he returned to his suite with four dead geese in plastic garbage bags, and the reaction from his roommates was “wow, that’s a lot of dead birds.” Most of his friends are on board with his hunting, he says, though he also takes pride in how his extracurricular activity can set him apart and allows him to interact with non-Middlebury students.

The Sochi Experience

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

simi_hamiltonFor the second-consecutive Winter Olympics, cross-country skier Simi Hamilton ’09 competed for the United States. We look back on his road to Sochi.

American cross-country skier Simeon “Simi” Hamilton ’09, a three-time NCAA All-American at Middlebury, did something on December 31 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, that no American male had done in more than 30 years. He won a cross-country World Cup race.

In a 1.5km sprint freestyle (skating) race, Hamilton won a frantic fight on the final straightaway with Canada’s Alex Harvey and Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway to take his first-ever leg of the Tour de Ski, part of the cross-country World Cup circuit, and earn his first World Cup podium (top three) finish. The win was also the first by an American male on the World Cup since Bill Koch won the Sarajevo 30km event in February 1983.

With the Sochi Games just a month away, there was suddenly a bit of additional media glare on Hamilton’s Olympic prospects. Hamilton, from Aspen, Colorado, arrived in Sochi being talked about as a contender in the sprint events. And he would not have disagreed with that assessment.

As it happened, the Olympics didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. All the Olympic cross-country races were held at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, a lovely venue at the top of a long cable-car ride, a couple of thousand vertical feet above the mountain town of Krasnaya Polyana. Most of the early races, in particular, were held in sweltering temperatures, for world-class skiing, in the mid-50s. There was plenty of snow up at Laura, but its consistency was constantly shifting – slush in the sunshine, glare ice in the shadows – and ski techs had a tough time dialing in base preparations and wax choices. In fact, one of the biggest stories in cross-country racing at the Games was the inability of the vaunted Norwegian team to provide its athletes with skis that worked.

So, against this backdrop, in the men’s 1.8km sprint freestyle, Hamilton made it to the quarterfinals, but finished sixth in his heat, with only the top two advancing, leaving him in 27th place overall. He was part of the 4x10km relay team for Team USA that finished 11th. And he teamed with Erik Bjornsen in the men’s team sprint classic event, qualifying for the finals and finishing a respectable sixth overall. Bjornsen, a distance specialist, was pinch-hitting for Hamilton’s usual sprint partner, Andy Newell, who was knocked out by illness.

“I was really hoping for a little more success here,” he said right after the team sprint on February 19, during which he ran six laps of a grueling 1.8km course. “I feel like I’ve had a lot of good international experience over the years, and I’ve been progressing every single season. Last year was kind of a frustrating season with a lot of illness, but this year I feel like I made some really big gains, and I’ve felt fitter than I ever have and my speed is a lot better.

“So, to come here and be 27th in the sprint was definitely a little frustrating. But you know, at the same time, I think one of my strengths is just looking at the big picture, and I think being a good ski racer means that you’re a well-rounded racer, and you can process things, and take them in stride and learn from them. And the more you ski race, the more you realize that not every day is going to be the best day ever.”

While he found his Olympic experience somewhat frustrating, his focus is on the future. “I was looking forward to this day [the team sprint] all week, he said, “and now I’m looking forward to getting some really good training in over the next 10 days before we have a skate sprint in Lahti, Finland, and finishing out the season really well.

“Yeah, it’s a cool experience being here with a great team and a great staff, in a beautiful place, and my family’s here. No matter what the result is, we’re just lucky to be on this team and be here and represent the U.S.”

Some Kind of Place: Auschwitz, Poland

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

There are few place names on the planet that are associated with the heightened level of grotesque depravity as Auschwitz.

Carved out of the quiet Polish village of Oświęcim by Nazi invaders in 1939, Auschwitz was conceived as being a major implement of Heinrich Himmler’s system of forced labor through oppression, a concentration camp that would support the Nazi war effort and, with victory achieved, would serve as one of the greater cities in the Reich. Or so the Nazis believed.

History has recorded a different story, a deranged nightmare of starvation and mass execution. A history populated with gas chambers and crematoriums. A forced labor camp that became a center for extermination.

For the past six years, geographer Anne Knowles has lived with Auschwitz—not in the physical place, but with it, with its conception and its construction and the chaos and instability that belie the common perception of Nazi calculation and precision.

Knowles came to Auschwitz during a two-week workshop that she helped organize at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a fortnight that brought together nine scholars from diverse disciplines—historical geography, geographic information science (GIS), cartography, history, and architectural history—“to consider how spatial analysis and geographical visualization of the built environment and forced movement of people during the Holocaust might inspire new research questions and pedagogical applications.”

From that workshop in 2007 came a grant from the National Science Foundation that funded six projects (pairing at least one historian with one geographer) that would examine the operational scale of the Holocaust; those six projects became six book chapters in the forthcoming Geographies of the Holocaust.

Though the Holocaust exists as one of the most profoundly devastating geographical events in human history, before these projects, few scholars had ever identified and investigated the spaces and geographical patterns of the genocide. No one had used GIS to do spatial analysis of these events, and, says Knowles, likely never would have if such a disparate group of academics hadn’t come together and forged a multi-faceted collaboration. “It was this frisson,” claims Knowles, “people coming together from different perspectives and different fields and then rubbing up against one another, that set off the sparks of discovery.”

This story presents some of the findings contained in a chapter titled “Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem,” co-authored by Knowles; Paul Jaskot, an architectural historian at DePaul University; and Chester Harvey ’09 and Benjamin Perry Blackshear ’12.

Auschwitz, says Knowles, was supposed to become one of the greater cities in the Reich. A city was planned that would feature an entrance pavilion and a garden city. A grand headquarters for the commandant was drawn, as were estates for officers. In the idealized designs of architect Lothar Hartjenstein, Auschwitz was to become a “complex urban world supporting the control over a vast, greater Germany.”

But, Knowles says, these 1942 plans were displaced by more pragmatic demands in 1943. “What were built instead were more barracks to house many more guards, who were needed to control hundreds of thousands of prisoners scheduled to arrive from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest.”

Auschwitz-PlansHarvey and Blackshear used architectural drawings and plans and construction records to create the map at right. In green, you see structures that were included in the original plans for Auschwitz and subsequently built. In purple are the buildings that were not included in the original plan, but built out of necessity, including new guard barracks in the lower center of the map. And in orange are the areas planned by architect Lothar Hartjenstein, but never realized. In the upper left corner of the map are the plans for the commandant’s headquarters. Foundations were dug, but that is all. As the researchers note in their chapter, “the rationally planned total environment evident in the clarity of the SS’s ideal conceptualization of the complex in 1943 clashes with the messy reality of plans and buildings that were actualized in fits and starts over time.”

Or, as Knowles says, “The exigencies of war and genocide took over.”

With the erection of crematoria and the implementation of genocide, the SS entered a fevered stretch of drawing and redrawing plans that led to the construction of buildings that would “facilitate the day to day operation of the camp.” Perversely, this would include amenities intended to “entertain and distract” the guards charged with increasingly brutal and inhumane work.

The map below, reconstructed by Blackshear to indicate the dense variety of functions in one small part of the camp, shows the placement of two saunas on the east side of Auschwitz I, circa November 1943. Write the authors, “This cluster of different functions has remained invisible in the scholarship even though our color overlays make it clear that they were in fact extremely visible to the SS and inmates at the site.”

Auschwitz-BlackshearChillingly, the saunas’ design echoed the decorative carpentry of central European tradition. That is, they were not only functional, but had an aesthetic, recreational purpose as well—all within sight of the death chambers.

A primary goal of the Auschwitz research was to use GIS to help understand the role sight played in the exercise of control at the camps. “We wanted to know what the guards could see and what impact that had on the prisoners,” Knowles says. “Were there places that were more dangerous than others? Were there places where people could escape notice?”

Knowles worked with Chester Harvey to use architectural plans, archival images, and aerial photographs to recreate the site and then render three-dimensional images of the camp. “We could place a hypothetical guard in any place in the camp and show what he could see most and least clearly,” Knowles says. Harvey generated the image bellow. The dash of white near the middle of the map indicates the approximate field of view for a person of average height standing in the center of that location.

“But that did not turn out to be the most interesting question—what could a guard see?” Knowles says. “See those buildings shaded red? Those are buildings that were under construction from May 1943 to May 1944. Paul Jaskot looked at this image and asked, rather casually, ‘Could we animate this?’”

Because Harvey had compiled a database of information that included when individual buildings were constructed and what they were used for, he was able to animate just how fluid this site was. “It’s a simple thing,” Knowles says, “but in the mind of an architecture historian, it created what we call in GIS circles ‘the eureka moment.’

RedBarracks“Paul said, ‘Oh my God, look at how chaotic this was—for eight months this was a construction site,’” Knowles recalls. “What the guards saw, changed constantly. The landscape was altered over and over and over. Think about the commotion of a construction site, and then add a swelling population of guards—and prisoners.”

Write the authors, “The scale of construction and its duration probably meant that much of the camp was visually confusing, quite a different environment than the regimented, rational, static image of the camp that has become so familiar to us.”

The Holocaust has always been an event rooted in time and place, Knowles says. “We’re trying to see what that looks like and then analyze the relationship between the two, place and time.”

Mapping, she says, “shows us what [the Nazis] built and did; it shows what their priorities were, rather than what they talked about. It sends a chill down the spine.”

Also, she adds, “In my mind, it highlights the absurdity of Nazi dreams.”

Some Kind of Place: Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I’ve lived in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, three times now, each occasion as Emily Webb, the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town.

The people who live in this fictional village are unsentimental, hard working, and full of love, though they don’t always have the tools to express it. As Wilder wrote in the preface to the 1957 collection Three Plays, Grover’s Corners is a lens in which “to find value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The door is always open to visitors.

Grover’s Corners has been my benchmark to measure time and growth. I first played Emily at summer camp on Lake Champlain; it was my first big lead in a play, the role gave me the confidence to pursue my love for acting. Ten years later as a professional in a production in Baltimore, Maryland, I was made aware of the pressure of the iconic role and my own shortcomings as a developing actress. Now married, nearing 30, and revisiting the play this past summer in the acting ensemble at the Bread Loaf School of English, I found Grover’s Corners to be a new place, different from the one I knew as a teenager. It no longer felt like a physical location, but rather a fragile moment in time—our moment in time. It creates community by showing us community, and you don’t need to be from small-town New England to understand it.

Wilder wrote: “The climax of this play needs only five-square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.” What happens on those five-square feet is funny, awkward, brutal, optimistic, and forgiving. That world—Grover’s Corners—is home to me. It is a home created by the artists and the audiences who visit it. In this imagined world, I have been most fully myself. I find remnants of it in Brooklyn, exchanging smiles with a stranger, biking through the park, sharing dinner at home with my husband and friends. It’s a place that allows reflection and growth.
It can happen anywhere or anytime—as long as you leave room for hope.

Julia Proctor ’06 is an actress living in Brooklyn with her husband, Phil Aroneanu ’06. For more on Julia, visit www.juliaproctor.com.

Some Kind of Place: South Sudan/Congo Border

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From above, this place is endlessly vast. We fly for hours and hours in planes and helicopters; then we walk by foot. From above, this place is smooth—a smooth, vast wilderness, beyond history, before people. But there are people here. Mothers and fathers, infants and babies, yearning youth, and ancient elders. They are connected by webs of motorcycle tracks held in place by mud huts and ancestor spirits. Yet one can still travel hundreds of miles through these jungles and not see a soul.

Here so many edges of Africa come together under impossibly thick, low-hanging canopy of brush and forest. The frontiers of South Sudan and Congo and Central African Republic. On these edges sits the center of Africa.

Such places are rare in the world. They exist at both the center and the end of things. Entire rebel groups can disappear in these lands. Massive cathedrals appear down tiny dusty tracks. Here, guns from nearby conflicts ebb and flow like tides until the neighboring conflicts become this place’s conflict.

It is a place where the notion of government is a faint one, a trickling stream that dries up in the dry season and sometimes doesn’t run all year long.

In the heat beneath the arc of the plane, the Earth sweats green. And the smoothness turns into reaching thorns and sharp grasses.

Then when I return months later, it has turned brown, and the crust of the Earth has cracked like soft-dried lava.

The sharp grasses have gone dull, and the thorns have grown smaller.

Trevor Snapp ’03 is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, The Guardian (London), among other publications. He works globally, and for the past few years has been based out of Mexico and East Africa. His work can be found at www.trevorsnapp.com.

Some Kind of Place: Nuiqsut, Alaska

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2013-08-03 The Storm

I. Path to the Sea
The blades of the fiberglass kayak paddles rise and fall to a rhythm as balanced as a pendulum’s. In the deafening Arctic quiet, they splash into the murky water with deep chops, the sound muffled only by the wind. Under cloudy skies, the river is a long, wide pane of gray, broken periodically by sandbars speckled with chalk-white caribou skulls. Steep banks rise on either side of the water, crowned at the top with tufts of grassy tundra. The cabins of a fish camp, where a family of Inupiat Eskimos likely spent the summer catching the year’s supply of char, burbot, and Dolly Varden trout, appear empty. Near one of the small, shingled buildings, what appears to be a small grizzly bear reveals itself as a musk ox when it raises its shaggy head to the sound of the boats, turns, and gallops out of sight.

As they slowly navigate the river, the small, rugged, inflatable crafts—weighing five pounds and collapsible to the size of a sleeping bag—add bright yellow and red to the otherwise stark aesthetic. Chelsea Ward-Waller ’12, Brett Woelber ’09, and his brother Paxson ’08 are on the Colville River, less than two miles from the Arctic Ocean.

From the start of their journey in the sweeping mountain passes and sunlit canyons of Alaska’s Brooks Range, they have come 300 human-powered miles in a month. They’ve named their trek Expedition Arguk—arguk meaning to walk against the wind, in Alaskan Inupiat—and they didn’t embark without putting a lot of careful thought into what they planned to do and why they planned to do it. Brett is a hydrologist; Chelsea, a geologist; Paxson, a media producer. All have a powerful affinity for the outdoors, for nature’s wild frontiers. They saw in Arguk an opportunity to traverse one of this country’s most rugged, remote regions, and they wanted to do so before the landscape was forever altered by encroaching development; a bridge, soon to be built by ConocoPhillips, will span the Colville River, offering easy access to the energy company’s newest drill site. “Our trip is limited,” Paxson explains, “We aren’t experts. We’re not going to provide a dry environmental assessment [of what’s going on here], what we can provide, though, is what it’s like to be here.”

And what it’s like to be out here is a discordant mash of serene beauty and perpetual discomfort. Three weeks on two different rivers means being constantly wet; something as simple as slipping on dry, five-toed socks before curling up in a sleeping bag is nothing short of sacrosanct. Campsites are often buffeted by piercing winds and require an electric “bear-proof” to be erected each evening.
To the group’s surprise, they haven’t seen many grizzlies. Several days into their first stretch of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, a grizzly swam across the river in front of them, climbed up on the bank, stared, then darted into thicket of small trees. Still, everyone keeps bear spray within reach at all times. In Fairbanks, before beginning the trip, and after much debate and consideration, they decided on an extra measure: Brett carries a .44 magnum on his hip that has yet to leave its leather holster. Still, they’re not mentally prepared for what they encounter as they near the ocean.

Chelsea is the first to see the enormous, lumbering form. White spots (seagulls, skulls, driftwood) on the horizon are plentiful, and the landscape’s flatness often makes size difficult to judge—but a polar bear seen from less than a half-mile off is unmistakable.

Paddling ceases.

The bear’s shoulder rotates almost mechanically, and its legs move in a slow, seemingly effortless plod, yet it covers ground quickly. Then, suddenly, it disappears into the river ahead. Paddling begins again, this time with hurried purpose. Polar bears are known to attack prey by swimming underneath it, so the packrafters retreat to a sandbar in the middle of the river and get out of their boats. For several minutes, the bear is nowhere to be seen. Brett brings the .44 out and holds it at his side. Finally, it reappears on the opposite bank and continues down the shore.

Once the bear is well out of sight, the group presses on toward the mouth of the river; within a few hours, they wade into the Arctic Ocean. When they turn and look back across the tundra, what seem like abbreviated skylines of miniature cities appear at different distances across the horizon—the derricks from the Colville River Unit Alpine Oil Pool.

II. From Beginning to End
Arguk began at the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where Luke Douglas ’09, Brett, Paxson, and Chelsea hiked into the Arctic National Preserve: 13,000 square miles with few named landmarks or a single trail. Navigation involved topographic maps, compasses, landmarks, and a little guesswork. With the shadows of clouds moving along with them, they passed through valleys and over steep passes, crowned with ridgelines of striated rock. They followed braided rivers, at times walking through rushing water when it proved easier than hiking over tussocks, the hillocks of thick grass that make up the vast floor of the region.

After the first week, they arrived at Anaktuvuk Pass, a small Nunamiut Eskimo village in the central Brooks Range. There, Jason Mercer, a biologist and the group’s fifth member, joined them. But they were not five for long. Luke arrived in Anaktuvuk with a badly sprained ankle and, after much deliberation, left on a flight back to Anchorage shortly after Jason arrived. The new group of four would use their packrafts to float down the Anaktuvuk River to its confluence with the Colville. Where its headwaters lay was a mystery, however, and no one in town seemed to know. After substantial wandering, they found a small, meandering channel through some grassland, began paddling and, soon enough, found themselves on a narrow river.

The landscape north of the Brooks Range changed drastically; they were suddenly surrounded by bright green, perfectly rounded hills. It looked “like you could walk blindfolded for a hundred miles without tripping,” Brett remembers, and though it seemed empty at first, more and more birds began to appear. Many were in molt and couldn’t fly, so as the boats approached, they ran down the riverbanks in large flocks, flapping their wings until just out of sight. When the boats came around the next river bend, the charade began anew and continued for miles and miles.

The packrafters then entered the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), the largest single unit of public land in the United States (measuring slightly larger than the state of Maine), in Alaska’s North Slope. The region was opened for oil development in February, an event that garnered litle attention, even in Alaska.

After entering the NPR-A at the confluence of the Anaktuvuk and Colville Rivers, the packrafters spotted another boat filled with paleontologists who invited them to their camp at Ocean Point, where the saltwater from the Arctic Ocean begins to mix with the freshwater from the mountains. The next morning, they visited their dig site, where a group of duck-billed dinosaurs had been killed en masse millions of years ago. Thousands of bones spilled from the side of a bluff.

After leaving the paleontologists, the packrafters paddled through thick sea fog as they neared the ocean. Motorboats full of Inupiat Eskimos would pull alongside; a few of the natives would snap pictures of the visitors. There had been a celebration in the nearby village of Nuiqsut, population 400.  The people in Anaktuvuk Pass had warned the packrafters about Nuiqsut—an insular and protective community, they claimed.

The village’s power lines soon came into view, standing tall over the prefabricated houses arranged among a neat grid of gravel roads. When the packrafters arrived, they deflated their boats, walked past the graveyard on the edge of the village, and entered the town offices to introduce themselves.

2013-08-15 01 NuiqsutIII. The Village
Contrary to the opinion of those south of Nuiqsut, Expedition Arguk was welcomed warmly in the village. People in pickup trucks and four-wheelers waved when they passed by on the town’s gravel roads; some would stop to welcome them or ask where they’d come from and why.

Caribou and moose antlers lay unceremoniously on the tops of garages and the ice cellars outside homes. (The ice cellars are used to store whale skin and blubber after a hunt.) Subsistence hunting accounts for a large part of the diet in Nuiqsut, though there is a grocery store in town where a half gallon of Darigold two-percent milk runs for $9.99, a dozen grade AA eggs cost $6.99, and one and a half quarts of Dreyer’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla ice cream will run you $15.35.

The visitors attended Thursday night Bingo in the town hall, bringing their own sheets and markers and finding seats around one of the long wooden tables in a room full of Inupiat women and a few men. Chelsea won $100 in the first game, and she, like every subsequent winner, received the room’s applause. Several days later, representatives from ConocoPhillips held a meeting in the same room to discuss the construction of the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River to the new drill site. Door prize tickets were handed out before the meeting began, and someone translated the presentation from English to Inupiat. “There will be some blasting involved.” “The bridge will withstand flood conditions.”

The presentation ended with, “Does everyone have a door prize ticket?”


Clap. Clap.

A new first-aid kit.


Clap, clap.

A new set of kitchen knives.

Jason left Nuiqsut first, followed by Brett and Chelsea. Paxson was the last of Arguk to leave. He boarded a small prop plane, flying under the name Era Alaska. After bumping down the small airstrip, the plane lifted off the ground, slowly gained altitude, and disappeared into the fog, bound for Deadhorse, 60 miles away, where a larger plane awaited.