A sense of not belonging

This was, for me, one of the most amazing sights from our visit to Denali National Park last July – it says so much about the park and our relationship with the wilderness. The bears have been chewing and clawing the sign, threatening to destroy it altogether. The park staff responded by studding the edges with nails to discourage such behavior. And the battle to pretend we’re not really there continues…

Through our entire time in Denali I had very mixed feelings about being there. It was very clear that we were intruders in a space that clearly should belong to nature and not to us. I may have needed the bears, but it was abundantly clear that the bears didn’t need me. I had a wonderful time, but never felt like I belonged there.

This was reinforced by the Park policies that repeatedly and strenuously (and correctly and reasonably) worked to minimize our impact on the park and its animals. We were instructed to be as quiet as possible, for example, when the shuttle bus would stop for a view of wildlife, so that the animals would not grow accustomed to the sound of human voices. The drivers would even threaten to move on if we couldn’t keep it down during an animal stop.

The intent of such a rule is good, but somewhat lacking practically. Silence is hardly the natural response of a bus load of visitors, even well meaning ones, when sighting bears. We would all rush to one side of the bus, and soon the obvious fracas would ensue: “Move over – it’s my turn to look!”, “Could I borrow your binoculars now?”, “Hey! Over here! You’ll get a better picture!”. The drivers would whisper over their loud speakers for us to quiet down, but it would all get a bit silly after a while. It’s pretty hard to imagine that dozens of buses full of visitors every day all summer don’t ultimately make an undesirable difference.

So why do I need to see a grizzly bear in the wild? Am I so shallow that I cannot support and defend the wild places without having left my footprints there? I am no biologist, and am hardly in a position to study what I see in any serious way, especially with only two days in the park. My presence doesn’t add to our larger understanding of the wilderness and the importance of preserving such sites. So what purpose did I serve by being there beyond satisfying my own selfish desire to see these things first hand, consuming much in the way of resources to make it possible? Probably the best I can do is tell stories and share these photos. In all honesty, though, they reach but a few in the grand scheme, and hardly seem to justify my intrusion into that space.

It was a time and place where I could do little good but much harm.

Clearly each of the more than 6.6 billion people on the planet can’t travel down the park road in Denali without destroying it, nor can they visit any similarly isolated place closer to where they live without equally devastating effect. So why do I get the opportunity? Because I (and my family) have the money and time and inclination? Who decides who gets to visit and who doesn’t? Does it just come down to privilege? Do we throw caution to the wind and let anyone and everyone go whenever they want? Or do we restrict it to the artists and scientists that can help us understand what we have and leave the rest of us to watch it on TV or read about it in books?

My goal here is not to criticize others (including my family!) who visit places like Denali or much more desperately overburdened parks like Yosemite. There are those (including my sister) for whom such experiences border on the spiritual, and I would hardly deny them that. I, however, am not such a person, and I had (and still have) awkward feelings about my presence there. I don’t wish to seem churlish – there’s no question our time in Denali (and Alaska in general) was extraordinarily memorable and ranks as one of the great trips of my life. I am deeply grateful to my family for making the trip happen, and those that work in the parks so that we might visit.

I was, however, always acutely aware of being an outsider, of how utterly unnecessary I was in that space.

There have several very thoughtful comments on this image over on Flickr, so you might want to have a look.

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