Ambition Has Small Wrists and Pees in the Bushes: Girls in Icy Fjords and Rethinking Polymathism
Somewhere on the Pacific Ocean, on our last day in the wilderness
We were curving gently on the surface of the blue lagoon, grinning at each other,
before Kim nodded and I flipped over into the ice-filled water. The cold first came as
a faint pressure over my drysuit, then concentrated into my exposed face and hands
as I undid my splash skirt from the kayak and floundered my way up to the surface.
On the shore, tiny figures cheered me on – the eight other girls who had been
selected for this free expedition from the world’s population. I flipped the kayak back
over with Kim’s help – now that I was already cold, getting back out into the air would
be the hardest part. The conception of weight is inherently different in water – unlike
the atmosphere, where gravity fades as you become further removed from the
ground, you feel heavier while you’re at the very top of the water and moving against
its steadfast, downward grip. Kim pressed down on the other side of the kayak to
steady it, smiling encouragingly as I tried to haul my body onto the end, which was
smaller than my waist. I lost my grip and splashed down into the chilly water, and Kim
leaned her kayak further alongside mine to steady the bucking slice of plastic. Two
more tries, with more facefuls of water. Three more tries, and I was sprawled on the
kayak, desperately clawing myself toward the small cockpit. Clutching the swaying,
impossibly buoyant body of the boat between my legs, I finally maneuvered myself
using the deck’s rigging into my seat. Kim handed me my glasses, and we paddled
our kayaks toward the shore, carving through the heavy water.
My journal sketch
The real thing
Bear Glacier, the Kenai Fjords’ largest glacier, is spectacular to behold.
Throughout its lagoon in July, calved ice pieces drift further and further from their
origin, and we’re warned not to get too close to the icebergs in case our kayaks get
stuck on the ninety-percent of the visible ice that’s hidden below the surface. To
seasoned campers, the smaller pieces of ice are called glacier berries, for their
tantalizing appeal as water sources for kayakers. We scooped them up from the
water in droves and bit into them. The instant we arrived at our stop, a barren rocky
shore studded with sheaths of green weed, I tried to lift a glacier berry that looks to
be the size of my hand and ended up hauling a chunk the size of a baby up the slope.
The glacier berry in question
During the day, it would often start raining on our trips to gather scientific data, and I
remember gliding on the water, bags tied to the kayak, me locked in place by the
sprayskirt. We only really wore the kayaking helmet during the very start and when it
was raining. I even got a purple umbrella for a while and an instructor laughed at me,
charmed by the prissy image of kayaking with an umbrella on one’s shoulder.
With my umbrella I also carried a couple of assumptions about Alaskan life,
and myself. The Inspiring Girls group first met at a cabin right after driving out from
Anchorage. There were at least ten bikes hung up on the wall, the handles and seats
thrusting out at us, where I’d expected guns. Also, while I’d dreamed about seeing
bears and huge mossy moose for the months since my acceptance, and the bear
spray training later on would make me even more excited, we didn’t encounter
wildlife apart from the exciting rare seal or mouse.
Exciting rare seal in question
The concept of "Leave no trace" worked its way into our blood. The camp utilities
were always kept far apart, in case of bears. We couldn’t bring makeup, locked up the
sunscreen every night because of the scent, and we happily got used to going to the
bathroom in the bushes. There was nothing to shower with, and I endured the acne
that piled up in bright clumps over my face and the stench of ever-wet socks. Over
the course of ten days we hauled bear barrels on our backs and pulled kayaks
through cold rivers. Heavy rain always seemed to be on the verge of flooding our
tents. Out of breath, sometimes I’d look around at the other girls and women and
wonder how I had ever managed to end up here. Four seasoned scientific
researchers and artists. Eight young women who were international role models,
seasoned locals, had businesses, and had plenty of moving stories and laughter,
revealed in intimate tent conversations as we huddled together in our incredibly
cozy sleeping bags.
Tent life part one
Tent life part two
And there was me, with my own stories, and how even though the trip was all about
art and science I didn’t consider myself particularly good at either art or science. I
certainly wasn’t involved in them as much as other people, but I knew that I truly
enjoyed doing watercolor drawings on the shore, writing in my journal, the beautiful
movement of kayaking arms, and extracting data from the footprints of shorebirds
Ice can be delicate, like a musical instrument, or brutish, like a stone. And I
realized, how could I ever call myself dedicated to writing, and English, if I enjoyed
doing so many things? Granted, I didn’t do the other things at the same level as I
usually did in writing, but they were more than hobbies in simple terms; the amount
of time they took up. They sucked up my energy to write and dispersed it in other
places in other ways. Would I regret spreading myself too thin? If I spread myself too
thin, would I crack? I liked doing everything and that meant I had everything to write
about and no time to write. I loved learning and that meant I didn’t want to care about
grades as long I tried my best and learned something, anything, new.
The many shapes of ice
But to focused people, the ones who were lucky enough to have singular desires,
they were simply ahead. They’d warned that the trip would need a certain level of
athleticism, and this explained why I was usually the slowest kayaker, learning new
things but desperately trying to build the strength to keep up. What could I do, in a
world of majors and separate fields, where I always had to push myself as someone
who loved to learn in all fields? And time kept pushing me away from these part-time
subjects, connected only through thin spokes like those of a wheel to my sturdy
center of writing.
Hiking in an ocean of green
In the end, it was the landscape that inspired me – the scenery was a process
of becoming. All the ice I saw became a complete, clear lagoon, instead of thinking
of it as a glacier constantly calving in short bursts of white thunder. It’s a safety rule
that you’re supposed to remain half a mile away from the face of glaciers, and twice
the height or width away from icebergs. But over the rest of the summer, and
sometimes even over the course of a single day, the looming ice chunks would melt
seamlessly into the calm blue lagoon. While now we maneuvered through a river of
fractals, the bright white lumps would eventually peacefully dissolve into the water.
Renaissance woman was the first term that came to mind when I accepted this:
despite my dedication to writing and English, I couldn't stop myself exploring. And
the wide sky and water made my wild ambitions appear possible.
A new process of observation
I ate the beach peas and red salmonberries we identified, and touched the fireweed
by our tents, stunned by the violet burst of color in the bleak landscape. I chased
after the athletic girls relentlessly on the water and on hikes, building up my own
muscles and happiness. In the night we made sure to have our headlights on, and
when I forgot mine I stumbled through the wild brush, tripping on branches and little
dips on the long walk between the bear barrels and our tents after brushing my teeth.
We mapped thin waterfalls on the Pacific cliffs, and made measurements of rock size
and bird trails for our final presentations. Once we sat and drew the Ghost Forest,
fields of lush green wildgrass behind stark white poles pinpricked by a thousand
small branches etched into our notebooks. The 1964 Alaska earthquake had
dropped the earth ten feet, destroying several small villages, and as saltwater
flooded the forest’s roots the trees had turned pale and died, still standing.
A remnant of the quake
I call those moments little miracles now. Another time we stopped by the highway at
Turnagain Arm and ran down to the shore. No one could go beyond the banks of the
Arm because of the mudflats. The tides could melt the hard ground in an instant and
people had drowned there, trapped by the heavy sucking. They should have been
called mouthflats, really, not mudflats. But we knew we had unspoken permission to
go as far as we could as long as we stayed on the rocky slope. A railroad ran
perpendicular to the highway, and its rails looked gentle, the metal resting
neatly on the gray pebbles.
The rails in question
Only nature was truly permanent. And halfway through our six-hour sea kayaking trip
back to Seward we camped for a night on a slope overlooking the ocean. The large,
smooth rocks rose up into my back even through the thermal sleeping bag and the
tent base. We were so eager to hike new terrain, and we ventured through a jungle of
lush green devil’s club leaves and got excited to see a river fall down a few lengths of
rock even as we narrowly avoided falling off the trail, slippery from the recent rain.
One of many hiking trails we encountered
Rowing hurt me,but in a way that I knew made me better, stronger. If I was to be a
writer, I thought, I had to experience everything. So I couldn’t bring myself to hate any
subject except not learning. Aptitude wasn’t everything, dedication was, and I
couldn’t give up my dream of learning as much as I could in the span of my life.
Near the end of the trip we kayaked from Bear Glacier into Resurrection Bay,
and then into the Pacific Ocean. There were miles and miles of sea before we’d arrive
at Seward, to staring locals as we’d get out of our kayaks and dance in the water,
flopping on our backs in the shifting tide. The water would hold firm and bring us up.
But now, I braced myself for the toll hours of rowing would take on my arms.
Preparing for the long stretch
Sometimes I was behind, and sometimes out of excitement I sped ahead. I loved the
pogies, or kayaking gloves. They warmed my hands while I was gripping the heavy
paddle and my hands got cold easily even at home. Unexpected rain would mist my
glasses, my arms would feel like falling off, and the constant movement of the sea
made us sick.
If I spread myself too far, would I crack? I came to love the paddling, sketching,
and scientific data, but I’d always come back to writing in spite of myself. And those
skills would remain, at the back of my mind, and I would hope, no, know, that
someday they would emerge in some other form in my life, even if in a ghostly form,
and I’d be at home no matter what I was doing, and no matter where I was in the
Something in the distance
Puffins soared above our heads and I knew I dreamed about learning for the
sake of learning, and that I wanted to make myself into a Renaissance woman, if I
could keep up the passion and resilience. Over the satellite radio we got news of a
whale nearby, and saw faint flickers in the distance that could have been anything.
Doubts began amassing in my sore wrists and stiff neck – what would I do if learning
everything wasn’t affordable, or possible? At college double majors were ambitious,
triple majors were seen as insane. I was a lower-middle-class New York City girl lost
in the wilderness. If you get back down to earth, the simple theme of glaciers is not to
get too close.
But then again, I’d learned so much from the lagoon, and the deep blue
Resurrection Bay, and little shorebirds. From looking at the ground and seeing so
many rocks and the occasional rodent bones picked over by hawks. And from the
vibrant people who I became lucky enough to call friends. When ice breaks it’s called
calving, stirring up images of a smaller mass being shorn off a much greater one
irreversibly. Despite the crash, as the sun dips closer and closer to the Earth during
Arctic summer, the pieces melt back into their maternal freshwater. This process is
equally calculable through math and poetry. But now, I’m only thinking in terms of
muscle and ache and paddle, miles and miles before Seward, trying to reason with
myself about why I chose to attempt this, and what connection something like this
could possibly have to writing.
It’s a relatively easy bond compared to the lifelong learning I want to devote
myself to. The term calving has connotations of giving birth.
Water, in its many forms