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

nearly equally.

Field notes

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

world.

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


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