Ugadaga Bay

Jannice says she will eat anything edible. At Ugadaga bay, she peels dried kelp from the sun-baked rocks. “It’s exactly like out of the package, crisp and salty.” Dried nori follows salmon berries, blueberries, and a relative of buckwheat that tastes like nuts in a field. For protein, we will have to hunt ground squirrels, which are everywhere and camp in the road. We hike on soil and skipping stones, ripe tundra, and matted grass that becomes a puddle if we stop too long. Snack on twigs as we go. We find a patch of lady slippers, but all the heads have been chewed off. We picnic on a dry rise favored by lichen and cranberries. Sundews glisten at our feet.

We talk about those things you do between the here and the there: high school sport, gear fetish, children’s books, hiking etiquette. Josh disappears far out in front. Mario lags to take pictures, Steffi to collect plants, and eventually make their own trails. I position myself somewhere equidistant, my idea of a geographic center. We agree that everyone is on their own, and no one gets to complain. Still, we are entertained watching Mario navigate clefts in the tundra. There’s a hidden landscape in the ravines, and he disappears for minutes at a time.

In college, my GIS instructor demonstrated how we could take a piece of cardboard cut into the shape of the state of Virginia, and if we suspended it by a thread affixed to the city of Charlottesville, the map would balance. When people ask where I live in Alaska, in Fairbanks, I tell them, it’s right in the middle. Then they know I’m a long way from the ocean.

Jannice swims in the Bering Sea. She’s planned this for days, and when the moment comes she runs through the shallows forty meters before the water is deep enough for her to dive in. The first photograph is only a failure if you expect her to be in the picture. My phone is still set to panorama, and as I follow her path, she disappears herself between the stitched exposures, leaving a sequence of splashes in the water, as if someone has been skipping stones, as if a ghost has run through the scene, footsteps in the surf, and if you look carefully, there is one disembodied arm center frame, as if most of her has slipped through a wormhole.

In the second photo, she’s underwater. In the next two, she’s walking back towards shore and washing the sand off her shoulders. Then there’s the video. She grins. “Yes, cold. Yes, refreshing. Yes, you should all try it.”

—Thanks to National Geographic; University of Stirling, Arctic Institute of North America; Columbia University; National Science Foundation; University of Alaska Museum of the North Herbarium (Unalaska, 2016)

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