Something that I love about Juneau is the sheer number of people who just need to be outside in one way or another. Maybe they’re born-and-bred, or maybe they’re transplants, but it makes me cheered that so much of what we do around here involves fresh air and the forest. Which isn’t to say we’re not really good at spending time inside, but it only makes sense that we’d take advantage of where we live. After all, there’s nothing quite like the wild Alaskan outdoors! Or is there?
I’ve been wondering what it really is about this so-called “wild Alaskan outdoors” that everyone loves so much. What is it about walking down to Cowee Meadows that couldn’t be offered by a walk through a suburban greenway? Why have a cookout in the rain, when the beach should be about sunshine and leisure? Or what makes it worth the immense effort, danger, and money to go backcountry skiing, that so many people do it?
I’m not talking about activities that already have a tangible product, like fishing. I’m talking about activities that no one really needs to do, like trail running, or stand-up paddle-boarding. Why outdoors? Why high-intensity and danger? And does it make a difference if it’s in Alaska versus a Colorado state park?
So I had a conversation about this with a friend of mine. He’s a really great mountain climber, which is flat-out one of the most adventurous things you can do. I asked him what was so satisfying about summiting hard-to-reach peaks. As he described sheer stone shooting up from the foothills of the Brooks Range, where he clung to finger-holds, thousands of feet above the ground, he explained the climber’s satisfaction of accomplishment and problem-solving. Planning and executing a route, and the feeling of finishing it, he explained, were the driving pleasures.
So, “is the danger exciting?” I asked. He told me that, no, being safe is much more fun than being in danger. He then went on to explain the difference between risk and consequence.
Risk is the chance that something will go badly. Consequence is just how badly. If you’re looking at a sheer fall, 30 feet up or 300 feet up, it doesn’t matter, the consequence is deadly. You can change your risk, however, by only taking routes you can actually do with 100 percent certainty. As a climber, he doesn’t enjoy high-risk. He avoids it. But he also knows that intense routes come with high consequences.
And so you have your low-risk, low-consequence recreation, like bonfires and walking. Everything up from there starts becoming risky unless you come prepared with skill or equipment. I’m thinking about hiking, snow sports and kayaking. For more intense fun, people look to mountaineering, mine exploration, climbing or rafting. The consequences rise with the fun, but the risk can be mitigated with proper gear and experience.
I thought this was a really great way to look at recreation in Alaska. But I think there’s even more to it.
Once I met a guy who used to live in Alaska. He said that what he perceived as the biggest difference between life in most of the U.S. and life in Alaska was the deadly proximity to danger. At the time, I thought he meant that life in rural Alaska is risky, and therefore more fun. I now know what he really meant was that life in rural Alaska has harsher consequences, and therefore more sobering and sublime.
So I don’t think it’s all visuals and aesthetics, aspects of what we call “wilderness,” that can easily be replaced by parks and sculpted spaces. Nor do I think it’s purely symbolic that we love to move to a state with dangerous weather and animals and relatively little infrastructure. I think it’s clear that the appeal of recreation in nature is also in part because of the intensity of consequence. Even if it’s not actually experienced (there no terrible consequences to a walk on the beach), maybe our proximity to those possibilities and their mortal reminders are enough. Maybe in a time when we become increasingly separated from the sources of our products and from nature itself, it helps us feel more a part of the food chain.
• Guy About Town appears the first and third Sunday of every month and includes seasonal musings on what changes and what doesn’t in a small town. Guy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.