A self-set challenge, deep in one of the few corners of the world that can still boast a pristine natural environment. This is what Michele Dalla Palma faced together with five travelling companions. Alongside Dalla Palma, who is a journalist and photographer as well as a professional athlete, was Dolomite, the brand that is a symbol for all adventure lovers.
Do you fancy taking part in a great adventure in the far north of Alaska?
At the other end of the telephone is Pietro Simonetti, originally from Piedmont, Italy, who has lived for many years in Boulder, Colorado. A man with a passion for mountains and wild lands, he leaps from one part of the world to another in search of new sensations.
There is only one possible answer to Pietro's question, and at the end of July we meet up, together with our other four companions, for a journey into the boundless territories of the Great North.
We set out from the source of the river Kongakut, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. The far north of this state is the last wild place on earth where there are still "blank spots" on the map, marking areas still to be explored and discovered. This immense, uninhabited region is now a protected area. Between us and our return lie 400 miles of unknown territories, and a river, the sole, impetuous, unpredictable way out of the labyrinth of peaks and valleys in this corner of the planet so distant in time and space from everyday life.
We are six microscopic creatures trudging up the slopes of some mountain or other along the Continental Divide. Around us are only nameless peaks. The idea of being the first humans to tread these unknown places arouses intense feelings. We have no fantasies of accomplishing great feats. Here there is nothing to “conquer”, no “great mountains”, only endless vertical lands divided by deep valleys. Stretching to infinity. To the south lie the forests and swamps that form the immense, impenetrable Yukon river basin. The white waters, those untamed river currents that plunge down the mountain gorges, are the second objective of this expedition. And also the only way to reach the Arctic Ocean.
Clutching at shrubs on the riverbank, we manage to stop in a minuscule meander of relative calm upstream of a dreadful stretch. The river bares its soul to us in all its violence. Bonnie and Ryan go first; we watch them disappear into the whirlpools. Now and again their heads emerge briefly from the splashing white chaos. Then nothing for endless minutes, until we see a yellow paddle tip raised up against the background of the canyon. They made it.
Now it's our turn. I look at Greg with pleading eyes. I would do anything to avoid throwing myself into that deadly water. My rational mind whispers that this is the only way out, but it is powerless against the animal instinct that is trying to get me out of the canoe. “Forward!”
I am in front, so I only have to paddle with all my might, plunging straight into the ferocious waves, while Greg, behind me, has the responsibility of guiding that insignificant, ephemeral sheet of plastic amid the maelstrom. Despite the violence of the current, it seems that our improbable vessel is managing to glide over the crests. Then a murderous rock looms before us. Greg yells something, drowned out by the roar of the river.
I thrust the paddle frantically into the foam, and for a moment the canoe appears to float in the air. We have almost passed the obstacle when an eddy swings the tail of the boat into it, and we suddenly find ourselves sitting across the current. A violent jerk yanks the tip of the canoe into a pocket of apparently still water. I know what I should do, but my mind is slower than the returning wave that comes upstream at us due to the void created by the large stone; it hits me, and sinks me. The mechanical nature of fear, learnt in a thousand mountain adventures, allows me to detach from any emotion. Taking care not to get caught in any of the karabiners and cords that I have put in place to keep the baggage safe, I slide out of my seat, and finally I can breathe.
Perched on a rock on the bank, Bonnie gestures to me that not far beyond her there is a broad bend where the current is much milder. I pass her, touching my head repeatedly, which in river language means “everything is ok”, and I begin to swim clumsily. Moments later, Greg “lands”, clutching the line to our canoe in one hand. We could have been in deep trouble. But now it's no more than a dramatic sensation in my memory.
Yesterday we finally came out of the Kongakut river delta, and we are gliding amid the Arctic icebergs towards the place where our pilot Tom will come to pick us up tomorrow. Between us and the fury of the ocean's waves lies a thin strip of sand.
The perfect line of this natural barrier is disturbed only by a single, large white figure. We watch as it senses our presence, and rises up majestically on its hind legs, emanating all of its predatory awe and might. The pointed muzzle of the great white bear scrutinises the air like a radar. I remain hypnotised by the extraordinary power of the picture before me. I have seen it innumerable times in its virtual, video form.
But today this extraordinary creature is right there, a real presence in my world. A few paw strokes through the shallow water of the lagoon are all that lies between us. Extremely dangerous, but even more fascinating, this spectacle has us riveted to the spot. I switch on the video camera; Ryan takes the rifle out of its waterproof case. In front of us stands a magnificent male polar bear, one of the most ferocious, powerful and aggressive creatures in the animal kingdom. What's more, he is tearing a newly-caught seal to pieces, and he could consider us as rivals. He grips the tattered animal in his mighty jaws and moves away, trotting with the typical swaying gait that is only apparently slow and clumsy. Having deposited the seal carcass some way off, he comes back towards us, and without exchanging a word, we all understand that it is time to start paddling hard.
Our canoes glide silently on the water. The bear strides along the thin strip of sand, accompanying us for over a kilometre. I will always remember this extraordinary moment in our extraordinary journey.
Michele Dalla Palma