Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lessons From An Alaskan Pond

Twenty years ago, while solo backpacking among Alaska's Peters Hills, I learned a neat little lesson from this enigmatic backcountry pond about perception and how our minds work. 

It seems unbelievable that it was twenty years ago, but that's the way time flies.  Peter's Hills, it should be noted, would be considered mountains almost anywhere else, but they sit near the base of Denali, North America's highest point, in Denali State Park (not Denali National Park, a separate but nearby preserve, although Denali State Park would be a National Park almost anywhere else but at the foothills of Denali).

I knew I was somewhere near the mountain, but I wasn't sure if it would be visible from where I was hiking and the persistent cloud cover kept blocking my view of the sky.   But every now and then, the clouds would break up a little, and although the jagged teeth of the Alaska Range were monumentally huge, I'd get brief glimpses of an even higher, even larger peak, somewhere out beyond the closer range.

The snow-covered peak of Denali, I thought, dwarfing the "hills" near me.  It felt like true wilderness and profoundly affected my sense of scale, reminding me of how small we really are.  But as the long Arctic summer day passed, the clouds would open at other places in the sky, teasing me with glimpses of parts of another mountain, a peak even higher than the first, a mountain so inconceivably large I couldn't even see the top of it, and could only guess at its full size based on the shape of its slopes.  

The best view of the mountain all day, near sunset (around 11:00 pm at that latitude):

Even before Denali revealed itself to me at sunset, it was hard for my mind to grasp how inconceivably huge the mountain was.  I could almost feel its gravitational force dragging me across the landscape - it felt as if I were to trip, I wouldn't fall down but instead hurtle sideways toward the monumental mass of the mountain.

I spotted a pond and decided to hike over toward it to filter some drinking water.  But walking toward the pond, I lost all sense of scale, and couldn't tell how far or near to me the pond actually was.  All the usual indicators of relative size my mind was accustomed to use to gauge size and distance - trees, buildings, roads, etc. - were all absent, and the immensity of Denali threw my sense of proportion all out of whack.  The ground was covered by an unfamiliar tundra of strange lichens and moss that looked almost like miniature little shrubs and trees, making me feel like some sort of giant as I stepped over them.  Contrasting with the immensity of the gargantuan mountains around me, which made me feel smaller than small, it was hard to estimate the size of anything, and my mind even struggled with the relative proportions of the glacial landscape of rounded hills and U-shaped valleys. Walking toward the pond, I literally could not tell if it was still a ten-minute walk away or if my very next step was going to splash into water. 

What was near and what was far?  What was big and what was small?  Were those mountains, hills, or mere bumps around the water?  The only relative scale I had was my own body, and obviously, I couldn't see myself from a third-person perspective.  All I could do was keep walking and snapping pictures as I hiked.  I was lost in plain sight of everything and it wasn't until my toe finally did touch water that everything snapped back into perspective and I was suddenly reoriented.

It was an odd and strangely disorienting experience, but it showed me how the human mind uses familiar features and objects to gauge size and relative perspective, and how strange the world can appear when those landmarks and scales are suddenly gone.

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