Step by Step

(C) Alaska Airlines Magazine May 2008

By Susan G. Hauser

The sight would have startled anyone. But in this case it was a few residents of an isolated Native village far in the north of Alaska who witnessed the unusual scene. 0ne day in 2006 they looked up to see a man and a woman emerging from the woods. The two were on foot, and carried hefty packs on their backs. They were hardly threatening; neither was much more than 5 feet tall. What's more, the Caucasian couple appeared to be about as old as the village elders.
      One of the elders was summoned to see what he could make of these unexpected visitors.
      "You came by snow-go [snowmobile]?" he asked. The visitors said no. "Dog team?" Again, no.
      In fact, Helen Thayer, now 70, and her husband. Bill, 81, had just walked hundreds of miles over the Brooks Range to the North Slope and were now on their return trip.
      "You walked?" asked the village elder, hardly believing it himself. Then he grinned. He shook the Thayers' hands and, for good measure, gave them both big hugs. They were welcome in the village.
      What the village elder didn't know was that the small woman he'd just hugged was a renowned explorer. Helen Thayer, a native of New Zealand and a resident of Snohomish, Washington, was in 2002 named "One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century" by the National Geographic Society.
      As explorers go, Thayer was a late bloomer. When in 1988, at the age of 50, she became the first woman to travel solo to the magnetic North Pole, it marked a new direction in her life. She went from being a world-class athlete and mountaineer to becoming an explorer.
      "Anybody can be an explorer if they want to be. You can be an astronaut if you want," she says, summing up her life philosophy. "Figure out what you want to do, and then go do it."
      To her it's all so easy, though it takes determinationÑthe kind of determination she displayed when climbing that mountain in Tajikistan where, while resting at the top, she had the epiphany that changed her life. What she figured out at that moment in 1986, was that she wanted to travel to the far corners of the earth and then share all her amazing stories with schoolchildren. She would bring the wonders of the natural world into K-12 classrooms to inspire a new generation of explorers, scientists, artists, athletes and problem solvers.
      Thayer decided to call her new vocation Adventure Classroom; her travels with this new project started with her trip to the North Pole in 1988.
      For subsequent trips, her husband retired from his job as a bush plane and helicopter pilot to be her companion, kayaking down wild rivers and hiking across deserts and mountains. Since then she has shared the stories and photos from their arduous adventures with more than one million students.
      In 2001, Thayer began a new, related program in Alaska, which she calls Enduring Cultures. The inspiration for the program came in Mongolia's Gobi Desert. She and Bill crossed it by foot--all 1,600 miles of it--occasionally encountering families of desert nomads.
      No matter how meager their circumstances, the nomads always showed the Thayers generous hospitality. Over bowls of fermented mare's milk, the nomads would talk about hardships caused by endless drought and adjustments they had to make in order to survive. Although they revered the earth and all living things, the nomads felt that nature seemed to be turning against them.
      "So the whole thing's related," Thayer says. "Global warming affects the environment and that affects the people. And these are people who took care of the environment."
      From more than 20 trips to Alaska since 1986, Thayer knew that climate change was having a deleterious effect on the indigenous peoples there, as well. The thinning ice cap was raising the sea level, forcing coastal villages to move inland to escape the waves.
      In 2006, with assistance from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Thayer developed a plan to walk from village to village to gather information about the approximately 20 Native cultures in Alaska. Through interviews and photographs she would document their lifestyle and language, while learning their traditions and history. Her hope was that the information in her lectures and classroom presentations would inspire someone to find solutions to the current challenges and help preserve the ancient cultures.
      Considering the sense of urgency she felt, some might ask, "Why walk?" Her husband's a pilotÑwhy not fly from village to village? Why not hop in a car to get from place to place, or--as the village elder suggested--go by snowmobile or dog team?
      Thayer's answer is simple: If they moved any faster, they might miss something.
      "Because we walk, we re with the environment all the way," Thayer explains. "We're there to learn and bring back information for Adventure Classroom. So we're going to notice things and see things. The senses are acutely aware--when you're on foot, you become part of the environment.
      "Whereas, if we were to drive--stop and take photos, perhaps hike for a day--you're still in a vehicle that's transporting you across the landscape. You're not transIporting yourself. So you can't possibly be at one with the environment."
      Also, she notes, people are more likely to welcome a couple of unassuming, lightly treading hikers than, as she puts it, "two people from the outside who are there to bulldoze their way in."
      One of the goals of the Enduring CulItures program is to instill intercultural respect. Schoolchildren in the Lower 48 learn from Thayer that the ways of the indigenous people are just as important as their own lifestyles. She hopes that one of the lessons they take away from her presentations is that people of all cultures are worthy of respect.
      "We want to make these kids aware that they have to understand and be in tune with other environments, and they have to respect other cultures," she says. "We try to get students to increase their knowledge of other societies across the boundaries of language and lifestyle, and to promote intercultural respect no matter what the differences in the daily lives and beliefs of others. Once you get this through, you've got kids of our culture understanding other cultures. Then all cultures can come together, instead of fighting."
      When she goes to classrooms in AlaskaÑsome in small villages with as few as eight studentsÑshe conveys her feelings of admiration for the old ways and the connection between the people and their environment.
      "First of all, I try to instill in them the respect I have for them and their way of life," she says. "I'm not there to tell them that there's something out there that's better than where they come from. They have a lot that we don't have," such as an enduring, day-to-day relationship with nature and the environment, Thayer says. "We miss out on a lot. I try to inspire them to deal with their own environment, to make goals and be persistent.
      "I tell them: 'You can do big things for each other here. This is a very special place, you are special people. You need to protect it, set your own goals here, right here.'"
      Regardless of her destination, Thayer begins preparations months in advance, learning beforehand as much as possible about the terrain, the natural hazards, the wildlife, and the lifestyle and culture of the people she and Bill will visit. When possible, she learns at least some elementary phrases in the native languages, although in Alaska she and her husband have encountered no language barriers by speaking English.
      Thayer is a decidedly low-tech explorer. The most advanced piece of technology she carries in her expeditions is a GPS device, which she uses in conjunction with maps and a compass.
      "We've never found the need to use high tech," she says. "We're just two people. We don't need managers and base camps and public-relations firms. We don't need to do interviews out in the field and then send in pictures. We go out and do it, and then come back and talk about it. This way we leave less of an impact on the local community. Just two people, senior age, living with the people and learning about them has so much less impact."
      She and Bill may remain in a village for a day or two, or sometimes as long as a week. While visiting, they stay either in their two-man tent or as guests in a local home. They are seldom in a hurry, never demanding or difficult. They know that as soon as the people feel comfortable around them, they'll be open to being interviewed, and perhaps even to being photographed.
      Thayer says she shows utmost respect throughout the process, asking permission every step of the way, just to make sure she doesn't offend. But doors open automatically for her and Bill, simply because they, like the people they seek to interview, are elders.
      "In all these indigenous cultures they all respect their elders," says Thayer. "Here we are, two little people, and we're seniors."
      In some villages they've practically been adopted. They've been taken out on hunting parties and been allowed to fully participate in the life of the village. People will seek them out, asking, "Do you want to talk to me?"
      Every conversation, every photograph adds to a vital body of knowledge about the enduring culture of Alaska Natives, and Thayer will keep returning to Alaska until the project is done. After each trip is complete, by sharing her stories and photos with millions of schoolchildren, Helen Thayer will further her mission to build understanding and respect between all people and the environments they inhabit.

Susan G. Hauser is a freelance writer in Portland.

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