Susan Campbell (2017 Writer-in-Residence)

Works by Susan Campbell Navigation

 
a woman standing outside on a sunny day in front of a landscape of rivers, forests and snowy mountains
Susan Campbell during her 2017 residency in Denali

Courtesy Susan Campbell


Susan Campbell moved to Fairbanks, Alaska twenty-seven years ago and found home. She has backpacked and paddled thousands of miles across the far north, including multiple traverses of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the western Brooks Range, and the northern coastal plain.

Those wilderness adventures, along with excursions in the boreal forest around her home, inspire her work. Her poetry has appeared in poetry Alaskawomen:Top of the World, Ice Floe II, Alaska Quarterly Review, and in a specially commissioned work for the Alaska Chamber Singers.

After 30 dynamic years, she recently retired from teaching elementary school.


The following works are all by Susan Campbell of Fairbanks Alaska, written in December 2017.

 

Litany for Denali in Four Seasons


Spring

When winter’s hard knot relaxes and taiga, tundra, mountains all sigh with its release.
Each ridge, gully, and gravelly bank feel spring’s tender palm brush away the cold, the dark.

When snow begins to melt, trickles off the frozen ground and the sound of water is a surprise.
Soft at first, then louder, louder as breakup begins and braided rivers clamor, “Open. Open.”

When sun douses the sky with light, an invitation birds recognize: Come. Come now.
And they do— millions cross hemispheres, wide expanses of the Pacific. Head North. Home.

When golden eagles arrive, first to trace the sky with their amorous acrobatics. Next, the
welcome warbles of ruby-crowned kinglets, the rapid trills of varied thrushes. Then, all the rest.

When pasque flowers bloom on Mt. Healy and patches of green peak out from under months
of snow. Roots reach for water. Buds swell. What has been contained anticipates release.

When sap rises into patient branches. Spruce trees sprout bright new needles while tiny buds on
aspen, birch, and poplar listen to what the sun is offering, remember what to do— burst into green.

When a mountain becomes a destination. Climbers face Denali’s ragged ice falls, granite walls,
the Kahiltna and Muldrow Glaciers— so many triumphs and sorrows, stories embedded in ice.

When bears emerge with cubs, and caribou head to calving grounds. Sheep and wolves,
hares and lynx, moose and fox all give birth. New life pushes the long tunnel of darkness away.

When, after months of wondering if you’ll ever be warm again, you feel the thrum of each green leaf,
each prodigal bird, each new pup and calf, kit and lamb. All of them whispering, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Summer


When sunlight suffuses every hour and we feel its extravagance, how it implores each stalk
and stem, leaf and flower, tree and shrub to grow. Hurry. Flourish in this ephemeral brightness.

When wildflowers blossom, clothe every ridge and slope with their delicate profusion:
fireweed, larkspur, gentian, saxifrage, poppy, dryas, rosebay, lupine, bluebell, forget-me-not.

When birds fledge, abandon nests laced in branches, eyries perched on cliff faces, grassy
cups tucked in tussocks. Myriad wingbeats fill the sky, revel in summer’s earnest light.

When grizzlies amble, unhurried, through Sable Pass, up and down gullies, grow fat
gulping soapberries and blueberries, their glossy coats smudged from constant feasting.

When shrinking snowfields reveal arrow points and bone tools icebound for thousands of years,
artifacts used by ingenious hunters— Athabascans, the First People to roam this tangled landscape.

When a ninety-two mile road between Riley Creek and Kantishna becomes a bus corridor crossing
taiga, tundra, braided rivers, alpine passes— deeper into Denali’s wilderness, closer to The Mountain.

When visitors stare out bus windows, hope to see bulky brown bodies in thickets, flashes
of antlers across creek beds, white specks on rocky outcrops, grey shapes ghosting hillsides.

When you shout, “Stop!”, and the bus driver stops so forty pairs of eyes can look. Look harder.
See for the first time a grizzly, a caribou, a Dall sheep, a moose, or if you’re lucky, a wolf.

When Denali offers an invitation: You have left your crowded cities, there is room for you here.
Be still. Listen. Pay attention. Let this vastness embrace you. Abandon yourself to astonishment.

Autumn


When the exuberance of summer is dampened by shorter days as sunlight slants lower
into the valleys— a time of restlessness, a time to prepare for the cold and dark to come.

When temperatures fall and plants surrender summer’s verdant green for shades of autumn:
scarlet bearberries, auburn dwarf birch, saffron-russet willows, the tundra awash in crimson.

When stillness shawls the sky above Wonder Lake as scores of songbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl
suddenly depart, disperse south to every continent, their inner voices whispering, “Go. Go now.”

When birch and aspen acquiesce, release each leaf from its anchor-hold, so many at once—
a million tiny boats drifting away, one after another, their golden lives slipping to the forest floor.

When urgency consumes each hour: red squirrels stash spruce cones, chickadees cache seeds,
pikas cram rock clefts with mouthfuls of grass— a final scramble before the first snow falls.

When animals that stay must get ready: ermine and snowshoe hares slowly shift into
winter’s white pelage, ptarmigan exchange summer’s mottled camouflage for snowy plumage.

When the primordial press toward life becomes competition: moose thrash willows, Dall rams
clash and collide, caribou kick and charge— a frantic push for dominance, a wild persistence.

When some ancient inkling stirs in sandhill cranes and long skeins rise over the Toklat,
head south through the mountains, drag the last scraps of warmth away with them.

When you feel a yearning to join them, a desire to be lifted from everything cold and dark,
a longing to be where you know you belong, cradled in the warmth and forgiveness of home.

Winter


When each day is defined by twenty hours of darkness as Earth tilts farther from the
sun in this season of moonlight and starlight, lavender dusk. Such scant illumination.

When cold augers in, seeps into Denali’s valleys, settles over the Savage and Sanctuary,
coats every spruce bough in frosty rime, all the while whispering, “Hush. Hush. Hush.”

When you relearn the vocabulary of snow, its lace-like loveliness, its gusting sheets of white.
Each flurry, drift, and storm adding layer upon layer to the immense muffled silence.

When ice embellishes every surface: blankets of hoar frost feather the ground,
sleeves of filagree dress barren branches, cornices curl over Wickersham’s Wall.

When existence is reduced to essentials: conserve, endure. Arctic ground squirrels know this
hard resilience— hibernate all winter nearly frozen in frigid burrows, hearts barely beating.

When bears curl into dark closets of fitful sleep, suckle and nuzzle newborn cubs,
dream of berries blossoming in spring, the taste of sunlight on their tongues.

When you read stories etched in snow: Owl pinions punctuate voles’ meandering cursive.
Lynx rewrite hares’ zig-zag trails. Moose plod hungry sentences through belly-deep drifts.

When temperatures fall below freezing. Farther, farther still. You bundle yourself in wool and
down, aware of your heart’s desire for warmth, your precarious tether to life this far north.

When aurora ripples over the mountains, a luminous green fire, and you feel how small you
are as Earth turns through this long darkness, always, again and again, toward spring’s light.


 

The 1910 Sourdough Expedition: An Improbable Ascent of Denali

“They have done this allegedly impossible thing
solely with the desire to prove to themselves and
a small group of their friends that there is more
endurance and perseverance in the men of the
North than there is in the men of the South.”
— W.F. Thompson, Fairbanks Daily News Miner, June 5, 1910


It begins with a barroom boast in Billy McPhee’s saloon.

“Tom Lloyd, you’re too old and too fat to make it up The Mountain.”
“For two cents I’ll do it alone to prove you wrong.”

McPhee wagers $5000, says somebody will get to the top by the
Fourth of July, warns that a fistful of “easterners” are sure to try.
Fueled by disgust that “classy outsiders keep coming
to Alaska to climb our mountains
,” Tom schemes to
prove the mettle of men of the North.
Smart enough to know he’ll need help, he rouses
three other miners, sourdoughs like himself.
They dare to do what has never been done.
Climb to the roof of North America, stand on top of Denali.

No mountaineering experience, no ropes, no climbing gear,
instead they carry spunk, stubborn resolve,
the obstinate optimism of prospectors.
They cobble an “outfit” from their mining claims:
canvas tent, sheet-iron stove, shovel, two copper
teapots, thermometer, one watch, snowshoes,
an ax from the wood pile, a barometer (soon lost in the snow).
Some gear they make themselves: flimsy crampons to
lash on rubber-soled shoepacs, steel-hooked pike poles
to avert catastrophe crossing crevasses.
A weighty addition: one fourteen foot spruce pole and
an American flag to plant on the summit.
Proof—to be seen with a telescope from McPhee’s saloon,
one hundred fifty miles away. An absurd notion.

Fueled by bacon and beans, dried fruit and camp bread,
canned butter and caribou, four men with a dog team
abandon reason for ambition.
Trudge through temperatures to 30 below,
lug loads of gear and food higher and higher up Muldrow Glacier.
Stash it, go back for more.
Back down to scrub brush and spruce to cut wood for the stove,
their precarious link to survival— water and warmth.

Inexperience blinds them to danger.
Luck, their constant companion.
Undeterred by cold, they break trail to their high camp
eleven thousand feet up The Mountain, inch across
snow bridges, somehow dodge death in hidden crevasses
while their feet freeze, bleed into their socks.
For a week they “get ready for the great day”:
dig and chop, hack and notch a four thousand foot
staircase up steep ice, endless exertion on a precipitous
ridge with only a shovel and a woodsman’s ax.
On Summit Day Tom Lloyd stays behind,
provisions his friends with bags of doughnuts,
flasks of hot chocolate for the final ascent.
The three miners set out: scale their hewn ice stairs then
reach steeper ice, thinner air, the toughest climbing yet.
Colder than hell, mitts and everything was all ice.”
Buoyed by determination, they take turns with the spruce pole,
drag it nine thousand feet higher. Finally jam it between
some rocks and raise the flag on the North Peak.
One of them pulls out a scrap of wood, their names already inscribed:
“Charlie McGonagall, Billy Taylor, Pete Anderson, April 3, 1910.”
He nails it to the pole.
Done.
They descend. A day and a half down what took a month to climb up.
Back to Kantishna to dig for gold, leathered faces etched with success.

All good— until Tom Lloyd slips away, mushes into Fairbanks toting
a grandiose tale, how he climbed both peaks, North and South.
Such boasting fuels doubt.
Two months later Billy, Pete, and Charlie make it
back to town with the hard-won truth.
Find their improbable success already dismissed.
Just another frontier tall tale.

Three years later, history turns a kind eye toward the Sourdoughs.
Walter Harper spots the absurd spruce pole on his own way to fame,
the first to stand on Denali’s true summit, the South Peak,
eight hundred fifty feet higher.
I see the flagstaff! I see it plainly!
His climbing partners, Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens, see it, too.
Their respectable voices confirm the feat: The Sourdoughs did it!
Did what they said they did.
Climbed the North Peak with the foolish idea that it was higher just
because it looked that way from where they started, thought a flag
pole there could be spotted from Fairbanks and their gold camp
so friends “would know damned well that we’d been there!

Do you wonder how they did it?
How four miners with no climbing skills and no particular love for
mountaineering could decipher a route still used on Denali today?
If you stay in Alaska long enough, if you look, sometimes in
unexpected places, you can still find folks who understand
words like grit, risk, resilience, stamina, luck.
Maybe you’ll be one more who will stay, carve out a life your yourself
in the North, find home in a place where a mountain calls your name.

Last updated: July 13, 2018

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