Free, Open Spaces

wikimedia.org (Jon Nickles, USFWS)

“Come, and follow me…” resonated like a spiritual

[by Russ Lumpkin]


Rural Georgia in the late 1960s and ’70s didn’t offer a whole lot, which is just as well because my family didn’t have a whole lot. What my home county did offer in ready supply—generous people and sporting opportunities—suited us just fine.

My father was a minister and in addition to being a fisher of men, he was a fisher of farm ponds and hunter of forests and cut fields. He had open invitations to chase game on various properties around the county. I felt blessed to tag along and hunt bobwhite quail and white-tailed deer, and fish any number of local ponds.

My window to the world, particularly the world I wanted to see, arrived via television. Curt Gowdy’s The American Sportsman ran more than 20 years, and we watched it religiously—fittingly, Sunday afternoons following church. When the show opened and a fellow sang, “Find a world that embraces, free, open spaces. . . Come, and follow me,” he might as well have been singing spirituals. My little heart shouted Amen! and picked up pace as I dreamed of bigger and better, which I defined as hunting and fishing some of the very same places Gowdy visited. The conclusion of one adventure left me anxious to see the next.

Though I watched the show for years, one specific scene stands out. It’s that scene that gave me my first impression of Alaska.

One particular Lord’s Day, we watched Gowdy hunt caribou. If my memory is correct, I couldn’t have been more than four or five, but I saw an animal with big antlers racing across a sparse landscape. I’d never before seen such a beast or such a place—the power of the its stride and the stark beauty of the countryside struck me, and I asked Dad, “What kind of deer is that? and where is that?”

“It’s a caribou,” he said. “They’re hunting in Alaska, and that landscape is tundra.” Expressing it in a way my young mind would grasp in terms of animals and latitude, he added, “Caribou are known as reindeer in other parts of the world.” 

So, setting aside thoughts of Santa, I asked “Do you think we could ever hunt caribou in Alaska?”

“Who knows what time will bring?” His reply didn’t inspire hope that I’d ever see the Last Frontier.

Well, 40-something years have passed since I saw that bull, and though I’ve visited more than 40 states, two continents, and eight countries, time has yet to put me—similar to many Alaskans—on the tundra north of the Brooks Range. Time, however, has helped me develop other likes: hiking, birding, identifying plants, and, in particular, fly fishing. What better place than Alaska for each of these?

It’s a minor miracle that I’ve been to Alaska at all and caught trout from the Russian River and spring-run steelhead in Southeast. I’ve added birds and plants (including an unfortunate introduction to devil’s club) to life lists, and I’ve seen scenery vastly more beautiful than any other.

They say it’s a small world, but Alaska is a big ol’ place—and I became more aware of that fact while working on the “2017 Travel Planner” (page 72). I read of plenty of areas I’d like to visit—the quaint villages, towns rife with Native culture, the famous bear-viewing spots. Alaska feeds my interests, but in bigger, larger, wilder, more breathtaking proportions than anywhere else.

Even these days, when I think of the honest voice that sang, “Come, and follow me,” my heart finds a familiar rhythm that beats in harmony with the hoof beats of a bull caribou thundering across the tundra.

Further, when I see pictures of Gates of the Arctic, Noatak, Kobuk Valley, or ANWR, my mind races in simple memory and sparse but fertile hope that goes beyond a desire to simply visit a place. It’s the experience—the endless and roadless landscape, unfettered wilderness, wildlife, nights under the midnight sun, and a worn body—I desire most.


Russ Lumpkin

editor@alaskamagazine.com


Barrow to Utqiagvik

Just before we went to press, we received the news that Barrow residents had approved an ordinance to change the town’s name to Utqiagvik (pronounced oot’-kee-ahg’-vick), the village’s original Iñupiaq name. The ordinance appeared on ballot October 4, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott has 45 days to approve the change. So, if you see K to U in the next issue instead of K to B, you’ll know why.

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