"We made it!" Lolly says to her sister Polly. After a long hike to the top of a ridge, the 11-year-old twins and their parents slip off their backpacks.
Below, a crystal clear river flows through a wide valley. This is the Brooks Range mountains of Northern Alaska. No roads reach this remote place. The family flew here in their small airplane from Fairbanks, some 200 miles (320 km) to the south. They have four days to hike, camp, and explore!
Lolly and Polly watch as eight or nine caribou wander across the valley. The fresh smell of spruce trees blows in the breeze. In all directions as far as they can see, there are no buildings, no other people, not even a discarded wrapper or soda can. There is nothing in these wild mountains to remind them of the modern world they left yesterday.
"It's as if we were the first people ever here!" Lolly says. The girls, who are half Yupik Eskimo, have been waiting a long time to make this trip. Now Polly has fun imagining they are explorers. She points up the valley to where the river disappears around a bend. "Wonder what we'll discover tomorrow..."
Choose just the right placeNow the family needs to find a good place to camp before it gets dark. Finding the right kind of campsite is important. They put their backpacks on again and head downhill. Soon, Polly pauses by a flat spot.
"Here?" she asks. "It'd be comfortable to sleep on soft lichens" (Lichens are algae and fungi that grow together). But the girls know that lichens grow slowly during the short arctic summers - and heal slowly after getting trampled.
"We don't want to squish any plants," Lolly reminds her. "Remember, we want to leave no signs we've been here."
The girls are especially careful not to disturb the environment because this is a wilderness area. Polly says that wilderness is kind of like a museum. "It's a place we keep natural," she says. "People will always be able to come here and see it like we do."
Near the river, the girls find a flat, sandy area. They could camp here without disturbing anything. This family practices something called Leave-No-Trace-Camping. And to the girls, it's like a game. "We try to leave our campsite looking as if no one had ever been there. It's a challenge - but it's fun!"
Kitchen cautionThe twins set up their tent, and their parents put theirs nearby. Then the girls look around to find a good cooking area. They find one about 200 feet away from their tents. Why so far?
"Food smells might attract a grizzly bear!" Polly says. "We don't want a bear to come sniffing around our tents at night." Of course, they never keep food inside their tents.
Usually they cook with a camping stove. But tonight they'll make a fire.
The two build a small fire in the sand pit. They do not put rocks around it like you see in the movies. "We don't want people in the future to come here and find rocks with ugly black smudges," Polly says. "That wouldn't look natural."
After dinner, Mom has to remind them - "Do the dishes." They carry pots, pans, and plates to the river and fill them with wet sand. Why use sand instead of dish-washing soap? Soap has chemicals that can pollute the water. And sand works as a scrubber, so bits of food scrape off easily.
As Lolly washes the last pan, Polly playfully throws a splash of water on her. By the time their water fight is over, their clothes are wet. But the summer sun stays up late in Alaska, and soon the girls dry off.
Careful exploringThe next morning, after a breakfast of raisin oatmeal, the family leaves camp to explore upriver. Lolly leads the way. Soon she comes across some fresh wolf tracks.
A while later, hiking up a slope, they discover some bigger tracks - bear tracks! And fresh, too. Dad reminds everyone that wolves are not dangerous, but bears can be. People need to be alert and make noise when walking near thick brush or trees. "It's important not to surprise a bear," he says. "If it hears us coming, it'll probably run off before we see it."
For the girls, making noise is no problem - they know a lot of songs!
A mile farther, near a stream, Lolly hollers. "Look what I found!" Lying on the ground is an old jawbone, its teeth still white. After studying it, they guess it came from a fox.
"I'll put it on my dresser when we get home," Lolly says.
"But should you take it?" Dad asks. They all talk about that for a while. It would be nice to keep it, they agree. But then others who come later couldn't enjoy discovering it too. "After all," Polly adds, "we want to leave everything just like we find it."
Disappearing actFinally the adventure comes to an end. They take down the tents and pack everything up. Then there is one thing left to do - they naturalize their camping area. That means make it look as if they'd never been there.
Polly scoops the ashes from the fire pit and scatters them about. That's easy because they had burned only small sticks. There are no ugly charred logs to be left lying around. Then she covers the pit with sand.
Near the fire area is a log the girls had brought over to sit on. Polly hauls the log back to the exact spot where they'd found it.
Now they look for litter. "We don't even bury anything," Lolly says. "Bears or other animals may still smell it and dig it up. 'Leave No Trace' means leaving nothing behind."
Not even footprints, " Polly laughs. Before they hike back to the plane, each girl grabs a twig and sweeps around where the tents and fire had been. Every trace melts away. "Now those who come here next can be explorers too," Lolly says, "as if they were the first to discover it!"
Using a stove avoids fire impacts and the need to burn wood.Planning ahead is important. Before leaving home, the girls put their oatmeal in a large bag to reduce the amount of trash they have to carry back.
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