Catholic adventurer writes of faith and beauty in the Arctic

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Joe Wilkins’ new book, “Gates of the Arctic National Park: 12 Years of Wilderness Exploration” is a unique celebration of the beauty and challenge of America’s remote and northernmost national park.

It’s the first book written specifically about the park, said Wilkins. It’s a place he loves deeply, and the book is replete with gorgeous photos of the area in all seasons.

It also expresses Wilkins’ sense of the spiritual treasures that the wilderness holds for anyone who explores it with an open heart.

“The wilderness inspires an appreciation for self-reflection,” Wilkins told the Catholic Anchor. It’s a challenging place to be, he said. Its exploration is full of deprivations and feelings of exhaustion which brings a sense of humility.

“A single misstep could be life changing or life ending. The primeval wilderness reminds us of our own fragility. This combines to produce a spiritual joy and peace,” the author said. “A feeling of being alive that is available in no other place.”

Wilkins, a fit outdoorsman at 75-years-old, has been an explorer and Arctic enthusiast since his training in arctic wilderness survival at Elmendorf Air Force Base in 1966. Subsequent service in Vietnam, and later a career in academia, didn’t keep him from hiking, climbing, and backpacking around the world.

But after his retirement as a professor in the school of business and management at the University of Illinois in Springfield in 2003, he plunged into several years of more in-depth exploration of Gates of the Arctic, making more than 50 trips into the backcountry, and serving as a volunteer with the National Park Service, training young rangers.

“My instructions were, ‘keep them alive’ and ‘teach them enough to stay alive,’” he recalled.

The genesis for Wilkins’ book came on a spiritual journey in another part of the world.

He was walking the famed religious pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago, a 675-mile journey from Lourdes through the Pyrenees to the Santiago de Compostella Cathedral on Spain’s coast. Like so many of Wilkins’ outdoor experiences, it was a time of solitary reflection, and his thoughts turned to his desire to write about Gates of the Arctic.

“Do I want to commit the blood, sweat and tears necessary to write this book?” the first time author asked himself. At 72, he wondered, “If I don’t do it now, when will I do it?”

So, three years ago, he began to write the book, published by Brown Books, which was released in January.

Included in the book is the story of a 15-day trip with a close friend, Father Peter Harman, who had been pastor at the cathedral in Springfield where Wilkins is a parishioner and has served as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and a lector. Today, Father Harman is the rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome. During their Gates of the Arctic trek, the priest would celebrate Mass out in the park.

Gates of the Arctic is the second largest of the country’s national parks (Wrangell-St. Elias is largest) and is about the size of Switzerland. It’s also the least visited and the most challenging of the national parks. At 8.5 million acres, the park lies above the Arctic Circle and straddles the Brooks Range, one of the world’s northernmost mountain chains. No roads lead into, or exist within Gates of the Arctic, which was designated a national park in 1980, and no campgrounds or similar amenities greet the wilderness explorer.

Wilkins sees himself in the tradition of naturalists like Thoreau and John Muir, as well as Robert Marshall, the man who coined the term “gates of the Arctic” when he explored the area between 1929 and 1939.

“Marshall was devoutly Jewish,” Wilkins noted, “and he observed the Sabbath as he explored. He called the area ‘a synagogue, a precious place.’”

Wilkins speaks of his experience in the Arctic with reverence. He’s aware that his travels have taken him over land that possibly hasn’t been trod since the descendants of the earliest human inhabitants of North America came across the land bridge.

A piece of flint he might discover “hasn’t been touched by another human in thousands of years. It’s like a handshake across millennia.”

And the howl of a wolf or the screech of a lynx is like “a tribal memory.”

Wilkins fears that today’s political climate which favors opening wilderness to business and resource development may prove a destructive trend.

“Wilderness is surprisingly delicate and fragile,” he said.

Wilkins, a tall, toned athlete, has maintained his stamina over the years by “lots of walking and running” as well as weight lifting. He’s completed 53 half marathons and 31 marathons, the most recent a couple years ago.

An only child who grew up on a farm in Illinois, Wilkins loved the outdoors in his youth.

In the introduction to Wilkins’ book, the journalist Taylor Pensoneau recounts that Wilkins came back from his experiences in Vietnam with “nightmarish memories of war.” He credits Wilkins’ journeys into the wilderness and the love of his wife of 51 years, Jean, with helping him overcome those memories and becoming what Pensoneau describes as a real life Indiana Jones, “a mild-mannered, soft-spoken professor leading an incredible double life.”

Although he realizes most Americans – or even Alaskans – will never explore Gates of the Arctic in person, Wilkins has advice for everyone seeking spiritual reflection.

“If you can’t visit the Arctic wilderness,” he said, “visit the wilderness next door to where you live.”


'Catholic adventurer writes of faith and beauty in the Arctic'
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