SCA 1974, 1975, 1980
Organic Farmer, Adventurer
SCA 1974, Bryce Canyon National Park
SCA 1975, North Cascades National Park
SCA 1975, North Cascades National Park
SCA 1980, Mt. McKinley (Denali) National Park
Exactly 25 years ago, accompanied only by his wolf dog Smoke, Keith Nyitray recalibrated our understanding of adventure and his own understanding of life by trekking 1,500 miles across the Arctic Brooks Range, from the Yukon Territories to the Northwest coast of Alaska. Along the way, he encountered fierce blizzards, menacing grizzlies, and temperatures of 60 degrees below zero.
So, what are you doing this summer?
Keith wrote about his remarkable journey for National Geographic in 1993 and for years after his presentations kept audiences spellbound. Today, he’s still in Alaska, growing organic vegetable starts for local stores and gardeners, promoting a co-op market (“Food for people, not for profit”), and continuing an active role in state politics. We recently spoke with the four-time SCA alumnus.
For starters, could you give us your SCA bonafides?
That’s going back a ways. I think it was 1974 when I first went to Bryce Canyon National Park to do trail work and boundary repair. In ’75 and ’76, I worked in North Cascades National Park as a sherpa and then in 1980, after finishing college and moving to Alaska, I helped start the mountaineering position in Mount McKinley National Park, now Denali National Park and Preserve.
That’s a long way from New York. What made you join SCA?
As far back as I can remember, I always loved being and playing outdoors and learning about nature but the urban-suburban environment that I grew up in of Long Island never really resonated with me. Fortunately, when I was 15, I met a biology teacher and former SCA member who told me about SCA and encouraged me to apply. When I saw there were opportunities to work “out west,” I just jumped at the chance.
Is there any single SCA moment that stands out?
I have to say that my favorite SCA moment wasn’t from something I experienced while in the program, but rather it came during a retrospective moment while traveling the country on the lecture circuit. I was able to take a side-trip and return to Bryce Canyon. It had been 17 years since I first picked up a backpack and headed out west and as I sat on the rim of the main amphitheater, I suddenly thought to myself: “This is where it all started.” I realized that that first SCA experience was a pivotal point on my journey from the Bronx to the Brooks Range, and that many of my life’s accomplishments and personal traits could be traced back to those dusty backcountry days in southern Utah. With that realization, I was suddenly flooded with an immense appreciation for what SCA had given me…and it’s an appreciation I will always carry with me.
Are there any lessons from your SCA days that you still follow today?
For me, there are two main lessons from my SCA experiences that I am reminded of and try to put into practice in everyday life: 1) That teamwork is more than just a group of people gathered together to accomplish a project, and that successful teamwork requires mutual respect, understanding, and support of and for all members of the team; and, 2) That one person encouraging and supporting another can have a tremendous positive impact on that person’s life. To this day, I still give thanks to both Aileen Rogers, who encouraged me to apply to SCA, and my first supervisor in Bryce Canyon, Frank, who instilled in me a confidence in my innate skills as an outdoorsman.
What retrospective thoughts do you have on your Arctic adventure 25 years later?
Looking back, I realize just how fortunate I was to have developed the skills over the course of my life to undertake such a journey. Admittedly, it was an incredible personal experience and a real “dream come true” for me. However, I’m also reminded that as beautiful and full of life and wonder as the Arctic may be, it’s also a powerful, primal, and unpredictable environment. That trekking through it is not an endeavor to be taken lightly and not everyone could – or should – attempt to experience the Arctic as I did, at least not in person. That said, over the past 25 years, one of the most rewarding outcomes has been the ability to share my experiences and lessons learned with countless others, hopefully inspiring many of them to pursue their own personal dreams, and possibly imparting the importance of protecting a wilderness they may never experience for themselves.
Keith and his dog, Smoke, from the National Geographic article.
In your National Geographic article, you write you were searching for “the spirit in the vastness of the land.” It’s clear you found it, but can you put that spirit into words?
Many of the Native elders I met along the way spoke of “walking with the spirit” and by the end of my journey I sensed that I understood what they meant but couldn’t put it into words. Over the intervening years, however, I’ve come to believe that we need to recognize and remember that we live in a world where we are virtually and constantly surrounded by and immersed in “man-made” things and constructs. That in our arrogance we tend to lose sight of the fact that we, as a species, did not create this world. That we need to truly appreciate this world, as it was created by whom or whatever, and understand that it is an incredibly wondrous and beautiful thing, and that all things are indeed intertwined and interwoven in a wondrous web of life. Then, with that recognition, and with that sense of appreciation and respect for the “created” world that comes with it, we can see and remember just how grateful we should be for what we’ve been given. And finally, with that sense of understanding, respect, and gratitude, find a way in every day to show how thankful we truly are and just how much we care about this world around us. If a person can do this, then no matter where they are, whether in the Arctic or in Atlanta, they will be walking with that spirit.
What one modern tool do you wish you’d had back then?
My initial reaction was that I already had plenty of modern “tools” with me such as a poly-tarp, synthetic sleeping bag, and battery operated head-lamp and that I didn’t need anything more modern than what I had taken with me. However, when I really thought about it, a digital camera would’ve been pretty great to have as it would’ve saved me from carrying all that film and then losing some great pics over the intervening years before I digitized what I had.
What advice would you offer anyone considering the same trek today?
The first thing I would advise anyone considering such an undertaking is to acquire all the survival skills and backcountry experience they could, including ironing out the “kinks” on several smaller 200 or 300-mile treks first. Next, they should try to visualize and plan ahead for any possible contingency that might arise. Also, that they shouldn’t get into the mind-set that the journey is a “challenge.” A challenge implies someone or something must or might lose and, in trekking, it sure won’t be Nature. Instead, that they should consider the journey an incredible opportunity to learn about the region they’re traveling through, and about themselves. That by being experience-oriented, as opposed to achievement-oriented, they’ll never be discouraged if or when times get tough, for even out of a bad experience comes good knowledge. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, they should always respect both the land and climate they’re traveling through and the people and cultures they meet along the way.
Whatever happened to Smoke?
After our Arctic adventure, I would have to say that Smoke became quite the celebrity. For several years, Smoke and I traveled about the country giving presentations and lectures both on our journey and on the need to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. With his calm demeanor he took everything and everyone in stride, no matter where we went or how we traveled. I’ve many stories I could tell about our journey together but suffice it to say that he was an incredible companion and wherever we went, Smoke was usually the star. He led a full and multifaceted life and quietly passed away back in 1996. I still miss him greatly.
Moving to the present, what are your greatest hopes and concerns for today’s environment?
My concerns? When I see the vast amounts of money being spent by certain corporate and political interests to actively denounce and denigrate the sciences behind global warning and science in general, and when I see the deliberate attempts by some in Congress to weaken environmental regulations and undermine and underfund the agencies that enforce those regulations, irrespective of the damage and harm that is done to the environment and with callous disregard for the health of the communities that are affected, I am seriously worried and truly saddened. My hopes? Well, I could say that I hope Americans wake up and realize what is happening to our society all for the sake of corporate profits, but real and true hope will always lie with the youth of today and tomorrow – for it will be their dreams, their energy, and their involvement in the world that will change the present and shape the future, hopefully for the better.
Last question: in your article, you talked about pursuing your dreams – that’s a message that Liz Putnam, SCA’s founder, always stresses in her presentations. Is that a passion or bond you two share?
To me, Liz represents so many things I don’t know where to begin. She’s good-hearted and gracious, an energetic and optimistic spirit, a forward thinker, a dynamic doer, and someone who will go out of her way to enable and empower others if she can. If anyone, nowadays, could be considered to be a “grande dame,” it would be Liz Putnam. Personally, I don’t think that Liz and I have a special bond any more so than anyone else who knows and works with her. Liz just has a way of making everyone feel and seem special. That’s what makes her so special!