When U.S. Marine Corps veteran Doug Peters stepped out of the old Cessna and touched ground in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he knew he was in for the adventure of a lifetime - "60 miles with 60-pound packs," as he put it.
Then he looked around him.
"(It) was beautiful. Almost mystical," he wrote in his trip journal. "Our second observation (was that) this place is much colder than we expected it to be in August."
And so began a two-week odyssey for Peters, four U.S. Army veterans and two experienced guides leading the way on a Sierra Club Mission Outdoors Climate Reconnaissance Team mission, where veteran and service personnel get the opportunity to touch and feel firsthand areas where the debate about climate change and conservation is focused.
"The pilot would be the last person we would encounter for 12 days," Peters said. "After a day in camp, we embarked on a journey over the Arctic's tundra, rivers and mountain passes ... all you had is what you could carry."
Although he has visited 23 countries and provided aviation support and logistics with the 3rd Marine Armored Wing for five years, including deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq, Peters recognized his experience in the Arctic wilderness would be unique.
"It didn’t take long for us to realize that if we wanted to experience the esoteric powers and beauty of ANWR, we had to earn it," Peters admitted. "Twenty and 30-degree temperatures mixed with wind, rain and snow. Steep climbs and rocky footing. The only way to travel in ANWR’s wilderness is to transverse its rivers, which meant your feet were always wet.
"Every morning I woke up cold and sore, but feeling happy and content. I felt alive and free, and happy to be away from my office job," added Peters, 33, now a legal adviser for Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. after leaving the military in 2003 to earn a bachelor's degree in history from Indiana University Northwest two years later and add a law degree in 2010 from the University of Detroit.
Peters grew up in Cedar Lake, the son of Steve and Sharon Peters, who he visited last week at their Lowell home. He graduated in 1998 from Hanover Central High School, where he played basketball and baseball while working at Palmira Golf Club, and immediately left for Marine boot camp.
He prepared for his "adventure of a lifetime" by using his military communication skills to gather information by phone and literature, and purchased necessary camping gear. "This kind of trip would cost about $5,000, but all we had to pay for was our gear and our flight to Fairbanks," he said.
The reward was "an experience in experiencing - something many veterans find absent in the civilian world," said Peters, who wholeheartedly recommends the trip to fellow veterans.
"It's one of the last great wilderness areas we have, and the program is a Sierra Club outreach that is of therapeutic value to veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I don't have, but some of the other veterans on the trip do have.
"It was good getting outdoors, into nature and the wilderness, away from the little agitations of everyday life, with no cell phones or email, with nothing to worry about but the task at hand," Peters said. "I came back much more centered on life."