Storytelling in JIRP

Victor Cabrera

Dartmouth College

Among the many idiosyncrasies of the JIRP micro-culture, perhaps none are more valuable than the culture of story-telling, which is so fondly expressed at every moment of every summer on the Juneau Icefield. Those who commonly read our blog will have noticed two of the main themes which so often occupy our thoughts: surmounting fear of death and surmounting the smell of our SPAM-laden outhouses. Oral tradition, however, proves to be much more complex when we learn to read between the lines of those events which most readily entrain the attention of young students, new to a life of expedition.

 Staff member Allie Strel reads a humorous story on Expedition Behavior in the Library at Camp 17. Photo by Matt Beedle.

Staff member Allie Strel reads a humorous story on Expedition Behavior in the Library at Camp 17. Photo by Matt Beedle.

The JIRP storytelling tradition goes beyond a recounting of history. Indeed, it goes beyond any sort of written record as well as past any sensible degree of scale (did that person really fall 100 feet into a crevasse?). Whereas staff and faculty introduce the study of glaciers and the pursuit of truth as the backbone of JIRP, the true mainstays of JIRP are the tales told at the dinner table/porch/rock, the phrases carefully written on the walls of its buildings, the names stretched across the rafters, and the held breaths of a captive audience sustaining a barrage of onomatopoeias.

One of two events usually triggers a staff or faculty’s story: the mention of a scribble on a wall or an exasperated request to explain an inside joke which has remained outside of the students’ knowledge. Each trigger, however, develops into the same effect: a devilish look in the storyteller’s eye, the slight curl of the lips, and a knowing look at a complicit compatriot which hints to the audience exactly how great a story will be. In the spirit of scientific statistics, it is interesting to note that the intensity of the story is positively correlated to the amount of restless chuckling and background provided by the teller. Regardless of the build-up to the punch line, however, a promise of legendary shenanigans always keeps the listeners attentive through as many circuitous tangents as may be presented. We here at JIRP have realized that, in the end, it will always be good.

 Kate Bollen peers into the 'Zoo' (Radio Room) at C17, where staff and faculty members Annika Ord, Chris McNeil, Annie Boucher, Newt Krumdieck and Ibai Rico spin a good yarn during meal time. Photo by Matt Beedle.

Kate Bollen peers into the 'Zoo' (Radio Room) at C17, where staff and faculty members Annika Ord, Chris McNeil, Annie Boucher, Newt Krumdieck and Ibai Rico spin a good yarn during meal time. Photo by Matt Beedle.

The cruxes of our stories create the very language we employ. They culminate at paramount lessons about life on the icefield which may perhaps even be employed outside the icy visage of the Taku Towers. Moral imperatives drawn from the tales of the illustrious Dry-Corner Man or that of the amorphous, yet readily sensed, Cook Shack Easter Bunny teach us about the value of selfless expeditionary tact. Tales behind the quotes on our outhouse walls tell us about the reflective potential of looking deep within ourselves during the only moments in which we are truly (usually) alone. Tales of daily camp life gone awry teach us both to look up to and to strive for the legendary flexibility which makes JIRP adventures possible. Lastly, tales of Dr. Maynard Miller teach us about the significance of the legacy we are inheriting and showcase the reverence that one person can potentially earn by following a clear and noble vision for good.

Storytelling in our modest nunatak camps is what establishes the nexus between JIRP’s two goals of expeditionary training and science. Moreover, it is what draws returning JIRPers back out into the wilderness and away from any recognizable degree of urbane comfort. It cements our friendships and validates our experiences and, most importantly, it slowly hands off traditions rooted in more than 70 years of experience to the next generation of fiendish JIRPers. No testament is stronger, however, than witnessing the tradition of storytelling beginning to be reflected among the students. It is then, when a student, rather than a staffer, begins to tell of experiences and events, that the devilish look, the rise in tone, and the knowing looks have clearly infected a new group of JIRPers. It is also then that the most intense and prideful laughs are projected by the staff, when it becomes clear that a new class of students has now joined them in adding to the collection of tall tales that colors life on the icefield.