UNALAKLEET — “Do people think you’re crazy?” I asked him.
After 45 minutes of getting to know this man, it felt safe to ask and get an honest answer.
“Generally everybody,” he said in his classic French accent. We both smiled and I nodded my head, yes, with understanding. Except I don’t think he’s crazy.
Florian Gomet showed up in town at the dock on his packraft in June. No one shows up there on a packraft. This town’s defining word is practicality, so unless you’re from France or are a little kooky, you don’t raft down the river. Our motor-powered boats are used for commercial or subsistence fishing.
Gomet showed up five days after leaving Kaltag. He walked on foot along the Iditarod Trail. Once he got to the Unalakleet River, he aired up his raft and paddled to town.
What is crazy is that Gomet walked, packrafted or biked 7,000 miles from the eastern tip of the northern continent to get to the very western community of Unalakleet on June 28. His journey began in Labrador, Canada, 15 months previous. His goal, which he reached a few weeks early, was to make it to the western tip of continental North America — Wales, Alaska — in mid-August.
To prepare for the cross-continent journey, Gomet did five different expeditions in eight years. During each expedition, he put himself through conditions similar to what he’d find crossing northern North America. He biked, walked through the Arctic and taught himself to packraft.
Why do it? Turns out a book he read about grizzly bear hunting in the Rocky Mountains was influential.
“The book wake up something inside me,” he said. “Since this book, I wish to visit Canada and especially the Rockies.” At the root of this seemingly impossible trip is a simple desire.
“Every time since I am a children, I am attracted by the cold. The snow. I love the snow,” he said.
Traveling through North America was a challenge that seemed to welcome him.
“There’s too much road in the south,” he said, which didn’t seem like much of an adventure. His reason for solitary travel seems to be that he is addicted to and drawn to the freedom he finds in wilderness.
Gomet started by biking 3,000 miles through Labrador, Quebec and Ontario in one month, sometimes traveling 140 miles a day. He then gave his bike away and for four months continued with his packraft, traveling through northern Indian communities not connected by roads.
“It was lots of fun to meet these people,” he said. “Very nice and amazing hospitality.” That area of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan included lots of portages and “very long walks, sometimes 60 miles,” he said.
In late September 2015, he found himself in a small oil town in the Northwest Territories. Snow had arrived early and he decided to wait until spring to cross the Rocky Mountains. He spent five months in Norman Wells, a town of about 700 people on the north side of the Mackenzie River, learning to walk in snow and “survive in the cold.” In early March, he departed, though deep snow slowed his progress. He found refuge in a cabin where he waited out April for the spring melt. Eventually, he arrived at the headwaters of the Yukon — the Ross River.
For months he navigated down North America’s largest river to Kaltag, our neighbor community.
Not sure if he’d wait until morning before resuming his journey, I talked with Gomet after he stayed a night at my brother-in-law’s home. Showered and cleanly shaven, he shared details about his journey while we sat at the bakery.
“You seem drawn to the freedom that comes when spending time in the country,” I said.
“For me, the freedom is the supreme goal,” Gomet said. “Because since we arrived in the world, we are totally conditioned by our language, habits, the people we meet, by technology.”
He says all of this slowly. Thoughtfully.
“When you don’t speak with anybody during a few days, you have time for introspection. The freedom in the wilderness — it’s like a way to re-find what you are really inside you. The real nature.”
On July 13, I heard Gomet was seen near Nome. From there, his plan was to walk to the Serpentine Hot Springs because he had heard it was beautiful. It is beautiful. He ended up biking from Nome to Teller and making his way up the coast to Wales.
Once his trip was completed, Gomet’s plans were to return to France to enjoy the rest of the summer with family and friends. In four or five years, he will embark on his next journey —walking barefoot from France to Tibet with simply the clothes on his skin.
That, too, may seem crazy to most people, but I trust he will reach his goal because what Gomet does best is trust his body. His nature. What his body tells him.
“I have faith in life,” he said. “In God. When you trust in the life because you cross a mountain — a crazy mountain just because your body told you it’s right, you can go. The human body is amazing. Very strong. We can trust our body.”
Like many, he’s come to realize it’s difficult to listen to your body “when you meet lots of people, when you listen to TV, when you are in civilization.”
“What keeps you going?” I asked.
“I have a conscience,” he said. “I don’t have a choice. If I give up now, I have to get the same life like everybody.” Gomet then refers to a point in his journey where he crossed dangerous rapids. “If I give up, I die slowly. If I go through (the rapids), I have a possibility to keep a good life, so I don’t have a choice,” he said.