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Origin Moments: Why The First Trip Matters

By Glo Chitwood, Kayak Adventures Guide

“Neuroscientists have something to say about origin moments. When we experience things for the first time, our brains, like inner diarists, ‘write’ furiously, recording even the smallest details: a blue sweater, curled orange peels, the tang of salt air on our lips. That’s why we remember firsts so vividly, experience them, decades later, ‘like it was yesterday.’”

 — Eva Saulitis, Into Great Silence

a man riding a wave on top of a snow covered mountainThere is always a moment on a trip to Aialik Glacier where we kayak through the ice, mindlessly chatting, and then suddenly, we’re just there. The sweet spot. It’s almost as if we forget to look up and when we do, a mile-wide, 300-foot tall piece of history is living and settling and creaking before us, patiently waiting for us to notice.

And almost every time, in that moment, everyone falls silent.

We no longer feel like visitors in these moments. We are suddenly so small—just another species in the system taking up space on Earth in the way we know how. On all sides, we are surrounded by gray and blue ice floes providing a quiet place to rest for harbor seal pups. They are wary of us but their minds are open. While the adults have learned to drone out the thunderous sound of ice breaking off the glacier and falling into the water, sometimes the pups get startled and flush into the ocean. They’re still learning what to be afraid of.

And floating in silence together, we share a first.

It’s especially impactful for me when I get to share these moments with families with young children. There’s something about the way kids process information with curiosity and without bias that makes them excellent candidates for conservationists.

a man in a red boat on a body of water

Why, when I think about the first time I went camping; the first time I caught a fish; the first time I, in a pudgy infant swimsuit, walked to the edge of the ocean, do I get such a sentimental look in my eyes?

These are my origin moments. They’re eerily crystal clear, while things that I probably should recall easily, like where I parked my car or why I walked into this room, elude me daily. I attribute these moments to the person I am, and why I care about protecting natural spaces so others can have the same positive experiences I was and am lucky to have.

Origin moments are extremely special because our brains are completely open to new information: what we see and what we hear, and most importantly, how we feel when we take in the new data. I think it is really important, when working with young people especially, to associate their origin moments with positive feelings, putting kindling in the fire of their curiosity and fueling their desire to protect the vulnerable.

As it turns out, children also ask the best questions, often stumping their guide and giving me a new perspective on what many young people are thinking about and worried about. They’re smart. They know they’re on deck to be adults. They have a stake in this Earth too.

Why is the glacier calving? Is it our fault? Is this climate change? Why are some killer whales talkative and some are quiet? Does the boat’s motor hurt whales’ ears?

a small child sitting on a boat

Often, there are no perfect answers to their questions, and we have a chance to discuss and discover ways to better take care of the natural world together. They don’t fear being critical and impartial. Sometimes, when we talk about these important things, I see their parents lean in to hear our discussion. They want answers too. I wish answers were easy. We often talk about what we can do to be better environmental stewards—and how we can give the whales space so the motor isn’t too loud.

When I work in the fjords, I as a guide have to face tough realities as we sit in front of ground zero of climate change. I cannot ignore its impacts or fail to mention them. When I see a child on one of my trips consciously forming an opinion and an action plan to preserve the details of their origin moment, I see a harbor seal pup. Young, unadulterated and unafraid of asking difficult questions. 

They haven’t been taught to ignore the calving ice yet.

a group of people standing on top of a snow covered mountain

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