Alaska can be a foggy place. I was 17 the first time around. On my flight to Alaska, we flew over rocky moraines and endless ice in the Yukon and BC – I had only thought of Alaska in the soaring grandiosity of Mt. McKinley, blizzards, and the odd Caribbean blue of meltwater on glaciers.
That terrain I would have to wait for – our first backpack was in a green section of the Wrangells. I was expecting snow and ice, but alas, they were green – all the time. It never got dark, and they were green literally 24 hours a day. The weather was holding in that section, only constant clear skies. I had packed my Yellow North Face jacket that I had been using for three years. Three years. I was starting to fancy it as an old-timer’s jacket, the article of clothing that proclaimed I was a well worn man of the mountains to any strangers that happened to pass on the trail. They would think –
“woah, who is that guy? How did his jacket get to look like that? It’s like, barely… barely even yellow anymore.”
I played this scene in my head on the trail, but we never ran into anyone. That’s Alaska, you’re on your own – it’s too big to run into anyone, not to mention my jacket still looked pretty new. And the sunny days weren’t wearing on it hard enough. I would talk with my friends Mike and Innis about my jacket a lot, who both cultivated this same effortless, understated mountain-man aesthetic.
Alaska inspired many other esoteric and obscure fancies. The wilderness, in general, can be somewhat of a blank canvas for the mind, inviting the odd and inexpressible energies of my school year to emerge. Alaska, in its vastness, proved the ultimate blank canvas. My first sharp group memory from the trip is sitting around a cook fire at 11 o’clock at night – sun weirdly ablaze, and no less strangely, we sat around trying out variations on the heart-warming song the 51st belts out in the movie Glory (a must-see, starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman), the night before their last great charge at the Rebs. We got our voices nice and low, and we’re rhyming as much as we could with, “…the Ox, the Camel, and the Kanga-roo-oo.”
Let me turn from there, to another great fixture for my imagination up north - a fish taco stand in a school bus without wheels –Whittier, Alaska, population 182. One road in, the same road out, and it’s a one way affair – a tunnel through the mountain that alternates direction twice a day. You can be locked in this old port, and it looked like some locals in bright flannels had been for decades. The old military base is the only lodging in town, and it serves a community of rugged commercial fisherman and kayak guides well enough. The town was so magnificent in its drab character; I was moved to try my hand at a short story based on Whittier, featuring a character named Boredom Dimly... but I never got to that.
Luckily, I had to put that story down, as we were in the water paddling almost immediately. Sea kayaking brought some of the grand ice I had been anticipating. Glaciers in the Blackstone Bay of Prince William Sound sat like staircases from the sea to the sky. The ice calved right in front of us, sending swells at our kayaks when chunks the size of my house back in St. Louis hit the water. You saw the fall, several seconds later heard the thunder – like lightning in slow motion. Closer to the glaciers, the surface was covered in chunks of ice. The boats clicked slowly through the sea, sitting higher, chilling my legs inside the kayak. A white seal spun by on a twisting platform of ice.
While every day demanded our full presence with exciting challenges and breathtaking landscapes, always in the back of our minds was the 21-day backback through the Talkeetnas. We would hike 7 days upriver to an airfield, RENDEZVOUS on an airstrip with mountaineering guides, and ascend the Talkeetna glacier for 5 days of ice climbing and glacier travel. Then hike down yet another river, the runoff of the glacier we were to travel, and RENDEZVOUS with another bush pilot, for supplies and boats to raft out 150 miles back to civilization. RENDEZVOUSING – real rendezvousing, meeting at a certain and absolute time in the future, in a hidden place in the mountains only marked by subtle clues, and the matter was urgent – eating depended on it. This was very exciting. This was for real. This was the reason I signed up in the first place. However, as we were managing the huge variety of logistics and preparations for such an extended period in the backcountry, my anxiety grew.
I had the understandable but futile obsession of keeping my stuff dry. Even though my rain jacket would get the wear and tear I was looking forward to, a constant rain was something I dreaded. On my earlier trips with RLT, weather had been remarkably good. My stuff was dry – no problem. I was brooding over the hard rains we had at sea during our kayak, whether the grim weather was fated to continue into our upcoming 21 day wilderness section. During our restocking trip to the grocer, I approached a local at Carr’s Supermarket with my cart full of several hundred bagels, my bright coat tied about my waist.
-“Hey, excuse me, sorry, do you know what the 10-day forecast is for Alaska?” I didn’t really specify where in particular in this state the size of half the lower 48.
They dropped on me, the obvious out-of-towner and his bagels,
-“It’s Alaska, it’ll pretty much rain ‘til it snows. Nice jacket, kid – is that the new Mountain Extreme Series? I didn’t think those had come out yet.” I bristled, and returned to the van very, very worried.
Luckily, it didn’t rain that much, though it always looked like it was about to. The clouds hung low, and they must have had some preservative quality on my memory, because I can remember most every foot of the trail for those 21 days, and often even what I was thinking about as I watched my feet roll on the rocks, plant through cold streams, and tramp up mossy slopes.
Two dogs, belonging to the Chickaloon tribe that we visited at the trailhead, a puppy and its mother, were following us. We kept trying to shoo them away, but they insistently pressed on.
We hoped to lose them at the first major stream crossing, but the mom jumped in and swam across the strong current. Her puppy tried to follow, and was swept a great way down until it made its way clumsily to the opposite bank amid our gasps and cheers. We eventually accepted that the dogs were going to follow us to the airstrip, where we would fly them back out to the Chickaloon. They were given names – Bushwacker (BW) and Scout. Very cute things – great to have around on the trail, bad to share jerky with at packs-off breaks. In thick bushes, they would help us find game trails of easy passage. I remember being in one bush for what seemed like hours, and I remember it specifically for the thought that came to me inside it. It crossed me as follows - we had been moving in the Talkeetnas for several days up the Chickaloon river, and I was still looking for the snow, a sign we were approaching the site of our first mysterious rendezvous up-river – a re-supply of food and a safe trip home for the dogs. This bush was dense, unbelievably dense – it could have hidden a pack of rhinos. Rare views were afforded through small windows in the willow. My eye caught a low green ridge – and my mind registered that it could have been in Ireland, Vermont, Montana – a classic piece of topography, and yet it had a totally different character.
This low ridge did not have a road on the other side of it. I had been following the topo maps carefully as leader of the day; I was certain – no red lines. There was just another ridge, then another and another. There we’re no roads off that way, nor in any other. Now this was something different – not Ireland, not Vermont, not Montana.
My yellow North Face Gore-Tex jacket looked acceptably new, it looked like a bright banner of human heritage wrapped around my back, and the wear on it was not its defining mark of pride. The culture we carried on our backs – the ice axes, bagels, and rain jackets defined us within this wilderness in a way that other mountains had not called for. We were more than a week’s walk from anything made. This was the wilderness of Alaska as I remember it. More than the bears, the pine, the snow fields and crags ahead, beyond two rendezvous, the box canyon of continuous rapids, where the mud and melt of a glacier charged us along, floating our 150 mile escape to civilization - the true wilderness of Alaska was a setting of the mind, a cognizance of the far ridge, the human emptiness of it. Alaska as it is returning to me on the cover of The New York Times at my desk in Manhattan is not a grandeur of ice, snow mobile races and rugged pioneering folk, but a grand canvas of my maturing imagination.