Catch Up – Days 20-24 Hiking One Mile in Alaska
My remaining days in Alaska were spent traveling – a full day’s drive from McCarthy to Anchorage, a half day flight from Anchorage to Seattle, then a full days’ flight from Seattle to Asheville, and the next day a drive home to Fork Mountain.
For new readers, the following post references 8/3 Day 5 of the Alaska trip, whereby flying over mountains for 1000 miles inspired me to decipher what it’s like to hike a mile in Alaska, generally speaking. That post included a lengthy cultural definition of the term “wilderness.”
Hiking One Mile in Alaska
There are those who visit Alaska and will never get enough. Others see it once and don’t feel called to return. But hike a mile in Alaska and a sliver of this state’s vastness will open up like a great chasm before you. And like a chasm, this mile will seem at once daunting and enticing, implausible and attainable. This is why I have come to believe that hiking a mile in Alaska is a paradox.
To hike safely, you must frequently look up to scan the slopes for bears, but if you look up while traipsing across the muskeg, balancing on the tundra, or bushwhacking through the willow, you will likely lose your footing and fall down. See it now: Your face smooshed into a pile of caribou scat, a forty-five pound pack pressing you into the earth, and not an inch of trail in either direction.
More than half of this nation’s federally designated “wilderness” lands are in Alaska, yet you cannot go more than two hours without hearing a plane. (Note: One in every 60 Alaskan males is a certified bush pilot.)
You may backpack in the alpine desert and be rained upon for fifteen consecutive hours per day for four consecutive days. You may not understand how such an ecosystem can be classified as a desert until you tumble onto a boulder and cut your hands on lichen that is so dry it slices like icy sandpaper.
You can go anywhere on public lands in Alaska but many areas contain pockets of mining claims held by a sensitive land owner, in which case tradition still holds that you may be shot at any time.
It’s best to stay away from large game, but following game trails and camping in bear nap spots may at times be your best options for moving and sleeping.
You can hike back the same way you came but it will always be different.
Perhaps the perfect coda to this mile will be like the coda to my four-day backpacking trip in the Talkeetnas:
It’s mid-afternoon on the last day of our trip. We only know this by where the sun is in the sky, a sun—mind you—that we haven’t seen directly for the entirety of our trip. Our packs are light, there is a cumulative bounce in each step we take, and we’re heading down the old mining road out the far end of the Craigie Creek Valley. After miles of bushwhacking and bouldering, this old road is a blessing. Memory tells me we’re about three miles from the car, which is why when Michael and I glimpse a bulky blue Ford Explorer smack in the middle of the beat-to-shit mining road, we’re a bit surprised.
“We can’t be there already,” I say. I’m not ready to leave. Not the valley, not the tundra, not the berries, not any of it.
Michael stops in his tracks and suppresses laughter. I look closer and see a heavyset man in camo clothing standing with his back to us. He is leaning into the driver’s side door, pressing into the seat in an odd fashion. He fiddles with something, takes a step back, and turns away from the door revealing the pale, full-moon ass of a woman who is positioned over the driver’s seat just so, her feet barely touching the ground, jeans tangled around her ankles.
“Oh, Jesus,” I say, and it is worse than a car wreck, really, this backcountry banging, because you don’t want to look at it but there’s something that makes you keep looking and so you do. In fact, the whole of Craigie Creek Valley seems to be cheering them on: marmots whistling in the high rocks, mosquitos buzzing a choral ode, the creek gurgling and pushing over rocks, beavers thwapping their fat tails like cymbals against the glassy surface of the water, all of them coming together to cheer on this tiny exhibit of human wilderness.
The man fiddles with himself, then turns back to the woman for another round. “This is going to take all day,” I say. Then I shout: “Hey! HEY! We’re HERE! Just passing through!”
One quick slap on the ass, a few indecipherable curses, then the woman shimmies across the driver’s seat into the back of the vehicle. I turn to Michael for an explanation.
“Is that a particularly Alaskan tradition?” I say.
“I suppose,” he chuckles. And I suppose there is something, not in the act itself, but in the spirit of the act that captures what Alaska is all about. A man and a woman get a notion to go do something—something a little wild, a little off the beaten path. Never mind the daylight, the time of year, the location, even the possibility of humiliation or failure. A man and a woman get a notion to do something and damnit, they just go and do it.