A Walk on the Wild Side
Did you ever have one of those days where everything you tried to do went wrong?
Mitch, Scott, and I did in Alaska in August of 1976 and we accidentally discovered what to do about it.
Our radio repair specialist, Scott, was pacing back and forth across the control tower floor threatening a piece of equipment that he had been trying to fix all day, with destruction. Mitch, my controller trainee, was fighting with unusually heavy traffic and stressing out because he had to continuously make decisions at such a rapid pace. As the supervisor on duty I was responsible for everything that went on so I was listening to Mitch, watching Scott, and answering telephones that wouldn’t quit ringing. That was when the idea hit me.
At face value the idea was completely ridiculous. I proposed that we catch a ride up to the ski lodge for Arctic Valley, get off at the 2500’ level on the mountain, and hike down the other side into the valley. We would descend until we reached Ship Creek and then follow the stream farther into the mountains until we found a logjam where a friend said that he had built a log lean-to. That particular location was supposed to be unequaled for fishing and peacefulness according to this friend, Neil.
Granted, Neil was drunk most of the time that he was not at work, but he did know the area. He had a different outlook on life than most (OK, All) people and even the Alaskan trappers who wandered the bush thought that he was odd.
It could have been his constant drinking and loud singing as he walked the back country of the state that spooked them. Or possibly it was because Neil refused to camp within three miles of any other human, even to the point of breaking camp and moving in the middle of the night if anyone camped near him.
He hated being “crowded” and spent all of his free time away from humans. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk from Anchorage to Palmer (about 40-45 miles) through the wilderness, by himself. I had driven to Palmer to pick him up more than once and he always came out on the day he said that he would.
When couldn’t get away due to his work schedule or having duty, he would spend all of his extra time working out. The man was a living contradiction. A drunken physical fitness nut and a singer who couldn’t stand to have an audience. I liked him.
Neil had a single eyebrow that went from temple to temple and some people would call him “Neanderthal” but never to his face. He could walk up and down the steepest mountains like he was strolling down a sidewalk and it took no effort. His singing voice was a beautiful tenor (almost baritone) and he was really quite good. I had heard him singing (always under the influence of a bottle of whiskey) various things from opera to Irish ballads and was amazed. He just couldn’t tolerate being near people. I could only guess that his childhood contained the answers, but I never asked him.
We considered that anything was possible and Neil’s recommendation to go camp there was certainly a better option than staying locked into the rat-race of our jobs where even being off duty didn’t stop the telephone from finding you. The cycle needed to be broken and only getting to a place where we were unreachable would do that.
The thing that made this idea so ridiculous was the fact that we only had twenty-four hours between shifts to accomplish the entire trip. There were also minor problems such as not knowing specific details about the area, being unsure if our directions to the logjam were real or hallucinated, or how long it would take to get in and more importantly, out.
Our source of information (Neil) had never entered or exited from the point that we chose to leave “civilization” (that’s funny in Alaska) and enter the wild areas. He couldn’t tell us what to expect for a time table as he worked in days (not hours) when he hiked. It wasn’t really very far into the bush but in 1976 the bears and wolves walked through the airport and into base housing on a regular basis. You didn’t have to go far to get into trouble.
I believe that it was the absurdity of the situation that sent us up the mountain that afternoon in August. We should not have done it for any number of common sense or rational reasons. I am sure that it was just that kind of break from routine and rules that made the journey mean so much to us; it was breaking free.
By five o’clock in the afternoon we had started down from our jumping off point at the 2500’ altitude marker on the mountain. The three of us were hiking down an animal trail that we had only just learned about and hoped that it went where it was supposed to. There was quite a bit of discussion about what we had gotten ourselves into as we walked.
We descended rapidly through a cool meadow littered with tumbled down trees until we reached the first creek and our first decision. There was an unexpected fork in the trail and we faced that age old choice of whether to take the left or right path.
Instead of simply opting for the Robert Frost choice of the one less traveled, we made the decision based upon what felt logical. Following the right path as it continued to descend in the general direction we had been going, made more sense to us than the left which stayed level and appeared to wrap around the hillside. There was no fear of getting lost; we could back-track our own footprints in the soft earth of the trail if we needed to.
Continuing downward on our chosen path we soon passed through an area covered with more red berries (rose hips and high bush cranberries) than we thought existed in the entire state of Alaska. It was among those berries that we came to the second rapid drop in elevation. The trail was so steep that we had to run down it to keep on our feet and feared for a misstep that we were sure would cause a most spectacular tumble. Only Scott came close and slid the last few yards on the seat of his pants.
By that point we had crossed two small bubbling creeks containing clear, cold water and descended approximately twelve hundred feet into the heart of Arctic Valley. It was hard to decide whether to watch where you were stepping or gawk at the surroundings. I tried to do both.
As we descended the third steep drop we noticed that the tree leaves had changed to purple, gold, and crimson, and that the trees themselves were larger. The size change probably would not have been noticed in the lower forty-eight (U.S. states) but in mainland Alaska the trees were so small that any change was noticeable.
The biggest change to me was the quiet. The silence was not only external, but internal too. Quiet was no longer just the absence of sound coming to our ears, but the cessation of the voices in our heads. Even though our trek was strenuous we seemed to be resting as we walked. I realize now that it was relief from stress.
We crossed three creeks, a boot grabbing marsh, and descended about two thousand feet in elevation in the course of about six miles. By all rights by the time we reached that elusive logjam we should have been worn out, but we were not; in fact we felt great. The three of us had just done a forced march over rough terrain carrying forty pound packs that lasted two and a half hours without a break; and we weren’t tired.
The lean-to was right where our friend had told us that it would be and in far better condition than I expected. It was just a crude shelter of logs but it served our purpose well and I managed to quickly fix the few spots that had fallen in. Mitch and Scott gathered spruce boughs for cushioning under our bedrolls and then easily collected more firewood than we could burn in one night.
Our campfire was built on an open rock surface between the lean-to and the stream and there were already logs to sit on or lean against in place. It was a dream of a camping spot and we sat around the fire getting high on good company and fresh air.
Scott was suffering a little as he had lost his cigarettes somewhere along the way and the idea of not being able to smoke for several hours was working on his mind. Mitch told him to just sit downwind of the campfire and breathe deeply. We all laughed at the idea but I did notice that before long Scott had shifted his seat to a position where the smoke hit him.
The location was incredibly beautiful and the word “serene” comes to mind as a good description of our surroundings. The air and water were so pure and clean it that it amazed us and we hesitated to put our hands in the water for fear that we would “contaminate” it.
When we finally gave up and went to our bed rolls the tiredness of our bodies won out. I don’t think more words than “goodnight” were spoken before we were dead to the world.
The next morning we discovered that a good-sized bear and a huge moose (judging by their very fresh tracks) had battled their way past our camp without even disturbing us. We guessed that it happened during the early morning hours (by the dampness) and were both amazed and concerned that we hadn’t heard a thing.
The tracks told quite a story as it was evident that the moose had slid backwards at one point and the bear had dug its claws in for traction, possibly pushing the moose. Other places showed that the moose had dug up chunks of soft earth with its antlers. We were really sorry that we had slept through the event.
Scott was raised as a concrete jungle city kid. After seeing the large animal tracks he spent a great deal of time muttering about wishing that we had a “bazooka” in case one of them came back to “eat him.” No amount of reassurances could convince him that the creatures were not interested in us. Mitch was from Hilo, Hawaii and while he laughed at Scott’s fears, I did catch him looking over his shoulder frequently. I hoped that we would see them again, but it was not to be.
We had awoken just after sunrise and that was supposed to be the magical time to fish our little stream so we quit looking at tracks and got our hand lines (no poles) into the water right away. The stories were true and in just two hours we had caught thirty Arctic Char big enough to keep. We caught more than that but we released the smaller ones to grow for another year before jumping into our frying pans. It was rather mystifying to me to be able to catch fish on nothing more than a shiny hook with a reflector (spoon) attached, but that was all we used.
We quickly reached the point where we had to quit so I cleaned the fish we had and packed them in plastic bags to go into our backpacks for the trip out. While I cleaned the fish, Mitch and Scott made sure that there was absolutely no trash and as little evidence of human interference as possible. Thinking that it might prove useful to some future traveler we stacked the collected firewood under the lean-to to keep it as dry as possible.
Our exodus went faster than we anticipated (with it being all uphill) and we walked into the parking area at the lodge in just two hours. I can only guess that knowing where we were going and feeling the pressure of having a definite deadline made us walk faster.
The three of us were early for our shift and slept very well for a week afterward. You might attribute that to fresh air and exercise if you hadn’t been with us.
Whenever things got hectic and demanding for any of us after that we would just take a mental journey back into that beautiful valley and the smile would soon return. That hike had definitely been worth it. We had each learned how to be at peace with ourselves and that was the most important lesson of all.
The fish that I had so carefully cleaned, bagged, and packed out didn’t fare well. There was no ice to keep them cool and the heat from our bodies caused rapid deterioration. But, the local wildlife on the airport was happy to have the spoiled fish so all was not lost.
We learned a fishing lesson from that experience too. Only catch and keep what you can eat on site, or have a cooler with enough ice to make it home again. We did the latter when we fished for salmon.
The area we hiked 36 years ago is now easily accessible from Anchorage and part of a trail system. It is currently very popular with people who weren’t born yet when we walked that ground. I hope that they respect it and do their best to leave no evidence of their passing, just as we did way back then.