8.16.10 Part Three – The Hike

16 08 2010

I’m not sure there could have been a more perfect backdrop for starting our hike as we walked away from the road and into the tundra: blue sky, sunshine, puffy white clouds, and rolling hills stretch themselves out into mountains in every direction.


Heading out


That's legit!

Going down

One of our first noteworthy discoveries in the backcountry is the wild blueberries. We had heard they were in season, and the rangers encouraged us to eat as many as we could find. We have every intention of doing just that.


Wild blueberries...divine!


Not more than five minutes pass, and we notice a wolf on a ridgeline off in the distance. It looked like little more than a spec on the horizon, and after a brief pause the delirious joy of wild blueberries eclipses any potential anxiety from the wolf. Margo, Dan, and I return to our blissful blueberry ignorance, but a few minutes later Kristin calls our attention to the hill in front of us with a slight edge lodged in her voice. I glance up and watch as the spec of a wolf (which now appears significantly larger) bounds over the hill and heads in our direction. At this point there is no denying the rush of adrenaline pulsing through me. What did the video say? An aggressive dog – treat a wolf like an aggressive dog. But what about the rangers’ warnings? My mind replays the events of the morning. Bits and pieces of conversation fight to align themselves into a coherent story: a wolf rendezvous point…mating season and abnormally aggressive behavior…hikers are responsible for noting the closed sections of the park on their maps and avoiding them.

We stand and stare, paralyzed by some combination of fear, excitement, and awe. We start slowly backing away, but, apparently, we are not enticing enough to merit the wolf’s attention. It passes by, a mere 15 feet in front of us, with only the slightest uninterested glance in our direction. I’m still aware of my heart pounding in my chest, but the smile on my face continues to climb. They say if you’re close enough to alter or disturb an animal’s course, you’re too close. So far we’re doing OK.


Our new friend


We continue our trek toward unit 39. We walk across the tundra, scale embankments, and climb down steep cliffs (this is one of my favorite parts). It feels good to be in constant motion after our long bus ride.


Climb on!





We frequently stop to assess our position, and it’s not long before we decide we need to attempt our first river crossing. One of the rangers said if you resign yourself to the fact that your feet are going to be wet in the backcountry – your overall experience will be drastically improved. I seriously detest the feeling of wet feet, though, so I’m determined to prove her wrong.


After crossing once or twice


The river and I were struggling to get along

And, after our first river encounter, I’m feeling confident (read: I’m getting cocky) in my ability to do just that. It was a crazy sensation to step into the river and feel the rush of the current and the cold of the water passing over my feet without ever actually feeling wet. The blend of my e-vent boots, wool socks, and gaiters is working beautifully.

I quickly realize that my initial elation had more to do with the narrow, shallow area of the river we chose to ford, though. Each section gets a little wider and a little deeper, and as we continue to crisscross back and forth across the powerful glacial stream my dry feet turn in to a sloshing mess.

At certain points of our hike we find ourselves surrounded by brush taller than us. Tall, dense brush is one of the terrains you are supposed to avoid, since it’s easy to surprise a bear in these areas. So, we serenade our progress with random shouts and calls (your voice is supposed to be your biggest ally in keeping bears away, but at this point I’d be lying to say I don’t, at least for a moment, question our decision to return our cans of bear spray instead of bringing them along). A group favorite is to yell, “heeeeeeeeeeeeeey bears!”

We’ve been hiking for about four hours – taking full advantage of the impossibly long Alaskan summer days. We are searching for the point where the river we have been crossing meets up with another arm. Finally, we find it and know we are close to our unit. But eventually the fatigue starts to catch up with us, and we look off into the distance at the plateau we are hoping will serve as our campsite. It seems to be getting closer, but we’ve been saying that for the past hour.


We came across this near the end of the day, so I obvioulsy had to lay down and pretend like it was growing out of my head...


Our final push across the river is by far the most intense. The section is wide and deep, and the water is faster than we’ve experienced so far today. We discuss the danger, walk up and down the bank for ten minutes or so looking for alternatives, but finally decide we are all too tired to fathom backtracking to cross at a safer place. So, we go for it – making it across without too much trouble. In fact, it’s the most empowering things I’ve done so far today.

As we climb the final embankment and search for a spot to set up, it’s finally starting to get a little darker. As we start to unpack our tents, the rain returns so we hurry to get everything in place. By the time we are done, it’s raining a little harder and is completely dark. Dan heads to the bear canister to get something to eat, but the rest of us opt for bed – forgoing dinner tonight. My sleeping bag has rarely felt so welcoming!




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