Denali NP, Unit 19, 2018
August 15, 2018
It is finally close enough, less than a week away. I've prepared my pack, still with questions. Four feet long, my pack cover isn't big enough to cover it all. I check the weather; it is colder than I was expecting, and looks like a bunch of rain, so I order a heavier mid layer and hope it arrives in time. Why did I sign up for a race on Sunday? I know why in my heart, to visit my friends, taste again the Thai food I love the most, to spend some time again with a dog with whom I got close, to accomplish a shared goal with a friend just in case I don't come back…
Even though I always obsessively plan to resolve every possible contingency I might face to guarantee to myself I'll be safe, this trip I cannot; there are too many unknowns, so many things that could go wrong. It is the first trip I am undertaking in many, many years where I can't guarantee to myself that I'll be wholly safe. The unease is permeating my conscious mind.
The great one creates its own weather, but I plan for a little less sun, another extra battery pack coming along for my luxury of carrying this completely useful and yet infernal device, both letting me carry such wonderful works by Muir, maps out the wazoo, a way to communicate with those I love, write an ongoing journal, and entertainment.
I am going on this trip alone. Every time before I go backpacking alone, I always question why. Why do this to yourself, is it worth all this weight, what drives me to take on this risk.
I have been staring over maps for days and days, the beautiful unfolded topos on my kitchen table, planning all my paths and bearings, seeing the contours making me see the north face of Denali in my head; crossing the glacier and the adventures up the creeks above. How I will hate when I need to fold them and put them in their plastic bags as then they too will know adventure begins…
It is a challenge, one that will call on all of the skills and gear and experience I've amassed over the years. At least five years of preparation and more. Soon it will be time again, Denali has come. But first I need to finish a run.
August 16, 2018
Sitting on the floor, splitting up everything into little separate Ziploc bags. The new 100 liter pack cover arrived and everything fit, so tonight is waterproofing and splitting everything up for travel. The compass is adjusted to the proper magnetic declination and non trail clothes are packed. The biggest surprise of the night was that the crampons fit into my side pocket, even more room!
In handing off loose threads to everyone else at work, I find they are intrigued about where I am going, the gear I am trusting, what I will see. But talking to M, whom I had the immense pleasure to introduce to backpacking just about half a year ago, asked as his first question “is it safe?” I've trained a backpacker!
I keep wondering if I should write up instructions on how to to handle logistics should something go wrong on the glacier, but I can't… it's almost like admitting defeat before the challenge begins. There is so much I will return for, the people I love, my mother's 80th birthday, seeing my great friend for a Paul Simon concert, to ski, to see granite basin. But Unit 19 is a special place. It will not defeat me; I will soon join it in rapture and, with my camera, share the beauty of this land with everyone who wants to see and listen.
I am the most ready I will ever be, my body physically trained, my skill set expanded, my perfect Limmer boots, my primary firearm specialized for grizzly bears, learned orienteering, terminal moraine navigation, I have all the skills and gear I need. It is not the time of the apex of my achievements; this is using my skills to get into remote beauty and to commune with it and listen. It is not an end, but a doorway: Tasmania, Gates of the Artic, New Zealand, so many places await. But Alaska has my heart, and I shall conquer her, and we shall fall in love together. I'm sure the Big Trees will be jealous, but they already know how to share. They are proud peacocks, just like the mountains in Alaska that dwarf so many others that they know they are kings and have nothing to prove, just like the big trees, to Be, and to Be majestic and proud.
Why this fixation on Unit 19? It was recommended to me by a guide as one of the prettiest places they've been in Denali. Over the last few years, without a solid go to backpacking partner, I've met quite a few people: guides, new friends, people on the trail, ski bar drink buddies. And everyone has a favorite place they love. So now I make sure to keep a list; and to visit the places they love so I can fall in love with them as well. And on that list is Unit 19, one of the places Brian thought the most beautiful he'd ever seen. Some backpackers hoard their favorite places, their favorite campsites, so no one else can spoil their wilderness experiences… when they share, it's because not only is it a special place, but also because they know it will be appreciated with the proper spirit and the right set of eyes.
I keep walking by my kitchen table looking over the maps, envision the land, Green Point, to meander around the base of the mountain and wonder if I can be strong enough to tromp on other glaciers. The creeks and rivers and peaks await. I will be there soon.
August 20th, 2018
With just a few minutes left in the day after 18 hours of traveling, flight delays, some slightly sore legs from yesterday's race, layovers and going to the wrong best Western plus, finally the first hurdle is complete; I made it again into Fairbanks! So odd flying in to see what looked like a sunset on the horizon at 11 pm. I was reminded of being at my friend's wedding in Estonia in the summer when it never seemed to get darker then twilight. At least all the bags arrived, so now time for some sleep and get fuel and the final supply run before heading to the park.
August 21, 2018
It is raining. The amazing thing about rain is that it separates each individual into a Trinity; the Father is dry and loves to be dry and will spend all effort and layers and gear to stay dry, but it is futile so the Son realizes he is wet and pushes on as our original sin means we can no longer be dry and must be content being wet, but then suddenly the rain doesn't stop and we get cold and the Holy Spirit realizes we better find some shelter and dry clothes and become again one with our dry father…
Yup, it's raining.
The supply run was successful, found the right fuel, got some extra dry bags, and left Fairbanks onto adventure. The drive down the parks highway was wonderful. Amazing to see the land transformed. Strands of Sitka spruce that in winter were slender with the snow weighing down their limbs now stretched out their shoulders like proud fighters. The birch with leaves about to turn filled in to make barren winter landscapes dense like the forests of the East through which not even the sun could be seen. What were just half a year ago white flat expanses of snow now become gorgeous lakes and streams, the autumn turning the grasses gold at the end of their days; bogs populated with willows and still pools and mystery. The mountains that just yesterday were snow capped wonders were now bare, their earth toned cliffs eagerly awaiting the snow.
I find the gear I need in Fairbanks and head off to Denali. The road is gorgeous and familiar, though the stark winter beauty has been replaced by undulating stripes of greens and gold. Diving through Nenana I see the tower on the shore, resting for the river to freeze for the next ice challenge. And later there is the totem, and I stop at three bears for some whiskey; it is so familiar it feels like returning home.
I get to Denali and it is overrun with people. I never thought so many people would be here. I sit through what seems like an hour of required video for a backcountry permit, things I already knew. But might as well get it done. Another half hour waiting for campsite registration. I set up the tent and go for a day hike. Soon the drizzle doesn't stop. And then it turns to rain. Wet, I make some dinner, then crawl into the tent when I start to get cold. I will not leave tomorrow, I can wait out the rain in the dry tent, falling asleep listening to the rhythm of the raindrops, calling me to wake and explore even as I sleep.
August 22, 2018
It is just about 6am and I am awake, the horn from an early morning train blaring an unwanted alarm, and it is still raining. Glad I am not leaving today! But still the tent is dry, which is a good sign…my gear that has mostly seen deserts and sunshine still will not let me down. I feel my boots on the outside of the tent, still dry! The vestibule has worked wonders, a thing I rarely use or pack, but on this trip planning won out over the camp stool as a luxury and has already won its weight in gold for keeping stuff dry. In a few hours I shall go and get my permit and bus ticket, and then another day of waiting. And hopefully getting another entrance day trail map as mine is watered shut. Today I'll wear shell pants :). Another nap, it's times like this, waiting out weather, in which tents can seem so alone and would be made infinitely better if there was just someone there to hug.
The camp is stirring, car doors slamming, engines starting, how I can't wait enough until I am greeted by the morning sounds of rivers and silence. The preparation might be the most annoying thing of all, dealing with strangers all around. Soon, soon it will be just the few that understand, and then the great beyond.
The first diesel RV powers up just before 7 and the rain is picking up; today will be a slog.
The day hike was fun, going through the forest mixed of spruce and birch, and the forest floor, so rich! Carpeted in moss and ferns and so green and alive. It reminds me of the rain forests of Washington. And the “creeks” … where I'm from they would be rivers in and of themselves, the trains turning them into little torrents.
I got exactly the permit I wanted; unit 19. Soon the beautiful land Brian told me about in a cabin in the snow will be seen. I switch over to my bear ammo. I take the car off to a parking lot to run it away from the campground to get one last full charge. The maps folded, a final beer. Soon, the wild awaits.
August 24, 2018, 5:30am
After all the brouhaha, planning and testing, I wake up and hastily pack up my wet tent, and after all that almost miss the bus! How embarrassing would that be to miss a trip by just five minutes! I know I've probably forgotten something but now it's a sleepy me on a bus. The bus ride in on Darlene’s 007 is long, but pretty, moving between stands of spruce and high tundra with gorgeous views of the Alaska range on the side. On the way in we see a bunch of animals; three different grizzly bears with their spring cubs, caribou, a golden eagle, and a bunch of Dall sheep crossing the mountain. And one of the rest stops is alongside the Toklat river. Finally I have seen it! A gorgeous wide river bounded by mountains; my mind wanders, thinking of how it would look from a dog sled. I must make it back here for sure.
After a bit more than four hours we get to the visitor's center, the departure point for my trip. I get my handgun loaded and in the holster, the heavy pack on my back, grab a drink of water and head on off. There is a trail down to Gorge creek, but soon the trail ends and its off into the wilderness. I cross my first creek, and am I glad that Kelly had recommended getting creek crossing shoes. Here, creeks are rivers! Navigating is easier than I thought. Here it's big open tundra and the features are so large that its easy to just walk by sight following rivers and ridges and pointing your way by the mountains. On the copper mountain bar I encounter a pair of caribou but give them a wide berth. A few creek crossings later I found the little point and am finally upon it, Glacier Creek and the base of the Muldrow.
I start following what look like some animal paths through the bushes, and am seeing some boot prints on the ground that look fairly recent, so clearly I am in the right spot. I cross the creek over to the glacier side and, though early, find a lovely flat spot alongside the creek that seems to be begging for a tent. So I stop a little early and make camp. Cooking dinner up a little gorge in the glacier, the clouds clear and I can see the mountain, snow covered and high. Spectacular.
Towards the evening it begins to drizzle, so I get into my tent and cozy up to reading maps and eventually fall asleep. It's early morning now and trying to rain again, so I will go back to sleep.
August 24, 2018, 11:20 pm
After a few hours I woke up again and the rain had stopped, so what a perfect time to break camp and have some breakfast! Though the water in Glacier Creek was silty, still made for a great cup of coffee and excellent for freeze dried food. Just about when I am finished packing, it starts to rain again. It would rain all day.
I continue south down the creek towards Green Point, a little past where the rangers said would be the easiest place to cross. A little past it, after filling up with some clear water from a little side creek, I see what looks like a good place to get on the glacier. A little earlier then what the rangers said, but it might be steeper up ahead.
After bushwhacking through the dwarf willow to get up the ridge to the lateral moraine I finally get a good look at the glacier. I take out a compass and set a bearing for due west, and wouldn't it be my lucky day, there’s a perfectly solitary triangular mountain right due west. Things in Alaska are so big and the glacier so barren that was the only compass bearing I needed. I start to read the terrain plan my way onto the glacier and see a wonderful little saddle. But looking closer, a grizzly bear and a cub were right at the bottom of the saddle! I speak and wave my poles, but realize I'll need to take the trickier way down. It's slow going on the terminal moraine. I'm making sure every step is solid, meandering to always find the easiest path with not too much slope and far away from any hazards I see. The going seemed easier than the Root Glacier. There is a lot more gravel, and I don't see any ice beneath on the paths I chose. Aside from the rain the only annoying thing is that for some reason my pants seem to be falling down. The glacier has some pretty lakes and ice caves, but of course I don't dare get close. Then after going up another saddle I finally get a glimpse of the white ice of the Muldrow. It is gorgeous! Too bad the clouds are obscuring the mountain.
Slow going, but finally I've made my way across. I've veered a little south, and there's no easy way off of the glacier. I pick a path that doesn't seem as steep and start my way up. It's almost trickier then anything on the glacier. After about an hour and a half I'm trying to traverse what I think is a good path, but the color of the rock is more brown then the grey slate of the glacier. I'm hoping it's more solid, but soon I see it's a small creek. I've been testing each step with my feet, but I've found quicksand! My left leg starts sinking in, my pole is sinking too and my right leg with them too. Soon I'm up to my knees in quicksand! My pole finally hits something solid, but I'm not strong enough to push myself up with the heavy pack. I drop to my knees and push, and get myself free to solid land, only with the next few steps to find more quicksand! The same technique works, but now my boots, gaiters and pants are caked in pounds of mud.
I keep slogging upwards, seemingly having underestimated the slope. I can see that daylight is fading. How long have I been going? I keep pushing on and eventually make it to the top of the rise. On one side, the magnificent glacier, on the other a gorgeous lake that must have been carved out long ago. There’s no water at the top of the ridge, but there is a flat area, and I am tired, wet and cold. I put up my tent, change into some dry clothes, leave muddy ones outside to maybe get rinsed off during the evening, and begin to turn in. I'd been hiking for 12 hours straight. Too tired to make dinner. It's pretty up here, maybe I'll spend a day to see if I can dry out and visit the lake.
The light drizzle from the day is turning into an evening rain. Glad I set up the tent when I did. Time to put on some dry socks and turn in for the night. I think I'll sleep in tomorrow and take it easy.
August 25, 2018
I was so tired I couldn't fall asleep easily, probably still the adrenaline from the late glacier crossing and trying to make it off before dark. I heard the drizzle turn into a more steady rain, a cold wind seeming to come off the glacier. Eventually I fell asleep, just to wake up before dawn and still hear the rain. Might as well sleep in.
Next time I woke up, it was daylight and I heard a slight breeze rattling the tent walls, but couldn't tell if there was any drizzle or not. I opened the door and poked my head outside, and what a sight; a gorgeous sunny day with clear blue skies, the sunlight glinting off the glacier and, what was hidden by the clouds now revealed, rows of tall, rugged snow capped mountains filling the horizon. I just stood there, awestruck; this was the Alaska of my childhood dreams, and even grander then I had imagined. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever woken up to, and filled me with the wonder of a child and a sense of being totally alive. Alaska has truly won my heart.
With such a beautiful warming sun I decide to take the opportunity to dry out all my gear and make it a slow morning; with such a stunning vista it's easy to spend all the time in the world waiting in wonder! I lay out my gear and take a small day pack down the ridge to the lake to fill up water. A few caribou tracks were by the lake along with some mosquitoes, the first I've really seen. Small fish (greylings perhaps?) were jumping right out of the water to catch them in the air. I fill up some water bottles and start heading back up the ridge when I hear some rocks slide; on the other end of the small gorge in the ridge two grizzly bears were scrambling up! They must have heard my singing. I slowly back away, waving my poles, and they turn and go the other way. I overshoot my tent a little bit to give them space, but now I'm certainly more wary of singing when I approach ridges I can't see over.
Lazily I make breakfast as I turn over the gear and start looking at the map to figure out where I should go for the day. I figure I'll head up around to pirate creek, skirting around the mountains that had been my directional post across the glacier. As I found the lake, the terrain starts to turn into a marsh or a bog, so I move slow, but also because each little meander brings with it yet another gorgeous view, a new snow capped peak peeking through an opening. Some of the mountains have gorgeous colors in them, greens, browns, reds. Every one has its own character and makes me smile.
I get up onto a small ridge and immediately know where I am from having looked at the map and can see pirate creek. But off to the left is one of the valleys I saw, and the creek looks inviting. Singing, crossing through dwarf willow, over some small red leafed plants, through taller red grasses and little ponds in the bog, I make my way up the valley. Towards the unnamed creek coming off of an unmanned glacier on an unnamed snow capped mountain, it is a beautiful valley. The creek is swift and clear and the water is delicious. I sit and eat some chowder as I stare at the mountain, the creek rushing beside me, content.
A cold wind picks up in the evening as the sun disappears behind one of the valley walls, so I go into the tent to get a bit of protection after I have no more sunlight to stand in.
Though the walls of the tent are flapping, tonight everything that I have is dry and warm and comforting. The sound of the creek will lull me to sleep. This may very well be the finest and most beautiful day I have ever had backpacking. Today has made the entire trip worthwhile and has filled my soul with wonder I'll never forget. Today I realize why Brian has said this was one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen. I completely agree. It is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth.
August 26, 2018
As I finished writing and started to get to bed last night the wind started to pick up, and pick up it did; soon the howling of the wind was louder than the creek. The walls of the tent flapping incessantly, very little sleep would I get. Eventually it began to gust, one end of the vestibule pole snapping out of its attachment. It throws its stake somewhere into the night. I fix it from the inside, but still can't fall soundly asleep. I go out in the night to go to the bathroom, oddly finding the thrown stake, and see I need to fix it again. I crawl back inside but just minutes later another gust of wind takes out the other side. With these 30-50 mph gusts I can see it is a losing battle; I take down the vestibule and, for the first time in over a decade, bring my boots inside the tent in case of rain.
When I finally wake up, I lie in the sleeping bag for a bit, looking again at the maps to find an easier ascent onto the glacier, hoping the wind would die down. But die down it does not, and eventually I decide to get going to the east end of Pirate Creek. I decide to put everything away first, the gusts of wind are strong enough to knock me a little off balance. Right as I'm taking out the tent poles a strong gust of wind gives my tent an identity crisis and suddenly it finds its inner kite its been suppressing for a long time. Flying above my head, I grasp it with a death clutch for I cannot lose the tent! I wrestle it to the ground and weigh it down with rocks as I get it I into its stuff sack. That done, I feel I need some coffee, but the wind is too strong and the stove won't ignite. I wait for a lull and light it, but soon another gust blows it out again. Finally, using the bear canister and my legs, I make a makeshift wind break and can finally warm water for my coffee and eggs.
I take it slow again as I hike north up the unnamed creek on this cloudy, windy day, sometimes going straight into the wind as it tries to push me back. About halfway there I reach back for some water but my water bottle is gone. I must not have heard it fall with the wind! I double back to look for it, but do not see anything. I guess the gods have their gift. I fill up another water bottle and move on; I hate traveling without water of some kind on me, even if there's a creek right at my feet. I guess everyone has their unusual quirks.
Eventually I come upon the confluence, and have made it to Pirate Creek. The wind definitely doesn't seem as bad. I start up the creek bed, but soon it gets thick with willows and I can see the water right against a scree slope up ahead, so I decide to head up to the ridge instead. Definitely windy and a little boggy, but a good view of the saddle I chose the day before and the path ahead looks good. It descends gradually right to the creek, the edge of the glacier in sight. And, a meadow with some stands of four foot tall trees that might form a little of a wind break if the wind picks up again, and it's right next to a little pond fed by a stream and a little gurgling waterfall. Seems like a great spot to make camp!
I drop my pack and take a short trip with the day pack to check out the approaches to the glacier. The path I try is a mostly direct one, but it is a lot of bush whacking through waist high dwarf willow that certainly would not be fun with a pack. Soon it turns into its own ridge, another small gully between it and the glacier. It seems what I thought in the morning on the map was right, just north of the creek seems to be the most accessible. I know which way to head tomorrow.
Back at the campsite I have a nice lazy afternoon, getting in a phone call to my folks while the satellite signal is good and warming myself up in the sun while reading and just relaxing in nature. It strikes me that the call was the first I'd spoken to anyone in over three full days! I'd just been singing into the air and talking to some animals, creeks and mountains on the way. Definitely a different existence, almost a total sense of being in the moment whether it's reading the terrain to find a path, looking at the sky for any changes in weather, checking each step to see if the ground is solid and not a bog hole, scanning the landscape for any wildlife to avoid, thinking about whether there might be something over the next ridge and when to start to sing. Every moment is occupied with something important. It's nice to have a lazy afternoon and recharge a bit and just relax.
Soon though the sun disappears, some darker clouds start moving in and a few rain drops fall from the sky. I hastily set up the tent and make dinner an hour earlier than I planned. The wind is picking up a bit again and it is nice to have the little wind breaks for sure! With the wind, I decide against putting the vestibule on the tent again. It starts to drizzle, and then turning into a light rain, so I go into the tent early while everything is still dry, once again, boots inside the tent. It feels like sacrilege! Time to charge up, read a bit more, catch up on some lost sleep, study maps, and hope the weather holds. After having two lovely full days it is time to face the glacier again.
August 27, 2018
I wake up and, thankfully, I hear no wind and no rain on the walls of the tent. The inside floor of the tent is wet from the night rain. I look outside to see what the weather is like, and perhaps it was something I hadn't expected: misty rain and fog. The fog is not something I had expected. After breakfast and packing up my gear trying my best to keep it dry, I put on my pack and head up what I had made out to be the easiest way onto the glacier from the topos and my research hike yesterday. After a bit of an ascent the news is mixed. The ascent was easy and I must be onto something; on my way up to the lateral moraine I find a headlamp that someone lost, still works! I feel sorry for whomever lost it, for I would much rather be without a spare nalgene than a headlamp. I finally reach the top of the hill, but with the fog I can't see the landmark mountain I was planning on using as a signpost across the glacier. And worse, I can only see the next ridge of moraine and no further; I can't see far away to predict the best way around obstacles. I set my compass to the direct bearing I want to take towards Green Point from the map, but I know that a direct route isn't possible. I work to try to read the glacial terrain like I was learning from Kelly. But it's otherworldly. I see a steeper ridge and think there's a water hole down there, and often there is. I can't follow my bearing, too much in the way, so I start traversing the path I see across the glacier. Taking me south. I can't seem to find any way east, but I'm pushing east as best I can.
I am trying to plan too far ahead, looking at the obscured horizon to try and gauge just where I am and what direction I am going, whether I am going south or east, if I am finally around the boundary of that meltwater lake. I am thinking too far ahead. My inattention causes me to forget to fully test the stability of my left foothold. Even on a moderately flat area, my footing slips and I fall, my left knee banging into a large rock. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Peterlin, stop focusing on the future and focus on what's right under your feet. Look at where you are and where you are going to will all come in time with many safe, small steps.
Soon, I see a possible path east and start to follow it. Eventually, I think I see boot prints. I check my GPS and, yup, I'm seeing my own tracks. I've navigated right back to the way I came in! It's comforting, but still I can't see landmarks, and can't really tell how far I've gone. The fog has broken up behind me, so I can see the western landmark mountain, but I'm going east. I keep pushing on, and then while I can't see Green Point, I start to see some vegetation on the hills ahead; I am approaching the lateral moraine!
This is both a good thing for it means I'm nearing the end of the glacier. It's also frightening because it is one of the most difficult parts, one of the largest ascents of the crossing, right when my legs are tired. Looking at it, I pick what seems to be the most gradual way up, but it still requires picking lines and watching every step. Soon I am starting to hit some plants, but it keeps going ever upward and steep. Then I switchback one final time and am at the saddle…I've made it! After eight and a half hours, I am across the glacier. I scream out in ecstasy as I look back on what I've just crossed. Now, the bush whacking down to the creek begins.
I'm tired and it's starting to rain and all my clothes are moist or soaked. My hips are sore from all the side stepping of the long crossing day. I'm determined to stay at the first spot I can find. I set down at one and even make dinner as it rains, but then I think that it's right on the edge of the creek and if there's a good rain the creek could get high in the night. Although I don't want to, I put my pack back on and keep heading north on the trail. Just around the next few bends I see what I'm looking for, a little gravel bar at the edge that's raised and has plants. The creek clearly won't rise that high! So close by, and here I was thinking I'd need to hike for miles. I set up my tent and get inside out of the rain.
Glaciers really can teach some amazing lessons. How you keep moving even as the ground is slipping under your feet, how sometimes the best way up or down is actually sideways, that you get to where you're going you sometimes need to travel backwards and try a new path, that not all meandering is pointless, that you need to pay attention to every step or you can stumble or lose your way, that sometimes the most beautiful things are the most dangerous, and that it is constantly changing and will never be the same. It has most certainly been a challenge, but the beauty I got to see and the joy of accomplishment of having crossed the glacier make it all worthwhile.
The satellite signal isn't stable enough here in this steeper canyon to get my messages out tonight. Hopefully I can try tomorrow to let everyone know I made it across so they won't worry. Hopefully the rain will stop. It's just coming in fits but sounds like it's getting heavier. Hopefully the wind won't pick up; the vestibule is up, and the boots are again outside where they belong.
As I write it is late and I can hear the strong water of the creek moving rocks down the creek bed. Something walks by the tent. Is it another hiker, one of the other sets of boot prints I've seen on the trail? Is that the rhythm of a caribou or a bear? Will I see prints tomorrow? No need to worry about it tonight. It isn't stopping and isn't interested in me or my tent. And neither is the rain stopping, so I feel no need to go outside to try to make friends with it and will stay here inside where it's dry and rest instead.
August 28, 2018
I am still awake through the night as it is filled with a steady drizzle and periods of gusting wind and pelting rain. The vestibule pops off its anchors only once, but still I am wary of it popping off each time when I hear the wind come up. Eventually I get some rest, but when I first wake up it is still raining on and off. I decide to wait it out and read for a bit. After about 20 minutes of no rain I decide to make breakfast and get my lazy self out of the comfy warm sleeping bag. Only then do I realize that the pelting rain and gusty wind has overwhelmed my tent, water got onto the floor and now everything I had brought inside the tent to dry off is soaked! The sleeping bag and pad are wet too, the only dry things I have are one pair of socks and underwear, my wool mid layer and the light shell pants. Everything else is soaked. I look outside and it is grey, with bands of clouds on the horizon that seem foreboding. The wind is biting and it is cold. Without the sun I can't dry my gear out and not knowing what weather another day will bring, I decide to try to push out today. It's 8:30 and the last bus is at 6:30 pm, so I should be able to make it.
I skip a warm breakfast and go through some of the snack food and the last protein bar and begin getting the pack ready to go. Two Italians pass me on the trail, the first people I've seen since I left the visitor's center last Thursday, and they too have the same idea; cold and wet they too decided to head to the bus. I head back north upon Glacier Creek to the way out. So much of my gear has gotten wet that it feels like my pack has gained five pounds and is heavier then when I started on the trail. Must be over 70 pounds as I can't lift it with one arm. It's so heavy it keeps slipping down my back. I'm constantly adjusting it but can never get the hip belt tight enough. My left knee is a bit off from one of the slips on the glacier; I can't straighten it and put the full weight of myself and the pack load into it without some pain. Must have just banged it the wrong way to irritate it. Though I pass the Italians who have stopped for lunch they soon pass me again as I am favoring that left knee and being careful not to misstep. The creek is swift already from the night rains and is not something you want to slip into. But I can see both my old boot prints from the path I took in plus the fresh prints from the Italians, so finding the path is easy.
I am hiking at a good pace and by mid afternoon can see the copper bar and final ridge that mark the end of the creek. I take off the gaiters and change into my creek crossing shoes to start going across Glacier Creek. Creek crossing seems to come much easier to me and feels more comfortable then when I started out, perhaps I am more confident having crossed the glacier. After I cross, I can see the road and the visitors center up on the ridge. My path is set, I make a beeline for the visitors center, crossing the creeks and rivers almost directly on the path as they are easy, dropping my pack for a bit each time I need to switch between my boots and creek crossing shoes, each time getting a little respite from the load.
Things are going well, and by just before 5 I am approaching Gorge Creek, the final crossing. Instead of checking the GPS to see where I had crossed before at the trailhead to the visitor's center I see what seems like an easier crossing point maybe just under half a mile to the west, the creek a lot wider and more braided then I remember. I cross, and accidentally make the biggest mistake of my trip.
On the north side of the creek there is no trail and the rocky shore by the creek quickly disappears. The willow is going right up to the creek edge, so I decide to start bush whacking parallel to the creek towards the trailhead. What starts off easy soon turns into growth up to my waist, and soon up to my shoulders. The willows are strong and flexible and the undergrowth grabs at your feet and poles, tying them up. Something grabs my left boot right as I am starting to take a step, halting my foot instantly with strong force. I fall, the heavy pack tipping me and dragging me forcefully to the ground. With my left knee hurting and after a small yelp, I get back up and keep pushing forward. Soon it is getting thicker and harder to push through, the trunks getting thicker. Now the growth is hiding a bog. I unknowingly step into a hole and fall again. The branches grab my shoelaces and untie them, but I don't know until the muck almost takes my left boot straight off of my foot. Now there are hidden streams but I can't see them and step straight into them, the water flowing right into my boots. Even though the rain held off, this bush whack has me completely soaked. I am tripped and fall ten more times, my knee hurting more each time and my yelping and cursing growing louder with each fall. It is even more difficult and tiring then the glacier.
Soon, almost by accident, I find the developed trail to the visitor's center. That half mile has taken me nearly an hour and left my knee throbbing. I might not make the final bus. Now with no dry gear at all I know I don't want to spend another cold wet night outdoors. I start heading uphill with the over 70 pound pack faster than I ever have before. But soon I am tiring and need to slow down. Halfway up the sun decides to come out. I exclaim “Really? Now?” The next turn presents a phenomenal double rainbow stretching from the bar to the mountains, bright and majestic, arcing over the entire valley stretching all the way to the mountains. Absolutely gorgeous, like nothing I've seen before. But can't stop to take a picture as I am racing against the clock. It will be an image I'll always have burned into my mind. I thank the earth for it but still would prefer a jet pack or an elevator right about now instead. I am about two thirds of the way up when I see the last bus pull in. I try to signal it with my poles and start blowing on my whistle to maybe let them hear that someone is coming. The buses are supposed to wait 30 minutes. But I don't know if it will. I think I might be close enough that maybe someone up there just might me able to hear my emergency whistle even if they can't see me on the trail. I keep blowing the whistle as I ascend. Maybe someone will hear that I'm coming. I don’t look at the clock. I just keep pushing. The whistle seems to attract marmots big time. Eventually, rounding the last corner around the weather station, I get to the top and see over the wall that there are two buses still there waiting, I have made it!
I meet another backpacker and we begin to talk; we both underestimated how badly bushwhacking would affect our time. We had just been through the exact same thing, an unexpected bush whack slowing us down, seeing buses from the road and trying to signal them we are coming, that fear of not knowing if a bus will be there for us, of seeing the double rainbow, of the excitement, wonder, exhilaration and beauty of all we had just seen in the backcountry. Tales of missteps on the trail, the joy of waking to gorgeous days. And the places we've seen and still want to see. We bond over the rainy days and the dreary days that led to the most sublime days ever, of how miserable things could seem but yet how perfect it all was and how we wouldn't change a thing. We are the only two people on the bus (oh my God… heat! Astounding!) but are immediately friends and talking incessantly about the outdoors like we are in a sewing circle. We swap stories about where to visit. He's from Florida and tells me about the excellent time of year of October through March to go outdoors and of great clear springs to go canoe backpacking. He asks me for my own favorite places, and I go on and on. He's going to Utah in a few months, so I help him plan some great times in that beautiful place. On the four hour bus ride back to the bus depot we are taking most of the time about not only the trips we just had, but looking out the windows identifying more places we want to go backpacking in the park and what units they are. And to top it off, we go around a turn and right there in the road is a magnificent large male grizzly bear! We are only 30 feet away! The bus stops as we let him get off the road and saunter up the hill. A spruce grouse and four hours later, Aaron gets off at the bus depot, and our driver Alan drops me back off at the car. And then I celebrate as my friend Ry taught me; with a cold celebratory beer I left in the car waiting for my return.
I load up the car and then decide to get a hotel, and it is so late and my phone connection so slow it takes 20 minutes to find one. But I do, and soon have a hot shower. Probably the second best shower of my life. Clean, with fresh dry clothes and dry shoes, I relax with another beer and soon will drift off to sleep in the first bed I've lain upon in over a week and a half, reflecting. Astounding how quickly that time has passed, and yet how long it really was. What an adventure. Unit 19, challenging, breath taking both figuratively and literally, dazzling and mesmerizing, I'll never forget you and always love you with my whole heart. Perhaps we will meet again.
September 8, 2018
Over a week away, but still so close by, the great mountains, the expanse still dominating my mind. I keep thinking back; I miss that time of being completely challenged and also in tune with the land and relaxed. I miss the sound of water comforting me to sleep and gurgling as I wake up to the new day. The unexpected fear and the continual drive to survive is something sobering and amplified when the land itself makes it so visceral and unavoidable. It is gone in this land people think is normal, a cultured, safe space tuned to comfort those who don't know how to survive.
I have to admit, there is a bit of a feeling of accomplishment, but also realization, that moment in the quicksand of momentary panic that puts everything into perspective, focusing your mind like a laser on whom you love and doing anything and everything to get back to them. And there is a tangible feeling of loss, of so much time with the land underfoot, no sub floors or artifices separating us. In that moment there were three people in my head to whom I would reach out to, to whom I would grab onto their importance and make sure I would survive. Fear distills everything; perhaps I needed that quicksand to amplify and make prescient what I cared about the most.
That perfect day I woke up and saw the glacier outside my tent on the ridge, once again I found myself in love. To me, Alaska is a beauty, fickle yet compliant, and has renewed my joy of adventure and wonder. Her energy has shown me beauty beyond compare, shared inscrutable transcendence on the shores of glacial streams, made me fall to my knees screaming in pain, and made me crawl through the dirt to survive. Alaska, you compete me; Alaska, you complete me; I know we shall battle again, and you will again show me wonder.
The autumn comes, go to sleep. I will visit you by your bedside and see the northern lights. Our lives are forever intertwined; do not forget me as you sleep, and I promise to be there again as you awake, to hold your hand, and to once again don my boots and head off into your unknown, your embrace, and revel in your wonder.
Thank you, Alaska, my lover, for completing me. I will return soon. Until then, sleep well, and dream.
Picutres were from the a900 system with the 24-70 lens and an iPhone SE.
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