I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains. -John Muir
Alaska is a hard place to describe. Words just don’t do it justice. I spent a summer there in 2008, traveling with my best friend Rebecca, who had been living there for a couple of years. It was a sensitive time in my life, a time when I was questioning my next moves and feeling a little ungrounded and insecure. Alaska provided the perfect backdrop for such a time, with its dramatic scenery and terrible weather. The combo ensured that all hiking trips would be both brutal and stunning. Harsh, unrelenting, but impossibly rewarding.
My feet were wet and cold the entire time I was in Alaska. I didn’t go to Alaska with some Into the Wildpursuit. I had adventure and curiosity in mind (as I do most anywhere I travel) but no big aims for self-discovery or throwing off the shackles of Western civilized society. I was properly equipped, outfitted, and experienced to handle the terrain and the climate, but no REI waterproof gear was a match for the unrelenting bog of trekking during my Alaska summer.
The best way to sum up Alaska isn’t through retelling all of our stories, but perhaps highlighting one memorable experience. Rebecca and I went on a several day backpack North of Fairbanks in the White Mountains. This recreation area is often used in the winter to view the Aurora Borealis and for cross-country skiing. The scenery in the summer time is nice, but not remarkable. It was just a place on our map that we wanted to check off. So…off we went.
I can’t remember if it was raining when we started, or started shortly after, but the first two days of our trip it rained and rained and rained. Heads down, we trudged forward through the biting wind and slanted rain. Visibility was poor in spots and at times we couldn’t see the trail. Our first evening we were reprieved by a backcountry cabin, set-up for the winter cross-country skiing season where we stayed for the night.
There was another backcountry cabin on our map, this one with a wood-burning stove, which we decided to hike to the next day. We set off in the morning, trudging over wet marsh that was more like walking on the top of field of wet kitchen sponges then solid earth. Next, we encountered 2 miles of tussock grass stumps, nearly breaking our ankles. We encountered no other humans, only shitty, shitty trail. IT WAS THE WORST! It took us the entire day to go about five miles. (A distant I can cover in about 42 minutes with running shoes and a sturdy trail.) Our only salvation was the cabin. We were single mindedly focused on the cabin. This was the mantra of our death march: There’s a cabin, just on the other side of a creek. We can see it on the map. We’ll get there, we’ll dry out and then we’ll get the hell out of here!!
We crossed a creek. No cabin. Crossed another little stream. No cabin. And then…we saw the cabin… And then… we noticed the divide. It was on the other side of an Alaskan “creek,” which by all lower 48 standards is a RAGING river. Our mantra was, get to the cabin, get to the cabin, get to the cabin. So we went into the river, up to our knees, then to our waists, but we were only about a few feet across what seemed infinity of rushing water. The cabin clearly visible on the other side; it’s little chimney peaking through the roof to torture us. Rebecca stubbornly stood in that ice cold river for a long ass time as I turned back to spot out some other reasonable shelter.
About a quarter mile back, there was a ring of Spruce trees. A sort of miracle in itself as much of the trail we were on was completely exposed. This ring of Spruce trees, provided a sort of canopy and the ground below was dry. I called Rebecca out of the water. We silently set-up camp too pissed, wet, cold, and dejected to verbally recognize our failure to reach the cabin. I went to fill our water. Sitting by the stream, slowly filtering and treating, I noticed a strange sight. Just to my right there was a pile of wooden rounds, big pieces of cut firewood. I can’t remember if I yelled or suddenly forgot how to speak, but I was overwhelmed by a wild rage: “We’re going to light these giant pieces of wood on fire.”
The top section and the bottom section were clearly too soaked to catch fire, but the center pieces looked dry enough. The only trick was kindling, making a small fire hot enough to catch one of these large pieces of wood. Back to our little canopy under the halo of Spruce trees, we set to work. We gathered handfuls of Spruce needles, anything dry we could find and made the biggest pile we could. We threw on a little fuel for good measure and lit the pile. We waited for it to grow in size and then tossed on the driest round. We watched in hushed awe and silently bargained with God. Please, please, please let this round catch fire. AND…it did! It was a miracle. A GENUINE MIRACLE! A piece of our wild animal nature was released by that fire as we stripped out of our soaking wet clothes and crazily danced around that fire. We melted the bottom of our shoes in that fire. That fire saved our souls.
The next day, the rain cleared and we were able to hike all the way out. The trail that was previously invisible to us, lined with plump blueberries and hot pink fireweed. There was lightness in our steps that is only made possible by completely losing your shit and coming out alive on the other side. Exiting the trail, we drove straight to a brewery we’d passed on the way up; America’s northernmost brewery, Silver Gulch, in Fairbanks. We ate the biggest plate of Nachos on the face of the Earth and had a well-deserved frosty pint of beer. There’s nothing like going mad with rage and defeat with your best friend and then toasting to it with a beer afterward.
That is a real life story. It also serves as an allegory for my time in Alaska. Defeat, misery, soon to be replaced by a joy so vast it’ll melt the bottom of your shoes.
I had an amazing summer in Alaska. I got to spend time with old friends and saw some jaw dropping scenery. Moreover, I got back in touch with God. In my youth I was raised Baptist. Religious dogma led me to reject the entire concept of God. I was not amused by the judgment, the divisiveness that I observed as a mainstay of my religious experience, so I turned away from God entirely. I studied philosophy in college. I traveled around the world and spent a great deal of time in the outdoors searching for peace and meaning, a sense of connectivity to the universe. I detracted God from my vocabulary, instead using words like the universe, and energy and what have you to describe my experiences with moments of divinity.
Alaska changed all that for me. I had some straight up conversations with God. It seems you have to be humbled to get that close to God. Humility removes the obstacle of your Ego and your Logic. Alaska was just harsh enough to break my ego, but stunning enough to ignite my soul. I came face to face with my own power and found the strength to take God back. Religion does not define God as a word or a concept. I was able to recognize that God was always there..in us, around us, between us. God is the spark that illuminates all things. Sometimes you just need to be desperate for the flame, to recognize the spark.