The golden rays trickled through the thin polyester tent walls. A few drops of condensation ran down the inside ceiling. The inviting aroma of spices drifted off the arctic crowberries, a gentle and nurturing smell reminiscent of Christmas. The air pushed me deeper into my sleeping bag with its forcefully cold arms. My solar watch to beeped, piercing the perfect stillness in this remote land. Reluctantly, I climbed out of my zero degree cocoon into the dissipating fog that settled in the valley overnight. The sun immediately warmed my skin, a rare treasure during the rainy summer months of Alaska; Sometimes the sun would only reward the living for a few minutes before the dark clouds rolled and churned into place, ready to release blankets of rain.
That night, we had set up camp in a sort of divinely handcrafted, mountainous bowl with a small creek racing through the middle. As the sun poured over the towering mountains and illuminated their magnificence, we truly realized the difficulty we were to face in the next month. These giant earthly protrusions beckoned us this their royal grandeur yet they had an undertone of warning; whispering that one slip could be potentially life threatening. “In the wilderness, I [found] something more dear and connate than in the streets and villages…in the woods we return to reason and faith” (Nash 86). Emerson’s voice echoed in my head each morning I would wake up and fill my lungs with the crisp Northern air. Adrenaline instantly spiked your senses upon unzipping the door. We were visitors in this land, at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Just six months ago, I had first learned about receiving this incredible opportunity to backpack in Alaska for thirty days. An organization by the name of GECKO had given out scholarships to certain students in my high school to participate in a National Outdoor Leadership School course. For me, it was a dream come true. On my crumpled old bucket list resided number thirty-two, ‘Go to Alaska’. Growing up in a small town in Colorado, the outdoors were almost like a religion to me. Backpacking was one of my favorites. Although I had a bit of experience with scrambling up peaks that soared to fourteen thousand feet with a heavy pack, nothing could prepare me for the challenge of Alaska.
The first day will forever be vividly painted in my memory. After arriving in Alaska by plane, sleeping in a sketchy, run-down hostel, and driving several hours by bus to Palmer, AK, I found myself at the NOLS base camp. It was neatly mowed with a vegetable garden and pigs. The instructors divided us into groups. I was with ten other adventurous individuals, with three instructors. We proceeded to do some ice breaker games, pack our gear and ration out the plethora of bulk food in the store room. Our month of travel was to be completely off trail, some places had never been trammeled by man. A map was our guide, and orienteering became a skill to be quickly adapted by everyone.
My heart pounded with excitement as we stepped off the bus the next day, hiking from a small dirt road next to a pizza shack. Each step was a moment further away from civilization, and a moment closer to one of the most difficult and rewarding memories of our lives. The sixty-pound pack grew heavy on my shoulders and hips. The giant canister of bear spray swayed across my chest, a constant reminder of the very real fact we were in dense grizzly bear country with nothing but a tent at night.
I could recite the entire experience from a black bear stealing one person’s food bag and causing us to skimp on food for the last ration [a ration is a large portion of food that lasts a group of four people a week or two (about one and half pounds per person)] or the time on Parasol Pass where we were all somewhat mildly hypothermic in a blizzard, but one moment in particular sticks out the most. I am sure my expedition mates would agree that the day of The Great Flood, is the story we love to tell the most.
It was the fourteenth day of our expedition. We had reached a large river that wound through a densely covered valley. It had been raining that entire day as we approached the banks of the raging torrent. The milk chocolate water churned and bashed relentlessly against the glacial sediment banks. Branches rolled in and out of the surface and the powerful sound drowned out our voices. Collectively, we decided against crossing that day. We had two days until the bush plane was to land on the other side of the river with our new supply of food for the next two weeks. Starting at the banks, we counted about two hundred paces away from the river, just to be extra safe for flooding. We set up camp in the torrential downpour. Wet clothes lay all throughout our tents and tarps and we wore whatever dry articles of clothing we had.
The next day huddled under a small kitchen tarp, we listened to our instructor’s lecture of wilderness first aid (It is common for all NOLS courses to have a lot of introductory wilderness first aid information to properly prepare their students to be experts in the backcountry). The rain pounded on the thin plastic protection, threatening to tear it down. The instructors voted for a day off from hiking since we could still not yet cross the river. For nearly three days now, the rain had been down pouring nonstop.
That night, I stood outside of our tent area with my tent mate for that week. There was a small creek running through the middle of our tents. The heavily saturated ground could no longer keep absorbing the large quantities of rain. Before we crawled into our damp tent, I said to her, “We are going to be flooded in the morning,” half-jokingly, but half serious. My tent mate had been upset because tomorrow she was supposed to lead the groups and she was having difficulty reading the map to plan the route. Orienteering is difficult with all of those crazy topographical lines. For one who has never done it before, it is almost impossible to decipher. Trying to be cheerful, I comforted her with, “Everything will be better in the morning, it always is.” We rolled over and fell asleep, wet and cold.
It was around three in the morning when I woke up from shivering too hard. Now, in Alaska during the summer, the sun doesn’t set for very long, maybe an hour with how far North we were. So, at three in the morning, the sun is circling the horizon and you can very easily see your surroundings. I tried moving my legs to warm up and eventually stuck my arms out of my sleeping bag on the tent floor. I was still half asleep as I felt the cold ground with my hand. “Wow, it’s like a water bed,” I thought to myself and I gently pushed on the plastic.
Suddenly, it clicked in my head that there was actually water flooding throughout our camp. I sprang out of my bag and quickly woke my tent mate. As soon as we grabbed our packs, water began pouring over the polyester bottom of the tent and thought the mesh sides, soaking our belongings. Frantically stuffing everything messily into our packs, my tent mate stopped and began laughing. “Remember how last night you said, ‘everything will be better in the morning’. You totally lied,” she said as she clipped her pack closed and water surrounded our feet. I smiled, putting a reminder in my brain to never say that again unless I was actually certain it was going to get better.
We crawled out of the tent just in time to catch our boots from floating away. The water was knee height and frigid, as it was a glacial runoff. Our legs quickly became red and numb as we struggled desperately to pull on our shoes. My tent mate ran around waking everyone up. As soon as we could gather enough people to go the kitchen we rushed over grabbing our precious food and gear that was casually floating away. We gathered on top of a little dry island of elevated ground and tied our shoes with immobile, cold hands, soaking wet still in the torrential rain. Luckily we had not lost anything to this catastrophe. The instructors quickly decided to hike along the river and cross at the best stop we could find before it became even more swollen and we missed our rations.
We traversed up the side of the mountain that overlooked the river to find a braided spot [a braided spot in the river is where the main stream is separated into several strands of smaller rivers, the flow is slower, shallower and safer to cross] in the structure. One of our instructors stood above us, majestically looking out over the valley. He was on the shorter side and had a beard that met the top of his chest. He carried a single trekking pole and wore a headband around this forehead. He could see we were silently focused, cold and ready to get this day over with. Quietly he spoke, “Just remember everyone, that this too shall pass.” We had a laugh at how he looked like an old guru, showering us with words of wisdom. We picked a highly braided spot in the river that looked like it could potentially be the easiest place to cross.
The watershed off the mountain ran past our legs. No matter how high you would climb to get out of the water, the ground could not absorb the liquid so it formed a thick layer that exuded out of the mossy tundra, reaching your knees in some places. It was surreal. Eventually, we made it across the river using several safety techniques our instructors taught us, the water sometimes reaching mid-chest. After trekking two miles upstream alongside the river, we reached a clearing in the willows that was to be the landing strip for the plane.
As if God himself was looking out for us, the rain stopped as quickly as it began. We laid out all of our gear on everything we could find to dry off the water before the cold night set in. The sun spilled out of the clouds and ignited a rainbow over us. Exhausted and accomplished, this, to date, remains our greatest overall triumph of the course.
That is the funny thing about wilderness. Its almost punishing hand can mold you into an individual with more character and strength. It can change the way you view yourself and the world around you. For me, going through this NOLS course taught me to have confidence in being a leader and to be positive about adverse conditions, because at the end of the day the view is always sweeter when your body hurts the most. In the words of the great Rachel Carson, “Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.” Wilderness instills a sense of pride, accomplishment, and appreciation. People romanticize the wilds, entering into its grandeur with a plan to conquer it. At the end of the day, they come out beaten and tired, yet they are happy and better because of it. There will never be a true conquering of a mountain or a raging torrent. For we are nothing but visitors in this land.
During my various expeditions in Colorado and in Alaska, I experienced hardship and the overwhelming power of the wilds. Each time, I emerge into civilization with a greater love for nature and ability to cleanse my soul. In Alaska, I dealt with some of the most difficult backpacking situations I have ever been in but never once wished I could be anywhere else. Close to a hundred and forty miles, days of aching body parts, many ibuprofen tablets, hundreds of water purification droplets, a lot of moleskin, river crossings, wet feet, and shared laughter we came out of the wilderness, wiser.
Even today, our instructor’s words reminding us “that this too shall pass,” echoes in my head and serves as a sobering reminder that everything will come to an end. Whether it is good or bad, you must live in the moment and enjoy every second. From the sunset that stains the royal blue mountains to a pesky blister that sends shooting pain up your heel, or a mountain goat frolicking on a cliff’s edge to bruises on your hips and shoulders from living out of what is on your back, all of it serves to create a memorable experience that you will cherish when you can’t be outside. Henry David Thoreau once said, “…in Wilderness is the preservation of the World,” I believe in these untrammeled lands we can truly connect with a primitive yet rejuvenating way of life, even if only for the weekends (Nash 84).
Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967. Print.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.