I have an addiction to the North. I’ll take hits of it again and again for the rest of my life. The lands above 55-degrees N speak to me like I’ve spent a lifetime there (even though it’s only been five months). My brain achieves a different level of awakening (even without coffee). I had to share a few short stories from my journal – about bears, weather, bush flight, and northern lights – each lightly edited. Only these vignettes can explain why I raise my fist to the rallying cry, North to the Future.
If You Wait, You'll Never Get Out
Kern called as I neared Juneau and got LTE back. With jubilance in his voice, he said, “just look for the guy with the big red beard,” and there he was, unmistakable in the purple light of 10PM. I drove off the Malaspina Ferry and over to Kern’s $10/day rental.
Everything in the house came in ones – one spoon, one knife (borrowed), one cup, one bedroom lived in with one mattress and one sleeping bag. The rest of the house was empty, and he’d never been upstairs. We huddled in the kitchen, making up dreams over a topo map.
It was pouring the next morning, but Kern made the decision simple, “If you wait for a nice day in Juneau to get out, you’ll never get out!” It felt damn good to throw on rubber boots, pants, and a jacket after all those arm tanning, 92-degree days driving through Canada.
We practiced the controlled-sprint hiking method to the top of Mount Juneau, summiting bone wet from the rain-soaked vegetation of the Old Trail – an overgrown, rarely used single track cut straight up the mountain. The fierce wind on Juneau Ridge had long forgotten summer, even in August.
On this ridge, I got my first real glimpse of Alaska, and it immediately filled my soul with wonder. What a wild place! Just barely suitable for humans. The scale and density of the mountains, the cascading glacial streams, the trail disappearing through the tundra, the salmon berries ripe in their desire to be in grizzly bellies. Kern calls it the B&B… not for Bed and Breakfast, but for Bears and Berries. That made me laugh.
There are very few things in life that exceed expectations. So for a happy life, either adhere to low expectations, or go find the northern lights.
The spirits in the sky celebrated the first of September by brushing the most magnificent sky art. “Ben, Ben, you gotta wake up… the polar lights are firing!!” They grew and faded, seemingly there one moment, gone the next… bending and falling and snaking their way to an intense green light. A snake slithered into a vibrant S, an umbrella poured raindrops from its sides, leaving a cloudy, gray imprint – like an exploded firework in the sky.
Behind the mountain, a magnificent curtain of light fluttered like a flag in the wind, until it faded into its powdery gray aftershock. The brainwaves of the universe alive in a green pulsing rhythm of light. It was the first night of total darkness at 68-degrees N, and I had one giant smile to take back to bed at 1:36AM.
(I have no pictures of the northern lights, because I became so enthralled in the moment. Poor form for a photographer, I know. But a damn good reason to go back.)
Casey was a man’s man at first glance – rubber boots above his knees, worn work pants, untrimmed neck beard speckled white from years of flying and other vices. Bush flying was his craft and Whiskey Papa was his red and creme colored float plane dream. “I hate landing on pavement,” he said, as we scooted down Lake Lucille and into the air.
The altimeter read 2 on the little hand, 7 on the big – 2,700 feet – flying right next to the Chugach Mountains and bouncing up and down 50 feet with every wind gust. My ass puckered up and my brain went to a different world, alternating thoughts of this is the coolest thing ever, and this is the worst thing ever. Sam and I both faked tough, focusing hard to not need the barf bag.
Casey said we would land on Lake George “if all the icebergs were pushed to one side.” They were, so he circle-descended Whiskey Papa and touched down into the whitecaps. We found a leeward cove, tied up the plane and followed Casey as he cleared a trail by pushing down the bush. He was strapped with a 12-gauge shotgun, me with a camera. At a picturesque ridge overlooking the Colony Glacier, we pulled out Negro Modelos, purchased from the liquor store attached to the grocery store, as they do here in Alaska.
When the pontoons lifted off the lake for home, a calm came over me. We breezed past the Knik Glacier snout at 200 feet, then carved big sweeping S’s around grazing moose below. I put on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Southern Cross” for the landing. Something about that just felt right. We said our goodbyes and Sam asked if he could take a $20 shower at the nearby Best Western, but they looked at him like a crazy man. So we headed up Hatcher Pass to find a camp spot, but not before grabbing 5 gallons of 43-degree glacial water to scrub ourselves, which we washed off with two pots of hot water. Our Alaskan shower.
We came to a bend in the Teklanika River and saw a lone grizzly walking away from us. Was this the mother and cubs we saw earlier? We advanced. Now 100 meters away, we saw a mom and two cubs.
We had to get North past them to our wilderness camp, and we didn’t want to leave the river bed yet – a canyon, topographically-speaking – and our fastest way home in the frigid Alaskan fall evening. We decided to get loud and hope to scare them away, something that goes against every human instinct.
But we yelled anyway, and the bear became stirred, seemingly running towards us before disappearing into the bush. My hand was on the bear spray… ready… Keenan got behind me. (Later we talked about how a charging bear would need to make a choice between us, and Keenan was sure she would choose the “blue guy,” the color of his rain jacket.)
But after 10 seconds we realized she wasn’t charging and advanced, hoping they had disappeared into the surrounding forest. Nope. There she was again, dead ahead. My heart was racing… it felt like our last chance before figuring out a Plan B.
We both gave sinister growls. I pressed my eyes into the binoculars. Through magnification, I saw the mom lift up on her hind legs, staring directly at us. She was huge! Seemingly 15-feet-tall in her new stance. “Dammit,” I said uneasily. It was just us and the bears and they weren’t moving.
“We’ve provoked her and she has cubs… we have to find a way around.” “But what if we do and she’s still there, still coming towards our camp?” “That’d be really bad, but we can’t think about that yet.” “OK, so we’ll cross the river, scramble up the bank, traverse the tundra plateau, and hopefully be ahead of them.” “You realize that means we’re going to have do at least four water crossings right?” “Yeah.” “Fuck, it’s already 20-degrees, supposed to be 8 tonight… we can’t stay out wet, and there’s one more hour of twilight.” “Well, we better get going then.”
I put my camera in my bag, and we stomped across three of the four river arm crossings. Calf deep, not bad… but now our boots were soaked. We’d be frozen if we had to stop moving. I cursed myself for not bringing the stove… after all, this is Alaska. If I’d ever met a piece of land that cared about me, it certainly wasn’t here.
Up on the tundra plateau, we crashed through thick brush on an animal trail, passing fresh caribou kill and wolf tracks in the 1/4 inch of new snow. We ran. It was a tense 30 minutes.
Finally, we poked our heads out of the brush and scanned the river below. No Bear! Only one more river crossing – depth unknown – separating us from camp. It was swift, but we scouted the best crossing in the last remnants of light. It was almost waist deep, but we made it without being swept away.
Back at camp, we celebrated, inhaling the last of our whiskey and a few bites of food as the temperature plummeted in the clear night. The grizzly bear would no longer be a mystery written by the fear-mongers. We had made good decisions and were at camp feeling an intoxicating connection to the Wild. It was the kind of day that would bring us back time-and-time again to Denali National Park.