A Summer Mirage

 This wasn’t supposed to happen.  I was going to be the badass who trekked over a thousand miles by himself in The Brooks Range. I was going to live out my dream, living and travelling in the wilderness on my own terms.  What was going to stop me?  I wasn’t afraid.  Possibility of injury or mishap?  No, that would never happen to me.  After months of intensive and detailed planning, I would set off in early June, over confident and anxious to begin the odyssey of my dreams.

The plane touched down after midnight at Fairbanks International Airport, a midst the expansive views of the rolling forested hills and a view of the towering, glaciated Alaska Range to the south.  As a frugal and adventurous minded individual, I decided to sleep at the airport for a while before setting off on my journey.  My journey began north of Coldfoot and my plan was to hitch hike north to my destination.  From what I had read and heard, this would not be too much of a problem in Alaska.  I set my pack down in a slightly enclosed corner, trying to recover from the long flight.  However, noise, hard benches, mosquitoes, the midnight sun and a variety of other factors prevented me from obtaining any real rest.  A couple hours later I had had enough, shouldering my 40 pound load and walking towards the Steese Highway where I would attempt to begin hitch hiking just a few hours later.

Cars speedily passed by as I stuck out my thumb on the shoulder of the highway.  As a product of middle class, Midwestern suburbia I felt nervous and exposed as I watched most cars pass without any acknowledgement.  I soon caught a ride for a few miles up the highway with a young construction worker.  A few miles of walking occurred before I was able to get another ride.  Traveling further than the last ride, I was now close to 20 miles away from Fairbanks after being dropped off again.  Not one for sitting put, I decided to walk along the road, making forward progress as I tried to get a ride from passing vehicles.  As I moved further away from Fairbanks, I began to see fewer and fewer vehicles as the morning waned on.

With just under 300 miles left to Coldfoot, I desperately sought a ride.  Walking the entire route was possible, but would force me to dip into my food supply for my first ration, which was something that I could not afford to do.   I continued on, moving quickly on the asphalt through a forested and muskeg filled landscape.  To think that a little over 50 years ago, such a route was not established is somewhat astounding.  No road or easy access forced miners, scientists and trekkers to slowly move over the bog filled land or wait until winter for relatively easier travel by dogsled.

A light rain began to fall as I slowly continued along the side of the road.  Trucks heading to the oil fields at Deadhorse and government pick-ups made up the vast majority of passing vehicles by that point.  I had learned earlier in the day that most truckers will not pick up hitch hikers because of company policy.  This became disheartening as I realized they were likely my only ticket north via the highway.   It had been hours since my last ride, and now over thirty miles away from Fairbanks I didn’t like my chances.  Tired, hungry and somewhat dehydrated, I plopped down on my pack at a gravel turnoff along the road.  I briefly chatted with a passing cyclist before calling my parents.  With a sense of hopelessness, I spoke of my despair as tears rolled off my cheeks.

 

The decision was made to retreat the 35 miles back to Fairbanks and re-evaluate my strategy.  I was washed over with a sense of dread as I realized that I would most likely have to walk most of these miles. Each step was filled with despair as I moved south, and I was beginning to feel the pain in my feet from miles of walking on the unforgiving asphalt.  Exhausted and somewhat delirious, I continued along in a bit of a daze, with no rides from passing cars.  Halfway up a hill, I debated whether or not to stick out my thumb to the next car.  Wearily, I gave it another chance and was happy to see the car quickly pull off to the side of the road.  I opened the passenger door, tossing my pack in and mumbled, “Hey thanks, how’s it going?”  In my tired state, I failed to recognize for a few moments that it was the same man who had given me my last ride.  We talked of my day and he questioned what I would do now.  I wasn’t sure but without much thinking I asked him to drop me off at the truck stop, forcing me to pay for an expensive cab ride for the remaining distance back to Fairbanks.  Over 12 hours and 35 miles of walking later, I found myself in a hotel room in town.   Hobbling around on my damaged feet, I was unsure what to do next. The day had severely shot my confidence, but I still desired to go ahead with my plan.

Muskeg and Black Spruce trees compose the landscape

Muskeg, Black Spruce trees and rolling hills compose the landscape north of Fairbanks

Fortunately, I was able to obtain a seat on a small plane heading up to Coldfoot.  With a pit in my stomach and an intense sense of nervousness, I joined the tourists as we flew out of Fairbanks heading north.   We flew over the Yukon River on this clear day, with sweeping views of the flatlands and rugged mountains in the distance.  After a little under an hour, we began to enter the foothills of The Brooks Range.  As the mountains came into view, my confidence dropped even further.  The mountains were massive, imposing and rugged features of this remote landscape that still remained dotted in snow in mid-June.  Travelling solo amplified everything.  Making objects, moments, emotions and landscapes dramatically larger than they would be with a partner.  We touched down on the landing strip and I joined the pilots on a walk over to the camp.

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Entering the Brooks

Following breakfast with the pilots, I sat on the stoop outside the camp’s main building, searching for a ride to my starting point.  Time passed without much luck as I ran through numerous nervous thoughts while contemplating the forest and mountainous landscape immediately surrounding the area.  After enduring a lecture on Jesus from a tourist heading south, I finally caught a break.  “Hey, you a hitchhiker?”  Barry and Randy were seasoned adventurers beginning a 13 day float trip at the same place in which I was trying to travel.  They would happily take me on.  Accompanied with them was a Latvian hitchhiker named Yuris, who had stayed with Barry for the past couple days.  I came to learn that I was in great company.  Barry had been a refuge manager in this region for the Fish and Wildlife Service and had undertaken many trips of his own.  He knew much about the country and the people that inhabited it.  Randy worked search and rescue in Anchorage and was an accomplished adventurer in his own right.  Like others, I told them an abbreviated version of my plan, afraid to speak the truth, and was quickly questioned.  I learned that my first stop at Arctic Village may not have been the wisest choice.  Apparently, the people of the village aren’t necessarily kind to those they do not know and I wouldn’t accomplish much without an inside angle.  That is not to mention the advice not to leave anything lying around, for it would quickly be stolen.  Needless to say, this only amplified my nervous state even with Barry’s plethora of helpful information and contacts.

After they enjoyed lunch, we traveled along the highway, stopping in the town of Wiseman to meet with a longtime trapper in the village. Jack Reakoff has lived in the town all his life, and is a  true Alaskan sourdough.  As Barry’s friend, he provided advice on their route before showing us some findings from the nearby area as well as native relics.  With myself being an avid lover of Alaska history,  I was greatly pleased during this visit.  About an hour after leaving Wiseman, we reached the Chandalar shelf.  Rugged, snow capped and towering mountains loomed over us as we arrived at our starting points, unloading their gear from the truck bed. I became more and more unsure with what I was doing.  I didn’t want to travel to Arctic Village.  Could I handle this country?  Was there any way that I could do this?  After helping assist Barry and Randy, I quietly stepped away to make a call to my mom.  I decided that I wasn’t going to complete my trip as planned.  The whole ordeal proved to be too overwhelming for me to undertake.  Returning to the others, I shared my decision with Barry.  He thought it was wise and recommended a shorter route for me just up the road. We popped open some beers before they departed and toasted the river gods, hoping for a safe journey. I wanted to join them.  They had asked a couple times during our past few hours together, but lacked the extra PFD.  Yuris and I watched them set off with their inflatable kayaks before continuing on our own way further north.

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After visiting the top of Atigun Pass, I said goodbye to Yuris as I hopped over the guard rail. I wasn’t planning on travelling far that night as the pass further up the valley would likely be covered in snow, best saved for the cool temperatures of the morning.  Mountains covered in snow loomed to my left, above a creek, as I hiked across the wet tundra.  Moving about a quarter mile, I set up camp along a stream.  The road and the occasional passing truck were still in view, but I felt alone in this remote landscape.  The strong arctic sun bore down on my tent as I tried to sleep.  Being above the Arctic Circle, the sun wouldn’t set that night, or any night in the immediate future.  The surprisingly warm rays promoted endless tossing and turning as I tried to go to sleep.  After a while, I made the decision to pack up camp and hike for a while longer.  I couldn’t sleep and would rather move about the country than stare at the cuben fiber walls of my tent.

“Heyyyyoooo!”  I yelled, as I came close to cresting a ridge.  The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was surprise a brown bear.  As I took a few more steps, something massive began stepping out of the drainage.  I reached for my bear spray as a cow moose trudged into view, defiantly standing tall no more than 25 yards away from my position.  My first wild moose sighting! Standing in awe, I realized with my limited knowledge that it appeared the moose was standing her ground.  I let out a yelp, as I frantically backed away, trying to quickly posthole through a lingering snowfield to a further and lower position.  This encounter proved to satisfy me enough for the night, so I set up camp a little over a hundred yards below where I had encountered the moose.

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My tent, a speck in the giant landscape, near Atigun Pass

With the sun finally dipping below the mountains, I attempted to grab some sleep before continuing over the pass in the morning.  I awoke in the morning, looking up towards the drainage where I had encountered the moose the previous night.  I was overjoyed to see the moose grazing with her calf in plain sight, no more than 150 yards away.  It is no wonder now, why she appeared somewhat defensive. It was a pleasure to watch them for a while before packing up camp.

 

I had awakened that morning with a sense of emptiness. With no maps and almost zero confidence, I decided that it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. I had no desire to continue on this amended route, only wishing to return home.   In my mind I had failed.  I had let myself down and hadn’t even come close to achieving what I set out to do.

I began the lonely walk down the road back towards the direction of Coldfoot, examining the rugged and remote landscape on my feet for what would likely be the final time this year.  I heard the roar of a truck to the north, as it came down Atigun Pass.  As I continued walking, the blue tanker came into view and I stuck out my thumb.  “Hey, thanks for the ride.”  I said, as I stepped into the cab.  “No problem, I was worried about you.  What the hell are you doing out here?”

Living up to the trucker stereotype, my new pal for the next seven hours back to Fairbanks was a rugged, overweight individual with long straggly hair and the facial hair to match.  He treated me to food and drink as he lectured me about the dangers of this country and the foolishness of carrying bear spray.  As we continued south through the Brooks Range we encountered over 10 moose, a fox, a rabbit and what appeared to be a bear just off the road.  My journey may have not lived up to my expectations but the views from this ride sure proved to be a treat.  After travelling the country by air the day before, it was a joy to travel through this untrammeled landscape on the ground, even if it wasn’t my preferred method of transportation.  For over 300 miles, we were treated to sweeping vistas of the country, with almost zero sign of man.  Throughout the ride, I was regaled with tales from the trucker’s past life as a cowboy, run-away, oil worker, and drug junkie.  I sat there quietly, as I listened to the gun loving womanizer continue with one story after another, keeping my harrowing tales from my 21 years as a white suburban boy from a well-to-do family to myself.

Arriving in Fairbanks, I was dropped off, despondent and disappointed, just a few yards away from where I started my hitch hiking journey a few days prior.   While not achieving much, this journey was encompassed with numerous hard, expensive and emotional lessons.  After returning home to the flatlands of the Midwest and recovering from the emotional damage, I had a greater yearning for Alaska and The Brooks Range.  The future holds great adventures, but for now I am stuck enduring the summer that never was.

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One thought on “A Summer Mirage

  1. Frustrating, disappointing tale to share, but you you write well and the insights are interesting, plus for me – who has also felt the pull of the Brooks – helpful. I hope you put the rest of the summer to good use.

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