The pain stopped me in my tracks. A jarring sensation went up through my lower legs, from my shins on down. I thought again if it was worth it. Should I just turn back? No. I told myself once again that I wouldn’t be mentally weak. Almost reluctantly, I continued on stumbling over tussocks toward the pass.
Three weeks prior, I had completed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. The experience was exhilarating, but had left my legs in shambles. The following weeks were comprised of me stumbling around, hobbled by swollen feet. Once the swelling had decreased, I still could not walk quickly without pain. Nonetheless, after a couple days without significant pain, I decided I was mostly healed. During the Classic, I had walked the Hammond while everyone else had floated. Now I wanted to see what I had missed.
The pass wasn’t far, roughly four miles distant from my starting point. It’d be another four miles down the pass towards my put in, where I’d then float the ~30 miles to Wiseman. I picked the wrong side of the pass to ascend, ending up unnecessarily climbing and descending numerous side drainages, clamoring over tussocks most of the way. There were more instances of pain, though like before, I soldiered on.
After reaching the lake at the top of the pass, I hooped onto a well trod moose trail. The trail wound the spruce forest, running parallel to the trickling waters of the creek. “Hey OOOH,” I yelled. With fresh sign abound, I didn’t wish to surprise any moose along the trail. The echo of my voice from a mountain bowl above was the only reply. By the time I had made it halfway down from the pass, the pain was no longer fleeting, having become a constant presence. Each step provided a short of pain to my shins and lower legs along with a sort of mental anguish. I debated whether it’d be better to turn around and head back or continue the last few miles to the valley floor. More walking wasn’t an attractive option, so I lumbered on. Fear and doubt crept in. What if there wasn’t enough water? During the Classic, everyone had been able to float the river from its headwaters with water levels near their peak. Now in mid-July, the level had receded and even though I was trying to float from the halfway point, the water could still be too shallow for floating. I dreaded the thought of more walking.
I had finally made it into the main Hammond Valley, weaved my way through the last spruce trees and arrived on the gravel bar. I anxiously scanned the braided river channels. There wasn’t much water, but it was just enough to float without scraping the bottom of the boat. For the next seven hours, I paddled downriver. The upper portion was more of a chore than anything else. The low volume didn’t provide much of a current to propel me forward and I had to constantly paddle not only to advance, but to avoid shallow sections hoping to not scrape the bottom of my raft.
In the early hours of morning, I found enjoyment again in the Hammond Canyon. With the large walls rising vertically on either side, I was in more familiar territory once again. I paddled into the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to Wiseman, the diffuse colors of sunrise lighting the horizon at my back to the north. Finished with the journey, I was now content and pleased with the idea of being able to finally rest. My legs certainly had not fully healed and it would be a while before I was to go out again. In the entryway of an old cabin, I fell asleep in a rocking chair, pulling a caribou skin up over my torso for warmth. I had travelled about 40 miles in 10 hours through big wilderness, but it wasn’t without its price.