Growing Up in Alaska

Growing Up in Alaska

The drizzle trickled down through the canopy. A few feet away the stones on the beach shed the droplets. Beyond, waves crashed lightly against the shore. We were attempting to set up our tent on our first night out. The only experience I had setting up a tent was on the pristine lawn the day before back in Palmer, or helping my dad bang the stakes into the ground on a backyard camping adventure when I was younger. I was on the lowest end of the spectrum in the outdoor skills department, that spectrum bottoming out at having no skills. Some of my peers had their own personal experience, but none had ever participated in such a collective endeavor. As a result, we struggled. It had been so easy to set up a tent the day before in the world of flat, squared off pieces of land. Now in the real world, the uniformity ceased to exist. Roots surfaced above ground near the base of trees, brush covered areas that could otherwise be good sites and uneven surfaces abounded, daring anyone to try and achieve a good night’s rest.

In 2013, I was one of eleven students who completed the National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) Mega Semester in Alaska. The school is renowned for its long-time effort and practice of teaching leadership and outdoor skills in a backcountry setting. Six months prior to embarking on our expedition, I had read the journals of Dick Proenneke, a famous Alaskan who turned to the land at age 50, building a log cabin by hand in what is now Lake Clark National Park. That felt authentic and meaningful to me, something that was worth pursuing at a time when my peers talked of corporate internships and jobs. However, growing up in suburban Chicago hadn’t prepared me for the rural Alaskan lifestyle. I was a cheechako. But not long after reading Proenneke, I came across NOLS and saw a stepping stone towards the life that I envisioned.

My eyes were glued to the front range of the Chugach Mountains as I stepped off the plane into Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. I had been to other areas in the country with mountains and big landscapes, but none held the mystique and mystery that surrounded the land of Alaska. I walked the coastal trail towards my hotel, eyes darting back and forth between the Cook Inlet and its mud flats and the forest, waiting for a whale to breach or a moose to dart across my path. I remained in awe throughout the day and into the night, marveling at the light that still lit up the sky when I turned in after 11.

We would spend the first segment of our semester, 25 days, sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Starting outside of Whittier, our route led us south towards the open ocean and the Gulf of Alaska. Each day followed a similar pattern. We would wake around 6, emerge from our tents and check the weather and sea conditions. After breakfast, we would ready our boats and depart from our campsite, paddling up to 22 nautical miles each day to reach our destination.

After a week of travelling, our group began to show growth and development in our water skills. When travelling between campsites, we intended to move in formation as a pod. This meant that there was a lead boat and rear boat with the rest arranged in rows in between. This was impossible to attain early on. One boat would be moving almost perpendicular to the path of the majority, another would be far outside the group and the group would be spread out, due to a lack of a uniform pace. Yet with each day of travel, along with lessons from our instructors, our skill improved and we began to travel as one unit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Early paddling

As we paddled along, we were treated each day to sunny skies, an abnormality in a region known for its abundant precipitation. Mountains thick with spruce trees extended up from the edge of passageways and channels. Bald eagles soared overhead in such large numbers that they became almost commonplace. Each morning after waking in the tent I was eager to see what the land and the sea held beyond the next bend. Already we had been treated to soaring eagles, curious sea lions and otters, innumerable waterfalls and sunsets. What more could I ask for? What else did the land have in store?

After a group discussion one evening, we prepared for bed, a few of us brushing our teeth along the water’s edge. A few hundred yards out in the bay a whale breached the surface. A moment later, a tail shot up further out. Over the next half hour we were treated to the spectacle of a pod of humpback whales moving about in the bay. Snow draped the nearby mountains and the reddish orange sky provided the perfect backdrop for an awe inducing experience. I had come to find joy in the simple things. Standing on shore watching those whales had left me content in a way I’d never known.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hiking above Johnson Bay in Prince William Sound

Leaving the water, we moved inland to the rugged and glaciated mountains within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. The previous section had allowed us to meld as a group, but that would soon be put to the test under heavy loads, rough terrain and long days. Shouldering our new packs, we trekked past the old gold mining structures at the end of the Nabesna Road, crossing the Park’s boundary in the process, our home for the next 48 days.

Like kayaking, I had never done any serious backpacking. Or for that matter, any backpacking at all. I took to it well and found joy in moving through wild country with everything that I needed on my back. That freedom led to an internal peace that would remain for the majority of the trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A lake in Wrangell St. Elias

We were tested from the very beginning and each challenge seemed to send forth another to replace it. The glacial waters of the Nabesna River stood in our path. Working in small groups, we scouted and picked a route across its swollen and silty waters. After leaving the valley floor, we traveled through the forest and tundra. No longer were we swiftly moving along hard packed sand and gravel bottoms, now we encountered tussocks and boggy environments. With heavy loads, we fought to maintain our balance and figure out the most efficient route through each segment. The tussocks relented and we entered the canyon of Monte Cristo Creek. What appeared as a small creek on the map, existed as a formidable obstacle in reality. The long, warm days melted snow and ice further up the valley sending water rushing down the creek bed. Boulders rumbled along the bottom as we picked our way back and forth across the creek over the coming days.

We would spend three weeks travelling and living on glaciers. I remained nervous, unsure what glacier travel entailed. Glaciers weren’t a part of my vocabulary as a Midwesterner and my mind raced to assume the worse. Stories of crevasses that swallowed entire rope teams and people disappearing down moulins fueled my apprehension. That sense of caution would remain, but glacial travel didn’t prove to be as onerous as my mind imagined. Crevasses existed somewhere below, but on the surface was a white landscape, devoid of much movement or life. Colors in the sky seemed accentuated among the rock and snow below and each day offered a new vista of mountains to behold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mt Blackburn towers over a glacial camp

We began to travel at night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and firmer snow conditions. Our time on the glacier was punctuated by a group summit of Mount Jarvis at 13,420 ft. Along the way we battled fatigue, low food rations, dehydration, and altitude while continuing to maintain strong interpersonal interactions. If we thought travel would become easier after our summit, we soon found we were mistaken.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Atop Mt. Jarvis. Mt Sanford in the background

Leaving the glacier meant travelling down the Copper Glacier, one that was heavily ridden with crevasses. We only travelled a quarter mile on our first day, taking 20 hours to rappel down a crevassed face to the valley below. Tired and weary, we were forced to continue on the following afternoon after only a few hours of sleep due to avalanche danger. The mountains boomed throughout the day as snow crashed down from above under the hot summer sun. Weaving around the innumerable crevasses, we spent the following days travelling down to the end of the glacier. Bushwhacking through dense alder thickets at the glacier’s edge was the final test before we ended our time on the ice and returned to the wide gravel bars and open forests of the non-glaciated terrain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wide gravel bar near the headwaters of the Copper River

There was only a week left for us in the Wrangells. After weeks of ice and rock, we reveled in the multitude of colors during summer’s peak and the blossoming of the flora, grazing in blueberry patches as we hiked. We travelled away from the head of the Copper River back towards Tanada Lake and the Nabesna Road. It was difficult to think that we would have to leave this lifestyle that had become normal and this area that had become home. I had entered the course as someone without any outdoor skills. By its end, I found myself comfortable in wilderness environments and in leading others through the terrain without instructor guidance or supervision.

It has been five years since that NOLS course. Five years since I first dreamed of living the authentic Alaskan lifestyle. I have now lived in Alaska full time for nearly four years, spending the bulk of that time living remotely in the Arctic, within the mountains of the Brooks Range. I have fished for salmon, hunted for moose, sourced wood for heat, and traveled the land on my own, withstanding the darkness and cold of three Alaskan winters. By most measures, I’m still that cheechako I once was. I still struggle to understand mechanical systems, I don’t have the skill to build anything of value and I still make mistakes out on the land. The journey began with that first step off the plane into Anchorage five years ago. It has been a journey of discovery and growth, of myself and the land. It’s a journey that’s bound to continue and one in which I still continue to find myself craning my neck to see what lies beyond the next bend.

21768921_2019108604967974_7552137711873410979_o.jpg

A Bison Hunt

A Bison Hunt

“Are you gentlemen ready for a late night?” The sun sat above the mountains but it wouldn’t be more than two hours before darkness descended upon us within the throes of the valley. Dave unslung his rifle from his pack and placed his pack along the trail. We answered his question with nods and smiles of affirmation as we excitedly began to discuss what lay in store. This moment had been long anticipated by each one of us, yet the certainty of it had remained in question just moments ago. As we talked, Dave moved down the trail and towards a stand of spruce trees. He wove his way through the open floor of the forest, entering the meadow no more than 80 yards from our hulking quarry, the 2,000 plus pound animal that would become the center of our lives for the next three days.

Bison are one of the most quintessential and storied animals in North American culture. For centuries, people lived off the great herds that once traveled throughout most of the country. Their hides were used for tents and clothing. Their bones were used to create weapons and tools. The large mass also produced plenty of meat and fat to sustain people throughout the year. The historic numbers have large variations ranging from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. It is thought that after Europeans first arrived in what is now the United States, buffalo numbers surged to great numbers (50 million) due to the death of many people infected by foreign bacteria. While the number likely was near the upper limit of the range for a short duration, there still were herds in sizes magnitudes beyond comprehension today. Valleys and fields would be littered with the species to the extent that it would lead some to remark that the plains were moving.

The expansion of the West brought the decline of the mighty herds. Railroads brought more people and allowed easier transport of goods. There were those that capitalized on this new means of transport, killing waves of buffalo for their hides. Buffalo declined to as low as 541 individual animals. Eventually, areas like Yellowstone National Park were put in place to conserve ecological regions and those animals within. With protection from the US Army from early years, the buffalo recovered from years of poaching and market hunting, rising up from the brink of extinction. Today, 300,000 bison are found within the United States. However, only 15,000 of those are non-domestic and classified as wild and free ranging. Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the Lower 48 states to have had a free ranging bison population throughout history. Many of these bison live within the Hayden and Lamar River valleys and can be seen in large numbers by visitors throughout the year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Meadow within the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Due to the near extirpation of the species within the US, there have been limited hunting opportunities over the past 100 years. The state of Montana and some Native Reservations within the state have offered the opportunity, however using the word hunt would be a generous term. These instances often involve heading to a spot along the road where the animals migrate, line up and wait for them to step beyond the park boundary. A practice that many from within and outside the state look down upon. However, starting in 2016 the state of Montana offered a new opportunity. The state would distribute 5 tags a year to individuals allowing them to hunt for outside the park’s boundary areas in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. As designated Wilderness, such a hunt would preclude the use of any motorized transportation, adding difficulty and an increased challenge.

Towards the end of June, I found myself excited by a new post on one of my favorite sites, Bedrock and Paradox. Dave had drawn one of the bison tags in Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and was looking for help. I found myself excitedly reading through the post and came upon his pitch in the closing paragraph:

So, are you able to carry an at least moderately heavy pack for a good ways at highish altitude, camp out in potentially cold weather, and be cheerful in the face of discomfort and ambiguity?  Do you want 100+ pounds of the best meat on earth to take home?  Will you be available in late September this year?”

I thought that I could answer yes to each of those questions and quickly sent him an email requesting to be included. He responded in the affirmative and as summer wore on, final plans began to gel together. There would be 6 of us heading out in the last week of September in search of the largest land mammal in North America.

Dave, Tim (from Helena) and I got off to an early start and left Helena early Saturday morning. Mike (from Helena) and Craig (from LA) would meet us later on in Cooke City. Norm (from Missoula) wouldn’t meet us until the next day. We passed through large swaths of range land and grasslands. Elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope were scattered throughout the region. 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark had traveled nearly the same route on their return to St. Louis. While much was the same, more was different. Strip malls from Bozeman, Livingston and other small towns spread out into the countryside. The mighty Missouri River, the second longest in the country, was dammed at multiple points along the route, creating large reservoirs that spread across large swaths of the valley. Absent were the brown dots that covered the valleys, the massive buffalo herds of old. The wild ones that remain are confined to a small corner of the state, blocked from travel by cattle guards and barbed wire, strung for thousands of miles.

The road in was much rougher than any of us anticipated. Large boulders and a seemingly endless stretch of cobbles up a steep grade marked the first two miles of the route. It wasn’t long before we determined that we took a much more difficult route up than was necessary. After reaching a more manageable road, we made good time traveling the 8 additional miles back to the trail head. The only other people in the region were horse packers who were forced to park a few miles back from the trail head due to the rough nature of the road. With gear sorted and packs on, we took off just before 4 PM, uncertain as to what lay ahead.

From the parking lot, the trail descended slightly over 2000 feet to a larger valley 9 miles away. There were a handful of spots where there could be buffalo but we weren’t expecting much before reaching the meadow complex in the valley below. The group began to mold as we made conversation and began to learn more about each other. The trail was hard packed and required almost no thought in terms of navigation or travel, allowing us to chat, scan for bison in any openings and take in the beauty of the country. Mountains rose sharply from either side of the valley while remnant trees stood a midst fallen trees from a fire decades ago. The good weather and pretty sights made for jovial moods for all as we continued towards the meadows below.

We were about 6 miles in when we passed an opening that caused Dave to stop and say something. I was towards the front of the line with Mike and Tim lost in conversation. “There’s a buffalo,” Dave repeated. Sure enough, no more than 120 yards off the trail was a lone animal, head down grazing among the grasses in the open meadow. After affirming that we were all up for the task ahead, Dave snuck away, moving into the trees further down trail in hopes of narrowing the distance.

While Dave moved forward, the rest of us remained on the trail, excitedly talking about what lay in store for us this evening. We watched Dave move slowly out of the trees and among the grasses. The distance was narrowed to 80 yards, 70, 60…without the slightest indication of care from the old bull. The first shot rang throughout the valley, echoing off the walls of the mountains high above. It was well placed, right through the lungs causing the bison to buck like a bronco and take off at a sprint. Dave reloaded and fired once more. BOOM. Another echo. But fall he did not. The animal was still on four legs and moving at a healthy pace. A pace that made one question if we had enough power to take this giant down. BOOM. Another hit. The bison runs head first into a large spruce tree. Continuing past, only to fall over beyond with his legs kicking in the air. It has surely ended. But with a large guttural, groan the bison fights its way to its feet again, moving forward. BOOM. A final shot knocks the bison down. This time there is no further movement.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mike moves towards Dave following the final shot

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Craig and Dave excitedly recount the details

Wary of being gored, we approached as a group with caution. Dave lobbed a stick at its head from a few yards away, no movement. A trekking pole was thrown with the same result. Only then did he feel confident enough to approach at a closer distance, using the full length of the rifle to reach out and poke its eye. Without movement, we realize our search is complete. Giddy with excitement, we walk around looking at the almost gargantuan size of this bull. Dave appears to more than relieved as he talks about the hunt with the others. Months of planning, preparation, and anticipation had yielded to great luck and success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Picture time

After a few pictures, we dive right into the task ahead of us. Dave and Mike dive right into dressing out the buffalo, making the first cuts along the belly through its thick hide. While they are working on the animal, the rest of us fulfill essential secondary tasks. Craig heads to the nearby stream to gather water. Tim and I gather a load of wood to burn and search for trees where we would be able to hang the meat. As the quarters come off, I grab a knife and begin the deboning process, taking the meat off the bone in order to further reduce our weight for the pack out. The quarter is smaller in length to that of a moose, but wider and with much more muscle. Mike and I are able to take off blocks almost beyond comprehension. 40 lb slab there, a 30 lb chunk here. We joke about starting a butcher shop, “Big Meat Butchers.” We only cut it big, but business is booming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The group readies for the task ahead

The last remaining daylight gives way, causing us to work under the din of headlamps. Craig and Tim start a fire a few yards away and it is not long until it is roaring. As a nearly full moon rises above the mountains, the scene seems somewhat primeval. We are doing something that humans have done for most of history. Working in a small group, we took down a large mammal, providing us with food for the winter season to come. In the moment, there aren’t many differences, with the exception of our modern clothing. The group gels as we work together, joke and tell stories, cut meat, and scan for grizzlies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Attempting the near impossible task of removing the horns, working by the light of fire, headlamp and moon

With the meat cut up and in game bags, we transport it about two hundred yards to a set of trees with larger branches. The heavy weight and thin cord made it a three person job to get the bags high enough, so that they were beyond the swipe of a standing grizzly. The last bag was hoisted and Mike, Dave and I set about to move the hide away from the kill site. Mike took the head and Dave and I took the rear. Grabbing the tail and a portion of the leg, we heaved and hoed away. The effort took all our might, enough that we were forced to stop and break multiple times within the 80 yard drag. Craig eventually came to help as well and we managed to wrangle the 250+ lb hide off the trail and onto a log to dry. All tasks were now complete, we gathered our gear and set off a few hundred yards to set up camp. Worn and weary, tents were erected and meals were had before we slipped into our sleeping bags before the clock struck 12.

There was no sign of disturbance as we returned to the kill site the next morning. The buffalo had looked like it had deflated more overnight, but grizzlies or other predators were nowhere to be seen. Gray Jays flitted from branch to branch, dropping down onto the carcass before snatching a piece of meat to take to their cache elsewhere. Our hung meat remained undisturbed. We lowered 5 bags, distributing them by weight and fitting them into our packs. With the game bag lashed secure to my frame, I sat down, buckled in and rolled to my hands and knees in order to stand up with the ~80 lbs on my back. Loaded down, we plodded forward. One step in front of the other, for the 1,600 ft ascent. Only 6 miles to go…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Walking down the trail

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The setting was more than picturesque. Recovering from a burn from fires in 1988

By the time we returned to camp, it was too late in the day to consider another full trip to the car without ending even later than the night we had before. We moved camp up the trail another few hundred yards and decided to shuttle the meat to a halfway point that had sturdy enough trees. We went through the process again of taking the meat down, distributing it, hiking 3 miles and hanging it back up. We returned back to camp in the dark, the light of our headlamps illuminating a few yards of trail ahead of us. Back in camp, the group gathered to have dinner, only to be sent scurrying to our tents by the onset of a thunderstorm.

We woke to calm winds and ice on the tents. Dave and I went back down the trail to grab as much of the hide as we could while the rest packed up camp and began the first trip out to the car. If all went to plan, we would hike our camp gear out first, before returning back to the halfway point and grabbing the final load of meat. More than 36 hours later, the carcass still remained relatively undisturbed. The hide had soaked up much of the water from the rain the previous night, now weighing easily over 300 lbs. Taking out the whole hide would not be feasible given our circumstances. Dave took out his knife, splitting the hide in two. The head was simply too heavy and would have to go, leaving us with a third of the hide plus the tail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dave works to separate the hide

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the neck, the skin was well over an inch thick

At the halfway point, we found the others loading some of the remaining meat bags into their packs. They had made the decision to go heavy, saving at least two of us an additional trip back. While we sat and snacked, singing was heard further up the valley. Someone else was making their way down the trail. With no sight of Norm the previous day, we had joked about him coming in to relieve us. A figure larger than life who could throw 6 game bags over his shoulder and take off on a trot off the trail. Sure enough, Norm walked up a few moments later, proving to be the very savior we had envisioned. He took another bag off the tree, leaving one to dangle above. Craig and I decided to take on some more weight, distributing the meat between our packs. With nothing else remaining and no return trips planned, we set off on the final stretch. 3 miles to go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While we had rain, the high peaks had snow during the storm the night before and throughout the day

I hadn’t found issue with the first load, but the likely weight of 100+lbs dug into my shoulders and caused my hip belt to slide. We had a number of short steep ascents that took all our effort to keep moving forward. A mile in, graupel began to fall, pelting us and covering the trail and surrounding area with a layer of white. Yet, with each step forward we made our way closer to the vehicles and it wasn’t long before we dropped packs and collapsed. We drank in celebration, thinking back on the whirlwind that was the past 48 hours. A period well worth remembering, full of action but without any unwanted drama.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dave rests back at the cars after the final load

Three weeks later, it is still difficult for me to comprehend the magnitude of what we accomplished. The experience is unlike any other hunting trip or back country excursion. We went into the mountains of the American West, successfully hunting one of the most storied animals in American history by our own means. After returning to Helena, Dave and I talked about the hunt being something similar to the Classic, a paradigm shift that recalibrates one’s individual mindset and what’s thought to be possible for the future to a level previously unknown or perceived as out of reach. I am more than grateful for being allowed to take part in this experience and can only hope that there will be more of such events in years to come.

Craig’s Summary

Dave’s Summary 1

Dave’s Summary 2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The meat sort at Dave’s.  All the meat minus Norm’s share. Well over 600 lbs total..

Indian Summer

Indian Summer

The wind whipped along the ridgeline, gusting across and ferrying the few loose flakes into the valley below. Up high among the tors, the light and the terrain made one think of winter. The soft pastels lit up the horizon beyond the mountains as the sun shone its last light for the day. Snow covered the ridgeline, while the brisk temperatures and strong breeze forced us to pile on layers to forestall the entrance of the cold. Atop the ridge, we had no choice but to continue, with hope of descending the bowl beyond and finding a campsite free of snow and out of the wind. After descending the icy slope with care, we set up camp an hour later in the dark. Strong gusts and frozen hands created an added challenge in establishing our home for the night. The frozen ground bent stakes while the wind haphazardly flung any that weren’t secure. After seemingly endless fussing around, the tent appeared to be stable. After miles of walking, three humans and a dog crowded inside, protected from the wind, trying to catch some sleep as the tent swayed back and forth, threatening to collapse.

20181006_172318

October in Alaska can be an odd time. In certain years, like this one, it is almost like it is another season. Leaves fell long ago and colors have changed, leaving a muted and bare landscape. Yet, snow has not fallen in most areas and temperatures remain mild during the day. It is easy to forget what lies ahead. Looming on the near horizon are months of darkness and an area completely blanketed by a layer of snow. For now, the cool night temperatures and dry days yield great hiking over firm ground. Cold nights serve as a reminder of seasons past. A reminder to bring heavier gloves, a pair of fleece pants, and to sleep with water bottles. In this transition season, the price is small. A little thirst or numb hands. Months from now, inaction can lead to frostbite or worse. Not too far north, snow covers the valley floors across the Arctic and rivers are nearly closed. Winter is knocking on the doorstep and sure to arrive soon. For now, I try to enjoy this uncertain season and the joys that come with it.

20181006_172641