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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.