In the midst of the dog days of August (truly) I find myself thinking about what I was doing one year ago today. Normally I cannot recall this sort of thing, but in this case, I was on vacation in Alaska.
I could go into detail about how I came to be in Alaska for my vacation, but I’ve decided that this entry is going to take a different direction. Long story short, I have a very good college friend who is now a doctor in Alaska. He grew up there as well and his parents own and used to run a fly-in hunting fishing lodge in a National Park Preserve. I’ve always had a standing invitation, but the vacation stars didn’t completely align until last year when we both had some time off during summer season.
Even though I knew I was going to visit my friend, I really had no idea as to the details of what we would be doing on this trip. In my mind, I pictured us hanging out around Anchorage and maybe driving out to hike some trails or photograph some moose. Upon arrival, I was surprised to learn that he had arranged for us to be flown out to his parents’ lodge for most of the week.
This change in events was welcome to me as I had always been curious about the place he called home. It was always described as so different from everyone else’s hometown, and I can honestly say that even his sweeping descriptions did not do it justice. It is very close to heaven on earth, I can honestly say.
I could go on about the pristine beauty of this place, but that wouldn’t really be my style at all. Instead, I am going to share with you the story of the closest I came to nature and also death in the whole trip. If you’re thinking that it was while flying in the four-seater float plane, think again. That was awesome. If you think it might be the wilderness raft trip with an 8 year old rowing, you’d be wrong.
It started out simple enough. My friend asked if I’d like to take the boat out on the lake and find a place to hike up to a waterfall that he knew about. Since he knew the area and had led hikes with his parents’ paying guests, I assumed that he would take me somewhere safe. In hindsight, I should have known better.
We boarded the large motorized watercraft known as the “Dusty Rose” and departed from his parents dock in the early afternoon. It was a relaxing and lovely ride out into the lake. As a side note, this lake is very large – several miles long, in fact.
After boating for 15 minutes or so, we started to slow down and eventually landed on a wooded and rocky shore. Once the boat was secured to a boulder, we turned to face the woods. My guide began to walk along the shore, apparently looking for a trail. In the process, he acquired a large stick which he used to whack at the long bushes and grass that grew up under the trees.
Our boat, safely secured on the beach:
I was a bit confused at this point. I had been under the impression that we would be using a well established trail that had been used several times before. From the looks of his weed-whacking, this was not necessarily the case. In the course of his searches, he came across an interesting discovery. Bear scat. Fresh bear scat.
On one hand, this was interesting. I had never encountered bear droppings in the wild. On the other hand, this was terrifying. Obviously, whatever bear had left this waste had been near the shoreline recently. My guide assured me that most bears were not coming down to the lake – it was too early for that. Coming from the same guide who had led me to believe that there would be a trail, this was little comfort.
Eventually, my guide made up his mind as to an entry point and handed me the walking stick. He informed me that I would need it for the climb, especially to test the ground as there would be some areas where I would not be able to see it through the brush. Apparently there were lots of holes as well.
According to my guide, we were in luck. The pooping bear had left a trail of trampled brush to lead us on our way. Super. We were going to follow the footsteps of a bear of unknown size. I felt a moment of extreme fear, especially as we were not armed with any defensive weapons. There were two choices in front of me. I could cry like a baby and look like a wimp in front of my mountain man friend, or I could suck it up and pretend that I did things like this everyday. In my sleep. Backwards.
I chose to climb. Lucky for me, I chose to wear long pants, although my guide had not offered me any wardrobe suggestions when leaving for the excursion. Not only were the bugs ravenous, but there were some very sharp prickly plants all over the place. My guide did his best to push them out of the way for me, but they were unavoidable.
At first, things weren’t too bad. My guide was an experienced trail-maker, and was very patient with my lack of climbing or even general coordination skills. Also, he was wise to suggest the use of the stick. I would likely not be alive today without that stick.
The higher we climbed, the less brush we encountered. It wasn’t too steep, but there were branches and trees everywhere to work around. Before long, we came to a small stream. When I say small, it was actually just shallow. It was about 3-5 feet in width at most places, and it quickly became obvious that we would have to cross it. Numerous times.
I am not afraid of water. I am not afraid of cold water. I simply do not like to have cold and soggy feet, especially when wearing shoes. My guide had noticed my footwear and assumed that it was waterproof. Again, no guidance had been offered ahead of time, and it would have been helpful. Turns out that my awesome hiking shoes are largely mesh on top, although they appear to be solid. Instead of offering at least a little water protection, they acted largely as a sieve to keep out large stones while allowing all matter of fluid to run straight to my socks.
Again, I could have raised a fuss and insisted that we turn back or that he build me some sort of bridge to cross the stream with dry feet, but instead I took a deep breath and allowed my feet to be cold, wet and clammy for the sake of wimpy girls everywhere.
We continued on this route for what felt like hours. Occasionally we had to stop and bang two sticks together and yell “HEY BEAR!!!” This was to warn any bears in our vicinity that we were coming. It sort of reminded me of the camping scene from “The Parent Trap.” I remembered that the twin characters told someone to bang sticks together to keep away mountain lions. I also remembered that it was a trick that didn’t really work, it just made the person look stupid.
After hiking onward and upward and crossing the stream at least a dozen times (I swear he did it somewhat needlessly on purpose to make me suffer), we arrived at a view of the waterfall. We were very close to the top, and I thought that we were close enough. My guide disagreed.
In front of us was a very steep hill composed solely of loose medium-sized rocks. Essentially, a rock slide. My guide insisted that we climb this slide to get a closer and better view of the falls. This, dear reader, is where I drew the line. I had no doubt that I may be able to ascend the mountain of rocks. I also had no doubt that I would absolutely not be able to descend the mountain without facing certain death.
My guide tried in vain to convince me otherwise, but I remained firm. After a few moments consideration, he decided to find an “alternate” route that did not involve the rock slide. This is where it really gets insane.
I don’t remember much detail of the climb up from here because I was so certain that I was going to die. In fact, I told my guide at one point, that he had better make sure that I was buried with my walking stick because I wanted it with me in the afterlife to use for my retaliatory attack on him someday. He wisely kept a safe distance ahead of me for this portion of the climb.
Eventually, we reached the top where were rested and took many pictures. My guide decided to show off and walk up to the waterfall. It was not a large or dangerous falls, but any time there is running water over rocks, caution is always necessary. While I know he was careful, he did manage to take a pretty decent fall and cut his hand. I nearly had a meltdown worrying that he would cut his head open as well and I would be forced to find my way down the mountain alone to find help.
Looking back down the mountain from the falls
Me and my walking stick. Notice the photographer is standing out of reach of said walking stick.
Luckily, he was OK enough to lead the hike back down to the boat. As a good trail maker, he had the foresight to leave markers along our path of broken branches and trampled brush. Unfortunately, he was not so adept at finding and following his markers. We most definitely did not follow the same path downwards as we did upwards, but this did not create a problem until we reached the bottom and found ourselves looking down at the beach from the top of a 10-15 foot cliff drop.
My guide jokingly (I assume) suggested that we jump off to the beach. I was not in a laughing mood, as I pictured a bear waiting in a cave beneath the cliff waiting for idiot hikers to attempt the jump and break their legs, rendering them helpless from attack. No, this would not work. See illustration:
Once again, my guide was resourceful and found an “alternate” route. When we finally made it back to the beach, I felt like I had defeated a dragon or climbed Mount Everest. We sat for a while on the beach, or at least until my “fearless” guide got too freaked out by the tiny spiders that live all over in the beach rocks. We attempted a rock-skipping contest, but by then, my physical strength was gone.
Finally, we boarded the boat and returned to the lodge. I know I slept very well that night in my private cabin. The next day, we made another waterfall hike, but before I agreed, I made my friend promise on my burial walking stick that it was on an actual path and that I would not need waterproof shoes.