Two Cheechakos* travelling to the last Frontier
Most of our travelling we’ve done in Europe. This time we’re leaving for the other side of the world, to the last Frontier, the last wilderness: Alaska.
A frontier is never a place; it is a time and a way of life. Frontiers pass but they endure in their people.
– Hal Borland
We came here to experience this wilderness, the vastness that we don’t know in the small and crowded Europe. No map does justice to this vastness. We’re used to bring maps with a scale of 1:25 000, now we used maps with a scale of 1:225 000, the scale of a road map. We start to grasp the feeling of this scale when we leave Anchorage. At the end of the Knik Arm the landscape suddenly opens up: we enter a plain and see the mountains in the north. It takes over an hour by car before arriving at the foot of the mountain range. In the same amount of time we’ll pass through half of the Netherlands back home.
Later we walk the Kesugi Ridge east of the highest mountain of North America, Denali. A huge forest and the wide Chulitna river is located between the ridge and the Denali massif. Denali has its own micro climate like so many high mountains and wraps itself in fog and rain clouds for two-thirds of the time. We have been walking here for two days and could have had some beautiful views on the mountain, if only the mountain feels like taking off its thick grey coat. We only saw the foothills and some big glaciers. When Mount Hunter pierces through the fog, our jaws drop: We had no idea that such a mighty mountain was hidden in the clouds!
The next morning we walk back up to the ridge. We talk about last night: the loud wind made the tent fabric flap all night. That same wind luckily also brought us clear skies, the sun shines. Upon arrival at the ridge we receive the view we’ve hoped for the last days: Denali, almost one-and-a-half times higher than yesterday’s impressive Mount Hunter. We’re flabbergasted, how could this unbelievably high mountain have been hiding behind a few lousy clouds the previous days?
This exceeds our feeling of scale. We spontaneous decide to stay one day longer at Byers Lake, such an impression the landscape makes. When we’re in Talkeetna, 60 miles from here, Denali still towers above the landscape. Impressive.
It’s not only nature that impresses us at this side of the world. We’ve been touched most by the people here, but more on that later.
The Alaskan people are a population generally set apart by their unrestrained spirit and ability to make life happen in a most delightful manner under the some of the most un-delightful circumstances.
– Bob Huck
*) Cheechako, greenhorn, newcomer to the North (term developed during the Klondike years).
In Europa, we humans are always at the top of the food chain: all animals are afraid of us. The few bears that are left there are so shy that they are scared of their own shadows. Things are different in Alaska, that’s why we’ve been preparing well for bear country. Preparing is one thing, being there, experiencing and feeling it is something else.
We drive to our starting point near Kings River by shuttle bus. Don is our driver, baseball cap, big beard, checkered shirt and a little belly. He likes to talk a lot and tells a lot of jokes. “Hey guys, you know the difference between scat from a black bear and that of a grizzly? No? Black bear’s scat is filled with seeds, berries, etc. Grizzly’s is filled with bear bells, bear spray, hiking boots, …” He’s the one who laughs the loudest.
It’s still morning when we start walking to the woods. A thick forest. The wind blows and the leaves rustle. I can smell the pines. Though everything looks normal, our brains work overtime. Where are the binoculars? Is that a tree trunk over there or is it an animal? Do we have to use the bear bell here? In our heads the forest turns into an alley with big hairy monsters behind every bush, ready to scare the wits out of us. We see footprints and scat. Then we arrive at the fording place of the Kings River.
The idea is walk higher than the tree line the first day. That we won’t reach today. Charissa hasn’t had a relaxed moment the last hours. Let alone she’s able to enjoy this rough scenery. We take the tough decision to abandon the tour we’ve prepared so well and return to the tarmac.
While returning I immediately see a change in Charissa. She’s already more relaxed now, almost relieved, while we walk the same trail as just before. The feeling of this impenetrable forest is hard to image and impossible to approach rationally. Tom Waes once said: “Bear country, land of light sleep.”
We return and are being helped with making new plans. We’ll be walking more open terrain and we will meet some more people there. “More” in a relative sense. We’ll meet four people per day at most.
We walk the Resurrection Trail and are out of water. Fresh water is never far away, the trail runs along the Resurrection Creek. Charissa goes to get some water. “I see a bear, a black one!” The bear didn’t see us yet, we’re downwind so he didn’t smell us. He’s only about fifty yards away on the other side of the creek, he’s also thirsty. We shout but he still doesn’t notice us. He did hear something, but doesn’t know what, because he stands up tall to get a better view. The moment he sees us, he rushes off. We see the bushes shake a dozen yards from the riverbank when he runs through them. We’ve seen a bear, and he reacts exactly according to the book.
Bear country, land of light sleep.
– Tom Waes
I’ve had two moments of being ready to use my bear spray: the first time when I was getting some things from the tent and I was being sneaked upon by a dog. He suddenly emerged from the bushes with a lot of noise. Before I realized I was outside of the tent, bear spray ready in my hand. Later his owner said: “Maybe we should give him a bear bell, he has the tendency to sneak upon people.” Maybe a good idea indeed, for his own sake.
The second time I was squatting behind a bush to provide it with the necessary manure, when I heard a drumming noise. It sounded just like some heavy animal running towards me at full speed. I look up the mountain (pants still to my ankles) and I have the bear spray ready in my hand again. Nothing. When I look the other way I see Charissa cleaning her packraft from sand and small stones before packing. To remove the stones she drums on the bottom of the packraft with her hands…
At the beginning of the Resurrection Trail we meet an old Alaskan guy on a bicycle. “You guys have some bear protection with you? Just saw some blackies down the road, big ones.” He must have scared them away, because we didn’t see them. Or it was some fine Alaskan humour.
Before visiting Alaska we only knew the country from the Discovery Channel: prospectors, tuna fishermen, loggers, rough people in a rough country. How wrong could we be.
[…] it is the people of the place and the joy filled insanity that gave me years of adventure and laughter and who are the source of the memories that truly make my heart of hearts smile with abundance and an awesome gratitude.
– Bob Huck
There is no public transport by bus and only one rail road. When we wanted to go back to Anchorage from our first tour there was no other possibility than to hitch-hike. When making plans for later tours we get the advice: “You should hitch-hike your way across Alaska. It is easy, a lot of fun and you’ll meet a bunch of interesting people.” It couldn’t be more true.
The first day of our first trail was long, hard and filled with bear stress. We hitch-hiked our way to Palmer, one city before arriving in Anchorage. In theory we could have been in Anchorage within one hour. In practise we’ve tried to get a ride for over an hour without luck. We were exhausted and ready to look for a place to pitch our tent and try our luck tomorrow. Exactly at that moment a car pulls over and we met a guy who drives 90 miles to Anchorage and back, while living only fifteen minutes down the road. We were unbelievably grateful meeting him.
In total we’ve hitch-hiked nine times, almost 250 miles. All rides were with locals, the tourists in RVs all passed. We notice that the locals genuinely like giving you a ride and are interested to hear what you have been doing, where you’re from and how life is there. They, in turn, tell about their country, what they do and are proud of that. Maybe it’s the large distances between the villages, the ever changing weather, the strong hand of nature in this country that makes that people are more dependent upon each other and more willing to help each other (and two backpackers). For us this was a great experience and wonderful to meet so many people that are so open and proud of their country.
*) Sourdough, an old-timer in Alaska, a name that came from the fermented dough used by prospectors who didn’t have yeast.
A Word of Thanks
Alastair Humphreys once wrote: “Most of my memories of people are from the briefest of connections.” This journey our path has crossed the paths of numerous other people we would like to thank and although they were the briefest of connections these encounters will always be engraved in our memories.
Casey, thank you very much for the incredible ride at a moment that we were so exhausted.
Base Camp Anchorage: Eric, Nate, Ole, thanks for the great care, ideas for new trails and lending some walking poles when ours were gone.
Patrick & Harlow, thank you for the lighter when the one we brought broke, for the good ideas and the hospitable invite.
Terri, thanks for pulling over in the pouring rain to give two paddlers, wet to the skin, a ride.
Joel, thank you for the numerous inspiring talks over coffee.
(English subtitles available via the CC button.)
Several maps of the surroundings of the Talkeetna Mountains
1 : 63000
Available from http://store.usgs.gov/
Maps of Alaska
DeLorme Alaska Atlas & Gazetteer
1 : 300000 tot 1 : 1200000
222: Denali National Park
National Geographic Trails Illustrated
1 : 225000
Backcountry Bear Basics, second editions
The mountaineers books
Trails we walked
Trail along King River
Coastal Trail (by bicycle) in Anchorage
Around Spencer Lake, then packrafting Placer River
Resurrection Trail from Hope to Cooper Landing
Lost Lake Trail and Primrose Trail from Seward to Primrose
Kesugi Ridge Trail