The night before Seth and I disappear into the Denali Wilderness for three days of adventure, I can’t sleep. My restlessness comes not from fear about living in grizzly country where the rangers warn, “You will be the only people you see. You must be ready to save yourself if you get in trouble,” or from fear of the hike’s difficulty. In fact, the difficulty is precisely the attraction—extremity has a way of cleansing the body and the mind. The objective of such an adventure is of course to spend time in nature, but also to exhaust oneself to a point beyond worry and fear, beyond thought.
After packing on Sunday night, I stand outside the bus and stare at the cool glow of the sun setting just beneath the horizon. It’s 12:30 am. That the sun never really disappears is a strange feeling. It simply tucks itself in for a few hours before embarking on its slanted course through the sky, feeling forever like early morning, then early evening forever again, inviting insomnia. I know I need to get some sleep, but I’m ready to go get lost (with a map and compass, of course).
I try to sleep. Still wide-eyed at 5:59 am, I ask Seth if he’s ready to go. A second later my alarm buzzes, my hand already poised to silence it. Within a couple of hours we’ve packed, eaten breakfast, and are being let off the camper bus at the border of Unit 29, our very own eighty square miles of uninterrupted wilderness to explore.
From the road we follow Tattler Creek for a couple of miles, climbing about 1,000 feet up the rock bed to where several streams draw lines between the mountains all around us before merging into the creek. A curious ermine inspects our bag, running almost up to my boot. An eagle flies overhead and perches on a rock ledge above our path.
Our goal for the day? To summit Sable Mountain at nearly 6,000 feet. We drop our packs and hoof it up a stream leading to the top. Although climbing the water slick rock steps of the stream makes for easier travel, we’re eager to ascend, so we move to the steep tundra which provides no natural steps but rises from the drainage quickly. Hiking without trails is a different animal than what I’m used to. With each step we climb a foot or so vertically while taking care to sink the sides of our boots into the moss to prevent our ankle from turning sideways. A flat spot is hard to find, but when we find one we greedily steal it as we would a seat on the train after an exhausting day. I’ve never appreciated flat ground more.
Eventually the tundra breaks into even steeper scree slopes. Now with each vertical step, I slide down several inches before my footing takes hold, sending rocks tumbling down below us. I swear I’ve never worked so hard in my life to push through the dizziness and fatigue, but the reward is immense: each step reveals more of the Alaska Range, whose glaciers and snowy caps motivate us to surmount one rock cluster after another until we’ve reached the summit from where all things descend. This view comes with a price, but it’s well worth it. Seeing as how 80% of Denali’s visitors never leave the road, I feel privileged to be on top of Sable.
The other creatures high on the mountain are Dall sheep. They graze at high altitudes so they can spot their chief predator the wolf as he approaches. Because he cannot employ stealth in such openness, he seldom follows the sheep so high. Their tracks under our feet trace paths toward even steeper slopes than we dare to traverse. I’m impressed by the tenacious woolly creatures. While we never catch up with them, we spy them off in the distance, sprinkling the ridges like lint, always on a different ridge of the mountain than we’re on, either ahead or behind us, as though they always know where we are.
When we finally reach the top, we have climbed almost 2,000 vertical feet in less than two miles. Our ascent path is so steep we can’t see it from the top. Instead the slopes appear to fold underneath themselves creating vertiginous bulges that skew distance and space and scale and make me feel like I’m falling backwards, not up, the mountain. A quick glance at the horizon, and I’m upside up again.
With legs like overcooked noodles, we regain our packs, located about twenty feet from a giant bear hole, and eat a lunch of beef jerky, tuna fish and crackers, and M&Ms, while contemplating our next feat: a 4,500 foot mountain we must overcome to get to where we think we’ll make camp. We decide to take off before the food coma sets in. Going up is par for the course, but once at the summit, we see the valley on the other side roll out below us like a giant, undulating carpet. We see the stream leading to the Big Creek where we plan to make camp: a nice, flat, green hill next to the river.
Getting there’s a little tricky. It’s not that bad, really, just an hour or so spent descending, or rather sliding down an interminably steep slope of loose scree. Then another hour or so crossing hills covered in squishy tundra and sprawling berry bushes. At this point we’re fatigued and my ankles twist and I stumble at almost every step because there’s no way to know the depth my foot will sink in the mossy pillows or where it will find an even deeper crack hidden between them. I learn quickly that walking directly on the bushes provides for more stable passage, even though I imagine myself as a giant breaking the limbs of the poor creatures underneath my feet.
When we arrive at “the Thumb,” our prospective camping spot which we named for its shape, my feelings of remorse change. Instead of standing on a smooth, flat, hospitable hill we thought we saw from the mountaintop, we’re instead neck deep in thick trees atop tundra. One minute of walking through this terrain and the cheap rain pants we bought at Wal-mart for $4 are trailing behind our ankles.
We descend to the river to make camp in the rocks and forest, both of which are cause for discomfort. Scat and prints of almost every animal we can think of cover the ground. Shed moose antlers shine white through the low brush. Furry appendages and fur balls hawked up out of giant carnivorous throats lie moist and matted on the ground. While we eat dinner in the middle of what we surmise is a major moose crossing, I project into the hills Public Service Announcements thanking the animals for their cooperation and apologizing for any inconvenience our intrusion has caused.
But despite signs of imminent carnage all around us, we sleep undisturbed and rise on our second day to another challenge, an endless rain that compels us to hang around camp, leaving only to collect blueberries on the hill. Animals in the wilderness are almost always on the move, scouring the hillside for food, avoiding the paths of predators.
However, when cold and wet, we humans tend to be shivery and quiet and unwilling to make our location known to animals. During our time on blueberry hill, we encounter a moose coming over the ridge—we think it crosses through our camp during our absence—and a grizzly bear who’s doing what we’re doing, grazing on berries, just on another hill altogether.
We’re comforted by the knowledge of our superiority to beasts, including the not insignificant ability to collect things in one of our species most ingenious inventions, the zip lock baggy. As we hoard berries for future desserts, we lick the sweet juice from our discriminating fingertips and opposable thumbs, feeling sorry for the quadrupeds that must take the whole branch, leaves and all, to consume just a tiny morsel of fruit and certainly cannot take any with them.
We spend our final night unmolested in the tent (which to an animal must appear the oddest object in the wilderness, especially when a terrifying rendition of the Star Spangled Banner erupts from it each morning). As though the weather hasn’t been wet enough, it starts snowing as we don our parkas, pack our gear, and get ready to hike out along Big Creek.
We’re learning to adapt to the Alaska climate and to the mountains, which make their own weather. We walk for miles through rock bed and dense forest, following moose trails through the thick tree stands. The river goes on for a few miles, passing from the south to the north of the western edge of Igloo Mountain. Just north of Igloo we turn southeast toward the road and enter miles of soggy bog heading to the edge of the wilderness. I keep my spirits up with song, “We’re TRUDG-ing THROUGH the TUN-draaa, TRUDG-ing THROUGH the TUN-draaaa, TRUDG-ing THROUGH the TUN-draaa To DAAAYY!”
I have to admit that the last few miles walking through the tundra’s dense, waist-high brush kind of freak me out. But then I realize that my boots—just another thing that separates man from beast—are impervious to the bog’s murky waters. During the walk I step in muddy water above my laces so many times, but I feel hardly any dampness. Impervious.
I brag to Seth about my boots which I bought for $8 used at an army surplus store. His feet have been wet since day one. For the remainder of the walk, the landscape rotates between open, berry-bushed tundra, slimy bog, thick forest, and spruce mazes. Seth and I fight our way through dense tree stands that seem to be blocking our access to the road, forcing us north when we need to be going east. We come upon a lake we must circumnavigate. Seth says, “It seems like it’s going on forever and ever, huh?” We keep moving.
By the time I’ve convinced myself that I’m really not a wimpy, hairless creature stuck in the wilderness, but a survivor of extremity, the road suddenly appears before and then beneath our feet, eliminating the need for self-confidence, a point that despite our fatigue feels a little disappointing. As we celebrate with embraces, the wilderness immediately recedes in our imaginations even though it’s still only a few steps away. We remember for the first time during our adventure that it is our two-year wedding anniversary.
I told Seth on the mountain that I thought the experience would be like childbirth, almost too painful to bear but a pain easily forgotten and replaced with an overwhelming desire to do it again. I wondered how long it would be before I felt again like hauling myself up and down and through the thick of it, in search of whatever it is we’re after: clarity in exhaustion, accomplishment in extremity.
I do know this: I miss my boots already.
5 years ago