It’s a trip that almost didn’t happen.
Jeremy and I have been friends for going on 30 years now and although we act like an old married couple, we’ve had few actual arguments. This one, like most arguments between old friends, was a nasty mess of little annoyances that we both tried to ignore until someone said something about one of them and then it all exploded. In this case, I was concerned about going deep into the Alaskan interior with him because the previous fall he’d run off on me in Denali National Park. I have more backcountry experience than he does and I had the perception that the .454 Casull he carries on his chest when we’re in Alaska was giving him a false sense of confidence in addition to leaving me vulnerable.
I wasn’t sure how to address this with him, so I do what I always do when I don’t know what to say: I write it. This was the wrong way to do it. Absolutely, no question, I took the easy way out.
He called me the next day when we were both calmer and we talked it out. I’d done some dick things to him unintentionally as well, so it was one of those good chats you have to have every now and again and it allowed us to carry on our annual trip and one that would be our most epic trip yet. We moved onto logistics and we were ready to go.
Since Jeremy has family outside Anchorage, we always fly in and out of there and drive to wherever we’re going (so far, we’re already planning a future trip that’s going to include a bush pilot and a pack raft). We arrived very early in the morning and grabbed breakfast before driving to Fairbanks where we needed bear spray and cooking fuel since we couldn’t fly with it. We enjoyed a good conversation, interspersed with 90s alternative rock, the only music we can agree on more or less. He’d doze off every now and again and I was able to play country music while he slept, but the deal we have is we stick to the common areas of our musical Venn diagram when we’re both awake.
We had reservations for two nights in a cabin that was an eleven-mile hike from the trail head off of the Elliott Highway, almost 100 miles from Fairbanks. The plan was to hike in about halfway, set up camp and then hike the rest of the way in the morning. Our packs were incredibly heavy due to the fact we were in a cabin, we were hiking in with some real food and we were both carrying heavy firearms; him the .454 Casull and me a Remington 870 with slugs. While we were not at high elevation, there was several thousand feet in elevation changes along the route, starting high, going low, climbing a hill, then going low again only to end high at camp.
Once we reached about the halfway point, it was starting to get dark and we were looking for a place to set up camp. There were some flat spots down below where we could have had a fire if it had not been flooded but we were stuck in the brush. While we couldn’t make a fire, we were tired and the brush underneath our ground cloth actually made for a good mattress. Once we got camp set up, we ate a couple protein bars and then hung our bear bag and went to sleep. Next to the time he and I slept on the beach at Pismo Bay, this might have been one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had.
In the morning I awoke to see Jeremy all packed up and ready to go. I informed him I was going to sit in my bag and make a cup of coffee before I went anywhere. He was slightly agitated but afforded me this one luxury. While I was making my coffee, he told me he hardly slept at all. He was cold and he was afraid of bears and wolves. I told him the fear was understandable but that we hadn’t seen any bear sign the day before and our human scent would put most of them off and I reminded him how rare bear attacks really are. He also told me that I slept so still he put his hand over my mouth to make sure I was breathing. I had been so tranquil and so quiet he had wondered if I’d died in my sleep. This was in stark contrast to him complaining about my constant snoring a few years back on a trip to Death Valley. I told him, I only snore when there’s 40 miles per hour gusts of wind blowing sand into our tent and we slept without the rain fly on. That may not be one hundred percent true, but whether I snore or not, does depend on the conditions.
After my coffee I packed up and we started off. No more than a half mile later we found a camp. It was some kind of plastic container with mats in it designed for folks camping halfway. We had no idea it was there, but it would have kept the wind off of us if we’d have kept going the night before.
A short while later we ran into four Scandinavian college kids who had our cabin before us. We exchanged a few words and they let us know they’d seen a sow and her cubs right outside of camp on the way out. We never saw her, but we did see a fresh pile of blueberry bear shit just at the entrance to the camp area. That was the only bear sign we saw the whole trip.
The next two days were spent relaxing. We had to chop a little wood to replace what we used, but other than that, it was peaceful. It stormed awhile our first day and we read, took turns with the beat up old classical guitar that was up there and I played a lot of solitaire. We went to the hot spring tubs twice a day, had great conversations on a lot of different topics and slept warm with the cast iron stove churning out heat all night.
Hiking out however, was a total nightmare. It was hard, not sure why it seemed so hard other than my feet just got annihilated by my boots but my whole body suffered. I had a couple of small blisters from the hike in, but I nursed them the two days we were in the cabin and taped them up well with Leukotape before we took off. It didn’t matter. Just a few miles in those blisters got worse and I developed new ones (Red Head is not going to get an endorsement out of me anytime soon). I walked over seven miles on blistered and bleeding feet to get back to the truck and my Crocs. Somehow, I still managed a two mile per hour pace on the way out.
My body felt like I’d gone five rounds with Georges St. Pierre. I was beat to hell. We stopped in Fairbanks for some food and beers and then headed back to Anchorage, getting in late and getting a room at a historic hotel before hitting another brewery for dinner and beers. The next day was spent at the Alaska State Fair and then we headed back to the airport where we caught the red eye back to Los Angeles through Seattle.
This trip is something we look forward to every year. In spite of our friendship going back as long as it does, these annual jaunts reinforce our bond and keep our friendship as healthy and vibrant as it has ever been. When you’re in the backcountry with someone, you’re relying on each other for life and death. Sure, there are little spats (old married couple, remember?), but outside my wife, there is no one on the face of this earth who knows me like he does and I trust him with my life. While I often write of my personal connection to nature on this page, it is important to note the backcountry is also a fantastic place to build and maintain relationships and to create lifelong memories with your friends and family. Anyone who has been to hunting camp, hiked a trail with some friends or spent the day on the lake with someone knows exactly what I’m talking about.
So, if you have a friend or loved one that expresses some interest in the outdoors, make sure you take them somewhere and do something. Not only will you get something out of being a mentor, but you’ll give someone else a new experience that will create a memory that will last a lifetime. The future of the outdoors and our lifestyle depends on all of us sharing our love and passion with others.