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The Shadow of Denali
Central Alaska, Weeks 7 and 8
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
It’s been a little while since either Geoff or I sat down to write a journal entry or even sort through our pictures. We’ve only taken about seven since we cut south of the Arctic Circle, even though we have easily moved through more terrain than the entire Dalton Highway. You might call it another trip lull; these things happen. Inside I feel that maybe I am just weary of the wilderness, or of being homeless, or maybe a little of both. 
It started in Fairbanks, where we set up camp for three days and went about doing an array of chores we had neglected for a while, which included fixing several small things on the van. Chris and Geoff did most of this. I couldn’t be much help so I spent some time cycling around the city. A stagnant June heat wave had hit Fairbanks, and I felt comfortable moving about in shorts and a T-shirt (and about six coats of DEET). It was the warmest point of our trip – hitting 80 degrees in the late afternoon and lingering well into the evening. A weather forecast on the radio predicted “partly cloudy in the afternoon with clear skies and sunshine tonight” – an odd but true statement when the long solstice days grind on. The trails in Fairbanks were few and muddy – but the town contains many miles of bike paths. Geoff and I went through the heart of downtown, into a pseudo-historic amusement park called Alaskaland, and eventually found our way into the suburbs. Just another cluster of cookie cutter subdivisions and schools – could be anywhere U.S.A. Could be my hometown. Despite my contempt for such places I found it vaguely comforting. Later I told Geoff I was homesick. 

The next day we drove Denali with no real plans, and were almost tempted to just head directly for Ancorage when Chris remembered that he wanted to see the Stampede Trail – an old mining trail immortalized in the book “Into the Wild.” One of Chris’s dreams is to spend a few months in the wilderness living off the fat of the land, so he wanted to see the old bus where Chris McCandless, the subject of the book, lived back in the summer of ’93. What we found was a heavily used, muddy ORV trail. I crashed out in a rocky streambed and turned around. Chris, Jen and Geoff headed for the river through the murky swamplands. Nobody went further than that, and didn’t get to the bus. We realized that if we had planned it better we would have backpacked in, but it was too late for that. We went on to Denali National Park.

The road after mile 15 is closed off to all but the tour buses and ranger vehicles, so we continued on bikes. After 11 miles and two minor passes Chris stopped us in a valley and told us he wanted to go all the way to the end – 60 more miles and four major passes away. We laughed at him but this goal may have been entirely plausible if we had planned on it, taken a bus, cycled the road the other way, and given ourselves the entire day, midnight sun and all. Ninety miles on mountainous terrain would have been the most difficult bike ride of our lives, but it would have been fun to try. We just didn’t plan anything. We went 10 more miles into the striking landscape and turned around before the first major pass, 40 miles in all. The ride was incredibly beautiful but I think we all had a sense that we were missing something, and we couldn’t quite peg it. Chris thinks it’s because we haven’t yet done anything truly worthy of an Alaska adventure, such as a two-week backpacking trip into the deep wilderness. Geoff thinks that everyone is getting a bad attitude that he can’t understand. He’d be happy either way – whether our explorations were hardcore or simply recreational. Jen and I seem to fit in a similar category, we’re admittedly more recreational. We set out on the Denali Highway at a complete impasse, and we’ve parked in the same BLM campground trying to decide what to do. Geoff and I did a bike ride yesterday up the dirt road and towards some glacial lakes on the southern slope of the Alaska Range. We got hit with a stretch of wet, cold weather that will probably stay for several more days, so our plans to go backpacking have been halted, partly because of the weather, and partly because we can’t reach a consensus. I hope things will gel in the next few days. There’s really a lot more to traveling than seeing the world through a rose-colored lens and being deliriously happy about seeing a moose or catching grayling in a clear mountain stream. When the euphoria of vacation fades the world is real again, and there’s no escaping it. Darkness and suspicion overpower your reactions to the unknown, and the variables and endless decisions instill weariness, and you realize that through it all, you’ve still got to live day to day. Back in the Yukon Jen picked out a magnet that said “To do list: 1.) Get up 2.) Survive 3.) Go to bed” That pretty well describes it. It’s the thought of living that pushes us forward and keeps us from subsuming to sleepless fits in the endless daylight.
posted by Jill on June 18, 2003
Saturday, June 21, 2003
Solstice. We awoke this morning already entrenched in clouds and misty rain. It has been gray and wet since we set out on the Denali Highway, now five days. Geoff had nearly talked everyone into a six-day backpacking trip in the Alaska Range, but the cold drizzle this morning proved to be the unspoken clincher. An hour after we crawled out of our tents we were back on the road, headed to places where the sun shines on solstice. 

Last night we hiked up to Landmark Lake, a small glacial lake well above tree line. The open valley was just coming into spring, a phenomenon we have experienced a lot on this trip, and continue to witness even though it’s nearly July. Even in the dull light the new green buds and purple flowers held a bright contrast against the glaciated mountains. Real glaciers, held in fluid suspension over black canyons that never see spring. The landscape was beautiful, and it helped alleviate some of the restlessness that had been building since we left Denali. Geoff and Chris fished along the narrow shoreline, landing a half dozen lake trout, which is a surprising catch for a glacial lake (These lakes are usually choked with silt and rest in too harsh of climates to facilitate fish population growth.) The brown-speckled fish were all over 15 inches; however, they only kept one because we were about five miles from camp. Before we headed back Chris built a fire to warm his feet. The driftwood was soaked but, as Chris said, we were “surviving” and this is what survivalists have to do. As Chris and Geoff dried their socks we talked about how one would go about surviving in this wilderness. Based on the success of the catch, Geoff concluded that a person could survive for weeks out here on nothing but fish and edible plants. After about an hour of this we realized that we were pretty hungry, and, having no dinner with us, decided to “survive” by cooking our fish over the open flame. We tried several different methods. The first was heating up the rock to grill the fish. Since we didn’t start out with a rock in the fire, this proved to be the most time-consuming method. Second, we suspended the fish over the flame with two sticks. While this also seemed a viable method, it was too difficult to hold the fish evenly over the fire without dropping it. As we did this, it started to rain again. The sun dipped behind the mountains and we knew it was after 10 p.m. Finally, just as our wood was depleted and the fire was dying out, we threw the half-cooked carcass onto the hot coals, turned it several times, pulled it out, and devoured the still-steaming flesh with our bare hands as rain pelted our backs. The fish, though slightly overcooked, was still moist and held a strong smoky flavor; it was easily one of the tastiest trout I have ever eaten. As we squatted over it like starving cavemen Geoff said, “I’m hungry, I’m cold and wet, but I’m really happy.” Well said. For that simple moment we had “survived” as only modern cavemen can. Maybe someday, Geoff will get to do it for real. He and Chris are the only people I know that might actually be able to pull it off.
posted by Jill on June 21, 2003
Thursday, June 26, 2003
We just spent a few days in Valdez, where we hiked to a glacier, endured non-stop rain, and rented a boat for sea fishing. We caught several interesting-looking fish, and a ton of tasty salmon. Mmmmmm. I wish we could send everyone we know some, but shipping expenses run relatively high. The hike to the Valdez glacier was amazing. The hike, four miles round trip, started in a barren gravel pit at the mouth of a large, stagnant lake - deep gray, everything the color of the sky. We climbed into a veritable jungle (labeled "Brazilian Rainforest" on our photos page, whacking through a maze of deep green leaves and vines. Then we emerged from the brush to a jagged mountain of ice, blue and white and covered in a thin layer of broken rock. We felt confident in bounding over the scree, only to lose our footing on the glare ice centimeters below. The fishing, though, was perhaps our most memorable experience. We had a lot of success with the salmon, and even though we were unsuccesful in catching a halibut, we still felt the thrill of large tugs at our herring-baited 70 pound lines. We are headed to Ancourage now so expect more frequent postings over the next few weeks. 
posted by Jill on June 26, 2003