Erratic Adventures

Jun 21, 2015 | 5 comments

I am alone. And I’m out of water, dehydrated, and overheating, my heart pounding in my ears. I can only see about 10 feet around me in any direction, the alders are so thick. I can barely fit through the tangle of their trunks with my huge backpack, and I’m not tall enough to see above them to re-orient myself. I know I need to continue downhill, but unless I can get out of these alders, I’m going to tire myself out before I ever reach the creek. Up until this point I was having the time of my life, but now I’m seriously questioning whether I’ll even make it out of this wilderness just a couple miles from the road. 
The journey begins
The adventure began at 8pm the night before. It was a late start for a backpacking trip, but because it’s almost summer solstice, the sun doesn’t really “set” until the wee hours of the morning, so it was totally doable to start the hike after one of our friends got off work. 

We hiked out of c-camp to the road, still trying to figure out where we’d start our trek to the glacial erratics, a ridge just a few miles away that boasts gigantic boulders that were once carried down from the Alaska range by the glaciers of the last ice age. 
We ended up riding the bus just one stop to the dog kennels, and set out down the hill to Hines Creek before beginning the 3 hour push to the top of the ridge.
Mosquitoes. Everywhere. Their faces say it all. 

It was probably some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done. On top of carrying 35-40lbs of gear on our backs that included all our water for two days and our food in bear barrels, the terrain was squishy and the brush was thick and unrelenting. It was also the warmest day of the week, temperatures hovering around 80 degrees even by 9pm. Whenever we stopped to rest and catch our breath, hundreds of mosquitoes would swarm in, their incessant whining making it as much of a mental challenge as it was a physical one.

Despite the difficulties, everyone’s spirits remained high. We took turns yelling out our “hey bears,” singing songs, and chatting. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly take one more step, finally the glacial erratics came into view.

It was exactly midnight, still more than enough light in the sky to set up camp, boil water for hot drinks, eat a sandwich, and go to bed. We were all so exhausted we could barely hold a conversation by that point. Sleep never felt so good.

My tent between the rocks
It was a restless sleep, but welcome nonetheless. In the night, it became extremely windy, and the rustling of my tent kept waking me up. The air temp dropped at some point so I curled up all the way inside my sleeping bag, but by morning the temperature soared into the upper-70s again, so I reluctantly got up and walked out to the cliff to cool off.
Good morning, Alaska!

By 10:30 we were all up, and sorely staggering around camp to make breakfast and stretch out our stiffness from last night’s long hike. I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one in pain! We drank coffee and hot cocoa and used as little water as we could spare to share oatmeal out of our camp cook pot.

Post-breakfast group shot

Water had been running low the night before, since we’d had to drink so much to stay hydrated on the hike up. We had hoped there would be a water source nearby, but it turned out the closest running water was Jenny Creek, down the cliff behind the erratics. We procrastinated all day on going down to refill our supply, instead enjoying the warm sun and the quiet solitude of the ridge.

A skipper landed on my foot!

We spent the late morning and early afternoon reading and napping in the sun. It was glorious. I started reading My Life of High Adventure by Grant Pearson, who was a park ranger and superintendent of Denali between the 1930s-50s. But mostly I just sat in the sun, swatted mosquitoes, took pictures, and reflected on life.

My reading spot
After a while we had a late lunch on the cliff and planned out logistics for the rest of the trip. Everyone else had the next few days off so they decided to camp one more night, but because I had work the next morning, I elected to hike back on my own that evening so I could get cleaned up and a good night’s sleep. 
Mountaintop yoga (photo by Simon)
I pulled a few rations out of the bear can for myself and estimated that I had a little less than half a liter of water to get myself down the mountain. Should be enough, right? Before I departed, we did a half hour of yoga together, which was an excellent life decision. Feeling energized and stretched out, I repacked my backpack and headed down the mountain. 
Solo hiking is nothing new to me, but solo hiking off-trail in Alaska with a full load of gear and no water was absolutely a new thing. I could see the distant road a few miles ahead — I would have to hike downhill most of the way to Hines Creek, and then ascend again to get up to it. I debated trying to find the exact route we’d taken the day before to come out at the kennels heading northeast, but instead decided it would be shorter to hike due north directly toward the road. Either way, I would have to fight my way through the big, scary brush, but the direct route looked like there might be a little less of it. 
The longer I hiked, the hotter and sweatier and more physically exhausted I became, adding to my growing disorientation. “Hey bear! Hey moose! Hi porcupines! Hello, Alaska!” I frequently shouted at the top of my lungs, probably more for my own comfort than defense against wildlife encounters. 
Over an hour into my hike, I found myself completely surrounded by those alders. I couldn’t go around the grove, so I followed a moose path for some distance but eventually it petered out and I was trapped. By this point, I was quite dehydrated and feeling an inkling of panic rising in my throat, my heart pounding in my ears, hands shaking, ankles giving out, mosquitoes swarming every inch of my exposed skin. I had to find water. 
Fortunately, alder tends to grow in wet drainages, and sure enough I found a stagnant puddle nearby. I turned to grab my Nalgene out of my pack, only to find it had fallen out somewhere along the way. Crap. All I had left was my camp mug and my camelback, so I opted for the mug, and dipped it into the brownish water, measuring out what I hoped would be the proper amount of Aquamira drops to put in. The 20 minute wait time for the chemicals to react felt like an eternity.
When the time had finally passed, I reluctantly put the cold brown water to my lips and took a few gulps, simultaneously praising the presence of H20 at this dire moment, and also gagging a little at the taste. Something was wrong; it had a peculiar tangy flavor that reminded me a little bit of how pee smells, and then the horrible thought that I might be drinking moose-pee-water crossed my mind. I had already drank half the cup, so I poured out the rest and continued on my way, still feeling a little better than I had before.
Twice more, I found myself trapped in the alders, and twice more I found my way out, cutting across the slope at a perpendicular angle until I got out of the drainage. Each time I got out of the alders, I would try to pick a new bearing. One bearing at a time, one step at a time. Eventually I descended low enough that I could no longer see the road; I had zigzagged enough that I wasn’t entirely sure where I ended up. I howled as loud as I could into the air and waited; a few seconds later, the sled dogs at the kennels started howling in response off to the northeast and I knew I was still heading the right direction. I love Denali.
I was finally within earshot of the rushing Hines Creek when I stumbled upon an old cabin in the brush. Or maybe it was a cache, because it had no door. I have no idea, but there it was, overgrown and beautiful, slowly being taken over by the thick brush. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was old enough to have been used by Harry Karstens or Charles Sheldon back at the turn of the century, or even my pal Grant Pearson from the book I’d been reading!

Eventually I made it down to Hine’s Creek and filled my camelback with a liter of its (much cleaner!) water, treated it with more Aquamira drops, and dipped my feet in for a few minutes. After getting my boots back on, I managed to cross it without getting too wet, and plunged upward into more thick brush towards what I hoped would be the road. My plan when I got there was to hitchhike or catch a bus heading back to c-camp, as I didn’t think I could possibly take another step once I got out of the woods.
The roar of a truck rumbling by overhead was never a more welcome sound to my ears! With that, a new found strength came over me and I staggered up out of the trees to the roadside, thankful for flat, hard ground. I had made it.  
Right where I came out of the woods, I ran into my coworker walking one of the sled dogs, so we walked the road together back to the kennels, chatting. I came out much closer to c-camp than I thought I’d be, and the thought of walking another half mile now seemed like a piece of cake, so I made the entire walk back to my cabin, thankful for pavement and gravel!
Post backpacking thumbs up!
Surprisingly, and despite my exhaustion, I never felt so strong as I did after that trip. Every part of my body was sore, my arms and legs gashed up from the alders and spruce, bruised, sunburnt, and still dehydrated. But suddenly walking up the small hill to my cabin felt like nothing, and walking around without a backpack on made me feel light as air. 
More than anything, I was glad to be alive. Not that I had come close to dying or anything, but I was certainly a little worried a few times during the trip that I wouldn’t  make it out that night, or I could easily be eaten by a bear or roll an ankle just a mile from the road an no one would ever find me in those thick alders. But nothing happened, and the biggest thing I lived through was my own self-doubt, despite knowing that I am perfectly capable of these things and more. 
Whether solo or with friends, this weekend was a good reminder of why I love the outdoors so much, and that the rewards of adventure far outweigh the challenges. More backpacking trips for me, please! 


  1. NotaClueGal

    So proud of you keeping it together. Great post

  2. NotaClueGal

    So proud of you keeping it together. Great post

  3. NotaClueGal

    So proud of you keeping it together. Great post

  4. LJinFLA

    Holy MOOSE! You are a brave woman! Love your blog and love you, too! Laura Julian

  5. Anonymous

    Great Article, great job, GPED

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