“Happiness [is] only real when shared.” – Chris McCandless, Into the Wild
People have all sorts of opinions about Into the Wild, but regardless, it was one of the stories that first inspired me to come to Alaska almost a decade ago. Fresh out of college, I fell hard for dream of living in the Alaskan wilderness and leaving behind my comfortable suburban life, not unlike McCandless. I made a promise to myself that I would do it my own way though: I’d get the training I needed to be safe and resourceful, I’d stay true to myself, and I’d keep in contact with my family and loved ones. Coming to Alaska was still a form of escapism for me, and I had a lot to learn, but I also took lessons from McCandless’s story. All these years later, I still find that his revelations are relevant to my own experiences in Alaska, and each time I return, something different about that story stands out to me.
This year, his final journal entry resonated the most with me: “Happiness [is] only real when shared.”
Getting to share Alaska with my partner was by far the highlight of my summer. Even though Alaska is such an important place to me, and was so formative in my young adulthood, I’ve never really been able to convey that to Asa. He’d never been there. He didn’t quite understand the attraction (why would you want to be out somewhere cold and remote for 6 months?). But he was excited for the chance to experience it for himself and try to see it through my eyes.
Thankfully, the park lifted its staff visitor restrictions just in time, and we got him booked for a quick week-long trip to come see me in August. Anticipating his arrival fueled me for months leading up to his visit, especially in those hard July days when I would come home so exhausted from work I couldn’t imagine getting up and doing it all over again the next day. But I did, day after day, and eventually, August came around and Asa arrived.
On the day of his arrival, I walked to work at 6am, just as it was starting to get light out. I was so paranoid I’d run into a bear in the near-darkness on my way to work, but I did not. I spent my early morning project time in the ranger station working on a program. A bear walked by the window at one point, heading down to the beach and out of camp. Funny, I thought, how much this would have freaked me out a couple months ago. Now I kind of just shrugged and went back to what I was doing.
The rest of the day crawled by slowly. I knew he was supposed to get in at 2pm, so I made a point to get back from the falls just before then so I could freshen up and hopefully watch him land from the beach. As I was passing the lodge, one of my coworkers was coming out, and chatting with me about something. As we neared the visitor center, I couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder out at the beach, looking to see if any Katmai Air planes were coming in.
Then I realized that I recognized the person leaning against the visitor center porch, dressed in a scarf and a colorful vest, looking as dapper as could be. Asa. I have no memory of anything else that happened in that moment, except I immediately abandoned my conversation with my coworker and threw myself at Asa. I was very confused, since it wasn’t even 2 o’clock yet; apparently his plane had landed almost an hour early! It didn’t matter, though. He was here.
It was hard not to be distracted by his presence for the rest of the day. After all, I hadn’t seen him in almost 4 months, and only got to speak to him a few times a week. Fortunately, I was able to spend the rest of my day roving, which meant Asa could tag along and be the tourist he was, and I could do my ranger thing and it all worked out splendidly. He got to see his first bear out at the river mouth, and then a bunch more up at the falls.
We had vague plans to try to backpack in the valley the next day, but it didn’t work out (because Katmai is Katmai), so instead we made a plan to hike up Dumpling Mountain with my close friend and coworker, and backpack in the Valley over the weekend.
Dumpling was almost as difficult as the first time I hiked it back in May, although this time my legs felt much stronger. What added to the difficulty was the brushy-ness of the trail; past the overlook, the grass was higher than my head in some places, and soaking wet.
It also triggered all of our allergies because the grass was going to seed. So we were all drenched with rain and wet brush, sneezing, puffy-eyed, and dripping snot. What a sight we must have been! On top of that, anytime we stopped, we were swarmed by mosquitoes and white socks. In worse company, it would have been miserable. But hiking it with two of my favorite people in the entire world made it an absolute joy!
Needless to say, we slept well that night. Asa and I spent the next day prepping for our backpacking trip, which involved checking out a bear-resistant food cannister (aka bear barrel) from the visitor center, packing our gear, and consulting with park staff about the best route to take.
Since it was our first time backpacking in the valley for both of us, we opted to take the most common route of following the Windy Creek trail to Six Mile, a sheltered contour at the base of the Buttress Range, and then see about getting to Novarupta from there.
The next day we would walk into the wild, together. A decade ago, I would never have imagined I’d be on this journey with my best friend and life partner, but here we were. It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt that happiness is most real when shared, but perhaps the most intensely I’ve ever felt it. And even through the challenges we were about to face, I couldn’t have been more happy to be facing them with my person.