It was a Sunday afternoon, and I'd spent the morning at church and working. Lunch came and went, and then wandered off into afternoon.
And I wanted to go climb a mountain.
For several weeks they had been staring at me, almost tauntingly. But I couldn't find anyone to climb with me. The idea, when brought up, would float ephemerally in the air and then pop - like a bubble from a brightly-coloured plastic wand.
I found myself wandering about the apartments, asking. Pulling out my phone, asking. But no one was interested. How could anyone not be interested? Rosemary weighed the idea for a while, but finally decided against it.
And you cannot should not climb alone, as the Deuce once explained to me.
So, I thought, what can I do instead? Trail hiking, of course. So, wanting to get out soon, I chose a close trail. And, knowing myself, I chose one which the map denoted as having a definite end, rather than one which pettered out into a dotted line before finally vanishing into the wilds. Something Becca had warned me not to do - through the gift of a similarly named book - just before I'd headed North.
|And so I chose Spaulding Trail. It started just down the road from the house, near the fire station, and wound northwards into the woods where the map told me it would eventually end after a good climb. To save time, I got Rosemary to drive me down to the trailhead, switched into my boots, and headed off.|
A boardwalk aided my meadow crossing, and brought me past the first ominous, if cold, sign that I was not alone. I continued upward, albeit with a renewed awareness that as much as I wasn't alone, I was.
The trail began by passing through a loose pine forest, with a good amount of light filtering down from above. For the first hundred yards, I could see backyards. These gave way to unbroken forest as the trail climbed. A little more walking and the John Muir trail branched off to the left. I passed the bifurcation by and continued on. The forest opened, then, and turned into a little muskeg meadow. Mt. McGinnnis stared at me from the distance, and I thought of other places I could be. My plan is to climb it later on in the summer.
Earlier on in the summer, we'd had a workshop with a "bear expert". The man showed an educational video with the usual outdated fashions. The main characters were constantly bumbling into dangerous situations, at which point the action would pause and the calming voice of the narrator would explain what they had done to provoke the bear, and what they would now have to do to avoid being mauled. Bear spray, it turned out, was the panacea of bear problems.
After the video, we had a Q&A, which was the point at which we went from being reassured by our new bear knowledge, to being somewhat disturbed. Whereas the video had taken a black and white approach to encounters, making blanket statements, and showing the main characters boldly countering their stupidity with clouds of orange irritant, the man before us did not portray such conviction. Under cross-examination he managed to contradict everything both he and the video had said, to the point where we no longer knew what the truth was.
After he left, two bottles of bear spray were produced. Bear spray: the common denominator of the aforementioned educational bear encounters. Bear spray.
Bear spray, we realised, was the truth.
|Once, when I was in Minneapolis, I spoke with a New Yorker who told me that the sunlight felt cleaner there than it had out east. Some mornings, walking to school, he'd take pictures of buildings and plants. There was a quality to the light, he said, that you just didn't find in New York.|
I didn't tell him that I thought the light in Minneapolis was dirty in comparison to what I'd seen elsewhere. That would have been too tragic.
|I continued along the boardwalk and then back into the woods. The trail had worn through the thin soil and now there was a river of sorts trickling down the exposed rock, which I followed up and up. As I recall, the total gain was about 2000 vertical feet. Towards the top of that the trail entered a clearing and abruptly ended.|
Was this point I'd seen on the map? I wondered. At the far side of the clearing there was a light brown diamond-shaped sign nailed to a tree. I called Rosemary, and through spotty reception, learned that she and the internet didn't know what it was. Perhaps, I reasonsed, it was the trail. Regardless, this called for investigation.
Walking to the far end of the clearing, I discovered that it let out into a larger clearing, with a river running through it. I continued on, and crossed the river. Moving upwards, I left the clearing behind and moved up a soggy ridge. I would never have anticipated what awaited me at the top.
Juneau is forested. Densely, densely forested. It's a rain forest, really. One hundred plus inches of rain a year pouring, coupled with long hours of daylight. Every inch is either growth or decaying growth. And now, to find such a large area without trees… incredible.
In a happy daze I wandered out into the vast muskey meadow, roaming for miles. Up ridges, through river valleys, discovering confluences and tributaries, charting my uncharted way through spongy moss which welled water up onto my boots with every step.
A glance towards downtown
I found a ridiculously steep hill - one of Juneau's famous vertical swamps, really - and scrambled my way up. One the way, I passed bottles, cans, and trash of every kind. The meadow, I realised, would be perfect snowmobiling territory in the winter, and this was the refuse of that recreation. Angered, I continued slipping my way upwards, getting my hands muddy and wet in the process.
But, at the top, such a view!
And there was McGinnis, with a trail up its side! But between me and McGinnis, lay Montana Creek, and almost fifteen hundred feet of vertical drop, making that idea completely impractical. And yet…
…and yet it was time to start home. I looked back across the miles of meadow and knew it would be an enjoyable trip… but it was a trip I already knew and before me lay the unknown.
I walked to the edge of the meadow and looked down the steep hillside. There were pine trees, but I knew that there was also Devil's Club. Lots of it.
|Devil's Club is bad. So bad that it's been given a Latin Name to better convey just how bad it is: Oplopanax horridus. If you knew Greek as well as I don't, you'd recognise that the root "oplo" means either tool, weapon, armour, or shield. You can guess at the other two, but, basically, what it works down to is this: to be Oplopanax horridus is to be "covered all over with the armour of horror". And that armour? Those spikes? They break off when you brush against them. They have barbs and they stick… and they worm their way into your body.|
In Alaska, Devil's Club grows thick… and up to ten feet tall, interlocking into dark, impenetrable mazes.
Staring down that hillside, I knew all this, and I wanted to avoid it. Avoid the horror of it… but maybe there was a trail. I called Kevin and gave him my GPS coordinates. He pondered the map I'd hung in our living room for a while before telling me he couldn't figure out what the asterisks next to the numbers along the side of the map meant. I would realise, after it was too late, that he had been referring to the minute signs and could not, in fact, read the map. As it was, the line crackled and we both got tired of trying to figure things out over the phone. He told me they'd be having a campfire later on in the evening, and I told him I'd try to make it, but that I was going to take Montana Creek Trail out.
|Now, let's grab the map and the mountains, and I'll explain how that'll work.|
At this point, I'd been staring at maps of Juneau trails for quite a while, to the point where I had most of their distances, major characeristics, and landmarks memorised. Hiking about around Mendenhall, and waking up each morning to a view of Mt. McGinnis out my window, I could probably have drawn parts of the terrain in my sleep.
So here I was out in the middle of a meadow, seemingly without a map, and yet I knew where I was. Mt. White and Mt. McGinnis, when seem from the south, are almost directly in line. Given their present angle, I knew I was five or six miles up Montana Creek. I knew there was a good trail following the creek. What remained was to figure out the best way of getting there.
If I went straight down, I knew that I'd immediately run into a wall of devil's club and my view of the mountains would also also be occluded. Kevin hadn't seen any trails, but, then again, he probably didn't know where I was. He had, however, mentioned a river. And, even if he was looking at the wrong one, there still had to be draining this side of the meadow.
I trekked north, skirting the slope, and, soon enough, found the river. The river knew where it was going, and, if I could follow it, I'd be able to avoid the devil's club. There was always the chance it would let into the wrong cachement, but the direction of flow would tell me that.
So I started down into the creek.
It wasn't a particularly fast trip, but the river's rocks were stable and I, being fastidious, avoided getting wet. Occassionally, I used logs and tight-roped across. This rock-hopping continued for a very long while before I reached the first drop. It was a little five-foot waterfall, and easy enough to get around.
The next one was a little larger.
And so it went. The sun gradually sank towards the horizon, and the rock hops, log walks, and little waterfalls gradually helped me sink towards the horizon as well.
At least, for a while. The sound ahead of me was louder and, when I got the edge, I found myself looking a good ten feet down. This was doable, and I climbed down the side. But the rock was flakey, and I knew it wouldn't work if things got steeper.
And they did. The next plunge was a good twenty feet, and climbing wouldn't have been possible, even if the face was stable. I looked around me and discovered the river had made a bit of a canyon. Choosing the north side, I pulled myself up using a series of tree trunks as a ladder. At the top, it took some wandering to find my way through the devil's club, but I got back around.
Thankful I'd passed the waterfall, I continued on… to the next one, just a few hundred feet farther on. This time I had to backtrack to find enough trees to pull myself up and out.
When I bumped into the third falls, and saw the sun even lower, I knew that this strategy was neither safe nor working. It was time to commit myself to a different path. I took off into the woods as the sun finally slid behind a distant hill.
What followed was an endless, twilight journey through a twisted maze of hideously sharp plants and fallen trees with trunks wider than I was tall. I had my GPS with and turned it on a couple of times. Without a base map, it wouldn't be able to tell me where I was, but I like to record things. Looking back at it a few months later, there were times when my path was shown as being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, out past the Aleutians. Dense forest.
By this point, I was simply wading through the devil's club. At first, it had been terribly, terribly painful. But now, it was only a dull throbbing fire. And I was making better time. I sensed something, and stopped. The ground dropped abruptly ahead of me: a creeklet had burrowed its way down to the bedrock, leaving a six foot canyon. The ground had grown flatter, and I knew it was time to rejoin my creek.
I crawled into the tributary and made my way along, sometimes crawling over the trees that had fallen into it, other times crawling under. The choice to get wet hadn't been an easy one, and was a gamble against how well I knew where I was going. The water, fed by the still-melting snow was cold, and soothed my legs. Letting it get anything else wet wasn't an option.
The creeklet abruptly drilled its way out of a hillside and into the river I'd been following. At this point, the channel was nearly flat, and I was able to follow along the side of it to the valley floor.
Which, predictably, was a tangled mass of devil's club. After trying to find a speedy way through it, I gave up the project and returned the river. It was perhaps a foot deep, and rather cold. But now I could run.
Jogging along, I knew that I needed to control the adrenaline my body was pumping; I needed to keep my head working. I'd reminded myself of this several times already, but biology doesn't always work for you. At the best of times, you and the base instincts you come with work as a team; at the worst of times, those instincts take over and mess with you. And you have to be careful. Your methods of monitoring yourself can turn into patterns - cycle in on themselves - and the very thing you were protecting yourself with dulls your thinking.
In the back of my mind, the whole time, I'd had this nagging fear. Despite it all, just one. It wasn't rivers, devil's club, innumerable miles, winding rivers, trackless wilderness. No, it wasn't something far more ridiculous. It was late, I knew that. Perhaps ten o'clock, even. Someone would get worried at some point. They might get very worried. Rescue operations are expensive. Despite the definite risks around me, I was alright and making good progress, but I was probably the only one who knew that.
Which was stupid. But adventures result from incremental misjudgments - tiny, cumulative lapses. And here I was. And the only thing which was worrying me was the thought of someone else magnifying the import of the situation. So I pressed on.
Moving across the valley floor, I checked to see if the bear spray was still in my pocket.
It wasn't… oh well.
I hurdled a tree, and hit a deeper patch of water. My legs were wet again.
The river curved northwards and I looked up. There was McGinnis… much closer, drawing the land near me up towards it. The trail would be in that direction. I no longer needed the river.
I left it behind and quickly discovered that the surroundings had turned to marsh, leaving me to jump from tussock to tussock, leaping before they sank into the ooze.
At the far side, I again encountered a dense wall of devil's club, and began worming through it. I began to worry that perhaps I had done something wrong… and it was then that I stepped over a four inch section of packed mud with grass arching over it.
Although it looked like a rabbit trail, it could be only one thing. Now, what to do? I could tell my direction easily enough from McGinnis, but distance was harder to judge. Northwards, I knew the trail would go by Windfall Lake, where there would be a forest service cabin with its food, beds, and heater. Southwards, the trail would let out to the Back Loop Road and a way home. Thinking again about that search team, I began jogging South.
The trail caught up with the creek in short order, and then began climbing up and away from it. I was briefly worried that I'd caught the wrong trail, but the climb stopped and the river rejoined us. I continued along.
Not much later, still running, I suddenly found myself sitting… leaning against the most comfortable tree trunk I'd ever felt. Getting up was a little exhausting, but I made it. Not too much later, though, I'd discovered this really comfortable rock.
A couple of micro-naps later, I was foraging for spruce tips, though they were a bit out of season, and other foods.
Really, this part's a little fuzzy, so let's fast-forward to the part where I'm crawling along the boardwalk of a bog and decide, for what must be the first time in my life to drink it unfiltered. It tasted a bit like you might expect. I got up again and continued along the boardwalk, to where it met a bridge over Montana Creek.
And this was it.
I slurped up a good deal of water and laid down on my back, staring up at the stars. It was peaceful, and my conscience pooled and floated in the sound of the stream. Time passed, though I don't know how much; I don't feel that I slept. Floating about, my conscience bumped into a thought. What, really, would it be like to die? I pondered it. An interesting question, but not something worth speculating about now.
With that, I stood up, and my body was rejuvenated.
I took off, jogging south, no longer tired.
I tried my cellphone again - it had bars this time.
I called the house and someone told me that people were a bit worried. That TJ had left not that long ago to go play my pennywhistle in the woods, to guide me back. That Dinorah, and others, had gone to Montana Creek trail to look for me.
I got ahold of them and we talked, as I jogged. They'd shoot off a revolver, and could I hear it? No.
But I was on the trail, and so were they. So we moved towards each other.
And, at long last, there was a light around the corner. Brief hugs. A single granola bar (always, always have more of these, people). But I was on a role now, and convinced everyone to break out into a slow jog.
We got to the truck and I'd worn off the excess energy - was ready for bed. But it wasn't to be. They explained to me how there had been two camps. The "Richard will be okay and emerge and Montana Creek, where he said he would" group, and the "Richard may already be dead" group. The stalemate had lasted until eleven - it was now four, I discovered - when "Ge'Yanni called the cops".
And now we had to go find them, and bring this to an end.
I'd passed by the State Trooper sign every morning on my way to work, but tonight was the first time I'd gone that way. We drove in to find a parking lot massed with cars, and dogs; were hustled into the nexus of that activity to a boardroom in the middle.
A boardroom in which Sean Connery was seated at a long table, while Nicholas Cage and his tracking dog stood stoically off to the side. Matt and Beth had shown up for the action, and we all sat down. Connery pulled out a map and pointed to where they thought I had been - based on Kevin's mapping - but it was several miles off. While I described the route, et cetera, they passed me granola bars. After I grew tired of eating them, I began squirreling them away in my coat. Some questions. Was I cold? No. Thirsty? Not really. Hungry? Rather. Finished, I told Matt I'd probably like to take the next day off, and he said that'd be a good idea.
We drove home, and I made an omelet and went to bed.
The next day, waking up, I found that nothing. Not water, not sheets, not moving air, could touch my legs. Thousands of little Devil's club spines were poking out. I went at them with tweezers, but couldn't get them all… and the pain continued.
Over the next few days the pain gradually abated, and I chased the barbs first with tweezers and then needles. But you can't catch them all. A year and a half later, I was still finding them coming out of me. Each one a reminder of a home I'd left.
Now, the word Lost was used quite a bit in conjunction with that night. You and I both know that I wasn't Lost at any point, but we also know that I was operating inside of a black box. No one on the outside knew what I knew on the inside and they had to operate on Faith and, unfortunately, Assumptions. Yet the question of being Lost isn't really the important one - it's the question of whether you will emerge from the black box that counts.
Beth asked me that night how we could prevent this sort of thing from happening again, with others. And in that question she expressed the full separation of the world between us. From my perspective, it was the ability of such things to happen which demonstrated the system worked. From hers, it demonstrated some sort of unquantifiable failure.
My approach to the situation wasn't to avoid it - indeed, the nature of incremental misjudgment makes such things impossible to avoid, short of exiling one's self from the wilderness - but to be ready for it. And it isn't the size of the pack that you carry, though that can help, which defines readiness. It's something else, inside of you. At that point there's a bottleneck through which your life must pass, and it asks the question, "Who are you? What have you done with your life?" If you answer well, then life goes on; otherwise, perhaps it does not. Too much safety makes such questions meaningless, if they can be asked at all. I think I answered well enough and, having done so once, know better how to answer in the future.
A few days later, at a time when I was digging Devil's club out with a needle, Matt and I got together for lunch and when the topic came up, he mentioned that this sort of thing happens at least once a year, and generally more often, as part of the normal workload of the project. You see, helicopters can be dangerous…