We are getting the once over. The twice over. Our interrogator leans coolly against the wall of his small office, nudging the brim of his faded ball cap toward the ceiling. He narrows his glance behind Coke-bottle glasses.
“You boys spent much time in the outdoors?”
His office is attached to an airplane hangar outside a remote town in Alaska, about 120 miles north of Anchorage. We’ve traveled through a sizable chunk of “the outdoors” just to get here. I glance over at my traveling companion, trying to resolve which one of us is going to field this question. Tyler, outfitted in a recently purchased, bright red North Face jacket, speaks first.
“Oh yeah,” he says casually, “we’ve both camped a ton.”
“That right?” comes a gravelly voice from the corner.
I had forgotten about the guy in the corner. Ralph. Fading into the photo-cluttered wall, Ralph has been sipping coffee around a mouthful of well-packed chew. Now he considers my gear, which suddenly seems insubstantial. Fisher-Price Camper Kit meets J. Crew photo shoot.
“Yup,” I say to Ralph. I proceed to embellish our camping resume until it sounds like we’re qualified to be deposited by a ski-plane in the Alaskan backcountry for four days.
“What kind of weapon you guys carrying?” It’s the ball-cap guy again, with another stumper.
He’s a veritable legend in these parts. We are not.
Performing a mental scan of my backpack, I come up with . . . my Swiss Army knife. It has a cool plastic toothpick that slides into the handle and little tweezers on the other side that —
I don’t mention this. Tyler smoothly answers Jay’s question with another question.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Well, what are you going to do about the bears?”
Jay is on to the question-with-a-question evasion method.
“We saw some of those bear bells at the REI down in Anchorage,” I start in, “but we didn’t think —”
“Yeah, them things ain’t much use up here,” says Ralph. “On a trail maybe, but up here they’d just help the grizzly find you easier.” He winks at Jay and continues, “Make some nice music while you get ate up.”
“And then they had the pepper spray,” I offer.
Ralph laughs so hard I’m afraid his chew will end up in his coffee. Jay just snickers. He has a suggestion. “I recommend a small firearm. Don’t need anything much bigger than a .22.”
Tyler has done some hunting. He knows about guns. He is our gun talker. I don’t know jack about guns. I keep quiet.
“A .22?” Tyler says. “That enough to take out a bear?”
Ralph looks at Jay as if he might pick up my gear and throw it back into our rental car himself. “A bear?!” Jay says. “Hell no. Gun’s not for the bear. In bear country you don’t ever have to outrun the bear. Prob’ly couldn’t anyway. You only have to outrun the slowest person in the group.” And here Jay fixes Tyler with a conspiring gaze. “That .22’s fer your friend here. Shoot him in the leg.”
Ralph nearly swallows his chew laughing. They’ve used this one before. The Abbott and Costello of Talkeetna.
I look out the window of the cramped office and consider the short, snow-dusted runway beyond. Ominous clouds congregate in the mescaline blue sky, promising backup for the 4 feet of powder already on the ground. It is April in Alaska. We are going camping.
The great land
The first thing you need to know about Alaska is that it is bigger than you are. The name “Alyeska,” a gift from the Aleut language, means “Great Land.” Alaska occupies an enormous geographic space, possessing 20 percent of the land and twice the coastline of the continental United States. It occupies an even greater space in the psyche of those who visit or remain. A state of stunning natural beauty, it is also a wild land with enormous, untamed corners. The towering mountains and endless glacial icefields suggest a disregard for anything so fragile as a human, an ancient indifference to the alleged evolutionary advantages of homo erectus. Unlike other points of interest on the map that, once visited, are left diminished by familiarity, Alaska, once visited, leaves you diminished.
So, have you guys been to the David Letterman show?"
It’s Jay, crackling through the cockpit headphones. We are cruising several hundred feet above the Talkeetna Mountains in his single-prop Piper Super Cub. Jay, having discovered we live on the East Coast of the Lower 48, is making radio small talk. My headphones aren’t working well; I’m eating a steady diet of static. I start to wonder what time Letterman comes on in Alaska. Is it still Late Night if the sun doesn’t set? Tyler, riding shotgun, tackles the Letterman question while I lose myself in the primordial landscape unfurling outside the plane.
Acres and acres of snow-bent timber sprawl the hills, condensing along the frozen lakes, dissipating near the steeper crags. Even framed in the rattling, triangular window at my elbow, there is an inexorable immensity to it all. Untouched, pristine snow-fields lean forward from the horizon, gapping the peaks, dwarfing the plane. Our agreement with Jay calls for him to deposit us in this Alaskan hinterland, landing at a place called Stephan Lake where we will meet our two guides, Chris and Jerry. The guides will stay with us for two days to establish a camp and fish some early river melts before Jay returns to collect them. Tyler and I will remain for another three days of winter camping, snowshoeing and fishing. Jay will fly back in for us on the third day. That’s the plan.
“Man. You ain’t never heard of Busty Hart?”
Jay is midway through a story about a burlesque dancer in New York with whom he once had a Polaroid taken. He is about to wrap up the story of how she knocked a man unconscious with her substantial bosom when he gets suddenly focused, twisting knobs and adjusting flaps.
“Well, boys, there she is. Stephan Lake.” Out the front window is a large swath of whiteness with vaguely defined edges. It is several miles long. There is no landing strip, no runway. Someone has laid fresh evergreen cuttings 20 feet apart in parallel lines about 100 yards long. Jay flips a switch and the plane’s skis audibly descend.
“This might be a bit rough,” Jay garbles in the headphones, “Looks like ol’ Chris hasn’t flattened down the strip for us.”
I reach down, tugging on the seat belt slack. The Super Cub rocks in the crosswind, churning toward our destination.
Room to think
She is drying the pint glasses with a damp barcloth, closing out the cash register. Last call was an hour and a half ago. We’ve just ordered another pitcher. Make it two. This earns us a weary look that says, “Don’t push it.” It’s not the first time we’ve seen the look tonight. Two more pitchers land on the slick bar.
Tyler flashes a flirtatious grin and spins back to the only other person remaining in the bar, a man who has an 8 a.m. job interview with the Alaskan telephone company. Tyler is helping him prepare. There is exactly one telephone linesman position available in this small Alaskan town of Seward. It is well after 2 a.m. Sobriety is a memory. Tyler figures to give his new friend the edge by coaching him on the finer points of the “pregnant pause” and the “question rephrase.”
“I’m telling you, make those dudes wait. Push back from the table and digest the question.”
Leaving this one to Tyler, I turn back to the bartender. She is younger than she looks, perhaps 25. Friendly, but by no means effusive. But she has a hippie grooviness about her that has kept us here long past closing. Earlier she mentioned growing up in Springfield, Virginia, and attending college at Amherst. Double major in bio and chem. I’m still trying to figure out how she wound up tending bar in Alaska.
“I was planning on going to medical school. I even took the MCATs and all. But . . . I don’t know . . .” She looks away, wipes the bar top.
Sensing the discomfort, I change the subject, mentioning that Tyler and I have noticed that there seem to be far more men in Alaska than women. I ask if that’s actually the case.
“Yeah,” she says, brightening a bit. “They even have a saying about it.” She casts a sidelong glance at the aspiring telephone linesman at the end of the bar. “For women in Alaska, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
We laugh easily at this. Her laughter runs into mine. She picks up a pint glass and runs a finger around the rim. “After a while everything just felt . . . scripted. Everybody had a message for me, everybody was trying to sell me something. It got to the point where it was medical school or Alaska. I realized I needed room to think. Up here . . .”
She pauses, wistful. I sense we’re connecting. We are having . . . a moment. Despite my intoxication, I will wow her with my sensitivity. I will show her that I am not “odd goods.”
“Sounds like . . . you needed to just take a break for a while, huh?”
She shakes her head dismissively and sets the glass down.
“No,” she says, “I needed to find a hole in the noise.”
Bears and eagles
“So, you done much dog-mushin’ Dave?”
Jerry is 20 feet in front of me, striding effortlessly in his snowshoes. I am attempting to excavate my left leg, buried to the thigh in a 5-foot drift. For the last two hours we have been hiking a ridge above a river that Tyler and Chris are fishing. It is my second day in snowshoes and I am slowly adjusting. Which means that I only crash through the packed upper crust every few hundred feet now. If I’m careful to walk in Jerry’s footsteps it happens even less often.
“Can’t say that I have, Jer,” I reply. “We don’t get too many opportunities for that sort of thing in Philadelphia.”
Jerry is nonplussed. “Oh well,” he says, “your loss.”
He continues on, indicating various signs of wildlife and helpful natural landmarks to guide our way. While Chris and Tyler cast hopeful flies at an elusive salmon run, Jerry and I search for a suitable campsite. On the north-facing slopes the low-hanging pine branches conceal deep, guarded hollows, offering both effective shelter and exposed tundra, useful for campfires. With plenty of trees to choose from, we settle on a sturdy Alaskan pine with a wide skirt of branches at the edge of a large clearing. This way, I suggest, we can see the bears coming. Jerry throws me a humorless grin.
“Least you’re partly right. The grizzlies hibernate over there, on the south-facing slopes, so if you see ‘em, that’s where they’ll be. It’s still a bit early, but now’s when they start coming out.”
I attempt in vain to imagine a worse scenario than this: A large animal with claws and fangs sleeps all winter, trims down to fighting weight by consuming its own accumulated fat, and then emerges, lean and rapacious and pissed off because there’s still 4 feet of snow on the ground. And me, incapable of traveling 15 feet without tangling the tennis rackets strapped to my feet. I think of our pilot Jay and his gun advice. Shoot him in the leg.
Jerry assures me that the bears won’t be looking to consume meat immediately. That in fact they have to consume a vegetarian diet initially to “clean out the ol’ system.” Roots, herbs and exposed lichen constitute the first course. Despite this caveat, Jerry reminds me, all of the precautions we have discussed remain valid.
“No reason to end up a guest at that second course.”
We have leveled out a section of the hollow for our tent and sleds and are about to return for Tyler and Chris when an abrupt movement in a stand of pines along the river catches Jerry’s eye. I turn just in time to see an adult bald eagle tumble from its nest and take to the air. Unfurling its full length, it thrums the air with two rapid wing strokes before coasting an invisible current to the opposite edge of the valley. It is the first bald eagle I have ever seen in the wild. At the far side of the river basin it pivots, angling to dive at the meandering water. I am stunned by both its wingspan and its agility. Jerry smiles, noting that the eagle is after the same slippery quarry as our two friends with the fly rods: the reticent April salmon. Tracking low across the ice-choked river it hesitates a moment, nearly stalling in midair, and then strikes, pulling its purchase from the shallows with an efficiency that our companions downriver would envy.
I turn to Jerry, my breath lodged somewhere between my throat and lungs.
“I guess,” he says, nodding, “you don’t see much of that sort of thing in Philadelphia either.” Without bothering to wait for an answer, he turns, retracing his careful steps through the snow.
My line keeps freezing, dropping thickly in the water rather than settling deftly on the surface to attract the fish that allegedly lurk in this river. I attribute my poor day of fishing to this fact. Tyler attributes it to the fact that I keep burying my back-cast in the snowdrift behind me.
“Still,” he offers, “how many people can say they learned how to fly-fish in snowshoes? And it’s actually better here because there aren’t as many leaves and bushes to snag your line on.”
I consider the spacious snowfields that surround the crescent of river we’re fishing. Leaves and bushes? I’m trying my best not to snag my line on ears and fingers.
We have been on our own since early morning. Jay Hudson’s plane came humming over the far mountains hours ago, returning for Chris and Jerry. We have been listening, scanning the skies, waiting for its departure from the lake, several miles west. The reappearance of the Piper in the clouds will signify something important for us: three days of isolation. No schedules to keep. No calls to return. No envelope icon popping brightly onto a monitor with the perky reminder, “You’ve got mail.” None of that. Nothing to buy or sell, no one to persuade or convince or lie to. Simply snow, sky, woods and water. The days extend before us, unformed and full of promise.
Tyler catches himself midcast. “You hear that?”
The Piper’s distant humming evolves into a distinctive sputter and cough as the plane clears the tree line and tacks toward our position on the river. At its approach we wave our gloved hands like idiots, hoping they don’t mistake our send-off for a distress signal. Jay acknowledges our good wishes, dipping the wings on his craft twice in what we take to be the Hudson Air version of “so long.”
The small plane shudders across the valley, disappearing into the low cirrus clouds encircling the mountains. I watch until I can’t see it anymore, all the while poking at the ice on my leader line. Somewhere to my left, Tyler is casting perfect gossamer curves with his fly rod.
The emerald sky
Clear skies mean cold nights. We learned that the first evening. Despite enveloping ourselves in sleeping bags rated to minus 20 degrees and a windproof, four-season tent, we suffered a freezing night of fitful sleep. Tyler tightened the hood of his mummy sack until only his nose protruded and then dozed, intermittently, face-down in his parka. I slept with my contact lens solution between my legs and awoke to find it a slushy mess in the morning. Our 32-oz. water bottles emerged as blocks of ice. A morning campfire was never so welcome.
But clear nights also mean spectacular skies. With Tyler cooking dinner, I stand with my back to the campfire and stare up at the emerging stars. The embers kicking off the fire pit rise past me, extinguishing against the vivid constellations already poking holes in the darkness. The hiss and pop of flame on wood is the only discernible sound.
And then Tyler’s boot catches fire.
When you’re in the Alaskan wilderness during winter, there are certain indispensable pieces of equipment one should not be without. A good, warm jacket is recommended. A tent comes in handy. A sleeping bag is not to be underestimated. The odd pair of boots is certainly helpful. Tyler had been drying his by the fire after a day of hiking and fishing. The insoles, quite wet, were extracted from the boots and propped close to the flame. I was to keep an eye on them. But the clear sky is something to behold.
By the time I spin around, the left sole liner is shrunken to half its size and the right boot is engulfed. Thinking quickly, I hurl the flaming boot into the night, well past the secure glow of our campfire. The melted sole is unsalvageable. Tyler, in his socks, is not pleased.
“Christ, these are hiking boots,” he says, brandishing the surviving footwear. “You’d think they could be used in the vicinity of camp fires!”
He inquires about the status of the matching shoe. I look blankly into the darkness.
“Devine? How bad is the other boot?”
It is no small thing, tracking down a heaved boot in a dark snowfield when you are afraid that grizzly bears lurk just beyond your campfire. It takes me awhile just to get my snowshoes back on. Reluctantly, I step into the shadows, searching for the charred boot. When at last I discover it, extracting it perhaps 50 feet from our campsite, I stand back up to a darkness so thorough and a bowl of stars so bright that I nearly stumble from craning my neck. It is then that the horizon comes unhinged from the ground.
It begins innocently enough, a faint light beyond the trees, as if a distant city we had been unaware of is now suddenly illuminated. Gradually, it expands into a green glow that elevates from the horizon into the sky.
I turn back to the campsite, wondering if Tyler is seeing this. The fluttering light separates into emerald strands, radiating across the darkness in ribbons that stretch from one edge of night to the other. The light-ribbons themselves twist and twirl with no apparent rhythm. The whole sky shimmers.
I am reluctant to make my way back to the camp, fearing I will somehow miss the end. Will it be like fireworks? Is there a grand finale? Tyler is waiting when I get back. He has forgotten about the boot. He stares at the sky as well. The aurora borealis. The famous Northern Lights.
I have no idea how long we sit there, huddled on the logs around the fire pit. The hours fold in upon themselves, in the way that time condenses in a dream. I am stunned by the silence, the stillness. There is little else. The only movement is the convulsing emerald sky. The world feels far away.
What had she said — the bartender? I needed to find a hole in the noise.
With the night gradually swallowing back its colors, the cold beginning to descend and the fire collapsing into ash, I think that perhaps, for a moment, we have.
David Devine lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. He and Tyler Farmer, a 1995 Notre Dame graduate, journeyed to Alaska in April 2000.