“The Inherent Risk is What Makes It Fun”

“From here, the toe of the glacier is about seven miles away, and it’s about two miles from there to the top, with a fifteen degree slope on average.”  

“You’re lying.” The words were out of my mouth before I could even think.

Austin laughed.  “It’s hard to get perspective in Alaska.”

Physical perspective–maybe.  But not spiritual.  If Colorado were not my home, Alaska would be. Someone told me once, take a balloon, draw Colorado on it, blow it up, and you’ve got Alaska.  

I was back in Alaska.  My cousin had IM’d me back in March to inform me of his impending nuptials.  My trip was booked within the month. This was my third time in McCarthy over the last ten-ish years and each time, I had under planned and driven away full of regret, not knowing when I would be back to this remote, rugged area.

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First, I had to get there.  The flight to Anchorage was easy enough, but it is an eight hour drive from there to McCarthy.  I’ve driven it twice and had no interest in doing it a third time. I more than anything wanted to fly to McCarthy, to see the mountains and glaciers from an eagle’s perspective.  But flights are limited to certain days, require more than one person, and have a 35lb baggage limit. That was definitely out. Traveling for work has killed my ability to pack efficiently, especially to a place where the weather was less predictable than, well, Colorado weather.

A bit of digging brought up a shuttle service with Wrangell-St Elias Tours from Anchorage to McCarthy.  It still required two people minimum, but one other soul on the planet wanted to go the same week, she (Marie, as I found out) on Sunday, me on Tuesday, so we agreed on Monday.  

Travelling to McCarthy is a bit like rewinding the clock.  Anchorage itself seems a little lost in time, and each town after seems a bit more unstuck. Then you find yourself at the beginning of the sixty mile dirt road, maintained better than it was, but still subject to the whims of geology, meteorology, and beavers.  

The weather was less than stellar when we arrived, a complete deluge that had the river running high, which justified a few extras I had brought. I put on my orange rain jacket and dragged my massive, grey Patagonia suitcase across the footbridge, arriving just in time to miss the shuttle to the lodge. Another came soon.  I thought I was home free, but  the beavers were protesting the road to Kennicott and it was enough under water that someone left a paddleboard to get across.

Tuesday was my play-tourist day with nothing planned,.  The weather was pleasant so I walked around Kennicott, purchasing a necklace from a local artist, then heading up to the glacier.  Even in the few years since I had last been there, the glacier was changed, slowly receding back as global warming made its impact.  I stopped by Kennicott Wilderness Guides and checked in with Betsy, who had helped me plan my entire trip. She greeted me with a hug, a little extra paperwork (this waivers was particularly poignant: “the inherent risk is what makes it fun”), and times for meeting.

I met Austin, my guide for the week, a little later that evening, of course after I’d changed into PJs and settled in for the evening, giving into the two hour time difference and travel fatigue.  Even after a full season of dragging tourists around the glaciers, he was full of enthusiasm and smiles, even pretending not to notice the pajamas. It was his second season there, his first was the prior year, doing his internship for his wilderness leadership degree.  Where were these degrees when I was in college? Where would I be if I’d been born twenty years later?

Wednesday started with another waiver for Wrangell Mountain Air (“I promise not sue if I die in a plane crash”). Bill was an excellent pilot, describing the scenery and telling happy stories of Nizina, the second choice for the day’s hike as the first had been flooded by the recent rains.  Both had already warned me there was a real danger we’d spend the night out–inclement weather and technical troubles being all-too-real in that remote area.

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If it hadn’t meant curtailing other activities, I would have welcomed the adventure.

As eager as I was to get down and explore, I would not have minded a longer plane ride. As Bill was preparing to land on the newly renovated (but still very bumpy, according to Bill’s exacting standards) gravel and mud landing strip –my first Alaska bear sighting!  They bounded off, offended by the noise of the plane, but I still regretted not grabbing the bear spray Austin had offered. The pawprints we saw throughout the day didn’t help  any.

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The highlight of the hike were the many fossils that we found.  Bill told us on the flight back that they were from the time when Nizina was still part of the Pacific Ocean.  I had the same feeling of eternal time that I felt finding seashells on the top of small peaks in Texas. So long ago but then again, not so much.  You are allowed to take all the rocks you want from the glaciers, but fossils must remain. Knowing that prior respect for that rule had allowed me to see so many of these gems gave me the same respect to take photos and place the fossils back where they were found, maybe never to be seen again, but then again, maybe.

Austin I explored around the morain, occasionally adventuring onto the glacier.  There were icebergs everywhere. He told me that his boss and a couple coworkers had been camping out when the last calving occurred.  It had been a massive event, icebergs shooting hundreds of feet in the air, causing mini tsunamis and threatening their camp. Once the realization hit (fortunately it had happened after they’d gotten out of the water but before sleep had come), they grabbed the gear they could and made for higher ground, amazingly losing only a single trekking pole.

Thursday was predicted to be the rainiest day, so packrafting had been planned for that day.  Packrafting is the result of adventure races that require racers to cross rivers. Like much outdoor gear, it’s become lighter and more sophisticated in recent years.  The rafts, drysuits and paddles weighed less than my rescue pack.

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A little patience and a lot of flexibility is required in putting together all the pieces, but the grey skies and forty degree temps didn’t have us in too much of a hurry. I was pretty relieved that only my hands were cold once everything was pieced together.

We were in Kennicott Lake, at the base of the Kennicott Glacier. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the current,  the lake feeding right into the river. Having the upper body strength of an ultra runner, I was a bit at Austin’s mercy.  He kept close during the couple spots where the current swept under the glacier.

The scenery was surreal.  A calving event had occurred there recently as well, and we paddled around the abstract sculptures that remained, making up stories on the “pieces” and their artists.  The deep blue of the newly divided ice was mostly gone, but we did find small segments still gleaming. Small pine trees grew out of the debris on top of the glacier. The rain made small waterfalls.

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At lunch, we did a land crossing in the middle of the lake.  Austin showed me how to hook the paddle to the raft to create a handle for carrying.  I didn’t fall over is about the only thing I can say about my lack of style and grace.  My hands were completely numb and my arms were already feeling the effort. I inhaled my entire lunch from Meatza’s, one of two eateries in Kennicott, hoping the calories would restore some of my energy, but the lack of movement and the increasing wind won out.  

As we got back in the water, I finally conceded and told Austin it wouldn’t hurt my feeling if he made this a short day. I don’t think his feeling were hurt much either, his gloves less water resistant than mine.

Glaciers are constantly changing and a route through the icebergs found on one day was not guaranteed to ever be there again.  We paddled into a sort of amphitheater and listened to the falling rocks and water, the lack of wind improving my attitude. A couple times, Austin paddled out ahead to make sure the route was still clear.  It always was, and by 2pm, we were back in the cove, packing up the rafts.

We stopped by the Potato for a quick bite before relieving Austin of his duties for the day.  I had first eaten at the Potato when it was still a food truck and it was the best burrito I had ever consumed.  Egg, cheese, curly fries and sour cream. I tried and failed on many occasions to re-create it.

I was a little sad that the recipe had changed and wasn’t quite what I remembered, but the hot coffee more than made up for it, coaxing warmth back into my chilled bones.

Halfway through my burrito, I noticed Austin listening intently to a group had come in after us.  From scraps of the conversation, I gathered that part of their group was going to be stuck out for the night. Austin told me in a lowered voice that the group was theirs and they had gone out with his boss. The weather was to blame and it looked to be a cold, rainy night to be stuck out. I selfishly thanked my lucky stars.

Ice climbing day dawned clear and cool.  I hadn’t taken long to adjust to the time zone, staying up later to peer hopefully and futilely for the Northern Lights, sleeping a little later in the morning.  Breakfast at the lodge was more than a cut above American standards, but not quite the breakfasts I’d had in Italy. But I was really there for the coffee and it did not disappoint.

I had brought helmet, harness and boots, three pieces of gear I do not like to leave to chance.  Austin had already fitted the boots with crampons so we headed out shortly after meeting up, excited to be out in the sunshine.

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The day warmed and we more than made up for the short rafting day.  Maybe it was my hopeful imagination, but Austin looked a little whipped by the end of the day.  He found five great places to climb, starting off with a fun, simple climb, then jumping right into some overhanging stuff, sure to wear out us lesser climbers.  I hung with those as long as I could, making it up once, but never “clean” (without falling), earning the kudos of fellow tourist climbers for my stubborness.

The last climb of the day was a moulin, a vertical shaft that can go down to the bottom of a glacier, hundreds of feet down.  This one had filled significantly with water, but was still quite deep and quite dark. Austin lowered me in, which at least meant I could survey the route before climbing it.  I couldn’t go quite to the water because the moulin narrowed so much that I could not swing my ax.  It would have been like Santa climbing out of a chimney after a healthy serving of milk and cookies. It was the perfect ending climb and twice up the column left my arms and legs shaking in a combination of physical defeat and mental victory.  

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We meandered back, me dragging my feet a little in exhaustion and sadness that my three days of adventuring were over. I love hiring guides for their knowledge and experience and the one-on-one camaraderie, but it’s also bittersweet because I know it’s just a job for them, where they have given me a lifetime of memories.

I lounged a little longer in my double bed Saturday morning, listening to the sounds of the kitchen prep going on directly below my room.  The McCarthy Half Marathon, benefiting the Wrangell Mountain Center, wasn’t until 2pm, which wasn’t near enough time for me to recover from the three days I’d just had, but at least made for a lazy morning.

I’ve done many low-key races in my life, but never one where the race map was hand drawn on a piece of paper. And that wasn’t the only first for me for a race.  Two people showed up with bear spray–they weren’t used but there were reports of a grizzly on the course. There was a dog with a bib number–I’ve seen dogs bandit a race before, but this one was full-on legit. And a for-reals gun start.

But the best was the end of the race: it finished at the end of the road (go any farther and you’re in the river). After crossing under the sign, I walked back to the grocery store to reward myself with an ice cream. Just as I was handed my black cherry in a waffle cone, a fellow runner strolled in to order his own–mentioning in passing that he hadn’t actually crossed the finish line yet, but that he just couldn’t wait. A fellow runner offered to pay so he could continue on.

There was a spaghetti dinner after the race but attending would have meant missing the last shuttle back to Kennicott and a five mile walk.  Not impossible, but the bear sighting rumours and lack of a headlamp didn’t make the option terribly appealing.

My cousin, Mark, has lived in McCarthy for at least fifteen years so the wedding Sunday evening was the event of the summer.  Everyone was invited to both the wedding and the reception and everyone showed up. I knew my cousin Mary Francis and her troupe were going to be there, but had found out only the week prior that my older brother would be in attendance as well. 

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For most, probably not the biggest of news, but I hadn’t seen my brother in close to twenty years.  There was no animosity–at least that I remembered–but that’s often what divorces do to families. I’m not much of an emotional person but I have learned from experience not to go into potentially emotional situations without some kind of plan. 

A few years ago, I had run into my mother at my sister’s 50th birthday bash–another family member I hadn’t seen since my twenties.  I thought she would take charge of the “reunion”, being the mother and all, but she refused to even make eye contact, leaving me baffled and hurt and feeling like an abandoned five year old.  It was not an experience I cared to repeat.

My plan was simple. I would just go up and give him a hug and hope for the best.  Probably not the best laid of plans, but it worked.  We hugged for a long time and twenty years of absence was gone in a moment.  We caught up on life later in the evening when most of the excitement had died down.

The wedding venue was unparalleled by any I had seen, at the toe of the Root Glacier.  Both it and the Kennicott Glacier were visible, the pure whiteness offset by the changing color of the leaves.  The ceremony brought tears to every eye. I had not met the bride, but by all accounts, she and Mark were an amazing couple, managing their rental cabins in the summer and traveling the world in the winter.  Her engagement ring, made of emeralds, was of course from Columbia, arguably the source of the finest emeralds in the world.

Weddings are often minefields for the single but not this one–the wedding or me.  Maybe it was because of being in a remote and wild place that rewarded fierce independence.  Maybe it was because I had finally outgrown feeling out-of-place on my own and found comfort and stability in standing, climbing, running on my own two feet, as much on solid ground as on a glacier.

Maybe it was just the perspective gained in Alaska.

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