Caribou Bar Creek
Some of my last hours in my seven-month trek across the Brooks Range.
Instead of continuing around on the ridge, I come right off it on a direct course toward the mountain hoping to save some time. It’s lower in elevation and likely brushier, but shorter. The terrain turns out hellish. I get right into the thick of ten-foot high brush and boggy ground for hours, and then a burned area miles long that has left tall grass and swamp in place of what used to be a lush spruce forest. I have to step up a notch again to match the difficulty of the terrain. The only thing that keeps me going is my clear view of Shaltah Mountain to remind me how close I am to Old Crow. I’m almost home, so I plug away, staying calm and exerting the same constant effort. I continue to make progress though, and keep at it, step after step, sloshing through the arctic swamp and weeds. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and this gives me motivation to keep going.
At Caribou Bar Creek grass and brush are everywhere. It’s swift and over my waist from all the rain in the last week. Later I will learn that this has been the wettest summer on record. I set up camp for the night. I cook black beans over an open fire until close to midnight, but just as I finish a hail storm starts so I take the pot of beans into my tent for the night. The hail storm is the worse I’ve ever seen and the ice particles hit my tent so hard I’m afraid they’re going to punch holes in it and tear it to shreds. I wait and worry, and start gathering up my gear in case everything gets wet and I have to spend the night without a tent.
And I wait, sitting up and not sleeping until the storm passes, with Will curled up in a ball watching me. “Enough already,” I yell at the top of my lungs. The hail still falls hard, and lightning flashes over my tent with a bolt touching down one hundred yards away. I duck down, covering my head with my arms. It’s like the earth is shattering and ripping apart in a thundery volley of mega bombs and spraying shrapnel. The hail falls for a solid hour, and then suddenly, it’s all over. To my relief my tent is still intact. During the night it gets so cold that I have dreams of shooting down an Olympic bobsled course on my belly.
When I wake up the next morning my tent is now at the creek’s edge. It has risen a foot or more during the night, and the sides of my tent are buried in a foot of hail. I have to dig out. I start out the day in my rain gear, wading the creek to my waste in some rapids, which is the shallowest place. Then I hike for three hours through more brush, tall grass, and swamp. My feet are soaked from the first few steps of the day, and within an hour they started hurting from the wet cold and ice - swamp grass, and frigid water for several miles. I pass a duck looking for her baby after the storm, and a minute later the baby waddles right by Will and me in full view, like he’s too cold and worn out from the storm to be cautious. I leave the baby in peace so the mother can find him.
Later in the day as I climb up what I thought was the last pass before descending the other side into Old Crow, I start to warm up and stride out. I’m hiking fast like I’m doing a day trip in the mountains of Oregon when I was twenty-five. It feels great to finally be slim and in shape and to now have a light pack, almost empty of food. I’m almost home and nothing can stop me now, or so it seems. After days of despondence, suffering, and self-doubt, I’m invincible now. “Get out of my way,” I keep saying. “I’ve just hiked the Brooks Range. What you think of that.” I’m talking to all the obstacles I’ve crossed in the last four weeks, and even the ones on my previous trips: rivers, lakes, bogs, brush, grass, mountains, cliffs, wild animals, starvation, exhaustion, biting insects, and forest fires. I’ve beaten them all, becoming the kind of person I’ve always dreamed I could be: a man of the mountains and forest, walking to Old Crow.