Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thunder on the Mountains, Alaska

In 2012, hiking from the Sheenjek River to the Coleen River on my traverse of the Brooks Range.

    I crossed more scorching fields of tussock mounds with horse flies driving me crazy, before reaching Eskimo Lake to camp. In the morning I felt like death’s door, either sick from the bad water I drank, or from dehydration and exhaustion. When I left the lake I felt a little better. I followed Eskimo Creek most of the day in a vaporous rain up toward its headwaters. By late afternoon I crossed some high mountains and started down the other side toward the Coleen River, entering a spruce forest denser than the one along the Sheenjek. The valleys were cloaked in spruce far up the slopes of the hills, and dozens of varieties of wildflowers were in full bloom among the grasses. But it was a titanic expanse of land, and often when I sat to rest on a knoll with my pack still on and the wind whipping across my face, I got baffled about how I could get through it all. The mountains and ravines stretched on as far as I can see, uninhabited and primeval.
     As I started down into the Coleen River system a thunder storm erupted, so I had to hurry toward the valleys into the forest, hoping to find shelter. My breath turned smoke-like as cold descended upon the land, and heavy drops pounded down, splattering off my rain gear and trees. Lightning bolts struck the hills in the distance in deafening bangs and jagged flashes. The place was no picnic. I moved rapidly, nearly jogging at times, hoping to get down out of the hills before I became drenched and cold and stuck somewhere without a decent place to pitch my tent. I slithered by soaked bushes and past spruce trees, with Will hot on my heels. “Don’t run off buddy,” I kept saying. With this kind of cold, there was no time for messing around.
     When I reached the bottom of a creek valley the sky was so thick and dark that I could probably have used a light if I had one. On a raised piece of soil, I set up my tent right before the full brunt of the storm hit. Thunder echoed off the mountains so loudly that I hunched down each time, feeling like I was being fired upon with rocket grenades. Once I was safely inside, rain battered my tent, shaking and bombarding it like rocks. Screw up here and lose your tent to the storm and you’re in big trouble.
     During the night, the temperature dropped close to freezing, causing me to shiver terribly in my sleeping bag. I only had the bare essentials for summer camping so I had to wear all my clothes to stay warm. But I was no stranger to the cold. When I began my journey in 2007 from Kotzebue it was March 20th, and the nights were twenty below zero. Once it got so cold that I lay in my tent in two sleeping bags, fully clothed, shivering for hours, and waiting for the first rays of the morning sun to warm up my tent again.