Dear Alaska,

You were very good to me, but I want to thank you for not giving anything away for free.  When I touched down in Anchorage, looking at otherworldly hills rising out of the mist, I wondered if I’d come to the right place.  Anchorage felt empty; of people, of life, of what I’d come to find.  Or so I thought– turns out, I just couldn’t grasp the Alaskan way quite yet (not that I understand all that much more now).

The bus too me to Palmer.  The landscape changed.  Everything grew around me, reaching a scale I’d never seen before.  Palmerites live as calmly as Oregonians in a landscape as startling in its scale as in its beauty.  Fred Meyer still sells the same beer in Alaska, just for more money and under the shadow of the Talkeetnas, the Chugach, the Alaska Range.

Before I knew my place in our group, before I knew what to expect, we were in the field.  Or, should I say, walking down a road into the field.  Strange cabins in the middle of nowhere- a town called Strelna that likes to be left well enough alone.  Into the woods, climbing slowly into valleys of greater and greater size, draped in soft tundra hummocks and split by clear streams of snowmelt.

A group of friends, a mile back on the tundra.

Then, from a distance, the ice field.  At the head of the valley was a dark wall of snowless rock, shattered and sharp.  Rising even above these peaks was a white horizon cast by Mt. Wrangell, a peak of such scale that once again the possibilities of scale had to shift to accommodate a new largest being.

It drew closer, slowly.  Then, as a fog rolled up the valley, we gained the ice.  For three days we walked inside a ping-pong ball.  The whiteness was nauseating.  On the front of the rope team I hallucinated horizons, imagined cracks in front of me, struggled to walk a straight line.  Occasionally, the fog would break for a hundred yards a reveal crevasses of an unanticipated scale.  Jetliners could easily pass through these yawning holes in the ice.

Day four on the ice:  I’m at the head of the rope team, towing a bag of human waste and relying on the GPS to get us to an airfield (or rather, where we will build an airfield) where with any luck ten days of rations will land.  The sun begins to burn through.  As the GPS reads “arriving at destination”, the horizon begins to reach back and back until Mt. Jarvis is revealed in all it’s terrible size what seems only a few miles away.  Seracs line its south face.  It’s rock is striped horizontally– black stone and white snow layer in bands that remind me of the Canadian rockies.

A low cloud ceiling, and empty stomachs.

The plane can’t come in.  Were standing under robin’s egg skies, but a cloud ceiling in the valley prevents our resupply.  Fuck; move to plan B.  The next morning, the clouds sit just over our heads as the sun glares diffuse, baking us with its UV.  Three days of hunger are punctuated by glimpses into the unbelievable beauty of the ice field.  Mt. Blackburn lies to the South, a 16,000 ft behemoth of cracked ice cascading over cliffs.  It is impossibility itself.

The Blackburn group from our camp on "Ramen Ridge", a.k.a. "Hunger Hill".

Turbo Dave, in his blue and silver Piper Cub (“Hang in there boys, I’ll keep trying”) have switched to tundra tires and we’ve run down the other size of the ice field.  On one of our four sets of maps two parallel lines of pencil suggest that there just might be an airstrip on a barren piece of plateau to the North.  Alaska, your weather changes faster than I’ve ever seen.  Clouds form out of nothing, obscuring the valley as we pray that Dave will make it in.  It begins to snow to the Northwest, to rain in the Northeast.  There’s the sound of a prop and up comes the Piper Cub from due North, splitting the two storms.  Redemption, for now.

You taught me about hunger.  I can’t think of a time before you when I was hungry with no chance of rain.  Much more, I would never have guessed that I could cover such ground on a stomach full of water and corn meal.  I am stronger than I though, I guess.  And more alive.  More animal; more vulnerable.

My body has transformed into a creature that walks by default, not one which rests.  Days off seem long.  They feel as I imagine life in the nursing home might feel.  There’s nothing like that thought to get me up, off the rocks, and down the valley.  As we descend, you grow still larger.  Valleys are many miles wide, draped in a green lawn of tundra with no brush to obscure the horizon that disappears beyond yet another range of peaks.  Your lakes are full of Greyling, your high passes of moose and carribou antlers from last season.

Time flies and crawls out there.  In my personal log, I’m counting up and counting down the days in the field.  Before I know it, I’m out– memory is never as complete as we think it will be.  Reentry is chafing, too much, too soon.  Strangers are now friends.  Some are colleagues.  Rye whiskey, rhubarb pie, email.  There’s a lot to get used to.  Much has happened since we left.  Where are our loved ones and our friends, and what have they been doing while we grew lean in mind and body?  Thankfully, they remain and welcome us back to the world of complications.

Three days before the solstice at Grizzly Lake, as dark as it ever gets in Alaskan summer.

I am now in Portland, and the whorlwind feeling of reentry is subsiding.  But what’s the point?  I’m now employed by NOLS, so I’ll be seeing you soon.  In a week I guess.  I can only imagine the smiling but nervous faces of the students getting off the bus.  I doubt that they’ll suspect that I am as uncertain of the future as they are.  I’m looking forward to growing with them, Alaska, and to see you again so soon.

Sincerely,

Patrick

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