By Lora Gene Young
The Alaskan wilderness, vast and beautiful, desolate and magnificent. Towering peaks enshrouded in mists, cloudy teal rivers surging through valleys below, iridescent mountain lakes dotting crevice and plateaus, a splendor of unfathomable depths in a landscape so remote. Animal species that, to me, could only be considered exotic and unobtainable. Alaska is a land of dreams. As I sat on the plane bound for Anchorage my dreams were coming true, and I was scared to death!
As my plane touched down in Anchorage a barrage of emotions assaulted me, the least of which was elation. I realized I had no clue what I was getting into! Three months of packing for Alaska Frontier Guides in the Alaskan wilderness, an area and outfitter I knew little about. I was on a one-way ticket. I had no idea what the future held, but, I took a deep breath and stepped out into the unknown.
The other packer and I were dropped off to scout the territory for a couple days. Four days later, the boss brought us boxed wine, a veggie tray and a roasted chicken. After living on Mountain House for a week, this is like nectar from the Gods. We should have realized it was just a ploy, his way of buttering us up for the news that we would be staying until the hunters arrived, and finished, their hunt. I thought I was being cautious by bringing socks and underwear for five days when we were only supposed to be there for three, but it will be eight by the time the hunters arrive. Welcome to Alaska!
After a few bad weather days, the weather clears, and the hunters arrive. The first day of the hunt dawns rainy and foggy, again. The hunters are restless, excited and ready to go, but we must wait until the fog lifts or risk spooking any sheep before we even know they are there. The day proves to be beautiful and successful. A full curl Dall’s Sheep is found and taken by the father of the hunting party. This has been is lifelong dream, and now at the age of 72, he has fulfilled that dream. He and his son laugh, and hug and I think they are going to cry, or maybe it is just me that is going to cry. My first sheep hunt! Such a beautiful event. With heavy packs and light hearts, we head back to camp, excited for the next day.
I keep replaying the moments in my head. It feels like the scenario lasted an eternity, but it all happened in less than a minute. The crash of the rock as it started its descent. Seeing the stone come around the corner of the rock chute above. Hearing the hunter call out that it was coming straight at me. Knowing the boulder was going to bounce away from its current path. Not knowing which direction it would take after the bounce. Debating, left or right, zig or zag. Making the decision. Moving left. Pausing to check the trajectory of the rock. Realizing it was still heading toward me. Taking one more step. Watching the boulder roll by. Thinking, “man, that was close.” Feeling the pain.
Yes, it was close. So close, it hit me. I had just been hit by a boulder approximately 150 pounds and about two feet squared. A boulder that had gained momentum over the almost 100 yards of descent between its initial point and me. I was in shock. The moment was incomprehensible, inconceivable, but the evidence was there. My gaiters were torn, my boot scratched. It did, indeed, happen.
I wiggle my toes, all good. Rotate my ankle, fine there. Put weight on it, no problem. A sigh of relief escapes my lungs. I smile and tell everyone I am okay. I take one step, I am no wuss, I have got this. Bend my knee, high step up the steep rocky grade, and it does not happen. I try again. I cannot do it. My leg gives way every time I try to put weight on it. My knee screams in pain. No more mountain climbing for me.
I devise a plan in my head. I can crab walk, butt slide down the mountain. Then limp or crawl the almost three miles back to camp. I call back and tell the others to go on. I will be fine. It might take a long time, but I will make it back to camp. The hunters carry on to the top of the mountain to join the guide. The other packer, Chris, will not hear of letting me go back on my own. It is bear country and I am hurt and have no gun. I do think he should carry one with the hunters but having someone to help and encourage me does sound appealing. I do not mention that he has no gun either.
By this time, I have already crab crawled down the rock slide to the softer, more even creek bed. Down this hill we go at a tortoise pace. One baby step after the other. I cannot walk forward on my knee, only sideways. When we reach the bushes by the creek Chris cuts a branch off a willow tree to use as a crutch.
The way back to camp is less than three miles over a series of small rolls and dips. It took us less than an hour to walk this far that morning. Now I hobble along like a 90-year-old grandmother. Tiny baby side steps, resting my weight on the willow cane, I slowly make my way across the valley to camp. Frequent stops keep me from grinding my teeth to nubs. My knee thumps in time with my rapidly beating heart. We inch along, going down the swells is harder than up. On each descent my knee protests in agony and on each ascent my leg throbs with pain.
Eventually, I can no longer bend my knee. I am dragging my bum leg behind me as I attempt to hobble. The pace is slower than a snail’s crawl. The pain is unbearable. I want to crawl. It is bound to be easier and faster than this slow shuffle.
By the time we get back to camp it has been five hours. I crawl inside my tent, mostly pulling myself in the door. My knee is so stiff I cannot bend it, I cannot straighten it all the way either. I wriggle out of my pants and pull up my woolen long johns. My knee is the size of a grapefruit. I find my first aid kit, take some Ibuprofen, elevate my leg on a dry bag, put a water sack of cold water on my knee and have a good cry.
Yes, I cried. Not because of the pain, but because I could see my dreams of hunting a mountain goat and becoming an Alaskan guide rapidly dissolving like the Emergence-C in the hot water in my cup. Less than a month in Alaska, less than two weeks out at camp and I was already injured. A million thoughts race through my head as I try to relax. I can move my toes and turn my ankle, therefore the injury must not be too bad. Maybe it will be better in the morning and I can carry on. If it is not better in the morning, what happens then? Will the boss send me home? How will I ever do my goat hunt? I have a month and a half before then, surely it will be better. I have no insurance, what if I need a doctor? I drift off to sleep with a heavy heart.
There is an inch worm in my tent, and he has made it from the window to the top of the tent. Industrious little guy. I can only hope to have his fortitude and resolve on my recovery to get back on the mountain.
It is the second morning since my accident. Mobility in the knee is increasing every day. The morning starts out foggy, as usual, but we have the spotting scope aimed at the bowl at the top of the mountain across the gully from camp. We are sure we saw some sheep there just before dark last night and want to get a better look in the daylight. As the fog lifts, a band of rams is revealed. There is excitement in camp! The hunters are excited at the prospect of pursuing their second ram; I am excited at the fact that I was able to be a part, though small, of this development. I might be stuck in camp, but I can still be useful.
Camp becomes a flurry of action. Packs are checked. Snacks are grabbed. Water bottles are filled. In the middle of the commotion, we hear the telltale sound of an airplane in the distance. We all pause. Who is coming? The sound gets louder. The plane is coming in our direction. It is the recognizable rhythm of a Super Cub. As it clears the surrounding mountains, we glimpse the bright yellow and black pattern and big Tundra Tires, it is the boss. Preparations to pursue the ram stop for the moment.
As the airplane approaches and lands, a sense of dread builds in me. Though the boss is coming to take the sheep meat and trophy back to town, taking me back to town is probably on the agenda as well. The boss, Ben, comes down from the plane and congratulates the hunters. A thorough inspection of the horns and head is made, and more congratulations are in order. The ram we have spotted across the ravine is checked on again and the plan for the day is approved. Now the attention is focused on me.
Just as I had feared, Ben is there to take me back to town. I am devastated. Though I am injured and know that going back to town is the best option, I want to stay and witness the success of the hunt. There is the desire to be in camp when the men return with a second beautiful ram. To complete the full cycle of an Alaskan adventure, spotting, pursuing, obtaining, and the celebratory last night in camp before the flight to town. Alas, it was not meant to be.
My head and spirits are low as I pack my things. I have become quite fond of my little tent on the plateau. Though it did hold moments of great sorrow, it also held memories of personal discovery. This was the beginning of my Alaskan adventure, and, at this moment, I feared it was also the end.
The plane takes off and the craggy peaks of the Talkeetna Mountains rise beneath us. The rivers glint in the morning sunlight and the glaciers shine pristine blue tint across the black, rocky cliffs. I take in the scene, absorb every minute detail, try to sear it into my brain to never be forgotten. As the mountains give way to more valleys and hills, the mountain lakes dotting the landscapes turn into houses, then towns. I cling onto the memories of the plateau in the Talkeetnas, of my little tent surrounded by the giant peaks of the North. This is not the end of my adventure. I will not let this injury stop me. It might take time to heal and effort to recover, but I will be back. I will get my Alaskan mountain goat. My knee is injured, but my resolve is strong. The adventure is not finished. No, my Alaskan adventure has barely begun.