Since taking over operations at the lodge, I quickly learned that as the guide, I not only have to be knowledgeable but also very mentally prepared. Prepared for anything! Because camping with clients is far different than camping with friends and family. If you're into camping, or any outdoor activity, chances are that you have those select partners that you can trust with your life and with which you have the most fun. When I go camping with friends and family, I don't always take the easiest hiking route. I don't set up anyone else's tent or make the coffee and food for everyone on the trip. And I definitely am not the only one carrying pepper spray or keeping an eye out for bear. I didn't realize how much mental strain there would be to bring strangers into the Alaska wilderness until I was packed and ready to hop in the helicopter. On this particular back-country trip, I was guiding three men from Germany deep into the Talkeetna mountains here in central Alaska. This is an amazing trip far above tree-line, where glaciers are still visible as they settle in the high alpine draws and consume the tops of untouchable peaks, where only bear, wolf, fox and caribou roam. If you're lucky, somewhere after the green tundra ends and the snow capped peaks disappear into the fog, you still have a chance to see mountain goats and dall sheep.
As the helicopter landed at the lodge with the first two guys and some of their gear, I greeted Emil and Anska, and one of them handed my brother a large bag filled with two cases of beer. This beer was to stay at the lodge for three days until our return from the camping trip so they would have it to drink when they came back for their 2- night stay in the cabins. Emil was a big, tall guy with nice trekking poles strapped to his bag. Anska borrowed my trekking poles, but had a very well-worn quality pair of hiking
boots. So at this point I made two simple observations: 1- They like to hike. 2- They like to drink. But there was no beer on the helicopter, so I didn't think too much about it... We hopped into the helicopter and after slipping the headphones on, we started getting to know each other a bit, chatted with the pilot about our route, and enjoyed the flight to our camping spot.
The helicopter is a small R44 and only holds 3 passengers or 600 lbs, so the pilot had to go back to the airport in Talkeetna to pick up my last camper and a lot more gear. She would be gone flying for at least an hour.
That gave us three some time to start setting up camp, take pictures and talk. If this third guy was anything like his two friends at base camp, this was shaping up to be a pretty relaxed trip because these boys knew the outdoors, were looking forward to roughing it in a tent, and wore light layers when it was verging on parka weather. Even in July it can be very cold in these mountains. I could just tell that even though this was their first time in Alaska, it was definitely not their first time camping deep in the mountains. The sound of the helicopter coming back with Ari made its way through the valley before we could see it, and Emil was visibly happy... Come to find out, it was not because he missed his traveling companion but because there was more beer on board flight # 2 along with other stuff to drink. They ended up at camp with about 90 lbs of gear and 200 lbs of booze. (not really, but it seemed like it) So I made two more observations:
1- This could either be a bad trip with angry drunks or a very fun three days with some very happy Germans who can hold their liquor. 2- I wouldn't ever consider letting them hold the gun. (I carry a .44 mag and pepper spray for bear protection on almost every hike.) All in all, we ended up with two large cases of beer, three bottles of wine, and a gallon of vodka.
The weather was amazing, and after setting up tents and a camp kitchen, we set off on our first hike. My brother Joe has done this trip several times so he had given me ideas on where to hike. From camp, you can look north into an amazing amphitheater-shaped mountainside and see two sets of waterfalls cascading down into the valley where our tents were set up. As we looked up toward the horizon, we made out the silhouette of a lone caribou on a very scary portion of animal-made trail that Joe had told me to stay away from. It's one of those trails you might try with friends but not guiding strangers whose comfort and skill level is untested. We began to make our way up a ridge from the west and took our time getting to the summit where we could stand on what we call Razorback Ridge, look down into the next valley and directly below us about 1500 feet to a tiny lake left from a receding glacier.
We could look behind us and see camp at the bottom of the amphitheater and sat down for lunch. My pack is heavy all the time because again, as the guide, I don't want my clients packs heavier than mine. I also consider it my responsibility during these back-country trips to not only provide the food but make sure it just magically appears when my guests get hungry. They were happy to have lunch at this incredibly picturesque spot, and I was happy to lighten my load.
After lunch I said something like, “Well guys, are you ready to head back to camp?' I knew this was a stupid suggestion as soon as I saw the look they gave me. These guys hiked so fast that we didn't burn nearly enough of the afternoon, and the only rest any of them wanted to take during our ascent were smoke breaks for Ari. During one of these breaks, Emil half-jokingly said, “Ari likes to smoke and then take little hiking breaks.” I didn't mind because it gave us time to visit and catch our breath. Plus he kept all the cigarette butts in a small tin in his fanny pack, so I didn't even have to give the “leave no trace” speech. Since these guys, all in their early 40's, didn't want to go back to camp yet, I asked them what they wanted to do. Ari told me that they wanted to hike the goat trail where we saw the caribou from camp... the very trail Joe told me to stay away from with clients. I was a bit nervous but thought if anyone could do that trail, it was these men. So I agreed to take them, and we slowly made our way over a section of cliffs carved out by dall sheep and mountain goats. We didn't have room for both our feet and trekking poles.
We had to hold the poles in one hand and balance ourselves on rocks as we passed by with the other hand. It was so narrow that caribou hair had been rubbed off at chest height on the very rocks we were using to balance. Even with my closest hiking companions, I would classify that as one of the most dangerous section of trail I have ever traversed. But these guys were having a blast and were totally sober (in case you were wondering). Once across this portion of trail, it emptied out onto an enormous boulder field plateau with fairly easy hiking and shed caribou antlers everywhere. It's amazing to realize the types of places these animals spend the winter.
The only downside to extending our hike for Ari's sick pleasure was the fact that we didn't pack enough water. I always keep that in the back of my head so I know when to start rationing, but all the guys quickly ran out. It wasn't a life or death situation, and the upside to this downside was that once we got to a lower elevation, we were all going to sample the water coming from the waterfalls we had seen earlier.
It ended up being an amazing day, and I was looking forward to telling Joe that we traversed the goat trail he told me to stay away from. So, back at camp with my three guests all safe and sound, day one was a success.