DON'T FORGET TO READ PART ONE HERE FIRST...ALASKA HELI-CAMPING & ALPINE HIKING...PT: 1
These guys were very methodical about their alcohol consumption. They knew we would be out for three days and were far better at rationing beer than water. Every day they had enough for 5 beers each and 1 bottle of wine to share, and they were careful not to have more than 1/3 of the vodka every night. On the morning of the second day, as I was making breakfast under our rain cover, Emil - sitting next to me chatting and watching me cook - discovered that vodka paired very nicely with apple cider. Once Anska and Ari woke up, it didn't take long for my supply of cider packets to start disappearing. Before we left camp for the day, a caribou walked right up to us, probably curious to discover the source of the pancake and syrup smell wafting through the valley. Caribou are very curious animals by nature, and any number of things could have brought her close to camp, even our voices laughing and talking.
A Caribou Walking Through Camp
This was to be our longest day- an amazing 12 mile round-trip hike that would bring us to creek crossings, wildlife, and one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the world. As a bird lover, one thing I vividly remember was a short eared owl that circled us for at least five minutes as we hiked though his hunting grounds. We must have scared off his dinner or something because his stoic eyes were burning holes in our heads. We made our way across the glacier-carved valley, and every time Ari stopped for a smoke break, it gave me a chance to catch up. As the guide it's always embarrassing to be out-hiked, but even more so when you're out-hiked by a smoker...
Our view from camp of the valley we hiked across on day 2
We reached the lake around noon, took pictures of more caribou, and ate lunch as we enjoyed the scenery and each other's company as they began to teach me some of their language. I learned very useful German words like “clothespin,” “beer,” and “cottage cheese.” Ha! After we ate I thought to myself, 'Huh, we made it here kinda fast, and I doubt they want to be done...' So I asked them what they wanted to do, and mentioned another lake further up the valley that I know of on the map, but also that this would add 3 miles to our day. They didn't even hesitate at that suggestion, and before I knew it, our 12 mile day turned into a 15 mile day. If you've never experienced it, hiking over open tundra exerts far more energy than hiking an established trail. So after taking a quick count of extra granola bars to make sure we had enough to be gone longer, we headed out.
The clouds threatened rain all day but never did make good on it as we made our way to the upper lake and then back to camp.
Making our way to the upper lake. It was well worth hiking the extra 3 miles.
(this is the cover photo of our back-country camping trips page on our website)
That day we were lucky to see 3 dall sheep more than 1,000 feet above us on the jagged rock face of the left valley wall. Back at camp they taught me some more German and offered me a beer with our Mountain House freeze-dried dinners. I struggled taking from their stash, but it sounded so good that I decided to take them up on the offer. I don't drink much alcohol, but looking back at breakfast, I can vouch for the fact that Emil was right about that apple cider concoction...
These 3 have gone on a trip around the world together every year for over 15 years
Day three greeted us with fog and rain. It dampened our spirits a bit but didn't keep us from exploring. We wanted a good view of the neighboring valley, so we made our way east past the small waterfalls that formed the creeks that flowed through camp and kept the beer cold.
One of two creeks that flowed right by camp. The green tents can be seen in the background.
One of two creeks that flowed right by camp. The green tents can be seen in the background. We made our way up a fairly steep pass, which was more of an avalanche chute. It made for easy bouldering, or rock hopping, as we made our way up. It was a wet and uneventful day except our discovery of some unoccupied bear dens. They were too high up the mountainside to go explore, but we did get a good idea of what these creatures have to go through to find a decent place to sleep for the winter. When we camp at these locations in July and August, there are no bear there. All the bear leave their dens between March and April and head down into the valleys closer to our lodge, where they spend the summer eating fish, blueberries, and anything else they can find. These three gentlemen loved being out in nature, and I honestly don't think they would have ever wanted to go back to camp if there wasn't alcohol waiting for them. By the third night, the stack of empty beer bottles outnumbered the full ones, and they knew they had planned it out right so they wouldn't need anymore beer until we flew back to the lodge. Well, at least they thought they knew....
The fog and rain never let up, and as we sat in camp after dinner watching lightning hit the valley where we walked the day before, it was likely the bad weather would continue through the night.
Using the creek as our refrigerator...
On the morning of day four, I woke to the sound of rain on the tent. I got an anxious feeling as I unzipped the door because rain isn't the problem- it's the fog that will keep the helicopter grounded back in Talkeetna. Sure enough, I stuck my head outside the tent, and the fog was so thick, I almost couldn't see the other tents. My job didn't change much at that point. I still had to get up, put on my boots and start making these guys some coffee and breakfast. A nice thing about being dropped off with a helicopter or bush plane is that you can pack way more than you'll need. I had a food supply for six days, so the fog didn't mean we'd go hungry. What I didn't realize was that after I went to bed, the men had polished off the last of the wine, vodka, and cider packets, thinking we would be back at the lodge in time for a mid-morning beer. So when I told them that this weather was going to delay our pick up, they weren't nervous about the lack of food or cigarettes, just the lack of beer. Still at camp by 12:30 PM, we went ahead and ate lunch. The fog would come and go at camp, but obviously it was bad in town because there was still no sign of the
helicopter. I knew these guys were getting antsy when they started asking me if we could hike home, wondering how far it was and if it would take more than a day... Even though we were only 20 air miles from the lodge, the terrain directly between camp and the lodge was nasty, and to safely hike home I would need to take a route that usually takes three days. I couldn't afford to be easy-going about their suggestions at this point and told them they had to trust my judgment. I assured them that it was far safer to stay put and eat all our extra food waiting for what could be two hours or two days until the fog cleared. I don't think they would have minded if we could have fermented some blueberries while we waited, but it definitely wasn't the lack of food making them jittery. Finally at about 4 pm, we heard the awesome sound of the helicopter chopping through the light cloud cover. I was relieved that we didn't have to stay an extra night and my three companions wouldn't have to go a day without beer.
We rushed to tear down camp as the pilot landed. We made sure that some food and a tent stayed back in camp just in case the weather got bad again and the pilot couldn't come get Ari and myself. Thank God we didn't need to set up camp again, 'cause the helicopter showed up for us about 40 minutes later, and we all got home safe in time for dinner at the lodge. When you spend that much time in the wilderness with trustworthy people, a bond is formed, and good memories are made. I will remember these three characters for a long time, and as I look back on that trip, it didn't feel like camping with clients. It felt more like camping with friends. PROST!
Back at the lodge with more beer!
From left to right: Me, Zac (author & guide), Emil, Anska, Ari, and Joe (my brother. A far better guide than me)