It was five dollar Tuesday. I was sitting in a darkened theater with my family, comfortably imbibing heavily buttered popcorn and bootlegged sour Jolly Rancher gummies while watching the movie “Wild”; a contemplative character study starring Reese Witherspoon. One particular scene evinced a vivid memory of one of our family’s own “wild” experiences. When Cheryl Strayed (the protagonist), settles down after the first exhausting and painful day of her trek, she attempts lighting her new WhisperLite backpacking stove. Run ragged and starving, she assembles the contraption needed for heating her dehydrated meals. But something’s not right with the delicate assemblage of wire stand, micro-burner, and heat reflector. She consults the stove manual and discovers that she bought the wrong fuel. Now miles and miles from any remedy for her predicament, this realization inspires low-blood sugar rage, and the fuel bottle gets ungraciously kicked out of camp…literally. That’s when my son and I turned to each other and whispered, “Reed Lakes.”
We were living in Alaska. My husband, Ralph, along with our youngest two children, Mike 17, and Amara 15, and I went on the fabled hike to Reed Lakes. The trail head was an easy one hour drive from our home in Eagle River, through Palmer, and up to Hatcher’s Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains. On that June day , we got a late start, but the weather was warm and deceptively fine. Sunshine broke through scattered clouds whose ruffled skirts now and then exposed a peek of the blue sky beyond. Which meant that none of us started out the hike with our coats on. After parking the car at the trail head, we rechecked the backpacks and rearranged a few items here and there to better balance the load. We stuffed in last minute items, among them knit caps and several plastic ponchos in case it rained which seemed unlikely. My husband’s jacket was stashed somewhere deep in the bowels of the largest pack, so it wouldn’t topple the load of sleeping bag and tent. Each of us carried some form of backpack with enough food and equipment for a night under the twilight of the Alaskan summer sky.
The first leg of the hike is a faded dirt road headed up the valley toward the abandoned Snowbird Mine. After scrambling around the decaying scrabble of mine ruins we stopped to snack on a handful of M&M gorp and water. By now the dirt road had petered out into a willow fringed pathway with a gradual rise in elevation as it meandered across a broad meadow traversed by a winding stream and wood plank bridges wide enough for one person at a time. Energetic and and light hearted we pressed on.
The sunshine and gurgling water inspired a sense of well-being and excitement over being intrepid adventurers. We had torn ourselves away from our tidy patch of civilization, and I do mean patch, on the banks of the Eagle River. We were partaking of a sacred rite of being Alaskan; trekking out into the wilderness as opposed to just living on the edge of it. We were giddy with the beauty of the landscape and proud of ourselves for escaping the ease of our suburban life. Our path was, clear, and we were Alaskans whose birthright was being at home in the wild.
In short order, our idyllic walk through the lush green vegetation and flowers of the meadow was brought to a sobering halt. A steep hillside loomed above us criss-crossed by steep switchbacks. Our booted feet dug into the moist dirt and pulled us along, calves aching, lungs gulping for air. We rested and sipped water at every turn in the path.
The view above and below us opened up into a spectacular bowl of greenery over which towering gray cliffs and peaks presided. Something that did not catch our attention yet, were the patches of snow that clung to the talus littered mountain flanks. At the top of the hill we paused to rest, raking our hands through unripe patches of blueberries. The dark green, low rising shrubs, held the promise of a bumper crop of the tart juicy fruit. We promised ourselves a return trip solely for berry picking.
This leg of the trip stopped abruptly at the edge of a steep tract of boulders precariously balanced in an irregular up and down cadence of ankle breaking crevices and dark holes where a misplaced foot could get firmly wedged. The scramble over the rocks, at first, was a welcome change from trudging up the steep switchbacks. Then in one terrifying instant the sole of my boot wobbled on a dagger of broken rock. I stumbled, the weight of my pack yanked me off my feet and downhill, throwing my body backward into the steep pile of boulders, arms and legs waving in the air like a turtle helplessly stranded on its back. We froze in shocked silence realizing that only the width of my backpack breaking my fall kept my head inches shy of a serious concussion or worse. It was a sobering reminder of how quickly we could get seriously injured and our joyous encounter with wild Alaska turn into a 6 o’clock news story about rescuing an unconscious hiker from the mountain. We slowed our pace and took greater care finishing our boulder crossing.
At the upper edge of the boulder field we faced a grassy ravine, creek flowing right down the middle between a steep “V” of gray rubble. Here, it became all too clear that mid-June was not yet summertime at this higher elevation. A cold wind flowed down from the frozen heights above and a frosty smattering of rain began to fall. The cold forced us to stop and don jackets and knit caps. All of us except Ralph. In the midst of our tightly organized packs and tidy zippered pockets none of us could locate his jacket nor one of the ponchos. At that point we were in such a hurry to find a camping spot we hoped was only minutes away, we abandoned the search and kept hiking upward.
Our pathway became slippery and gooey as it crossed dozens of weeping snow patches from which water oozed into the creek. On every dry knoll of grass elevated above the mess of water and mud, groups of hikers were setting up tents. We were hungry and tired and ready for dinner but we were also anxious to get away from the crowds of partying teenagers who were oblivious that their high spirited antics and laughter were spoiling the wilderness experience for the less exuberant. So we pressed on in the freezing rain up the steep ravine. We found every dry level spot occupied. With deep blue summer twilight darkening the unstable path, we finally emerged over the ridge into the bowl surrounding the first of the Reed Lakes. Thankfully this area was deserted. We were all by ourselves on a damp patch of threadbare grass surrounded by icy peaks. The creek we had followed the whole way up poured out of the heights above over shelves of broken and water-polished granite. Below us lay the ice crusted blue-green surface of lower Reed Lake.
We had no time to appreciate the view. The wind picked up and freezing rain fell steadily. Having still been unable to find his jacket, Ralph was shivering and on the verge if not fully into a state of hypothermia. We did a flash mob version of setting up the tent and then quite literally threw our backpacks, tools, and bodies into the barely comforting shelter of our dome tent. We were cold, hungry, and all vestiges of our earlier sunny dispositions had vanished. In the riot of gear and tangle of sleeping bags we huddled together for warmth. Out of the dark, above the sound of flowing water and our chattering teeth, we heard Amara’s pained but sweet voice ask, “Um, can we, uh, organize the tent?”
There was a split second of silence, then the hilarious futility of her request sunk in and we all burst out laughing. Amara’s plea for cool heads and orderly process fully expressed our frustrations. Where was Ralph’s jacket, where was the dang WhisperLite stove, matches, and hot food! First we had to get Ralph in better shape so we tucked him down into the warmest sleeping bag we had. Once he had stopped shivering, and maneuvering from the opening of his sleeping bag, he set up the tiny stove and began the process of lighting it. One match after another fizzled out. Finally the minute puddle of fuel was nursed into flame which promptly set the floor of the tent on fire.
We frantically smothered the flames and again broke into hysterical laughter having survived another close call. We gave up on lighting the stove and ate a cold dinner of cream cheese and ham sandwiches washed down with plain water. Enwrapped in hats, hoods, jackets, and sleeping bags we spooned close together and finally got warm enough to doze off.
Ten minutes later we heard the drunken giggles of clueless teenagers who had decided to take a midnight hike up to the lake. The group tromped around nearby laughing and talking for over an hour before disappearing back over the ridge toward their camp in the ravine below. Finally, no longer shivering and blessed with silence we fell into exhausted slumber.
Somewhere, I have pictures of us on that mountainside above the lake laughing and playing in the snow. It still being winter in the bowl of lower Reed Lake there was lots of snow. I don’t even remember the hike back down the mountain the following day. I just remember that every moment of delight and discomfort on that memorable hike is filled with joy. The joy of the wild. Not just the wildness of the wilderness, but the joy of surviving the wildly unexpected surrounded by such danger and beauty. And although we don’t live in Alaska any longer the wildness of that place, the resourcefulness it provokes, the memories created there will stick with us always. Wild after all.