I was in the Anchorage airport, late one night on my way home from my tenth trip to “The Great Land.” I stopped in the men’s room, and before I saw the pair, I recognized the smell that to me characterizes one thing: “we’ve just come out of the woods.”

It’s a difficult odor to describe.  It is woodsmoke plus something more.  Many people would just say the person needs a bath, and they wouldn’t be wrong.  But in the woods, we neither notice the smell nor particularly want a bath.  I can attest to that with a great deal of experience.  It is when one comes out of the woods that one notices the odor and really wants a shower.

As I washed my hands and turned from the sink, I accidentally brushed the pack one was carrying.  He apologized.

“Been there a lot,” I replied.  While I’m shy, I knew these young men were kindred spirits.  “Where did you guys go?” I asked.  They knew I wasn’t talking about cities but wild country.  I wasn’t going to hear “Juneau” but the Chilkoot, not “Homer” but “The Kenai”.

We started to talk.  The pair was young, at least 35 years younger than I, and this was their first trip to Alaska, where they spent 2 weeks in Denali and the Kenai.  They had wanted to do this trip now, while they could, because their lives were going to be busy in the coming years.  They did it.

Been there, too.  I told them about my 5 trips to the Brooks Range, and their eyes showed a gaze I’ve seen many times, and which I have shown others. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers nobody down here has ever heard of, like Kongakut, Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Kobuk or Noatak.  It’s mountains and remote valleys.  It’s slogging through tussocks, in rivers, in swamps, in bear country.  It’s aufeis hiking and bugs in June, blueberries in July, rain and autumn colors in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that anybody can imagine, and it is also the most beautiful.  It is a country that kicks one’s butt, until finally one accepts it with the simple words, “It’s Alaska.”  Everybody up here understands that.

Normally, I don’t talk much to strangers, but when I’ve been out the bush for awhile, I find myself pretty talkative.  These guys were me, 35 years ago.  Then, my dreams took me to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, every year, to get into the backcountry, away from people, civilization, only me and the wild lakes and rivers.  I explored that country until I knew it as well as my home town.  Maybe better.  I sure loved it more.  Always will.

It was much later that I discovered Alaska.  Oh, I did the Chilkoot Trail in ’84, the Nahanni the following year and the Chilkoot and the upper Yukon in ’87, but I didn’t camp above the Arctic Circle until 20 years later.  By then, I knew if I didn’t start to make my dreams come true, they never would.  I hiked to the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park, and then decided I’d come back to see ANWR.  I thought once to ANWR would be enough, but when Christmas came I got a letter from the guide saying he planned a real special ANWR trip the following year.  I had to do that one, of course, because I had the longing in my eyes. I could see the Dall Sheep and Caribou, a river I knew would be special, so I accepted and did the trip.  Tough? Very.  Weather issues?  Plenty.  But we saw wildlife I couldn’t believe, and I came out of there saying I had seen the ANWR I wanted to.

Except I still haven’t.  Probably never will, either.  I did two more trips into the Gates, one combining backpacking with a paddling.  We saw a dozen bears, four of whom walked blithely through our campsite one night. Alaska.

I still want to see the Sheenjek Drainage in ANWR.  I would be 65 if I did it, but I think I can. A guide-friend is willing, and I know a pilot who would get us to the jumping off point.  No question that we could do this trip.  When I think about it, I know I have the look in my eyes those young men had.  Age  doesn’t destroy that look.

I didn’t tell the pair to follow their dreams, as I have tried to follow mine.  They didn’t need me to say anything; they were already dreaming.  I could see it in their eyes.  They didn’t know how they were going to get up here again, where they would go, or what they would do, but they were going to do it.

They will see the Brooks Range, ANWR and deal with all the issues Alaska throws at those who go into the bush.  They will come out of the country filthy again, smelling, but not of woodsmoke, because they will have been north of the treeline, where night doesn’t exist in summer.  They will again take the redeye to Seattle or the Bay Area, where they live, thrilled to have done the trip, and already planning the next one.  They would have had adventures I would be jealous of, but only a little.

No, the two needed no encouragement to come back. Had I shown them my pictures of the Arrigetch, the Aichilik, or the Noatak, they might have cancelled their flight and stayed.  Some people do that.

To the wife of one of them, should either some day be married, I apologize.  I just happened to run into a fellow dreamer, somebody who reminded me of myself, and planted a few more dreams in his head.

Let him go to the Far North.  He has to do it. He will come back better for it.

But he will want to go the following year.

And maybe some day he will be 64, in a men’s room in an airport, talking to a 30 year-old who has just finished his first backpacking trip in Alaska…..

2 year-old griz on the Noatak. Out of focus because my hands were shaking. Distance: 25 meters. Anything between us? Air

Bull caribou, Noatak.

The Maidens, part of the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Dall Sheep, ANWR, Upper Aichilik River drainage.


One Response to “DREAMS”

  1. denisehelmkay Says:

    I remember the look and can “smell” the smell even now. These are lifelong sensuous memories. Thank YOU.

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