THE SCENT


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 immediately recognized the smell that to me characterizes one thing: “we’ve just come out of the bush.”  

I call it The Scent.  Capitalized.

The Scent is difficult to describe. It is not evident when I do trail work for a day or hike a 20 miler.  I sweat, I’m dirty, I come home and smell, but I don’t have The Scent. The first day out in the backcountry, I don’t have it. I smell clean. The Scent is days old sweat on clothes that have been worn far too long, unwashed, in places where there is usually a lot of dirt, rain, flowing water, skin that hasn’t been cleaned in several days, the combination’s often being mixed with woodsmoke from cedar, pine, birch or hardwood. Biologically, it is created by bacteria’s breaking down oils plus burned carbon, but I think some of it may be a special compound formed when hard work is performed in places where there are no signs, the rivers run free, people are few, and the sounds of traffic are ravens, eagles, hawks, hermit thrushes and flickers, marmots, wolves, and beaver tail slaps.  The Scent requires tens of thousands of paddle strokes, dozens of miles under a pack or paddle, bug bites, sunlight, rain or dew, a few cuts, walking through muck, tripping on a root, fording a river, reaching a difficult summit, watching sunrise over a lake with mist, warming or talking by a fire at night or on a cold rainy morning, kneeling on the ground pitching a tent, watching an eagle fly, or collecting wood from a downed jack pine.

The Scent is not the smell of a men’s locker room.  Nor is it the smell when one gets ill and doesn’t bathe for a few days.  Long spells in wild country appear to inoculate the nose to ignore The Scent.  But when I am on the last portage, the last mile of a trail, I can recognize a day tripper or a person who has just left the jumping off point. There is no trace of The Scent; they smell clean, soap and shampoo clean.  They haven’t worked enough yet.  Some of them will, and days later, they will be exiting  the way I am and have The Scent.

Once out of the bush, I notice The Scent immediately.   My wife and I weren’t able to shower once after we came off the water after a week out on Lake Insula in the Boundary Waters, with a lot of time under pack and paddle, near eagles, ravens, a wolf, nobody else for six days, a bit of rain, lots of flowing water, all the requirements. The outfitter changed out a propane tank, but something was wrong with the heating element, and he was really sorry, but there was no hot water.  We ended up driving five hours without a shower.  The next year we used a different outfitter. The Scent is that way: it is the smell of wild country and is foreign to cities, highways, crowds and buildings.

Lake Insula, 2007, before the fire. Le beau pays of Sig Olson

Walk through a trail town sometime, and by smell and sight, you can spot three different groups of people: those who are getting ready to go into the woods, on whom their clothes look normal and they aren’t self-conscious.  The Scent is absent. The second group has just showered and put on clean clothes, looks scrubbed and are self-conscious and maybe a bit bewildered by being back in a strange world. No Scent on them. The third group has just come out of the woods and one can smell them yards away—or when opening the door to a men’s room. When I come out of the woods, I know I have The Scent, and I try not to get too close to others.

These two men were in the third group. They were self-conscious about The Scent, both wanted a shower, and they were trying clean up in a men’s room, knowing that they had several hours ahead of them on the redeye back to the Lower. Nobody wants to get on a plane carrying The Scent.  It belongs in wild country.

As I washed my hands and turned from the sink, I accidentally brushed the pack one still wore.  People in the backcountry for many days feel at one with their pack.  I know thru-hikers on the AT and PCT feel that way, and when I section-hiked the AT, I discovered one day that getting ready to move meant I automatically put the pack on, like a shirt.  I didn’t feel right without it.  Anyway, the young man apologized. He probably forgot he had the pack on.

“Been there a lot,” I replied.  While I’m shy, I know well both the country and the work required to produce The Scent. These young men were kindred spirits.  “Where did you guys go?” I asked. I knew I wouldn’t hear “Anchorage” but the Chugach, not “Juneau” but the Chilkoot, not “Homer” but the Kenai, not “Fairbanks” but Denali. 

We started to talk.  They were young, at least 35 years younger than I, and this was their first trip to Alaska, where they spent 2 weeks, first in Denali and then 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.  They had The Scent to prove it.

Good for them, I said.  I mentioned my then 5 trips to the Brooks Range, Up North even by Alaska standards: Arrigetch Peaks, twice in the Kongakut drainage, and a backpack/paddle on the Noatak. I didn’t say much more, because they were busy trying to get clean, but I suspected that when I used an Up North name, a lot of communication took place. There is a magic to certain words in the North Country for those who make it part of their lives. My last trip in the Brooks was where my guide and I got hauled up to the south end of Atigun Pass on the Dalton.  We had stopped in Coldfoot for a break, and a lady who was a volunteer at the Visitor’s Center asked me whether I was going north or south, for the Dalton only goes those directions.  I pointed west.  She laughed.  She knew.

We bushwhacked in to the Gates from the Dalton was about all I said, but perhaps my tone of voice unsaid told them the rest of the story. I used a few words like “Oolah” and “griz”, “tussocks” and “Boreal.”  We had climbed over a thousand foot divide, camping at what seemed like the top of the world, then traveled for 3 days in the rain in and by rivers, past Oolah Lake and more rivers, finally hiking six miles in flooded tussock country to Summit Lake.  We saw a griz. I finally got to see Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain—the Gates of the Arctic that Bob Marshall named.  They had that look in their eyes—maybe I should call it The Look—which others have seen from me. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers that run free and few people in the Lower have ever heard of, like Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Alatna, Hulahula, or Kobuk.  It’s mountains and remote valleys, wild country, open horizons, where the Sun in summer travels in a circle above the treeless tundra.  It’s slogging through tussocks, rivers, swamps, and in bear, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverine, and moose country.  It’s hiking on residual ice, or aufeis, and bugs in June, blueberries and crowberries in July, rain, autumn colors and the return of night in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that I have encountered, 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 who has worn The Scent understands that.

Oolah Lake

Normally, I don’t talk much to strangers, but if I’ve been out in the bush for a while, I find myself pretty talkative.  These guys were me when I was a young man.  Then, my dreams took me every year to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “le beau pays” of Sig Olson, to get into the backcountry, away from people, civilization, only me, the wild lakes and rivers, loons, beaver, otter, eagle, moose, bear, and wolf.  I went into the country scrubbed and clean, explored it and came out with The Scent.  Eventually, I knew that area 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 and ’87, paddling the Yukon as far as Carmacks; I paddled the Nahanni in the Northwest Territory in between those two trips. 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, I never would. First on the list was the Arrigetch Peaks in the Gates, spending four nights at the base of the mountains, close enough to hike up and place the palm of my hand on the granite.  We tried to get back into Aquarius Valley, but the rain made it too slick and unsafe to see the whole thing.  We got to the glacier that is the headwaters of Arrigetch Creek. On the eight mile hike back to the Alatna River, there had been so much rain that we had to detour upstream a mile to finally cross in fast water that was mid-thigh in depth, then walk a mile back down to move forward a net ten yards.  

Base of the Arrigetch Peaks

Afterward, I said that if there were a guarantee I could see Aquarius, I would go back. But there was too much else up there.  I never did. I returned to Fairbanks with The Scent, took a quick shower and the redeye to Seattle.

The next year, I came back to see ANWR, and we did a loop hike from the Kongakut River that got us into Drain Creek, bordered by mountains called Bathtub Ridge, with a mountain to the east called “The Plug.”  This was the ANWR I was looking for, with huge vistas, miles of tussocks full of caribou, and a braided river.  We went in early June to beat the bug hatch and camped at the base of a cliff that was a salt lick for Dall Sheep. I remember being up at 1 am watching them in bright sunlight, high on the rocks above, moving on the near vertical face more easily than I could move in tussocks. 

Dall Sheep on a salt lick.

I thought once to ANWR would be enough, but that Christmas I got a letter from the guide saying he planned a special ANWR trip to the Aichilik River.  I went into the garage, smelled my pack, which had some residual of The Scent, and decided I had to do that one, of course, because, well, I had to.  I knew there was a longing in my eyes. I could see Dall Sheep and Caribou, another braided river and maybe a griz, so I went.  

We landed on semi-flooded tundra and my boots were soaked for the next 11 days, temperatures most of the time hovering at freezing. I packed four pairs of wool socks, kept one pair for night, which meant after three days my dressing began with cold wet socks. It mostly rained or rain-plus— hail, graupel, or sleet. We crossed and recrossed the Aichilk, walking on ice by caribou, as we headed south into the Brooks Range.  One day, we sat down on the tundra for lunch near the entry into the mountains and had caribou walk close enough to touch, between us  and the river.  That afternoon, we hiked underneath rock faces where Dall Sheep stared down from us from thirty feet up.  I had a wolverine run right by my tent one morning and a caribou calf do the same one evening. The last day, in sunshine, we saw a griz rolling on ice and  then hiked over a mountain rather than take a chance on a valley with a rain-swollen stream. 

Caribou on ice

Dall sheep

A year later, I backpacked the upper Noatak and kayaked a couple hundred miles downstream to Lake Matcherak. I saw another wolverine and we saw a dozen grizzlies, including a sow, two cubs and a yearling that walked right through our camp and another that we had to encourage to turn around on the shore of Matcherak.  I flew back to Bettles with others in a float plane loaded with gear, flying past the Arrigetch in clear weather.  It was fabulous, except the poor pilot had a planeload of The Scent.

Boreal Mountain, part of the Gates of the Arctic

I thought I had seen all I wanted to up there, except I still haven’t.  Probably never will.  I wanted to see the Sheenjek Drainage in ANWR, but things happen and I never got around to doing it.  When I write about this, I know I have the look in my eyes those young men had. I can still see the Noatak far upstream from where I stood one day, when we climbed a mountain and stood on the summit in the wind, astounded by the beauty of the country. 

I didn’t tell the pair to follow their dreams, as I have tried to follow mine.  They were already dreaming. They had The Look.  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 with The Scent, of course, not mixed with woodsmoke, because they will have been north of the treeline, where darkness doesn’t exist in summer.  Their speech will be peppered with Up North words, and they will again take the redeye to Seattle then the Bay Area, where they live, thrilled to have done the trip, already planning the next one.  They will have adventures the way I did, and look back later with fondness at their good fortune, as I have.

Maybe they will travel together, alone, or have company—spouses, children, other friends— who will discover these wild places and carry The Scent.  Maybe some day they will meet a traveler outside the bush with The Scent, ask where that person came from, and share some of their memories of the back and beyond. 

If for some reason they never go back, they went once, saw it, came out with The Scent, and that mattered.

Caribou without telephoto.

2 Responses to “THE SCENT”

  1. Steve Nash Says:

    Brilliant! The Scent is worth every moment going into the earning of it. Never thought much about it — except love the shower as much as the week outside. Keep it up. very fine article.

  2. Mike Says:

    It was written earlier as “Dreams” and I wrote it up for Deep Wild. Then I reread the submission requirements and I decided to hold it out in place of two others–A Gift of Rain and Starlight, Moonlight, and Firefly Light. Thanks for the referral. I had fun writing this. Lot of memories. Lot of them.

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