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February 1999

Solo Hiking Alaska: Fear Walked With Me

A once-in-a-lifetime solo hike through Lake Clark National Park, where the midnight sun shines like candlelight on the mountains.

I tried to tell myself that my upset stomach and quivering nerves were the result of the bumpy, 90-minute flight north from Port Alsworth. Twice the passenger door had popped open when Glen dipped the wing on my side to point out herds of caribou. Twice I’d cinched the seat belt tighter and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

Thirty minutes on the ground eliminated any lingering doubts-I was, indeed, in a pretty precarious situation. Wading through a maze of willow thickets and abandoned beaver dams, I spooked a moose, tripped over the bleached bones of a caribou, stumbled across two sets of day-old grizzly tracks, and discovered what looked like a shrunken wolf skull but was really the shriveled head of a massive king salmon. Animals owned this place, and I didn’t know whether the dense cover was hiding them or me.

When I finally emerged onto open lakeshore, I sat down in front of my video camera to tape a diary entry. Relief, worry, and awe mingled with breathless excitement, but also with the morbid realization that I wasn’t merely taping a diary entry. I’d brought the video camera on a lark, but now I was using it to create evidence. This is how my family would piece together what had happened.

Five days of hiking took me from Lake Telaquana south to Turquoise Lake, my route skirting a jumble of jagged peaks fronted by 8,020-foot Telaquana Mountain. One full morning and another afternoon were spent thrashing through brush bordering the lakes; the remainder involved relatively easy cross-country hiking. The weather, typical for Lake Clark in early June, wasn’t terrific. Rain came intermittently in sheets and drizzles, interrupted by one warm, sunny day. Constant strong winds had me battening down my raingear and tent hatches. Snow fell almost daily above 3,500 feet; on day four, I trekked across 7 miles of largely featureless terrain in a snowstorm that reduced visibility to 100 yards or less.

Despite the weather, there was much to marvel at, from four-lane caribou highways worn 6 inches deep into the pebbly turf, to clusters of tiny yellow and pink flowers, to horizons cluttered with snow-clad giants and endless waves of rolling green tundra.

Known for its active volcanoes (Mt. Redoubt last erupted in 1990, spewing ash as far as Anchorage) and plentiful glaciers, the park offers a dramatic landscape that testifies to the powers of fire and ice. But despite the ferocity of the landscape, wildlife thrives here. Bears, wolves, Dall sheep, caribou, delicate nesting birds that seem out of place in this hardscrabble environment-there are more varieties of animals than you can shake a trekking pole at. All in all, Lake Clark is a classic hiking destination with everything you could want and no competition for campsites.

Unfortunately, I was too busy looking over my shoulder to pay attention to geological formations

and pretty birds. I’d hiked solo before, traipsing all over New England in summer and winter, good weather and bad. I’d also spent considerable time in bear country out West. But this wasn’t New Hampshire or Montana, and the range of real and perceived threats was almost paralyzing. There were grizzlies, snowfields, loose rock, stream crossings, and threatening weather. But most of all there was the isolation, and with it the knowledge that one careless step, one surprise attack, and the critters hereabouts would hear a huge sucking sound as the land swallowed me whole.

The result was that I spent the entire trip, every waking moment, on full alert. I watched where I stepped and gingerly tested the depth of each snowfield. I took circuitous detours around sketchy talus slopes. I shouted myself horse yelling “Hey, bear!” every 20 seconds. The nervous energy expended left me mentally and physically exhausted at the end of each day. Unable to relax, I counted the hours until the flight home.

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