Written By: Jessica Reed (United States)
In the early evening, our guide told us to pack our gear and head back to our pick-up location. That’s when doubts came creeping in. What if the pilot never came back? We would be left to fend for ourselves on a remote island, with predators watching from the trees. I eyed the sky closely, and waited for the sound of a motor, panic rising in my throat.
Through it all, I had to remind myself that Alaska, a state I had felt a magnetic pull towards for years, wasn’t going to eat me alive.
My wilderness anxiety started 17 months before, during a trip to New Zealand.
In 2014, I packed a tent, camping gear, some clothes, and flew to Christchurch. The plan was to bike solo for a week on the trails criss-crossing the South Island.
Day one was an easy ride by turquoise lakes. Day two, in contrast, started with a two-hour climb on a mountain trail. By the time the weather changed, I hadn’t seen a soul all morning. A thick fog engulfed me, restricting my vision. A fierce wind picked up. The temperature dropped. Soon, it started to rain.
The whole situation felt absurd: was I seriously going to be that tourist? The hapless French woman who phones rescue services begging for a chopper ride? While not in a life-or-death situation, I also knew that a handful of hikers die in remote areas of the country every year. What if the weather deteriorated further?
Over the next couple of hours, the mix of solitude, fear and disorientation got to me. By now truly scared, I pushed on, rode down the pass, finished my week of cycling, and upon coming home developed a mild case of what a friend calls “wilderness PTSD”. For months, I had nightmares about big, wild open spaces. I fretted about getting lost while hiking. At my worst point, I didn’t feel safe outside.
Thresholds are relative. What might be intimidating to an enthusiast will be a piece of cake for an athlete. What comes naturally to locals seems unworkable to visitors. And a bad experience for a solo woman on a bike is just a funny holiday story to a group of friends.
Still, I felt ashamed. I was a wuss.
A year later, almost back to normal, I had yet to face my fears. After years of reading everything I could about the Last Frontier and the stories of those who persevered in such a wild environment, I headed up there.
I had a list of activities to gently push my limits: hiking, climbing, fish-killing, flying, sailing.
I started with a hike on the outskirts of Alaska’s capital, Juneau, on the west Mendenhall glacier trail. The two guides behind Adventure Flow, Eric and Patrick, volunteered to show me their favourite route, warning me that it would be a moderately taxing day out. (As a friend once told me, if a guide enthusiastically talks about a “moderate” activity, run).
Juneau, a city only accessible by plane or ferry, is renowned for its hundreds of miles of deserted trails winding through peaks and valleys. The glacier is reachable by helicopters, an option that gets visitors in and out in a matter of minutes. A more demanding route is to conquer it by foot – which Eric insisted is way more rewarding. You sweat, scramble, climb, wade through water – and truly deserve the view.
The outing lasted six hours and began with a pleasant stroll through sitka spruce and black cottonwood trees. So far, so good. Things took a turn when the trail picked up abruptly. We soon reached a vista from which the entire city of Juneau and the ocean was visible to my right, and the glacier looked like it was being spit out by the mountains to my left. This is the first point where hikers will feel thankful for the presence of the guides: they figuratively took you by the hand and dragged you to a place you’d never have seen otherwise (both of them knew the trails like the backs of their hands, and I do not recommend trying it alone, especially if inexperienced).
After a couple of hours, the hard work started. Patrick and Eric said they were keen to take me further than their usual route, to go to the ice caves only accessible by an arduous climb and a few jumps between car-sized boulders. I huffed, puffed, turned red and cursed their names.
“Do you realise,” I mumbled under my breath, “that you will have to ... huff ... puff ... carry me ... huff ... puff ... on your damn shoulders huff ... puff ... on our way back if we keep going like this?”
All the while I kept thinking about how, should I suddenly drop dead or unconscious, the helicopter would positively not have any space to make a safe landing. But my guides were cheerful, encouraging me, and I kept on going because frankly, I just didn’t want to let them down.
But what an incredible gift it was to arrive. The caves, nestled under the enormous glacier, reflected dozen different shades of blue, bearing witness to thousands of years of rain, ice and rock coming together to form a giant cocoon. Just as wilderness in New Zealand had frightened me, the Mendenhall glacier reminded me of my insignificance. Except this time, I felt safe enough to appreciate what I was seeing.
The next day presented a new obstacle: open water.
I boarded with Moore Charters for a six-hour expedition. The captain was quick to tell me that that mobile reception was out, but that “if anything were to happen to him, we just had to use the radio to call for help”. I tried not to think of worst-case scenarios, or of the city’s gigantic fishermen’s memorial I had seen the day before. I swallowed sea-sickness tablets, and off we went.
We made our way to the straits, anchored the boat and began to fish. Soon halibut, who feed at the bottom of the sea, started to bite. One, two, six of them. Each bite required serious effort to reel them in, as they fought their way off the line. The killing, which I dreaded, is a quick affair: one blow to the head, one stab near the gills with a giant knife. Later in the day, a fellow tourist caught a massive king salmon – according to the captain, the biggest he’d seen in years. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy. Each catch was measured, carefully filleted, and then packed to be sent to our respective homes in dry ice.
Day three came, when I was to tackle the leg that most preoccupied me: a fly-fishing expedition in the Alaskan bush.
Just two weeks earlier, eight tourists had been killed in a floatplane crash over Misty Fjords Wilderness, near Ketchikan. The cause of the crash has yet to be determined.
Bush planes are a way of life in Alaska. They facilitate access to remote villages, lodges and fishing grounds. Thousands use them every week with no issue. But you can be unlucky. Between 2000 and 2010, an average of five fatal occupational aircraft crashes occurred annually; crashes are the second leading cause of occupational deaths in the state – statistics which give flyers pause.
I was comforted to read that longtime Alaskans, such as writer Heather Lende, also admitted to trepidation about flying. After having lost loved ones to crashes in the wild, Lende writes, she always prepares for an emergency landing when flying around the state:
The Federal Aviation Administration actually tell you to dress for the weather and carry emergency survival gear, to be aware of ‘pilot fatigue’, and to pay attention to any hazardous conditions, like bad weather. If that doesn’t make a nervous flyer worry, I don’t know what will. You’d think the pilot or airline would determine if it was safe to take off, not me.
Whom you’re flying with, then, matters a great deal. Bear Creek Outfitters, the company I travelled with, has a stellar reputation, and the weather that day was optimal, with no fog. I decided to put aside the mental images of the eight tourists, and climbed aboard.
Once strapped in to my “flying coffin”, the ride was wonderful. Taking off with clear skies assures an expansive view of both the coast and the dozens of inlets sprinkled in the ocean – and a frightening sense of scale.
We landed and met our guide, Mark, a no-nonsense Alaskan who struck me as someone who could survive stranded in the tundra for weeks and make it out alive with “fun” tales to share. He nonchalantly pointed to bear tracks on the beach. “They’re fresh,” he remarked.
Having recently read Lynne Schooler’s masterful book The Blue Bear, in which one of his best friends is tragically killed by a grizzly, I gulped and secretly hoped my guide was packing (it turns out he had a bear spray, which he had never had cause to use in his career).
We walked to the confluence of a river and the ocean, hooked flies, and casted for salmon. I couldn’t help but notice my guide periodically turn back to make sure the beach was clear.
The fishing was plentiful. A novice fly-fisherwoman, I managed to catch seven pink salmon in a few hours, while an experienced tourist from Michigan, who was visiting with his wife, caught perhaps 16. These were big, catch-and-release fish that put up a good fight, oftentimes taking the line with them. A sea lion decided to join us, and engaged in some friendly competition. The silence was deafening, with not a soul around for dozens and dozens of miles.
As I stood on the beach, rod in hand, I had the time to reflect on wilderness, and why it attracts and repels me in equal measure. Human beings, I figure, were quick to realise that there is great safety in numbers: build a city, and all amenities that make life comfortable and controlled are suddenly on your doorstep: hospitals, libraries, museums, your local cafe.
Conversely, densely populated areas become aggregators of human stupidity: it smells, it’s loud, and everyone is too fussed to look up from their smartphone. Some of us, then, crave solitude, or at least a place reflecting higher ideas: immensity, infinity, impermanence. That’s what wilderness reminds me of: the possibility of starting afresh, or building a life away from the pettiness of technology, around the clock news, and paychecks.
Right on cue, the tiny seaplane appeared in the horizon, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
A week later, for the sum of $60 in packing fees, I received seven giant fillets in the post at my home in New York. I am still eating my way through them. Needless to say, it’s the best fish I’ve ever had.