“We’re pathetic,” Josh laughed. During a break we had dropped to our knees, alleviating some of the pain in our feet, only to find we had knelt in a patch of stinging nettle. After realizing this we grimaced, Miriam groaned (annoyed that the stinging nettle had chosen this exact plot of land as its home), but no one moved. We remained kneeling, legs burning, until one of us decided to get up and continue to camp.
This was my fourth summer spent hiking in the wilderness. At this point I knew that feeling in your feet at the end of a twelve-hour day. I was familiar with the rush of adrenaline when a boulder wobbles ten feet above you, and I had dealt with the frustration of clumsy hands and slurred speech at the onset of hypothermia. Yet, despite all this, I had decided once again to return to the mountains and to Alaska.
My first summer in Alaska, I fell in love. I loved how the sun circled overhead but never set. Daylight made everything possible. Alaska gave us the freedom to hike and sleep regardless of time. One day after checking the clock, we discovered it was two in the morning. We shrugged and continued chatting as we made our way to the base of the Matanuska Glacier, our next campsite. During that summer I became acquainted with the spongy tundra, clear cold lakes, and towering gray-green mountains. Even the air was invigorating. I would stay awake for hours after everyone else was asleep, listening to the howling of the wind, and wake up before our twelve alarms buzzed in unison.
My early rising didn’t go over so well with a tent mate who happened to be a light sleeper. Each morning I would deflate my Therm-a-rest, collect my belongings, and leave as quietly as possible. As I went to open the zipper door, Sydney would inevitably awake and shout at me to keep sleeping and stop making so much noise. I usually made up some excuse: I was leader of the day and had to review the maps, or I was cooking that morning. But usually, I simply organized my pack and went to the largest boulder in sight. I would sit there admiring the mountains and the changing of the light as the sun moved around the sky.
This last summer in Alaska our trip leaders would hand us a compass and some maps and disappear for days at a time. I was challenged to use everything I had learned from the past three years to, not only survive, but also have the time of my life despite the difficulties. This year we experienced rain like I had never seen before. Out of the thirty days in the backcountry, twenty-seven of them were long days of cold rain. Dry boots and socks did not exist. Our rain gear had been soaked through by day two, and each new day the rain penetrated yet another layer: puffy jacket, vest, fleece, long-underwear. But along with the rain came rainbows because the sun was never directly above the clouds. So every time it rained we looked for the rainbow. I still remember, July 21st. It was overcast the entire day and we had spent all morning wading through bogs up to our waists. As soon as we made it to firm land, we took a break. As we sat down on our packs, it started to rain. Before we even had a chance to complain the brightest double rainbow filled the sky. The feeling was indescribable, as we sat there while the heavy rain washed away the smell the bog had left on our legs and clothing.
All of my most exhilarating experiences have come from my four summers spent hiking through the backcountry. Watching a grizzly cub running after its mother, seeing clear blue glacial ice under my feet, and looking through the rain at that double rainbow are just a few of these moments. Through backpacking, I have learned so many useful skills. Beyond compass and map reading, wilderness first aid, fire starting, ice-climbing, and tent pitching, I have also learned organization and preparedness, skills which are invaluable in managing a busy school schedule and work during the year. I have also learned how and when to be a leader. While leading a taxing climb, I’d often have to encourage the group with funny stories, catchy pop songs, and trail games, as well as time breaks and determine the quickest and safest route over questionable topography. But in addition to leadership I have also learned how to do my share as part of a team. I know that taking my portion of weight and following directions are every bit as important as leading an eddy line across a dangerous river. In a hiking group, we have to trust one another with our lives. It is this constant vulnerability that creates bonds worth years in just a few weeks. It is amazing the lengths to which someone will go to help a group member: from encouraging words to heroic rescue efforts when a group member falls into a glacial river and is swept away.
Backpacking is unpredictable. Even when the greatest precautions are taken, there are always surprises – changing weather, rock falls, unexpected terrain, and snowfields are encountered at random. However, the ability to cope with and overcome these challenges create a deep sense of accomplishment at the end of each day.
Who knows where my boots and backpack will take me, but I’ll be sure to live life with a backcountry mindset, whether or not I’m in the wilderness. This year, on the last day of our adventure, an instructor asked me if I was ready to go home. I responded no, I am never ready to leave the beauty of the backcountry. It is a lifestyle that suits me: the simplicity, the organization, the preparedness, and the challenge. He nodded. “But,” I said smiling, “I’ll be back next year.”
Most of Helen’s backpacking in Alaska was done with the National Outdoor Leadership School