I’m lying on the gravelly bank of Kinnorutin Creek, in the shadow of Apoon Mountain, two days’ hike in from the Dalton Highway. Kuyuktukvuk creek flows in to the Deitrich river about 60 miles north of Coldfoot, and Trembley creek flows in to the Kuyuktukvuk not far from the Dietrich. I hiked up Trembly creek, over the pass, down Blarney creek and up Kinnorutin. It is about nine o’clock in the evening, and the sun is still at least 25 degrees above the horizon, due west. It is mostly cloudy. I’m hoping that the weather holds – the past couple days it has been amazingly clear, warm and sunny. It would be less fun to have to deal with more typical Brooks Range weather while I’m out here. So far so good.
Yesterday I started out from the haul road with Fred, who I know through Sean Davis by way of Denali. Fred climbed the Cassin Ridge, one of, perhaps the, classic technical routes to the summit. He climbed with Ron, and Vaughn, both from Fairbanks. Ron used to be a musher, and seeing images of his dogsled trips up into these mountains was part of the encouragement I needed to get up here. Ron’s also the father of three little girls (they are down to Peru right now, he’s on his way there to meet them), and his house is an interesting collision of climbing gear and cute pink things, dirtbag meets Dora. Vaughn put me up in Fairbanks, and loaned me his packraft for this trip. He lives on Cheena Ridge outside of town. The house has an open floor plan, with a second story that does not extend over the living room, creating space for the mind to relax. There is a rope fixed to the ceiling, hanging down behind the couch. It doesn’t seem out of place at all; it is simply a piece of furniture, like the wood stove or the rocking chair. When I arrived in Fairbanks, I was generously welcomed by Vaughn and his girlfriend Erin; they grilled a delicious salmon for dinner, and helped me plan my current and next adventures. It is true, at least in this case, what they say about the hospitality of people in the north. Fred knows Ron from climbing in Peru. He’s also headed there next, and will drive my van back to Coldfoot so that it will be there for me when I get out.
Fred decided to join me up here at the last minute. I stopped by Ron’s house to say goodbye, and Fred decided that heading up north for a few days would be more exciting than continuing to relax on Ron’s couch. So, we got out of town late, driving north into the almost but not quite setting midnight sun. At around one in the morning, we stopped and tried to sleep for a bit, but the mosquitoes had found their way into the van, probably five hundred of them, and sleep was impossible. This was the first time I hadn’t been able to clear them out and sleep mosquito free.
After a couple hours we continued north, crossed the Yukon river at about six in the morning. On the north bank of the river is a camp where we stopped for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. We caught a little sleep with a nap at a pull out on the side of the highway. A breeze cleared the mosquitoes out of the van, and I made some pancakes for lunch. Continuing north, we came to Coldfoot in the early afternoon, stopped in at the ranger station, and then over to the Furthest North Truck Stop in the World, where we got our money’s worth out of their all you can eat dinner. Both of us are still in recovery mode after Denali. We met Will and his father, Doug, who are up here working a small gold mine. Doug is classic. He asks me, “You drive that van up here all the way from America?”
We continued up the road over Atigun pass, to stick our toes in the North Slope, and made camp near the headwaters of the Atigun river. Finally, a good sleep. We woke up late. The van was full of mosquitoes again, but these ones were not interested in biting. Atigun pass held weather and we almost just sat around drinking coffee and reading all day. Luckily we made a move back south to our trailhead, where the sun was shining warm. Crossing the clear Dietrich river was refreshing. We commenced hopping gravel bars upstream, splashing back and forth through Kuyuktukvuk and Trembley creeks, climbing over boulders and the remnanats of pack ice, following tracks of wolf, moose, and bear.
In a small pool, Fred fished out three grayling, and we fried them up for lunch. I’d thought about getting set up to fish on this trip, but never got around to it. If I were taking a longer trip, it would be more enticing. In Bellingham I picked up reading material at Village Books, to add to the small library I’m carrying around already. On Denali I started The River Why, but I doubt I’ll finish it. Maybe someday fishing will interest me. I also picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, and this has been more engaging. Not yet started is Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, which seems good. Climbing through the remnants of the aufeis reminded me of climbing through the sandstone canyons of Utah. There was no night, and we kept hiking until late; it was after midnight when we finally turned in.
Fred and I parted ways this morning. He hiked out, I continued up the creek until it became a trickle and then disappeared into the tundra. Over the pass, Blarney Creek picks up where Trembley left off, rivulets between shallow pools flowing together. They merge into a small stream that sprinkles its way down a steep jumble, where it joins another flow coming in from the right. I stop and brew up a cup of coffee, sitting on the stones of the riverbank. A thin riparian line of willows gives way to mossy tundra climbing to the chossy cliffs above. The landscape is immense, the light is somehow different, older, or perhaps younger, from an earlier age, this place out of step with the life of other mountains to the south. And here I am in the middle of these mountains, camped by this river. Practical concerns: bug dope is often required, swallow a few mosquitoes and out comes the headnet. My food is cached in a bear can fifty strides upriver. I do not need a headlamp. I do not need to carry water. I cup my hands and drink directly from the river. Wool socks seem functionally equivalent to Neoprene for walking in and out of the water all day – one pair of each are in rotation, and I have a pair of dry wool socks in reserve. These little ankle gaiters are good for keeping things out of my shoes. The willows have fresh green leaves. Tracks of wolf, bear and moose are everywhere.
The original plan was to hike in and climb Mt. Doonerak. (Bob Marshall gave the name to the mountain. A Doonerak is some sort of a trickster spirit.) From there, I would float out the Koyuykuk to Delay Pass, and then hike out to Wiseman. I might still do that. Plans are always in flux. The BLM ranger, Craig, at the station in Coldfoot said that as of last year there was a Zach Hugo, age 81, living at Anaktuvik Pass. (He used the internet.) I’m inclined to go over there and see if I can meet the man after whom I am named. I should have made this plan earlier and tried to get in touch. And mailed myself a food drop. What would usually be ten days of food might last six if I restrain myself. I’m still recovery eating after Denali. I might be able to wrangle a resupply, but I don’t have enough on me for the trip to Anaktuvik and then on down the Tinyaguk to Coldfoot. I could buy supplies in Anaktuvik, except that I don’t have my wallet with me. Or I could fly out from Anaktuvik. Doonerak looks large, steep and messy, not sure I want to climb it. Tomorrow I hope to get to try the pack raft (if I climb Doonerak, not tomorrow). If the going by raft is easy enough, it will make extending the trip more attractive. Actually, maybe not having a plan is the best plan. Enough for tonight, I’m enjoying this book that I’m reading, Shadows on the Koyukuk, and I want to read a bit more before bed.
I made it to the Koyukuk river today, and am settled on a gravel bar in my bivy sack with the mesh up against the mosquitoes. Today’s hike came up to Kinnorutin Pass, where I decided not to climb Doonerak. I would be more likely to run out of food if I took the extra day to do that. And I’m feeling kind of lazy. So I crossed the broad tundra plain of the pass towards Amawk Creek. The creek begins as a large shallow pool, flowing out in braids a few inches deep, funneling together as the stream cuts through a harder layer of rock. I splash through the stream, crossing from bank to bank as I downclimb. The upended geology has created a series of steps and benches on the way down from the pass. As I start to descend one of these steps I notice two bears about a quarter mile downstream. They are heading up the trail I am following down. (This is a trail in the Brooks Range sense, with broken branches holding tufts of brown fur, not in the established path where you think a person might have come by here recently sense. I have not seen obvious sign of human presence on the ground since leaving the Dietrich River.) So, I change sides of the creek to keep it between me and them, and stay high. The bears are full grown, but tumble and play with each other like cubs, like puppies. Amazing to watch. Want to linger. They looked full grown enough that mom is probably not around, but I don’t want to make an unfortunate assumption. Also, if they are young and rambunctious enough to be so playful, I don’t want to arouse their curiosity. The bears continue upstream. I wish I had a telephoto, or a better scope. Eventually, I pass around a bend in the river and lose sight of them.
Amawk is steep until it gets to the broad valley of the Koyukuk. At this point, it turns to the left and angles dwonstream to meet the river. It has gained enough water that it is awkward to walk in the flow, but not enough to float with the raft. The banks are thick with willows, so I brave the tussocks and strike off straight towards the Koyukuk. It isn’t that bad. It takes maybe half an hour to traverse about a mile of open ground and then bushwhack through the thick brush to the river. Mount Doonerak looms downstream on river left. Tomorrow, I’ll float to the inflow of Ernie Creek where I’ll make the decision: turn right and head upstream towards the Valley of Precipices, Ernie Pass, and Anaktuvik, where I will have to resupply or exit by plane; or continue on downstream with the Koyukuk, through the Gates of the Arctic and on down to Delay Pass, where two more days of hiking will bring me to Wiseman, and either my thumb on the haul road or the packraft on the Dietrich will return me thirteen miles south to Coldfoot and my van.
My first experiment with the raft part of the packraft: After coffee (instant, with hot cocoa mix added to make it palatable) and oatmeal (also instant, threw in some chia seeds and dried blueberries for an extra bit of energy) I blow up Vaughn’s little blue boat. Inflation is done using a nylon bag that screws in to the valve on the raft. Open the bag, catch a bagful of air, push it into the boat. Finish it off with lungs. Assemble the paddle. How much extension, how much offset? Dunno. New to this game. Seat and backrest also get inflated. Spray skirt zips on and then closes up with velcro. Another air chamber on the lap of the skirt. Pack gets tied onto the bow. Ready the pack for getting wet. Everything that stays dry inside the plastic bag, roll it up and put the bear barrel on top. Snug it all down. Life jacket. Neoprene gloves in the pocket. Camera zippered up and attached to the pfd high on my chest. Boat in the water, everything snug, spray skirt closed. Ready to go? Ready. Looks like it is class II to start and for the foreseeable future. Push off, here we go.
I’m paddling down the Koyukuk. Turquoise wave trains. Doonerak towering above on the left. Riverbank, hill, mountain, sky. Green rises to black meets grey. Snags and soon to be snags of spruce leaning into the current. Feeling the current, learning to move the boat, learning to choose lines. Sometimes. Mostly just going with the flow. Streams flowing off the crags add to the river. It splits, braids, turns past gravel bars and around rocky outcrops. Flat sections followed by a rock gardens. Water splashes in; after half an hour, I’m sitting in an icy puddle. After an hour, I have to stop, empty the boat, dry off in the sun. I put on another layer (the R1 hoodie I pretty much lived in all summer). Have a snack.
Second time around I do a better job with the spray skirt. Parts of this river have just barely enough water to flaot. I feel bad for Vaughn’s boat as I plow into rocks and over gravel bars that I am not yet skillful enough to avoid. Eventually, the river mellows and I’m at the inflow of Ernie Creek.
I take out onto a gravel bar. Build a little fire from driftwood. The Gates of the Arctic mark a psychological boundary down river. Marshall named these mountains as well. He saw them from the south. Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain. The weather is lousy – cold, rainy. A couple planes fly overhead. “Why am I here?” occasionally whispers as I slowly warm up. My little fire doesn’t do much good. It is too windy, too small to dry anything without burning it. Make a cup of coffee and sit under the boat with my back against a log. Warms me more than the fire.
The airplanes flying over, oil traffic, remind me of a story from my dad. One of the cases he argued for the village of Anaktuvik Pass was about the routes that the pipeline traffic was taking during construction. The original agreement, the route authorization, was to take Dietrich Pass, but the Alyeska cats were driving right over Anaktuvik, because it was more convenient, cheaper. Judge von der Heydt presumed to read the minds of the Natives and used the reading to find against them. “Counsel by these pleadings make light of the critical national interest in this matter, but the Court is sure such is not the intent of the good Native people named as plaintiffs in the case.” You know, National Security and all that. My dad did a lot of work for these people, but always, the deck was stacked against him. The story of Indian Law seems to be that the locals usually lose. I think about how I got here, driving my petroleum fueled van up the haul road, into territory that less than fifty years ago was accessible in summer only by boat or plane.
During the hearings about the slicing up of land up here, many environmentalists argued that no land be placed in private (i.e. Native) hands until appropriate easements had been established. Any delay favored the more forceful actors, the oil industry. Believing my enemy’s enemy is my friend, some of the natives threw their lot in with the oil companies. The Sierra Club wanted people like me to be able to take hikes like this, so they alienated the Natives and unwittingly helped create a space for the oil companies to push through into Prudhoe Bay. There is a big difference between recreational environmentalism and true stewardship. It is also easy to make costly mistakes, even when well-intentioned. Bringing the case about the cat traffic caused a judicial order that enshrined the route over Anaktuvik as a legal alternative to Dietrich Pass.
We must honor the past, we cannot break promises to our ancestors. And yet we cannot revere the dead at the expense of the living. I drove Skinny City, crossed the bridge over the Yukon, gorged myself at the truck stop staffed by earnest, nature loving white kids from Seattle, who will carry a deep seated appreciation for wild places in their hearts all their lives because of the time they spent in the far north. Doug and Will, while working to scrape the precious yellow metal from the earth, grow to appreciate the profound emptiness and silence of the boreal forest.
I collapse the boat, pack up and start hiking upstream. Anaktuvik. Want to meet Zach Hugo. I’ll figure the rest out when I get there. Hiking up valley again, wading, tussocks, bushwhacking. None of the going is particularly easy, but by mixing up the types of slogging, it isn’t particularly bad either. I stop on a gravel bar for quesadillas, hike another hour, and here I am.
Greylime Creek, Arctic drainage.
Today’s hike was spectacularly beautiful.
After breakfast, an hour or so of hiking across tussocks brings me to the flanks of Blackface Mountain. The sugar and caffeine rush from breakfast tends to last between one and two hours, and then I need a snack. A rocky bench is my goal, my target as I trudge across the squishy, unstable ground. The locals do their land things in the winter, when the ground is frozen solid. Tumbled slabs of dark rock support a colorful array of lichens and moss. There is a political division here, and on this black rock a cairn is stacked. It is the first sign of humans on the ground that I have seen since I started up the Kuyuktukvuk.
I am up high enough that the view down river to the Gates of the Arctic is unobstructed. Clouds create a second, inverted landscape which joins the rock, grass and water at my sight line’s point of tangency visible far to the south. The air is clear enough that I can see this place, measure it against true local horizontal, and know that the world is round here as well.
I eat a bagel. I’m halfway through the stash I acquired at Lulu’s in Fairbanks. It’s good. I have a small bag of salt licorice candies from a place just off the plaza in Santa Fe. (Does Senor Murphy’s still exist? How I loved that place when I was a kid.) I’ll have to remember to restock on licorice next time I’m down there. I’ve taken to calling them my magic bullets. When I hiked from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the river and back, they were all I could eat. Of course, Tom Waits’ The Black Rider is playing in my head. “Think you can use just a few of them magics, save the rest for your bad days?” Good thing it’s salt licorice, not heroin. I have seventeen of them left.
Up the Valley of Precipices. It doesn’t strike me as much more precipitous than anywhere else. Blackface has impressive cliffs, but so do Apoon and Falsoola. Names can refer as much to the frame of mind of the name-giver as to the thing named. Halfway up the valley, I see a boot print in the dried mud, next to the ubiquitous wolf tracks that I’ve been following since day one. Further up a snowmachine carcass rusts in the river. This drainage is a well traveled corridor. Every few hours, another plane flies overhead. I can sense that others have experienced the vastness of this place, and it is both comforting and disheartening. I gently chide myself for the ego that is disappointed in the crack in its solopsistic isolation. I feel a kinship with these mountains. Walking up this valley, I am among family. I do cross over a precipice of sorts in this place.
Past the discarded snowmachine, I climb the ridge to the left of the river, psychologically pulling myself up by creating a trail from feature to feature. Up to that rock, now that one, that clump of flowers, to that flat spot and I can rest for a minute. The valley drops away below me as I approach the broad tundra plain of Ernie Pass. Once I am high above the river, I can see that it would have been easy going to stay in the drainage. By this point, I am committed to crossing high, contouring through the creeks that pour down from the crags with their attendant gullies of loose rock and scree. To the north are the ash-grey cliffs of Limestack Mountain, clearly a different geologic phenomenon from that through which I am walking.
I reach a creek that may be the beginning of Greylime, and stop there to cook dinner. There are lots of mosquitoes, but I’m mostly covered up and I sit facing into the wind. In any case, they are not biting. They are fascinating if frustrating little critters. I see the resemblance to Les Claypool. After dinner I pack up and follow the creek downstream for a while until I find a nice spot to camp.
I’m wearing a head net for the mosquitoes, but my feet are bare. They seem much more interested in the protected rest of me, about which I am not complaining. As they do at the end of every day on this hike, my feet need to dry out. Greylime creek is not big enough to be packraft navigable. Parts of it would be. If those parts become a bit more frequent, maybe I’ll see how it works to not close the spray skirt, hop in and out as needed. Tomorrow, if all goes well and the river is navigable and I find ATV trails to follow when I need to walk, I’ll make it to the village of Anaktuvik Pass. If not, I’ll do some slogging and suffering. Hopefully that’s not the case. I’m also going to run out of food in a few days.
I made it to Anaktuvik this morning. Last night I camped at a little uninhabited cluster of buildings a few miles away. Apparently I missed a good party for the 4th of July. But there are festivities continuing through the weekend and I’ve finagled a re-up on food so I’m going to stick around, fly back to Coldfoot on Monday. (Today is Friday.)
Yesterday I woke up and tried to raft Greylime, but it wasn’t worth it. So I carried the raft inflated down to the Anaktuvik River. This was still a pretty low flow, but with the spray skirt off I was able to hop in and out and make pretty good progress. After 4 or 5 miles it became mostly navigable, though I was still in and out of the boat a fair bit. I feel bad about the abuse I’m inflicting on Vaughn’s paddle and boat. I’ll check in with someone who knows before I send it back to him, see if there’s something I can do to repair or replace what wear I’ve created. I guess that this is what these things are designed for. It is quite the travel tool. Making twenty miles in a day was amazing. Usually that’s not such a big deal; twenty miles is a big day, but one I’ve done plenty of times on trails or even overland through open country. Out here, it is a different story, one that Bob Marshall apparently learned in a similar manner.
The river was quite varied. Some sections were gravelly and braided; I was in and out of the boat, trying to follow the deepest channel. Others meandered through thickets of willow, where at one point I came around a corner and surprised a large cow moose – sent her crashing off through the trees. There were some rock gardens where I had to pull and spin to try to keep my little bubble of air from bouncing off of too many of them, or turning over and giving me even more of a soaking than I was already getting. There were huge walls and slabs of aufeis, winter ice that only partially melts during the brief Arctic summer. Sometimes the river flowed under one of these slabs, and I had to make sure not to be swept along with it.
It rained, and I did get kind of cold. When I took out it was certainly time to do so. A cup of oatmeal and dry, warm layers felt really good. I had spied this little cluster of huts where I am sitting now from the river. Hiking across the tundra finished the job of warming me up. The mosquitoes were pretty bad, I had to brush them off my head net so that I could see.
When I did reach the little cluster of huts I found that it was obviously not town, but I was tired enough not to care. It turns out that I could have taken out earlier, where I saw an ATV track, and had a shorter walk to actual town, but I didn’t know.
Anyway, I walked into town this morning. It was fairly deserted, but there were a few people wandering around the streets. I asked a woman, maybe twenty-something, if she knew Zach Hugo, if he was still around. “Oh, yeah, he’s my grandpa,” she replied. “He lives right over there, in that house with the little blue and white truck thing out front. But they aren’t here, he’s in the hospital in Fairbanks.”
Not really knowing what to do, I knocked on the door anyway. My namesake’s son in law opened the door. “Yep, he’s in the hospital in Fairbanks. He’ll probably be there for a week or so. He’s okay, it’s nothing major. Can I tell him who came calling?”
I wandered around town a bit more, and ran into Sarah and Troy at the airport, also in the middle of a long trip. They flew up here from Florida in their little plane, and set up their tent under the wing. We chatted for a bit, they told me about the party the night before, where they were pulled into the songs and dances that have tied this culture together for as long as anyone can remember. They showed me pictures of the singers and the drummers lined up, holding the large flat caribou-belly drums like the ones that growing up, were one of the icons of the life that my parents had in Alaska, before I was born.
The three of us wandered over to the ranger station, where we met Al Smith, who has been part of the Park Service’s presence in the Brooks range for the last ten years or so. Al is the good type of ranger. He knows a lot about the land and the people, he is deeply invested in the place. He’s perhaps a bit of a nerdy recluse at times (or maybe I’m projecting my own traits onto the poor guy). Apparently last night was the first time he’d gotten up to dance at one of these festivals – it was an initiation of sorts.
Anaktuvik Pass has an interesting history. Al told us some stories, and then we went over to the museum. The Nunamiut are some of the last people in America to go from subsistence hunter/ gatherer lifestyle to town-based living. Zach and Doris Hugo were born when the Nunamiut were still nomads, living in tents and sod huts, following the caribou. When they were children, most Nunamiut hunters used rifles, but some were still using bow and arrow or atlatl and spear. The anthropologists discovered them as the transition was underway, so it is well studied and well documented. The museum is named for Simon Paneak, a Nunamiut who befriended the anthropologists and enabled their study of his people. Also, with their encouragement and enabling, he documented much of his own culture, recording methods of making and using tools that were being replaced by modern conveniences. This rapid modernization hadn’t been going on for too long when the oil rush started and everything changed again.
The story that brought my dad into Zach and Doris’s life is a tragic one. Two fuel experts (I think from the army corps of engineers) showed up in early May one year, maybe ’73. The villagers asked them to camp just outside of town, at the far end of the airstrip. They were woefully inadequately prepared for the Arctic in their khakis and light spring jackets. May is still winter. Anaktuvik Pass has recorded subzero Fahrenheit temperatures in June. When their tent blew down in the snow, they bundled themselves in the torn canvas and walked backwards up the runway in to town. One of the villagers rented them a hut, a traditional sod building, and loaned them a stove. The village children, naturally curious, came to visit, ten kids in the hut with the two foreigners. Neither of the fuel experts knew how to use the stove, and it exploded, spewing fuel and fire everywhere. All of the children were badly burned. At least one died. When my dad was visiting the village, staying with the Hugos, Zach apologized because his son would wake up crying in pain in the middle of the night. “He doesn’t like it when it is hot,” he explained, embarrassed. Is it right for me to appear in this village? Am I anything more than a reminder of great pain? Of what value is the fact that my dad tried to honor this man who so impressed him by giving me his name?
I’m camped down by the river now. Al gave me some old backpacker meals (project food he called it) and Sarah and Troy gave me Triscuts, an apple, cookies and chocolate. So I’m set for food, good to go. Or to stay as the case may be. On Monday morning I have a flight back to Coldfoot and then begins the long trek back south. I’ll have adventures on the way, the Tatshenshini river trip in a couple weeks, perhaps McCarthy and the Kennicott.
So, I decided not to stay the whole weekend in Anaktuvik. Last night I hung out with the locals as they played games, like the Eskimo version of mumbleypeg where a dart is thrown at a wooden board following a sequence: touch the shoulder, the elbow, knuckles, ears while flicking the dart, continue if it sticks. I’m standing around a fire – built for piling moss onto and making smoke to drive off the mosquitoes, not for warmth – and one of the guys I’m talking to, his name is Fred, tells me that I should go talk to Ray, an elder who might remember my dad. I introduce myself to Ray. He is wearing a brown leather jacket. His eyes have the cloudy look of one who has been outside in bright sunlight for much of a long life, but they sparkle with a vibrant intensity when I ask him if he remembers my father, who was there maybe forty years ago. “Oh, yes, Eric!” He breaks into a smile. “The village was a lot smaller then.”
“What was it like when my dad came out here? Can you tell me some stories?”
“It was good!”
And that was it. Someone called him away, it was his turn to play cribbage. I didn’t want to press. I was a bit disappointed to not get to meet Zach or Doris. I wasn’t sure of the story about the fuel experts and the children at the time, but I didn’t want to prod at old wounds, and I understood that I might be doing so just by being in town. So I caught the plane back to Coldfoot in the morning. There was my van, and there were the keys, tacked to a beam next to the cashier in an envelope with my name on it.
When I was returning my bear canister and checking out at the ranger station, one of the rangers, Susan Deatherage I think was her name, overheard me tell the retired couple volunteering at the front desk what I had done, and we chatted for a bit about my trip, and about the mountains and rivers of this landscape. She invited me to head over to the Fourth of July barbeque in Wiseman, which was happening today, even though technically it is the Sixth. So I did, where I spent the whole afternoon eating, drinking, and enjoying the company of the people who Bob Marshall called the happiest people on the planet. Doug and Will were there, and several other miners, there was a couple who had just about finished their trip, driving their bus from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay. He was Spanish, she French. There were some students up from Fairbanks, who wanted to hear about my adventures on Denali and in the Brooks Range. There was a truck there with New Mexico plates, and when the owner moved it, and I introduced myself, he was ecstatic to hear that I grew up in Pojoaque and Santa Fe, and that I had heard of Rio Rancho. I was welcomed into their community simply by being there, and fed until I couldn’t even contemplate another bite of caribou stew.
Eventually it was time to go. The students were having car trouble, so one of them opted to catch a ride with me. It is nice to have company on these long drives, when so much of my windshield time is just me and my thoughts. We drove for a bit, tried to sleep by the Yukon River but the mosquitoes were bad, made it back to Fairbanks in the early hours. I parked in Vaughn’s driveway and caught a few hours of good sleep.
As I was telling my story to Vaughn and Erin, when I got to the part where I learned that Zach was in the hospital, Erin joked that perhaps he was Vaughn’s patient. (Vaughn is a nurse.) His eyes opened wide for a second. “He is a very sweet old man. He really wanted to go home.”