I grew up in Kansas, the flattest place on the planet, and didn't have a clue about the joys of hiking until we moved to Alaska. I took walks when we lived in California, but there's a distinct difference between walking and hiking. A wrong turn on a walk results in having to ask the nice lady out watering her lawn for directions home. A wrong turn on a hike could result in a supper of bark and pine needles and a chilly night in the company of wolves.
I experienced my first real hike in Alaska. In the Great Land, hikers apparently don't believe in switchbacks. That would make things too easy. No, the trails pretty much run right up the side of the mountain you happen to be climbing. I've hiked all over the state--from the Yukon to Kodiak Island to the Anchorage area--and it's always the same. Straight up you go.
I thought I was in decent shape when my friend asked me to hike a paltry two miles to the top of Bird Ridge, which overlooks Turnagain Arm. But only 1/2 mile into the hike, I thought I was going to die. My lungs screamed, my legs cramped, my water bottle was empty. My sudden interest in Alaskan wildflowers gave me an excuse to stop and catch my breath every five minutes or so and prevented my early demise. My friend wasn't even sweating when we reached the top of the Ridge. She runs even steeper trails on a regular basis--just for fun!
But I was hooked--the views from the Alaskan heights I scaled were a fair trade for the pain. And every trail led to adventure. Once, I took a group of gals from Campus Crusade (they were spending the summer in Anchorage) on a hike to the top of Bald Mountain. I'd only lived in Alaska for six months, but was already a self-proclaimed fishing and wild-life guide.
"Look at these bear tracks," I said, pointing out some very large prints with the toe of my hiking boot. "Looks like a grizzly to me."
My hiking buddies were impressed with my knowledge, which made me all the more dangerous.
"And that's fresh bear scat," I announced, poking at the steaming pile with my hiking stick. Suddenly, I felt a frantic tapping on my shoulder.
"Is that a b-b-b-bear?" one of the women squeaked.
I looked up to see the rear end of a very large brown bear. He was standing upright, stretched to his full height, investigating something in a nearby tree. We'd just come up over a ridge and were probably about 200 feet away from the bear. I momentarily thought about getting my video camera out of my pack and filming the griz, but my saner instincts kicked in and I motioned to the ladies to turn around quietly and head back down the trail. Glancing nervously over our shoulders, we silently hoofed it all the way down the mountain.
Yep, we'd cheated death again.
The biggest fight Greg and I ever had involved a hike. One night after church, my best friend and I decided to climb Flat Top Mountain. It was a sunny summer evening and we knew we could be up and back before midnight. Greg thought we were getting too late of a start, but I whined and he gave in, so Kristy and I drove excitedly across town to the trailhead.
We parked and scrambled up to the summit in record time. We took in the amazing view for a few moments--the Chugach Mountains on one side and Cook Inlet on the other, and then trucked on down the trail. We got back to our car quicker than we expected, but then hit our first snag of the evening--a flat tire.
I found the jack and Kristy went to work on the lug nuts--which were completely stripped. Defeated, we sat in the growing dusk by the side of the road and prayed for God to intervene. As if in answer, a very beat-up old van rumbled to a stop next to us.
"Janie, get out there and give 'em some elbow grease," a man's voice bellowed from inside the dark van. A young girl leapt from the passenger seat and ran to our rescue.
Janie was strong for her age, which looked to be about 11. Her dad barked instructions from the driver's seat, but those lug nuts didn't budge. The midnight sun was setting, so Janie's dad asked us if we wanted a ride back to Anchorage. The road was deserted by this time, so we reluctantly acceped his offer.
I could probably write a book about that fateful ride, but I'll just relate the highlights. For starters, the windshield was so cracked and dirty that you needed x-ray vision to see through it. And the van's starter needed some coaxing--Janie's dad had to let it roll down the mountain for a bit and then popped the clutch. Thankfully, the engine sputtered back to life.
"Old Blueberry's got her quirks, alright," he told us, stroking her dusty dashboard. "But she just keeps going . . ."
We found out on that long ride down the mountain that Janie's dad "recycled" for a living. Meaning, he picked up everyone else's garbage and turned it into cash somehow. The back of the van, I mean Blueberry, was filled with his day's discoveries. He'd even managed to fit part of an airplane wing in his vehicle. I know, because every bump Blueberry hit sent the wing tip slamming into my back.
I am not making this up.
Since we lived on the opposite side of Anchorage, I asked our rescuers to just drop us off at a nearby friend's house. We woke them out of a dead sleep, but they graciously let me use their phone to call and wake my husband. Greg was pretty cranky when he showed up at 1 a.m. to fetch us. He was even crankier when he realized I'd left the pink slip in the glove compartment of the car--which was all the way back at Flat Top Mountain. I think the sun was coming up by the time we got to bed that night. And I'm pretty sure Greg didn't speak to me for days . . .
Next blog, I'll list my favorite hikes. They don't all end in near-disaster!
(that's Lindsay in the picture, atop Tom, Dick and Harry ridge in Oregon)