In preparing for the trip and doing all the research on the Refuge, I went out of my way not to have too many preconceived notions of what to expect. I didn’t go in with a check list of all the animals and birds I wanted to see, I was prepared for weather ranging from low-twenties to high-seventies, and I was game for whatever rafting conditions we might find.
The one hard assumption I allowed myself was that we would not see another human being from the time the bush pilot dropped us off until it picked us up 16 days later. As I watched the plane fly out of sight back over the Continental Divide, I thought to myself “We’re on our own now” with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
I was blessedly allowed to keep that assumption for 10 glorious days of silence, solitude and self-reliance.
This wasn’t a guided trip. We didn’t have a commercial outfitter to give us the sense of security that comes from being able to rely on the experts. We were doing this ourselves. If things started to go wrong, we would simply have to find our own way through any difficulties.
When it was clear that we had way too much gear to fit in our rafts, we had to engineer a way to re-string the nets and make it work. And we did. Sure, I was lying on top of the gear in the front and Sigrid was sitting high atop the pile in the back, but we were in.
When our overloaded rafts would stall on the gravel, we got out and pulled them.
When we hit deep water and I was faced with the choice of jumping back into the raft on top of our one and only pump, or falling into the water, I allowed myself to fall. Having a working pump was a hell of a lot more important than keeping myself dry. We could pull off onto the bank to let me wring out my clothes, run around to warm up, and eat something to fuel my internal fire. Without a pump we would be stranded.
When the smaller two-person raft got sucked into a tiny, churning, gauntlet of a channel, and a voracious willow reached into the raft, plucked Rick out in a brushy embrace, then flung him into the frigid water, we had to find a way to get to Rick, locate a campsite, and start a fire before hypothermia set in.
When we reached a boulder field in the rain-swollen river, we had to tie off the rafts and go scouting, trying to determine if it was possible to float through. We must have looked like one of those monumental paintings of the Lewis and Clark expedition: six of us standing on the high bank above the river, shielding our eyes from the sun and pointing in different directions. We were truly explorers, finding our way through the unknown.
When it became clear that we couldn’t make it through the boulder field and had to portage our gear and our rafts two miles over the course of two days, that was simply what we had to do, so we did it.
When difficulties arose in our democratic decision making process, the manipulation of one of the Expeditioneers had to be checked in order to maintain confidence in our leadership and group cohesion. This wasn’t Survivor – we couldn’t vote someone off the trip, as much, I have to admit, as I might have liked to. We had to keep the group from splintering, and with a lot of patience and good will, we did.
Had I realized that we weren’t as alone as I assumed, maybe I wouldn’t have been so game, but I had the mindset that it was us and only us, and short of a life-threatening emergency, no contact with the outside world was possible. Each difficulty was a lesson for me, each solution a revelation.
Then my assumption was shattered. Rudely and in the course of a single day. First we started hearing planes. It was two days before hunting season opened, and the commercial hunting guides were flying their clients into the Refuge to set up camps in anticipation.
Wait, you say. Surely hunting isn’t permitted in a designated wilderness area within a wildlife refuge?
Yep, I answer. That’s what I thought too.
It turns out that hunting in the Refuge is controlled by the State of Alaska and you can hunt grizzly, wolf, sheep, caribou, and just about anything else during its prescribed season. Unluckily for us and the animals, hunting season was about to begin. Not only was the silence of the Refuge ruined by the droning of planes, but almost more disturbing was watching the planes fly low and close to the slopes spotting for game, looking for the same mother and calf caribou that had magically appeared out of the willows along the river, the same sheep whose trails I followed on the scree, possibly even the same wolves who had so enchanted me.
The same day that the planes came, a commercial rafting trip floated down the river and set camp a quarter-mile from us. All of a sudden we had neighbors. No more wandering off in any direction my heart desired, no more singing recklessly, careless that someone might hear. They were heading for the same pull-out air strip we were, which meant that our rafting calculations now had to include moving camp to avoid them.
In the course of one day we went from experiencing pristine wilderness to feeling like we were in Yosemite with overflights and the need to compete for campgrounds.
Luckily, the flights stopped once all the hunters had been brought in, and the commercial rafting group was flown out two days later, so our final four days were spent in the silence, solitude and sense of self-reliance that I had cherished at the beginning of the trip.
The difference was that this time, as I sat listening to the silence, skinny-dipping in a hidden lake, or singing harmony with the river, I couldn’t take it for granted. I couldn’t assume that these qualities were inherent to being in the Refuge. I had learned that the experience of wilderness is fragile, subject to degradation and loss, and because of that, it was all the more precious.