To be in Alaska again! Bliss!
After a long day of travel, yesterday, we decided to just have a nice, easy, relaxing day at home. Or, at least, near home. Maybe not so easy, but relaxing.
Late August is one of my favorite times of year here. Berry season. I love berries, of all types. I eat berries daily, year round. I have no problem shelling out great sums of money at Whole Foods for organic berries for daily consumption. I think if I were an animal, I really, truly, may be a bear. I love salmon, and other fish, and I love berries. Ursus Americanus, the American black bear, an omnivore, will much more likely forage for berries than hunt and kill any creature, unless you’re camping in a tent and have a Snickers bar in your sleeping bag with you. They are opportunistic hunters with a sense of smell nine times greater than a hound dog. Sure, if you put a slab of meat in front of a black bear, or the salmon are leaping from the water, the bear will certainly enjoy the meal. Berries, though, are easy pickin’s. And, pickin’ berries is an enjoyable pastime, for bears and people alike.
I have been up the hill, behind my Love’s house, a few times before. I’ve walked the “trap line” before the snows, I’ve ridden a four-wheeler along the trail, I’ve ridden a snow machine along the trail. And, yet, I really can’t see said trail. It is not a well-developed trail, intentionally. It is private and the intent is to keep it that way. As a hiker, I know, that it doesn’t take many sets of footprints to permanently mark a trail. As a certified instructor in the principles of Leave No Trace, I know for a fact, very few sets of footprints along the same course will create an indelible trail. Certainly, growth will reclaim the appearance of the trail, but the underlying scar remains, the earth is altered. When hiking in pristine wilderness where no trails exist, in other words, if you do not have “durable surfaces” to hike along, it is recommended that multiple hikers spread out across the area, each taking a unique path, so as not to create a trail where one was not before, and, really, where one is not needed in the future. With the trail behind the house, there is evidence that it exists, but it is used seldom enough by only one, and occasionally two hikers, that it is not a “durable surface”, not a recognizable trail to most. As it should be.
Without a defined trail, in an area I’ve only visited a handful of times, I am, admittedly, a bit lost without my guide. Now, if I were to traverse this path alone, without guidance, I would take measures to assure my safe navigation to my desired destination and my return from my desired destination. I didn’t need that, I had my Sweetie as a guide. It’s his trail. Reminiscent of a couple of horses I’ve owned, he led the way and I dutifully followed. Sugar always wanted to be in the lead and Ranger was always more than happy to just follow. He led, I followed. Up to the top of the ridge and then, a decision, which I was being asked to make. The lead horse usually makes the decision, but it was up to me. Should we take a longer hike down to the stream where the blueberries should be amazing and we may see some salmon berries along the way? Or take a shorter hike along the ridge to where we’ve picked berries before? I’ve never seen a salmon berry, and I’m never afraid of a longer hike, even after a long day of travel and a few nights of short sleep. I opted for the longer hike, the opportunity to see salmon berries that I’ve never seen before and to see a valley and stream I’ve never seen before! We headed to the right, up over the ridge and down, down, down a fairly long, steep hill. All the while I’m thinking, only a little concerned, what goes down is going to have to come up, again. Me, in particular.
We had a daypack with us, with the essentials; empty yogurt and cottage cheese tubs for the blueberries and some “foot squares”, also known as one-gallon Ziploc bags, for any sturdier berries we may want to pick, like low bush cranberries. Blueberries are juicy, plump, though not nearly as plump in the wild as the farm-raised, store-bought variety, which, after eating wild Alaskan blueberries seem fleshy and bland. Nonetheless, blueberries will crush one another in a “foot square” and make juice and jam in a daypack before reaching home, again. The other essentials include “flagging” tape, to mark where we drop the daypack and rifle while we wander the tundra picking, oh, and the rifle, just a .22, just in case we scare up a grouse or spruce hen, also known as dinner, potentially. It isn’t moose season yet, by a day, so higher power isn’t, yet, a necessity. I’m wondering about bears, but I don’t ask. I’m not the lead horse.
We make our way down, down, down, the hill toward the bottom of the valley. If you have never hiked on tundra before, allow me to attempt to describe it for you; it is like hiking on sponges. It is like moss, on steroids. Well, it is a moss, but deep. Very, very deep. And this time of year, it is changing colors, from green to orange, red and yellow. The berry bushes grow all over the hillside amongst the tundra, and are also changing color, from green to gold to red, depending on the variety. There are hundreds of varieties of berries in Alaska, another reason why I feel I belong here. The deep, cushy tundra covers the soil, rocks, downed logs and other obstacles, so it is uneven, but soft and spongy. I guess, if you’re unfamiliar with it, it would be much like spraying an obstacle course of logs and rocks with a foot deep layer of sponge. Walking down a steep hill covered in tundra is interesting, you place your foot down and wait a fraction of a second to see just how far its going to sink before being on firm enough terrain to allow you to lift your other foot off the ground for your next step. I figure I must look a little like a slow motion version of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, traversing downhill in sort of jerky, exaggerated steps, lifting one foot high enough to pull it out of the tundra, kick it forward enough to make progress, and place it down again, tentatively. Wait, sink, lift, step. A pretty good work out and an unforgettable experience. I heart tundra.
On our way down, we encounter a moose trail, which is a trench worn into the tundra, clear down to the soil beneath. We walk a ways along the trail, made, likely, by just one moose. At times the trail bed was over a foot beneath the top of the tundra alongside, it sometimes came to my knees, it was like walking in a ditch. Some trails are traveled by many moose and can be much deeper cut, which I can only imagine, as this was a “single moose trail,” so my “guide” said. And, considering the source, I believe. We also spotted many areas where the tundra had been disturbed, the surface was torn up and scattered; “bird sign”, meaning that grouse had been scratching in the area, meaning, we should be able to scare up an inexpensive protein source for dinner. Hence the .22. Blam!
We reach the stream at the valley floor, though it isn’t visible. I can hear the water burbling over rocks, but the stream itself is shrouded in tundra and thick brush, mostly blueberry plants. We pick and pick and pick, filling a couple of large yogurt and cottage cheese containers, and eating plenty more, too. After a bit, we decide to make our way back up the hill, traversing diagonally towards the ridge in search of more berries. The longer trek to the stream was “fruitful”, pun intentional, though we saw no salmon berries. Up on the ridge, though, we may find some low-bush cranberries. And maybe a bird. For dinner. Blam!
We hike and hike and hike. I follow the lead horse, who is deliberate and methodical in his ascent. I can appreciate that. I am offered the opportunity to lead, at one point, because I am “tailgating”. Oops. My bad. So I lead for a while. I only know to go up the hill, there is no trail, we deviated from the trail when we decided to go down into the valley. I just head up the hill. As you may know, I’m a bit of a cardio nut. If I have nothing better to do and I haven’t done anything strenuous, yet, in a day, I can usually be found at the gym just sweating my brains out on the cardio equipment. I have four machines I favor, and of those favored four, my favorite, and the reason for joining the gym I joined, is the Stairmaster, the actual stairs on an inclined treadmill, not the little step paddles that move a few inches, but full on stairs, mechanized stairs. I do about 72 flights of stairs in fifteen minutes. Hills don’t bother me. Even hills covered in a foot of spongy tundra. I’m just launching myself uphill, thinking, “Wow! Now this is a Stairmaster!” Tackling the steep climb with this mindset may have been a worse offense than tailgating. As I’m striding up the hill, I notice large indentations in the tundra, I think they must be our footsteps from our descent. I point them out and, no, I am informed that they are the footsteps of a good-sized bear. I have visions of us swinging the butt of the .22 at the bear’s head, repeatedly, in an attempt, likely a hapless attempt, to escape with our lives. I march on, a little faster and with a bit more enthusiasm, like skipping steps on the Stairmaster, and a much worse offense than tailgating. So, we take a rest, plunk right down on the tundra, which is like sitting on a pillow. A soggy, damp pillow. Luckily, we packed another essential in our daypack; the remainder of the bottle of wine we were enjoying the night before, a 2011 V. Sattui, Crow Ridge Vineyard, Old Vine Zinfandel. Of all the wine I schlepped to Alaska, this was our favorite. By far. We kill the rest of the bottle and I relinquish the lead back to he who knows the way and hikes at a more reasonable pace. I follow dutifully behind, a mindful distance.
At a few points along our ascent to the ridge and, hopefully, back to the trail home, we stop, my man looks up, looks right, looks left, and walks on, occasionally altering direction by a fraction, a degree. He knows the curve of the hills, the pattern of the trees that differ from the pattern of the trees in another area, some spruce, some birch and hardwood, each lending a different color and texture to the hillside. The direction of the sun also provides guidance, and, though I am lost, and there is not trail other than the meandering footprints of a “good-sized” bear and a single moose trail leading somewhere, but not home, he knows the way. We find along our route, the remains of a baby moose, just some clean, nearly white bones and one small hoof, perfectly intact from the knee down. And we walk on. Still, I am lost, and, if left on my own, would likely wander for quite some time, maybe never finding my way back to our starting point. Again, had I started on my own, I’d have navigated myself, deliberately and would be able to navigate back without much trouble. I am slightly lost only because the area is unfamiliar to me and I started on the premise that I need not navigate, deliberately. When I see the first “trap”, I know we are back on the trail. Not really a trap, the trap itself has been removed, and is only in place for a very short duration during winter. But, there are many trap sites along this trail, for marten and fox, mostly, and they are familiar to me, now.
At the top of the ridge, we turn and head down the trail towards home. Though I cannot see a trail in the tundra, through the brush, in the layer of birch leaves that are already scattered on the forest floor, for fall is here, already, in Alaska, I know there is a trail and that we are following it. Familiarity. Lost no more. A short time later, the form of the house becomes apparent further down the hill, hiding behind the trees. Home, in time for dinner. Chicken. From the freezer. Blam. Only the sound of the freezer door shutting.