Frontiers May 2012

Call of the Wild

Community and solitude in the Alaskan wilderness
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Darcy Courteau

A single north-south highway traverses much of interior Alaska, with scores of roads—many of them unpaved—parting from it like veins. Forty miles past the entrance to Denali National Park (itself a five-hour drive from Anchorage), one dirt road heads west through a forest of birch, spruce, and alder, before unraveling in a network of trails that predate the highway.

Every summer for years, beginning when I turned 17 and ran off to Alaska, I’d hitchhike around the state and visit my friends Bob and Martin, whom I’d met at the Denali concessions, where we all worked. I’d arrive unannounced: no one had a phone. No running water or electricity, either. Among my friends and their neighbors—all from somewhere outside Alaska—nothing was more sacred than personal freedom, and collective action extended little further than distributing mail and marijuana.

Martin was the freest. A Midwesterner come by way of junk cars, heroin, and several cities, he told of how, when his long hair had been thicker, he’d go out wearing makeup and a dress. (No, not to co-opt female power, he said, looking on me pityingly. Everyone likes to feel pretty.) He died a dozen Januaries ago, when his girlfriend’s estranged husband shot the two of them outside her home along that same dirt road. The police removed the bodies, of course, but once the snow melted, Bob and I gathered up the final skull fragments and locks of hair. Though Bob and I haven’t always had a lot in common, we’ve signed off phone calls with I love you ever since.

In December, after 10 years away, I returned for an Alaska-size outing with Bob, now 49 and a National Park Service heavy-equipment operator. Our plan was to travel 50 miles by dogsled, through ravines and over frozen rivers, to a cabin built near the now-abandoned Native American—Athabascan, to be specific—village of Bearpaw. Temperatures would stay around zero, and with less than four hours of sun each day, we would often be sledding by moonlight. All the better, I thought: after years of self-reliance, I had tiptoed into the world of compromise, of career and coffee dates. Had I gone soft?

Bob had warned me that a forest fire had destroyed his old cabin near Denali, but I was surprised, coming down his driveway, to see a three-story log castle in its place. Around it were outbuildings, old cars, a dump truck, an excavator, and a 1918 railcar that housed his generators. Originally from the Bronx, Bob appeared to have gone, I teased, Total Alaskan Male.

Bob packed two sleds with camping gear, a chain saw for fallen trees, and fuel to melt snow. For his dogs, we measured out kibble and cut raw salmon, moose, and beef into candy bar–size snacks. Powdered fat, dissolved in water, would help keep them warm at night.

On trail day, we harnessed nine dogs. They pulled their lines tight, crying and jumping for us to be on our way. My sled was cabled behind Bob’s; he would command the dogs until I gained the courage to take my own team. To control them, you stand on runners extending behind the sled, calling directions. To maneuver around trees, you throw your weight from side to side, and you must never let go of your sled: the dogs will keep pulling until it hits something and they get tangled in their harnesses, fighting themselves into a ball of fur and teeth. You’ll be left walking in the cold; they’ll be injured or killed.

For several miles, we passed homesteads and spruces scorched by recent fires. When we arrived at a shared-use cabin, 22 miles in, on One Fish Lake, we decided we would rest, but not stay. After miles of clean white, the 12-by-16 space looked cramped and dirty, with torn fiberglass insulation raw against the walls. We fed the dogs salmon and swigged from a flask of Yukon Jack.

After this came a dangerous stretch of path, zigzagging so sharply around birches that it was best done with slow, tired dogs. It passed the old mail trail (where the Postal Service ran sled dogs as late as the 1960s) and the cabin of the local legend Percy Duyck, an Athabascan trapper who, after retiring from the railroad, had returned to the woods and spent years clearing these trails. He struggled to get by, though, and had abandoned his cabin a decade earlier. We camped at the nearby ruins of Knight’s Roadhouse, built around 1920 as one of the lodges then dotting the trails every eight or 10 miles. When I spoke by phone to Duyck, now 83, he told me he’d bunked there as a child, when families lived by the trails, just as they live along the highways today. Now the roadhouse had sunk into the ground, snow nearly to its rafters. We tethered our dogs, held their faces in our hands to thank them, and melted snow for their dinner.

Morning brought the real trial of winter camping: willing oneself to dress in freezing clothing. The day before, we’d crashed through ice into a creek. My boots had stayed dry, but my pants were frozen to the knee and would remain so for the trip. I made coffee, handing a cup to Bob with the news that I had Pop-Tarts thawing in both armpits.

A few miles out, the broken trail ended. We made camp early, Bob backtracking with a single sled to retrieve things he’d cached at One Fish Lake, as I headed out on snowshoes to tamp down a path forward, following the tracks of a single moose that had labored through the snow before me. It had chosen the hardest-packed spots.

The next day, we repeated the routine, Bob fetching more supplies while I broke trail. I wondered aloud why we needed so much stuff. Redundancies, he replied, for safety. Five headlamps? Four handsaws? The propane tank and bottles of methanol? What about a good old-fashioned campfire?

The dispute started off as a difference of opinion, but became a full-blown fight that night, me waving around the items in question as I picked through our sleds. Come morning, Bob moaned that at least the last woman he’d camped with had been sleeping with him. I scrunched deeper in my bag, eyes narrowing. Later I’d let him have it, recounting past expeditions with decisive men who traveled light and built fires. But not until I’d had my coffee, which it was his turn to make.

We were just 12 miles from our destination, Bearpaw, but at this pace, days away. The dogs were discouraged, and we decided to head back. Upon our return, the dirty cabin at One Fish Lake seemed a haven. We gave the team five hours’ rest while we dried by the stove, luxuriating in warmth not generated by our own bodies, and then reattached the dogs’ harnesses. We arrived home after midnight, our leather gloves burnished smooth by the sled handles.

But I couldn’t get over our bailing out, or how serenely Bob had ignored my vision of what camping should be. To mollify me, he gave me six dogs to drive back to One Fish Lake. He would go ahead by snowmobile with straw for their beds and insulation for the cabin, drop it all off, and leave. I’d staple up the insulation and return home with the dogs, come morning.

“You’re pretty much on your own nowadays,” Duyck had told me of life in the woods. It’s a disaster for indigenous ways, but a boon for uncompromising pioneers outfitted with all the machinery it takes to be alone. That evening, I savored the sacred Alaskan right to do things one’s own way. I put warm jackets on the dogs, built a fire, and dawdled around the lake. The solstice sky cleared, revealing Mount McKinley, and I sat outside with whiskey and a book, and a candle lit in memory of Martin. Solitude is only an occasional ellipsis in my life now, and I would soon return to my community. Until then, this would keep me: a cabin, bursting with redundancies—lanterns, kindling, aspirin, flat-point bullets, and an optimistic amount of fishing gear.

Darcy Courteau is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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Darcy Courteau is a fiction writer and essayist living in Washington, D.C. Her most recent work has appeared in Oxford American, New Orleans Review, and The Wilson Quarterly.

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