This concludes a series of posts about a 2001 trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Toward the end of our hike, we broke camp for the last time and Walt met us at Sunset Pass for the two shuttle flights back to Kaktovik. This time it was by pre-arrangement that we stayed at the Waldo Arms, because our scheduled flight back to Fairbanks was the following day.
That evening, we were sitting on the rumpled sofas in the common area, enjoying the radiant comfort of propane heat, the luxury of having someone else cook our meal, and the pleasure of free ranging discussion with the interesting passers by and other guests. I fell into conversation with a young man from Michigan, in his mid-twenties, who had the lean look of a rugged adventurer. He was wolfing down a brace of hamburgers.
“I came over from the Yukon.” He barely managed to get the words out between ravenous bites. “Took about six weeks. Just got here.” Needless to say, I was very impressed by the élan of this intrepid wanderer, who had graduated from college the previous spring and struck out on his own for a major personal adventure. Of course, as we compared notes, it turned out that he was the solitary backpacker we had seen through our binoculars several days before.
Like us, he had been headed for Sunset Pass, where he was picked up by Walt a few hours after we were. Allowing for six weeks in the backcountry, I wondered, how could he possibly have timed his arrival in order to rendezvous with Walt? “I didn’t,” he replied, “but I figured a pilot would eventually drop someone off there and I could catch a lift back with him.” Well played.
The lone hiker gave me pause for reflection. I do not have the wilderness skills that would be needed to make a solo trip of that nature in anything like a safe and responsible manner. All of the hikes and soft adventures that I have undertaken in the arctic were made either in the company of very experienced friends or with professional guides. In many cases, as with Carol Kasza, Molly and Jeff Gillespie, and Brian and Diane Okonek, the line between personal friends and guides quickly blurred and faded into obscurity, but the point remains that I was relying on their experience and support. I had tremendous respect for the young man who had hiked in from the Canada's Yukon Territory by himself, but it is not something I would personally aspire to replicate.
A key point, however, is that the wilderness equation does not need to be binary. I recognize that I am unable to undertake a solo trek like my young friend at the Waldo Arms. But the alternative does not need to be completely turning my back on the legacy and enjoyment of our wild lands. My experience over a span of two decades is that it is entirely possible to have a rich engagement with Alaska’s wilderness and its wild inhabitants in balance with the requirements of a rigorous professional career and an aging physical capability.
Every American can experience and appreciate our wilderness heritage on terms that he or she finds safe and comfortable. For some, it will be a cruise up the Inside Passage. For others, a stay at a lodge like Camp Denali. For others, perhaps a guided wilderness hike or float trip. And for those who can do so, it might be a solo hike from Yukon Territory to Sunset Pass.