Friday, July 31, 2009

Arrigetch Peaks

Our three-seated Cessna 185 tightly circled around a couple of wolves lounging in the sun. If we were circling around them thirty years ago, before their home—the Gates of the Arctic National Park—was established, they likely would have been running for their lives, worried that we might be the pelt-peeling mercenaries who killed their kind.

On our spin around the wolves, my stomach's contents sloshed like a half-filled paint bucket, and I squirmed to retrieve the plastic bag out of my back pocket. Beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I tried to divert all attention to the meandering Alatna River below us. Jay, our pilot, spotted a potential gravel bar to land on.

He dropped the plane just feet above the rocky bar, but it seemed he didn't get low enough, fast enough, so, at the last second, when it appeared we were bound to belly-flop into the icy-clear Alatna, he flicked up the wings, increased speed, and sought a better landing site. He repeated this a few times more. Between the nausea and horror, I gripped my plastic bag and nervously chanted, “happy, happy, happy, happy.”

Finally, on about our fifth landing attempt, the plane’s tundra tires thundered into the gravel. We unloaded our gear and commenced our hike to the Arrigetch Peaks.

The Brooks Range is the most northern east-to-west range in the world, entirely above the Arctic Circle, spanning 700 miles across Alaska and Canada. There are a few peaks that rise as high as 9,000 feet, but the mostly 4,000 to 6,000-foot mountains with stony, treeless tops, look—in comparison to the cluster of jagged, thorny Arrigetch Peaks—as unimposing as a few bald retirees playing cards.

The Arrigetch are a tight assemblage of granite spires that look like the razored fingernails of a vampire. Too disturbing for motivational posters on classroom walls, these mountains are better suited for dragons looking for proper entrances to lairs.

We stashed our extra food in bear-resistant food containers and our boat in a copse of trees before ascending up Arrigetch Creek. The air was cool, but the sun was veiled behind a murky grey film of smoke that stripped the colors off the mountains and alerted us to unchecked forest fires in the distance.

From the plane, the lush verdure of the tundra plain looks fitting for picnics and pick-up football games, but once on the ground, these plains present an unpleasant medley of hiking obstacles: knee-high swamps, spongy sphagnum moss, and the ubiquitous tussocks.

Tussocks are clumps of grass the size of upright watermelons that twist from side to side if stepped on. Hikers sometimes elect to place their feet in the shin-high cavity of muck between the hairy green basketballs for fear of spraining an ankle by leaping from top to top.

Walking atop the spongy sphagnum moss feels at first like a heavenly romp through neon green fields of posturepedic mattresses. But the novelty soon wears when you realize the moss, which dips under the weight of your body, has no intention of trampolining you back level. Instead, it’s like walking on a flat staircase, each step costing you the energy of two.

Fortuitously, we found a well-plod game-trail next to the creek that was occasionally marked with wolf prints and bear scat. The blueberries were in season and I plucked clumps of two and three in mid-stride. The creek, to our right, was wild and unruly, spewing a water-staircase of rabies froth.

As we weaved under birch branches and put a few miles behind us, underneath our tightly-wrapped, 40-pound packs, we found ourselves hiking. Not straining up steep scree slopes. Not leisurely strolling through the village of Bettles. But hiking.

Thighs and calves stretched and heaved in a happy engagement between body and ground. Oh the joys of hiking! How I wished to tilt my head back and howl.

There are moments on a hike when all conscious thought comes to a halt. Chaotic reflection and chronic neuroses vanish, as if they never existed. Instead, you're engaged in a constant state of sensory distractedness: the lucid gust of Labrador tea, the brisk wind drying sweat from forehead, the steady concentration of placing feet on boulders. With distraction comes peace. In these rare moments, I forget that I’m no longer thinking about living; I simply am.

A squadron of mosquitoes trailed in our wake as if we were shedding pixie dust. Nettlesome horseflies and regal dragonflies sometimes join the fray. No longer am I a solo hiker, but the lead ship in a flotilla of biomass.

The spruce trees that the trail winds around appear weak and wizened. Tired of brief, fleeting summers and winter dynasties, they look ready for the retirement home. These stubborn, irascible old-timers rise haggard and crooked, sprouting branches that look less like the elegant wings of its distance cousin, the fir tree, and more like embarrassingly small sets of sulking T-rex claws.

With the sun’s twilight still glowing in the early hours of the morning, we continued on towards the peaks. The raging white stream flattened into a placid blue lagoon-like pool. Giant boulders that once surfed along glaciers sat alone—the crumbled remains of mountain castles that stood high and mighty eons before.

The narrow valley expanded into a meadow of bright green grass. The eden-like greenery and glacier-blue water contrasted with the sharp peaks looming ahead that were swirled in forest fire haze and thunderclouds.

The Arrigetch do not just rise upwards like the bumbling robust hills around them; they careen and tilt wildly like warped spearheads. In sculpting the Brooks, God must have left for the john to be relieved by some suicide-bound, schizo-artist who projected the shuddersome voices in his head into the haunting, serrated cliffs.

From the glaciers—packed into a pocket between mountains—I scanned what seemed like hundreds, what felt like thousands of miles of untrammeled wilderness. My imagination stretched to encompass the whole Brooks Range and beyond. How unfortunate (and impossible) it would be to have this moment amidst photo-snapping tourists on roads that give access to all, as they do in most any other national park.

I thought of climate change, the unemployment rate—the clusterfuck we call our world—and was reminded of my job—a protector of these wild, sacred places.

How foresighted we can be! What potential lies within us as a people! Perhaps things aren’t as gloomy as we tend to think.

Despite all the war, pollution, natural calamities, I wondered, might this be our finest hour as a people? With the power to tame and to domesticate, to build roads and to exterminate the fanged animals, we’ve—in this small but meaningful gesture—chosen to take the high-minded and rarely-traveled route of restraint.

How exciting it is to be part of a generation—perhaps the first—that consciously elects to salvage rather than exploit; that allows mountains like the Arrigetch to exist unperturbed; that gives hikers the chance to see primitive vistas like the first fur-clad explorers and lets others—who'll never gaze upon them—dream of the unconquered, unknown.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Toe-Shot

My feet, to put it lightly, are not my most becoming feature. To be forthright, they’re downright hideous.

The bottoms of my big toe and heel are encrusted with a thick layer of orange callous that could outlast most hard cheeses in a cutting contest. My E.T.-like toes—in relation to the rest of my foot—are disproportionately long and apelike. Bespeckled with maroon-colored moles, linty wafers, the occasional fungus, and toe hair that’s so long I can curl it around my finger, my feet—I’m afraid to say—are a mess.

But it isn't just my feet that gross me out. It’s all feet.

So it may come as a surprise to hear that I traveled hundreds of miles to Dawson City of the Yukon Territories in Canada to drink the infamous “Sour-toe Cocktail,” which is a fancy title for a shot served with an amputated toe.

I was road-tripping with friends Adam and Rebecca last fall, going from Fairbanks, Alaska to Denver, Colorado. Instead of taking the quicker route down the Alcan Highway, we took a detour on the Top-of-the-World Highway to Dawson City, seated next to the Yukon River.

Dawson City was a gold-mining hub a century ago, but now the 1,600 residents make a living almost solely on the 60,000 tourists who annually come to see antiquated buildings (including the cabins of Robert Service and Jack London) and view wildlife on cruise ships to Alaska.

We visited in late September of last year. The frosty chills and sandy-grained snow that blew in our faces were the first signs of cold-hearted winter usurping ephemeral autumn.

It was morning and we were the only tourists in town. In fact, we felt like the only people in town as we walked along sleepy streets with antiquated (though freshly-painted) wood-planked buildings and a paddle-wheel boat that were juxtaposed with reminders of modernity: convenient stores, jewelry shops, stop lights, street signs.

During summers, these streets are bustling with tourists. But now with the tourism season over, the town had entered a state of winter torpor; I couldn’t help but note an eerie, uninviting feel to the place, sort of how I imagine Disneyworld after-hours.

I thought the town’s “old-timey feel” reeked of phoniness. The gold rush-era buildings—the saloons, casinos, and dance halls—seemed ridiculous next to their contemporary counterparts.

These weren’t artifacts of the town’s bygone years. The only reason they were still standing, I thought, was to draw fresh hordes of tourists year after year. These buildings seemed less a celebration of the town’s historical heritage and more a series of props on a grand stage to delude tourists into believing that they were looking at something “real.”

Millions come up to Alaska every year because they believe that the farther they go from home, the more exotic and real their experience will be. We believe that Alaska—that great swathe of land so far north where the tentacles of civilization have yet to reach—is home to foraging grizzlies, desolate vistas, and stalwart mountain men.

Anyone who’s seen the state knows that this is pretty far from the truth. Those who come to Alaska on a plane or a cruise ship or to see one of these hokey gold-mining towns in hopes of having an “authentic experience” are bound to find the same commercialism, industry, and pollution that they thought they were leaving back home.

But I knew what I was getting into. Hokey or not hokey, I wanted a shot with a toe in it.

We arrived at the Sourdough Saloon sometime before noon. There were a few plaid-clad locals hunched over the bar watching sports on the television. The rest of the place was empty.

Normally, in the heart of the tourist season, the bar’s owner, “Captain Dick,” would come out and deliver some grandiose ceremony with the presentation of the toe. This morning, however, Captain Dick wasn’t in but the waitress, seeking an easy buck (the shots were $10 apiece), went into the back, got the toe, and very unceremoniously plopped it on our table along with a few glasses of Yukon Jack.

It barely looked like a toe. Over time, it had shriveled into a purple nugget of flesh. The nail was crumpled and it smelled salty. It looked more like a grape jelly belly than the storied toe of the Yukon.

When I retell the story of the toe to friends I unknowingly give some ludicrously self-invented fable that I had dreamed up at some point. I’d mention something about a poor gold-miner who was so thirsty for a drink that he cut off a frostbitten toe to win a bet and collect a shot.

I think I opt to tell my version of the story because the truth is far less exciting (though slightly more disturbing).

The truth is—Captain Dick (who gets creepier and creepier the more I read up on him)—was fishing around some old-timer’s cabin where he happened upon a toe in a pickle jar in 1973. For some totally inexplicable reason, he and his buddies decided to start taking shots with it.

That’s it. That’s the whole "legend" of the toe-shot right there.

The story behind the toe (and toes), however, does make things a bit more interesting. The first toe was from the foot of Louie Liken—a trapper and miner who was illegally transporting alcohol into the States during Prohibition. Wary of being caught by Mounties, he raced through a winter storm on dogsled on which he got a nasty case of frostbite and had to sever off a toe.

Unfortunately Louie’s toe isn’t around any longer. As with several subsequent toes, they were swallowed in moments of drunken stupor and good-hearted merriment.

Toe #2 was from a Mrs. Lawrence of Alberta who had her toe amputated because of an “inoperable corn.” Toe #4 was stolen by a big-game hunter from Texas and Toe #8 came with a message that said, “Don’t wear open-toed sandals while mowing the lawn.”

Rumor has it that hundreds of toes and amputated limbs have been sent to the Sourdough Saloon over the years. So I had no idea whose toe was going in my mouth.

The rules were pretty straightforward: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.” The waitress also warned that there’d be a steep fine if the toe was imbibed with the alcohol.

As I inspected the toe, I wondered if I should go with the gurgle-method or if I should let it float in my drink like a little seal who's come up for air.

I put it in my mouth, without reservation, and downed my glass of Yukon Jack while the toe swashed and tumbled around my tongue and the roof of my mouth. It was hard and tasted salty.
I thereafter jumped back and forth between the thoughts: was the $10 I just spent worth it?—and—what’s up the lax Canadian food and health regulations?

Unable to come to a conclusion, we laughed and took pictures with the toe in each of our mouths. The locals at the bar, having seen this thousands of times before, never turned around from their game on TV. In the gift shop there were tee-shirts with toes and chocolate toes for sale.

Our mission complete, we departed Dawson City moments later. I remember wondering: "why the hell did I just do that?" The toe—however real—was still an invented ritual, a piece of fabricated history, and a gimmick created to sucker money out of people like me who were seeking a "cultural" expericence. Really, I could have just dropped a dead mouse, a piece of chalk, a button—anything—in my glass and—because there is no real history or tradition behind the Sour-toe Cocktail—it would have been pretty much the same thing.

No matter how hokey it may seem, and no matter whether people know that this is artifice, pure and simple, they still want to brag about this very bizarre and random feat and retell the story as if they were intrepid explorers rubbing elbows with history and culture.

And that's the allure of the toe-shot, I think. No matter how much you desconstruct the artificiality of the whole experience, a severed toe in your mouth is a severed toe in your mouth. And there's something undeniably real about that, regardless of whatever ostentation and fraudulence come with.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Beard update: Day 65

As you can see, I’ve been growing my beard out.

For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated with facial hair (and bodily hair in general for that matter). Facial hair—to me—is just so wild, uncultivated, savage. Beards—especially those that haven’t been groomed and primped to the point of femininity—are vestiges of our primordial past and reminders of times when hair—and lots of it—was necessary for our hominid forebears.

Beards are trustworthy, too. Ever mindful of the day when more head hairs will be lost than grown, I know I can always count on my faithful follicles to sprout on cheeks and chin.

Plus, there are so many questions unanswered about beards that give them a mysterious, enigmatic quality. Why can some people grow beards and others can’t? Why are some beards curly and others smooth? And why don’t women have facial hair? Aren’t they, too, subject to face-freezing chills, winds, and snow?

I can happily say that I am one of the fortunate few who can grow a rich thick tuft of facely fur. And I love my beard. Well, maybe it’s not the actual beard that I love; I think I may just enjoy flagrantly disregarding what seems like pointless and incessant grooming and upkeep.

I can get away with a beard in Alaska (versus others places) for several reasons.

1. Given the sparse population and even sparser female population, I have little-to-no chance of mingling closely with the opposite gender. Thus, I’m neither concerned about deterring potential mates with my grotesque garden of whiskers, nor wary of delivering face-scarring brush burns in a moment of intimacy.

2. Lots of people have beards up here. Back in New York or North Carolina a scraggily beard and unkempt appearance could get you wrongly labeled as "bum" or "hippy," and could even hurt your chances at landing a job. Now, I'm part of a culture that embraces the beard. We men can walk around town with shoulders back, chins held high, proudly brandishing beards of all shapes and colors as if we were members at a convention for Scandinavian deities.

It wasn’t always this way up here. Last summer, us rangers were required to shave in the backcountry.

We followed the rules, begrudgingly, but in protest we would only shave on the last day of our patrol.

Not willing to carry an extra pound of shaving cream in my already overloaded pack, I sometimes used the bone-chilling river water to prep my face, which could have been ice just days before. Other times I’d boil water in my pot, but on one desperate and unsuccessful occasion, I had no more than a dollop of leftover butter to lather my face with.

Here I am shaving off a week’s worth of stubble last summer using a compass as a mirror. No matter the method, this was always a painstaking process.

This year, my beard blossoms like never before. While it may appear to throw my face in the chaotic disorder of unchecked nature, I embrace the chance to let my wilder processes flourish. Oh beard, source of warmth, symbol of brotherly camaraderie, and faithful friend.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Yellow Suburban

When I first saw James’s home, I was stupefied.

It was my first summer in Coldfoot and someone—I forget who—showed me the yellow Chevy Suburban that James lived out of.

It was a relic from the 80’s. Its banana-yellow body, over the years, matured into a venerable manilla. It was well-kept and in good shape. It must have been loved, I thought. Strangest of all was the small stove pipe that poked through the roof near the front passenger seat that connected to a wood stove inside.
James lived in the Suburban for 6 years in the arctic, winters included.

I remember looking at the vehicle with a sort of starry-eyed gaze, the same innocent ogling I might have given to my first Santa Clause at the mall or giraffe at the zoo. The idea of living out of a vehicle—in the arctic, mind you—was so foreign to me, so freakish and fanciful, that I couldn’t help but stare in a state of childlike wonder.

It was so strange, so implausible, so….. badass.

For me, James’s Suburban was a mockery to conformity, a flat-out fuck-you to conventionality. I didn’t know James but I imagined that he was some wizened old recluse who, dissatisfied with civilization, set off for the arctic where he could be lord, monarch, and ruler of his own tiny, upholstered dominion.

James didn’t need civilization. He didn’t need its homes, its comforts, its heat. No, he was far too creative and free-spirited to live according to stodgy customs and irrational convictions. He figured he could just bore a hole through the top of his car’s roof, jam a stove pipe through and—most radically—seek a happiness that befit the idiosyncrasies of his character, all the while gleefully reveling in his defiance of society’s silly conventions. That’s how I imagined it, at least.

Needless to say, the Suburban blew my mind.

I met James a year or so later when I was asked to varnish some newly installed doors with him. He was in his 70s with a straggly mountain goat beard that spiraled downwards in frenzied curls. Despite his many years and gaunt physique, he had a spry gait and the youthful vigor of a 30-year-old. It was hard to keep up with him.

He had a reputation for his solitary, though amiable, nature and his eccentric diet, which—according to rumor—consisted solely of vitamins and bizarre organic substitutes.

He told me about the virtues of labor. He said that he’s going to be working well into his 90s and that hard physical labor has kept him healthy. He said he doesn't need half the money he makes, but works just to work. Several times, without provocation, he enunciated how happy he was up here and how much he loved life.

When I asked him how living in the village of Wiseman was—a brief vacation from his Suburban—he quipped, “I only did that for a year,” to which he added somewhat scornfully, “Too many people.”

“But there are only thirteen people in Wiseman,” I pointed out.

“No, there was more like 20,” he said, correcting me.

When I asked if his family back home thought he was eccentric, he barked back, though without hostility:

“I am an eccentric. Me and that Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber—we got a lot in common. I can see why he’d want to move out in the woods like that. In fact, he had a lot more room out there in that cabin than I did in my Suburban. The only difference between he and I was: he was nuts!”

Most people might call James nuts, too, but I took what he said as sagely advice. Nuts or not, clearly this was someone who had the audacity, the confidence, and the fortitude to stand fast amidst the tidal waves of convention so he could erect his own version of life in its wake.

Word has it that James no longer lives in the Suburban and has settled into a small cabin in Coldfoot. On a recent visit to the town, I gladly noted that the Suburban, though uninhabited, is still where it’s always been.

In lieu of ever having the pleasure of a personal tour, I conducted an unwarranted inspection on my own. Upon seeing it this time around, James and his home-on-wheels didn’t seem nearly as radical as they did to me several years ago, which probably has something to do with the fact that I now live in a vehicle, myself.

But I realized that without having such an extreme example as James, I may never have had the wherewithal to conduct radical experiments of my own. And for that inspiration, I am thankful and am reminded of how one man’s reality can be another’s revelation.