Into The Narrow
by Chris de Serres
I was a year away from 30 years on this lonely planet and realized that I knew very little about myself. I grew up in loud, noisy, crowded environments where one doesn’t often find a moment to reflect on a life. I didn’t know what silence was. I had so little of it. It was one of those unfamiliar and scary things. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I found myself alone in the remote Alaskan wilderness for two summer weeks.
It started out as a trip planned for me and my two brothers. We hardly saw much of each other. I guess that’s what happens when we all find a life. To be honest, it pained me not to see them and asking them to go on a backpacking trip was my way of reaching out to something that seemed to be fading away. The comfort of brotherhood. But they couldn’t step away from their busy lives.
I was left with a backpack, two weeks worth of food, a sleeping bag, and a ticket. There was no fun in going out into the wilderness alone. I have to honest with you, I went to Denali National Park mostly out of spite. I was tired of making plans with my siblings only to be cancelled on. I wasn’t comfortable with this solo trek, but I began to realize that I had to do it. I had to do something for no one else but me.
I wasn’t sure what I would find out there, but the discouragement soon turned to an excited anticipation of living each day as I saw fit. I remember flying into Alaska, filled with open, undeveloped space. I had never seen anything like this. Where was civilization? I remember sitting in the passenger cab of the steam train headed directly into the heart of the untamed frontier. John Muir once said about nature that “going out, (he) found, was really going in.”
I took a backpacker bus down the lonesome road that runs through Denali like a circuit cable. It’s just one road, the only road. It wound high up a pass into the Polychrome Mountains. The road was so narrow I peered out the window and down into a sheer 2000 ft drop below. Everyone on the bus had a camera. There was a buzz of energy every time a grizzly bear sauntered into the road in front of us, or someone spotted a group of regal Dall Sheep perched precariously up on a mountain ledge. As much as I loved sharing these moments with others I was ready to be dropped off and go my own way. 60 miles down the dirt road my time was up. I yelled from the back of the bus for the driver to stop.
I hauled my backpack from the back and watched as the dirt cloud marked the buses departure into the distance. I waited till the bus was out of sight, letting the quiet soak up in me. The hum of the engine and excited voices were soon replaced with bird calls and insects buzzing over my backpack.
There are no trails in Denali. Well except for the trails left by the wildlife. I found one which took me down to a huge, multi-braided river. For an hour I went up and downstream figuring out how I was going to cross it. No bridges out here. I realized I would have to cross the swift current that the ranger station video warned about. I took a step into the ice cold glacier water. The current threatened to push me over, but I held, with trekking poles for balance. My legs went numb and I stepped forward steadily and with authority.
I saw a group of Dall Sheep high up on the shoulder of a mountain. I figured if they got up there I could. So I began to scramble up. Then I was on terrain more suitable for a Dall Sheep than me. Looking down, I wondered how long it would take for someone to find my remains. I kept climbing and climbing. Soon as I was on a summit, alone.
It was exhilarating. A brief brush with death, but it was my moment.
The next day I descended down a narrow canyon. I hadn’t had a good bath in 3 days. I walked over to the stream and somewhat self-consciously stripped down to my underwear. Realizing that there probably wasn’t another human being within a 10 mile radius of me I went fully naked.
After I was done with the wash I put on my boots and scrambled to the top of a ridge…without any clothes. I did a ballroom dance with an invisible partner. Then a swarm of mosquitos converged and I rapidly retreated back to camp.
It was then that Mama Grizzly and her cub came lumbering down the canyon. I retreated upslope and watched as they methodically stripped salmonberries off many a bush.
Then something remarkable happened. She found a flat spot and sat on her back. Picture a bear sitting back in a Laz-E-Boy. The cub climbed up mama’s bulbous belly and began to feed off mama’s breast. After a few minutes, mama let out a blood curdling roar which was the signal for cub to get the fuck off.
On the last day I ran into two girls my age. It felt weird seeing human beings out here. I began talking to myself on day 3. I wasn’t quite ready for this solitary journey to end. They were heading in and I was heading out. They were cute, and I did hope to see them on the way out of the park. When it comes down to it, animals we are.
There was only one thing barring my way back to the road. The river. If you’ve read Into The Wild you will understand being able to get across an Alaskan river can be a life or death prospect. The river I needed to cross was in fact the same river Chris McCandless was unable to and ended up dying because of it. The Teklanika River.
It was swelling and moving rapidly when I came to it. I hiked up and down the river for miles but couldn’t find a braided section where I could cross. I was going to have to risk it.
I stepped in. The current was strong. Soon I was just past knee deep and the pull sent me sideways into the water. It took everything I had to fight my way back.
This is the danger of the narrow. It’s too focused. Too strong.
I looked to the other shore. There was an wide embankment just down river. The somewhat ridiculous sounding plan was if I got pulled off my feet I could try to float to the embankment on the other side.
I stepped in with authority. I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead. One foot. Then the next. The water was just below my waist, just blasting away at me. I keeled over sideways but jabbed my hiking stick into the river bottom like a sword and slowly righted myself. Every vein in my arm was pulsing with effort. Today is not my day Teklanika!
I survived the narrow.