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From the Coleen River, my dog Will and I hike farther into the bowels of the wilderness. Immediately, we enter ten-foot tall riparian brush and spend thirty minutes trying to bust a hole. After half a day I reach a little high ground where the tussocks give way to a spruce forest with firmer soil. I’m using my compass almost exclusively to keep a southeast heading, crossing over one forested ridge after another, on and on, forever it seems, bisecting creeks along the way instead of following them to their headwaters. None flow the way I need to go. By the end of the day the rain is falling hard and wind is scouring the slopes, so I crawl in my tent with Will, apprehensive for morning so I can get moving to make miles; to get closer to a village in case something goes wrong.
A few days later I’m still following the same heading, marching over one wooded ridge after another, with a new one taking shape each day in the hazy distance. Sometimes I use my hands to part the brush in front of me. Much of the time it’s sopping wet and I quickly become drenched and cold despite wearing rain gear. It’s merciless country, and since I can’t see a mountain on the horizon to zero in on, I feel suffocated. How do I hike a hundred miles in brush I have to swim through. I’m in way over my head, in a wilderness I’ve never heard of anyone crossing on foot like this. Most everyone I talked to was skeptical. “You don’t want to get into Old Crow Flats,” they all said. It’s tough getting a feel for this diagonal course across Alaska. It doesn’t seem right. My brain keeps saying veer left when my compass blatantly indicates right you fool, right, to stay on the high ground.
I come upon a small lake tucked in the forest, where a moose is swimming toward me with two calves in her slip stream. Mother moose have been known to stomp to death people, dogs, wolves, and even bears to protect their young. I stand up to show myself and fortunately she turns back where she vanishes with her calves into the forest. I catch six small grayling, where Will eats two raw, right on the spot, head first like always. I dream of sandwiches constantly, cheese and bread, nothing else, just pure fat and carbohydrates. I start eating cloud berries even though they’re not ripe yet. I’m crunching them up in my mouth like corn chips trying to stay ahead of the starvation curve. It’s constantly gaining on you in a vast, empty place like this. Walking a month here is a great way to lose weight if you can stand the physical work and the torment. And if you don’t die.
My girlfriend Tammie didn’t want me to go to Alaska again, but also knew she couldn’t stop me. “I got to go or I’ll go crazy,” I said. Unsatisfied with our living conditions in the spring of 2012, we moved out of the house we were renting. The neighbors kept calling animal control on Will who’d howl every day around noon, long and piercing like he was searching for his brother Jimmy. They used to howl together, but now Will had to do it alone, and it sounded a little blue instead of uplifting. We wanted to buy a house and get another dog so he’d have a companion and we’d have a home that would be our own, with no landlords showing up unannounced. I was always leaving things lying around that I brought home from the woods, like elk antlers in the back yard or plants on bookshelves I wanted to identify. The plan, Tammie was going to house sit for the summer in Roseburg, Oregon and look for a place to buy while I did my trek.
“Somewhere off the grid,” I told her. “I’m tired of living in a box and listening to people’s lawn mowers all day.”
In Portland it took us two hours to drive across ten miles of city traffic to reach the airport, and I about lost it man, lost it, with our little Toyota Echo moving at about ten miles per hour, coming to a halt every thirty seconds – grid lock. I couldn’t believe people existed like this and how city planners could design our living conditions to revolve around the automobile instead of pedestrians. After weeks of preparation, I almost turned the car around and gave up my journey before it began.
So in late spring of 2012, I flew from Portland to Fairbanks with Will, and then to Arctic Village the next morning, to start where I had left off three years before. When I stepped off the plane onto the gravel runway, Will started howling in his cage, determined to be let out, and the signal that our journey was about to begin.
When I get to the Canadian border I’m still hanging in there, doing whatever it takes to forge ahead and not break down emotionally. I see Old Crow Flats, a forbidding sprawl, stretching so far that I regognize the faint curvature of the earth. It’s that big plot of land in the upper right hand corner of Alaska above the Porcupine River where you don’t see any names of towns or roads. There aren’t any. I’m really in it now with no turning back. That’s for sure. The terrain continues to get harder with more brush and boggy ground the farther east I go, and I have to keep stepping it up a notch when I think I’m already at my limit.
I haul myself around a mountain on the edge of Old Crow Flats, clawing my way for every inch of ground. The thousands of lakes look like light reflective patches and the land looks dark and featureless everywhere else. It’s so far across out there that it gives me the chills thinking what would happen if I got into the middle of that. I have to keep out of there, I keep thinking. It’s not of this world.
The brush is killing me. Little by little, it’s picking me apart. Will bolts off chasing a moose back the way we’ve just come. He used to run like this with Jimmy when he was alive, and the two of them charged each other so much that they could do anything. Soon the moose and Will are too far out of sight, first tiny dots and then lost in the twisting foliage and gray expanse of taiga farther down. Soon his howling trails off too in the great northern silence and then I’m alone, sitting on a grassy hillock waiting for him. Twenty minutes later he reappears, working his way back by sniffing his route.
I make it to Potato Creek just over the border of Canada close to the Old Crow Range. This gives me a hint of hope. I make a cozy camp under some spruce trees and have a little celebration for crossing Alaska on foot, a thousand miles of trackless terrain in six months. Then another bad rain comes, leaving me blank and despondent.
From Potato Creek, rain falling the entire day, I swim in brush for hours, fatigued, cold, and discouraged. “What the hell am I doing here,” I keep saying. It’s the worst I’ve felt so far on the trip, like what I’m trying to do is impossible and pointless. People just don’t do it, hiking across this country in summer.
I dream of home nightly and wonder if Tammie and I could live out in the country somewhere, away from the noisy traffic. Since undertaking this Brooks Range adventure, I’ve learned to get by with almost nothing, just my tent, sleeping bag, a few eating utensil, and the most basic food. It’d be nice to live under a permanent roof though and have a fenced yard for Will so he can lie in the grass. I think he still misses his brother; I’ll watch him sometimes sitting on a nearby knoll looking out across the country, stoically, like he’s looking for someone off in the distance waiting for him to return. I think about that a lot, and how I’d feel if I had only one friend in the world who disappeared one day and never came back, and how I’d feel if I didn’t know what happened to him. It makes me feel bad for Will.
From Surprise Creek I climb steadily up a ridge leading into the Old Crow Range. The higher I get the more the brush dissipates. By midafternoon when I’ve reached the crest, it’s all gone and I’m brimming with joy. It’s a huge stroke of luck really, that I won’t have to descend to cross any major brush-infested creek valleys all the way there, as far as I can tell.
This high country is dotted with giant rock pillars about fifty feet tall and two hundred feet wide, like alien cathedrals. It feels like hallow ground, and often clouds and ravens circle over them. Near the end of my first day in the Old Crow Range a fierce thunder storm comes on, lighting stabbing down, rain slicing sideways, and wind gusting up to eighty miles per hour. Wanting to hike more miles before camping, I wait out the wind and rain on the leeward side under a ledge of one of these magnificent pillars, curled up in my rain gear hoping it will pass. I can sleep anywhere now, and at any time; I’ve become used to the rigors of the country. Will curls up too under a ledge right beside me, looking perfectly at home as frothy wind blasts past us just around the corner with us barely out of reach.
After the rain stops, we start hiking again, passing the headwaters of Shaefer Creek and finally camping on the ridge above Rapid River to finish a twelve-hour day. This is another river I could follow out south to reach the Porcupine River, but from here it’s probably easier to keep hiking to Old Crow.
In the morning, I wake to a complete white out. I’m not sure how I can navigate without seeing at least a little bit of the land ahead of me. The batteries in my GPS are almost dead and I don’t have any more spares. If they die I’ll have to keep on a compass course all the way until I come out on the Porcupine River somewhere or until I can see a recognizable land formation, which could take weeks. I’m especially careful not to lose my compass. Without it I could never find my way – probably walk in circles or some other erratic pattern until I die.
The next day I’m sick starting out, head spinning. I feel like throwing up. I have bad sores on my feet now, and my big toe on my left foot feels broken – can’t move it. The objective here is to stay on my feet and plod away, not fast, but just keep moving closer to Old Crow, bit by bit at any pace I can.
After an hour the sky clears and the sun returns, allowing me to get my bearings off a low mountain. The air warms up and I take off some clothes, and by afternoon it’s hot again. I’m so drained that I have to eat some raw oats and brown sugar and take a twenty minute nap. It’s a huge production taking a nap in mosquito country. I put on my rain gear, hood, head net, and gloves, and cover my ankles with a tarp. The little bastards always go for your ankles.
Shahtah Mountain comes into view and I feel on top of the world because I know Old Crow is only half a day beyond that. I have tears of joy. I could be there in two days. Instead of continuing around on the ridge to the northeast, I come right off it on a direct course toward the mountain hoping to save some time. It’s lower in elevation and likely brushier, but shorter. The terrain turns out hellish. I get right into the thick of ten-foot high brush and boggy ground for hours, and then a burned area miles long that has left tall grass and swamp in place of what used to be a lush spruce forest. I have to step up a notch again to match the difficulty of the terrain. The only thing that keeps me going is my clear view of Shaltah Mountain to remind me how close I am to Old Crow, and that if I fight this brush long enough I’ll get there. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
At Caribou Bar Creek, the water is swift and over my waist from all the rain in the last week. Later I’ll learn that this has been the wettest summer on record. I set up camp for the night. I cook black beans over a fire until close to midnight. I don’t have much else to eat. Just as I finish, a hail storm erupts, so I quickly take the pot of beans into my tent for the night to eat without getting wet, and without the pestering mosquitoes biting the hell out of me. The hail hits my tent so hard that I’m afraid it’s going to be torn to shreds, leaving me exposed to the cold and insects. I gather up my gear in case everything gets wet and I have to spend the night in the open.
A lightning bolt touches down in a nearby spruce tree and branches explode. I duck down and cover my head. The hail falls for a solid hour, pinging off my tent like marbles, and then suddenly, it’s over. My tent is still intact, and heaps of hail have collected around the walls, closing me in like a freezer. During the night I have dreams of shooting down a bobsled course on my belly.
When I wake up the next morning my tent is now at the creek’s edge. The water has risen a foot or more during the night, and the sides of my tent are buried in a foot of hail, forcing me to dig out. I start out the day in my rain gear, wading the creek to my waste. Then I hike for three hours through more brush and swamp. My feet hurt from being wet and cold. I pass a little duckling waddling by in full view, like he’s too cold and worn out to be concerned about us. I spot his mother, flying around to various places, searching frantically, but I don’t know if she ever finds him.
Late in the day as I climb up what I believe is the last pass before descending into Old Crow, I start warming up and really striding out. Man, I’m really moving. It feels great to finally be slim and in shape and to have a light pack, almost empty of food. After days of despondence, suffering, and self-doubt, I’m invincible now. “Get out of my way,” I keep saying. “I’ve just hiked the Brooks Range. What do you think of that?” I’m talking to all the obstacles I’ve crossed in the last four weeks, and even the ones on my previous months during two other summers: rivers, lakes, bogs, brush, grass, mountains, cliffs, wild animals, starvation, exhaustion, biting insects, and forest fires. I’ve beaten them all. In my euphoric state of mind, no matter how hard it gets from here, I know I’ll make it. And that’s a damn good feeling compared to the alternative of dying. We’re finishing this journey for Jimmy,
The next morning I put on my wet boots, a little torture ritual to tell me I’m still alive. They’ve been wet pretty much all the time since leaving Arctic Village this summer where I put them on nearly brand new, and now they’re rotting like a dead dear, with the laces worn and knotted from the several times they’ve broken and been retied. I march around what I believe is Shaltah Mountain with the anticipation of being able to see Old Crow, but when I get on the far side, the village isn’t there. I see the Porcupine River, looping across the landscape for miles bordered by a sea of green, but there’s no sign of any village, just sprawling forest and mountains. “What the hell,” I say. Shocked, I pull out my maps to study them closer. Apparently I got my mountains mixed up. Shaltah Mountain is the larger one to the Northeast – of course. It’s the last mountain before Old Crow Flats. I’m about ten miles downriver from Old Crow, which is pretty far when you don’t have a trail. So after a few minutes of trying to motivate myself, I start down the east flank of the ridge I’m standing on, my heart hammering with anxiety because I’m going from the open, solid ground along the peaks to a terrain of undergrowth and fallen trees, where visibility is sure to be only twenty feet for much of the time. Who knows how many bears are in there?
I drop into a thick forest. Will shifts into hunting mode and keeps taking off, even though his body is running on fumes like mine. “He keeps chasing damn rabbits,” I say in frustration. I need him close for protection, but try as I do, I can’t get him to stop. He’s an Airedale terrier, a true hunting breed that doesn’t really need much training. There are rabbits everywhere and I’d shoot one if I could get a clear shot. I can’t risk hitting Will. We come across broken rabbit parts while we hike, mostly fur and feet left by predators, but that doesn’t dissuade Will from devouring them. He’s so hungry that I let him scarf away while I keep slogging through to the next thicket, expecting him to catch up.
I can always hike the two miles down to the river’s edge to hunt squirrels and eat rose hips if I have to, but I really want to get to Old Crow and not add any more distance to my trek. So we forge on, Will running himself senseless chasing rabbits and me marching the pace of a child, aching and moaning with each fallen log I have to step over, or each patch of willows I have to swim through. Then we enter an old burned area and the brush gets thicker.
After hiking a few hours the next day and the difficulty of the terrain not letting up, I decide to get out of the brush by veering back northeast toward the base of the real Shahltah Mountain and find harder ground. By four o’clock I’ve broken through the tree line. By now I’m stopping a lot for tart cloud berries to curb my aggravating hunger, getting down on my knees, plucking them with both hands and putting them right in my mouth like a monkey eating seeds in the sand. I’d never eat these revolting things in the modern world, but here in the wild, I slug them down like candy.
I cross over a clear creek draining off the mountain and drink until I’m bloated. Dall sheep trails meander precariously across the mountain’s rocky slopes. With some gritty determination, I hike around the mountain in a couple of hours, wind thrashing across my face. Then I drop down and cross a wide brushy chasm. I bash through tangled vegetation with rash abandon in my growing expectation of the end of my journey, ignoring my fear of bears. Then I march up the back side of Crow Mountain in one exasperated push, like an automated machine. I can’t be stopped now, not from severe hunger, not from racked joints, not from depleted muscle fiber, not from anything. I’m excited and have to finish this journey. My body becomes light and I find extra power out of nowhere. I’m gliding over the land without the hard weight of putting my feet down, or so it seems, like a feather on the wind. And my voice hums tenderly with a tiny shrill of rapture. It’s incredible, like an out-of-body experience; a transcendence into something I was never capable of before any time in my life, like a person at the dawn of mankind, capable and clean-slated as any wild animal could be. I feel so good and confident that I start singing and giggling, the enormity of what I’m about to accomplish making me feel like superman.
As I crest the back side of Crow Mountain and enter a wide spruce grove, Will runs off chasing a moose and vanishes into the brush. Since I’m so close to Old Crow, about three miles, I don’t think much about it. I figure he’ll catch up with no problem, but I’m dead wrong. After fifteen minutes of walking back the way I came, I stop to wait for him in in the general vicinity where I lost him. I can’t find the exact spot where he darted off though.
After waiting half an hour I start to panic. I want to sprint off at full speed for him, but I don’t know which direction he went. Then I hear him howling far off in the distance near the edge of the steep slope we came up, his voice barely perceptible above the rustling wind and rattling trees. I run through the woods toward his voice, shouting for him all the way. “Will, Will, hold tight,” I yell over and over, but when I get there he’s nowhere in sight. I suspect that in his urgency he has moved on to look for me somewhere else.
When desperate he can cover ground in a hurry and get so far away that I might never hear him. Quickly, I yank out my shotgun and fire my last two shots to signal him. I figure he’ll hear it and come charging my way like a tiger. I wait about ten minutes, but he doesn’t come and I can’t hear him anymore. So I go back to where I heard him howl.
Another forty minutes pass and still nothing, just the evening approaching and the wind getting colder. I’ve lost my dog on the second to the last day after we’ve spent months together. It doesn’t make any sense. I can wait here for a few days, but I’ll have to go on to Old Crow soon without him. I could leave some of my things so he’ll know to wait while I hike to the village to get more food. But by then he could be in a far different region, where there’d be no one to help him, just marauding wolves. If Jimmy were still alive, they could look out for each other and stand more of a chance. But alone, Will faces a real threat. Wolves will chase down a dog and kill him like they would a coyote or a stray wolf from another pack.
I wait and blow my whistle. Will is so thin that he won’t last more than a week on his own. I pace back and forth, listening and looking, hoping for some clue. I can’t accept him being gone, not like Jimmy who died, tormented with body spasms and soft, rapid shrieks. All I could do was hold his trembling head in my arms, stroke his skin, and tell him it was going to be okay. “It’s okay Jimmy, it’s okay buddy, just let go, just let go,” I said to him, hoping he’d die faster so his suffering would be over. But it wasn’t going to be okay and I didn’t want him to die; I didn’t want him to leave me. I didn’t want him to leave his brother who he had grown up with.
Jimmy didn’t want to die, that was for sure, not at five years old, strong and in the prime of his life. Stubbornly, he fought the tweaks and body convulsions for two hours as the cancerous cells invaded his nervous system. He died just before midnight in one last, drawn-out breath, his body straining tight with contractions, which told me he was still fighting for air. He was still fighting hard for God’s sake, even at this final stage. He wouldn’t just give in so he could stop suffering. Jesus lord, it broke my heart to see him fight like that when there was no chance of living. Another breath never came, and a minute later his body relaxed and became still, while Will, Tammie, and I sat beside him. “I’m so sorry Dave,” Tammie whispered in my ear. I cradled his head in my arms when his breathing stopped. I sat staring, waiting for him to breathe again, but he never did.
I set his head down, sobbing and shaken, so I could let Will come forward to see his brother; so he could understand that he had died. He eased himself up to Jimmy right away, and then started licking his face and inside his ears, like he used to do sometimes when he was alive. I think that was one of the ways the brothers kept their bond strong, by licking and nibbling at each other. Many male dogs will fight with each other, but when they spend a lot of time together they become tender toward each other. One would die to protect the other. Brothers will sometimes fight harder to protect each other than they would to protect their mate. Will never cried or whined outwardly, but I could tell he had been transmuted into a more subdued dog, seemingly more introspective and sedated, like half of him was torn away.
I drove Jimmy down to my parents’ house and buried him in the backyard where I had buried my other dogs over the years. When I die, I want to be placed on a large platform in the forest with heavy robes draped over me like how some North American Indians did with their dead. And I want all the bones of my dogs laid beside me, so that if we come back to life, I’ll have my dogs with me.
After I dug the hole, I set Jimmy’s limp body into it and covered him with dirt. I left his neck and head visible for a while so I could say goodbye to him. Will came forward again, slowly, and started licking his head and the inside of his ears for a long time. When he was done he slowly turned away for good. I think he knew Jimmy was never coming back.
After another hour of walking around and my mood growing hopeless, it starts sinking in that I might have to stay here for a while. Sullen and scared, I start opening my pack. However, before I get anything out of it, Will comes trotting up through the brush. I jump toward him. “Willy boy,” I yell. He’s tired, but wagging his tail. “You crazy knucklehead,” I say merrily while stroking his fur. “Sorry I lost you buddy, sorry I lost you.” Then after he catches his breath and drinks from a puddle, I pick him up off the ground and hug him tight. “I knew you’d come back buddy. I knew it.”
We finish crossing Crow Mountain. I finally reach the other side at about eight o’clock as a blowing rain starts falling. There in full view sits Old Crow, standing out vividly against the rest of the contrasting wilderness like a shining ray of light. “Oh, thank God,” I say with a deep sigh. I’m going to make it, and I’ve found my dog. Things couldn’t be turning out better.
On the morning of my twenty-seventh day of hiking, I get up early, pack my gear without eating or drinking, and leave camp brimming with gratification. I’m not afraid anymore, not of the wilderness, not of starving, not of being alone, not of anything. Following a wide trail that has been cleared for winter travel by the local people, it’s an easy walk. It’s still a wet and boggy slog, but the trail is free of debris and trees – a cakewalk compared to what I’ve hiked through already. I whistle and sing the entire time and Will grows high-spirited with the scent of people and dogs close at hand. With Will next to me, prancing like a pup, I emerge from a wall of woods and onto the gravel roads of Old Crow a couple hours later. Indeed, I’m a changed man. Looking back with tears of joy, I say to Will, and to Jimmy as if he were still with me, “We’ve done it buddy. It’s easy street from here on.” I can go home now.
While I’m standing in the middle of the road staring at the dense foliage I’ve just come out of, a man on a four-wheeler comes driving down the road and stops to talk to me. “Where did you come from?” He asks.
“I hiked here from Arctic Village,” I say, and his jaw drops.
“You walked all the way?” I don’t tell him I’ve been trekking for three summers all the way from the west coast of Alaska with my dogs. Who would believe me?
“Yeah, all the way,” I say.
He shakes his head a little. “Wow, nobody’s ever done that before.”
Dave Metz is the author of Crossing the Gates of Alaska, about his trek across the Brooks Range with his two dogs. He lives in Oregon.