Taking a Gap Year between College and University is a common thing nowadays. I actually chose to take two years. In the first I took a Foundation Diploma in Media (because it was free while I was still under 21! Woop!) and in the second I worked as much as possible before going off travelling. For my first solo trip abroad I wanted to do something special, something no-one I knew had ever done before. I decided that I wanted to go to trekking in Alaska. This idea formed after discovering a company called Trek America. They had a bunch of special “roughing it” tours across North America that included lots of special activities.
I spent weeks saying that I was going to book the Trek, frequently re-reading the itinerary and checking my bank account. I’d like to say that I was hesitant just because it cost a lot but I think in reality I was probably a bit scared at the prospect of going out to face the big wide world. Over this period of uncertainty a friend of mine made it his mission to constantly bug me about finalising the details. Our every conversation began with “Have you booked it yet?” I was never quite sure whether he did so with a purpose or if it was just for his own amusement, but it worked. I booked the trek and the flight, and the night after that I took a copy of the receipt to the pub and slammed it down on the table in front of my friend.
He laughed. A month later, I was off.
I’m leaving on a Jet Plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again. (About 2 weeks.)
The two week trek I applied for included a pick-up and drop-off at a particular hotel in Anchorage at the start and end of the journey. The cheapest flights I could find around the trek dates were not really ideal. The flight to Alaska arrived a full day before the trek started and the departing one left about four hours after the trek was to end. To make things worse the arrival flight hit the ground close to midnight so even if I had wanted to splurge on an extra night at the hotel I would have only gotten a few hours sleep anyway. Hardly worth the cost of a full night, right?
So I tagged on an extra challenge on to my itinerary. I opted to spend the night sleeping in the airport terminal. A site I found gave useful insights into the best areas to sleep in various airports. It listed things such as closing times, bathroom availability and drinking fountain locations. Armed with this information I arrived safely at Anchorage airport, found a comfy-ish padded chair thing, crammed my belongings under it whilst simultaneously entangling myself in various cords and straps as a theft-prevention method, and impelled myself into some semblance of sleep.
The plan went without a hitch and twelve hours later I had dumped my luggage at the hotel and set off on a brief walking explore. Nothing of note really transpired during my wanderings except for when I was dozing in a random park and two guys came up to me asking for some gum and we started talking about random stuff and one thing they mentioned was that when they make a joint (or “marijuana cigarette” if you will) they hollow out a Cuban-style cigar and stuff the husk full up to the brim with weed. Oh how my young mind was blown.
The Grizzly Cometh
I stayed one night in the hotel and at breakfast the next morning I tried to pick out any other trekkers from the group of people pecking at the buffet but none stood out. After cleaning out my room I made my way to the foyer where a number of others gathered. We tentatively introduced each other and waited for our Trek Leader to arrive.
And arrive he did. Storming through the front doors of the hotel came this immense form, mammoth beard swinging from a bronzed face, thick frame blocking the view of the street. He bellowed “Hey! I’m Grizzly!” in a thick American accent (so something like “Hay! Aa’m Grizzlay!”), leaving us all momentarily stunned. This incredible beast-man was to be our guide across the rugged Alaskan wilderness. We were the luckiest people around and we didn’t even know it yet.
Grizzly’s rugged cross-country mini-van was nicknamed the Sloop John B. and so the origin of its namesake was played to us multiple times during our journey. After loading our packs up onto the roof-rack we set sail for our first port. This was a camping trek and so we spent most nights in simple two-man tents that we had to erect and take down ourselves. For the first week I was tent-mates with a crazy Aussie called Steve. Our first night was spent on a slightly raised, rocky plateau that looked out over rivers and mountains one way, dense forest another, and a small town the other.
It was stunning, and the best place to take in this spectacle was from the Out House; A tiny wooden hut on the fringe of the camp-ground, covering a hole in the ground and a luxury bidet (by “bidet” I mean “bidet” and by “luxury” I mean “no”). The door to this hut had a flap about half way down, like a letter box but the full width of the door. When perching on the toilet one could open the flap by tugging on a string by the wall which was hooked up via a pulley system to lift the flap open. Whatever the purpose behind this mysterious flap, it was the perfect height to let you look out over the epic majesty of nature’s bountiful glory while doing a number two.
Before setting up our tents in what was almost the wilderness we were given a firm lecture on Bear Awareness. The key points I remember were:
- Lock anything smelly away in the van. So, any food, cosmetics, perfumes should be locked away somewhere that their scent won’t leak out and attract unwanted bear-tention (… “bear” + “attention”).
- If threatened by a black bear, throw something. Black bears are the smaller variety of bear and they’re a little less courageous than their bigger relatives, so they can be scared away. Also, keep an eye out for them in trees because they can climb.
- If threatened by a Grizzly, stay calm and back away. Just back off slowly, keeping eye contact with the animal.
- If attacked by a Grizzly, get down and start praying. Well, half of that is right. Lie down on your stomach, spread your legs and put your hands over your head. This is intended to limit the amount of damage taken. With your legs spread the bear can’t flip you over and get direct access to your vital organs.
Some pretty grizzly thoughts, I know, but necessary advice nonetheless. (HA, “grizzly”! I crack myself up!)
Ice, Ice, Baby!
In the first half of that week we hiked along a trail towards a glacier. Once we reached it we donned crampons and began marching across it. We were walking across a gigantic slab of ice as tall as a shopping mall that stretched off beyond the horizon and yet the cloudless sky released a fiery sun, pushing us all into T-shirts. After walking for a while we came to a short vertical wall of ice. It was here that we were to practice ice-climbing. With a tiny hand-pick in each hand we took turns in scaling the wall. Once we had practised to satisfaction it was time for the real deal.
Glaciers are not solid ice; they’re riddled with holes and tunnels much like a piece of Swiss cheese the size of a giant’s leg. To experience some real ice climbing we took it in turns to be lowered down into one of the particularly large holes. We then had to climb our way out. Of course there was a safety rope with someone at the top of the hole holding on to the rope. The main safety tip we were given was to be careful not to hit the rope with our picks.
As I was lowered down I took in my surroundings. Further below the surface the ice lost its snowy white look and became a rich blue. Looking down I could see the bottom not too far down but it looked like the icey floor curved away. I imagined long, twisting tubes of blue like those slides at water parks. Except this slide would likely not end in a warm pool full of loud children. I began my ascent. One after another, I slammed the hand-picks into the ice wall not more than thirty centimetres from my face. Once the picks were firmly embedded I had to lift my right foot and kick the front claws of the crampon into the wall as a foot hold. Next came the left foot. Then the process repeated, the hand-picks taking some of my body weight as I secured my foot holds. Sometimes my foot positions weren’t firmly enough embedded and with sudden ferocity I would fall, only to be caught by the safety rope and my grip on the picks.
Each time I rammed the picks into the ice above my head I could feel a piece of my strength chip away. Nearing the top I became desperate. Careless. I swung my right arm up, the pick struck close to the safety rope. Too close. I gasped, tried to focus on where the pick had hit. The rope twanged like a plucked guitar string. Was it cut? No. I exhaled and continued up until hands reached down and dragged me over the edge of the hole.
I was shaking, but more from exhilaration than fear. I looked down to see a tiny stream running through the glacier surface. I was told that this glacial water was safe to drink so I scooped some up in my water bottle. As I supped the pure crystal water and wiped the sweat from my brow I looked up. There, through the moisture-rich cloudless sky, I saw the Sun; bombastic in it’s golden might, surrounded by a perfectly circular rainbow. It was a majestic halo over the world. And in that moment, it was a halo over my world.
This was only the first half of my first week in Alaska! There’s still plenty more to come. There will be bears about, plenty of salmon eating, some jay-walking moose, and a journey through the clouds. To be sure of not missing out subscribe to Where? There! Teach. by email or follow on Twitter or Facebook.