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Going Deep into “America’s Climate Forest”

Brendan Jones  /  Lectura de 22 Minutos  /  Activism

A crossing of Alaska’s Baranof Island.

The rugged mountains of Baranof Island, Alaska, looking east from near Sitka to Warm Springs Bay along the Baranof Cross-Island Trail. Everything seen in this photo falls within the Tongass National Forest. The green, lower-elevation valleys are filled with dense, ancient rainforest. Higher elevations still hold glaciers and hanging ice fields. These mountains are usually snow covered nine to 10 months a year. Tongass National Forest, Baranof Island, Alaska. Photo: Colin Arisman

“I have always thought of a route as an opportunity for exploration. It is a general guide or direction between two points. On a route there is flexibility and personal choice as to the exact path taken. This path may change from one trip to the next depending on conditions such as weather, snowpack, visibility, geological features and individual goals at the time.

“I think of a hike as moving over a delineated trail that is often marked and may have been improved. The experience for the user is to follow the trail and stay on it until reaching one’s destination.

“So for me, the Baranof Island crossing is best described as a route. To describe it as a hike would, in my opinion, diminish it and may also have the consequence of causing individuals to underestimate it. One thing to stress is that weather can dramatically affect the safety of the route and the ability to complete it even for the most experienced adventurer.”

—Ultra-adventurer Eric Speck, Sitka, Alaska

***

For a moment the sun emerges, and the twin shadows of Kevin Mulligan’s aircraft floats take shape on the glacier below. “Oh man,” he groans into the headphones of his Cessna 206, looking down at Baranof Island. “I gotta cross over before I die.”

Basalt pinnacles surround the lozenge of white beneath us, making a grim Stone Age amphitheater. I half-expect a Quidditch ball to whiz by. The frozen landscape is a stark contrast from Baranof Warm Springs Bay, a loose community of about 15 cabins, where we lifted off just moments ago.

The previous week, a friend of mine, who is also a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, had offered to scout for blue ice, or exposed crevasses, on a routine island fly-over, but at the last moment, he had been called off on a boat rescue. So with the weather in our favor, Kevin has agreed to “fly over the hump,” as pilots call it, on the way back to Sitka, where I will meet up with three others to do the journey across Baranof Island. My wife, Rachel, and our three girls are back at our 300-square-foot cabin in Warm Springs.

Kevin and I both peer out the windows of the cockpit, scanning for diagonal hollows or any inconsistencies in the pack. Bergschrunds of ice rime the ends of the glacier, where it sloughs off into Blue Lake valley. “What about there, with all that exposure?” Kevin says, pointing to a fin of igneous rock pushing up from the snow, the summit of the ridge connecting Mount Bassie to the glacier. “How in the heck do you get across that?”

He banks toward the smoky vane of rock. A blade of snow drops off a good 3,000 feet to the rocks below and resolves itself.

“With great care,” I finally say.

In 1799, after hunting out the otter around Kodiak Island, the Russians moved south and established their capital in Sitka, where the Tlingit had been living for thousands of years. Today, Baranof Island—or Shee, as it is traditionally called—is home to about 8,500 people, with one coastal brown bear for every eight humans. Fourteen miles of asphalt hugs a small portion of the western coastline, which rises precipitously from the frigid North Pacific into the world’s largest intact rainforest. As the raven flies, Baranof Island measures 105 miles from north to south.

Today, Sitka, situated along the rugged western coast, is the center of Tlingit aani, the Tlingit homeland. The Tongass National Forest, known as the “crown jewel” of the Forest Service system, surrounds town. The trees of the Tongass, some of which began growing before the Renaissance, store more than 40 percent of all the carbon absorbed by national forests in the United States.

After landing or tying up in town—Sitka’s 14 miles of road are only accessible by boat or plane—you might treat yourself to a chilled glass of Sitka spruce-tip beer at the Pioneer Bar or a salmonberry scone at the Backdoor Café. And you might hear talk of “the crossing,” which isn’t a Cormac McCarthy novel or a bible camp in upstate New York, but a route across the “Baranof Alps,” the slim waistline of Baranof Island.

To kick off the journey, most folks bike out of town, or skiff to Silver Bay, unloading at Medvejie salmon hatchery, about 10 miles from downtown. Following a short hike to Medvejie Lake, voyagers either row or hike alongside the glacier-fed lake to the far end, before ascending the valley to Camp Lake, at the foot of Bear Mountain. (Medvejie comes from medved, the Russian word for “bear.”)

Then comes the so-called “bearcase,” a track stampeded by thousands of years of brown bears (or “bear,” as people on the island say) entering and exiting the alpine of Mount Bassie. Climbing over the lip of the “case,” you gain another couple thousand feet to the crevasse-ridden face of Mount Bassie, then follow a ridge to Indigo Glacier, before threading a series of cliffs into Baranof Warm Springs, where a thermal soak en plein air awaits.

Folks from the Lower 48 generally don’t try the crossing. A church group from Ohio attempted it twice, and twice had to be airlifted by the Coast Guard helicopter back to Sitka. An Alaska State Trooper threatened to charge the leaders of the group with endangerment of more than a dozen kids if they tried a third time. A few years back a man and a woman had to be picked up from the face of Mount Bassie after one of the hikers tumbled 150 feet. Paul Cox, who grew up in Sitka, was airlifted when his group of five—one of whom was the former president of the Yale Mountaineering Club—became disoriented and dehydrated, also on Mount Bassie.

“It’s the heart of darkness up there,” Paul told me. “Trying to cross that island is probably the scariest, most traumatic fucking thing I’ve done in my life.”

In 2017, I crossed over with three friends—John Maxey, an ultra-athlete and accountant from Seattle; his cousin Billy from Colorado, also an experienced mountain climber; Xander, a middle school English teacher in Sitka; and Danny, a dancer from the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The five of us got caught in bad weather. John and Billy hiked on, eager to catch their plane in Baranof Warm Springs. They took a wrong turn after following a flawed “pencil-map,” and ended up calling Sitka Search and Rescue (SAR). According to my wife who was there when they got back, one disappeared into the shower for an hour, while the other hugged his daughter, refusing to let go.

This time around we resolved to stay as a group.

It would be John and Xander again, along with Xander’s 15-year-old son Aiden, who had been talking about crossing since childhood. If we needed to tent up for a few days to wait out a storm, we all agreed that’s what we’d do.

We settled on a departure date of July 23, and as it grew closer, messaging intensified—coordinating food, stoves, guns for protection and safety gear. We triangulated weather reports, and the instruments were all in agreement: ugly. Rain and heavy winds.

Briefly, we considered embarking on what John labeled “Sufferfest 2021.” Then we caught ourselves.

We’d wait for our window.

Sure enough, in late July, a high-pressure system worked through, and John flew up from Seattle, arriving in his customary jeans and white T-shirt, whippet-thin and eager to get into the mountains. On the eve of July 26, after macaroni and cheese with reindeer meat at the Beak Restaurant, and a gear check with Xander and Aiden, we all hit the sack early.

The Alaskan sun filtered through the blinds of my room. I thought of Rachel and the girls in the cabin 18 miles to the east, then of Steve Fish, who crossed in 2017 with his daughter and three others and got caught in a storm. Or Laura Schmidt, who broke her leg on Mount Bassie, and had to be helped down. Dawn Johnson, who gave me her GPS track four years ago, told me the story of getting caught in 40-knot winds on the glacier. She had also once refused to share the same track with a hiker, newly arrived in Sitka. “He just looked like he’d hurt himself,” she told me. Sure enough, that’s what he did: He stabbed himself in the thigh with an ice-axe on Mount Bassie and was helped off by SAR.

But there was also Sitka resident Steve Reifenstuhl, who ran the route in eight hours. As I drifted off, I assured myself we weren’t doing anything like that. I just wanted this trip to be better than the last.

The following morning the sun rose clean and bright over Mount Arrowhead. Aiden, long and lean, fiddled with the Maori carved-bone fishing hook around his neck as we loaded onto the boat.

His father asked, “You ready, kid?”

“Guess so.”

The ocean was bathtub calm as we threaded the archipelago of islands off the coast of Sitka, tufted with hemlock and cedar. We ribbed Aiden on the number of eggs required for his weight-lifting diet, and the implications for his personal hygiene. As if on cue, a whale at the mouth of Silver Bay exhaled a cone of fishy breath. Aiden slipped on his sunglasses and peered into the alpine of Bear Mountain.

The bay, a long, deep body of water to the east of town, hewed thousands of years ago by a receding glacier, appeared serene and timeless. Mist evaporated in the early sunlight, which appeared molten as it spilled across the flat ocean.

We tied up at the hatchery and unloaded gear, scanning the banks for bears. When we last crossed, we encountered four in the first half mile. I was simultaneously thankful to be carrying the Glock 20 in my chest holster and unhappy with the extra three pounds.

Two dark creatures loped out of the hatchery building. An equally large man in flannel called after them. This was Cain, the hatchery manager, and his twin Great Danes, which hung back, woofing at our crew. The older dog had fought off a bear, Cain remarked.

I mentioned that our friend Eric Speck, an ultra-adventurer, would be arriving a day or two later. He planned to go across with his daughter Liv. At age 11, she would be the youngest female, at least in recent history, to make it across. Eric had done it eight times, once in the winter. He and Liv would meet up with his wife and younger daughter who planned to stay in the cabin just above ours.

Eric had also hiked Baranof Island from north to south along with photographer Dan Evans, making the two of them perhaps the first humans to do so. To put this into perspective, the American Alpine Club in Colorado funded two members to hike the length Baranof Island. They lasted four days, covering perhaps 15-miles, before giving up and returning down south.

“Well, good luck,” Cain said, by way of closing, his dogs like two great shadows behind him.

John set his watch to “Run.” At 7:10 a.m. on July 27, under clear skies, we set off.

At a clearing behind the hatchery, we negotiated a dry streambed and stepped into the shadow of the forest. A hush moved over us—the quiet attention of four humans acutely aware of being prey for larger and more ferocious mammals.

“How about the gun out in front,” Xander suggested, making way for me to lead. Recalling the bear encounters from four years back, I chambered a round.

Occasional shafts of sun penetrated the canopies of Sitka spruce and western hemlock, splintering on hummocks of moss. Red devil’s club berries were just starting to emerge from the prehistorically large leaves. Salmonberries grew red and plump, and we plucked them for breakfast as we walked.

At a clearing by Medvejie Lake we stepped once more into the sun. A scrim of pollen coated the surface. We briefly considered piling into the rectangular fiberglass rowboat, kept at the west end of the lake for public use, but decided we’d be too heavy and would have no way to row the boat back.

A few minutes later, hiking on the rough trail along the edge of the lake, we saw a couple paddling. “Who goes there?” a man called. We identified ourselves, and the boaters kept going, leaving behind a long “V” pocked with eddies from the dip of their paddles.

At the far end of Medvejie we put our heads together, trying to recall if the game trail stuck to the river or branched off. The sun broke out from a cloud. A deer trail resolved in the ferns, and we started once more through a glade of towering hemlock and spruce. John nodded toward a pile of bear scat, thankfully older, broken down to salmonberry seeds.

“Welcome to the fun zone!” Xander called out in a sportscaster’s voice as we shoved our way through a tangle of devil’s club, red alder and salmonberry bushes. My phone mysteriously started playing the song, Рюмка водки на столе (“A Shot of Vodka on the Table”). I felt foolish for wearing a sleeveless shirt, but soon the pain of the thorns receded behind the pleasure and satisfaction of breaking through, moving into big timber once more.

After a few more “fun zones,” we reached the land of giant boulders, each one the size of a tiny home. Occasional cairns of stacked shale reassured us as we clambered through.

It’s my experience that cairns in the wilderness trigger a serotonin release similar to finding oneself on a map. These crude structures affirm not only that another human has also been here but also that this person has made decisions similar to your own. In other words: Keep going. You’re doing fine.

The other side of the coin is the sinking feeling when the cairns stop. As they did at this point.

We paused beside a clear pool of headache-inducing cold water to regroup and hydrate in preparation for the alpine ahead, where holes like this would be scarce. After a brief consult, we backtracked and crossed to the opposite side of the valley. This way also seemed suspect, so we bushwhacked to the center of the valley, descending into a streambed of boulders with a ceiling of braided alders. What appeared like a cairn ahead turned out to be a pyramid of bear scat atop a plate of pink granite, each fresh, grassy nugget slightly smaller than a tennis ball. Xander launched into a rousing rendition from Guys and Dolls as we followed bear prints to a plateau. Oven-mitt-sized pads worn into deer heart plants led the way up to Camp Lake, which glittered in its bowl of serenity ahead.

We set our bags down, listening for the bear who had roared back at us four years ago, shattering the serenity. Xander rolled his pants and waded in the water, while John chewed a bagel. Bear Mountain rose across from us, sheer and grave, Kelly green alders filling up chutes left by landslides.

“Shall we do it?” John suggested.

We slid on our packs. It was bearcase o’clock.

Going Deep into “America’s Climate Forest”

Ascending from Camp Lake up to the alpine of Mount Bassie. Photo: Brendan Jones

As we started off, I recalled a conversation in which Paul Cox described the bearcase as “one big mistake.”

“You’re climbing this band of moss and blueberry bushes, and it just keeps on getting steeper and steeper. It’s really narrow, and to the right, you have a rock-cliff drop-off.”

It was at the top of the bearcase where Maria Birukova, a former member of the Yale Climbing Team—all 5 feet, 2 inches of her, in Paul’s memory—had taken his bag because he couldn’t do it anymore. (Burikova later died in a climbing accident in California where she was pursuing her doctorate at the Stanford School of Medicine.)

As we took on elevation, Camp Lake grew small and picturesque, while Paul’s judgment made more and more sense. Soon we were clinging to blueberry bushes, pulling ourselves up, trying to match the spots the bears used. “I am going to die,” Aiden intoned. John, from behind me, kindly reassured him that slipping “would not be a death ride.” I requested that he sound a little less like a bleating fawn, for fear of attracting brown bears.

As if in punishment for my snark, I slipped and reached for an alder branch. A bear print resolved in my peripheral vision, inches from my eyeball. I could make out the perfect hole left by the claw, and where the bulk of the animal had flattened the ferns off to one side. The sun lit up a blueberry. I munched it between my teeth, caught my breath and continued on.

With a final groan, Aiden pulled his lanky torso over the top. Lichen-flecked shale stacked into a cairn greeted us. A soft southerly breeze cooled our skin. We stared back at the green vane of rock we had just ascended. Down a swale, a wedge of snow melted into a surprise water hole, with tufts of goat hair strewn among the heather. As we filled up, I gathered a clump of goat hair, remarkably fresh-smelling and soft, for the girls.

We reached the snow line, where John gave an impromptu self-arrest demonstration at Xander’s urging. I couldn’t take my eyes off a single mountain goat below, working easily across a steep pitch of snow, following a trail known only to him into the valley below.

We zigzagged between redoubts of rock, pushing out like a horse’s bone from the wildflowers. After losing a few hundred feet into a saddle, we gained it back climbing toward Mount Bassie, an ashy pyramid of rock ahead—where Paul had ascended in order to catch a cell signal for a rescue. All the while thinking, as he told me later, “Holy fuck. What are we doing here? This fucking mountain’s going to eat us.” (Years after his endeavor, Paul would be asked, in a job interview for dean of a college, if he had ever been in a no-win situation. After telling this story, he was immediately offered the post.)

We paused at the edge of the ice field to power up on peanut butter and attach crampons. A silence descended over the group. It was here, four years earlier with the fog rolling in, where John and Billy had pressed on, while we hunkered down to camp for the night. How quickly the fog swallowed them, a moment we caught on video, something out of a low-budget alpine horror movie.

“The rule is, we stick within 50 feet of each other,” Xander announced.

“Dude,” John groaned.

The bowl was steep along the edges, the snowpack softened by the sun. A few hundred feet across the face, Aiden’s crampon slipped from his boot. Carefully, Xander performed a 180-degree turn to help him. John got out ahead, and Xander yelled in protest. I checked our vertical: 4,000 feet, which seemed too high. Far off, perhaps a mile, a mountain goat watched our progress.

John dropped down to avoid a crevasse, then farther down to skirt a cornice built out over a hidden cliff face. He had opted out of crampons and slalomed down the sun-softened snow in his boots. As we approached, my mountain goat took off, the tips of his horns visible and then gone as he slipped over the ridge.

Going Deep into “America’s Climate Forest”

Crossing Mount Bassie. Photo: Brendan Jones

On the far side of Bassie, stone the color of hay emerged from the snowpack. It was just after 7 p.m., and we were 8.8 miles from Cain and his Great Danes.

“People?” John said, when we regrouped, with Xander limping slightly. I squinted into the distance and saw on the ridge toy soldiers making good time across the snow. The two folks in the rowboat. It was rare to see anyone else up here. Perhaps 10 people cross each summer.

“They’re moving fast,” John observed.

We made the decision to push on another mile to a col called “Logan Pass,” after Dan Evans’ son Logan, who had crossed at the age of 11. This would set us up to make it to Warm Springs the following evening.

At Logan Pass we found flats as neat as putting-greens flanked by elephant-grey shale. We filled up pots for tea and dinner at a small pond. Over the whoosh of the jet stove Xander requested tent snuggles from Aiden, who, at 6 feet, 2 inches, begged off. A handful of pistachios for dessert ignited an impassioned exchange over “leave no trace” in Alaska, and whether we should be eating blueberries from the woods and packing out the result. Meanwhile, the volcano about 14 miles to the west caught fire, the bands of snow on the nearer mountains pulsing a luminous white before extinguishing with the sun. Before sleep we scanned the sky for wisps of cirrus clouds, any suggestion of weather on the horizon, and could find none.

Despite the promise of clear skies, we slept poorly that night. I could hear the others shift in their bags. The temperature dropped into the 30s, testing my 20-degree quilt. We woke early, the wind soft and variable, the sun lighting up the blue ice beneath Peak 5390 to the south, the highest island-based mountain in the United States outside the Aleutian chains and Hawai‘i.

John made black tea, and Xander announced that he had “torched” his knee on the ice field while helping Aiden with the crampons. It would be a hard day, but, like all good middle school teachers, he would press on.

The air warmed steadily as we climbed out from the col. Soon we were down to short sleeves, the dorsal of rock Kevin had banked toward looming in the distance. Now I recalled it: We had kept to the left, leaning into the rock, avoiding the drop into the valley.

John and Aiden, out in front by a good half mile, flaunting Xander’s edict, moved easily across the summit, hooking north toward the glacier. Gripping our ice axes, Xander and I found their footprints along a neat rim of snow beside the rock. I hummed De La Soul as I tiptoed across, resisting the urge to look down. We caught up with the others, and had a light row over whether to take a steep downhill pocked with rocks to the glacier below—where our friend Danny had self-arrested four years ago, earning him a tattoo of an ice axe on his wrist—or go farther west along the ridge. The ridge won out, to my dismay, and we followed it down to where the glacier drained, like a bathtub, along the side.

It was easy going once we reached the snowpack, though the sun quickly grew oppressive. The sheer rock I had seen from Kevin’s floatplane appeared even more imposing from below. John later wrote in his journal that the cliffs felt like observers allowing our safe passage. With the sun blazing overhead, I thought they looked more like the sides of a convection oven.

Rocks that had spilled off the surrounding peaks left muddy trails in the snow. Bear tracks ran beside ours. The glacier began to slope downward, and we argued over whether to stay high or cut down. Breaking into a Scottish brogue, Xander insisted on the high road, a route that ended up providing a stunning view of the subsurface glacier, its caves and meltwater tunnels, corridors and strata, but not a way across.

Meanwhile, Aiden was browning up like a rotisserie chicken. I lent him a long-sleeve shirt. We back-tracked to the low road, then began hiking up to the second glacier—this one a bit shorter, tied off at the end by a narrow couloir that appeared, from far off, as near vertical.

The amphitheater seemed to demand a performance, and Xander and Aiden sang an impassioned Lola, using their ice axes to stick dance. From there we left the stage, ascending the cliffs. I felt a pang of regret over not bringing a climbing harness, but John kicked good track ahead, and soon we were rewarded with a new view—the aquamarine Baranof Lake.

Energized by the good progress, we pressed forward, side-hilling to a lower glacial lake where it seemed Julie Andrews might pop out at any moment. Another contretemps played out over whether to circumscribe the lake or cut across where it drained into a waterfall. The shorter route, which involved a steep descent, won out, though it gave Aiden painful flashbacks to the bearcase. With John’s gentle guidance he made it down, and we all took a moment to recover.

“I’m ready for this to be over,” Aiden announced.

I watched a Cessna lift off from the lake below, appearing like a paper airplane. My knees ached from the down-hilling, and my ankles, fused at the joint from birth, screamed against the side-hills. I was also ready for this to be over—though I knew “dropping down” into Baranof Lake could be the most challenging part of the crossing.

We followed a game trail along the ridge, then contemplated the final peak, whether to hike to the top or to side-hill. It wasn’t until we were on the mountain that we opted for the shortcut. This worked fine, until we realized we were descending the wrong ridge into the forest.

As we consulted our screens, Aiden launched into a litany of curses. “I’m so pissed right now!” He spit at the ground, the fishhook around his neck swinging wildly.

“This land tricks you! It’s beautiful, everything is amazing. Then once it has you in its clutches, it makes you bleed. It mentally destroys you. It tempts you in, then finds your weakness and picks you apart. It’s a hellscape,” he finally diagnosed, a well-placed capstone on his soliloquy.

We found the proper ridge, and I caught up to John, who crouched behind a rock. We both agreed that Aiden, though dramatic, might be on to something.

“Let’s just get down,” we both agreed.

On his phone he pulled up a note Steve Reifenstuhl had sent him in 2017:

“At 1,700 feet it will be steep all around. There is a cliff band that runs from Sadie Lake around to the south and then to [the] westside of [the] mountain, but there is a weakness slightly east of the 1,700-foot and no-rock cliffs. The trouble is at this point you cannot see the cliff band, and it runs roughly from 1,600 feet to 800 feet in elevation. No matter which way you go it is steep, some places just less steep. When I find my spot, it looks bad, but I know it goes.

We continued down to 1,700 feet, where the forest began, stowed our poles and ice axes, and started off to the right.

“This is wrong,” Xander announced, with the certainty of a sage. We shifted left and started down again. Snarls of spruce saplings and alder crowded the chutes between the bands of cliffs. John rappelled easily, hanging on to cedar saplings and blueberry bushes. We looped our arms around hemlocks, swinging our legs over dirt ledges. The blade of my ice axe gonged like a wind chime against rock.

We had found Steve’s weakness. And it went.

Going Deep into “America’s Climate Forest”

Dropping down into Baranof Warm Springs with Baranof Lake visible. Photo: Brendan Jones

When we hit Baranof Lake where it juts out into a peninsula, we had to climb back up into a boggy muskeg in order to avoid more fun zones. Xander and Aiden made a Greek chorus of frustration at having to do yet one more uphill to the muskeg, which was crisscrossed with deer trails. Or were these … could they be? A print in the mud. A turquoise kayak in the grass. Humans! Farther on, two skiffs were pulled up on a sandy beach. The planks so flat and even beneath the soles of our boots. We paused at the entrance to the grotto, the forest hot springs. “Soak?” Xander suggested.

I knew he had been pushing through pain on a bad knee. And I knew this was Aiden’s crowning moment, his first crossing; John had looked forward to this soak, especially after the flawed descent last time. Here we could let all the bickering, the unsureness, wash off into the ocean.

“I gotta check in with the family,” I said, breaking the spell.

Then we were at the door of the glowing cabin, two small muscles crowding my arms, demanding stories of bears, eager to know if the ice had been blue, and if Liv Speck was right behind us. Rachel emerged with wee Quinn. Steve had stopped by, she said, and told her we wouldn’t be arriving that night, as he had not seen us behind him.

I looked at Xander. It had been Steve ahead of us! Crossing with his wife, Andrea. The two of them had been in the rowboat and on the ridge ahead of us.

Xander smiled, “Looks like we snuck up on the master of the crossing.”

That night we ate like baboons, tearing pieces of rib eye steak from the cast-iron Dutch oven. Xander’s knee swelled, and, instead of making the trip back into the woods, we decided to soak in the bathhouse built along the boardwalk over Warm Springs Bay. One by one we lowered ourselves into individual robin’s-egg-blue aluminum tubs, shouting over the sound of water spilling onto the rocks below.

“I feel like one big tea bag,” John said.

Indeed, the water around me was turning into a stew of fern and bark. I settled into the warm, up to my chin. Across the bay the ridge to the south undulated in the heat.

I sunk deeper into the tub, until my eyes were level with the surface. My muscles went ropy, then my brain, the superheated water shutting down the senses. Voices receded, awareness of the temperature, even smells, slough offed, floating away with the twigs and mud and dried blood left by the fun zones.

A vision appeared: a well-worn muddy path cutting through a field. Columns of rains ahead. Cows ghost-like and watching. Crossing the field, unlatching a gate, descending into a valley long barren of trees. Kneeling to sip water from an ancient lake. Then the rain comes, mottling the surface. Removing my shoes and clothes and wading to my chest. Closing my eyes, walking deeper still.

Then Xander’s booming voice, accustomed to addressing a room full of 7th graders. “You boys still alive?”

I opened my eyes. As if coming up from some great depth, my body appeared again. The bay had gone dark.

Carefully, I stepped out from the bath and toweled off. I moved up the boardwalk, toward our cabin, which teemed with light and shadow in the copse of cedars.

Two days later, on an overcast day, we sat beside Baranof Lake, while Eric’s wife, Brita, and her daughter Elsa fished. Every once in a while, Brita hooted into the mountains, and we all went quiet, waiting for a response. Eric and Liv were due down from the crossing that afternoon.

Xander, Aiden and John had taken off with Kevin for the flight back across. Upon seeing us, Kevin had renewed his vow to make it across on foot. Off they flew, over the hump—17 minutes of flight time with clear skies.

The girls played in the sand and incoming clouds reflected on the lake surface. Brita retrieved her spinner quickly, recounting how she and Eric had done the crossing for their 10th anniversary. They also camped at Logan Pass. The wind blew up, and they had to hunker. “It was kind of like a marriage up there, with its ups and downs,” Brita joked. Then her smile disappeared. She cupped her hands and lifted her head to the mountains behind us, “Whoo-oo!”

After some time, we started back to the coast. As we walked, we all whooped, trying to imitate Brita’s clarion, “Whoo-oo!”

“Mom,” Elsa said, pausing. “I heard something.” Rachel, from behind me, said, “I heard it, too.”

Carried down the mountains, along the faint breeze, we heard the faintest, “Whoo-oo!”

Brita smiled, then cupped her hands to respond. Eric and Liv had made it across.

Today, when I go to the grocery store in Sitka, folks ask about the track for the crossing. I always give it. I did a presentation for Sitka Trail Works, though Xander or certainly Steve, Brita, Eric or Dan would have been better suited. My oldest daughter, Haley, practices for her eventual crossing on Gavan Hill, behind our house.

“This is the thing that feeds my soul,” Eric told me the evening after he crossed with Liv. He sat in a rocking chair, drinking red wine from a mug. The girls played upstairs. “And you’re never really sure if your kid will fall in love with it like you do. But she did. And it’s just an awesome feeling.”

Not a day goes by when I don’t think of crossing with Rachel and the girls. At 43, it gives me reason to keep going into the mountains, to keep my chin up. I do know we will climb into those mountains with an open heart and a cold eye on the sky, our noses sniffing for beings who built the paths long before we existed, reaching out with a pole to test the snowpack. Dreaming, as we tiptoe across that fin of rock, of the descent into the hot springs.

And if we don’t find our way across, that will be fine, too.

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