Rolling the Dice

Every guiding company has them. A page of carefully worded phrases meticulously written out by a lawyer in some office, far removed from the natural world. The infamous risk waiver. A bucket of ice water at the start of the trip. A necessary reminder that the world we are traveling to is unscripted. That it can be harsh, dangerous, and unforgiving. That even the best of us, the most prepared, the most cautious, are not immune.

For those of us that live it every day, we have our own, unwritten risk waiver. Every time we go out our doors and into the woods, up the mountain, or onto the water, we sign it. It’s our unspoken agreement with the world we love. An acceptance that it can betray us at any moment. For if it can happen to Forest Wagner, it can happen to anyone.

Forest lives in the woods. There isn’t a mountain he can’t climb, a fjord he cannot paddle, a situation he can’t handle. Two weeks ago he was attacked by a bear while leading a group of students near Haines in southeast Alaska. He wasn’t been foolish or careless, disrespectful or arrogant. You roll the dice enough with Alaska, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. What are the odds that there’s a mama bear with spring cubs over that blind ridge? 1 in 100? 1 in 1,000? How many blind ridges do you hike over before the odds catch up?
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Forest’s influence and inspiration stretches across the state, across the globe. He’s taught thousands how to survive in the back country, inspired many to follow their passions as mountaineers, kayakers, river rafters, and skiers. From all accounts, even after he’d been attacked and bitten along his side and leg and fallen off a cliff face, it was he who spoke to the medivac on the cell phone. Calm, clear, and collected, he talked his students through the whole process. His own Wilderness First Responder.

“I can climb down if you need me to.” He told the medivac. As if he’d done nothing more than sprain his ankle on a morning run through the suburbs.

Why him and not me? Two days ago I hiked the mountain ridge behind my parent’s house. Bear and moose sign coated the game trail. Again and again I rounded blind corners. Bear bells jingling and bear spray bumping against my leg offered little comfort. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Forest around every corner. Wrong place, wrong time. Our unspoken agreement, our signed risk waiver with the natural world.
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I wouldn’t have it any other way. Beneath the sugary, frosted coating that reality TV has given Alaska, nothing has really changed. To truly experience this land, to know it with genuine intimacy means to throw ourselves at its mercy, and accept that we may not receive any. Forest knows this, I know this, Brittney knows this, and so does any other guide or outdoor enthusiast that climbs her mountains and paddles her shores. For if the wilderness was always safe it would not be wilderness. With risk comes appreciation and respect. How charismatic would the bears and wolves be if they were harmless? Would we love them, photograph them, even their tracks worthy of our marvel and imagination? Would glaciers be sublime if they didn’t send blocks of ice as big as buildings into the water to crush and reshape everything in their path?
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So this summer I’ll strap on my boots and push my kayak into the water. I’ll grab my fishing pole and walk the salmon stream, knowing that I share the land with bears, moose, and whales. I’ll grab my dice, take the odds, and see what happens. The alternative is a life that is fraught with other dangers. Forest wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’ll be back, it’ll take more than a bear to pry him away from his natural habitat. I have no doubt he’ll summit Denali again, climb the alpine, and return stronger and more confident than ever. The wilderness needs ambassadors like Forest and the mountains of Alaska just wouldn’t be the same without him.

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Cranky Border Guards and Getting Busted on the Ferry

If objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion stay in motion, than it’s no wonder I feel exhausted. Our travel itinerary for the last twelve days has pulled us thousands of miles on every medium of transportation this side of sled dog on ice pack. Small boat from Hanson Island to Alert Bay, ferry to Port McNeil, drive to Nanaimo, ferry to Vancouver, drive to Seattle (and past the crankiest border guard), drive to Bellingham, ferry to Juneau, ferry to Gustavus, fly to Juneau, and lastly, fly to Anchorage.

After a winter of sitting quietly on a rock in the middle of nowhere with nothing more pressing than to run into town once every two weeks, our manic travel itinerary left us both in a haze. A haze that provided plenty of magical, confusing, and absurd moments. It all starts, I suppose at the B.C/U.S border. We’d spent the day driving south down Vancouver Island after pulling ourselves away from Hanson Island and watching the little cluster of cedar buildings disappear for the next for six months. But the weather turned sunny as we moved down island and spirits were as high as they could be at the prospect of reaching Seattle that evening and spending some time with Brittney’s aunt and uncle.

Joy was further magnified when we reached the border crossing to see four open stations and only a handful of cars in line. With Brittney behind the wheel we glided up to the kiosk, passports in hand.

“Hello!” called Brittney handing over the passports, speaking loud enough to be heard over the quiet whistle our precious pathfinder makes at low RPM.
The U.S border guard didn’t smile, didn’t nod, or in any other way acknowledge or return the most basic and acceptable of human greetings. Instead he snatched the passports from her hand and stared at them as if he’d just picked up something dead and repugnant. After X-raying them for several long moments, his head jerked violently to the side, a great bird of prey ready to grab us and the pets in his talons. His eyes stare into the tinted back window.
“Um, I can open that for you if you want…” Brittney offers.
“Ok.” It speaks!
She rolled the window down, exposing an embarrassing cluster of bags, boxes, and of course, a rabbit, her eyes wide and nose bouncing as the window slides down.
He stares into the labyrinth of our worldly possessions.
“Is that a rabbit?” He sounds disgusted, maybe a little amazed. Surely he’s asking ironically. What he must have been like in high school.
“Yes?” Brittney answers.
Why do we always seem to draw the nastiest of border guards?
“Why are you here?” He snarls.
Seriously? A little ember of rebellion catches some try tinder in my chest. What a hack. Just ask us where we’re from, what our business is, and let’s be on with it. You can be professional without being an asshat. I badly want to say, “why are any of us here man? What’s it all about, man?” But refrain.

Brittney tells him, and before the words are out of her mouth, he’s tossed the passports back into the car and turned away. Wherever he is right now, I’m willing to bet he isn’t smiling.

But we were free, that’s all that mattered. Free to pick up a six pack of glorious IPA after a winter of Kokanee. As we moved further south the road got wider, the trees fewer, the shopping malls greater, and the things I needed to possess to be happy more expensive. If the billboards were to be believed.

“Money doesn’t buy happiness,” Said comedian Daniel Tosh, “but it buys a Waverunner… try to frown on a Waverunner.” Fair point.

We enjoyed a few wonderful days in Seattle, and all too soon, were making the drive north again to the border town of Bellingham to catch the ferry. For the pets, it was the greatest hurdle. Three days cooped up in the car with each other for company. Twice a day we were allowed to go down to the car deck, feed them, and promise that we were almost there. Kind of.

The journey aboard the ferry Matanuska was not a lonely one. A bouncy, adorable two year old with no concept of personal space joined us on the covered back deck of the ferry known as the solarium. A gaggle of wilderness guides based in Haines, including some familiar faces were also aboard, and we prepared for a merry ride north. As we neared Ketchikan, the southernmost town in southeast Alaska however, a ferry employee gave us some grave news. 250 high school band members would be boarding in Ketchikan, swelling the ferry to the bursting point and undoubtedly putting us over the U.S Coast Guard regulated number of tubas. We did what guides do when they’re not on the ocean, the rivers, or the woods. We bought some beer.

Sure. I mean, technically no alcohol was supposed to be consumed in the solarium, but it’s Alaska, surely it’s more of a wink wink, nudge nudge sort of rule. Nope. Half an hour into what looked to be an enjoyable ride from Ketchikan to Petersburg, a lady in a uniform so starched it could stand up on its own materialized in front of us. I had taken the necessary precautions and poured my beer into a nalgene bottle, giving the impression that I was drinking the muddiest, nastiest water in the 49th state. But I remain amazed at how quickly bottles and cans disappeared as she appeared. It was like watching cockroaches scurrying from the sudden flick of a light.

“We had a chaperone complain that there was some open containers of alcohol up here.”
Dead silence.
“Is that true.”
Slowly we shook our heads, muttering “no” while failing to meet her steely gaze. Put us in the woods, in a kayak on four foot seas, and we wouldn’t bat an eye. But here, we were emasculated, or efemulated in Brittney’s case. When in doubt, deny.
“Really?” Stunning that she didn’t believe us. “Cause I don’t think that anyone would just complain for no reason.”
“Maybe they mistook a soda…” one of the other guides mutter.
The lady marches into the middle of the circle. Brittney’s bends her torso over her legs, her Arc’teryx jacket folded over a Sierra Nevada Celebration IPA. The lady tilts her head, “what’s that than?” She points to a big glass bottle beneath one of the lawn chairs someone had been sleeping on.
“That’s… creamer.” Someone says just above a whisper.
“Uh-huh.” She marches over, a soldier of marine enforcement and picks it up. Technically we weren’t lying. Bailey’s is indeed, a creamer. “Consumption of alcohol is not permitted on Alaska state ferries.” She says, much kinder than we probably deserve after lying to her face. “I have to take this, but you can have back when you leave the vessel. I just need to have a name.

Still we’re silent, no one willing to claim any responsibility. We’re all in college again, a militaristic RA confiscating our good time. At last, one of our friends raises his hand. “You can put Mike on it,” he says meekly.

Living “Rustically”

Spring on Hanson Island is bittersweet for us. As we celebrate the sun crawling higher and higher above the mountains of Vancouver Island, we trot outside, palms and heads held skyward. We lay out on the south facing deck all afternoon, soaking up the sun and getting the greatest outdoor bathtub in the world up and running. After a long, windy winter that was defined by the height of the waves and the thunder of the wind, these sunlit days are nothing short of Nirvana.

But in the back of our minds, we know the countdown has begun. That these days are fleeting, and the days of cleaning, organizing, and packing are fast approaching. We have less than a week remaining before, like the geese flying above, we flock north.

Didn’t we just get here? Weren’t we just winging our way south, watching the the islands and inlets crawl by? Winter always seems to slip through our fingers like sand. Blink and its April. This is our life. Every six months we pack everything and shove a resigned kitty and rabbit in the car, our penance for loving two places that are far from easy to reach.

But before we return to a land with bigger glaciers and smaller trees, we reflect on another winter that has taught us much. It’s hard to think of Hanson Island as rustic. Sure, there’s no warm running water or indoor plumbing. But we have a full size fridge, wireless internet, and the ocean at arms reach. In many ways, living in a New York apartment would feel more oppressive, more difficult. The constant artificial lights, the blaring car horns, the masses of humanity. More restraining than the borders of this little island. Where I walk into the forest and hear a Thrush and Woodpecker, or sit on the deck and hear the breath of an Orca a mile away. Things like warm water and flush toilets feel unnecessary. Give me creatures over convenience, stars over street lamps.

Which is all well and good, until the generator won’t turn over on a cloudy morning, the lab batteries failing and the lights flickering. Or the boat engine suddenly refuses to start as the water’s churn in Blackney Pass. Or you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, the window panes rattling the waves pounding, and your fear of the boat getting swept away in full swing. Than an apartment with running water, reliable lights, and a corner store sound pretty good.

So I remind myself of what these inconveniences do. They pull me back to my roots. Remind me that the things we take for granted we shouldn’t. That it’s important to know where our electricity, our fuel, our freshwater come from. And even more, it gives you a personal stake when the only one that can fix it, is you.

A month ago, the generator, died. Not an old generator mind you, but a brand new one. My generator knowledge began and ended with: “turn the key, push the choke in, go back inside.” I went inside, found the dusty owners manual, and marched back to the generator shed without the faintest idea of what I was doing. I opened the maintenance door and stared at its innards. I traced the fuel line, opened the spark plug compartment, and shook my head. If I lived in a city, I’d call the power company and wait impatiently for someone to fix the problem. I had no one to complain to, no one to lean on but me.

Thirty minutes later, my fingers coated with fuel, oil, and grime, I slammed the maintenance door shut. With a knot of apprehension, I filled the generator with gas, pulled the choke, and turned the key. Fifteen seconds later, the blasted thing came to life. I walked back to the cabin with a sense of accomplishment. I love having our source of fresh water, our power, our food squarely in my control. As hard as it can be, it gives me an emotional investment in their sources. Inconvenient or not, I’m grateful.

I want that sort of control, that responsibility when I have my own place. I want solar panels, ground water, a garden, and a wood stove. I have Hanson Island to thank for that. For giving me an intimate connection to the services that it’s so easy to take for granted. After 27-years of turning taps and opening the fridge with little knowledge of where their sources originated, I don’t think I can ever live that way again. Maybe I’ll just have to be rustic forever.