Backpacking, and Other Burdens: Part 2

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Previously, on “Brown’s Close…”

The pain in my ankle was sharp. The only sounds I could make were a shriek, and a pitiful, “Oh no.”

This was it. My worst fear. I’d have to be taken off the trail by helicopter like the poor woman we were previously warned about. My name would go down in trail history as an inexperienced nuisance.

My friend, who had been consistently moving at a quick pace and was far ahead, heard me fall and doubled back with the lightning speed of a jaguar. 

Reaching my side – 

“Drop the pack,” she ordered.

I struggled out of the large backpack, clutching my ankle.

I rolled around on the ground, taking the kind of deep breaths women are always practicing when they give birth on television.

“I heard a crack,” I mumbled.

My friend didn’t say anything, and instead turned grey.

I rolled around some more, and then tentatively rolled my ankle. Then, with the horrific image of having to lie on the ground for hours waiting for a helicopter to find me and take me home, I rolled onto my knees, and stood up.

Confirming I could walk, I told myself that my ankle wasn’t broken. 

My friend helped me on with my pack, and she bounded on, with me trudging behind her.

With her periodically running ahead and then doubling back, she glowingly confirmed we were not as far from Eagle River as she’d initially expected. My heart leapt for joy; Eagle River was the overnight camping site. We would cross the river first thing in the morning.

Eagle River, like many of Alaska’s natural elements, is mighty. The current is quick, the water high, and hikers get caught and drown.

Until my ankle injury, which was now my chief concern, fjording the river had been the part of the trip about which I had been quietly fretting. 

Reaching the riverbank, I plopped down, took off my left boot, and examined my ankle. It was significantly swollen; all prior definition was gone, and the vascularity had disappeared from my foot. The ankle was unstable.

My friend was marching up and down the river, examining the conditions. There was a couple across the way on the other side, happily changing clothes in full view. They had clearly just crossed through the glacial melt, and were putting on dry clothes as advised to prevent hypothermia.

“Uh, Sarah?” she spoke softly, as if approaching someone on her deathbed. “I think we should cross.”

“Wait, what now?” I squawked, alarmed. 

I was supposed to have eight hours to prepare myself for this feat.

“Well, yeah. There are people around. I’d rather do it then.”

My safety track record on this trip so far was not great; tripping and drowning were definitely possible. If I did that when people were watching, at least they could report where to look for my body.

“Well, let me change my shoes and see how my ankle feels.”

We’d each brought separate water shoes solely for the purpose of crossing Eagle River. I pulled the sandals gingerly over my ankle. It was so swollen the straps almost didn’t make it around the blobby grapefruit that, an hour ago, had been a working joint. I didn’t have any way of treating the injury other than making it worse by walking on it for another fourteen miles. Oddly enough, submerging it in icy water might be the best thing at the moment.

“Let’s do it.”

Prior to the trip, I watched a safety video on crossing Eagle River. According to the video, we were supposed to line up with everyone in our group, holding the hips of the hiker in front of us, and move sideways in a line facing the current. The theory was each person would help stabilize the hiker in front of him.

I hobbled over to the water’s edge, and my friend graciously agreed to be the leader, taking the brunt of the current.

My friend leaned into her poles, and I leaned into her. The water, which came up to mid-thigh, was icy and, as advertised, fast. The rocks under foot were smooth and slippery, and would have been difficult to negotiate with two good ankles.

My friend took a shuffling side step to the left, and I followed. We took another, and I felt myself lurch forward.

“Wait, stop you’re going too fast, you’re going too fast!” I shrieked hysterically, all in one breath.

“You okay you okay you okay?” 

“I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay,” I answered in our new call and response. We took another step to the left.

And another.

And another.

I was torn between skipping as quickly as we could to the shore, and with keeping my ankle from getting stuck between one of the rolling, slippery rocks.

We lurched to the left again, and I compulsively squeezed her hips in a death grip. 

“You’re going too fast, you’re going too fast!”

Then, realizing we really were quite close to the shore by then —  

“I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay,” I shrieked before she could ascertain if I was ready to move forward.

In a weird sideways charge, we galloped the last 10 feet, and onto the rocky beach.

I collapsed, tears streaming down my face from pain, and total relief.

“I’m so glad that’s over,” I kept muttering.

“You know Sarah? Every time you told me I was going too fast? I was just, like, moving.”

I laid down on my back, lifting my ankle into the air, moaning, muttering, and periodically asking my friend if she needed help erecting the tent. She assured me she did not, and then came to sit next to me on the rocky beach.

“I’m so glad that’s over and we don’t have to do that tomorrow,” I muttered one last time with finality.

In advance of this trip, I had excitedly, and optimistically, purchased a “backpacking sleeping bag” on Amazon, rated down to 47 degrees Fahrenheit. All day trudging through the snow covered mountains, I’d worried about whether the bag would be warm enough. 

While I did not freeze to death, I did roll around all night shivering, and wondering what shape my ankle would be in by morning.

At six, I crawled out of my friend’s tent shivering, and examined my ankle. It still resembled a grapefruit, but did not hurt as much as I had feared. Chalking it up to adrenaline, I hoped this protective panic would last until I could collapse at home later that night.

My friend scuttled out of the tent soon after me, and we made breakfast. Of my remaining freeze dried meals, I determined chili mac was the most breakfast-like, and I stirred the contents around in the boiling water, marveling at the sheer volumes of sodium inherent therein. We then packed up, and hit the trail.

Everything hurt. My ankle, my shoulders, my back, my feet, my new blisters. The residual pain of Day 1 exacerbated the pain of Day 2. 

I spent the better part of the first two hours hobbling along, holding my breath. We were wading through creepy tall grass again, and a bear could stick his face out in front of me without warning. Eventually we made our way into woods which, while still eerie, offered more visibility.

Bursting over a bridge and crossing Eagle River from a different vantage point, two young men came bounding towards us, hailing us down. 

My friend grabbed her bear spray.

I, on the other hand, was glad to see them. Maybe they’d give my old bones a lift home after they murdered me.

They announced they were taking surveys for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

I leaned heavily on my poles, relieved that we had stopped walking.

“How did you hear about this trail?”

I gestured mutely to my friend.

“How is the difficulty level?”

“Easy!” she rattled off.

I, on the edge of collapse – 

“Really hard,” I muttered, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

“A lot of beginners like it for the variety. You’re exposed to so many different types of terrain. Snow patches, river crossings, eh?”

“I fell down the hill in the snow yesterday,” I answered flatly. “Do one of you have an ace bandage?”

One of the surveyors obligingly looked through his pack, and then confirmed not only did he not have an ace bandage, they had stopped carrying first aid kits.

“Last question,” the other resolutely continued. “What did you do with human waste?”

My friend and I glanced at each other for a moment.

“Uh, I haven’t had that problem.”

“Me neither,” she answered coyly.

“Are you familiar with the concept of, ‘Leave No Trace?’” he stubbornly continued with his intrusive line of questioning.

My friend, experienced backpacker that she was, assured him she knew how to bury her poop in the woods, sans tutorial, thank you.

While this little vignette broke up the monotony of the hike, we were just postponing the inevitable pain to come.

We shuffled forward.

“The fun part about the last day is you can plan where you are going to eat a celebratory dinner!” my friend sang out. “I always like to think about where I am going to go for dinner in Eagle River when we finish…”

She glanced at her watch as she trailed off. Then –

“Though we would really need to pick up the pace if we are going to have time to go to a restaurant before driving back to Girdwood.”

I grunted in response and continued to shuffle.

“Let’s play a trail game!” my friend called in desperation.

“Oh gosh, yes please.” 

Anything to distract me from my total abject misery.

The game was simple. She decided on a category (“Items I will serve in the new restaurant I am opening”). We then traded naming items in that category, in alphabetical order, while reciting all previously named items. If one player failed to name a new item, or failed to remember an old item, that player lost.

The restaurant to be opened by my friend quickly turned into a boozy bakery, serving solely sugary cocktails and decadent desserts. Menu items included Dutch Apple Pie, Eclairs, Fudge, Mango Margaritas, Sorbet, and Wine. 

Exhausting the alphabet, we switched to Items We Can’t Forget for Our Vacation (“Jungle Safari Hats,” “X-ray Goggles,” and “Yellow Rubber Ducky Raincoats”).

We were happily listing all of the qualities of Our Dream Guys (“Bulging Biceps,” “Cute Calves,” “Helps Me When Needed,” and, above all, “Quiet”) when I threw out my arm and grabbed her shoulder.

“Hang on, there’s something moving up there.”

Our current trail was meandering along the side of a steep cliff that descended into the river. Forrest covered our right side.

We squinted through the forest. The trail bent to the right, and I couldn’t tell if the movement was coming from a fellow hiker, or something more sinister.

Then its profile emerged from behind a tree one hundred feet in front of us.

The most horrible profile imaginable.

“Bear! Bear! Bear!” I whispered hysterically. 

We each seized our bear spray, and retreated down the hill as far as we could before we hit the cliff.

The bear sensed he had company, and crashed up the hill ahead of us.

We watched the trees up the hill, frozen.

The bear sashayed up over our heads, and then emerged from the trees, looking at us curiously.

He started walking towards us.

Hoisting our weapons high, we sidestepped to the left, as the bear continued his approach. Then, distracted for a moment, he looked off to his left, and we scrambled on through the trees, breaking into a run at the first opportunity.

“Is he following us, is he following us, is he following us?”

“No,” she said, putting the safety clip back on the cannister, and holstering her spray. “I think we are safe.”

Knees and ankle wobbling, I put my weapon away, and the two of us abandoned the remaining qualities of our dream guys, and began shouting frantically.

“Hey bear! Hey bear! Heeeeeeyyyyyy beeeeeaaaaaarrrrrr!”

We were now within the Eagle River Nature Center, and all of my attention was single mindedly focused on getting out of here. Ankle sore and rickety, I began using my walking poles as crutches.

More and more people were on the trail, and my friend cheerily reminded me that the more children we saw, the closer to the end we were; small people can’t hike too far.  

By the time I saw toddlers, I escalated my walking pole crutch speed to as close to a run I could manage.

A group of young mothers and babies were up ahead, and spotted our backpacks.

“Where did you camp?” one mother asked curiously. 

My friend stopped to chat. 

I blew past them. 

No time for moms.

I was rocketing forwards by now, drawing heart from the sight of power lines in the distance.

My friend, breathless, hurried to catch me.

“Lesson learned, Sarah does not brake for moms! Admittedly, they were very chatty.”

We burst out of the forest and into the parking lot. I began to cry quietly with relief, as my pace slowed to a shuffle, and I hobbled pitifully back to her car.

It was four in the afternoon, and too late for dinner in a restaurant before driving back to Girdwood to get my car. Instead, we went to Arby’s and wolfed down large sandwiches, curly fries, and chocolate milkshakes. We then trekked back to Girdwood, back to Anchorage and back to home. Upon arrival, I got into bed, and did not get out for two days.

Sarah Brown periodically whimpers. Whisper soothingly to her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at sarah@browns-close.com. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.

Author: Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown is the author of the Brown's Close blog!

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