Reflections on a month in the Talkeetna Mountains

Article and Photographs by Amanda Lee
December, 2005
This article was originally published in STIR - The Magazine for Clark Life - volume 1 issue 3, December 2005. It is posted here with permission from STIR.

This is the story of 15 strangers living together in the wilderness of Alaska... no, sorry, this is not exactly "The Real World Alaska." This is an actually true, unscripted tale about how strangers from all over the world lived comfortably with each other, in tents, while learning how to teach and appreciate the nearly untouched beauty of the Talkeetna Mountains.

Perfect mountain lunch spot

One warm day, with only a few weeks in counting before summer 2005, I decided to enroll on a National Outdoors Leadership School (NOLS) Outdoor Educator course in Alaska. I had gone on wilderness expeditions the previous two summers, so a month in Alaska was something I looked forward to with increasing excitement. NOLS has the same ring as "Ivy League" - everyone I talked to knew what it was and highly recommended it - but to me, NOLS is more like something that connects people in one big, big family.

And so in July, I set off up north. My first darkless night was spent at a bed and breakfast in Anchorage where I met three people who coincidentally ended up in my expedition - a high school teacher named Nathan, a college student named Lena, and a lanky guy who was my age named Bill. After a hearty breakfast the next day, we headed off to meet everyone else at the NOLS Alaska farm in Palmer. I later met the other eight participants and three instructors on my trip, making 15 people total.

Then, the big haul began. New gear was rented and inspected and rations were sorted and bagged. Staff explained to us what went into planning a trip: a lot of time, work, and careful calculations. The next day, we packed up and headed out on the road to a place where we saw no one else more than three weeks straight - except the bush pilot who re-rationed our food.

We divided into three hiking groups and followed along an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) trail which dug two wide ruts into the earth. Fortunately, after the first couple of days, they disappeared altogether. Afterwards, we hiked off-trail on rolling tundra, through brush, or on game trails made by caribou. In the meanwhile, we had to learn how to deal with the weather up there which is anything but predictable. Any minute, rain could pelt down or the sun could peak out between the clouds. It was extremely windy and freezing cold for a moment, then calm and cool the next. By layering and delayering, all of us were able to carry on through each day in relative comfort.

When we first started out, we all had made goals for ourselves to achieve by the end of the trip; mine was to become better at communicating clearly and being efficient. Despite that, during the first half of the trip, I had great difficulty in connecting with the group. Firstly, I was one of the youngest people and am not an extroverted person. Secondly, I was the slowest packer and hiker despite fairly consistent exercise. Tent and cook groups changed weekly, and so I would live and function with three new strangers each week. My first group was quite amicable with Nathan and Bill in it and a caring woman named Sally Gray. Yet something was not working out with me. The second group ended up to be even worse since everyone was significantly older and much more assertive than I was. They expected me to act in a way I was not used to, which was that of an active group member and a self-sufficient adult.

Mountain sunset

But do not get the impression that I had a horrible time. There were hikes where the views on the way to the campsite warranted a short break just to enjoy them and take pictures. On the third day in, we had the hardest hike I have ever done in my life: constant sidehilling up and down hills that never seemed to end. I had to take many breaks and it did not help my confidence that Bill was an absolute speed demon. However, when my group arrived to the campsite, we were rewarded by the other two with hot chocolate and warm food. There is nothing better than being the last group in, knowing that everyone else cares about you to the extent of preparing a full dinner, hot drinks, and offering to help you set up your tent or carry your stuff. There were times where I would arrive at a campsite dead tired after trudging through swampy areas and crossing rivers or stumbling over boulder fields and steep snowy slopes, but I would still help set up the tent, tie a tarp up before a downpour to make sure everyone would have dry shelter, and finally cook dinner. There were mornings where it would be raining hard and no one would want to get up, but I would force myself to get out of my warm sleeping bag, pack my stuff, shove on wet boots, and help my group cook breakfast. As tough as this all may sound, I became a better person after experiencing it all, and ultimately, I began to achieve my goals.

On the second half of the course, I was put in a new group that would be the best one out of all: Christina was an easy to talk to college graduate; Arlyn was a Navajo outdoor educator and taught the group many things about his people; and Mark, the hunter from Idaho and great teaser of Bill would eventually direct his teasing remarks at me, which I of course did not stand for. We all ended up working very well together, especially on one particular day when the instructors hiked out ahead of us to the next campsite. Every hiking group had a map and the route was pretty straightforward, but surprisingly, my group was the one to actually get to the campsite without getting lost. The other two groups decided to head off in the wrong direction, and as the leader of my group that day, it was nerve wracking seeing eight other smart adults go in the exact opposite direction my group was heading in. Group think, as we all found out, was a powerful force and we decided to break out of it by independently figuring out where we were on the map before deciding to head in the direction we had planned to go in all along. Thus, the lesson is to never just go along with everyone else - establish your own thoughts and then confer with everyone else.

Towards the end of the expedition, the instructors decided to let all the groups hike for three days without them. By then, many things had come and passed. We all bonded through games, classes (we each taught two), and a talent show that I will never forget. Conflicts were resolved through effective communication and I was getting stronger and faster everyday to the point that I barely stopped for breaks. We all must have done well because those last few days, the sun shone straight on through and we eyed Denali, the Great One, for all the hours we were awake.

By the trip's completion, I had acquired a new breadth of knowledge, many good memories, and new friends. The Talkeetnas is indeed a land where I came to realize the world is much bigger than me, more powerful and complex than I could ever comprehend. It is a wild place where I did not come across any signs of humans for days on end, and it was pure in that sense, unspoiled by roads and pollution. If I could go back someday, I would without even thinking for there is still so much more to see. But if you ask me, I advise anyone who goes to tread on soft paths and leave the land as you see it, wild.