As this is written, the author is sitting at a keyboard pretty well pounded by Alaska.
Three and half hours of steady paddling from the seat of a packraft after a four-and-half-hour, backpack-loaded hike up and over a 2,100-foot pass on a trek from Girdwood to Portage will do this to a man who hasn’t paddled a boat all summer and spent too little time under a heavy pack.
Compared to the bad-old days of bushwhacking a route along Winner Creek; struggling up the steep, untracked north-facing slopes below Berry Pass; and then following a well-traveled, bear-highway down to the Twentymile River, the U.S. Forest Service-built trail from outside the Alyeska Resort over the top of the pass to where it deadended out of money almost a decade ago approximately three-quarters of a mile short of the Twentymile is a treat.
But hiking companions who believe there is plenty of time to rest when you’re dead have a bad tendency to use good trail as little more than an excuse to push the pace, and it is pace more than distance that most taxes man and beast.
Not that this is a bad thing. Suffering is to a significant degree much of what the Alaska wilderness is all about.
In this state, there is regular and constant discussion of cultural preservation, and this is cultural preservation at its base level. Struggle is the grassroots off the cultural reality that binds us all: Alaska Native, American Indian, African-American, Asian, Euro-Caucasian, and American half-breed, quarter-breed, mixed race or whatever.
Life on this planet for most of human existence has been defined by one common reality shared by all: It was hard.
For much of human history and prehistory, people woke up sore, still a little tired and, too often, hungry. The late Sidney Huntington, co-author of Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River, used to talk about this with some regularity because he still held memories of those early times.
Sidney’s mother – Anna, a Koyukon Athabaskan – died of an unknown illness in the family cabin along the Hog River in 1920 when Huntington was but five years old. Sidney’s father – a white trader, trapper and gold miner – was gone at the time on a two-week boat trip downriver to Anvik to pick up two other Huntington children at the mission school.
Sidney was left to keep his 3-year-old brother and 18-month-old sister alive until his father returned. Amazingly, he managed to do so. He went on to live to the age of 100, but his life in the bitterly cold Alaska Interior was never an easy life.
A longtime member of the Alaska Board of Game, Huntington could remember the first moose that appeared in the Koyukuk country in the 1920s. Those animals, he said, never survived because the handful of folks living in-country quickly killed them.
“(People) needed them for moose-hide moccasins and whatnot,” he told Mike Spindler of Galena public radio station in a 1996 recorded history. “You needed the hide more so than they needed the meat because they could at that time use bear meat or other.”
Those days are gone. Nobody needs moose-hide to survive anymore. These days you can get on the internet and order a good pair of boots delivered to almost any village in Alaska, although if you want moose-hide moccasins for actual outdoor use you’ll probably need to get them from far away.
The Minnesota-based Steger Mukluk Company has pretty much cornered the market on moose-hide moccasins for field use while Alaskans have generally turned toward producing boots as art, wherein the boots have a significantly higher value.
Welcome to a global, consumer economy built around the idea that fashion is a goldmine, and aside from that the best way to sell things to people is to produce something that makes their lives easier.
I admit to being as vulnerable as anyone else to the easy-is-better sales pitch. I wasn’t lugging any heavy, moose hide anything over Berry Pass on the 13.5 mile trek from Girdwood to the Twentymile River.
In my 15-year-old, 2-pound, GoLite backpack was a 7-pound, Alpacka packraft built of Space Age materials for the float out to the Seward Highway; a lightweight waterproof and breathable drysuit (something unheard of only a couple of decades ago) for comfort on the float; an old, 11-ounce Patagonia micro puff pullover in case it got cold; and a few old-fashioned lightweight odds and ends like the obligatory fire-starting kit (a potential lifesaver in Alaska) and a knife.
On my body were clothes made of lightweight, new-age materials that insulate well without waterlogging, as warm-when-wet wool did, or sucking away body heat, as cotton still does. An Alaskan of 100 years ago would have been jealous.
The only natural material that hasn’t been bested by synthetics is down, and it’s only good when dry. Once soaked, it’s less than worthless.
As for the boats, nothing like a packraft existed 100 years ago. If you wanted to get down a river, you walked down it or built a wooden raft or wooden-framed boat. The low water on the upper Twentymile Sunday would have required walking.
No raft could have negotiated the tight channels, and by the time you got down to where the river had enough water to float a wooden raft, there wasn’t much wood to build one.
A moose-skin boat made of cottonwood and willows in the style of the Yupik of Western Alaska would have been possible, but first you’d have to kill a moose, which is an often time-consuming task.
The easy way
Pumping air into packrafts is a whole lot faster and easier than building a moose-hide boat, even if you already have a moose hide.
Technology is a wonderful human blessing, and a human curse.
Technology allowed us to harness the power of the atom, and we used the power to obliterate two Japanese cities.
“Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight,” the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in February.
Think about that. We have proven so technologically succesful as a species that more of us die today from over-eating than from starvation even though the planet’s human population has increased from a prehistoric estimate that ranges from 1 to 150 million for a million years to 7.7 billion in the past 2,108 years.
The exponential growth of our species over the last 2,000 years would seem to make it obvious we are destined run out of room on the planet. None of us around today are going to live long enough to see how that works out, but by then, humans might well be, hopefully will be, pioneering space at last.
University of California, Davis economist Michael Kremer, writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics way back in 1993, theorized that while technology is fueling human population growth, population growth is also powering technological innovation.
At a base level, his theory is fundamentally logical. More people equals more ideas equals more opportunity for world-altering change. There might be a reason that technology seems to be accelerating ever faster century by century.
Humans might well be forced into space not only to find room for human expansion but to satisfy an inherent and overwhelming drive for technological exploration.
And yet, there will always be value in maintaining some sort of relationship with those evolutionary roots that trace back to that world where, as Huntington knew, life was hard.
It’s good to revisit that world now and then even if it leaves you feeling a little beat up. So get out there and get yourself a little sweaty, a little dirty, a little bruised, a little scratched and maybe even a little foot sore from the cobbles.