Alaska expedition

As long time adventurers, the arctic had been on our radar for years, it was just a matter of waiting for a reasonable plan to be formed and for the right people to be available to make the expedition possible. Finally, after months of discussion and searching, both a plan and a team emerged. We would trek across the savage and untamed land of the Wrangell-St Elias mountain range in Alaska. With no trails or infrastructure whatsoever in the region and hundreds of miles from any paved roads or proper medical facilities, we knew we were signing on to an expedition that would push us to the limit. 

Alaska. It was something like the stuff of legend. We’d heard about it being a wilderness paradise and a final frontier, but the reality of the place did not strike until we arrived. Odd as it might seem however, first sightings of the immense glaciers or the huge predators that are native to this forbidding place were not what forced the ultimate reality check. It was the mosquitoes.

Within minutes of landing at the Mudhole Airport in Cordova, Alaska – a settlement along the south coast that was initially founded by Spanish explorers long ago and then (wisely) abandoned – the mosquitoes started to swarm. More like military vehicles than insects, they would not drop with a simple swat. Shockingly, the pests could soak damage. Bigger, tougher, and meaner… “this” was Alaska.

As if to emphasise the point, when we loaded on to a shuttle from the airport to town a bird flew over head. Anywhere else the birds around an airport would be sparrows, ravens or magpies, but not in Alaska. This was a bald eagle, and a bloody big one at that.

We knew from reading up on the place that the bears in Alaska followed the trend that we had already seen with mosquitoes and eagles. Known for their size and their territoriality, we fully understood the need to carry protection but found ourselves stymied by both the airline industry and the fearlessness of the Cordovans.

Bear spray, which is effectively concentrated pepper spray that can be fired from a canister at range, is one of the best ways to deter a bear from attacking. It is toxic, flammable, and stored under high pressure. For understandable reasons it cannot be carried on an airplane, but for reasons that defy understanding, it is barely available in a land where it would seem to be needed the most. Walks through most of the stores in Cordova produced only one canister of the stuff, and we really wanted to have three. At first this lack of availability baffled us, but then, while waiting to pay for groceries in the general store we realised the piece of the puzzle that we had been missing as my eyes glanced over the magazines available.

Guns. Guns, guns and more guns were what the Cordovans liked to read about. Well, guns and fishing anyway. There was no Economist to be found, no National Geographic, New Scientist, Life or New York Times. The Cordovans weren’t interested in simply driving bears away with pepper sprays, they were locked, loaded, and ready to shoot bears in the head with a half-dozen bullets.

The thought briefly crossed my mind that perhaps we should be wandering into the town’s arms shops to get the protection we would need, but then images of me and my companions accidentally shooting one another with weapons that we barely knew how to use quickly pushed this thought into the mental dustbin. We would have to manage with what we had.

After a day of collecting gear and supplies in Cordova, we walked to the less developed of the town’s two airports. How exactly an airport could be less developed than one infested with mosquitoes and known as “Mudhole” left me wondering, until I got there. The Cordova City airport is a simple strip of gravel along a road a half-mile outside of town. Two tiny propeller planes emerged from the grey sky and landed, ready to carry us away to McCarthy. 

The final frontier

It is difficult to know what to call McCarthy. Compared to London, Cordova is tiny and therefore reasonably called, at least in my vocabulary, a town or village. Yet in comparison to McCarthy, Cordova looks like a London. Cordova has paved roads, a supermarket, a few restaurants, and cars driving around. Not so with McCarthy.

The roads are dirt, there is a single store that sells primarily dry foods that do not easily rot, a saloon, and stray dogs roaming the roads where cars would normally be found. It may sound dreadful to a city-slicker, but with mountains and glaciers surrounding it on all sides, McCarthy, to me, immediately seemed to be a perfect fit for its place in the world. A frontier town, perhaps one of the last, set in a constant struggle for survival with the fierce wilderness around it. 

McCarthy's buildings creak with age and show the scars of countless brutal winter storms. Yet in spite of its history of being battered by nature, McCarthy, with its population of thirty-one, has a warmth to it that is remarkably inviting. Within minutes of our arrival, a husky, limping from years of sled work and at least partially blind, came wandering up for some love. Upon reflection, the similarities between the dog and the town are remarkable. And the people, admittedly quirky, were equally as charming. The teenage girl who picked us up in a truck at the airport exclaimed to us with enthusiasm that she had just past her driving test but was quick to add that it really was nothing new since she’d been driving the dirt roads of the area for the past ten years.

After setting our bags down in a rustic lodge in the centre of McCarthy, our first order of business was to resolve our “other” bear problem. Aside from needing to be able to deter bears with pepper spray, we also needed to make sure they would not eat all of our food as we slept through the night in the wilderness. In some places, a rope over a limb of a tree is enough to hoist food up and out of the range of hungry wildlife, but not in Alaska. It isn’t a matter of the bears being any more agile and clever though, it is more a matter of terrain in the Wrangell-St Elias region. There are few tall trees. Most regions are either icy cliffs or tundra where hanging a rope off of anything is simply impossible. We knew the solution before we even arrived, bear canisters.

Bear canisters are containers provided by rangers that are strong enough to resist even the most forceful bear attacks and can only be opened with screwdrivers. When using them, no attempt is made to cover the scent of the food inside or keep the bears from getting at the canisters themselves. They are simply to be set down in a clearing far away from tents where bears can spend as much time as they like in the night bashing and chewing on them.

Upon finding the rangers, obtaining the canisters was easy enough, fitting seven days of food into them however, was an entirely different matter. After hours of heaving and shoving, we admitted defeat. There was no way we were going to be able to squeeze all of our food inside. Some food would have to be left behind and food for the first day would have to travel in a pack rather than a canister.

The following morning, with packs loaded up with gear and bear canisters, we set off to meet with the pilots who would fly us far into the backcountry. The weather was foul. Pouring rain and low grey cloud at first made it look as if we might not get out of McCarthy at all. We were forced to hang around the muddy town for hours and hope that the weather would improve.

In a way, this wait was a blessing because, whilst twiddling our thumbs, one of our number wandered into the little store at the end of town and discovered a canister of bear spray on sale. We quickly bought it. Further to this, as the pilots learned that we were short on bear spray, they advised that they had a half-filled bottle that they would be glad to lend us.

As if somehow satisfied that we were now properly prepared to enter the wild, the cloud lifted and the pilots declared the flight plan worth exploring. We hopped aboard the planes at the McCarthy airstrip and were off.

Now, bear spray cannot be carried inside any plane, even the little ones that we were in that do not go very high in the air. The reason is because if the spray canisters were to explode in flight they would, at the very least, badly distract the pilot, or, worse, blind him. Since both of these situations qualify as "pretty bad", the pilots insist on having bear spray carried on the outside of the aircraft. They do this, ingeniously, by duct-taping the canisters to the struts that support the wings. It is a great technique that makes tremendous sense, until you reach for your bear spray, as I did, and realise it is nowhere to be found. Startled, I turned to see the plane flying off into the distance with my bear spray still strapped to its wing. There went our brand new bottle that we had so fortunately found in McCarthy – damn. As the second plane came in with the rest of the team we took no chances and disconnected the other two bear spray canisters immediately before being distracted by anything else.

As the second plane turned down the gravel moraine that it used as a runway and flew off into the distance, a silence settled amongst all of us as we stared down at the nearby lake filled with icebergs. This was it, there was no turning back now. The planes would pick us up at the long abandoned Bremner mine 35 miles away in seven days. One way or another, we had to get there.

Shouldering our 23 kilogram packs we hit the trail… or more specifically, the lack of trail. As we travelled out from Iceberg Lake the rain grew lighter as we encountered rolling hills of loose sediment. The non-geologists in our group just found the terrain a bit annoying to walk on, but for those of us with an understanding of Earth processes, we knew all too well what these rolling hills indicated we would soon encounter, glaciers.

You ain't been nowhere yet

The rolling hills were bits of rock that had been scraped and pushed around by glaciers over millions of years and as we crested the largest of these, the first major challenge of our trip became clear. To get to the Bremner mine we would have to cross either a raging torrent of water flooding down from a glacier filling the upper half of a valley or cross the glacier itself. Unsure of which option was best, we scouted the river for nearly an hour. We scanned the rapids with our binoculars for reasonable crossing points but nothing looked reasonable. The few points that looked like they could function as crossings were near rapids that would likely prove lethal if we stumbled during the crossing and accidentally fell into them. There was no question about it, the river could not be safely forded. And with that, our attention turned to the ice.

We knew glacier crossings were likely when we planned the expedition but we also knew from having spoken with the pilots who flew the canyons that the glaciers were no longer covered with snow and that the vast crevasses in them would be easily visible to us if we had to walk across them. This was critically important information because crossing glaciers covered in snow makes it difficult to see where crevasses are present and dramatically increases the chances of accidentally falling into them. This does not mean that snow-covered glaciers are uncrossable, it just means that to cross them safely, everyone needs to be roped together and wearing harnesses so that if someone does fall in, their fall can be arrested before the plummet to an icy death. However, since we were advised that the glaciers were clear of snow, we did not bring the heavy ropes or harnesses that would normally be needed for such conditions. Instead, we brought along crampons to attach to the bottoms of our boots such that we could safely grip the ice as we navigated our way around the obvious crevasses. As we approached the glacier one thing became clear… it still had a lot of snow on it and we had no ropes to navigate such conditions safely. 

Stuck between a glacier and a raging river, we strapped on our crampons and decided to give the glacier a shot. Because we had no idea what sat beneath the layers of snow that covered large swathes of the glacier we were forced to walk only on areas that were solid ice and had crevasses visible. When the crevasses were small, we stepped over them as crossed the valley, but when they were large enough to swallow a person whole, we walked along their edges until we could find a reasonable crossing point or encountered snow and were forced to turn back. The glacier walking took hours and left us very much like mice in a maze. Slowly and steadily our search allowed us to creep closer to the far edge of the glacier and the pass that we needed to reach if we were to ever get to the Bremner mine. However, as we got ever closer to the far side of the glacier we found ourselves getting ever closer to the point where the glacier itself broke off into a raging
river of ice and mud.

After hopping dozens of crevasses we came to one final large crevasse that we had to move across or face defeat on the ice. With a huge yawning mouth of blue ice that dropped down into palpable darkness below it was a daunting beast of a crevasse. And to make matters all the more dramatic, it roaring with a thunder of fast flowing water. Somewhere, deep beneath the huge crevasse, was the river that was causing us so much trouble. We followed along the edge of the crevasse for a while, looking carefully for crossing points. Ultimately we found one. In an area where the crevasse was not nearly so wide, an effective bridge of ice had formed. Drawing upon our courage we swiftly made the crossing one by one and soon left the ice and raging river behind. Exhausted and not nearly as far along in distance as we wanted to be, we accepted that we had to settle down for the night and get some rest.

In the morning as we continued our journey we started picking up animal tracks in the glacial dust and snow that covered the sides of the valleys we were walking through. Some of these tracks, like those of moose and mountain goats, presented no concerns to us at all. But others were of predators. Some were obviously bears of various sizes, but others appeared to be small predators with incredibly large claws. Piles of animal excrement near the tracks further helped us to work out what species we were dealing with. There were black bears, grizzly bears, and something else that appeared to be smaller. We speculated that the tracks and unusual excrement from this smaller predator indicated the presence of a wolf or fox, but the tracks just did not look canine enough to meet this description. It was not until hours later, as we were stopped by a stream for a snack that we worked things out. 

On the far side of the stream an animal the size of a large dog started moving with an unusual gait. We grabbed the binoculars and quickly realised it was a predator well known for being 30 pounds of fangs, claws, and muscle – the wolverine. These were the strange predatory prints and excrement that we had been seeing but had been unable to identify.

Our elation of having identified the wolverine quickly turned to perspiration as our planned route took us out of the glacial valley and up a steep ravine towards a mountain pass that we had to cross. The climb was a fantastic challenge. With bushes on both sides of the ravine and water rushing down boulders in the centre, we found ourselves frequently using the waterfall as a staircase. Fortunately, with waterproof boots and gaiters fastened up to our calves, our feet stayed dry as we splashed our way to the top.

The climb was a tremendous effort but one that was well worth it. At the top of the cliff, the weather was clear and as we caught our breath a golden eagle flew by, as if welcoming us to its home high on the summit. Another long day behind us, we set up camp and settled in for the night.

The first two days had been challenging, but reasonable in comparison to all of our past wilderness adventures. This would no longer prove to be the case as we entered into our next day in the Wrangell-St Elias mountains. 

Hell on Earth

The third day started well enough. We navigated our way along numerous snow slopes from the camp we built in the mountains. Numerous bear prints were visible in the snow and there were plenty of blind horizons and corners that left us nervous that a bear might be surprised by our sudden appearance. Even so, the weather was good and the wind was blowing into our backs such that our scent was travelling forward into the regions ahead where bears would be able to pick it up.

After a few hours of descending, we turned a corner and found ourselves on a steep hill covered with thick and tall vegetation. We could see no immediate way down that did not involve pressing through the plants so we did the only thing we could do and started bushwhacking. 

Before I go any further, it is important to point out that crossing glaciers, descending steep snow banks, and climbing watery cascades are all challenging activities. Bushwhacking, at least in Alaska, leaves all of these behind and ranks as "hideous" very much in its own right. One by one as we swiped at the plants with our poles and shoved branches aside with our bodies, the plants supernaturally reformed into a wall of vegetation, it was infuriating. Little did we know that this was only the beginning.

After making serious efforts to slam our way through the plants we suddenly found ourselves within reasonable reach of the valley floor and the enormous Tana lobe of the Bremner glacier that covered it. There was one minor problem though, even though we were only fifty or so feet above the base of the valley floor, the very end of our descent from the mountains left us with a nearly vertical cliff to navigate.

Uncertain of whether we could even get down from our current position, we dropped our packs and started scouting the area thoroughly. We concluded that there was no getting around it, we were going to have to climb down the cliff face. Fortunately, we found a narrow gully between two walls of rock that, with a bit of concentration, we would be able to somewhat safely descend. One by one we climbed down with verbal support and guidance by the others in our group as we desperately searched for handholds and footholds.

The hard work seemingly behind us, we turned our attention to the Tana lobe of the Bremner glacier. Unlike the glacier we were forced to cross on our first day, the Tana lobe barely resembled ice. It was covered in thick layers of sediment. Crampons, we realised, would prove more of an hindrance than a help on the wet and rocky terrain. So, with boots and poles we started scrambling our way up on to the glacier.

The thing was absolutely filthy. Gravel and sand were everywhere. In a way, the Tana lobe was an alien environment all to itself with arms of ice that held boulders up above the frozen surface like arms and rushing rivers gushing their way down through ravines of purplish-blue ice. It was surreal and threatening.

The surface of the glacier alternated between gravel, boulder fields, and slick ice. To handle these features, we were forced to take our crampons on and off while simultaneously working our way around the many crevasses that were present. As we walked, the crevasses got steadily bigger and we were forced to become bolder with which of the chasms were most willing to hop across.

After nearly two miles of icy travel we found ourselves on the other side of the valley. We were wiped out and ready to set up camp. As we climbed up from the glacier we discovered a fair few ponds overlooking the glacier that were next to sandy banks that would function as reasonable places to pitch tents. And then the mosquitoes arrived.

The same industrial strength insects that had attacked us at Mudhole Airport came swarming in. Insect repellent and head nets went on, but it was no use. There simply too many insects for us to reasonably cope with. We tried, in vain, to search the surrounding area for a decent place to pitch our tents but the bloodsuckers were everywhere and we realised that staying in the area would result in a night of utter misery. With that we turned our eyes towards the foothills beyond.

A wild river surrounded by dense vegetation flowed down the canyon that we needed to ascend. There was no way to navigate up the river without risking serious injury and navigating along the banks with such dense growths of alders would be both agonising and slow. The only option that we seemed to have was to push our way upwards through the walls of vegetation towards the top of the canyon where the plants thinned out. It was a decision that nearly broke us.

Travel up the side of the canyon was utterly brutal. The walls of alders were as thick as ever and with each branch that we swiped with our poles or pushed aside with our arms, dozens of foul insects flew off to attack us. To make matters worse, as we ascended, the clouds parted and temperatures rose. The warmer weather only seemed to energise the insects while simultaneously sapping us of the last bits of energy that we had. Dripping with sweat we continued to climb and slowly, we each started to run out of water.

The world started to go blurry. The plants were like something out of a terrible dream and as we pushed our way through them they developed a life of their own and pushed back. As we weakened, our packs, poles and bodies became easier prey to the gnarled fingers of the alders. At one point, as an alder branch struck my chest and knocked me to the ground, I dimly realised what a bad state I was in. The sky above the branches was swirling and as I tried to call for help, my tongue and lips moved at a sluggish pace as if my mouth was filled with thick paste. The exertion and temperature were driving me into a state of dehydrated heat exhaustion and I was not alone. Minutes later, after struggling back to my feet and limping further along through the brush, we reached a steep clearing and as we collapsed on the ground to catch our breath one of my companions pointed up at a dark animal up on the other side of the clearing. “Is that a dog” he asked as the
bear hoisted itself up onto its massive limbs and started lumbering down hill.

In our sorry state of delirium, we were in no fit state to handle a bear encounter, and gave the animal as wide a berth as we could as we continued on our way in a desperate search for both water and a place to camp. Yet remarkably neither water nor a campsite were what we would find next, instead we discovered girls, from Minnesota.

At first, seemingly the result of our heat exhausted haze, it seemed impossible that anyone else could be out in such a remote location, let a lone a bunch of college girls in hot pants. It was wild. Each had gaiters up to their calves and then bare skin exposed between that point and their skimpy shorts. With so many insects and such horrible brush there was no way they were not being eaten alive, yet they seemed happy enough. One of my colleagues, who seemed particularly excited by the appearance of such attractive youngsters, asked if they knew of a good location for camping or where we might find water. They were clueless. They had little idea of where they were going or what resources might be nearby, yet they told us they had been in the wild for seven days. It was shocking. How were they still alive?

In the midst of our bizarre interactions with the girls, one member of our group declared that he had found some water. The finding turned out to be false. It was just a small ditch with some wet earth, a truly moral crushing find, but just minutes later, we found a small muddy puddle in the midst of a dense alder grove. It wasn’t much, but it was water and we badly needed it. In moments the water purifying pump was out and we were hard at work drawing up all the water we could collect. As if to hammer home their seeming invulnerability to the surrounding environment, while we sat in the muck pumping and purifying so as to avoid catching amoebic dysentery, the troupe of girls marched by, casually dipped their water bottles into the murky waters, drank up, and moved on.

Near the muddy puddle one of our scouts found a bit of land that was clear of bushes. It was relatively steep and far from ideal, but after a day of having the crap kicked out of us all day by Wrangell-St Elias, we were in no position to be picky. We set up camp in the perpetual twilight of the arctic summer evening and crashed hard for the night.

A river runs through it

The morning came far too fast for our liking and, in spite of being bruised and battered, we shovelled down some oatmeal and set off further up the valley in the direction of the old Bremner mine. The ruthless bushwhacking continued for hours and led us to a white-water river with immense rapids. There was no way we were going to be able to safely cross. Fortunately, a quick look at our map showed that we didn’t have to. Less than a quarter mile up the canyon, we could see that the river forked, which meant that the volume of water would be halved and the rapids, in theory, would be smaller. A couple of us went up to scout the first of the forked rivers for fording and we found a good spot. We carefully marked the location by breaking branches in a nearby clearing so that we could find our way back after returning to the group. While brilliant in practice, this tactic utterly failed.

When we returned to the site with our group we could not find the broken branches or the calm section of the river. Fifteen minutes of searching yielded nothing at all. With tensions high and much of the group weary from the brutality of the previous day, it was decided that we would bushwhack upstream and look for other possible crossings. We did this for a half an hour and as we noticed the river canyon becoming ever steeper and the rapids ever fiercer, we made the decision to return to the forked area and find the original crossing, regardless of the amount of time this might take.

With patience and a lot of bushwhacking, we found it. While calm in comparison to the rest of the river, it was still a fierce piece of white-water that would require the establishment of a rope line for safe crossing.

While being spotted with a safety rope, I traversed the river unencumbered and tied the rope down to the trunk of a tree on the other end. One by one everyone else followed, holding the rope from downstream and being careful to keep knees pointing upstream (a fast current blasting into the back of the knee joint is a key way people fall when crossing rivers). After an hour of hard work and caution, we were on the other side with our boots back on and ready to head off again.

Just minutes of bushwhacking through more dense alders brought us to the other river that needed to be crossed. The flow was more moderate than the first river and, with a bit of scouting, we were able to quickly find a fording location that looked feasible without the establishment of a safety line. After another hour of cautious wading, we were across and on our way up into the next canyon.

As we climbed higher in altitude, we thankfully left the horrid world of densely growing alders behind and gratefully started hobbling our way over a vast landscape of broken boulders. When we glanced over our shoulders before turning up towards the mountain pass that we needed to cross, we caught a final glimpse of the Minnesotan girls far down in the alder filled valley below. From what we could tell, they had spent their entire day crossing the river and were ready to make camp again after having travelled less than a mile.

We ultimately made it high into the pass and found a winter wonderland all around. A partially frozen lake sat in a basin below numerous peaks covered in snow. Cold as it was, we were pleased. Not even the toughest mosquitoes would follow us here. We set up camp, cooked dinner and settled in for the night.

Back on track

After getting a full eight hours of sleep, we set off at a good pace down from the snowy pass. But we were not too exuberant about descending too far. With memories of white-water and alder groves fresh in our minds, we carefully studied the next valley before dropping too far into it. We could see a river running through the valley and worked out that our best chance for crossing it would be high up near to the glacier that was forming it. We also worked out that to avoid the dense brush filling the valley floor, we would need to stay as high in altitude as possible throughout the day.

This strategy, at first, seemed harsh as we found ourselves floating up and down along the side of the mountains surrounding the valley itself. We probably travelled a lot further and ascended/descended much more that was necessary to get to the other end, but we had no difficulty crossing the river at all and encountered little brush during the day. There was no doubt amongst any of us that avoiding these menacing features of the Alaskan terrain made the longer and harder walking well worthwhile.

Yet one serious challenge remained. We had to make it through a final pass before we would reach the valley where the Bremner mine was located, and the map showed this pass to be extremely steep.

Upon our approach to the pass, there were numerous bear prints and excrement surrounding a water hole. This was bad as the climb up the steep slope had a lot of brush on it and there would be little opportunity to see a bear before accidentally stumbling too close. Partially because it looked to have the most gentle gradient and partially because it was clear of brush, we chose to climb up a rocky cascade as we ascended the first part of the pass. It was most unsettling to find further bear prints even in this steep terrain. Worryingly, the bears in the region were using the cascade as a pathway just as we were.

At the top of the cascade we were able to see the rest of the pass clearly and the threat of bears swiftly left our minds. The pass was filled with loose scree and made an ascent look tricky at best. Eager to get up and over such that we could set up camp and call it quits for the day, we pushed onwards. The pass got steeper and steeper. All courage came from simply denying the situation and not looking down. As scree slid out from beneath our feet, it was best to simply climb on and ignore the distance downwards that they were travelling.

After an hour of climbing, we made it to a snowy saddle between two mountains and worked out that a snowy apron leading into the next valley was where we needed to be headed. The descent was one of the easiest parts of the trip. The snow could support our weight but gave just enough to reduce the shock on our knees as we took steps down. We made great time and were at a small pond with nearby flat ground that was perfect for setting up camp in less than an hour.

The following morning the end was finally within reach. We knew we had just three miles to travel and that this distance was all down hill. That was when the thick fog closed in and blew out our ability to easily navigate. Yet with compass in hand and an awareness of the intense magnetic variation that occurs near the arctic circle, we were able to navigate blind through the fog into the Bremner valley.

The going was rough. The fog coated all of the rocks with a treacherous layer of moisture that made them worryingly slick. Our pace slowed considerably to compensate but this was no matter, by early afternoon when the fog lifted we could see the old Bremner mine and, a short while later, we spotted a lone wind sock that had been set there by pilots in the past. This was where the plane would come to pick us up in a day’s time.

Elated that we had made it, we walked an extra mile up a path to an old mining cabin that was listed on the map. We had been advised that rangers used the cabin as a wilderness outpost and that anyone brave (foolhardy) enough to come trekking through the area would be welcome to stay inside for a night or two.

 The rustic cabin, which was easily a hundred years old, was empty when we got there. A note on the door explained that the rangers were out on a patrol trek. So, with rain beginning to drift down outside, we came in and found some empty bunks for the night. The evening was a cold one. With no wood to burn in the stove and a creaking old cabin as our shelter, things never warmed up, but it didn’t matter.... tents did not need to be set up, the planes would land in the morning and we would soon be out of the wild. After a few games of cards we were off to bed.

The following day, upon our return to McCarthy, the world had changed. The empty mud roads had dried and were filled with cheering people. The rustic buildings were decorated with bright red and blue ribbons. Music floated towards us through the air. It was the 4th of July and we quickly realised that this was a holiday which was taken very seriously by the people of McCarthy. 

As the snare drums and the flutes came marching by, our adventure started to fade into the background. Alaska was no longer the stuff of legend, it was the stuff of reality. Majestic and mean, big and brutal, our days in this astounding wilderness would never be forgotten.