Above the valley floor, Mt. Doonerak’s rotting glacier calves, shrugs wet slabs away—not exactly what the Backpack Alaska! brochure advertised. Below the treeline, black spruce and willow slip down like trousers overlichen-scabbed bare granite, mooning three lumpy figures—Charlie, an ex-Marine from LA, Joe the guide, and me. Backpackers trekking the Brooks Range past Koyukuk River rapids lined with bones.
Getting our bearings, learning to tell time, read what isn’t written, etc.:
We’re on Doonerak time up here, where time itself means color of air and light, the solstice sun a yellow yoyo on a string, circling, always circling as we follow the river west. Neon morning starts at two a.m., then eye-splintering noon all day unless it rains. Midnight brings a deeper, kinder orange, but no real night at all. Take notes!
Survival skills 1:
I take notes our first night out, when Joe gives the bear talk, shows us the pistol and the 30-30. If a bear charges, we should fall to the ground, not run. I see Charlie frown and bite his lip. If we run and are caught, we should play dead. Bears prefer to eat their own kill. Joe’s eyes brush across our faces. Charlie looks away.
Survival skills 2:
A few nights later: “Pssst!” At first I think it’s the wind. “Pssst, Sara! I think I hear a bear!”
I don’t hear anything except river and wind. Unzipping my tent, I pretend to look around. Silver-orange light, black trees, bright black river chuckling over its rocky bed, mosquitoes hovering in wait. Thawing permafrost below it all, impersonal as the mountain in the distance, glacier runoff sliding down its face like sweat. “No bears, Charlie. Go back to sleep.”
More notes: Fireweed. Tussock meadow. Mosses. Lichens. Stinkweed, saxifrage. And so it goes: beauty, exhaustion, exhaustion, beauty, our tiny human selves making our clumsy human way beside the Koyukuk toward the Gates of the Arctic. Exhaustion, beauty day by day, cut loose from the well-paid job, the comfortable town, the foundering marriage. Free from opinion or regret, from everything we thought we knew.
All we need lies within the scope of what we see, the yoyo on its tether circling our tents, circling moose, elk, marmots as we move among them, one step and another and another. Eagles soar above bear tracks and scat, matted thickets tufted with brown fur.
No bears, Charlie. It’s okay. Yes, they were here, but they’ve moved on.
Survival skills 3, 4, 5:
I wasn’t afraid until the swollen river snared my ankles, sucked me under, spat me out a hundred feet downstream. The calm indifference of it. The do-not-give-a-shitness of it. My tongue sour and gritty, my heart screaming.
Everyone fears something, opines Joe. He’s a young guy, Apache and Tarahumara, born in Tucson, studying business at the uni in Anchorage, says he loves the northern lights. Guide gigs on the side to keep him grounded. He worries they won’t be enough. Charlie the Marine has done two combat tours. He dropped from choppers, crawled into tunnels stinking of blood and shit and burnt flesh. Still, he is afraid of bears. Still more afraid that Joe will smell his fear, and laugh.
What did the river taste when it closed its jaws around me? “Pssst! Sara! I think I hear….”
Charlie was the one who grabbed my shirt that day, who stood me on my feet, while on the bank Joe pulled off his boots and wrung the river from his socks. My California brain knows he would not have let me drown. My Doonerak brain accepted that he might.
Now in the yellow solstice sunrise I feel Charlie listening wide eyed to the intermittent growl of stones tumbled by the river. A loon’s cry stands the hair up on my arms.
Before you leave:
Three weeks have passed. Two more days in the Doonerak valley before the tiny plane will land on a gravel bar downriver and lift us away from the mountain, back to Fairbanks and clean clothes in a
motel locker. Joe wants to see his girlfriend. Charlie intends to get drunk. I think I’ll shave my legs.
Outside my tent, the dawn’s arc widens. Wind flattens fireweed in its path. Shadows peel free of the glacier and drift skyward, becoming birds, becoming fears, before they vanish.
Sara McAulay is the author of two novels (Knopf), a novel for young readers, and numerous works of short fiction (Black Warrior Review, California Quarterly, New American Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, among others). She received an NEA Fellowship and a New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellowship in prose. After many years away from writing, she has turned to poetry and flash while completing another novel. She lives in Oakland, CA, with the world's smartest and most beautiful Australian Shepherd dog.