Monday, August 16, 2010

Hiking to Gull Rock

Hiking to Gull RockMy husband likes hiking—he has this thing for dehydrating food, finding smaller and lighter camping gear and in his spare time likes to look through books on Alaskan trails so he can plan dream treks on mountain passes.

Across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, only about ten miles as the crow flies, is Point Hope. However, unless you happen to be a crow, to get there you’ll have to drive south around the rim of the inlet, along Turnagain Arm, following the road until you make a near circle and look back at the city.

Once you get to Hope you can park in the lot, saddle up your packs and hike fives miles to the coast where Gull Rock sits, sticking up like a gigantic turtle sleeping off shore where it absorbs the same battery of wind and waves it has for the past few millennia.

It’s not a hard hike—the trail is flat and well-marked—the five miles is well within a beginning hiker’s abilities and for years Andrew has wanted to make the journey with the kids. When Lillian was a toddler we took a family picnic and started down the trail, wondering how far we could get before the kids’ legs gave out (I ended up carrying Lillian on my back like a monkey for the last couple miles) but we couldn’t quite make it to the end.

Later Andrew planned day hikes with the boys but for one reason or another Gull Rock just never seemed to take shape until this summer when Andrew was put in charge of the teen boys at church and expected to plan activities designed to turn them into men—or at least get them started along their way.

Hiking to Gull RockHe decided almost immediately that hiking to Gull Rock to spend the night would be the ideal trip and it was planned that they’d do it this past weekend. As it drew closer he worked on preparing the team that included David and Spencer: they had a night where they dehydrated sausage and made up bags of powdered potatoes and eggs with visions of instant hot, steaming breakfasts on the trail where the bliss of nature was too much to even allow them to stop long enough to make a fire.

But as I mentioned yesterday we’ve had an unusually wet summer—28 straight days of rain and counting—and the day of the hike wasn’t any different. Low, foggy mists and dark gray clouds were constantly moving along the inlet long enough to dump their rain before going on and making room for the next system.

Hiking to Gull RockHiking in Alaska isn’t like other places—you travel in groups to avoid bear encounters, bathe in mosquito repellent, dress in layers and bring plenty of rain gear—and it’s just common practice to take hypothermia in July very, very seriously. But as the group started they were completely unprepared.

One of the boys showed up in shorts and fancy tennis shoes without laces (all the latest style I'm sure). One hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and had only packed “six pizza bites” for his dinner. All but one had adequate rain gear and the rest watched their ponchos and rain pants shred as the rain drizzled down and the mud climbed higher and higher up their legs.

You know how it is when you’re on a tough trip—for some reason you always think that you’ve gone farther than you really have—so when the group had hiked for a couple hours or so they figured they must be getting close to their destination. After all, Andrew reasoned, for years he’d been jogging long distances in respectable amounts of time so surely in an hour he’d have come pretty far.

As they all began wondering how much farther Gull Rock could be, down the trail at them came a pack of cross country high school runners. They’ll some times do that for training—run in tough terrain or up a mountain—and today’s training had been to run five miles to Gull Rock and then back again. In the rain. Not only were my guys completely impressed by these half-naked, muddied super-humans, they figured they’d now be able to get a good fix on their position.

“How far are we from the rock?” Andrew asked the coach, imagining they were fifteen minutes to half an hour away at most.

Looking at his GPS the coach calculated and said, “Oh, you’re about two miles away—and be careful, it’s really windy at the point.”

I can imagine their frustration at the news but the group went on so they could pitch camp for the night there at the rock and get something to eat as planned. Their shoes were soaked through, their rain gear in shreds, their back packs too heavy and between the rain on the outside and the sweat on the inside they were starting to get cold.

Hiking to Gull RockMost everyone’s packs were way too heavy but as soon as they would stop for a rest the chills would set in with the youngest boys and they’d need to keep moving. After another hour the nagging thought came that even if they made it the whole muddy five miles who was to say that they’d be able to get a fire started? With the wind blasting it was doubtful they’d be able to get the tents up or start a fire and as wet as they all were it wouldn’t take much wind to make hypothermia a legitimate possibility.

So to bring my story to an end they hiked nearly the whole way to Gull Rock before deciding to turn back. They were in a miserable condition but the certainty of returning to safety versus the dangers of facing the elements on the point won out so they ate what snacks they had ready and turned back.

Being nearly five miles out they knew exactly how far it was to get back to the cars and they set themselves to the job of making it the whole dismal way. They had left town at 2pm and by 11pm I got a call from Andrew telling me that they’d made it back to the cars and were coming home, expect them in a couple hours.

When they finally made it back they limped into bed—Spencer first taking a hot shower to heat his core. I waited until the next morning to get the whole story and after I heard it all out it was with that sense of relief at danger long since passed but with those remnants of anxiety we moms tend to feel whenever our kids are doing anything we can’t control.

Hiking to Gull Rock“My muscles are so sore!” David said, pointing to where his pack had worn into his shoulders.

“I was so cold,” said Spencer, remembering how he eventually threw away his useless rain gear in disgust along the trail.

“I don’t understand why my legs are so tired right here,” Andrew said, pointing to his outer quadriceps.

And then it kind of hit me—while I was completely sympathetic with their ordeal I couldn’t help but give an ironic smile.

“What?” said Andrew.

“Well, I was watching this documentary about settling the west and it talked about how people walked from Missouri to California. It took them about five months and they had to do it quickly because the trip had to be finished before the snows hit.

“I just realized that while I’m sure you are wiped out from yesterday’s adventure if you were a pioneer not only would you have walked double the distance but you'd have done it without nice hiking shoes, Gortex or healthy meal packets. Then you’d have got up today, without the benefit of a shower, Spencer, and done it all over again. And then again tomorrow, and then again, and again. Five months of walking and getting sunburned, hot, dehydrated. Of running the risk of cholera if you did find water, and then having no nice house at the end of the trip. Just more uncharted territory.”

They were quiet at this—perhaps it wasn’t the most empathetic thing to say though I really did have my sympathies for their sufferings—and I finished off lamely with, “You know what? If we’d have all been pioneers we would have all completely stunk at it. “

“You think we’re soft?”

“I think we’re all soft. I know you run seven and eight miles a day and go fast and are in good shape but that’s not quite the same thing. You do it with your fancy running gear on nice, flat, specially-designed tracks and trails then feed yourself a healthy diet designed to build your endurance and muscle mass. You get enough rest in an actual bed and have aspirin if you get a sore muscle. You have special exercises to keep your knees and joints fit and you rest when you’ve pushed it too hard. And you're in good shape! Think of what I'd do on the trail."

“I’m sure Olympic rowers are impressive and lean but I can picture galley slaves rowing Roman vessels for 16 hours a day under a whip then sleeping at the oars until they do it again if they’re lucky enough to have lived through the day. Talk about your muscles.

“The point is, what kind of a weird society do we live in where for recreation we have to invent strenuous physical activity, playing at being pioneers, when 100 years ago it all would have been classified simply as survival? It's all very odd if you think about it.

“Yes, I do think it’s safe to say we’re wimps . . . and I’m very glad you’re safe.”

“I hadn't thought of that,” he said.

But he still wants to hike the whole way to Gull Rock some day and I don’t blame him. I’d like to get there too someday. With all my Goretex and fancy gear, thank you very much.

Sponsored by Beau-Coup for unique baby shower favors.


Suzie B. said...

Happy to hear that they're all safe and sound. And, I bet they all slept well! (P.S. I missed your posts for a few days. Reading your blog is how I begin my day.)

J at said...

What is it about being a mom that makes us say these things? Last week my daughter was at cheer camp, and miserable. So homesick. Tired from all of the hard cheer work. Tired because they stayed up until midnight practicing their routines, then up at 6 to start again. Yes she's soft. (And yes, I'm much softer.) So in trying to inspire her to hang in there and persevere, when she was begging me to drive 6 hours each way and bring her home, I said something like, "Think of Harriet Tubman, who went into harms way, day after day, to bring people out of slavery into freedom. Think of the hard physical labor, the uncertainty of food or a safe place to sleep. The DANGER. And how homesick she must have been, and the people working towards their freedom. They must have craved a warm bed with their loved ones nearby, as much as you."

Yeah, that went over well. She's been making fun of me for my 'inspiring' speech since she got home.

Josh said...

Imagine how much longer it would have taken those pioneers to trek across the country if they had stopped to blog and facebook the whole journey, like we do about all our activities now.

dyuane said...

Some nice Pics. are those loose rock they are standing on the side of the mountain.