View from Out West: Bad conditions ripe for good stories — Lack of control leads to lack of limitations

Photos courtesy of Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler fishes for lake trout on the western end of Nishlik Lake in the Wood-Tikchik State Park, near Dillingham.

Photos courtesy of Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler fishes for lake trout on the western end of Nishlik Lake in the Wood-Tikchik State Park, near Dillingham.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

If I had the power to command all aspects of an outdoor adventure — ensure my safety and good weather and avoid biting insects and unwanted surprises — I doubt I’d use it. It’d be tempting, sure, but adventures wouldn’t be very adventurous if I wielded full control. Spontaneity would vanish, as would conflicts, which would be too bad. After all, uncertainty is part of the allure.

Besides, conflict gives survivors a story to tell.

Some of my best outdoor stories involve lousy weather, poor judgments and bad luck — from hiking 60 miles on a sprained ankle in western Canada to trying to outrun a lightning storm in the Mystery Hills east of Sterling.

In fact, the time I joined the Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club for a February slog in a

This blizzard march, during an unfortunate Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club trip to Portage Lake in February 2012, spawned the Portage Scale.

This blizzard march, during an unfortunate Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club trip to Portage Lake in February 2012, spawned the Portage Scale.

blizzard across the overflow on Portage Lake, in a vain attempt to locate the glacier, became the measuring stick by which I now calculate the level of all outdoor misery. We called that hypothermic death march a 10 on the Portage Scale, and we’ve been out in nothing worse than an eight since.

Fortunately, I am not a masochist — I do not require misery to have fun. Not all conflicts require tragedies, and good stories sometimes emanate from good fortune. Also, I am pleased to say that I have rarely allowed irrational fear to dissuade me from opportunities, even some that I originally believed had major Portage Scale potential. Usually, the actual experiences turned out far more pleasant than they had appeared in my imagination.

And it was my imagination, mainly, that nearly caused me to back out of an eight-day outing with Yvonne Leutwyler into the northernmost reaches of the massive Wood-Tikchik State Park, near Dillingham.

The plan called for us to be flown on July 27 to the western end of Nishlik Lake, to camp, fish, hike and paddle our way eastward down six miles of shoreline to the headwaters of the Tikchik River, and then to float that 60-mile stream to its terminus at Tikchik Lake, where we’d be picked up Aug. 3 and flown home.

Yvonne takes a break from paddling on Nishlik Lake.

Yvonne takes a break from paddling on Nishlik Lake.

That may sound simple and straightforward, but I had legitimate concerns. The remains of one aircraft still sit at the upper end of the lake, and another plane still lies in deep water elsewhere. Yvonne and I had never been in the park, and we would be navigating solely with a compass and topo maps. With the exception of a group that would be flown in on our fifth day at the lake, we expected to be totally alone.

Although we packed life jackets and inflatable Alpacka rafts, I cannot swim and am a poor reader of moving water. The only trails in the northern park are made by caribou, bears and ground squirrels. For bear protection, we carried only pepper spray and common sense. The braided river channel offered ample opportunities for us to become separated. The next book on my stack of reading materials was the river-floating disaster “Deliverance” by James Dickey.

And I was attempting to prevent infection to a leg wound I’d suffered earlier in the month during a fall while climbing near Palmer and was encouraged, medically speaking, to avoid the float trip.

We went anyway.

Although the potential for things to go wrong certainly existed, few did, and we still came home with a story to tell.

Yvonne returns from bathing in the Tikchik River on the beautiful final evening on Nishlik Lake during a trip that almost didn’t happen from all the good reasons stacked against going.

Yvonne returns from bathing in the Tikchik River on the beautiful final evening on Nishlik Lake during a trip that almost didn’t happen from all the good reasons stacked against going.

The Reader’s Digest version of the trip goes like this: We had sunshine all eight days and used more sunscreen than bug spray. We fished for and dined on lake trout and grayling, cooked in foil over hot coals on gravel beaches. We saw a few caribou and one big brown bear, numerous waterfowl and shorebird species, bald eagles and peregrine falcons and an osprey. We consumed sticky handfuls of blueberries and cloudberries. We hiked more than 20 miles and climbed more than 5,000 vertical feet. My leg injury got no worse. And we managed to stay upright and inside our rafts all the way down the river.

One of the highlights came during our brief encounter with humans on the lake. The night before — at the end of a hot, thirsty day of hiking and filtering lake water — I told Yvonne that I was fantasizing about cold beer. The next morning, in my imagination, we would paddle down the lake, see the expected newcomers who would spot us out on the water and wave us over for a quick visit, then offer us cold beer. It was a nice dream, although it relied as much on the luck of timing as it did on the unlikely chance that these people would be toting canned beverages.

The next morning, the wind kicked up from the northwest, blowing into the bay where we were camped. White caps began to form on the lake and both of us managed to acquire several gallons of lake water launching our rafts. Although the sun was beginning to break through the clouds, we were being forced to quarter into the waves in an attempt to round a point that would put the wind behind our backs and help push us down the lake.

Shortly after we cleared the point we heard an engine and peered up from our soggy perches to see a single-engine floatplane flying up and down the lower lake, apparently seeking the safest place to land in choppy water. A few minutes later, as we approached another point of land, the plane roared out from behind it and took off with only the pilot aboard. Then a tall, slender male figure on the beach ahead waved to us, and we paddled over to say hello.

Leif was one of two friendly Norwegian men who had just been deposited on the lakeshore, having flown in from Dillingham, where they’d spent the previous night at a bed and breakfast owned and operated by our landlords. Following in the virtual footsteps of Norwegian friends from previous years, they had two and a half weeks of adventuring planned, starting with fishing Nishlik for two days and then erecting a collapsible canoe and floating down the Tikchik River. I noted aloud that they had a substantial pile of gear piled up on the beach.

They informed us that their canoe was rated for 720 pounds, and that their total weight, themselves included, was right at 720 pounds. (The total weight for me and Yvonne, by comparison, was 503 pounds, according to the scale at the Tikchik Airventures dock back in Dillingham.) They were concerned that they had overpacked, and after chatting about maps and fishing, they began to offer us food.

It turned out that Leif had managed to find his favorite beer in Dillingham — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — and had brought some on this trip. Would we like some beer, he wanted to know? By the time we were once again paddling down the lake we had been given four cans of beer, two cans of Coca-Cola, two fresh apples and three chocolate peanut-butter cupcakes. I nearly giggled as I rowed away.

Although the rapids and the sweepers to come would cause us stress, and we could only guess where we were most of the time on the river, we were elated and contentedly exhausted by our trip. We also ended up with a story to tell, and we discovered, much to our delight, that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a nice accompaniment to Mountain House turkey tetrazzini.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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