Several weekends ago I had the opportunity to explore some wilderness when my brother-in-law enlisted me to help pack a caribou out that he planned for his wife to shoot. I was really itching to get into some real wilderness and the hunt was very deep in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge. Except for boat access across two bordering lakes and float plane access on a small lake, the Refuge is off-limits to any other motorized access.
Matt, Marlene, and Shane – my brother-in-law, his wife and son – planned the hunt after Marlene drew a caribou tag for the region. A friend dropped them off via a boat after a twenty mile ride across Tustumena Lake. The plans were to hike up into the area where the herd was located and shoot a nice caribou. A friend, Luis Yoder, and I were then going to hike up to them and help pack out the meat and antlers.
I was able to make contact with Matt briefly on Friday morning when we decided that Luis and I will start in awhile even though no animal was down. It was a long boat ride and 6-7 mile hike to get to their campsite so we thought it would be best to get started as soon as possible as both Luis and I wanted to be home for Saturday.
After retrieving the boat at Matt’s place we launched on the Kasilof River which is the only access to Tustumena Lake. We managed to get across the lake in 45 minutes despite some moderately rough water. Tustumena Lake is notorious for big waves because of the way the winds tend to come off the glacier on its east side.
We tied the boat at the trailhead and began our trek up into the mountains. It was a gorgeous day and the scenery was spectacular. We hiked through broken burn areas, alongside massive ravines with roaring streams, through thick Spruce forests, and some muskege before we arrived at Emma Lake. There is a neat public use cabin at Emma Lake and it was there that we lost some time and energy. I had received brief directions from Matt when I spoke to him on the phone but I was planning to be able to communicate with him again before the hike. Obviously, his satellite phone was not working. I vaguely remembered that we were supposed to make a right turn at the cabin so that is what we did. We didn’t hike very far until it became obvious that we had lost their trail. I found plenty of moose, wolf, and bear sign but no boot prints. So we turned around and climbed back up to the cabin and searched again to see if we could find which way they might have gone. We found where their trail crossed a beaver dam at the lake and we followed it up into the high country. We found their tent site after a short hike up the hillside and sat down to rest and eat our supper. We had barely set down our packs when we heard voices coming down the trail above us. The weary hunters seemed very happy to see us.
Below are some pictures of the various scenes we enjoyed. Photos do not come close to the reality of the awesome scenery.
On the way up – we found these Caribou sheds and planned to pack them out. Tustumena Lake is in the background.
On the way down the sun was setting, which added a bit of urgency to our descent – we left the sheds where they were.
As it turns out, the hunters gave up on the caribou when they realized that the herd was another exhausting 4+ mile hike across several high ridges. Instead of a caribou Matt took the opportunity to shoot a nice black bear that was devouring some of the delicious blueberries that grow all over the high country. Matt and his crew were very tired so they left the bear in hopes that Luis and I had found our way up to them.
Since we still wanted to be back that day Luis and I quickly set off for the bear. The bear was approximately 1.5 miles up from the camp site which didn’t seem like it should be that hard to get up there, skin the bear, and pack it back down to the cabin before dark. Matt, Marlene, and Shane would clean up their campsite and begin their journey back to the boat and wait for us there.
I am known for being too optimistic with how much time something will take and this evening was no exception. We finished skinning the bear by 8:00 pm and promptly began our descent hoping that daylight would linger until we got off the mountain. It didn’t.
We were still a good ways from Emma Lake when it became evident that we were in for a long difficult haul if we were going to get back to the boat that night. We decided to push on. The trail around Emma Lake was very treacherous in the dark. We had a difficult time just keeping on the trail but even when we were on the trail we were stumbling over slippery roots and splashing through mud holes. By the time we crossed the beaver dam at Emma Lake we were both very exhausted and our packs had seemingly doubled their weight. We filtered more water from the lake and verified that Matt’s had not decided to stay in the cabin. The cold water and another granola bar boosted my energy enough to start the last 3.5 miles back to the boat. I questioned our sanity often.
It took us until 1:00 am to reach the boat. During the last couple of miles our steps were faltering and several times we laid flat out on the trail and power napped for a few minutes. I was so tired that any thought of bears barely registered with my foggy brain. We didn’t meet any bears of which I was aware. We did try to keep talking to each other, yelling at ourselves or our legs, and at times singing. One song I remember bellowing was “Each Step I Take”…Each step I take just leads me closer home…
We found Matt, Marlene, and Shane sleeping in a tent by the boat and promptly woke them up, put out their outrageously huge fire, and loaded the boat for the return trip to the van. The trip across Tustumena fortunately was uneventful and within in an hour we were driving the van back to Matt’s place. Finally, after driving the 50 minutes back to my home I was able to drop into bed a little after 4:00 am. We made it. It took several days until my knees felt well again but I am now looking forward to the next hike.
Since the hike I have thought of how it was a great example of my life. Sometimes the way is beautiful with sunshine and warmth but other times the way is darkened and difficult to navigate. When the way is wide open before me, fear is diminished; uncertainty and doubt are gone and I feel like singing joyous songs. But other times the way is hard to find and I may lose it altogether. At those times energy and time are lost because I have to backtrack and find the right way again. It is an important point – I need to backtrack – I do not keep pushing ahead through the vast unknown hoping to find the way again. Sometimes on the way I feel strong and robust – ready for the challenge – other times I just feel like dropping to the ground and not continuing. Along the way are many obstacles – during our hike up the trail we barely noticed them but on our way down the fallen trees and such were difficult and discouraging. Such it is with the Christian walk – sometimes we are walking with such energy, zeal, and purpose that we barely notice the obstacles; but during times of weariness and pain; the obstacles seem overwhelming.
Through all of these varying conditions as long as I am in THE WAY – “Each step just leads me closer home.” Hang in there Christian!
Job 23:10-12 NASB
But He knows the way I take; When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.
“My foot has held fast to His path; I have kept His way and not turned aside
“I have not departed from the command of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.