So began my trek into the wilderness. I got up early for my appointed hike with a Denali ranger, since it is recommended for single stragglers and no, I did not buy the suggested bell to stave off bears. Later I learned that the sound of human voices was just as repulsive to them.
Sitting on the hostel's shuttle, I spoke to a charming Scottish guy who kept talking about the black bears of Kodiak Island, the southernmost tip of Alaska. He also asked me where I was the night before. Asleep, I admitted. Apparently, all the young'uns of the hostel went to a bar last night and there was one particular Navy guy who was quite amusing when utterly intoxicated.
"Maybe you should meet him." Hmm...
As I waited for the ranger, I surveyed the hardy types who had signed up for the hike and realized I was a fish out of water. They were lean, well-muscled gals and guys who stretched for the ordeal, and handled their raingear, backpacks, and other paraphernalia with such ease that it seemed almost second nature to them. Only one other woman was of my petite stature, but she dressed like a professional climber.
The bus took us to Mile 47. Now Denali National Park is such a vast expanse of land, over 9,400 square miles or 6 million acres, that each stop was denoted by the number of miles from the front entrance. The major scenic stops were at least 50 miles inland, and that distance alone was approximately 6 hours roundtrip. On clear days, there is an imposing view of the grandiose Mt. McKinley, snowcapped and silver-blue in all its glory.
So, introductions. One couple was in the army, inadvertently flaunting bulging biceps and mentioned their three kids at home. Another group of friends identified themselves as adventurers and seasoned campers. There was a very attractive, older couple who lived in Colorado Springs and expressed their love for skiing, hiking, and climbing. They came complete with hiking sticks.
Oh boy. "Uhh...I grew up in New York City and I'm an indoors kind of girl."
"I'm here because I find nature very beautiful and I need to be shocked out of my comfort zone." Literally. A sympathetic smile or two in reply, but most rolled their eyes dramatically, what is she doing here? Interesting, I was wondering that myself.
We hadn't gone very far before I was at least five yards behind the pack. It seemed like overcoming a mountain (truthfully, a tall hill) and an eternity before I could reach them. Out of politeness or perhaps pity or even liability concerns, they stopped every 15 minutes for me to catch up.
Then we had to cross a stream. Rushing water is a sound I associate with Alaska, as the mountains boasted myriad tributaries of thriving, gushing H2O. Water is the life force of the land, pulsing through bitter rock and harsh tundra. I was reminded of the water transportation system of the ancient Incas, how a path was carved through a network of filters. The purest rainwater would travel from the summit of Macchu Picchu to the very bottom of villages. Straight from a pagan god.
Back to reality. Remember the slightly too large hiking boots I purchased because of the colors? Well, the living, breathing waters of the stream conveniently spirited my left boot away as I was navigating across. I wound up chasing it downstream with the other boot wobbling at my ankle.
I jumped over logs, tripped over moss, and scrambled along prickly brambles after my shoe. I ended up on my derriere quite a few times. The dainty gold bracelet I always wore? Muddied beyond recognition. No doubt, I made an extraordinary spectacle of myself to the casual observer. Let's not even get into what the meticulous observer would see.
When I finally retrieved it, rather fished it out with a crooked branch, my pants and feet were soaked. Of course I did not bring a change of socks. Thankfully, Kari, the pretty climber from Colorado, gave me a fresh pair of socks. I befriended Kari and her husband Howie; they gave me excellent hiking tips and even loaned me their sticks. So now I was only two yards behind everyone else.
"Look! Bear!" Wildlife sighting? I had no clue. Everyone was tangibly excited, binoculars, cameras, photos with video. I didn't have the wherewithall to even see what they were talking about. When my eyes finally adjusted to the barely visible furry creature dashing across land, it was gone. But then, it wasn't all that impressive to begin with. The only time I will be close enough to admire a bear, it would probably eat me. Did I mention I was nearsighted?
Kari and Howie drove me back to the hostel and treated me to a lovely dinner of pizza. It was particularly lovely because I had not carried adequate food for lunch. (I just didn't think I'd be that hungry.)
Afterwards, I joined the Scottish guy and the others for a beer. Rick, a cute Hispanic newcomer, mentioned that he just got off his ship (Navy) and would be deploying to Afghanistan upon his return. Buzzed, I asked him if he recovered from last night's good time and received a dirty look in reply. He stalked off without any further conversation. Slightly inebriated, I didn't notice it was becoming icy cold.
As I walked into my room, I was notified that the bed was no longer mine.
"Don't you remember? Because you booked late, there are no beds available tonight. You'll have to sleep outside in Tent # 2."