Before I began this trip in March my friend Buzz Burrell remarked that he thought “the crux” of it was the first two weeks, when I’d be facing severe winter conditions. If I could get through that, he seemed to say, I’d be in the clear, like a rock climber who makes it through a route’s toughest sequence and has easy-going thereafter. But I remember thinking, “In the clear? Are you kidding? What about skiing across the Alaska Range, or pushing through the Wrangell’s early-season, or paddling across Icy and Yakutat Bays–those sections have just as much potential to put an end to my trip as he first two weeks do.”
Writing this from Haines, I’m happy to report that I’ve made it through the first two weeks and a number of ensuing challenges. But being “halfway there” is different than “almost there,” so I’m well aware that there are still ample opportunities ahead for the wheels to fall off.
My biggest concern is meeting the ambitious mileage goals that will get me back to Kotzebue when the weather is still good. If I’m slower than I thought, or if I hit a major snag somewhere, I’ll be trying to paddle down the Kobuk as it’s freezing up. And avoiding stupid stuff— e.g. running into a sweeper or breaking a toe on a rock—is key as well. As another friend Forrest McCarthy pointed out, in Alaska a trip is not over until you’re placing your order—i.e. it’s easy for things to go wrong out here, so pay attention all the way until the end.
However, while I’m not going to celebrate wildly tonight because I’ve reached Haines and am at the halfway point of this trip, I do think it’s a good opportunity to acknowledge the experience I’ve had to date. It’s been a phenomenal trip so far. (I’ll elaborate later.) And because of Haines’ geographic location (the end of the Lost Coast, near the beginning of the Yukon, my last major US town) it’s also a good opportunity to mentally transition towards the final major leg of this trip — from Whitehorse to Kotzebue — which I suspect is going to change my definition of wilderness forever.