FRANKLIN BLUFFS — I said goodbye to my final hiking partner today outside a van on the side of a gravel highway. For the remaining 40 miles in my summer hike along the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, it will be just Cora and me.
When I walked away from Eric Troyer and the muddy Northern Alaska Tour Company van that was taking him south, I wondered if he was relieved or bummed not to keep going.
I don't know, but for other partners I have not had to guess. My daughter, cousin and wife all seemed pretty happy to be jumping in a guy named Pat’s pickup headed south after a day of road walking in a big wind and pouring rain. But just like 20 years ago, John Arntz wanted to keep hiking with me rather than catching a van from Prospect Creek on a sunny day with many curves in the path ahead.
Though I’ve missed all of my partners after they’ve left, I've savored my alone time. I can sing, and I like stopping and not having to talk or listen.
Alone with Cora the dog is where I am now, in the tent next to the Sagavanirktok River with pale white cliffs rising from the far bank. They are the last bumps before the land flattens into an immense green pocked with hundreds of lakes.
This party is almost over. From a last-day-of-April start in Valdez with my neighbors Chris and Ian to dry camping in early August on the great Coastal Plain. The trip started cool, with many nights in the 20s. It seems to be ending warm, with sunshine, nights still in the 50s, and lime-green leaves on the northern willow bushes, including a 20-footer I saw today.
Right now, the trip is slanting toward the manmade in the odd industrial/natural mix it has been since the start. Eric laughed at our campsite on a manmade dike of the river complete with the Sherman tank sound of a bulldozer working nearby on the Dalton Highway. He also was happy to point out a long-tailed jaeger, a musk ox and a magnificent bull caribou he watched for an hour through his monocular.
And that is this journey summed up: a summer outside, never more than a few hundred steps from the snakelike steel driver of Alaska’s economy. Out here, you get all of the songbirds as well as the back-up beeps of diesels.
When I could, I chose campsites on rivers close to the pipe. On the best nights, it was as if we were on a canoe trip. I’ve also camped beneath a bridge and several times beneath the pipeline.
Soon, I will stuff the tent for the final time. Tonight is number 92, and I think no outdoor equipment is a greater invention than the portable shelter that keeps you dry and keeps the bugs out. It’s a miracle of design from the most clever of species.
Perhaps it is time to stop. Yesterday morning, Cora shot out of the tent and in propelling herself ripped a four-inch gash in the air mattress I borrowed from my wife. I also found the gas canisters in my last two food drops do not work when the air temperature is below 50 degrees. But Eric cheerily loaned me his mattress and cook stove for the remaining days.
And finally, we saw a bear. On day 89, a blond grizzly moving fast across tundra a quarter mile away. That night, 10 miles down the trail, Cora awoke, sniffed the tent screen and growled. I let her out of the tent. She ran barking to a mileage post from which we had hung our food. In the morning we saw grizzly tracks with diagnostic claw marks in the mud.
That fine dog and I will walk to pipeline mile zero soon. Where things go from there, I don't know, other than I will soon return to my family in Fairbanks and something resembling the life I left when snow was on the ground.