It was the last day of our independent student expedition,
which wrapped up a long but amazing 50 days of hiking
through the mountains of the eastern Alaska Range on
a NOLS Semester. This was our chance to travel for
a few days without instructors and use all the leadership
skills we'd practiced and learned. The next day was
going to be the day that the bus would pick us up at
the road head, but considering the situation on hand,
it didn’t look like our group was going to be
on it. We were a mere 15 miles from the Denali Highway,
and were hopelessly stuck. Who would’ve thought
that a little rain could put us in such a position?
|© Jason Lehmbeck
Alaska rain is different from rain in the lower 48.
There aren't those big, fat raindrops, but the
skies shower you with a light drizzle that’s never-ending—kind
of like Chinese water torture. You don’t think a little drop of water will
be much of a bother, but after days on end of a continuous and unrelenting stream
of it, it kind of drives you nuts. I wish I had a tape recorder to playback and
listen to my friend Dustin. I can only try to remember the string of dialogue
he had with himself for about two hours of bushwhacking through wet plants. The
rest of us were tired enough to let him ramble, if not slightly amused by his
The first drainage that we came to earlier that day
should have been a warning
to us all—it was moving incredibly fast, probably Class V rapids, and a
huge waterfall stopped us dead in our tracks. It sidetracked us a good mile and
a half downstream, where we finally found a place safe enough to cross. Even
still, the water was up to my hips and I was fourth on the eddy line.
Our plan for the day was to push our "X" on the map a bit further and
cross Rivine Creek so that on the final day of the trip we wouldn’t have
far to go. After hours of hiking, wandering up and down the valley to avoid bushwhacking,
soaked to the bone, we were standing on top of the ridge that led down to Rivine
Creek. I remember feeling myself going into robot mode. I’d never been
so wet and tired in my life, and I was looking forward to setting up camp and
crawling into my semi-dry sleeping bag. When we go to the bottom of the creek,
however, I heard a, “Holy crap!” and, “Are you kidding me?” among
various other cuss words strung together in surprise and disbelief. Rivine Creek
was hardly a creek—all the rain we’d been experiencing had turned
our small stream into a full-on raging river that was moving incredibly fast.
The huge trees lining the original riverbed were being sucked down, and we could
hear giant boulders being tossed down stream. It’s kind of a scary sound,
knowing that rocks that big are literally being bashed into each other; thrown
and pushed down the river by the sheer force of the water.
After about a minute of staring dumbstruck at the
river, we quickly decided to get camp set up and
start dinner. It was still raining, possibly harder
we had stopped. Still stunned from the sudden halt in our momentum, we all quietly
realized that this wasn’t going to be the last day of our student expedition.
We were officially stuck. We worked quickly to set up tents and cook dinner.
Some had fingers so cold and wet that simple motor functions like zippering clothing
and tying knots were hard—everyone did what they could to help everyone
else. Clam chowder and pasta soup were the only things left in our ration, and
it was about the fifth night in a row that we were forced to eat clam chowder.
The memory of those meals still sticks with me. I will never again eat dehydrated
After dinner we got straight into our tents. We knew
we were going to have to watch the river all night,
and make sure it didn’t rise any. But sure enough,
at 4:30 a.m., the water had risen enough that it was creeping toward us. It was
Bryces’ sharp senses that woke us up, and we scrambled to move our tents
further from the riverbank. The rest of that morning we found ourselves almost
floating on our therma-rests from the amount of water that was inside our tents.
Big puddles occupied the inside corners of our shelters.
We slept in, exhausted from the previous day’s travel. When we awoke mid
morning and crawled out of our tents, we were ecstatic from what we saw—the
sun! After hiding from us for more than a week, it had reappeared. We quickly
got to work drying out our clothes, and tried devising a plan to get ourselves
across the raging river. No sooner had we had hung up our socks and extra layers,
when we heard calls off in the distance. Everyone shushed each other up, and
we listened with strained ears for the possibility of hearing the other student
group. The calls got closer and closer, and all of a sudden we started hollering
at the top of our lungs in return to the other shouts. We were practically running
up the riverbank in the direction of the voices. Then, out of the clearing, appeared
Don and Sarah, our instructors! Everyone’s mood changed suddenly from dreary
to ecstatic. We couldn’t believe that they had found us. Then again, I
guess that’s why they’re instructors and we’re students...they
had the intuition to realize that all the rain would flash flood the creek, and
came to find us before we totally ran out of food and fuel.
Our student expedition came to an exciting and memory-filled
never forget what it was like to see our trusty instructors on the other side
of the riverbank. We ended up having to stay where we were that night, and wait
a bit more for the river to go down before we crossed. But when we got to the
other side, and our whole group (plus the other small group) was reunited, it
was an amazing feeling. The wilderness and weather that we had traveled through,
the skills we learned, and the friends we made over the course of 50 days was
a truly incredible experience. Alaska is a place that I hope to return to someday
soon. Although the days on end of rain can be trying, when the skies clear and
you can see all the mountains and the pure, pristine wilderness the place holds
for miles around you, the rainy days and wet clothes seem a small price to pay.
Lauren Edwards is a graduate of a 2003 NOLS Semester
in Alaska. She's currently an intern in the NOLS
marketing department in Lander, Wyoming.