by Mark Herrlinger
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 1997
As I looked out the window of the plane I thought, "This place is huge." We were roughly 15,000 feet off the ground and I was looking up at the mountains around the plane instead of down. A person sitting next to me said that the ocean's tide looked low. How could anyone see what the tides were doing from such an altitude, I thought.
My day had started in Connecticut, several thousand miles and three airports behind me. I pulled out my steno notebook and wrote the words, "A leap into the unknown." My thoughts were filled with anticipation and fear. After getting off the plane, I made my way to the branch in Palmer, received my gear, bagged rations, and had my first class setting up the Eureka tents. The following day we went to the small town of Whittier located on Prince William Sound for our four week sea kayaking section. Whittier is an old Army base town accessible only by train or boat. The Army had long since pulled out, leaving Whittier a small, depressed fishing village.
Our course spent an hour or so in Whittier learning how to pack our kayaks and then how to paddle them. Soon we took off into the light fog, hugging the jagged coast line. As I paddled off I found myself looking back towards Whittier frequently. What would the next twelve weeks bring?
June 7, 1989 10:38pm
I'm sitting in my tent right now relaxing after a long first day... A sea-otter followed us for awhile. It was a lot bigger than I thought they would be. We paddled for a few hours to our camp site only to find some people there so we backtracked to where we are now. After classes on unpacking, cooking and food identification we had Macs and Cheese for a very late dinner around 9:30. About twenty minutes ago a huge porcupine walked along the beach by our camp. It must have weighed 40 pounds. The tides here are incredible-along the lines of 15 feet, which turns into about 100 feet of beach space at low tide and none at high. The people on the course all seem motivated and nice. I am having trouble remembering all their names.
A few days later a bear stole a food bag in the early evening and found that bears prefer margarine over couscous. Our tent group was designated to guard a food bag pile between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. that evening.
June 10, 1989 2 a.m.
Bear Country. Wow! I'm sitting here with my tent mates guarding our food from a bear. This is certainly different. Yesterday I woke up around 7 a.m. and burned the oatmeal because I thought that I had grabbed a bag of instant and it wasn't. It started raining a couple of days ago and hasn't stopped since. All and all, I'm fairly dry considering how much water is outside. The real battle has been staying warm because the wind is blowing so hard. Everything takes so much effort to do in the driving cold rain, but I have been able to handle it pretty well. Paddling was easier today. We saw lots of seals, a few bald eagles and one black bear. We paddled past mini icebergs from a huge glacier that flows into the ocean. One seal was riding an iceberg that flowed with the tide past our camp. Incredible!
As our course progressed, I learned how to manage living in the wilderness in Alaska. It rained for days at a time on Prince William Sound. Sunshine was the exception. It took some time to get used to the rain but it was still fun, as every day was a new adventure. We would get up in the morning, pack up camp, and then paddle until lunch where we would have a class on subjects ranging from predicting the weather through wave observation, to ocean biology, or first aid. After lunch we would paddle to our evening's destination where we would set up camp, have another class under the Lorax (a huge tarp, named after a character in Dr. Seuss), make dinner, and then drift off to bed, eager to do it all over again. To add to the strangeness of this environment, it never got completely dark.
June 17, 1989 1:06am Sitting outside writing by the light of the sky. What a day. Our expedition behavior class was great this morning. It was basically how to make a win/win situation out of our course. After class we packed up camp and decided to move out of the bog we were in because we were harming it with footprints. We got under way in mediocre weather and thought we would only move a mile or so. I was the lead boat! As soon as we hit the water the skies opened up. Not a cloud to be seen. Beautiful! The best day yet-my spirits are soaring. We paddled for eight miles and stopped for a dinner of bartered hash browns. I took a shower under an ice-cold waterfall. It felt great. We left at 7:30 and paddled until 11 p.m. I got great pictures of two bald eagles, saw loons, huge jumping salmon and tons of other wildlife. I think the wildlife is as happy with the sunshine as I am.
Class Notes: Tidal resonance- exaggerated addition or subtraction of tidal height due to the length of a bay.
June 18, 1989 9:10am
Bulgar is horrible without sugar. We are rerationing in an hour. Yea!
The Exxon Valdez dumped 200,000 barrels of oil into the sound three and a half months prior to the start of the course, but we were able to avoid the oil and the people working to clean it up. Later, we made a trip to Applegate Island which had been cleaned up by Exxon just three weeks before. It was a heart-wrenching journey and fortunately our first and only experience with the oil.
June 26, 1989 5:30 p.m. We made it to Applegate Island. There is still oil all over the place. I can smell it. Dig a hole anywhere in the greywacky (the grey rock and sand that make up the surface of the beaches in the sound) and you will strike thick sludge. The beach looks good from a distance. Almost too good as it's got the cleanest, whitest rocks I've ever seen in the wilderness. This place is sad. Everything looks dead. I want to leave.
We saw an orca as we left Applegate Island, which made me feel better. We had heard that the whales had left the oil spill area. The rest of the sea kayaking section went well, and the weather improved. We faced the challenges of decision-making without our instructors on our small group expedition. Six miles outside of Whittier, we met up with our instructors a day late due to bad weather. They were relieved to see us, and glad that we had made the right decision to not travel in high seas. I gave a class on the oil spill during our last night on the ocean. We had come across a large boat from the Prince William Sound Conservation Alliance. They were researching, writing and printing a book on the oil spill right on the boat. They gave me a fresh copy right off the presses to use for my research. That book is still one of my valued possessions.
After more weather delays we finally paddled into Whittier, low on food and singing with excitement to the song "Hooray for Hollywood" substituting "Whittier" for "Hollywood." "The shining faces, the wonderful places . . ."
In Whittier, I bought a Time magazine and a one pound bag of M&M's. The magazine cover story was on the controversy surrounding the burning of the American Flag. After living in the wilderness for four weeks, I was puzzled at the concept. I realized that I hadn't missed anything too important.
The second section of my course was spent on the tundra of the Talkeetnas. Instead of traveling by kayak through coastal marine ecosystems bordered by forest, mountains and glaciers, we spent a month exploring the Arctic tundra with backpacks. We were dropped off by a NOLS bus at a dirt roadhead and started hiking. There were no trees or shrubs over three feet tall as far as the eye could see. My pack was heavy and going up or down hill was painful the first couple of days. I felt like I was walking on the moon.
July 6, 1989 1:10 p.m. I made it to the tundra but there is nothing here.
I discovered that I had to look a little deeper and closer than I had looked previously. In the Talkeetnas, I found new challenges in map reading. Instead of looking for islands, I was looking for drainages and patterns. I found myself in a very three dimensional world. We learned how fragile the ecosystem was. Mere footsteps could last for years. Most importantly, I learned that there was life everywhere in a place that at first glance appeared lifeless.
July 11, 1989 2:11 p.m. I see the tundra as characterized by short hearty plants that can withstand the harsh temperature extremes and high winds. The area is characterized by "new" sharply ridged mountains and quickly changing drainages.
Aside from having some of the most beautiful flora in the world, the tundra was home to an abundance of wildlife including caribou and black bears. At first glance, it looked like a place that a bear wouldn't even want to visit, but we were told that the Talkeetnas have one of the world's densest populations of black bears. Our goal was to never even see a bear. The words, "HEY BEAR!" now have an indelible meaning to me. While hiking we were taught to yell to warn bears of our approach. Our kitchen and food was kept at least 200 yards downwind of our tents. We caught Arctic char and grayling at pristine lakes then cleaned, cooked and ate them at lakeside a mile from camp. Keeping a midnight snack in one's tent could be a life threatening mistake. The strategy worked. In four weeks, we never even saw a bear.
The classes changed from tidal biology to sun-related injuries, loose rock terrain travel, river crossings, weather, nutrition, evacuations and tundra biology.
Assignment: Spend three thirty minute periods studying animals while looking for activity and behavior. Write your observations down. Also list flowers observed
July 17, 1989 8:20 p.m. While I was cooking dinner, a sea gull landed on a rock about fifteen feet away and chose to visit for awhile. I watched. His head and eyes moved constantly coming a complete 360 degrees around and up and down. It seemed to me that I was just one more curiosity in his sphere to keep track of. He kept his head pointed into the wind the entire time. His interest in me seemed to increase slightly as I whistled. I judged his interest as a measure of how much time he looked at me. After sitting peacefully for fifteen minutes the sea gull made a terrific squawk and launched himself downwind. I knew that something had changed, but I was not sure what. I looked around and noticed a golden eagle over the horizon.
Monkshood: Distinctive purple flowering plant that looks very similar to dwarf larkspur except that the petals grow to form a vertical hood over the stamen.
I learned to feel very comfortable in the tundra. I also learned to look a bit closer at my environment. I was amazed to learn that a lichen colony could survive for thousands of years. I hiked with my plant ID book as accessible as my water bottle.
Our small group hike without the instructors was great. I couldn't believe that we were actually able to interpret our topographic maps with perfect accuracy. We knew where we were at all times. At one point we were hiking through a large drainage and a helicopter circled and landed next to us. It was the first sign of civilization that I we had seen in weeks. A well dressed state trooper stepped out and asked us how we were. A hunter had failed to return home a week before from the area and the trooper wanted to know if we had seen him. We had spent a month in an environment where one could see 40 miles in every direction and we had never seen anyone outside of our group. The pilot continued on his way. We stopped and laughed at how he would be eating a steak that night and sleeping in a real bed. We couldn't believe that as remote as we were, there were still people who could whisk themselves into our lives and then leave back to civilization again. For the first time our footsteps seemed slow. We all agreed that having a helicopter looking for a missing person was still a good thing.
Our tundra section ended at a roadhead a week later. As the cars and RVs roared by, I remember thinking how strange it was. These people were driving by without any idea of what they were missing. They never stopped and took the time to really look at their surroundings. I wanted to retreat back to the tundra but I was excited for the next section of the course-mountaineering.
July 27, 1989 9:30 p.m. I am filled with icy apprehension. What is to come? I am sitting on a rock next to a raging river of gray. Lots of water. Lots of power. Deep rumble. Constant splash. Frigid cold since its origin is a glacier only a mile away.
July 28, 1989 9:04 p.m. The adventure continues. We have finally arrived in the land of snow and ice. I am sitting in the most comfortable chair I've sat in weeks. Made it myself-carved out of snow with an ensolite top. Today we walked onto the glacier. The ice is incredible! We walked between huge crevasses and then up some small ice walls after a class on crampon use. On the glacier there are huge cracks and holes going down as far as the eye can see. Someone walking near one could easily trip and slide in. This place is not for the meek or faint of heart. It will be weird not seeing any flora or fauna for awhile.
The glacier section was a sharp contrast to the tundra. There was absolutely nothing alive on the glacier except ourselves. We had to get used to using snow and ice for everything. I learned very quickly that you can burn snow if you try to melt it too quickly. My friends still can't believe that I used snow for toilet paper for a whole month. We traveled in rope teams across the glacier to avoid falling into crevasses that were covered with a thin layer of snow. I learned very quickly that we were in a dangerous place. We all had to rely on each other not just for comfort but for our very lives. Belaying and self arresting classes took on new importance. Instead of learning about the migratory patterns of caribou or orcas, we were learning skills that we would need daily to survive: crevasse rescue systems, proper belay techniques, snow anchors, etc.
August 4, 1989 9:57 p.m. We had our first perimeter camp on the glacier last night. Like a circle of safety inside of an enormous risk. The walk to camp from the bottom of the 1,500 foot wall of snow and ice was pretty wild. I was leading the last rope team. There was thick fog everywhere. I just followed the footsteps in the snow for two hours seeing nothing except whiteness. The first object I saw was our perimeter camp. Our rope team was greeted with hot cocoa. It felt great. What a day!
August 6, 1989 7:45 p.m. Today we hiked to our base camp where we will be for the next ten days. We are camped right in the middle of a glacier. Our camp is between two crevasses. The safety zone is marked with little black flags on bamboo stakes. We spent a few hours digging an elaborate heart-shaped kitchen (the shape was by accident). At 5 p.m. a Cessna flew over us and started dropping food bags from about 200 feet up while going 150 miles an hour. The food bags would hit the snow, bounce 10 feet high and skid about 50 yards before stopping. All 42 food bags arrived pretty much intact. We did have to pick up some macaroni that had scattered across the glacier. Everyone is in a great mood having a full ration and a great dinner to look forward to. Class Notes:
Friction in pulley systems-a dry rope over a dry caribiner wastes 35-40 percent of the mechanical advantage.
As our skills increased we started looking toward some of the peaks around us. I learned just how tough it is to get up one of those things. On three different occasions we got up at 3 a.m., roped up and headed up a mountain peak. On all three occasions we had to turn back due to weather or minor health problems. I learned to appreciate the patience of a mountaineer.
August 13, 1989 1:30 p.m. We did it! Yesterday we climbed a peak about 9,000 feet tall. We strived for one peak, got about three-quarters of the way up it and found it `over our heads,' so to speak. We then went to another peak and slowly and carefully worked our way to the top. From the top it was like looking through a wide angle lens at the Earth from a plane. We were really up high especially considering the fact that our base camp wasn't that far above sea level. It took us nine hours to climb up the peak and six to get down. I found the ice falls difficult and frightening in places. Along one ridge I was told that I couldn't fall or I could take the whole team out. That was just as I had to switch from French technique to front pointing. In my crampons I was a nervous wreck but did just fine. The superb training paid off.
Things I wish I had in the field: Extra water bottle, more spice variety, a washcloth, bigger summit pack, headlamp (so I can read at night now that the days are getting shorter), camp shoes.
Foods I like the most: Hash browns, cream of soup packets for flavor, egg noodles, couscous, carob-covered raisins, fast oatmeal, cheese, potato pearls.
Foods I like the least: Lentils, slow cook rice, slow cook oatmeal, bulgar, soy base.
After a few weeks on the glacier climbing peaks, taking classes on mountaineering, and the importance of acclimatization, we moved off the land of snow, ice and rock. The first two-inch tall green sprout I saw in a moraine was a memorable sight. It symbolized the end of the course and my entrance back to a different world. I said "hello" to that sprout and carefully walked around it.
Three days later, I was on the plane taking off from Anchorage. My eyes strained backwards out the window toward a place I called home for 12 weeks. I mentioned to the passenger next to me that it looked like high tide. I fell asleep to the hum of the plane while thinking "Hey Bear."
Today, almost eight years later, I look back upon my twelve weeks in Alaska as though it was a blink of an eye. It was a special time, and I still dream about seals riding by my tent on chunks of ice, seeing thousands of caribou running through a valley or of leading a rope team across a glacier. The lessons I learned will follow me forever. Sure, I probably don't need to know how to fix an Optimus 111B for my desk job, but the qualities I learned of leadership, teamwork, organization and expedition planning are with me every day. After my course, I was honored to be asked to join NOLS as a full time employee in the school's information systems department. While my job is mostly technical, I enjoy meeting the semester in the Rockies students and swapping stories. I spend my free time hiking, fishing and skiing in the Wind River Mountains. If you are ever in Lander stop by the NOLS technical help desk to say "hi."
Editor's Note: Mark Herrlinger was a student at Denison University when he took a semester in Alaska course with NOLS. For Mark, it was a return visit to the school, having taken a wilderness course in Washington's Cascades several years earlier. Today, Mark explores the wilderness of cyberspace and is "chief mountaineering instructor" for those who attempt to summit Mt. Gigabyte. In other words, he provides professional instruction and assistance to those who can't figure out how to turn their computers on at the National Outdoor Leadership School.