Well, I am finally on my last week. I’m currently sitting in Glenn’s office and it’s hard not to be reminded of sitting in this same place exactly nine weeks ago, waiting for my first day of work to start. At the risk of sounding corny, this is probably the biggest thing I’ve done in my life up to this point and my brain just can’t seem to fathom that it is almost over. I have three more days of work, most of which will be spent in the office being trained in grant writing, and then Friday morning I will fly home. I don’t even have another weekend here, so I took full advantage of it yesterday.
Back on maybe my third or fourth week here a few of us attempted to climb a mountain called Gunsight (named for the square notch directly in the middle resembling the sight on a rifle). To say we failed miserably would be an understatement. We wandered around the base of the mountain for a good two hours before even finding a break in the brush. In our defense Alaska is famous for poorly marked trails and even worse maps. Eventually we settled for an animal trail that quickly turned into no trail at all, but we kept going because in Alaskan National Parks you are allowed almost complete free reign as long as you avoid private property. We spent an hour bushwhacking through thorny brush up to our necks. It wasn’t until we reach a ridge with no way over it and the rain started coming down that we finally gave up and headed back. Of course when we were less than a hundred feet from our cars we passed an ATV trail a good seven feet wide meandering up the mountainside. Most hiking trails here start out as ATV trails and it was clear we had made an early mistake, but by that time there was not enough daylight (well, not literally because the sun never actually sets here) to reach the peak so we returned home disappointed and frustrated.
Flash forward five weeks to yesterday when Tessa and I decided conquering this mountain would be the perfect ending to an incredible summer. We borrowed Katie’s car for the day and set out at six in the morning for the two hour drive toward Anchorage. For once we weren’t stopped by road construction or traffic, so the scenic ride was fairly peaceful. There was not a soul in sight when we we pulled off onto the hidden gravel driveway and began our journey up the mountainside. Pretty soon the ATV trail we had started out on veered off in the wrong direction and we were forced to continue forward through tangled brush and muddy swamp. Fireweed splattered the tall grasses and foreign berries reached out, tempting a weary hiker.
By mid morning we pushed through the last of the brush into a grassy opening stretching out before us. The surrounding mountain ranges were still shrouded in clouds, but the sun was beginning to melt through the gloom. Pausing occasionally for pictures, we maintained our steady pace toward the base of the second incline, where the terrain transformed dramatically. No longer rolling hills or jagged trees, suddenly the path before us became steep and rocky, and precariously close to a sharp ridge. Carefully placing our feet one at a time on teetering rocks, we crawled up the edge of the mountain, sending smaller pebbles scattering below us.
Once we were within ten yards of the peak I started scrambling faster and faster, desperate for the sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching the top. I could hear Tessa call from below me: “You look like a monkey!” but I kept going. And the view was worth it. The clouds had broken and the sun was illuminating the sheer rock faces and slippery sandy slopes in front of me. Wind whipped my face and I wobbled on the edge, causing me to grin nervously. But when I had steadied myself again I was hit with just how little I am compared to the immensity of such forces. This is not a depressing notion; but rather an empowering thought. I felt like a part of something so much bigger than myself and so much more important. But you have to go out and participate in it – climb a mountain, raft a river, scale a glacier – to really feel like a piece of that puzzle, not just a viewer.
It occurred to me then that I have done some pretty amazing hikes, but this was the first time I have ever felt a sense of personal accomplishment. Tessa and I had planned this hike and prepared for it on our own. We decided when to do it and where to go. We pushed ourselves to keep going, despite rubbery legs and crushed toes. We did not have an SCA crew leader or a supervisor pointing out the path or reminding us to drink water, and that seems to reflect my summer here: I have been expected to take care of myself and others, live independently, coordinate multiple things at once, and complete a list of projects, all with little or no guidance.
Standing on that peak I realized, for the first time, just how far I had come, not only that day, but also throughout this entire internship. We still had a good two or three hours of hiking down steep slopes in front of us, but somehow this moment felt like the perfect conclusion to the summer. Now I can go home knowing that I have had an amazing experience that will never be replaced.