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Backpacking in Alaska - Part II - Turquoise Lake

If you’ve never heard of scree, let me enlighten you. It’s made up of small bits of rock that pile up at the base of crags, cliffs, volcanoes, etc. The challenge in hiking over it lies in its instability. These slopes of tiny rocks pile up in the steepest angle that it takes for them to “settle”.

As you walk over it - imagine pretending to be a goat with tiny hooves walking seemingly parallel to the mountainside - the rocks give way under your each step until they find a new spot to settle.

This can mean you slip down a few inches or 50 - 100 yards, depending on your step. Aside from being a bad dream for those with fears of heights, it’s also quite exhausting on the joints and tendons in your feet and ankles. Beyond that, the rocks above and to the side of you will often careen down the slope all around you, so you have to be super aware of large rocks that may fall on you as you slide down and into the sand-like earth at an almost 90-degree decline.

Day 5 involved a good bit of this scree, so my ankles were already throbbing by the time we moved on to the next type of terrain - a type we jokingly deemed “evil sponge.” What looked like rolling hills of plush grass, were actually covered in thick spongy tundra that felt like quicksand as we side-hilled across the landscape.

The next challenge was descending into the valley of turquoise lake through thick brush. Again, it looks like plush, soft plant-life until you are in the midst of it’s wiry, scratchy claws at a steep decline. Thick, pointed branches scrape and scratch at your arms and legs. They whip back at you, launched off the frame-pack of the person in front of you as they push their way through. Low lying medusa-like arms do their best work to trip you as you try to stabilize your feet with each step.

When we got to the bottom, I felt relief...and then immediate anxiety. My cortisol levels shot up as our guides explained to us our next task as we sat on our packs on the rocky delta for a snack break.

We would be crossing a waist-deep, ice-cold, furiously fast river of melting glacial ice that fed into the massive turquoise lake just beyond where we sat. What would happen if we tripped and lost our footing? Oh, we’d just be swept up and off down the delta into the vast open waters of the lake. No. Big. Deal.

Some others in the group were a bit nervous, but my anxiety was through the roof. That’s because I happen to have a severe fear of large, moving bodies of water. I can’t explain it - other than perhaps a fear of loss of control - but vastness, waves, rapids and me do not coexist well together.

I was shaking, my heart was racing and I was on the verge of tearing up from the panic. I went in the 2nd of several groups - I had to get this over with, rather than watch as our guides helped one after another group member cross. That type of anticipation would have surely done me in.

I stepped into the water and the immediate feeling of numbness moved up through my leg. I planted the hiking poles firmly in the rock bed, as instructed by our fearless guides. The poles were angled away from me (handles toward me) so my two legs and the pole formed something like a tripod shape.

My body faced upstream and the glacial water pounded its fury against my hips and core. A few steps in and I was waist-deep. The weight of the 50 pound pack I was carrying - believe it or not - helped keep me stable against the angry rapids.

My left foot slipped on a larger, smooth rock in the riverbed and I started to panic. If I tried to move my right foot, to continue towards the safety of the opposite side riverbed, I’d surely slip and be washed away like small bug caught in the fray of a hose on a slick, black-topped driveway.

Our guide saw the fear, doubt and panic in my face and yelled over the sounds of harsh rapids “Do you want to come back?” His hand was outstretched and his face was reassuring as he stood calm and statuesque in the rushing water closer to the river bed I’d just stepped off. I was amazed at his master and skill. He looked utterly unbothered. This was like walking across a babbling brook for him. But that thought only lasted a moment, and the panic was back.

I yelled back over the rush of water with a shaky voice and said, “no”. I wanted to keep going. I had to keep going, because going back wasn’t an option. Going back, meant doing this all over again and I did not have that in me.

The only way was forward. The only way was through.

Our other guide was just in front of me and a bit to the right and she shouted some directions to me on how to steady my foot and keep going. I took a breath, I found my footing and slowly but surely took those small steps.

Take a step, move the pole, dig it in, move the other foot. Repeat.

As I crossed, I completely forgot about the cold. There were more pressing concerns in my mind, and my sympathetic nervous system was sure to keep me on task. There was a small sand and rock bar about ⅔ of the way through, and as I finally stepped up onto it, the next ⅓ didn’t seem quite so insurmountable. I made it this far, I could make it the rest of the way. So, on we went.

And on the other side of that nemesis of a river, was rest. Further still, was a place to camp.

A place to dry our soggy boots and dripping wet clothes.

A place to set up our pots and boil water for hot drinks and a warm meal.

And a place to rest and sleep.

For tomorrow awaited us. And tomorrow was supposed to be the ‘harder day’.

It’s safe to say I faced some fears, that if given a choice, I would have most certainly avoided.

But the funny thing about the body and the brain, is that when you have no other option but to carry on...

No other option but to push through it...

No other option but to face the fear, move through it and work against its rapids - so to speak - you find a way.

Your body suddenly becomes stronger. Your mind suddenly has the will.

The secret, is that it's not 'sudden' at all.

The strength and the will have always been inside you. They just needed the push to show their stripes.

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