Today we’re going to join my friend Lela Markham from Authonomy days, as she goes hiking in Alaska. This is the setting for her new book Mirklin Wood and she gives us tantalising glimpses of her beautiful descriptive prose. Over to you, Lela!
Thank you for having me back on the blog, Jane. I’ve been busy and just published my third book – Mirklin Wood this week.
I live in the beautiful state of Alaska, which is filled with wonderful places to get away by yourself. What a wonderful world for a writer to find places that inspire settings within our books. I thought I’d share one of them that appears in Mirklin Wood.
My family are hikers, rock climbers, berry pickers and fisher folk. It’s early morning in the O’Brien Creek campground just outside of Chitina Alaska, on the banks of the Copper River. We drove 300 miles to get here. Brad and Kyle are taking the expensive charter across the river to dip-net for Copper River red salmon. I’m taking my camera to hike the old railbed to Haley Creek.
Once upon a time, the Copper River Railroad ran through here. There are still trestles further along the railbed that cross creeks, but here at O’Brien the only sign of what once was a 10-story wood railbridge is a few rotting pilings tucked up against one of the cliffs that hems in the rushing silver streak that is O’Brien Creek. The Hem boat launch is overrun by mostly men with enlarged landing nets attached to telescoping poles. Hem’s professional fish cleaning station is not yet open because this is the first run of the day, but the guy in the camper trailer who sells plain perked coffee to caffeine desperate cheechakoes who expected a latte stand asks me if we were the ones running a generator all night.
It wasn’t us. We still use coolers of glacier ice we shovel ourselves on our way down from Fairbanks. We agree it’s annoying to hear that thing chugging all night. We hope the woman who has joined up hears what we’re saying to each other because we’re pretty sure she’s from the motorhome with the generator. She has that clean, just showered look.
“Where you going?” he asks. He remembers me from previous years and asks where our daughter is. Bri leaves an impression. Singing bluegrass somewhere between Florida and New England this year, I tell him. I thank him for the coffee, he refills my travel mug for free and I head across the footbridge for my hike. I had thought to pause on the bridge take some photos, but it occurs to me that the genteel lady might get the idea to join me, so I start up the incline that will take me to the railbed.
Immediately upon cresting the bluff, I am in the wilderness. To my left are tough cottonwoods and huge devils club and to my right are the rugged schist cliffs the railroad bed was blasted into 120 years ago. They rise hundreds of feet. The wind always blows in Chitina and often it’s full of sand. I settle my baseball cap over my braided hair and set my face due south. The sun begins to blush the cliff face in rosy tones. Spirit Mountain rises white and glorious above the trees, far across the river, but a constant presence at every rise and every turn of the trail.
I toil up a rise. Cool air slaps my face as I summit. Wiping sand from my eyes, I can see the Copper River far below, a wide dark grey ribbon through a brown and green landscape. A silver and red power boat streaks along its turbulent course, perhaps bearing Brad and Kyle to their fishing rock. I’m grown cold from the fierce wind, so I continue forward over the rise to drop into a tree-guarded saddle.
The sky’s a hard blue, but off to the east above the ice fields, I can see mist rising. As I drop back into the trees, the wind sighs far above my head. The only other sound is the soft thump of my hiking boots on the gravel. I approach the narrow path where the washout occurred with caution. The mountainside is reported as unstable. There’s been no rain recently and the cliff face above looks solid. I suspect that if it washed out again, it would wash from the hill side below. I could boulder this wall if I had to.
My travel mug is empty now, so I drop my backpack to stow it. I slide a Power Bar into my waistband to warm it, drink some water and continue on my way. I don’t fear bear here because of the steepness of the land between the mountain and the river, but I carry a gun just in case. It’s more likely I’ll encounter hostile humans. Brad had to deal with some aggressive Russians last summer. I once had a drunken fisherman try to take my backpack of fish away from me. Our black Lab convinced him to re-think that thought. But I’m alone now.
There is something about Chitina’s mountains. There is a spirit that resides there that is as old as the hills – a sense that this land has always been and always will be. It could have something to do with the lack of cell phone service. It’s not the lack of people because Brad and I used to feel it even when the trail was clogged with SUVs. This is the well, a place where we pit ourselves against nature for her bounty and we earn what we take home.
All along the trail, there are smaller trails dropping away toward the river … places where there are great fishing holes, now mostly reached by the charters, though still accessible from the railbed if you know it’s there. I remember when we stayed in this one wide spot and had an encounter with some environmentalists who lectured us about catching salmon while leaving their “biodegradable” trash for nature to deal with. We took it out with ours and we found them at the general store where they were trying to stage a protest over people fishing to feed their families. I guess I ruined their chant by presenting them with their bag of trash and then educating them about the half-life of biodegradable in a country where winters are six months long. Brad shilled the sudden audience of ice-buyers into applauding for me. Good times.
Maybe 45 minutes … an hour down the trail, I come to a place where the road crosses a stream, then turns sharply right to go under a 20-story wooden trestle. I pause to look up at the massive timbers. Some of them at the creek level are rotten and back in the days when cars would regularly drive through here, Brad and I wondered how long it would be before someone hit one of those increasingly fragile supports and brought the whole thing down, but somehow it continues to stand, a testament to the engineers who built it. I take some photos before history catches up, then turn left, off the trail.
This is Ahtna land, I know, but it used to be our favorite fish spot before they put up the No Trespassing signs. I pass a spirit house – a small roof structure surrounded by a picket fence covering a grave. I suspect it was put there to discourage whites from going this way. There aren’t any others, which suggests this wasn’t a graveyard. There’d be no reason to bury someone so far from the village.
Here the creek has formed a peninsula of silt and cottonwood trees. The cottonwoods have deeply furrowed trunks and knots of branches very high up. These sway slightly in the wind. I drop off a sand bluff onto the river bank and a wide gravel bar opens before me. I walk to the river’s edge. This is the only place between O’Brien and Haley creeks where you can walk up to the river and not have to perch on rocks at the water’s edge. Here the river is deceptive, wide and powerful, but it doesn’t look particularly dangerous. About 300 yards down the beach is the grand eddy where, 25 years ago, Brad nearly drowned when a silt bank dissolved under his feet in waist-deep water. That’s the reason he only fishes from the rocks now and doesn’t wear hip waders. Thank goodness for our black Lab and a friend who pulled him in with his dipnet.
This is also the glory hole – the place where we caught 40 salmon in 2 ½ hours in a driving rainstorm. The spot has always been a bust for us since, but others proclaim it a honey hole … if you don’t mind the No Trespassing signs. The one time anyone tried to shoo us, I mentioned being friends with a well-known Native elder and then suddenly the Wyandot and the Ahtnas were cousins. Since I dyed my hair reddish in honor of grey hair, I don’t know if I could pull that off so easily now.
Just past Brad’s near-grave, the river narrows abruptly into Wood Canyon, from which there is no escape. To prove this, I watch as a massive bit of drift wood is sucked into an eddy and never emerges. Clouds flicker with lightning. I take photos, capturing one of the charter boats as it powers its way into Wood Canyon, skirting that giant maw of an eddy. A silver wall of rain sweeps in my direction. I walk up the bank into the trees and don my heavy Army poncho. I squat under a tree, draping the huge garment over my legs and tucking my arms inside. Water pours from the sky like liquid silver.
The Power Bar has softened from the heat of my body and I munch it while I wait for the storm to pass. I once built a fire under this tree during a similar storm, using toilet paper and a wadded up lock of my hair as my tinder. That was the night of the 40 salmon, while I guarded one half of our catch while Brad hiked out the other half.
The sun still shines despite the rain and, as it slants through the surrounding trees, it turns the falling rain golden, so that I feel like I’m in a magical forest where talking deer might emerge from the devil’s club at any moment. I lean back against the tree and extend my arms, palms up, to feel the steady patter of the rain before it is sucked up into the greedy silt.
The storm is brief as they often are in this land surrounded by ice fields and rugged mountains. I rest for a while, listening to the retreating squall and the sighing wind. The tree far above my head creaks. It’s an old tree, at least twice my age. I wonder if it will be there when I come back this way again.
I tie my poncho to my backpack so it will dry and cross under the trestle, then hike up a switch back to the rail bed again. Here the trail runs above the canyon. There’s more big rocks on the rail bed and sometimes, far above, you can hear the mountain groan. If you think about it, it will scare you. You see the river more often now. I’ve been this way before and lived. I go forward.
Thank Sony for digital technology that allows me to take so many photos on a single disc. There are so many images to capture. I have not seen another human being in nearly two hours.
When the Kennicott Mining Company built the Copper River Railroad, they found a portion of mountain too steep to blast a shelf on, so they blasted a tunnel instead. I near this now, a 100-foot long tube of air through the side of a schist mountain. We used to be sort of creeped out driving through it. There is no bracing holding it open. It’s just a hole through solid rock. Walking through it makes this claustrophobic itch. The wind turns and whistles down the pipe, causing the deep moaning noise. I walk faster.
Just beyond the railroad tunnel is Haley Creek. There are a couple of families there who risked the washout with 4-wheelers. Their camp along the creek is a sea of blue tarps. Camp fire drifts up into the air. A dog runs out to sniff me. A small child yells something. One of the women waves. I wave back. I squat by the creek, using my water filter to safely refill my water bottle. Even in remote Alaska, beaver fever is a risk, not to mention potential heavy metal contamination from mineral sources in the mountains.
“Are you fishing here?” a little boy asked.
I haven’t got a dipnet with me, but he’s young.
“No. I’m taking pictures. Do you want me to take yours?”
His mother doesn’t join us, but she nods her permission.
“How’d you get here?” he asked.
“That’s a long way – hundreds of miles.”
His blue eyes are wide with admiration. He reminds me of Bri running barefoot here, with sticks in her hair when she was about the same age.
“It’s not so far when you get older,” I tell him. I thank him for letting me take his photo, wave at his mother and consider whether to go forward along the trail some more or turn back toward camp. We only ever drove beyond Haley Creek once because the creek is the lower limit of the fishery and the trail is not so well-kempt beyond. We went maybe a mile and encountered a mud hole that had nearly swallowed the Subaru we drove. Fortunately, it wasn’t a heavy car, so we were able to spin our way out to solid ground.
My grandmother used to talk about “feeling the wendigo”, a boogeyman of sorts from her Wyandot culture. A shiver runs down my back as I stand here looking south. I’ve had this feeling before and it usually means that what I’m contemplating is a bad idea. I’ve tested this theory a few times and I don’t recommend it. I’ll explore further sometime when I have a partner. I turn north once more and begin my two-hour journey back toward O’Brien Creek.
The tunnel is not nearly so queasy making on the return. I pause to wipe a finger along the layered schist wall. You can still see where the tracks ran on the gravel. The fresh air on the far side smells much sweeter.
For the first mile back, as the trail runs above the river, an eagle accompanies me on my journey, riding the thermals looking for what we all are – Copper River red salmon. I’ve watched eagles surfing the currents before, diving to catch fish and then winging off into the trees to eat them. Here and there the rocks are wet from the rain.
It takes less time to get back to O’Brien Creek because I don’t turn into the glory hole. I don’t dawdle under the trestle either because the unnamed creek here is running faster than when I crossed it earlier. It must be raining in the mountains. As I near the washout, my steps slow. The solitude of the railroad bed trail envelopes me. Beyond are people and generators, the slime line and the roaring boats. I look up at the mountains, turn to scan the river and to take in Spirit Mountain once more. The wind sighs through the trees and I can hear the distant constant roar of the river.
This is the well, the place where we pit our skills against the land to wrestle nature’s bounty into our freezer. It’s not a place to be taken lightly. Men die on that river. The mountains can wash down. I’ve been here when a thunder shower was rolling through and it sounded like trolls flinging rocks against the cliff. It’s a land I want my kids to know, love and respect as I do, as my parents taught me to. I breathe of the fresh air.
It’s time to go now, back to the world of human kind, refreshed and empowered and blessed to have been here.
Lela’s amazon author page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lela-Markham/e/B00OQWYP68/