Finding Your Inner Thoreau on Alaska’s Talkeetna

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It all happened so quickly. Two seconds after arriving at K2 Aviation in Talkeetna, Alaska, I’m solo aboard a Cessna 185 headed for the put-in of the Talkeetna River. Behind the seat of pilot Doug Geeting are two kayaks stuffed with gear. In the hold: raft, frames and oars.

My wife and I have a pact. I fully enjoy visiting her relatives in her home state of Alaska, but I need some Me Time to get in touch with my inner Thoreau. I get it here big time. When Doug departs I’m completely alone in the wilderness, waiting for my partners to arrive for a 70-mile, four-day float on the best whitewater run in the state.

While my wife’s taking the kids to an indoor water park in Anchorage, followed by a visit to Chuck E. Cheese, I feel what Henry David must have at Walden Pond. His two-year, two-month, two-day experiment in simple living at his hand-built cabin resulted in Walden, or Life in the Woods, one of the world’s quintessential wilderness books. I’ll be in the wilds less than 100 hours, but the added remoteness might equal things out. When the plane’s buzz vanishes over the horizon, I don’t even have Thoreau’s cabin as comfort.

My senses are honed, from the spider scampering across a rock by my feet to the eagle cresting a thermal. I follow a set of bear tracks, trailed by red berries, across a cobblestone island to scout a river braid for rigging the rafts. A caribou, whose velvety rack mirrors the massive, upturned rootballs littering the banks, crosses an island and fords the river. The only sound is the hissing of the silt-laden river digesting rock from the glacier upstream.

Sawtooth ridges rise overhead, tapering into smooth, pale-green fields of tundra striped with avalanche paths. Behind them lies the Alaska Range, the biggest in all North America.

The river cackles and I turn, thinking it might be a bear. As when Scuba diving, I feel animals sneaking up behind me, wherever I’m not watching. I turn back and see the caribou again, now way downstream. He watches me, and I him, as the river gurgles in arbitration. I peek over my shoulder again in paranoia, remembering the bear spray 200 yards away. Could I reach it in time? It was a cheechako move to not take it with me.

The river is known for its bears, which is why we’re starting here instead of the usual put-in 22 miles downstream, involving a seven-mile float in on Prairie Creek. It’s salmon and blueberry season, meaning there are bears every place you dip your oars.
My thoughts continue to wander. When will the others get here? Unlike Thoreau, who regularly walked to Concord, Mass., for his civilization fix, I’m 70 miles from the nearest town—if that’s what you can call Talkeetna, a no-stoplight metropolis of 800 that inspired TV’s Northern Exposure.

Even Thoreau might have found this a bit of an overdose. As scholars note, despite his granola-eating reputation, he neither rejected civilization nor fully embraced wilderness, instead seeking a middle ground. On this his detractors pounced. “Let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar,” wrote author Richard Zacks. Robert Louis Stevenson threw his own barbs as well. “There is apt to be something unmanly…in a life that does not move with dash and freedom” he penned.

That won’t be my case here. I’ll be dashing and darting plenty. Downstream is a 14-mile-long Class III-IV wilderness canyon, billed as the most consistent whitewater in the state. The action starts with Entrance Exam, then Class IV Toilet Bowl, which a friend once ran after a glacial dam broke, bringing the water up 30,000 cfs overnight. I’ll be paddling it in a Pyranha Sub-6, the only boat we could fit inside the plane and one the lanky naturalist could never even shoehorn into.

An eagle soars overhead, circling for salmon, briefly eclipsing the only cloud in the sky. I contemplate taking my clothes off — to strip myself down to my own bare existence — just because I can. My pile pants, watch, sunglasses, t-shirt and sandals don’t seem to belong. Not that I’m curious about what lay beneath, but I wonder if Thoreau ever did the same.

I shield the sun with my hand and scan the surrounding peaks. I take in all life, from the flies and plants at my feet to the alder saplings aspiring their way up the hillsides, the spruce above them, and the tundra-clad slopes higher still. I stroll downstream, finding more prints of moose, caribou and bear.
Despite his cabin-bound musings, Thoreau had chores to attend to, and so do I. I examine the braid closest to the landing strip to see if leads to the main river, or if we’re better shuttling gear to the main stem. As Thoreau did with his book, I want to make it look like I did something productive while I was here, rather than just spacing out on the wilderness

It’s too late. The drone of Doug’s plane pierces the silence with payload number two. Soon we put on and make our way downstream, each stroke taking us closer to civilization.

Do I ever find my inner Thoreau? Is four days enough to placate one’s civilization-saturated soul? It’s hard to say. I like to think that at trip’s end my stubble will be better than his neck-beard, which Louisa May Alcott told Ralph Waldo Emerson, “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances.” And while Nature Boy maintained that he would “fain keep sober always,” we enjoy a keg of Alaskan Smokey Porter the whole way down.

But Thoreau, who died in 1862 at age 44 from bronchitis, also remarked, “Who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”

Like his final days, I, too, battle a cough the entire trip, the result of the “civilized” confines of a trade show. But while cold medicines did little to help it in the city, the wilderness proves a far more effective tonic.

We hit the canyon on day three, and I find myself as close as I’ll ever come to the naturalist’s beliefs. Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing.” As I head into Entrance Exam I morph them to more modern times. “Now comes good surfing,” I say to myself, rounding the unknown corner.