Outdoors/Adventure

Somewhere on Johnson Pass, a free lunch awaits

The day I lost my sandwich started before sunrise. We woke up on the shore of a mountain lake in Johnson Pass. It was either Bench Lake or Johnson Lake. I cannot attest to which lake it was because that would require taking sides in an argument.

Like other pairs of mountain lakes, one has rainbow trout and one has grayling, as though the fish worked out an agreement the people who make maps and tell fish lies cannot.

But this is not a story about cartography or how to craft an appropriate fish lie. It is a story about mountain horses, sub-alpine flowers and a sandwich I never got to eat.

My usual preference is to skip a morning meal. I was content to drink coffee while fog lifted from the lake and the half-moon rose over the mountains before the last member of our party woke up.

He checked on the horses first, then made a hearty breakfast. It was a cowboy breakfast of mountain men. I watched in awe as he dropped a pound of bacon into a skillet. Next, a medley of chopped vegetables — sauteed and spiced onions, bell peppers, mushrooms. While the bacon warmed at the edge of the fire, English muffins toasted and eggs that had survived 10 miles on horseback were cracked open over the vegetables.

"There's just three of us," I whispered to Steve, who never ate more than a half order of breakfast.

Just as I was marveling at how much food and cast-iron cookware had traveled up a mountain, out came fruit like the pies on Thanksgiving — peaches, a carton of blueberries, a jar of strawberry jam.

ADVERTISEMENT

When I knew there was no way out of breakfast, Joey, the one doing all the cooking, extended a kitchen tong of sizzling bacon. There may or may not be a cowboy field guide to mountain manners that dictates you must accept meat offered over a campfire. And if you do skip breakfast, all unused food must be made into sandwiches for later.

My ill-fated sandwich had all the earmarks of culinary genius — strawberry jam with fresh blueberries on a pan-toasted English muffin. I tucked it away in my lunch bag for later. It was going to be a long trail ride.

As a beginner horsewoman, the ride into camp had taken its toll on my knees. Every moment out of the saddle was a joyous occasion — not just for a chance to explore on foot, but to delight in the fact that my legs still worked.

As we rode, the light scent of the sub-alpine flowers mixed with the earthy aroma of the horses and filled me with an appreciation of the old ways. Horseback riding and caring for the horses was hard work, but it was work that came with a reward.

The Johnson Lake trail appeared like a botanical garden gone wild. The trail was obscured by wild roses and geranium, more columbine than I have ever seen, and a chest-high tangle of devil's club, goatsbeard, cow parsnip and yarrow. I had ridden it part-way once on a bike and knew that if I ever hiked it in July, I would need a rain suit and a machete.

From the height of horses, the display of wildflowers made the pain of a total beginner on a long ride well worth it. I winced as my horse, Crockett, trotted to catch up to Crescent Moon. While I rode, Crockett shopped for groceries, particularly watermelon berry.

I had empathy for Crockett's interest in food. I couldn't stop thinking about my berry sandwich tucked away in the saddle bag. The sun was out, turning it into a blueberry-strawberry marinade. The muffin might be soggy, perhaps a bit like leftover strawberry shortcake. It would be the perfect midday snack.

When we stopped an hour later, I found Crockett a pasture of geranium to munch and searched for my lunch bag. It was not where I thought it was. It was not anywhere.

"Hey!" I called out in a panic to my two companions, who, having had a big breakfast and no sandwich-fixated thoughts, were not as focused on food. "Have you seen my lunch bag?!"

They had not seen my lunch bag and did not seem to understand the seriousness of my search. I emptied my saddle bags and frantically shook out my rain gear. A lunch bag did not shake out of anything.

"Where could it be?"

No one seemed to know.

"Do you want a Spam sandwich?" Steve asked, casually.

I've never wanted a Spam sandwich in my life.

"I don't think you understand," I said. "I am suffering real grief here. My lunch bag is gone. I can't find it anywhere. I think I lost it forever."

They both looked at me as though I could not be serious.

"I think you are going to be OK," Steve said. "You did not lose a child."

ADVERTISEMENT

If I thought there was ample food at breakfast, Joey unpacked just as many provisions for lunch. "Was there something important in your lunch bag?" he asked as he ate a chip.

"The sandwich!" I said. "The sandwich was important."

Deep down, I knew that they were not intentionally trying to minimize my loss.

Steve looked around, and I thought he was looking for my lunch bag, but he said, "Sure seems like there aren't as many birds around as usual."

No one said anything as we all looked around.

"Do you think," I said, "if anyone finds my sandwich, they will be able to get it back to me in time?"

Silence. After a few minutes, I ate a handful of chips as consolation. I was going to get through this, but the grief was real.

From the periphery of my own loud thoughts, I heard Joey say, "The water sure is high in the creek."

ADVERTISEMENT

"I don't think," I said, "that if someone finds another person's sandwich that they would eat it. I mean, you wouldn't eat a found sandwich, would you?"

My companions both looked at me with wide eyes. The verdict was clear — I had lost my mind along with my sandwich. I laughed to ease the tension. I was only kidding. Ha ha.

But seriously, if you are reading this and found a blueberry-infused English muffin in Johnson Pass, I would still like it back.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter. She writes about Alaska hunting and fishing. Contact her at cunningham@yogaforduckhunters.com.

Sponsored