It hadn’t occurred to me that I might get shot or ruin a good pair of cowboy boots on the trip. The adventures of youth demand that best-laid plans are not laid at all, thus surprise rules the day.
While trying recently to come up with a plan for Memorial Day that didn’t include fighting crowds at campgrounds, I remembered the Memorial Day weekend of 1973 — a time when three young fellows had enough enthusiasm to carry them past their lack of anticipation.
Newcomers to Alaska, brought by parents seeking a new life in the great land, the three of us shared a love affair with the Alaska outdoors and pursued every opportunity to be out in it that our limited means allowed.
We all had the three-day weekend off from our jobs and decided the 38-mile hike from Hope to Cooper Landing on the Resurrection Pass Trail was the way to spend the holiday. We conned one of our parents into dropping us off (only one of us was old enough to have a driver’s license) at the trailhead in Hope and another into picking us up Monday in Cooper Landing.
Then we starting thinking and figured the trailhead was just outside of town, and we had our escort drop us off in Hope proper. None of us had been there before, and we thought we would look around a bit before starting the hike.
Our packs, nothing more than cheap rucksacks, didn’t weigh much. We had a small tent, a hatchet and some twine, sardines, Spam, soda crackers and not much else. These days I suppose one would call us minimalists. We just didn’t know we needed anything else.
Our clothes and boots were what we had worn to work, jeans and cotton shirts, and we all had down vests and light jackets. Our sleeping bags were the go-to Alaska bag of the time: military surplus “down” bags that were mostly filled with chicken feathers. Once you used one of these you had eternal sympathy for the troops forced to use them and a new respect for any chicken running around outside in the cold.
Turns out, the trailhead wasn’t just outside of town, it was 4 miles outside of town. In the way of boys and men who never outgrow boyhood, we were delighted. Our mere 38-mile hike was now a much more respectable 42-mile hike.
As we walked through the empty parking lot and across the rusted metal bridge that crossed the Resurrection River and marked the start of the trail, we figured we wouldn’t be fighting over camp spots along the trail.
The trail parallels the river for some time, and it was marked with piles of old mining tailings and equipment — relics of the small gold rush that invaded the country in the early 1900s.
Hiking was easy. A gradual, almost imperceptible gain in elevation on the nicely maintained trail led us into the high country through spruce and birch forest.
Around 10:30 p.m., we stopped for a break. The evening was nice, with a high overcast sky that did not threaten rain, and temperatures in the low 40s that made for comfortable hiking.
We weren’t hunting, but we all carried handguns of some sort. Across the trail from where we sat there was a big stump. It appeared to be a victim of a lightning strike; the tree it once was had all but melted into the landscape of cranberries and moss.
Facing us from the stump was a knot set into the side of the gray, weather-hardened relic. It was an inviting target that demanded a contest to see who could center-hit the knot first.
The first shot came from our buddy’s Colt New Service revolver. He hit the knot dead center, and the .45 caliber bullet did a near perfect 180-degree turn and struck my leg just below the knee. The bullet made a small rip in my jeans and cut a divot out of my leg. The result wasn’t serious, we had a good laugh and, in an odd moment of good sense, decided target practice could wait for a better time.
It wasn’t long after our break that we came around a corner and found the trail filled with snow and the landscape quite white. We were trying to get to the edge of the alpine before stopping for the night, and there was nothing to be done anyway, so we pressed on.
An hour later, all of us soaked to the thigh, we made it to the alpine and a blanket of snow that stretched to the horizon. We decided to keep going and put some of the snow behind us before camping. By around midnight, the wind picked up, blowing wet snow.
It seemed a good idea to crawl into the tent and wait out the snow. The struggle to get into a mummy bag with my boots on (I feared if I took them off, I wouldn’t get them back on) warmed me up, even if the bag didn’t.
The wind whipped the nylon tent, denying sleep. When it died and the snow stopped falling a few hours later, we broke camp and headed south.
We figured we were 5 or 6 miles from a Forest Service cabin at Devil’s Creek, where we could get warm, dry out a bit and make for the next camp.
Fighting our way through the deep snow had us about out of gas when we reached the vacant A-frame cabin. A nice stack of split firewood had the woodstove roaring and us asleep in no time.
A few hours of sleep and some sardines and crackers found us in good spirits, ready to plow snow for another 3 miles, where the trail would drop out of the snowline.
The trail had turned to mud when we began a steep descent to Swan Lake, when I found myself face down in the trail and my buddies laughing. A sole on one of my well-worn cowboy boots had had enough and tore loose, tripping me into the mud.
A big campfire and a good night’s sleep carried us to the end of the trail in relative comfort, my flopping boot sole adding a comedic break in the long walk.
Christine, my personal hall monitor, suggested that some might see us as heathens, boys running wild with guns and ill-prepared for our adventure. I suppose some, bent on finding something to criticize, might view it that way. I like to think that some will identify with young folks having an opportunity to learn, from the ground up, and to let the chips fall.
Whatever people would like to call us, what I remember most about that trip was that we never stopped having fun, we never considered turning back, and we were blessed to have parents that allowed us to celebrate our lust for the country.
Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter.