When I was 15, as a result of small-time scurrilous conduct, I was inducted into Alaska’s Juvenile Corrections System. I had become a “guest of the governor,” as it was humorously put by many who’d had the same experience.
It was quite an ordeal for a 15-year old who hasn’t a clue about life. Nevertheless, there were blessings in all of it that would take years for me to appreciate. One of those blessings was landing in a group home called “Adventure House.”
In many ways, Adventure House was like many other programs of its type. There were rules and staff members to enforce them by means of a points system. There were consequences for misbehavior and rewards for good behavior. There were counselors who truly sought to help guide the facility’s wayward youths out of the fog.
But the distinguishing feature of the program was the adventure trip. Each resident had to go on at least one trip into the wilderness with staff members and other residents. The director of the program, John Stolpman, was a certified guide. He planned and even went on many of the excursions: hiking, snowshoeing, ice climbing and skiing.
My adventure was a showshoeing trip through the foothills of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains along the Resurrection Trail. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. The scenery was breathtaking. I was changed by the pristine silence and crisp, fragrant air of the wilderness.
After hiking for most of a day we camped along the trail. Winter camping was a brand-new thrill. We pitched our tent at a flat spot on the rise of the foothill. We ate camp food by the fire. It was all great fun until we had to climb out of the sleeping bag the next morning in the subzero air. But warmth soon returned, and while we waited for the staff to give us the green light to continue the hike, we packed up the whole works and entertained ourselves by using the snow shovel as a sled on short stretches of the foothill.
On day two, the trail brought us to Juneau Lake, which in February of 1983 was a large frozen slab with a thick crust of perfectly white snow. There were cabins dotting the Southwest edge, and we stayed there overnight. The staff slept out under the stars in North Face sleeping bags. There was plenty of wood to gather and burn, hot dogs and marshmallows to roast, stories around the wood-burning stove.
On the third day we began the hike back. It was a crystal-clear morning. There was an invigorating nip in the winter air. Oh, to have the body of a 15-year-old again! After having struggled on the first two days of the vigorous hike, I found on day three that I suddenly possessed limitless energy and stamina. My body had adjusted with remarkable speed. We were to make the hike back in a single day. I and my tent mate, Jeff Walker, marvelled at how quickly and tirelessly we were able to move. We walked on the level parts and down the hills at a rapid, four-mile-per-hour clip. We ran up the hills. We made such good time that we got to Juneau Glacier well ahead of the rest of the group and had time to explore.
It was known as Juneau Glacier, but in the middle of winter it looked like little more than a great knot of ice at the point where a small stream of fresh water ran over a jutting precipice. We started down the hill directly toward the glacier. At the bottom of the slope was a roughly circular area about ten feet in diameter where there was no ice cover. There, the flow that ran over the precipice descended into a tumult of ice-cold water at the bottom that flowed in turn underneath the ice and down the subterranean stream.
Jeff and I headed straight for the pool, making our way down the steep, snow-encrusted slope. All of a sudden, about fifteen feet from the pool, I lost my footing and started sliding. I had no snow shoes on, no cramp-ons, no ski poles, not even individual digits on my hands since I was wearing mittens. I was sliding straight towards the roiling water at the bottom of the hill. Surely if I had continued to the bottom, I would have plunged into the pool and been sucked under the ice. But Jeff was directly behind me and, seeing me start to slide, he reached out and grabbed a handful of my coat, stopping me. I still don’t know how he had such a firm footing that he was able to keep both of us from sliding to our deaths, but he did, and disaster was averted.
We straightened up and continued down (much more cautiously now), reaching the bottom safely. I turned to Jeff and addressed him with wide-eyed intensity: “You saved my life.” He gave me the “Aw, shucks, it weren’t nothin” bit, but I’m sure he felt thrilled to have made the ultimate difference for his best friend. I’ll never forget it, and neither, I’m sure, will the staff, who arrived at the trail juncture and spotted the two of us perched on the utter edge of the agitating pool, daring the Grim Reaper to get us. They had some sharp words for us, I can tell you.
Thus ends my Juneau Glacier experience. I think John Stolpman was onto something when he built a whole program around wilderness adventures. Being surrounded by nature establishes perspective. In the city, with all our technology, infrastructure, relentless distractions and surreal forms, we forget where we fall in the scheme of things. Man’s self-important fingerprints are all around us. But being in the wilderness cancels it all out pretty quickly. Nature reminds us that there is an overarching Order of great power, beauty and unending marvels.