Stampede Trail is a long and soggy old mining road in Denali National Park, Alaska. Since the mines shut down decades ago, the road has been used as an access point to the back country for hunters in Alaska’s brutal and breathtaking wilderness. The trail has gained renown as the end of the road for a vagabond named Chris McCandless made popular by the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild and more recently, a movie by the same name. The trail’s main obstacle is the crossing of the Teklanika River.
When my son, Clinton, was in his late teens I gave him the book after reading it myself and it touched his life in ways that certain books scratch adolescent angst. After his graduation I decided to take Clinton on a pilgrimage of sorts to the end of the trail where McCandless died in an old abandoned bus he had used as a shelter. I wanted to build a bridge with my son upon which we could always stand no matter how wide the expanse between a father and a son might be.
In late August we made camp a couple miles up the trail beside a stream that wound through the muskeg, dwarfed spruce and heather that stretches as far as you can see in any direction. The trees don’t grow very tall in the arctic tundra due to the permafrost just a few inches beneath the soft black soil. They stand here and there like lonely sentinels undecided about community-standoffish.
Darkness did not arrive until around midnight in this far northern landscape and then retreated early the next morning. We ate some hot oatmeal and very black coffee. Clinton enjoys black and bold coffee as much as I do. We slung backpacks over our shoulders and set out with a topographical map in hand and bear spray holstered to our shoulder straps in deep anticipation of exploring the Alaskan bush.
The land is flat and wet with McKinley several hundred miles south of where we were. Mount McKinley, or Denali, is the highest mountain peak in North America and the United States, with a summit elevation of 20,320 feet above sea level. After an hour hike we moved into some trees-spruce and alders. The alders were starting to turn golden like the fall colors that would come in October in the lower forty-eight. It was a beautiful and cold day; a good day to be in the wild with my son.
Two hours into our hike we came across the first river to ford. We stripped down to our underwear and unbuckled the hip belts on our packs to cross the fast moving water that was glacier cold, gray and swirled like thin cement around our thighs. Words are sparse while in the wilderness with Clint. I like it that way.
A few more hours of walking and we came to the river that had doomed the fate of the young hiker a decade earlier. We decided to pick our way through the brush and willows to the sandy river bottom to scout a possible shallow in which to cross the Teklanika River. In the soft sand of the river bottom we saw the prints of a grizzly bear. I looked at Clint and we both put our hands on our holstered bear spray, mindlessly checking to see if they were still strapped tightly.
“Wow,” I said. “Look at the size of that print!”
“I think you could fit your boot inside that print, Dad” Clint said.
Our eyes widened as we looked at each other and simultaneous grins broke out on our bearded faces. We knew we were in wild country. We had known it before we saw the bear tracks, but now it was a hair-raising knowledge. We walked back through the brush to explore other crossing possibilities. This time I shouted every ten steps, “It’s just us, bear! Coming through, bear. Hey, bear!”
As much as we looked up and down the river, we couldn’t find any place that felt safe enough to cross toward our destination of the bus. Three of the five braids of the river were shallow enough, but then in that forth braid, the water would hit our waist about thirty yards out and the pressure on my legs made me feel too insecure to continue. I really wanted to cross the river and make it to that bus for my son. But the conditions were too dangerous. What kept McCandless in, was keeping us out: a swollen river.
We made camp and explored up and down the river. Clinton found a baby arctic owl walking on the river bed. We kept seeing bear prints in the sand. But it seemed as if all other animals and birds felt the harsh winter coming and had abandoned the land.
After supper Clinton took our pans to the river to wash, using the sand to scrub them clean. I followed him at a distance wanting to get some candid video in the wild of this almost sacred place for him. Looking through the view finder I saw him stand and face across the river towards the direction of where the bus might be. His lips moved as if he were talking to someone. He pointed and said something else inaudible. I felt like a voyeur. Turning his head he saw me videoing and quickly picked up the pans.
The next morning we were packed up getting ready to hike back out when we heard an engine noise coming our way. It was two hunters on ATVs. They stopped and we visited with these two native Alaskans decked out in their camouflage clothing. They were scouting for moose because the season was just a few weeks away. We said we hadn’t seen any moose tracks, but we had seen some bear tracks. They noticed our bear spray and commented that it was good we had brought those. I said casually that our friend who dropped us off on the highway offered the use of his Springfield 1911 .45 caliber handgun. But I had declined.
One of the guys said, “Yeah, when you bring a hand gun back here, always make sure that you file down the front site of the gun.”
“Really?” I said. Clinton and I were leaning forward, trying to figure out the logic of filing down the front site when he said with a serious look, “Yeah, make sure you file that down because it doesn’t hurt nearly as much when the bear takes it away from you and then shoves it up your ass.”
We laughed because we had been suckered into the joke.
The hunters told us that the film crew of the movie Into the Wild was being choppered into the bus site all week. We bid our farewells and began to hike out.
With every step out to the trail head, Clinton and I talked more and more. The conversation spanned our favorite moment of the last couple of days, our favorite bands, books and movies. We talked about his future, his plans and what was most important to him. Towards the end of the day our conversation turned to matters of faith. Clinton struggles with Church. He finds the culture of church to feel contrived and artificial. I allowed that often it does.
I probed about his journey with Jesus. He said he wasn’t sure where he stood with God. I hid how that pained my pastor’s heart that this son of mine would be turned off by the very institution to which I had given most all of my life. It hurt deeply. Still does.
With soggy boots and sore hips we stopped at a little rise where the trail sneaks out of the wooded plains and the valley of heather and tundra grass stretched for miles, dotted with those lonesome trees standing vigil. I knew I might never again get this moment in this place with this person I loved so much. I told him how much I loved him and that I wanted him to love the Jesus I know and love. I turned to Clinton and told him what I hope he always remembers: “It isn’t about Church, Clinton. It is about Jesus. Find Jesus and find a group of followers of Jesus and gather with them to worship Him, learn from Him and serve this world. If you do that you will find that He is right beside you.”
I paused to let the silence of the wilderness push the words deep into his fallowed soul. He nodded. I had no idea what the nod meant. He never said.
We had gone on this journey to cross a swollen river and find a bus where a young man died. We came home having built a bridge in the wild. Not to a bus or over a river, but from one heart to another.
Upon this bridge we still stand.
He has shown you , O man,what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8