Marnie and I had spent months choosing the ideal location to celebrate such a momentous occasion. Uninhabited, dramatic, and larger than Switzerland, the backcountry of Alaska's rugged Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park seemed the perfect choice to meet the goals for my 40th birthday: 1) to celebrate by ourselves; 2) get breathtaking photos; and 3) not get eaten by a grizzly bear. Unknown to her, I had one other goal, to get engaged.
For as long as we had been planning a trip for my 40th birthday, I had been secretly planning the proposal.
Where would I propose?
What would I do and say?
How would I choose a ring?
As for where, whatever scenic location we jointly chose for my 40th would be ideal.
Choosing a ring that fit both her finger and taste presented a formidable challenge. I didn't have much information to go on; she wore no jewelry, save for one unadorned silver ring on her right middle finger. I knew that if I could somehow measure her existing ring, I could use it to approximate her ring size. But how could I secretly measure her ring when she never took it off, even while sleeping and bathing? Wresting it from her finger while she slept seemed unrealistic. If she awakened, I could think of no plausible explanation that wouldn't reveal the surprise. Several months before our trip, we sat on our sofa, holding hands and intertwining fingers as we talked. I nonchalantly played with her ring, taking it off her finger and putting it on mine to size it. I had an approximate ring size, but what about her acutely particular tastes? I doubted that she wanted a second plain silver ring. One day she shocked me by wearing a diamond band that had belonged to her grandmother. I casually inquired about it and she remarked that she liked the design–bingo!
I decided to begin my quest for the perfect ring in local jewelry stores. I walked into the first shop with an abundance of enthusiasm and confidence. Spying a likely candidate for the ring, I asked the congenial owner to show me it.
Congenial owner: "What's her ring size?"
Me: "Well, I don't know exactly, but I know it's smaller than my little pinkie."
Perplexed owner: "Have you been shopping for rings together?"
Me: "Well, no. I want the engagement to be a surprise."
Concerned owner: "She'll be wearing the ring for the rest of her life. I suggest that you shop for a ring together to choose one that you know she'll like."
Me: "I think I know her taste."
Doubting owner: "Have you discussed marriage?"
Incredulous owner: "How do you know what her response to your proposal will be?"
I looked at him oddly.
Me: "That's a chance I'm willing to take."
My response didn't win his confidence; he seemed disinclined to sell me the ring. I felt disinclined to invite him to the wedding. I politely thanked him for his time. In another store, a jeweler had no qualms about selling me a ring that was too big but could be resized and was otherwise ideal. So what if he had been married three times?
I had the ring and the location for the engagement, but I still hadn't worked out the specifics as we stood in the airport security line in Oakland for our flight to Alaska. Knowing that Marnie was fond of luminaria (a candle inside of a paper bag), I had packed several paper bags and tea candles into my checked backpack, hoping to boost my odds for a successful response to my proposal. I nervously laid my daypack on the conveyor belt for the carryon security check and took a deep breath as it entered the scanner. I had feared this very moment for over a month. My daypack contained the engagement ring, inside an unmistakable box, along with an excess of photography gear that included many cables and electronic gadgets. Historically, airport security frequently asked me to empty the entire contents of my daypack so that they could manually inspect everything. With Marnie standing by my side, she would be assured of seeing the ring. I would have no choice but to propose to her there in the airport security line, if they requested a manual inspection of my bag. Following Marnie, I walked through the metal detector in my socks and awaited the arrival of my bag at the end of the conveyor. I could see it emerging from the tunnel, as did the foreboding inspector who loomed opposite me. I could tell by her smug grimace that she had every sardonic intention of ruining my surprise. I hastily composed my engagement proposal; given the circumstances, it needed to be succinct. My bag emerged and slid down the ramp. My nemesis seemed poise to make a move for it, but she was too late. Proposal Plan "A" remained in effect.
A 10-foot Kodiak bear stood on its hind legs, welcoming us to the Anchorage airport. A sign beneath it read that it had been "harvested" in 1997. "Harvested?" In the Lower 48, I had somehow always associated harvesting with non-carnivorous produce. I nervously envisioned us hiking in Wrangell-Saint Elias through fields of bears standing like rows of corn.
On the shortest night of the year we drove through a steady drizzle towards our hotel. Later that morning, we awoke to rain and a forecast of the same for the week. Luminaria wouldn't work too well in the rain, foiling Plan "A." I hoped for a break in the weather.
Precautionary bear safety necessitated a trip to REI for bear bells and an oversized canister of grizzly-strength pepper spray. In theory, the noisy bear bells scared off bears, but I questioned this strategy. What wild animals, potential prey, intentionally announced their presence to bears? I decided to let Marnie wear them. So, despite attracting bears, we would be armed with bear spray and an 800mm telephoto lens for my camera. I devised what I thought was a rather brilliant team strategy. Marnie would be responsible for fending off any attacking grizzly with the pepper spray and I would be responsible for taking the photos. While this delegation of duties seemed natural, given my greater familiarity with my camera equipment, Marnie failed to see this wisdom.
Under overcast skies, we departed downtown Anchorage driving southeast towards Wrangell-Saint Elias, shortly exchanging buildings for conifers, birch, aspen, and meandering rivers flowing from turquoise glaciers. Signs for scenic overlooks outnumbered posted speed limits on the wide-open highway, which suited Marnie just fine as she casually cruised at 80 mph.
Despite intermittent rain, we made it to the park entrance in 4 hours, stopping atop a dramatic overlook above an expansive slate-gray river that emerged from a distant snow-capped peak to cleave rolling pine forests spread before us. With no entrance station or fees, we continued into the national park, where the paved highway downgraded to a gravel road for the remaining 60 miles to its terminus at McCarthy. Our rental 2WD Grand Prix handled admirably (i.e., the axle didn't break), considering that I usually braked too late to avoid bottoming out on unexpected potholes. An occasional old pick-up truck would pass us headed the other direction. These likely belonged to the handful of private residents that lived within the park along the road. Alaskan's weren't much for show. Most of these trucks were driven to their death, at which point they were apparently considered lawn ornaments, along with rusting refrigerators and other miscellaneous appliances.
We continued through forests and meadows with mirrored ponds reflecting glaciated peaks and heavy clouds. Only the cars belonging to McCarthy's 6 year-round residents could be driven into town; we parked a mile away and walked the footbridge over the Kennicott River to the town's only street and bar. Free-spirited summer residents Steve and Rachel entertained us with travel stories over drinks. Leaving at some unknown twilight hour, we hoped to get a good night's sleep to fend off bears the next 3 days in the backcountry. Apparently, the boisterous people partying in the room next to us weren't aware that it was the middle of the night–perhaps because it was still light. I decided to let them know the hour. Expecting to find drunken twenty-somethings, I knocked on their door to be confronted by two middle-aged Swedes who stared at me absently.
After eating breakfast at the town's only restaurant, we walked to the charter plane office–a small affair operated by a couple. We had already paid a deposit of half the fare for the roundtrip flight to Skolai Lake, an uninhabited alpine region covered by snow 9 months of the year. We were to be the first backpackers dropped off this season. We arranged for a pick-up time 3 days later at the same location, subject to weather vagaries permitting flying. Without communication, we would have no way of knowing whether the weather back in McCarthy cooperated. We were simply instructed that if the pilot did not arrive within 30 minutes of the appointed time, we were to return the next day at the same time. My understanding is that we were to repeat this pattern each day until we either: 1) starved to death; 2) were eaten by bears; or 3) hiked some 30 miles over mountains and glaciers back to town
if we could find it. Surprisingly, or not, we were expected to pay the remainder of the roundtrip fare before our departure. I questioned what incentive these payment terms gave the pilot to come and retrieve us; I suggested that we pay the remaining balance upon our return, but only received a laugh in response. At least I wouldn't have to pay my credit card bill if we didn't make it back.
Marnie crawled into the backseat of the well worn1953 Cessna; I jumped into the front and Gary, our pilot, untied a piece of string fashioned to keep the door open where there had once been a latch. Not surprisingly, all of the gauges were analog. It didn't take us long to realize why Gary wore ear plugs. The plane rattled noisily down the runway. Marnie smiled at me from her cramped backseat. The engine loudly whined as we were airborne and I began rapidly firing photos.
The weather had cooperated for photography
and would hopefully do so for the proposal. Swaths of blue colored a sky harboring low-flying clouds that swarmed around jagged snow-capped mountain peaks. We climbed over steep green mountains laced with snowy crevasses and then dropped into a glacier filled valley dotted with sapphire blue lakes. The enormity of the landscape was staggering; mile-wide glaciers twisted through mountainous valleys like multi-lane superhighways that stretched to the horizon. Only the shadows of clouds traveled along these routes. We could see no sign of civilization–no buildings, no roads, no trails.
Flying low under a continuous cloud blanket, we navigated up another valley and began a short descent between glaciated peaks towards an alluvial valley crisscrossed by threads of a meandering river that terminated in a small lake abutting a massive glacier. Our destination appeared to be a strip of dirt on the tundra-a crude runway marked by a single stake from which a red strip of cloth fluttered violently in the wind. With a few bounces, we landed safely. Somewhere in our journey, the sun had disappeared and the temperature had dropped sharply. The howling wind filled the plane with cold air as soon as Gary opened the door.
Gary pointed out some landmarks, Skolai Lake and glaciers on both ends of the valley. He motioned in the general direction of one of the mountains and informed us that it was Chitistone Pass. Landmarks didn't seem particularly useful; we stood in an open valley, mostly barren of trees, fenced in by mountains and glaciers. Without much fanfare, we grabbed our backpacks and bid Gary farewell.
The cold wind sliced through our clothes and we hastily rummaged through our backpacks to put on whatever warm clothes we could find, pausing only to watch the plane take off. Exactly as planned, we stood alone in a stunning landscape
a cold, windy, stunning landscape that would be our home for the next three days
if he returned. The plane vanished in the clouds. "Wait, come back!"
Bundled in clothes, we sought a campsite offering shelter from the wind. Wary of bears, Marnie exaggeratedly jingled her bells and I brandished the pepper spray, watchfully whipping my head from side-to-side as we bushwhacked through dense willows a bit taller than us. We emerged from the thicket and navigated around open spongy wet tundra to find ourselves at the juncture of a small canyon that afforded a view of the valley and shelter from the wind. A picturesque and practical brook sealed the deal. We had found our new home.
We were off to an auspicious start. Our tent had been erected on prime real estate and, although still early in the day, we hadn't yet been eaten by bears. We were on a roll and aimed to hike to the glacier at the eastern end of the valley, which appeared to be about 2 miles away. Without the burden of our backpacks, we confidently estimated that we'd be there in about an hour and cheerfully set out marching with our bear bells and spray. Two hours later, the glacier still appeared to be about 2 miles away. Another two hours later, the glacier still appeared to be about 2 miles away. The only indication we were any closer was that our campsite canyon had shrunk to a small slit at the far end of the valley. We turned back. At least we hadn't encountered any bears. Our limited wildlife encounters weren't quite as threatening–only ptarmigans and a skittish caribou, neither of which warranted grizzly-strength pepper spray.
Eight hours after we had set out, we returned to camp. Rain had threatened but luckily never manifested. At 9:30, the slowly setting sun had snuck beneath the clouds to bathe the entire valley in magical light. At the eastern end of the spectacle, glaciated mountains glowed iridescent gold. The extended show continued throughout dinner and we would have stayed for the conclusion, but the plummeting temperature drove us into our tent.
My plan had been to sneak out of the tent while Marnie slept so that I could arrange and light the luminaria around a blanket and two wine glasses under a starry sky. I would then gently awaken Marnie and bring her outside
perhaps a shooting star would streak across the Milky Way. Enchanted by the inviting atmosphere, she would no doubt say yes to my proposal. We'd then lie on our backs, gaze at the stars, sip wine, and discuss our future. In retrospect, I'll concede that my carefully constructed plan had some minor shortcomings.
Despite technically being the middle of the night, daylight persisted; the candles wouldn't have been visible. If left outside, the wine would have frozen, as the temperature had dropped below freezing hours before. Regardless, given the temperature, I had no chance of getting Marnie to leave the warmth of her sleeping bag. I would have to switch to Plan "B"... once I developed it.
Given the previous night's subfreezing temperature, we awoke to a surprisingly balmy 58 degrees. Amidst picturesque clouds, the morning sun shined warmly. While rain had imminently threatened the entire previous day, the weather now appeared favorable for at least a few hours. Given its unpredictability, I decided that I would need to propose soon, but I wanted to do so from a scenic spot. After breakfast, I hid the ring, wine, and blanket in my daypack and we set out hiking up in the canyon in search of Chitistone Lake. With jingling bells, we casually ascended a grassy sloped mountain, gradually working our way high above Skolai Valley. We could find no sign of Chitistone Lake or a pass to it, but the panoramic views of the valley became more spectacular with every step. We had no choice but to sing, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." Eventually, we found ourselves just below the snowline, overlooking the entire expanse of valley. This was the place.
I hadn't rehearsed a speech, but I felt optimistic about my chance of success. If she refused, where could she go? She invited me to stand next to her and enjoy the view. I obliged and asked her to join me sitting as I spread out the blanket for us. We sat peacefully in silence for a minute as I pondered my next move. I pulled her in front of me and put my arms around her as we both faced the majestic view. Before I proposed, I wanted to ensure that she was enjoying the moment.
"Are you warm?"
"Are you comfortable?"
I decided a lengthy speech wasn't needed. "I have just one more question to ask
" I reached into my pocket, pulled out the ring box, tried to figure out which side was the top, and luckily opened it right-side-up. "Will you marry me?" With barely a glance at the ring, she turned, embraced, and kissed me
and kept kissing
and kept kissing. While I was optimistic that she would likely accept my offer, I hadn't yet heard a response. At last, Marnie squeezed out a nearly speechless but joyful, "Yes." More kisses ensued, followed by an unequivocal, "Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!" We celebrated with wine and a photo.
We spent the rest of the day searching for the elusive pass to Chitistone Lake. While we were unsuccessful in our quest for the lake, we had cause to celebrate; we still had not been eaten by a bear. Thus far, all of our goals had been achieved.
We awoke to rain, wondering whether this would prevent Gary from flying to pick us up. Once again, equipped with bear bells and spray, we set out in search of Chitistone Lake; by process of elimination, we had finally determined its location. In intermittent rain, we labored to climb a steep mountain, carefully navigating passages between sheer rock cliffs. We memorized our steps so that on our return we wouldn't inadvertently descend to a precipice. Thousands of feet above the valley, we approached the summit, over which lay the legendary lake. The wind and rain had both intensified throughout the day. I looked at my watch. If we were to press onward to the lake, we would miss our 3:00 pick-up
assuming the plane would fly in this weather. We turned back, arriving at the landing strip shortly before 3:00.
The wind had gained even more momentum. The rain continued. We had no desire to spend another day in this weather. At 3:00, there was no sign of the plane. It looked like we'd have to fend off the bears for another day. At 3:02 we heard its engine. "We're saved!"
Back in McCarthy, we ran into Steve and Rachel and shared the news of our engagement. After celebrating at the bar, they drove us to the B&B they managed in the neighboring town of Kennicott, sight of a historic abandoned copper mine. After dethawing with a hot shower, we ate dinner by the warmth of the woodstove. Revitalized and unencumbered, we walked a short distance to a nearby bar, glad to be relieved of carrying our camping gear. Returning to our cottage, without benefit of bear bells or bear spray, we nearly walked into a bear on the road just 10 yards from us. Marnie and I froze, oblivious to a prime opportunity for a photo. Unconcerned by our presence (I couldn't say the same for us), the bear ambled into the woods nearby the cottage's outhouse. Neither Marnie nor I felt inclined to heed the call of nature the remainder of the night.
I wanted bear photos for my 40th birthday and Marnie was willing to indulge me. We changed our plans and decided to drive several hundred miles from Kennicott to Denali National Park. Rather than driving a circuitous route from Wrangell Saint-Elias all the way back to Anchorage and then north to Denali, we found a more direct route that would shorten our trip by more than 100 miles– Highway 8, clearly depicted on our rental map by a bold red line.
At the junction of Highway 8, we stopped for lunch at small restaurant that doubled as a convenience store. We had been holding out hope for a real restaurant for over an hour, but the few establishments we had passed were mostly motels and taxidermists. Considering the alternatives, this seemed our best choice. Underneath harsh fluorescent lighting, we seated ourselves at one of the plastic tables next to the refrigerated glass case, sparsely stocked with ham sandwiches, deviled eggs, and sodas. A lady at the cash register was either just ignoring us, or actively hiding behind a rack of postcards. An elk head on the wall frowned down upon us. At a nearby table, a woman I guessed to be our waitress sat and talked with another employee. At the moment, she seemed as likely to serve us as the elk. Two of her barefoot children ran into the dining/shopping area from the kitchen, one crying. Apparently, the whole family worked and lived here. After scolding both kids, the probable waitress reluctantly stood up and dragged herself over to our table. Clearly annoyed by our imposition, she asked us what we wanted to order. "Could we please have some menus?" She returned a long while later. I looked up at her from the menu. "Are your 'Freedom fries' the same as regular French
fries?" With no expression whatsoever, she responded, "Yes."
"So those are just regular French fries?"
"There's no difference?"
I resisted the temptation to ask her why the menu hadn't simply listed them as French fries.
We started down Highway 8 at 75 mph, driving past treeless but verdant gently rolling hills shrouded by mist. It would have reminded me of Scotland, if I had ever been there. At our speed, I calculated that we would make the 140 mile trip in less than 2 hours; however, 20 miles down the highway, without any warning, the pavement became dirt. I hit the brakes hard and we practically skidded off the "highway." I turned to Marnie. "Did we miss a turn?"
"No, I don't think so."
Neither of us had seen any turns. We decided to push on and after 30 minutes of potholes and skidding, we still hadn't passed any road signs. I hated to turn back, but we had no idea where we were headed. Besides, our 2WD Grand Prix with 4-inches of clearance wasn't exactly suited for this road, which seemed to be getting hillier. Without any visible sun, we couldn't tell which direction we were heading, if not a dead end. At that moment we passed a parked state vehicle. We asked the driver what route number we were on. "I don't know the number, but this is the Old Denali Highway." Some five hours later, the Old Denali Highway spit us out its western end, under the shadow of mountains outside of Denali. It wasn't until we pulled into the park that we realized we had a flat tire.
Despite having spent most of day in the car, Marnie–bless her heart–once again indulged my obsession and we made reservations for an 11-hour roundtrip bus ride into the park the next day, my 40th birthday. The birthday agenda did not include a leisurely morning of lounging in bed. We awoke at 5:15 and dismantled our tent in a light rain, tired but energized to bravely confront bears from the safety of a bus. Our talkative driver informed his passengers that we were in search of the "Big 5:" moose, bear, wolf, dall sheep, and elk. "Bring them on!"
With 20 pairs of eyes eagerly scanning the horizon for wildlife, the old school bus slowly navigated the winding narrow dirt road into the park. This treacherous 84-mile route provided the only vehicular access into the park's interior, which was limited to the buses that seemed too large to negotiate the cliff-hugging hairpin turns. As we did so, I peered out my window for reassurance, vainly trying to see the strip of ground to which we precariously clung. The nearest ground appeared to be the valley floor several hundred feet below. Rather than face this reality, several passengers had moved to the opposite side of the bus to stare at the side of the mountain within arm's reach.
We passed through coniferous forests and over shallow creeks, overlooked wide grassy valleys, and entered a canyon where we spotted our first wildlife. An eagle perched on a boulder systematically eviscerated a fox. An opportunistic magpie snatched one end of an intestine and stretched it to 8 feet, safely out of reach of the eagle. Shortly later, we passed high above a rocky creek bed, where a large grizzly lazily dined on the carcass of an elk.
Despite the rain, the swollen low-hanging clouds, vibrant green valley, and snow-patched earthen-hued mountains comprised a photogenic landscape. Marnie and I asked the driver to let us out, which was permitted as long as no wildlife was within sight. Ill-tempered ptarmigans or ground squirrels didn't concern us too much. With no bears in sight, we began hiking along the road, armed with cameras and bear spray. We encountered no bears, but we did survive a close encounter with a ptarmigan–and we have the photo to prove it. A couple of buses later, we photographed a bear and a proudly posed dall sheep. Satisfied with our bounty of wildlife photos, we jumped off at Polychrome Pass to witness shafts of sunlight dancing on the colorful mountains, alternately highlighting yellow and orange hues. Unfortunately, the park's namesake mountain never showed herself. Our final bus of the day had stopped for some unknown reason. Over the loudspeaker, the driver announced, "We are celebrating Rob's 40th birthday. Everyone join me in singing happy birthday."
Driving south from the park towards Anchorage, we shared the news of our engagement with my parents. Sunny skies prevailed with life-sized postcard views of regal mountains coronated by cottonball clouds. Our emergency spare tire had in no way slowed our progress, but we reasoned it needed to be changed before returning the rental car. A gas station attendant had directed us to a tire-repair shop.
A handpainted sign in front of a derelict house advertised, "Flat Tires Repaired." Various tools and equipment lay scattered about the small yard. Two men huddled under the open hood of a 1980's vintage Dodge K-car parked in the gravel driveway. The older man sported a tractor cap and flannel shirt underneath grease-stained overalls. The younger man favored ragged blue jeans and a wife beater shirt to show off his plethora of tattoos. Marnie and I weren't necessarily expecting a welcome committee with flower leis and frozen fruit beverages, but these guys didn't even look up as we parked alongside them. I walked over and said, "Hi." No response. Perhaps they hadn't heard me. I walked a bit closer, "Hi!" The younger guy barely glanced at me. The older guy showed no sign of acknowledging me. They both continued focusing on the engine. I walked practically between the two of them and asked them for help. The older guy finally acknowledged me
barely. He fixed our flat and we paid his fee with no more than a dozen words exchanged between us. The other guy had never uttered a word. We doubted that they would share our enthusiasm if we announced our engagement. Similarly, we chose not to share the news of my birthday
a heartfelt rendition of "Happy Birthday" seemed unlikely.
We continued 3 hours to the tiny touristy town of Talkeetna for our final night in Alaska.
After dining on Salmon at a small outdoor restaurant, we walked to the Talkeetna River. Sitting on a log on the sandy beach, we watched the setting sun showcase Denali Mountain.
We hoped we had the correct address. We opened the unlocked door and tiptoed into the room of a private house. The B&B was tacky but clean. A strong smell of polyvinyl chloride added to its character, which suited me just fine. I was grateful to be sharing my 40th birthday with my fiancé. Capping a perfect day, she gave me the perfect birthday gift, a surprise date each month of the year. Having met all of the goals of my 40th birthday trip, I was ready to head back to the Lower 48 the next morning. The planning for Marnie's 40th had begun.
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