Hiking Below Sea Level

It was weird to be home.  Weird to wake up in a bed every day, in a room that belonged to me, surrounded by my old possessions and childhood memories.  Overwhelming to be confronted with so many decisions, what to eat, what to wear, what to do with my time, when the options are endless and decisions no longer based on necessity.  I found myself continuing to live out of the shoulder bag that I had carried during my last week in India, automatically resorting back to that simplicity and habit, subconsciously unprepared to transition back to what I call, for serious lack of a better term, “real life”.  (“The Frontcountry” is perhaps more accurate?) It was several days before I stopped re-wearing the one and only t-shirt I’d had in India when venturing outside to run or hike, before finally realizing that the last time I had washed it was by hand, with Dr. Bronner’s, in a budget hotel room in Jaipur.  With my old cell phone stranded in Delhi, I became the hesitant, skeptical new owner of a secondhand iPhone, bewildered by its millions of functions, startled and embarrassed to find myself actually impressed by its convenience.  A few short weeks ago I was melting snow for water on a Himalayan glacier, and now here I am, suddenly one of “those people”, downloading apps and checking my email in the palm of my hand.  What just happened here?

Clearly, after five days in first-world civilization it was time to get back into the wilderness, and a nostalgic backpacking weekend was planned.  Nic, one of my best friends from high school, picked me up after his restaurant shift at 1 AM, and we set off towards Seward, blasting our favorite bands from high school, reminiscing.  The mountains along Cook Inlet stood capped with snow, reflected in the nighttime calm of the sea, the sky deep shades of periwinkle in the summer night.  Around 3 we rolled up to the shore of some pristine glacial lake, tossed our sleeping bags directly onto the beach, and slept soundly among the driftwood through the early hours of the morning.

View of the beach in the morning.  Notice the rainclouds.

  True to everything typical Alaskan that I could have expected, we awoke to rain, and hurried to pack our sleeping bags into the car.  We reached Seward in no time, and hit the trail after a classic breakfast of pastries and coffee at Safeway (a Seward tradition ever since we ate the same thing prior to climbing Mt. Marathon in the summer of 2008).  Despite the rain, the air was comfortable and cool, the seaside forest featuring giant, healthy trees covered in every variety of lush green moss imaginable.  Rivers and lagoons stood perfectly clear, still like glass, their water only the slightest shade greener than the air above.  Hiking with a normal-sized backpack felt awesome (as I was putting it on in the parking lot, however, a park ranger walked by and exclaimed, “That pack’s bigger than you are”! I just laughed).  Add in our elevation (estimated to be mostly between 3-15 feet above sea level, as opposed to 17,700) and the general flatness of the terrain, and I was feeling amazing.

   The trail eventually led out of the forest and onto a classic Alaskan beach.  Flat grey rocks stretched into the horizon, strewn with all varieties of seaweed and kelp, snowy mountains barely visible across the bay through the fog.  It rained and was typical.  We entered the low tide zone, a portion of beach lining the bottom of steep sea cliffs, making the route only ideally accessible at low tide.  Oddly, we soon encountered an ancient moose wandering down the beach, hobbling along peacefully in its old age.  A moose on a beach?  Strange.  The wildlife didn’t stop there, though – we soon came across two bald eagles fishing right offshore, several sea lions, and a sea otter.  After a few hours we reached North Beach at Caine’s Head, found a slightly sheltered spot under a tree, and set up camp as water proceeded to soak everything around us.  Nic’s remarkable efforts to make a campfire therefore failed, and after sleeping off the previous night’s fatigue, we set about making dinner.

   Now, I am currently very tired of camping food.  Tired of NOLS rations, to be specific, which involved far too much rice, beans, overprocessed cheese, instant mashed potatoes and granola.  Also tired of waiting almost an hour for a single pot of water to come to a boil, at altitude and using gasoline as cooking fuel.  Therefore, this trip’s food was done in serious style.  The MSR stove I borrowed from my brother, whatever it was, was a considerable  upgrade from the MSR Whisperlites we used at NOLS.  Starting it up, the thing sounded like a rocket ship, and the water was boiling in under five minutes.  Beginning our dinner with hot chocolate and celebratory Pop-Tarts (great backpacking food at something like 300 calories each), we proceeded to prepare fresh, local king salmon with lemon pepper and butter, wild rice with spices, and corn on the cob, all accompanied by wine and quality chocolate.  It tasted like the best meal of my life- and all made on a camping stove, in the rain.

   The next morning’s hike out was an adventure.  Although we knew when the low tide was going to be, we decided in our infinite wisdom to try to book it out of there earlier, and were on our way almost three hours before low tide.  Thus began our hike below sea level, because descending almost 18,000 feet clearly wasn’t enough for me.  No longer caring about getting wet, we plunged right into the sea, wading almost up to our waists to contour rocky outcroppings, scrambling over tide pools and slippery areas, and sliding haphazardly down what we deemed the “algae slip’n’slide”.  Contrary to how it may sound, hiking below sea level turned out to be a lot more entertaining than hiking above it, and we returned to the car absolutely soaked, refreshed by the weekend’s adventures and ready to return to town.  Success.

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