Summer Solstice at the Center of the Universe
It is June 2016, the longest day of the year, and I am standing in the biggest place I have ever seen because last fall my son asked for a trip to Alaska with me as a graduation present. My first thought was, “I’ve been to Alaska. If I go back, I want to do something different.” A ten-day rafting/camping trip seemed to fit the bill. The fact that I had never done any backcountry camping didn’t worry me. “How bad could it be?” I thought to myself and signed us up.
Today, eight months later, I find myself next to a sharp line where the blue waters of Melt Creek meet the grey ripples of the Tatshenshini river. The valley through which these waters flow stretches out in all directions, north towards the Yukon and south towards the confluence of the Alsek and the Tat. Multicolored rocks carpet the river banks, and although I see no animals, the mud reveals that moose and wolves have visited. A well-worn path warns that bears wander through and that we who have scattered our orange and white tents here should pay respectful attention. Bright pink fireweed blooms profusely next to the milky blue water, and on this sunny day around 20 glaciers are visible as are the signs of glacial retreat, vast swaths of exposed dirt and rocks and terminal moraines that now lie many feet below a glacier’s terminus.
Across the Tat from camp the mountains rise almost directly from the river; their bald, snow-covered peaks descend to lushly vegetated slopes along the banks. On the camp side the meadow gives way to woodlands before reaching the distant mountains, and a row of small trees hugs the shoreline. At the end of these trees stands a bright yellow paddle marking the location of the groover, the camp toilet with a view to die for. Sitting on it you can see for miles up and down the river. The rest of the camp stands in the open. An airhorn for protection when you visit the groover lies on the ground next to two white plastic buckets for handwashing. Folding stools circle a campfire, and a couple of tables hold food, the cookstove, plates, and utensils. There is no sign that any camp has ever stood here before this one.
Back on the first day of the trip I had confessed my lack of experience to our guide. He looked at me and said, “this is your first camping trip? This is graduate-level camping.” He seemed concerned. I was not. This was my second trip with Sobek. I knew I was in good hands; I knew I was fit; I knew I had the right gear. And I knew I wanted to lean in and embrace this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I fumbled setting up the tent the first night and stuffing the gear back into sacks the next morning, but I got the hang of it. We have enjoyed glorious weather and spotted moose and eagles and spectacular wildflowers along the river. We have hiked and eaten and laughed and told stories.
Now, as the hour advances on this perfect solstice evening here at the center of the universe, and the sky grows darker but never quite dark, a rainbow appears over the river, and another emerges over the glacier that feeds Melt Creek. As the sun sinks lower, alpenglow moves from mountain top to mountain top as the light reflects in shades of pink, purple, and Creamsicle orange against the snowy peaks. I have never felt so far from civilization, and I realize that I had had no idea how great a camping trip could be.
Anne Benning, MT Sobek Guest
MT Sobek Trip: Rafting the Tatshenshini River, 2016