There is a book set mostly in Alaska called One to Perish – One to Tell the Tale. It’s a true story about a guy who leaves his secure but insanely stressful desk job to return to his roots of industrial construction which lead him to the far-beyond-his-roots pipeline country of the Alaskan North Slope. Along the way he discovers who his brother is while bouncing about the tamer sections of the Last Frontier. The book hasn’t been written yet, but it promises to be a great American novel complete with tales of danger, outdoor adventure, family reunions, personal epiphanies, love lost, dogs, and bacon. Until it gets all cobbled together into a leather-bound, coffee table clutter piece, here’s a free sneak peak excerpt.
“In twelve years of coming here, I’ve never seen it like this,” Joel tells me with eyes bugged wide open so that I know he’s sincere. The “it” is the little, yet raging body of blue water that spurs off of the lake fed by Portage Glacier. Several days of nonstop rain has transformed the normally trickling brook into a swift river of choppy, turquoise breastmilk-like rapids. This same rain that has kept us mostly inside during our camping trip has now graced us with, in Joel’s heart, a one-time, unavoidable opportunity at happiness or fun or a just another story of dumbassery conquered.
“We have to go. We just do,” he says to me, his intentionally hidden southern drawl unintentionally reappearing to make that powerful cultural connection that usually seals the deal on any proposition with me regardless of the lunacy it presents. His demand doesn’t have that juvenile “Yeah, bruh!” tone that I always regretfully feel spews out of me, it is simply a factual announcement of the day’s event and, of course, I nod my “all in” as if I’d already read the schedule and knew about this activity.
Looking at the churning, twisting channel of liquid blue, I ask to no one in particular, “Where does this even end up?”
“Not sure. Somewhere. I’m sure we’ll pop out near a road or something. Bring your phone and Rachel can come get us when we’re done.”
So there it was with little room for discussion. With a rented inflatable SUP, his pack raft, and two bicycle helmets, we stomp through the woods and down a trail to where he thinks is an opening into this watery roller coaster to…Somewhere. I have tons of flat-water standup paddle board experience but absolutely zero hours on white or even swift water. Even if I did, it is impossible to read this narrow, blistering creek for more than 15 yards ahead because it bends hard and often as if the goal during its creation was to cut the longest distance downhill from A to B. What I could see was a terrifying nightmare of slightly submerged rocks and stumps with guarantees of jagged face smashers below and some native shrubs that crowd each bank and stretch out their limbs in an attempt to reach one another creating a thorny handshake to clothesline any fool who dare try to shoot through their private tunnel.
The July air is somewhere in the mid 60’s but the water spilling off of the glacier is nowhere near that. My guess is that it’s somewhere between 45 degrees and absolute zero. Wet feet would be an aggravating inconvenience, but a full-on, over the ears plunge could be a whole other ballgame neither of us wants to play. Since I’ll be standing up and carry a greater risk of going in the water and because of his hospitable nature, Joel lets me wear his drysuit while he opts for a hodge podge ensemble of a pair of Chuck’s, Cuddle Duds, shorts, a Fred Meyer’s windbreaker, and a blue do-rag. Not one thing in his get-up offers salvation from hypothermia, but my guess is that he’s happy to put me in a safer situation while at the same time adding one more element of risk to his own which further fuels his drive to go in the first place.
Unlike my calculated bravery where I decide to go only when the rewards clearly tip the scale on the risks, his grit comes more from an innate moxie that calculates nothing except for the obvious facts that (1) something put this mountain before him and (2) he must climb it at all costs. The more I think about our adventures as kids, the more I realize how many times, just like now, he stood in the line of fire between me and a thousand monsters that should have eaten me alive. Although I’m sure older brother protection is partially behind those motives, I’m also beginning to understand that Joel has to be in harm’s way or at least some form of nonstandard, tumultuous chaos just to keep his organs functioning properly. On the business end of those crosshairs is where he calmly and most efficiently operates. When short term stress levels are through the roof, his world slows down and he is able to dissect the moment, cherry picking individual elements of danger, and (so far) resolving each one in a particular order while most of us are paddling for dear life.
No doubt in my mind, that need is the reason why he chose to be on the front lines with Marines in Kosovo when he certainly did not have to be. It’s why he flies with Medevacs as a flight nurse for fun…well, fun with pay. It’s why he fell into deep trouble with the Navy then strategically talked his way right out of an assumed AWOL, which actually turned out to be a playful, multi-day beer run across the Middle East during the war-torn early days of Operation Desert Freedom. Tumult, big risk, unseen danger, high adventure. For him they are not the breath of life exactly, but they are juice from the fruits harvested from a full one. And a life without that juice would seem incomplete, I’m certain.
We reach the water’s edge and I’m immediately glad we came. I try to figure out how fast the water is moving and what’s beyond the turn just down from the put-in, but I realize that none of that matters because I couldn’t think fast enough to plan that far ahead anyway. We are going, it will just be what it is, and the only plan is to react my way around each snare as it shows up. Joel’s only concern is that his pack raft has hung on every single limb in the forrest…and that is frustrating for him.
Before stowing my phone away in a sandwich bag, we take a quick picture and I study our aging faces that still have a few of the same boyish features as the ones of our youth. Even in those days, I knew we would go down our own roads then meet back up to walk down a few more together. One of us limping along with a reserved spirit for playing in the wild as long as it made sense, the other sprinting madly with the true spirit of adventure regardless of the cost. Both willing to take the plunge when called to go, but one always more willing to perish so the other could live to tell the story. Another final look back to get that confidence-inspiring grin that has motivated me for nearly four decades, then I grab my paddle with a white-knuckled clutch as we both slide into the freezing unknown.