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A PORTRAIT OF A BACKWOODS MAN

A PORTRAIT OF A BACKWOODS MAN
WORDS & PHOTOS BY JORDAN CAMPBELL

Here’s an idea: when you don’t know what to do, buy a plane ticket. Buy it to a random location, or maybe to somewhere slightly known. Buy a ticket to, say, Alaska. Once there, go work at a remote lodge in the mountains—maybe you’ll find yourself along the way. Drive past different mountain ranges or a glacier you didn’t know was there. Maybe meet some incredibly resilient, rugged people and learn their names, hear their stories. Meet the old men of the Alaskan interior with faces worth 1000 words and then some. Meet a man known as Hiker Bob.

 

I came to know Hiker Bob as a frequent customer of the remote mountain lodge where I was working in the summer of 2016. I had just graduated high school and lacked direction in my life. My mom proposed a summer job in Alaska, where her cousins were managing a lodge. Without knowing what Alaska was, other than a far-off land in the United States, I applied to be a dishwasher. Hiker Bob came into the Lodge frequently throughout the weeks I worked there. He’d come at opening, greet me and my co-workers by name, and usually order pancakes and a coffee (the staple of his diet). His musing eyes were lined by creases created from a lifetime of smiling and squinting at the sun. He knew my name before I’d ever said hello to him. I’d watch him interact with my co-workers from a window above the sink until one day I was finally introduced.

 

A quiet man of a lanky disposition, Hiker Bob carried a warmth in his face but an edge in his tone. His skin was weathered and wind whipped, his hands as leathered as his shoes. Bob lived in a three roomed log cabin he built with his hands and limited tools. It sat tucked away on the rocky banks of a glacial river, hugged between two mountain ranges. 

 

Bob was known for taking the seasonal workers on hikes up unknown tundra covered peaks or providing a morning meal with conversation. He was even known to invite his favorite seasonal friends to spend an evening drinking wine and sweating in his sauna. He’d pick you up in his well-loved blue Subaru Forester and, if it was a pancake breakfast morning, we’d head straight for his cabin. But if a hike was in order, the pancakes would be provided after a trip to the mountains.

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His four-burner stove held three cast iron skillets with a pancake in each; the batter sat beside, mixed in a retro Pyrex casserole dish. The only means to brewing coffee was a French press which was always full, providing an endless stream of bean juice. Breakfast conversation, in contrast to the food, was usually dense. Bob was a writer and always had new ideas to share with us about religion, politics or local gossip. Unlike the slow movement of the surrounding landscape, gossip spread like the summer wildfires. Everyone knew everyone’s business. Even as a seasonal worker, there was no escaping getting mixed up in it. Bob would also write articles for the valley church and usually had a copy laying around he’d usher into your hands. His cabin was off grid, so these articles were written using a brick of a typewriter. This made the copies of his articles valuable. The ones he gave me I have since misplaced and regret it greatly.

 

Near the end of the summer season, I had not yet been on a hike with Bob. One morning I called him on the lodge phone and asked if he had availability to spend the afternoon with me. Of course it was a resounding yes. He picked me up and drove us 15 miles to the trailhead which began in a gravel outcropping located on the old highway. I did not see the trailhead at first and Bob explained we would have to scramble up the loose rock until we were on top. Once there, I could see the foothills of the Talkeetna mountain range as they vanished into vastness. We hiked up a quad trail (four-wheeler or ATV trail) through mud and rocks. He’d pick me flowers on the way and give them names, sometimes inconsistently. A larkspurleaf monkshood might be named correctly one moment and later on be called a mountain harebell. This quirk of his was entertaining but made it difficult to feel as if I was learning anything about the local flora. Nevertheless, it gave me something to collect and take away from the moment. 

The hike was decently strenuous and we weren’t even at elevation. We walked for what seemed like two hours. Once we reached the end of the quad tracks, we kept going until we reached an escarpment. I was thinking this was the end: the trail dropped off, leaving nothing but a 30-foot scree face leading into a gully. But Bob kept going, so I followed. We scree-skied down until we reached a small creek at the bottom. Here we rested. Rather, I rested. Without missing a beat, Hiker Bob dropped his pack on the ground and headed up the creek. He told me he was going to look for rocks and would be right back. Soon, he reappeared with the flattest rocks he found, telling me to open my pack.  I then realized there was a function to this outing--the slate was for his cabin. He was building two pillars outside of his porch door for what reason I cannot recall. Even so, I remember his explanation of their purpose to be quite abstract with slim spiritual significance. I could already feel the ping of blood rushing through my legs and accepted the hike out would be incredibly challenging.

 

After loading our packs with as many rocks as they’d fit, we walked downstream a bit. I remember him telling me a story of an interaction he had in this gully with a large Dall sheep. The stream was beautiful. The day was overcast, making the colors of the surrounding mosses and wildflowers striking to the eye. Before we had left that day, he told me he was taking me to a hidden waterfall no one knew was there. Aside from the small details one can only see up close, everything in the area had already been discovered by bush plane. Except for this waterfall. He swore it could not be seen from the air and this, to him, made it special. Sure enough, as we rounded a bend in the river, the small roar of a waterfall made itself known. The water’s unique path carved its way through moss covered stone. It stood about 30 feet high with room to climb up to it. We sat there for quite a while, absorbing the absolute peace and lull of the moment. It made hauling 40 pounds of rocks out worth it.

 

The Alaskan landscape is something no one ever forgets. Someone told me once that “Alaska is where travelers go to die.” I must agree. Nothing I have seen since has replaced the feeling of seeing the rough snow-covered peaks towering sharply above, or the sound of thousands of gallons of water rushing out from underneath a glacier. The landscape steals your heart and hides it away in the people you meet there. Through its human inhabitants, the landscape welcomes you, feeds you, loves you, and then sends you on your way knowing you will never forget them.

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