The following story takes place in the backcountry of Alaska, a few miles north of Ketchikan, Alaska’s 4th largest city. I am traveling with my girlfriend, Angela; these events took place on the first day/night of our journey.
From the mountain’s peak, Angela and I saw the cabin nestled deep in the valley below, on a rock island, horse-shoed by an ice field at its front and the frozen Blue Lake behind. Getting down the mountain to the cabin was a challenge; the terrain was steep and slippery, much of it covered in snow, little to no discernible trail, rocky with red and green and purple moss and shrubs blanketing the ground.
We slipped and twisted our way down, reaching the ice field that stretched to the cabin. The field must have been at least 50 feet across, and we knew somewhere beneath the ice a river flowed, as it spouted from the ice below and drained into the lake. The most dangerous element of crossing the ice field was that we did not know how thick the ice was, and if it wasn’t enough to support our weight, how far we’d fall.
Luckily, we traversed the field with little incident, save my boot breaking through the ice near the rock island. I fell only a few feet, until my boot was splashed by the cold stream below. I pulled myself up and hastily stumbled to the rock island. Angela made it across without any trouble.
The cabin was a miserable little place, in the shape of a triangle, steel roofed, with a door and one window. Inside was even worse. In terms of bedding, there was a wooden, U-shaped shelf that lined the back and side walls. The back wall had a window with a broken pane that looked out to the frozen lake. The ground was littered with garbage of the worst variety; old shoes, a rusted gas canister, non-identifiable food wrappers, and moldy grains of white rice strewn across the floor. The place had the stink of rot about it and held no resemblance of home or comfort.
There was, however, a three-ring binder containing diary-like entries of previous travelers. Angela read these aloud. I remember an entry regarding cooking cheese toast over an open fire, another stating that the cabin had been occupied by eight travelers and a dog a few months ago, another group of travelers complained of cold miserable weather and their soaked clothes, and the most recent entry, dated May 2013, read, “There is mold on the walls. Unsanitary. Made camp outside.”
They weren’t kidding.
We laid out our sleeping bags, made a dinner of instant mashes potatoes inside the cabin, and got ready for the long descent into darkness on the mountain. When there was sunlight, conversation came easy, but as night approached, and the strange blue-gray Alaskan sky deepened, my fears increased. The mountains surrounding the cabin were swallowed by thick fog, the wind sounded like a dull moan, as if from a woman outside. The temperature dropped , and it started to rain. Looking beyond the frozen lake, the world seemed to drop into nothingness.
I held Angela close. A deep feeling of isolation was setting in. I told her, again and again, how deep and complete the darkness would be. I told her I was afraid, scared someone would find us, some madman, and murder us in the middle of the night. She held my head in her hands and kissed me, told me everything would be fine, just fine, and I felt as comforted as I could against the darkness and the lonely night.
And when the blue-black blanket of night finally fell into our cabin, we tried to get some sleep. It was a strange, discomforting night. My sleeping bag was wrapped tight around me, and I used a stuff sack with my clothes inside as a pillow. Early in the night, I woke from a dream of dark hallways and empty rooms to find that the headlamp had been turned on, was shining toward the ceiling.
“Angela, did you turn on the light?”
“I got scared,” she said.
Maybe it was my fault, all of my stories at dusk sinking in, or perhaps it was the shapeless, endless darkness outside.
I woke again, later, and needed to piss. I put on my hiking boots and did not tie the laces. The door creaked at its hinges as I walked outside, into the cold mist, to the edge of the rock island. The sky was a smoky purple; I could just barely make out the shapes of the mountains in the distance. There was no sense of time. I urinated into the ice field below, shivered, shook out the last few drops, and zipped my pants. I stood for a moment more, feeling utterly alone, mystified by the vague and foreign beauty that surrounded me. “This is what it must be like to be on alien planet,” I thought, and stepped back into the cabin. I did not wake again for the rest of the night.