Photo by Grant Wadley
Hiking embodies a natural form of traveling. There are no planes, trains, or cars that will take you to your destination. You have to get there with your own energy and will – and with your own two feet. On a lucky day when it is not raining, the sun cascades over the quiet fishing town of Ketchikan.
The ocean tides lay low. The salmon escape the fishermen for a day. And on these rare sunny days, people take the opportunity to go on hikes. The first time that I ever hiked was in Ketchikan. The destination was a cabin on the foot of Deer Mountain, a beloved trail that many locals recommend for novice hikers. I was certainly a category below having never physically put myself through a physically draining hike.
Deer Mountain is geographically located in the Tongass National Rainforest on the island of Revillagigedo: the island that Ketchikan is located on. It is visible on any given day, because of its high altitude and snowcapped peak. The hike to the top of Deer Mountain is 2 to 3 hours in duration depending on the person’s experience. I first embarked on the journey with a couple of companions. The moment we arrived at the beginning of the trail I saw how immense and expanse the vegetation looked. The trees shot up towards the skies. Their branches blocked the view of the sky, creating a meandering pattern. “The Redwoods has a competitor” I thought. I had a great first impression of Deer Mountain’s trail. Surprisingly, the animals that seemed at home with such an environment were nowhere in sight. There were neither bears nor eagles in sight. My expectation of a Bambi-esque parade was a long shot. Trees at the side of the trail stretched towards the canopy, an area that many birds rested. I whistled intently on getting their attention. No answer came back.
I also started thinking about the many people who have hiked the Deer Mountain. It must have been years since the first person embarked on this journey. Each step I made was a recreation of their first hike. I seldom dragged my feet to respect the forefathers of the trail. I clutched my backpack as we started on the trail. And then it happened: I took my first step. The first step of any hike is always the most daunting. Many thoughts go into your head: How long until the top? Will we see anyone else? Will we find a place to camp? The first few thoughts I had were different from these concerns. I felt ill-prepared. I felt intimidation. I felt pressure. Every ounce of earth came down with that first step. But it was the most important one, because it was a choice that I consciously made. It was my contract with nature to trek on and reach the summit.
During the first hour of the hike, we trailed along the man-made path that had a mixture of dirt passages and wooden bridges. The trails zigzagged continuously like a staircase to heaven. I soon started to use my friend’s golf club as a walking stick. I followed my friends’ every step as they trekked on, hoping to learn a few things from the seasoned hiker. Our first major breakthrough while hiking to Deer Mountain was when we reached the first lookout. This occurred about an hour and a half into the hike. My friend stopped abruptly. He pointed out at an opening of the trees, which was near the edge. From where he pointed, I could see the nearby islands sitting idle. They looked like motionless ducks in God’s earthly pond. For a few minutes, we sat down and enjoyed the momentary view. I was amazed to be at this height. For the first time ever, I was taller than any person in town.
With this opportunity of rest, my friends and I regenerated in nutrients. Afterwards, we blazed the trail with Trail mix in our stomachs. The final leg of the hike made me itch to get to the top. The path started to become narrower. It was rockier and less vegetated. If we were to slip, the convenience of grabbing at a branch would be to no avail. I paid attention to my steps, focusing on mine more than my two companions. We carefully surged on for the next hour attempting to reach the campsite by the late afternoon.
It was now a little past two. The sun started to descend from its zenith. We were able to still feel the rays envelop us. A narrow, steep path along the edge of the mountain was our final obstacle. The path was about 14 inches in width, ascending towards the foot of the mountain. We slowed our pace to carefully navigate our way up. I made the mistake of looking over the edge. I saw the pebbles beneath my feet crumble and fall into the daunting forest. The forest never looked so terrifying. But then when I looked beyond I saw a big blue lake. The lake was shaped like a pair of sunglasses. It was fitting for the weather considering that the sun was pelting down on the body of water. The rays reflected onto it, producing a mirror image of the sky and its clouds. My fear diminished at the sight of the wonderful lake.
Sooner or later, the slope we hiked up flattened out. We had finally made it up the rocky edge where the narrow path laid. As we stood for a moment, I looked at the setting ahead of us. And what I saw was absolutely refreshing. There were pastures of greens as if we were in the fields of Edelweiss. Purple flowers sprouted at our feet. I felt them tickle my ankle. Little ponds were scattered nearby. A brown cabin nearby waited to welcome us. We had finally reached the foot of Deer Mountain.
Walking through the pasture, with the flowers still tickling, we arrived at the log cabin. Chatter emanated from inside as we opened up. Three of our girl friends were in there having hiked up earlier in the morning. We all embraced the surprise and smiled, knowing that this was an unplanned and mystical reunion. We chatted and talked about our journey. One of the girl wore flats. “I was bred in this land, so hiking up without boots is no biggie.” After a few shared moments, the girls bid their farewell and journeyed back down before the sun set.
My two friends and I made sure to leave our packs in the cabin, a way of claiming the cabin for the night. With the bags finally free from our backs, we easily made it up to the top. Finally at the peak, my tall friend knelt to touch the metal marker that showed we had made it to the highest point of Deer Mountain. On it showed the elevation:3000 feet. I knelt down to feel the marker as well. Our hike was officially complete. In celebration, we exchanged stories and laughed at the reality of them. We hit golf balls off the peak. We snacked on our rations. We sang songs. We were in the thick of nature, away from a noisy civilization. It was fitting day for our escape.
When the day started to end, we walked back to the foot of the mountain. We gathered twigs and branches to make a campfire outside of the cabin. But before we returned to the cabin for a campfire, we walked towards the hilly edge at the foot of Deer Mountain. My friends and I lied down and enjoyed the view. Lying on our backs, we saw a chemistry of colors in the sky. We watched the sun dip between the thin clouds, producing a red and orange glow; the fading blue sky provided a natural backdrop. The green pastures were in shadows while the purple flowers swayed in the evening wind.
The sun had finally set in paradise that is Ketchikan, Alaska. Though I am not an expert in nature nor travel, the hike to Deer Mountain was the first experience that taught me a few things. We are all born into the wild. We all have an odyssey. We all have a desire to travel and wander where we may see the sun set and rise. And if the hike is well worth it, you might one day set foot in paradise.