Journey To the Top of the 48

International Border:Image

Here I am posting a column I wrote a few years ago for our local newspaper. Space didn’t allow for me to tell nearly enough of the story, but I’ll come back to it here and there. The cabin and locale referred to have been a home away from home for me for 15 years now.


Under a bright full moon illuminating a perfect halo, the dark cold water cuts through the fresh white snow like viscous molten lava through channels of new earth rushing to the sea.  This spot is more significant than most since the rushing waters are cleaving the line between two great nations.   Miles of backcountry are lit in every direction in one of the northernmost points in the continental United States.

In border country I am, and a sojourner who has returned to this spot for some 15 years.  There isn’t another soul for miles in all directions, and it’s our turn taking up residence in an old shack built by the CCC in the 1930s.

A stack of journals recounts the tales of many a visitor going back to the ‘80s, but people have been journeying to this destination from far and wide since at least the ‘60s.

The barrel wood stove ticks, groans, and creaks to warn you that you’re about to be overtaken by a wave of hot air that often overwhelms a first timer relegated to the top bunk.  Candles not only illumine this notebook, but warmly show the old table built on site with 80 years of history marked by carvings, names, dates, pockmarks and cracks filled with wax.  A rich patina unites a history shared by countless individuals over the decades.

Peace and quiet.  Quiet and peace.  The two don’t always co-exist, but here they hold hands in solidarity.  Hours are spent in profound satisfaction in the quiet cabin pondering, reflecting, and ruminating.  An obvious parallel can be drawn to ruminants, the cud chewers who have time to enjoy their food not just once, but several times.

The topography of the surrounding landscape is striking and breathtaking when taking in the grandeur, while the land has many more subtle treasures that await the discerning eye of returning visitors that are in no hurry to rush on to the next place.

The trip in took nearly 6 hours on skis this year as we were beset by constant obstacles of alder thickets, numerous downed trees, and a decent snow pack.  Hands and feet froze just below the level of frostbite while following my own shadow under the moonlight.

Arriving at our destination in the middle of the night can be a bitter pill, but this once in a lifetime find is worth the trouble.  The great expense of energy enables one to appreciate long periods of down time reading, thinking, and enjoying the company of good friends.  Vast swaths of time pour from the hourglass that would never be spent so lavishly on leisure any place else.

As I write, the barrel stove has taken a red glow and threatens to cook us out of here.  It is the center of the volcano referenced earlier.  That reminds of the time a few years back when my friends and I awoke to find the taper candles had melted and turned upside down due to the great heat.  Yes, it can be a purgatory-like experience for the top bunker!

Shared adversity tends to bring people together like nothing else.  Most stories told tend to involve toil of some sort, and these are the experiences that often mold us.

I step outside one last time to see the familiar site of the smoke chugging out of the chimney like a locomotive against the backdrop of a moonlit sky, and the warmth of candle light seeping out the windows from within one last time before turning in for the night.  Tomorrow we embark on the journey home, refreshed.

I have traveled a fair amount in the lower 48, and beyond, but my compass keeps pointing back to this unique home away from home I chanced upon on a rainy day years ago barely a man and yet still a teenager.  At the time I was covering lots of ground in my thirst to explore new places and see new things.

My constant journeys back cause me to reflect on a journal entry recorded by a group I don’t believe returned.  The oft used boast originating with Julius Caesar reads, “We came.  We conquered.  We left.”  Juxtaposing this clashing philosophy against what I’ve quietly experienced all these years leaves me glad that I came, was changed, and will return to share it with others again.


Above see the lavender candle at the top of the window. It got so hot the night before that the candle softened enough for gravity to turn it into an upside down J.


Arriving in darkness, which is typical.  Dog tired.


Hours are spent doing this after the exertion of packing everything in. Of course it’s my own fault my pack is usually so heavy, because I bring so many books!


Of course there’s ample time to explore. One of my favorite waterfalls in the world is a couple miles upstream, which is a nice trip if you’re staying 3 nights. You’ve just gotta have a full day to relax right around the cabin though. The country behind us is in Canada. My title wasn’t just a catchy set of words.  This spot literally is at the top of the 48.


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