I think we all have magic places in our lives – locations that seem to resonate and bring strength. Places where you can push your fingers down in the dirt and feel nourishment flow into your body.
I certainly do:
- The ranch where we all grew up in Sterling AK
- The 2 ½ mile trail running back behind the UAF campus
- Hideout Hill
As you drive from Sterling to Anchorage you pass Hideout Hill on your right as you first enter the mountains. It’s called a hill because it’s only 2726 feet high, but when I first noticed it in 1965 it sure looked like a mountain to me. You could barely see it from my attic loft window, but it figured prominently in all my adolescent fantasies: It was the redoubt from which my doughty band of freedom fighters fought the Russian invaders, the site of the castle from which I ventured out to fight dragons and was my Fortress of Solitude to which I would retire after fighting crime in Anchorage.
I’ve made three climbs, the first time as a Boy Scout in 1968 when we got halfway up the southern side after starting from Hidden Lake. The second trip up was a drizzly day trip in 1981 when I climbed in the company of my brothers-in-law Bobby, Marc and Scott. We started at the highway and just brush-busted our way until we found a very faint trail marked by faded bits of engineer tape. Finding the bits of tape became a game: we spread out and moved the brush in the general direction of the hill, keeping an eye out for animals and keeping an ear cocked for the cry “Red Flag!” which meant one of the other guys had found the next trail marker. As we got closer to the hill the markers became closer and easier to spot one from another, so we were able to pick up the pace and get up the hill.
We stopped at the small lake, made a fire and heated up some soup, then moved on up to the summit where we rewarded with one of the most breath-taking sights I’ve ever seen. As we sat comfortably on the thick moss ground cover we could see and point out locations over a good part of the Peninsula. There was a tangible reward of sorts as well; while sitting on the summit I looked down and found a C-ration can embedded in the moss. I showed it to my Dad when we got home and thought it came from rations that had been dropped to survivors of a plane wreck that happened in that area in the late 50s/early 60s.
The third time was the charm. It was July of 1982 – SSG Bradley and I were both able to score a 48hr pass which in conjunction with a weekend would give us time to take our wives up the hill for a short camping trip. Unlike the climb in drizzly weather the year before we would be making the trek in sunny weather, which meant a light pack – I could leave behind all my raingear other than a pair of gaiters that I invariably wore when walking through the invariably wet Alaskan brush.
Preparations for the trip ended up a comparison test between camping philosophies. I was very much into minimum impact camping and took the bare minimum of equipment and supplies; Jim on the other hand had a large capacity pack and preferred to plan for every contingency and ended up carrying quite a bit more than I did. It posed little trouble on the first part of the hike as we moved across level and slightly sloping terrain, but the heavy weight of Jim’s pack would make him stall or trip over the slightest obstruction. Each time that happened I would hear his deep voice rumble out “This is really dumb Dave!”
It got worse. When we finally got to the side of Hideout Hill proper the trail made a 45o angle upwards and made a narrow cut through low-lying close growing willows. Before long we were pulling ourselves up as much as walking – with my relatively light load I still made good time, but the rest of the party was stretched out along the trail with the girls following me at a short distance and Jim further down the trail, occasionally tripping with his heavy load and periodically repeating ‘This is really dumb Dave!”
At that point I changed tactics and sped up my climb, so I could quickly get to the top of the trail, ground my pack and come back down to help Jim. The girls passed me on the way up in good shape but when I got to Jim his dark glare of rage prompted me to stay out of reach. He was close to the breaking point, struggling with his overloaded pack and just barely making progress, and when he looked up at me he glared and growled “This is really STUPID Dave!”
I carefully stayed out of Jim’s reach and tried to give moral support – I knew better than to try to physically help him. At length he made the crest of the trail and after a short rest we all moved down by the small lake, pitched camp and explored the area. After his laborious climb Jim had no desire to hike all the way to the summit, but the enclosed vale around the lake offered plenty of places to explore and play. I even tried some rock climbing but upon closer inspection it was obvious there had been repeated freeze/thaw in the cliff face making the rock “rotten” and prone to a sudden break.
Sitting around the tents and boiling up our Mountain Home freeze-dry was as idyllic an existence as I have ever led. The sun was warm and there was a slight breeze, the food was filling, and the company was of the best. We talked and laughed and once again made a list:
- Our next adventure was going to be on level ground.
- The gaiters I’d been wearing on my lower legs were the magical source of my energy.
- Henceforth I would be known as “Forced March Deitrick”
I could hardly sleep that night – I didn’t want to miss a single minute of our stay there. I would creep quietly out of the tent and look north and track the path of the sun on the other side of the globe by the slight point of light that escapes over the northern horizon as the earth rotates. I drank in the wind as it casually caressed my cheeks and felt my heart swell as I looked down at the sleeping forms of my dear wife and my good friends.
I was up at sunrise and boiling water for breakfast when everyone else finally awoke. We explored around the lake some more, throwing scraps to the loons that swam there and searching for the point at which the lake made its way over a small waterfall and down the north side of the hill …but eventually it was time to leave. Descending the hill was much easier though we did have one scare: Midway through the willows growing close to the more vertical part of the trail we were alarmed by vigorous rustling just below us. As we were in prime bear country both Jim and I drew our side-arms, but just before firing we heard a voice call out: “Humans! Humans on the trail” and shortly passed a party of three young men climbing up for a day-trip just as I had the year before.
All too soon we were off the trail and at the pick-up point and from there back to FT Richardson. We didn’t know it at the time but that was the last adventure we would have together in Alaska as Jim was transferred to FT Hood TX shortly afterwards. I’ve never been able to get back up there myself either; when we lived in Sterling from 1987 to 1989 it seemed like I was always caught up with either my work, being a Dad, work with Scouts or drilling with the Reserves. I struck out on both our 1997 and 1999 visits home mostly due to transportation and our trip back for my dad’s funeral was in winter-time.
…and now I am too old and broken, but I still visit Hideout Hill. Some nights when the pain in my back keeps me from sleeping I think about being there. I can smell the spruce along the lower trail and feel the mischievous cool breeze teasing my face. I can look out from the peak and see my Peninsula home with a view only the angels share and track the path of the sun along the northern horizon.
…and then I can sleep.