Grace on Deer Mountain

At the end of the quaint residential stretch in Ketchikan, the road slopes ever upward towards the mountains surrounding the island town. If you were to arrive in Ketchikan blindfolded, you might assume that the ocean is a lake because the valley, now sea, obviously flooded long before we ever set foot on the land. It’s not a stereotypical ocean expanse, it is technically a fjord, so where there should be a beach and mountain foothills, there is only a drowned range. Thus, anyone hiking can quickly go from sea to sky in a few short miles.

So as one drives through the suburbs on a sunny day (as I had done when I walked), he will find himself staring up the face of Deer Mountain. Deer Mountain is the gateway to the back country of Revillagigedo Island (yeah… for the record, Ketchikan is a city on Revillagigedo). When you summit the roughly 3,000 ft mountain (remember, the base of the mountain is far below the sea!) there are other trails to choose: the spines of further mountains leading to their bellies and alpine lakes. Time permitting, there are adventures to be found in abundance beyond the first summit.

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But Deer Mountain in itself is a quick day’s hike, but be prepared… it is 3 miles of stairs. Yes, 3 miles of stairs so I hope your legs are ready. The Mountain draws in all the weather, so it takes a brutal beating from the rain and without the wooden planks to offer stability the trail would be lost in mud and slides. I mean, maybe I’m exagerating a little bit… there’s a few spots about 10 feet long that don’t have stairs. But the rest is wooden stairs and rock stairs, to mix it up. It takes about 1.5 hours to hike, or closer to 2 if you’re like me and your asthma doesn’t get along with stairs. And if walking the stairs weren’t enough for you, there’s an annual summer race up the mountain where you run up and then run down… you know, for fun and stuff (about as fun as dental work, if you ask me). So, you know, it might be a good idea to be fairly fit before you challenge the Deer. (But on that note, if you’re reading this blog as a result of planning your Alaskan adventure, it is something free to do and it’s beautiful.)

Rob and I borrowed the company vehicle on a slow day and parked at the free dirt lot by the docks. We took our time walking to the trailhead. It’s a relatively steep hike, but very doable and the trail is pretty well maintained. There are ferns everywhere, and if you’re blessed with a sunny day the sea will sparkle in those rare moments when the the trees offer a break through their thickness. Birds dart and sing the entire ascent.

The summit itself is intriguing. Just after a brief meadow, it rises sharply and it’s sides are slick and bald with quarts and jagged rocks. At the top, we watched eagles ride winds with such grace they never beat their wings, drifting high and far on thermal updrafts above the cruise liners in the Tongass Narrows. We rested in their realm. And we spent some time admiring the sea in all directions… there was something exciting about staring at the expanse of ocean, slightly curving with the horizon, towards Canada.
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When it was time to depart the lofty kingdom of eagles, we made a game of running down the hill. Now, it’s a rocky, steep trail… running down it requires the surest footing, but it’s so much fun! We ran, improvising each step as the puzzle of the trail unfolded before us. The consequence of a fall was dire and painful. But it felt like flight… it felt like we spread our arms and sprouted feathers to fly away with our aerial hosts moments before. And I jumped off a small ledge, casting my arms out and absorbing the impact in my legs before bounding further downward to stand beside Rob and catch my breath.
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If you remember reading a few paragraphs before that the “mountain draws in all the weather” and that “it’s three miles of mostly wooden stares,” then you should deduce that those wooden stares are often slick from rot. We had finished our flight down the mountain and chose to walk the remaining 1.5 miles, enjoying the sun. We were walking. And I happened to be looking at my ankle when I slipped, fully witnessing my heel kiss my calf as a deep, wet crack echoed out. My adrenaline immediately erupted so intensely I could not feel the pain, but watching my ankle bend as sharply as it did coupled with the gunshot crack of tendons snapping was enough the send me into tears of pure, emotional fear. I cried for Rob, for his mellow mind to reasure me what I already knew: my ankle is jacked up, but not broken, and you’re going to feel the pain in just a moment.

For anyone who has sprained an ankle, it hurts, but you can walk on it. For anyone that knows me, I’m a tank. I dug my fingers into the moist earth and hoisted myself up to stand, only to immediately collapse again and shriek in pain. It was worse than a sprain. I would later learn that I had fully separated the tendon from the bone, which pretty much renders one worthless, and in the full moments after the fall it had swollend impressively huge. But that didn’t matter. I had over a mile left to go and I couldn’t walk. I tried hopping, I tried crawling. But immediately a crippling animal instinct set in and with it came panic.

The moment you lose function of a mobile limb, you might as well have a lion chewing on your neck. Fight or flight is shaken so hard you can’t even think that in this moment in time you are otherwise ok and that there is no lion. I am not one to accept help, and feeling so helpless was devastating. So I wallowed and I panicked and I was amazed at how large it had already swollen. I tried again to stand and walk, hopping and quivering in pain, and begged Rib for support before I fell again. Poor Rob had to carry me the remainder of the distance. God bless him (though he did accidentally ram my ankle into a tree more than once, but it was an accident so I couldn’t be angry). It was the first time in my life I had to accept I couldn’t go on alone.

He carried me to my bed, and brought me ice and kept me company while I cringed. It had swollen so badly I was worried about circulation. Over a year later, it’s still jacked. It pinches and cracks and locks up and gives out. Sometimes it sends a shockwave of pain that makes me falter and nearly yell profanities in front of tender old women and innocent children. And when palpated, that outer bone on the ankle, one can actually feel the physical difference between the healthy ankle and the scarred ankle. It is forever my reminder that I am only one soul capable of only so many things.
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