6. North to Alaska: Out On Skyland Road, An Intermission – Life Out Here
In his characteristic all-caps print, and with precise lines and arrows, Michael scrawled a crude map on the back of a Glacier Bank envelope.
With the pen tip he pointed. “Just take the Skyland Access Road, clock about nine miles, and you’ll see us a little past Challenge Cabin,” he said.
Zach asked, “won’t Cassie need her bank statement?”
“Will the van make it?”
Just three years earlier, I had driven our family car to Challenge Cabin. New beargrass blooms had crawled hillsides and valleys combed with the toothpick shadows of blackened trees. The Camry, twenty-years-old that summer, had taken the washboards of Skyland Road like it had taken all other washboards in its faithful service.
Michael reassured me that if the Camry could make it, so could the van. Still, I braced myself as I turned off Highway Two and onto the upturned dirt of Skyland Road.
Now, in my mind, dirt road driving translates to winter driving thanks to washboards – a series of grooves that develop with time and overuse. On a dirt road, nothing over 35-40 mph feels safe. Perhaps you are less fearful, but I have heard stories of fast vehicles bounced clean off the road as if they had hit an ice patch.
That morning, Skyland Road was reminiscent of a different kind of winter driving, my favorite kind. Even dirt roads need repaving, and the fresh soil pulled at my tires the way fresh snow does.
I was happy as I maneuvered the van around blind corners and up small inclines – happy for a gorgeous backcountry still healing from fire scars, for Zach beside me, for the road conditions. Surely the Alaska Highway could be no trickier than Skyland Road. This is great practice, I told myself.
As we approached Challenge Cabin, my mind drifted back three years.
“If she doesn’t wake and scream, it should be okay,” Michael had said. I had waited by a fence post as he paced his horse back and forth through the meadow. Looking back, it had been a risky idea. One small whimper might have sent the horse bucking, but in the moment, I pushed aside fear and entrusted infant Abigail to my brother. He had cautiously cradled her as if she were a china doll.
“There they are,” Zach said, pointing to Michael, Cassie, and Krista.
I killed the engine, and the world outside our van doors was cold wind and curious mule eyes tracking our movement. Long ears twitched. A gentle shuffle of hooves ensued as we got closer. We gazed wide-eyed at them and inspected their old leather tack; petted Belle and Tango, Michael and Cassie’s dogs; played in the big truck; got Abigail ready to ride a mule until Michael lifted her to the saddle; decided Felix was too jumpy for Izaak’s first horse ride; observed amazedly the way in which Michael, Cassie, and Krista expertly bundled provisions and strung together mules for another Bob Marshall Wilderness run.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex – comprising the Scapegoat, the Great Bear, and the Bob Marshall Wildernesses – covers over 1.5 million protected acres of Montana. No motorized equipment allowed; even trail crews use only axes and crosscut saws to keep the land accessible to backpackers and packers.
I remember when Michael was new to the Forest Service. We dropped him off at Spotted Bear Ranger Station and said goodbye until autumn. Ten days on, four days off. No cell service. Only letters. Now he acts as mail carrier, like The Mule Express, supplying fellow workers with news from home, fresh food, fresh hay. His call sign – a cowboy on skis – adorns each canvas square used to wrap each crate filled with supplies. On the return runs, he packs out their garbage and letters home.
The canvassed crates were tied with rope. The bundles were arranged by weight to keep the mules level. The mules are tethered together with rope. Krista left with her string, then Michael fine tuned his. He led Felix to and fro, a young but good “broke” horse.
Watching my brother at work feels like stepping back in time, like watching a lost art.
“I don’t believe packing is a lost art,” he wrote to me this past month. “In fact, where packing is needed and used, it’s alive and well. It is, however, rare.”
The mules followed Felix past the van, and Tango leapt from the cab of Michael’s truck. “Tango, no!” The string of mules jumped like a live wire from leader to end like a seismic wave. Everyone yelled for Tango to get back in the truck.
“See you in Alaska,” I called as Michael grinned, took to the trail, called back, “watch your topknot,” and disappeared into the trees.
“If trails were the vein, then pack strings would be the lifeblood flowing through them. The heartbeat, brought to life with each swing of the axe, pull of the crosscut saw” -m
Cover Photo: Michael Reavis Photography