Sometimes you lose something because you're meant to find something else.
I screamed when I realized it was gone. I was standing alone on the ridge line of an obscure mountain outside of Denali National Park. My friends had hiked ahead, but they heard the scream and came sprinting back. I wasn't injured, I had dropped a memory card somewhere along the hike which held my first two weeks living in Alaska during the summer of 2009. It happens to every photographer, and it was my first and only lost memory card to this day. This is the story behind what would unfold should anyone ever find those lost gigabytes while trekking through the Alaskan wilderness.
I met Jared walking down the street in Talkeetna, AK. I was looking for the train station and he was following me on his bike. I turned around and stared at him until he rode up beside me and said I looked a little lost. We started chatting as he showed me to the train station and discovered that we were from the same town- Wichita, KS. He was a bush pilot who had flown his 1969 Piper Cub from Wichita to Talkeetna. We arrived at the train station and I gave him my thanks for helping me find it, but I had to go catch my bus back to the place I worked. He asked if there was a later bus because he was going to go for an evening flight in his plane and wanted to know if I would join him. I couldn't say yes fast enough.
We spun the propeller to get start the engine and we hopped in the plane. There was a joystick to steer and little else for controls. Sitting side by side there was barely enough space for two people, and there was a small area behind the bench seat, but not enough room for another person- the airplane was tiny. We took off on a dirt runway and soared over the Alaskan countryside for about an hour. I was in awe and having the time of my life, flying along a twisty glacial river above the trees and through the valley. We landed on a dirt road right beside a café where a group of my friends from the lodge I worked at were eating. They all stared with gaping open mouths when they saw me dismount from the plane. I waved enthusiastically, as if to let them know I would explain later, and Jared and I went for a coffee. I could tell he liked me and I liked him too. Even though we had just met we had a connection.
Before I left on the last bus back to the lodge I worked at, he asked for my number. He told me he would call me on his days off and we could go out on a proper date.
I was 22 and had just graduated from college in New York. It was 2009 when getting a job straight out of school was more of a dream than a reality. But I had student loans and I couldn’t wait around forever for the perfect thing to come along. In lieu of finding full-time gainful employment I did the next logical thing and moved to Alaska. When I first arrived my flight landed around midnight, and I slept in the airport until my shuttle came the next morning, but there wasn’t much sleeping to be done, because I was in the land of the midnight sun.
I was working at McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. It was an hour on a bus from Talkeetna and in the swamps of Alaska. There were mosquitoes the size of my big toe nail and the only mountains around were in the far off Alaska Range. We had a great view of Denali and that is the only reason the lodge was there. It was my first week of work and one of my good friends that I had met in Arizona the summer before was going to meet me at the lodge two weeks later. I had two other friends working in Denali National Park and everyday from the day I arrived in Alaska we were trying to get jobs in Denali. We did after one week of trying, so instead of meeting me at the Lodge, my friend was going to meet me on the train to Talkeetna and we would travel north to Denali to meet up with our other friends and start working there.
When I finished work late Wednesday night I already had a missed call and text from Jared telling me to get ready because he was coming to pick me up. The journey from the lodge to Talkeetna was only 20 minutes as the bird flies but an hour by bus. There were no more buses that night and he wanted to see me. I called him and told him I planned to move north to Denali when the train came on Friday. He told me to pack my bags and we could stuff them into the plane.
It was just past midnight when he arrived and in June the sun never really sets. It hovers on the horizon or slightly below, but there is always a glow of light. A headlamp in June in Alaska is basically useless. The only person I told was my roommate, and she was sitting on her bed with the guy see was dating at the time when Jared walked up our steps. We said our goodbyes and Jared and I rolled my suitcases up a dirt road, through employee housing in broad daylight.
Before we took off Jared looked at me and said this was the closest he had ever been to the weight limit of the plane. We took off from a dirt road and barely cleared the tree line.
When we got to town we walked went at a softball game where a couple of his friends were playing. During the summer in Alaska things happen at all hours of the day and night. After that we went to a few bars until all of the sudden it was four in the morning.
Jared pointed across the bar to a man who could be no less than 70 years old and a woman who looked like she was in her mid-20's and told me they were both very interesting people to talk to. I walked over and said hello. The woman is a professional fiddle player, Jared had informed me. When I inquired, she asked if I would like to hear.
The four of us decided to go to her cabin, which was a about six miles outside of Talkeetna. The old man drove his car with the woman and I went with Jared in the woman's car. She admitted she probably shouldn't drive it while the men insisted they were able. The next day Jared couldn't remember how we got to the cabin. We all dunked our heads in a glacial stream and then they played bluegrass music while I dozed in and out of consciousness in a hammock, in a dry cabin, six miles outside of Talkeetna. About an hour after we arrived Jared helped me out of the hammock and insisting on going home. The old man was asleep on the floor and the woman had gone up to her loft. We had taken both of their cars to the cabin and when we walked outside we realized we didn't have a ride. I suggested running and we took off. We ran most of the way back to Talkeetna and got to his home, a campsite on the river, at about 6 a.m. I had been up for over 24 hours at this point. We made some food and then fell asleep in the tent. We woke up around 1 p.m. He kissed me in the afternoon.
Jared had wandered off to find food and I was brushing my teeth in a glacial stream when I turned around and saw I giant grizzly about 15 feet in front of me. It was standing on its hind legs and I froze. The bear didn't move and I leapt behind a tree after a few seconds of a stare off. The sudden movement frightened the bear and it went down on all fours and ran off. When I felt like I could move again I made it to Jared's car.
We spent the rest of the day at the “beach.” A sandy spot we hiked to on a glacial river. We ate reindeer and laughed a lot. I fell asleep in his arms that night and he took me to the train station in the morning. He kissed me goodbye and told me he would fly north to see me soon.
I fell in love in the Land of the Midnight Sun, but not with Jared. My friend from the summer before, Craig, met me on the train that day and he and I were inseparable the rest of the summer.
Jared texted me a couple times asking when a good time to come visit was. At first I said I was busy and then I stopped responding all together. I was deeply in love with Craig and had all but forgotten our time together.
In the fall, I was hitchhiking through the Pacific Northwest in the back of a stranger's van driving down the coast of Oregon when my mom called me with the news. I had decided to hitchhike from Alaska to northern California after the Alaskan working season finished. She said that his plane had crashed somewhere in Missouri on his way back home. She saw his obituary in our hometown newspaper. After Alaska he flew to Pennsylvania where he sold his 1969 Piper Cub and bought a newer version. He crashed in a field in Missouri and never made it home.
He had planned on spending the winter working in Central America before flying back up to Alaska for the summer. I think I figured I had his phone number so wherever our adventures took us I would surely see him down the road. I'm sure I will see him again down the road, and even though I don't have the images that prove he and I were both there, they are seared into my memory by that Alaskan midnight sun.
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Kat Carney is an outdoor adventure photographer. She loves surfing, climbing, canyoneering, and mountaineering, and can often be found wandering around both the east and west coasts in her built out suburban. See her adventure wedding portfolio at www.swellandstone.com.