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Completing the AlaskaAcross, an 80-kilometer journey on foot through a subarctic summer night

“You are the result of thousands of years of selection,” said Fran Kohl. “You have not even begun to fathom what you can do with these bodies and brains.”

Our friend, a biologist, provided a much-needed pep talk as she drove me, Bruno Grunau and Forest Wagner to Eagle Summit, an alpine peak rising above the boreal forest north of Fairbanks.

The three of us friends, traveling together in a pickup truck, had decided to take part in the Alaskacross, an 80-kilometer hike from Eagle Summit to Chena Hot Springs Resort.

AlaskAcross is like a shorter version of the summer Wilderness Classic race, where participants carry all their provisions and follow what they think is the fastest route from A to B.

That Saturday morning, nine people showed up at the parking lot at Eagle Summit, the trailhead for the Pinnell Mountain Trail. Most of them were familiar faces.

After crossing the highway with us, biologist Mark Ross asked us to look for the rare Gray-capped Chickadee and to take a photo of it if we saw one.

Someone said: go.

Everyone headed to Mastodon Dome with daypacks full of food for Chena Hot Springs.

Forest, Bruno and I took our place at the back, a place we would never give up. We were all happy with it; our common goal was to spend a lot of time together travelling around the country.

AlaskAcross is an adventure where all you have to do is add water. Someone else has made a plan and invited other people whose trails are fun to follow and interpret. All you have to do is navigate, eat and drink enough to keep from falling over, and stay on your feet long enough to reach the goal.

My partners are both long-time friends who have never met before. I was intrigued to hear Forest and Bruno chatting. I let my mind wander to their current topic and was happy to see my boys getting along so well.

While we had seen other racers start by trotting along a path through the Alps that had been paved for quads, Forest, Bruno and I started running with trekking poles, never making any progress faster than 6.4 km/h.

This slow pace was necessary for me, as I was mature enough to be my friends' uncle. I also needed Fran Kohl most of all to remind us that we had dusty tools in our boxes just waiting to be used.

One of them was the ability to resist the body's urge to sleep, which I try to do once a year around the summer solstice.

We had no sleeping bags or tents and were determined to fight through the mid-summer twilight. When the time came, at 12:27 a.m. we watched the sun set behind the hills to the northwest as we sat under a rock shelter on a ridge, peeling our wet sneakers from our shriveled feet.

With a stove and a small fuel bottle, we boiled water and had a coffee there. We were together as friends in this quiet area that we shared with hawk owls, golden plovers, grey-cheeked thrushes and ptarmigan. It was hard to imagine a time six months earlier when there were no beating hearts in the same place, everything was shrouded in darkness and an icy wind blew that could damage flesh in a matter of seconds.

The coffee filled us with euphoria.

Then came the next 10 hours.

The effects of the caffeine wore off as we navigated the green parts of the map for our chosen route, which featured dense dwarf birch bushes, hardened white claws from spruce branches burned 20 years ago, and a light tailwind that gave our mosquito retinues unhindered access to our faces.

Trying to shine through the thick smoke from the wildfires, the sun took on a ball the color of a popsicle.

This was also the time—from sunrise at 3:09 a.m. to about 7:00 a.m.—when our bodies begged us to drop and wrap ourselves around a bush.

The mosquitoes made that option less appealing, but most importantly, we made a mutual pact to keep our feet moving until we reached the arch at the entrance to Chena Hot Springs Resort.

The destination was still a long way off when we found a section of the trail used for the Yukon Quest sled dog race. In this race, held every February, the trail is a smooth white highway, nailed one foot above the hibernating mosquitoes.

In June the trail is good in places, but often turns into black puddles of water that want to suck your sneakers off your body. It's a dirt-smelling trail where yellow swallowtails land on the moisture. And it offers the mental relief of not having to look at the map.

There, on my burned feet, looking forward to wading through cold streams that sloshed across the path, I slowed my pace to an uncomfortably slow pace for my companions. They marched forward, and I was glad for the time alone to let my thoughts wander.

I thought about the first time I took part in this race 17 years ago with two other friends and how happy I was to still be taking part. Especially with these unusually good-natured companions.

As I continued walking, I was reminded once again of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who, after his failed attempt to reach the North Pole, suddenly found himself surrounded by sea ice and unable to find a way to the landmass he was looking for.

“Everything comes to an end, and this too,” he later wrote.

The older I get, the faster it comes to an end.

So I tried to be in the here and now and observed what lay before me: a clear stream running through white boulders, a goldcrest scolding a jay that had probably just robbed its nest, the tracks of a bear cub in the mud, apparently traveling without its mother.

Everything was fine, as was the sight of my friends sitting at stream crossings waiting for me.

Soon, just as Nansen said, at the end of a 60-mile road from Fairbanks was the entrance to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. We walked carefully to a rock wall and found Mark Ross's hidden clipboard.

Bruno signed us up 33 hours and two minutes after we set off from Eagle Summit. We had secured the last spot.

Bruno informed us that we were no threat to Curtis Henry. Curtis was alone in running shorts and carrying a backpack the size of a grapefruit. He had covered 80 kilometers of mining trail and mud in 13 hours, 20 hours faster than us.

Anna Harden

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