With the magnificent strength of a stoned beached sea lion, I pulled myself from my bunk at Top Forks Hut in Mount Aspiring National Park, discreetly sequestering my hiking paraphernalia to head out for a 20-mile day. The dirt path was veiled by the cold shadows of glaciated mountains which stood as chaperons spying in on my field trip, and hovering over the valley as massive rock fences dividing the land.
The frigid air pierced my hands like syringes.
Raynaud’s disease is an icy bitch.
The wooden signs on the trail which indicated direction, did not speak in kilometers or miles; they spoke in time. For example, the sign would state, “Carol Baskins Lake, 3-4 hours”, with an arrow pointing you towards your vision quest path of exploration.
I could call it a trail, but vision quest path of exploration sounds more majestic.
The route passed several lakes, ending at Lake Castalia, which appeared as a carved stone bowl full of bright blue liquid.
I tried to come up with a bright blue liquid to describe the water in a clever way, so out of curiosity I put the words in a search engine. The website came up with, GHB, the date rape drug.
“Lake Castalia, which appeared as a carved stone bowl full of date rape drugs”, seemed somewhat aggressive.
The trail grabbed roots climbing into the forest, crossing multiple streams that devoured my feet alive and spit them out frozen and half dead back onto sub alpine vegetation.
I passed the stagnant Lake Diana, which gave way to a flooded swamp I had to ford like a bipedal alligator.
After my terrible impression of an alligator, I wandered through a vast grassland, full of tall biting weeds, moist with dew and drooling all over my legs, like a gorgeous plant dog park.
The trail split, and to the left I found Lake Lucidus, a moraine lake surrounded by hefty boulders shit out by glaciers. It was a regal, foggy blue due to the rock flour suspended in it, ground from the teeth of glaciers above.
I caught the right fork of the trail after, which pulled my body up through absurdly royal scenery causing me to laugh out loud like a crazed person who just won the lottery.
I believe there is a feeling tied to this- Something like joy.
The final push to Lake Castalia involved numerous river fords and scrambling up loose boulders; a toll to weed out the weak.
Castalia was a gem on a beach of stones.
The water was illuminated bright blue (all the date rape drugs), and sat deep under a ring of mountains capped by glaciers.
Of course my picture looks like shit, but if you google the lake, everyone else has managed to take pictures that got them laid on Instagram.
I paused for a moment, snacking on the inspiring view; a fertilizer for my brain. After licking the plate of spirituality clean, I traveled back towards the hut to gather the non-essential day hiking gear I had left that I wouldn’t need in a mountain zombie attack or last minute heist.
On the jaunt back, I noticed an odd warm sensation in the skin of my legs, and a redness spreading over them, which I attributed to an STD from the wet grass molesting me all morning . By the time I arrived at the hut however, my skin stretched and tightened around my upper legs, attempting to find their capacity for inner filling, like when you squeeze a swollen sausage and stop right before the meat bursts through a split in the lining.
This proved to be too exciting to keep moving, and my eyes dropped to investigate.
I mean, who doesn’t love a good sausage.
To my surprise, I was covered in hives.
I was only allergic to soy, shell fish and penicillin.
Perhaps I had rubbed up against an elusive shell fish bush?
I feel like I would have smelt it.
I followed the track 10 miles or so back to Kern Forks Hut, itching my swollen legs and obsessing over the dangerous Wilkin River crossing where the drunk Uber ship had dropped me off the day before. The water was deeper and faster than anything else I had attempted other than the Makaroa River, which was a bust.
The failure to execute would require a night’s stay and expensive boat ride the next day when they released hikers on shore; this was not the option of choice. I wanted to make a successful ford, so I could finish the loop up to Siberian Hut, climbing up to Crucible Lake, and cruising out the Blue Pools track. Sometimes my need for triumph concerns me, and I have to remind myself that no one is immune from accidents.
Not even this fake hero.
At Kern Forks, two young men sat on the front porch shoveling food into their mouth holes. The shorter of the two boasted that he forded the stream within the past hour, while his friend admitted he was too afraid and waited for the jet boat to show up and take him across.
I missed the boat.
I always knew I was a unicorn.
“Where did you cross?” I asked relieved that it was possible.
“Above the fork.” He instructed. “I would find another spot, the water rose up to my chest there.” He warned.
I studied the man. He was quite a bit shorter than me, hopefully giving me a tall woman at a concert’s advantage.
“Well, if you see my body floating down stream, you’ll know I didn’t make it.”
We laughed anxiously, and I walked away.
Humor in the face of fear. What a fantastically cheap mask.
The Wilkin River spilled out before my feet, flowing from my left side to my right. I considered the subtle movements of the water caressing the stones beneath it with dominant grace, like Godzilla petting a kitten. My eyes rolled over the currents as I paced the bank, evaluating the risk with deep intensity.
My eyebrows furrowed. I wasn’t worried about drowning necessarily, I figured if I slipped I would rip my arms from my back and swim to the closest side. The problem with losing my pack however, was that my Garmin Inreach (a tracking device my family back home used to pin point my location), would float down the river with the pack and lead my loved ones to believe I died.
That would prove to be unpleasant.
My lack of passport would also verify my unfortunate displeasure.
I re homed my cellphone and Inreach into the dry sanctuary of my bag in an attempt to keep them safe if my bag went under. These movements were powerful. I watched my hands work meticulously, like they belonged to someone else. No way did I plan to be washed down stream, so why was I preparing for it?
Because, it could happen.
The line I choose to traverse, proved to be the same course the previous man had chosen; the shallowest and widest spot, allowing the current to spread out over a larger surface area.
Time to grab my gourd and ford.
-Wow, I wrote that statement above after some wine last night. That’s embarrassing.
I threw my pack on leaving the waist strap unclipped so it would slide easily off me if I were pulled under. Stomping out aggressively, I invaded the thin layer of water allowing the hellish liquid to fill my shoes.
I marched out in my rage against the barrier and water crept up my ankles, my knees and next, my thighs.
The success of my efforts unfolded as the water gave way to my plan, and a small flicker of new self-confidence took light in my soul; until the ground sank from below me and drown the flame.
My body lowered into the water as if I had stepped off a stair bringing rippling water up to the bottom of my backpack and slapping my chest.
I took a couple more carefully placed steps, fighting the substantial massacre of water aiming to rip me under.
This was it. The moment I needed to admit defeat, but it was too late.
My right foot ripped out from under me, yielding to the crushing weight in front of it.
Flooded with dread, I slammed my trekking pole deep into the water, leaning on it as an extension of myself. Core engaged and arms heaving into my poles I caught my balance. I declared myself winner of the tug of war pulling my foot with tremendous deliberation, shoving my toes deliberately into the rocks below.
I turned to my left unemotionally deserting my journey for the Siberian Hut and searched over the invisible path I had taken.
The bank loomed far away. I peered over my right shoulder glancing at the original finish line.
I stood in the middle of the river.
It made no difference if I turned around, the depth of the water remained the same 5 feet in either direction.
I needed to move; the water sloshed up under my ribs and I didn’t know how much longer I could stay in the bizarre statue I had found myself in, frozen, as if maybe the river wouldn’t know I was there if I didn’t move.
One heavy step at a time, I maneuvered myself through the exhausting current. Gradually I felt the water loosen its death grip down my thighs, to my knees and then my feet.
I made it.
I MADE IT.
I yanked my cold drenched body upon the opposite shore and hurled my pack to the ground for a wild and sobering celebration.
“YAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY” I wailed, jumping up and down and throwing my arms around like a wacky waving inflatable tube man. “YAYYYYYYYYYYY I MADE IT!!! OWEEEEEE. OWE. OUCH!”
My party ended before I could stamp the invitations.
The arch of my left foot lit up with a sharp pain I can only characterize as incredibly unfair. There I was celebrating my incredulous journey, and my foot had to fuck it all up.
I suppose when you spend most of your time walking all over something it will retaliate at some point.
I shifted my weight to my right and sunk my rump down on a rock. This was the same peculiar ache I had felt during my last trip. I had hiked 20 miles that day as well, and by the end of the day I limped and the next day I walked normally.
Spoiler alert, I would not be so lucky this time.