Whenever a picture of Pioneer Peak floats across my FB feed, I get an instant, kick-in-the-gut shot of nostalgia. There are few things that make me miss home like that mountain does. Knife edged peaks, seemingly snow-capped year round, thrusting straight up from the valley floor. Warm mellow light of an autumn sun painting the yellows and reds of the trees surrounding it, my favorite time of year. As much as I loved it, Pioneer Peak was not a regular scene in the backdrop of my childhood. It was this thing we saw when we started adventures.
Adventures like the State Fair, or even better, camping trips! We drove by that mountain on our way North. To Denali Park, to Talkeetna, Wonder Lake, all favorite camping spots. We camped a lot. Our family had an extra large, extra smelly, olive green canvas tent. Each of us had our own sleeping bag and backpack. The double burner Coleman stove meant stew at night and bacon in the morning. Tang and powdered milk rounded out beverages.
When we would find the perfect camping spot, my parents would first tie Bonnie and Randy, both toddlers, by a tether to the picnic table – This just makes me smile remembering it for some reason – then Ray and I were sent in search of firewood while my mom and dad wrestled the tent up. That tent served us well for more than twenty-five years. When my parents built their cabin at Indian River, it was home base. It met its end there, at Indian River at the claws of a grizzly.
Once the tent was pitched, the Coleman stove set up, and the stew bubbling away, my dad would release the little kids and take us exploring. We would wander down by whatever lake or river we had pitched camp. We would play at the edge. Searching for “gold.” Digging canals and diverting water was our favorite past time. My dad scouted fishing spots for the next day.
Dinner was served in cold black enamel bowls, and eaten with sturdy camping utensils. Washed in the river with sand, laid to dry on the picnic table. After dinner we would stoke up the fire, no s’mores in those days, just sticks to poke the flames. My dad and mom would finally relax, drink Amaretto from cold metal cups and my dad would tease and tell stories. Finally, the four of us kids were put to bed, the feel of the sleeping bag, fluffy, puffy, comfy and cool. It took a few minutes to warm up. We giggled and laughed and drifted off to sleep. My parents had a few minutes alone in front of the fire.
Waking up, the tent was always warm, overheated, the sun having been beating down on the canvas, the breath of six people made it steamy as well. My parents were up and dressed already, coffee perking on the stove. A big breakfast in the works. My dad had the tackle box laid out, flies, hooks, spinners and lures… sorting and organizing.
We fished, usually together as a family, we had our own fishing poles, miniature, but accurate. But we played more than we fished. My dad was pretty serious though, and eventually he would set out to “bushwhack” along the bank of the river and Ray and I followed. Often there was no trail and we pushed our way through alder, fern and devils club, swatting mosquitoes! Always mosquitoes. Us holding our breaths my dad’s command “Close your mouths. Close your eyes.” Then bombing us head to toe with a powerful cloud of Deet, now outlawed as horribly poisonous. Ahhhh…. the Sixties.
I loved to watch my dad fish, we had to be silent. “Quiet, the fish can hear you,” he’d whisper, a finger to his lips. We would play far enough away to prevent getting hit as my dad cast. He assumed a relaxed stance and then with a flick of his wrist, the fly whipped, whipped, whipped and tapped, tapped, tapped on the surface of the water. I watched, or I played in the water. As I got older, I would bring a book to read, I wasn’t terribly interested in fishing myself, not after I had caught a few over the years and realized I had to hit them on the head with a rock to still the thrashing then gut and clean any I caught. I didn’t love the act of fishing, but I loved going along anyway.
Back at camp we always took a nap, sprawled on top of our sleeping bags in that hot tent, zipped up tight against swarming mosquitoes. Dinner was fresh caught trout, rolled in cornmeal and fried in a cast iron pan. Another campfire, another night of sleep and then the chaos of breaking camp and heading home.
Heading home, back past Pioneer Peak, the sun setting behind now, casting shadows of blue and gray on those sharp peaks, back to Anchorage. Everything, sleeping bags, tents, “Aired out” on the front lawn before packing it up, ready for our next camping trip. Sometimes south, Quartz Creek, Moose Pass, The Kenai Penninsula, but more often North. North past Pioneer Peak.