“Why do you adults always talk so much?”
Those were the disapproving words my kid sister launched at my mom the moment the latter arrived on the other side of the bank from where the rest of our hiking party was one sweltering summer day in Eagle River.
My sis, who was only 7 at the time, had good reason to feel impatient. She had stood on the south bank of the ferocious Eagle River for over an hour, waiting as we — my mother, her friend and my middle sister and I — worked out a plan to cross the rushing water in an inflatable kayak that had sprung a leak. The situation looked dire.
But my ever resourceful and stubborn mother wasn’t about to give up the ghost.
It was one of those hot summer days in Alaska and Eagle River was flowing mighty strong due to the glacial melt. We had set out from the Eagle River Nature Center on a 10-mile hike deep into the valley where we would set up camp in a little-known cabin that had been built and lived in by a family nearly 30 years before.
The cabin rests in the shadow of Polar Bear Peak in the Eagle River valley, on the south bank of the river in a thicket of dense woods. It’s been a favorite spot of our family’s since we moved here nearly 22 years ago. Just about every summer of our childhood, my mother would take my two sisters and I out there, either returning the next day or continuing on to join up with the famed Crow Pass trail that ends in Girdwood.
We redundantly referred to our destination as “the 10-mile cabin,” but the route depended on how intense the river was flowing. A river crossing was required to reach this cabin, and our usual spot to cross was about seven miles in (to my memory). Catch it early enough in the day, and you probably don’t have much to worry about before the daytime temperatures rise, but spend the morning messing around and get there in the afternoon, you would likely stumble upon an angry creature that could sweep you off your feet upon crossing.
Of course, having to deal with three wild kids was no issue for my equally energetic mother, but for her hiking gal pal, Sandy, it could’ve been a handful, but a 10-mile odyssey would be sure to tire us out.
As we made our way along the trail that started out wide and gravelly and slowly withered to a slender line full of tree roots and rocks, the temperatures soared into T-shirt ranges. My mother kept us fed on a diet of Skittles, her secret trick to keeping us moving.
As we made our approach to our crossing spot, we could hear what sounded like rapids. To our dismay, the river was indeed flowing fast and furious, in no way suitable for crossing by foot.
As it looked more and more like we were going to have to turn back, our collective attention was quickly caught by a flash of red, the bright crimson of a passerby in the aforementioned inflatable kayak, a single-seater pod.
Our group flagged him down and the gentleman was kind enough to stop and consider our situation. Even kinder, he allowed us to use his vessel to ferry our butts across the river safely, one by one.
My mom took my youngest sister in her lap and got her over to the other side.
Upon her return, however, she realized that from the rubberized side of the kayak came a hissing sound, which was whispering to us in a teasing way. Really? This has to happen now?
My mother, Sandy and the understanding gent began throwing around ideas of what to do. Obviously someone had to get back across to pick up my stranded sister, but would it hold up for the return trip as well? (In hindsight, I’m amazed that a small girl stood alone next to untamed wilderness with no one to save her if a bear happened to show up.)
Ultimately, we decided that the hole was too much to attempt two crossings, so my mother would take a stab at getting across on a rapidly deflating boat. She made it. Barely. And a little wet.
It was then, as she clambered up the far side of the bank to reconnect with her daughter, that she was greeted with the famous words that she has retold many times since then. It’s essentially become a family joke.
Here was my sister, watching from afar and unable to hear our conversation, presuming that we were just having a jolly good time, talking about the weather and gossip from the community that was delaying our current trip, instead of hatching a plan to rescue her.
As the plan we decided on unfolded, my mother accompanied my sister to the cabin, another few miles on, while Sandy led my middle sibling and I on the safer, but much longer, route that brought us to the actual, accepted Crow Pass river crossing. The trail skirted the north side of Eagle River for an additional couple of miles past the cabin site, and once we reached the true river crossing, we would have to hike the same distance on the south side of the water.
The bloated river was made apparent by several flooded sections of the trail, which we navigated with a certain amount of wariness.
The water at the true river crossing was still high and swift, but not impassable, unlike our preferred spot. The three of us linked arms and weathered the deluge of glacial runoff just well enough. Soon we reconnected with mom, who had settled my youngest sister in the safety of the cabin and took off again to find us.
We arrived at the cabin, finally, to rest our weary bones, and before falling asleep decided that there would be no more major river crossings the next day. The plan changed for us to continue on to Girdwood in a one-way trip on the Crow Pass trail, where we would phone a friend for a pickup.
It had been a time, but mom’s love was made obvious that day when she risked her well-being straddling a deflating raft of air and rubber to reunite with her daughter and keep our family together. This Mother’s Day, I know I’ll be thinking of mom and thanking her for our outdoor adventures and for raising us the right way, even if it included getting into a little trouble.