Maintaining a high level of professionalism while possibly being stalked by a bear isn't a science. It's an art.
That Time I Got Lost In The Woods (While On A Conference Call)
photos and words by felicia williams // girdwood, alaska// west coast travel resources
You are now leaving Alyeska Resort property. If you need assistance, please dial 911. I nod curtly at this signpost, whose ominous words stand sentry at the entrance to the Winner Creek Trail. Not to be out done, a second sign (dressed fancifully with clipart-style bear footprints and moose silhouettes) gives a stern warning about the ample presence of these native beasts in the area. Would be hikers are advised to “make noise” while on the trail head and to “not approach” wildlife for photos.
A final sign informs hikers that they absolutely, positively, cannot outrun a bear, so no use trying. I shrug my small backpack of supplies more firmly onto my shoulders, swallow a rapid breath, and press into the trees.
It’s approximately 10:30am in the morning and the cold frost from the night before is sparkling on every leaf, branch and moss-covered trunk along the trail, which cuts through the northernmost rain forest in North America. Earlier in the morning, I was recommended to walk this trail, which is best known for its ease, its beauty, and an old-timey hand tram that’s popular with guests.
“It’s great for photographs too,” my stout, lady concierge assured me, leaning over her ample bosom and pushing a large map under my curious gaze. “People love to wheel themselves out over the river, then pause to take pictures while hanging over top it!”
She beamed at me with a broad smile, nodding meaningfully at my Nikon. Carefully, she turned the map in order to show the trail entrance and indicated the length of the path using the tip of her pen.
“Follow it along here to get to the tram. It’s about a five mile hike all together and much of the path features stunning nature views. I’m sure you’ll love it!”
I am happy to find that the trail is stunning. More sidewalk, than forest floor, with long brown planks that span over small creek interludes and stony patches or gray, grizzled rock. The sun is pouring from behind the tall trees and illuminates the misty forest floor. I purposefully drag my feet every so often to rustle up what I hope to be the appropriate amount of noise required for hikers.
After a short while, I come to a particularly lovely part of the path, which presents me with a ripe opportunity for some rain forest self-portraits. I swing the backpack off my shoulders and begin to unpack my light weight tripod and alternate lens.
After I set up, I am met with full weight of the forest’s silence for the first time during the hike. Standing a few paces in front my Nikon, its shutter snapping quietly away into the hush, I am suddenly very aware.
I am aware of the wind, the rustling of the trees and the sounds of my breathing. I’m also, very, very alone.
Unnerved, I quickly dismantle my setup, keeping the lightweight tripod extended, but compressed in my gloved hand.
People have died for selfies, I think miserably, my eyes darting around my surroundings. I will not be one of them.
I walk further along the trail for another thirty or so minutes and find myself increasingly disturbed by how utterly alone I am. Not a single person emerges along the path, and the subtle movements of unseen tiny animals in the brush, are beginning to prickle at the back of my brain.
A chipmunk darts out from under a leaf and my lungs compress in fear, as if caught in a metal trap. I glare at it. It stops on a rock, keeping me in its sights, while rudely nibbling its food in full view of my terrified stare. I move further into the forest.
In order to soothe my nerves, I am struck by inspiration, and decide to learn the lyrics of “Robin Hood And Lil’ John” so that I can sing it glibly in the forest. I see that my phone has full cell range and I look up the YouTube video and set the sound to play from the speaker. Roger Miller’s voice croons out of my phone, his folksy drawl and lazy guitar strums reverberate between the dense trees. I am cheered somewhat by this and find myself smiling again.
Another thirty or so minutes goes by. The woodsy colors around me turn from sun baked to cool mystery, and between capturing close ups pictures of mushrooms and broken branches, I am no closer to the tram. Nor am I interrupted by anyone or anything else except the constant rustle in the trees.
Normally, as a seasoned solo travel, when I find myself in an isolated area, I become increasingly wary of strangers, particularly men. I am always on the lookout for my best exit strategy, in case I need to remove myself quickly from a situation.
At this point, however, I found myself wishing for a man, any man really, to suddenly appear.
He could be the sketchiest, most leery human on earth, I think to myself glumly. As long as I am not caught by a bear alone.
I wince at the thought.
Ping! I jump at the sound of my phone and look rapidly down at the screen. A calendar toast greets my gaze.
Conference Call With Senior Artist Candidate, Farris Newman: Begins in 30 minutes.
This month, a team I am working with is trying to move quickly on staffing up for some important initiatives. Farris Newman, is a new candidate, and with our compressed timeline, I'm eager to learn more about him.
My trip to Alaska, having been barely planned (I bought the ticket on my lunch hour and flew out that evening), meant I had to field this first screening call mid trip. My plan had been to be at the hotel during the call. So far, so fail.
I look around me in exasperation. How am I still in the woods at this hour, and just where the happy hell is this hand tram?
I look down at the cracked screen and frown inwardly. With two hours of walking under my belt, I quickly decide that I have come too far to turn back, so I will press forward. That said, I need to be sure I can fulfill my work engagement, so I decide to make a test call. I find my contact and give it a ring.
“Oh hey, Felicia! How’s it going?”
My reception with Sara is crystal clear and I mentally take note of my surroundings for reference.
Sara, a colleague of mine, will also be joining the call, and this test call was perfect to get caught up about Farris’ resume and experience before the meeting. After a quick work rundown, we chat idly about my predicament. I even poke fun at my bear fears and she laughs (albeit nervously) along with me.
After a pleasant good-bye, I hang up. I walk a few feet and crest a small, muddy hill.
Clearing the incline, and with twenty minutes to spare, and look down and find a fork in the road. In the center stands a sign.
At long last, a sign. A literal sign! And was it just me, or was there a strong beacon of golden sunshine, pouring out from the trees and creating a perfectly round pool of light to illuminate my discovery? I move deftly towards the wooden signage and read.
To my left is the hand tram, to my right another trail.
Curious about the distance markers, I take a moment to pull up google maps to see if I can geo-locate myself. I am elated to see the familiar red pinpoint load up, but am quickly disappointed by the visual of a smooth, uninterrupted gray background. Apparently the trail head is not in google’s interface. To them, I am simply in the middle of, well, nothing.
I navigate to a drawn map of the trail head, posted to Alyeska’s site. It’s quite dense, with several paths winding through the woods and wrapping their way around the mountain sides.
While it doesn’t give the amount of detail I am hoping for, I squeeze the home and lock keys together for a screen grab, just in case.
With renewed vigor, I make my way down the trail towards the tram. I am now walking alongside a small but swift creek, and the rush of water is getting louder with every step. The flow is moving in the same direction as my footsteps, and I feel excited that soon I will find this silly tram, take my picture, and exit bear free.
It’s only another ten minutes of fast hiking, through a multitude of photo worthy forest scenes, when I round a corner and see the hand tram. And what’s more, I see people!
There are just so many people! Seven, whole, uneaten, un-trampled, people. A wave of relief ripples its way up my body and escapes as a laugh from my lips.
The hand tram, as I can best make out, is a slim, wire cage, attached to a pulley system made of thick, sturdy cable. The cables span across a wide gorge through the woods, with end points constructed on both sides of two towering cliff faces. Glacier Creek runs through the gorge, a roaring body of water, which sends up a cool mist from nearly one hundred feet below.
After a shy couple makes their way across, I step into the swinging metal cage, and three men standing on our side of the cliff’s edge, helpfully begin pulling at the bottom rope.
The cage pitches wildly at the movement, and I steady myself as best I can, gripping my phone as it records my slow progress toward the middle of the creek. The green and gold trees quietly shed their leaves into the thrashing river below, and the sun pours down on the valley and mountain rim alike. I breathed in the steadily warming air and smile.
I am pulled back by my football team of men, who now look absolutely exhausted. I try giving the rope a pull and find that it’s nearly impossible with my strength alone. The cage is simply too heavy and the chord too slippery for me to get a grip. The fact that three men happened to be at the tram, ready and willing to pull me across was amazing. Luck of the ta’veren, I must say.
I look down at my phone and it’s go time. I walk back the way I came, following along the creeks edge, and move quickly to get out of earshot of my fellow man. Soon, I am a good ways away from both the tram and the other hiking groups.
My phone buzzes and I am patched into the call.
“Hello? Is this Felicia?”
“Yes. Is this Farris?”
“Yes! Nice to meet you! Let me patch in Sara…”
Once Sara is on, we all exchange the expected pleasantries and spend a minute or two on small talk, which includes me explaining to Farris my location status.
With that finished, I take quick control of the call, giving Farris an overview of my background and about the project needs. I am thoroughly impressed with his portfolio, and from all angles, he seems a great fit for the project. Now is the time to dig deeper into his personality and work style, and sell him on the idea of joining our team.
I am still walking as I talk, so I try and keep my pace steady. I don’t want to sound winded, but I also don’t want to just stand around and wait for trouble either.
I keep my eyes locked either at the path beneath my feet, or look casually off to the creek beside me. All the while, a steady stream of chatty consciousness flowed from my brain and into the call.
After nearly ten minutes of uninterrupted speaking, Sara gently moves in to give her perspective on the project as well.
The gives me a blissful moment of time to breath and I look up to take full stock of my surroundings for the first time since I joined the call.
Hmm, I think to myself. Things, aren’t looking sooo familiar. I glance around. I’m clearly still on a path, which is well worn and beside the creek, but things feel a little off. Since I haven’t been walking that long from the time I turned back, I mentally wave my concerns aside and continue forward. The call goes on.
Every so often, I jump into the conversation with comments or questions, which returns my full attention to the meeting. However, with every pause in my own contributions, my mind began quietly taking stock of the alien landscape that was beginning to unfold before me.
That grass, I’ve never laid eyes on that grass before. This mud, I’ve never walked through this mud before. And why is the mountain suddenly so big? And why is the river so close?
A twig breaks in the woods and so does my attention to the call. I stop dead on the path with my heart racing and my mouth drying, pulling in breath after heavy breath of cold, hard, fear.
This is not where I am suppose to be. But just how far I've come or where along the winding path I am, is completely unknowable. I turn swiftly back around with my phone pressed to my ear, as Sara and Farris continue to chat pleasantly, oblivious to the panic rising in my chest.
I am lost.
I casually throw in a question to the group, doing my level best to keep my voice pleasant and engaged, asking after a portion of Farris’ experience.
As he launches into an answer, I peel my phone from my cheek and place it on speaker so that I can bring up some help. Perhaps I can find another map or try another service to locate where I am. I press the internet icon.
To my horror, all of the phone’s auxiliary power is being directed at the call and the internet is completely incapable of loading. I scramble my way to the screenshot and find I am unable to make sense of the jumble of trails, so tiny and understated in their rendering.
I try to mentally remember the map from when I was with the concierge but find myself too panicked to remember all the details.
I squeeze my eyes shut, then open them back onto the forest floor. I am clearly on a trail, but the question is, will this trail bring me back to the hotel, or drag me further into the woods?
Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement on the creek side of the trail and I spin towards it so fast that I nearly slip into a mud bank. Nothing greets my gaze but a dense set trees, with the creek bubbling ominously behind them, promising to drown out the sounds of my screams should I have reason to shriek anytime soon.
“H-hey guys,” I laugh nervously into the phone. “ I think maybe...I’ve lost the trail that leads back to my hotel. So, unfortunately, I may have to go soon-”
“Felicia?” Sara asks me suddenly, in a clear, brusque voice.
“Yes?” I repeat with some irritation.
“Oh. Hey, you’re breaking up. What was that you said?”
I meet this thunderous news for the horror that it is, in paltry silence.
For the entire call, I have been able to hear Sara and Farris as clear as a bell. But wherever I am now, the signal isn't clear enough to get out. And if it’s not clear enough for them to hear me, then it may not be clear enough for 911 to hear me. I suppress a whimper from escaping my throat.
I do not repeat my last statement. Instead I move forward onto the path which is angling up. My thought is, higher ground, clearer signal. Farris cuts in and asks me a question about team culture and I try engaging in the conversation.
I am a few seconds into my answer, Sara suddenly interjects.
“Felicia! Girl, you’re gonna have to stop moving. You’re breaking up.”
Her tone is exasperated but I have no way of reversing the rising anxiety that is rolling off me in waves. I pause on the path, gulping down bubbling panic and try to retain some decorum, all while answering Farris’s inquiry in the middle of the god-forsaken wilderness. The mountain is waaaay too close.
Just as I am finishing my thought, and Sara takes a turn at bat, a low rumbling sound grows just behind me.
My heart claws its way up my windpipe and I feel my feet spring off the ground like grease on hot griddle. I sprint up the muddy incline, now, barely caring if they can hear my ragged breath and thunderous footsteps. The sound climbs high over me, and at the peak of my panic, I see the blades of a helicopter move across the sky.
It’s been nearly an hour into the call, and my nerves are shot. I try interjecting into the conversation, once again, that I must go. I feel terribly rude about it, but again, they cannot hear my plea clearly.
As I round yet another unfamiliar corner, I see a small, metal can laying casually on the path in front of me. As I get closer, I peer down at the muddy label.
And that, my friends, was the last straw.
I back away slowly, nearly dropping the phone from my face as my hands go weak. Time temporarily warps, and I look down to see that I have pull up the text app and am sending a silent alert to Sara that I must go, now. The outgoing progress bar moves at an excruciatingly slow pace, before finally exiting in a swoosh.
Decorum abandoned on the muddy floor, I press into the call, and make my final excuses. I apologize profusely, and promise a follow up call. Sara volunteers to stay on the call a little longer, but I don’t hear Farris’ answer. I cut their goodbyes off in short order at the press of the hangup button. All of my senses suddenly explode into overdrive.
I run like a mad woman, turning tail back up the path, back the way I came, feet splashing through muddy banks, the roar of the creek beside me and my blood thundering in my skull. Up and over various ridges, through bushy grass and noisy gravel, my feet make messy work of the trail, noisily ripping through the occasional patch of underbrush.
A little ways down, through my nearly blind panic, I see a small sign in the distance, and at that sign, a fork in the road. It is the very same fork from before, but this time, I see that I am on the other side of it. It seems, that in the first minutes of the call, I must have walked down the wrong path, missing the turn for the hotel completely.
At the fork in the road, I pause by leaning on the signpost, pulling in breath after breath of air, exhausted but feeling temporarily shielded by this beacon of civilization in the woods. I move my feet in the direction that points towards the hotel, dragging them purposefully, rustling up enough sound to wake the dead.
As I walk, the sites turn from alien to familiar. Looking at my phone screen temporarily, I see that it has been nearly five hours since I entered the woods.
The sun is high in the sky and I strip off my coat and tie it around my waist, my hair disheveled from my panic, sticking sweetly to my sweaty cheeks. I draw a long drink of water from my nearly forgotten water bottle.
As I get closer to the entrance of the trail, I see a lone couple coming up the path to begin their own hike. I keep my face down and hustle past them.
I round the final bend of the path and see the postings for the hotel ground off in the distance, along with the bear and moose warnings signs. I also see, to my chagrin, several groups of friends, walking up the trail head to begin their own hikes.
I look at each of them, stony-faced, a pained smile turning up with some effort at the corner of my mouth. My gaze settles into the eyes of one round faced woman.
Just where the f*ck were all of you people when I was lost out there, being tracked by god knows what!
Inwardly, I am mentally screaming at her. Outwardly, my stare burns through her, filled with my unwarranted accusation. She returns my stony glare with a warm, genuine smile.
I look away in my own disgust. I hope you all get eaten, I think unfairly, shuffling my feet all the way off of the path.