Outdoors & Recreation

Backpacking with Mike

A little back story before I get started…

I met Mike and Pam Nickols back in 2000. My oldest brother spent a year living in Alaska and was fortunate enough to become close friends with their son, Aaron. So, on his regular Sunday afternoon phone calls home, he would sometimes mention the Nickols family, along with the lodge that they owned and could only get to by float plane. It all sounded interesting, but I couldn’t quite grasp the true concept of someplace that remote!

The rest of my family finally had the pleasure of meeting the Nickols when we traveled to Alaska on vacation from our Montana home in the summer of 2000. My brother introduced us to their family and we learned they had also called Montana home for many years before moving into the Alaskan wilderness back in ’92. We never got a chance to see their home that summer but visited with them after they had flown into town for supplies. Some of the stories and experiences they’ve had throughout the years are nothing short of amazing. It was a long time ago now, so I’m not too sure, but I think our first introduction and visit with the Nickols ended with something like “Well, next time you’re up north we should have you folks in and see the place.” There was no doubt that a great, life-long friendship had been established in a very short period of time.

“When you visit out here
you don’t just experience nature,  
you become a part of nature.”

Fast-forward two years to the summer of 2002. My dad quit his job, and our “self-employed” travels brought us back to Alaska … as if we needed much of an excuse to see this place again. We took Mike and Pam up on their offer and finally got to see the beautiful piece of land that they call home. It took Alaska Floatplane Company two trips to get all of us and our luggage out to the lodge. It’s really a hard feeling to describe, but as you step off the plane, make your way from the dock up to the deck of the lodge, and watch as the floatplane disappears out of sight, the realization comes over you that there is no road to this place. There are no neighbors, no traffic, no city lights … nothing. It really brought new meaning to the phrase “peace and quiet.” When you visit out here you don’t just experience nature, you become a part of nature.

Now, on with the real story.

In the summer of 2005, Aaron was off fighting for our country in the Marine Corp, so Mike and Pam called me and asked if I would like to come out and help with a couple day hikes and backpacking trips. They were booked up with quite a few guests, and Mike thought he could use another set of hands around the place. Over the years since that first summer visit, I’ve been out to the lodge multiple times to help. So when Mike and Pam called me up and said they could use my help, I knew my job description, no questions asked. They would generally fly me in a day or two before the arrival of guests so I could help them get caught up with mowing the lawn, sanding the deck to apply a new coat of stain, making up beds, etc. But my job description always changed the very moment the guests stepped off the plane and onto the dock. Mike and Pam would welcome everyone, introduce themselves, and then half-way jokingly introduce me as their assistant guide. I liked it! I had a title! My duties then became packing luggage, interacting with the guests, playing the guitar, paddling a canoe, packing extra gear on hikes, spotting wildlife, and just trying to hone my “BS” skills. Well, Mike called it “BSing,” but it was most always answering some of the most random questions you could think of. One thing I love about tourists: they are where they are for a reason. They want to be here. They have dreamed of traveling to Alaska and have finally made it happen. Now that they are on “holiday,” they want to learn as much about the place as possible … and that can make for some pretty funny questions sometimes. Genuine, thought-out, heart-felt … but funny.

One of the most common questions we hear usually comes sometime after dinner on the second day. People have had a little time to think about life in the “bush,” and just the most basic things can start to baffle them. It is always some variation of “what do you do with the garbage out here?” I was always ready for this question and had my answer well-rehearsed. I would reply something like, “Well, we try to find heavy rocks to load into the bags, so when a garbage bag gets full we can just sink it in the lake. But after doing it for so many years, good, smooth rocks are getting harder and harder to find around here.” (I guess some of Mike’s BS was rubbing off on me after all!) I would let that sink in for just a few seconds and enjoy the puzzled and sometimes disgusted look on their faces before cracking a smile and explaining that I was joking and that garbage bags get flown out every time we make a trip into town.

My favorite memory of this infamous prank happened one afternoon as I was walking from the lodge out to my cabin and I overheard a gentleman from Seattle asking Mike about garbage disposal while they were sitting on the deck. I chuckled to myself as Mike started on about the rocks… Well, a couple hours passed, and I guess Mike didn’t tell this poor guy that he was joking because after dinner, the man quietly approached me when Mike wasn’t around, and with a slightly concerned look on his face, he asked me, “So, what do you guys do with full trash bags out here? Do you burn everything?” It was like Christmas morning! I couldn’t believe that he was actually asking me this question, and I had the opportunity to sell the same story Mike had told him earlier. I thought about just leaving it at that and walking away, but I felt so bad for this guy. He was genuinely concerned and had just got the same stupid story from two different people who he thought must have not cared a lick about the planet… I instantly cracked and told him that we were both wholeheartedly joking. After he knew that, his face lit up, and we all had a good laugh about it.

” … if you think you see something and
start making a big deal of it,
and it turns out to be nothing,  
some people can get pretty upset.”

The next morning, we took the folks from Seattle on a great day-hike along with another couple from D.C.. We made our way up to Bear Point to look for wildlife. Bear Point has a 360 degree view of the valleys below and makes for good wildlife viewing opportunities. When Mike and I are on a hike together, he’s in the lead with the “bear gun,” and I take up the back just to keep an eye on folks and make sure everyone is trekking along. But this was one of my first wildlife viewing/day-hike/lots-of-people-around type of a hike. On this particular day, Mike called me up to the front in a nonchalant way to talk to me very quietly about how tourists have high expectations to see wildlife. As their guide, he’s always a little on edge until the first animal is spotted. He then told me, “Do what you can to spot something, but quietly let me know first, so I can verify it. Then I’ll make the announcement, because if you think you see something and start making a big deal of it, and it turns out to be nothing, some people can get pretty upset.” I took this advice very seriously; I didn’t want Mike, or myself for that matter, to look like a fool. After all, we were the guides … well, I was the assistant guide … Mike always made sure to remind me of that, especially after this particular hike.

I grew up in the mountains of Northwest Montana and have been spotting wildlife since I was in diapers. On hunting trips, my dad and brothers wanted me along way before I was old enough to actually do the hunting because I had a knack for finding the animals. So after Mike had this talk with me, and it had settled in for a bit, I thought to myself, “Shoot, I’ll spot something before Mike, and I’ll show him.”

Our group of eight made it to the summit, got settled in, enjoyed some blueberries, and started looking for animals. A few of the guests had their own binoculars, and Mike had an extra pair to share, but Mike and I had spotting scopes to get some serious “glassing” done. I scanned a small area around a lake, and it took me all of about five minutes before I knew without doubt that I had just laid eyes on two large bull moose hanging out, eating lunch and soaking up the sun. There was no way I needed Mike’s “verification” on these two giants. I was instantly excited, so I calmed my breathing, took a couple extra seconds to make sure of what I saw, and ran through that whole conversation with Mike in my head one last time before blurting out, “I’ve got two bull moose here.” Mike pulled his face away from his scope and looked at me like I had just burped the ABCs in front of the Queen of England. He kept calm though. Mike is a pretty easy going character, and it takes a lot to get him riled up. But I’ve known Mike long enough to know that the gap between his eyeballs and his eyebrows was a bit larger than normal, and that was a sure sign that I had surprised him … a lot. Mike said in a half whisper, something like, “Oh yeah? Let’s check that out.” Too late, I thought to myself. I already had everyone all excited!

But sure enough, there were two big bull moose, and our guests got to enjoy watching them for a long time. A little later, we ended up seeing a little black bear too. We spent the day sitting on the mountain, eating trail mix, and soaking in the sun and beauty around us, not to mention Denali and the rest of the Alaska Mountain Range that you can see from Bear Point. It ended up being a good day.

Zac and Mike at Caribou Lodge.

Zac and Mike at Caribou Lodge.

As for me, well, I felt pretty good about myself after spotting two moose and taking the pressure off of Mike, so he could just relax. I mean, shoot fire, I was moving up in the world! If I was getting paid, I may have even gotten a raise. At the end of the day, we headed back down the trail to the lodge, and Mike made sure to let everyone know how Zac had done a “great job spottin’ today … for an assistant guide.”


Story by Zac Bramante

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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