An Icy Odyssey

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Step, crunch, breathe, sink, dig, gasp. Sob, dig, sink, step, breathe. My hiking poles afforded me reduced gravity atop the 18 inches of freshly fallen snow. The price was sharply aching shoulders, burning lungs and exhausted hands. There's a saying that Alaska is always trying to kill you. I can confirm its omnipresent murderous intentions but in equal measure its breathtaking beauty, intoxicatingly crisp air and inimitable sense of the 'wild'. Ahead of me lay a trail peppered with mucky water trenches carved into knee deep craters by the monstrous 4x4's of burley moose hunters. Each step brought wetter, colder feet and the niggling question "Why am I here?" The doubts raged. "My legs are numb", "I’m neither butch nor burley", "Wolves sense fear and bears do shit in the woods". In spite of my inner drama and soft, city boy demeanor I knew what had lead me to this new icy reality. A belief that clear and present danger (other than life in Brixton) could force me to connect with my ambition; a growing need for adventure and a poignant film about a guy who died in the wild had inspired me Northward. I had landed in Anchorage four days earlier with an unneccesarily heavy bag and connected with a group of strangers from an internet forum dedicated to hikers wishing to retrace the steps of one Christopher McCandless.

The story of Christopher (AKA Alexander Supertramp), as chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’ and a later movie of the same name, has inspired adventure seekers from around the world to visit the vast Alaskan interior. Having donated his college fund to charity, he hiked, hitched and kayaked around America, burning his remaining cash and abandoning his car along the way. In April 1992, with the intention of living solely from the land’s bounty, he began a solo quest along the Stampede Trail on the edges of Denali National Park, Alaska. His backpack contained a book about native plants and berries, a camera, rice, cooking utensils, a journal, fishing twine and hook, a rifle with ammunition and Pasternak's ‘Dr Zhivago'. Roughly twenty miles into the trail he happened upon an abandoned 1946 International Harvester bus left as shelter for trappers, dog mushers and other back country visitors. Making it his home he lived aboard his ‘magic bus' for four months experiencing his ultimate freedom and sustaining himself on what he gathered and hunted. Journal entries portray a man for the most part content with his own company and the fruits of his solitude. From what I’ve read and seen, at an indeterminable point Chris’s desire to remain alone gave way to his need for others. A sub note "Happiness only real when shared" scribbled in his copy of ‘Dr Zhivago’ points to a shift in his desire for detachment and continued hermitry. Raging river levels lead to an unsuccessful attempt to return to civilization. Becoming effectively trapped in his paradise, his food source diminished leading him, perhaps in desperation, to consume misidentified toxic seeds. Poisoned and incapable of gathering food he weakened and starved. His body was found wrapped in his sleeping bag aboard bus 142 by hunters three weeks later.

I recognize the irony of ‘pilgrims’, such as myself, wishing to escape to the wilderness on a path that is now well travelled. The essence of Chris's journey was facing the unknown. Being ignorant of the difference between an elk and a moose or indeed a mongoose for that matter - I felt it wise to have the security of company and perhaps a map, Kindle and abundant toilet paper. Upon our arrival we found locals almost universally berating our adventure as foolhardy. More than one bearded resident lectured us on our seemingly unjustifiable honoring of an under prepared drifter who lacked respect for the power of nature. At best we were met with weary but kind advice not to die and reminders that rescue services regularly pluck hapless, helpless, hopeless hikers to safety and the shame of public defeat. Whilst these people clearly see Chris's actions as arrogant and foolish, I see his tenacious perseverance as noble and brave. Rejecting materialism and embracing the unpredictability of such an unforgiving place is to me, inspiring. Suggesting he was foolish is to suggest dreams should only be followed when success is guaranteed.

I believe Chris’s success was hampered more by bad luck than his incapability or youthful zeal. The seeds he consumed have only since his death been proven as toxic - most relevantly to those on a limited diet such as his. Had his botany book carried this warning he would have undoubtedly hiked out from the trail to congratulatory back slapping by the very ones who now scoff his efforts. I see a young man who happily survived prolonged hardship beyond what most could endure in order to be immersed in the landscape he loved; a man of determined conviction and principle; a man who needed to isolate himself in order to discover the joy of people; a man who so meaningfully found happiness was 'only real when shared’ when it was tragically too late. To learn this precious lesson with a life still left to live it by is, to me, a gift more valuable than anything. My hike gave me unprecedented joy, adventure and four new friends with whom I laughed, struggled and grew. We relied on each other for warmth and company. We supported, accepted and helped each other. Our efforts fell short of reaching Alexander Supertramp’s magic bus. Relentless snow halted our advancement after 9 miles. Crossing the river that trapped Chris held clear and present danger given the sub zero temperatures and persistent snow fall. Wishing not to suffer the embarrassment of rescue or indeed to be the main characters in a second rate sequel, we turned back heavy hearted. The hike back was the most physically grueling experience of my life. I never want to see a protein bar again but drinking fresh glacial water straight from the stream was a sensation I’ll cherish over most. Despite the disappointment I can't see our journey as any failure. I experienced nature's purity, abundance and unpredictability in a way that was humbling but not belittling. Merely to exist in it was empowering. I was warmed by the sound of distant, icy, howling winds from inside a snug, snow covered tent. I marvelled agog at a moose gliding his mammoth frame through the valley below and breathed air so clean as to make my lungs new. Wedging my feet into boots frozen solid and using body heat to defrost socks that stood vertical from the previous day’s wetting was a challenge that brought out my precious side - (apologies to Katrin, John Paul, Joey and Hugo). I've waded through knee high snow atop ankle deep mud and sloshed through ice cold streams for mile on end imagining hungry bears and wolves around every corner. I have felt I was the first to ever step in the spot I was standing, pushed myself to exhaustion and learnt it can awaken ancient determination. I also mercifully avoided any abrasive alternatives to loo roll and learned the difference between a moose, an elk and a mongoose. The bus remains there to coax me back to Alaska - rusting silently in the endless freezing landscape Alexander Supertramp enjoyed as his own. I believe I’ll get there to leave my trinket of respect - as many have before me but really - the magic bus has already given me more than I hoped it could and for now, my photos can be my tribute to a real adventurer.

Back Into the Wild

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After 34 kms, through a winding forest trail, deep mucky trenches, waist height glacial melt and mountains of barely concealed personal mini drama, the bus appeared round a long wide corner - as if presenting itself with a leafy drum roll. My legs were lead and my shoulders burned a weird pain that was both dull and numb in equal measure. The vehicle sits back from the trail - bigger than I had thought it would be and more imposing than I could have imagined. Arriving in convoy, minutes apart, we just stood in silence - shaking our weary heads in disbelief, all caught in the rusty stare of the 1946 Harvester Fairbanks transit bus - the final home and deathplace of Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp. The planning, the failure, the fear, excitement, cold, wet and uncertainty finally concluded into an utterly surreal moment where folklore met reality. They say you should never meet your hero's - that the real thing can only be a disappointment from the myth of perfection you've built. The theory held no sway - nothing could detract from our moment - we had made it.

I dumped my backpack without care of its contents and floated toward the bus. The tyres' flatness concealed at ground level gave the appearance of the whole structure sinking into the soil - time and gravity rooting it to this most unlikely setting. I touched the cracking turquoise paint to help my senses catch up with my eyes - I needed it to feel real. The evening sun glowed rich and warm down the left side Chris had posed for his now famous self-portrait. Dappled, tree top light melted it into the landscape. My brain soaked in the ‘thereness’ - hyper aware of every sense around me - it was electric and real - like a mindful hallucination. I ventured on board with the quiet respect one might adopt on entering a wake. Afraid to disrupt what so many love - The weight of the well wishes of those that had come before me in floor to ceiling heartfelt messages. Tributes to travel, odes to adventure and heartfelt homilies to perseverance etched and scrawled in every corner. Gifts and trinkets hung in abundance - a dream catcher, a dangling hook string, a padlock with inscription - all homages to their legend. The everyday items he had used placed his ghost right in front of me. The barrel heater, the table, the bed on which he spent his final weeks effectively starving. With a dwindling food source Chris had consumed misidentified toxic potato seeds which compounded the effects of malnutrition. His body was found wrapped in his sleeping bag three weeks later by moose hunters. The previous 3 months had seen him subside alone on whatever the land gave him; living his personal adventure amidst the uncaring, unforgiving but inimitable beauty of the Alaskan Interior. A book 'Into the Wild' and Hollywood film of the same name chronicled his travels around America and his meaningful affect on numerous lives on his way to his final resting place. All around me were supplies left by visitors to help future ‘pilgrims'. The essence of human kindness evident at every step. Blankets, sleeping bags, rice, a spoon - simple items that mean everything if required so far from the supposed safety of convenience. As the dusky Alaskan summer 'night' fell we sipped whiskey and dried our socks with the shadows of our bonfire dancing over the dented, rusting hulk whose allure had enticed and haunted us with the addiction of a drug.

A smatter of gunshot wounds on the roof show how varied the feelings toward Bus 142 are. Locals, at best, had rolled their eyes when we talked of our plans along the way from Anchorage. At worst, they would intimate that this under-prepared city boy got what he deserved. Having stopped by a hard-wear store in Healy to supplement our hodge podge of camping paraphernalia, we were asked by a bearded man in a lumberjack shirt why we would bother visiting where 'some drifter had died'. We had withered without an answer perhaps seeing an appeal to his romantic side as more risky than the trail itself. To be fair, I can see where their frustration comes from. The danger of the river crossings are real and present and sadly, people have died attempting the trail. Seasoned hunters with decades of experience surviving the unpredictable and unforgiving landscape can understandably feel defensive and dismissive of those putting themselves into harms way - to honor a person they see as reckless and incapable. Having walked Chris's footsteps and spent one precious night by his magic bus I'm all the more enthralled by his efforts and achievements. Under-prepared as he may have been he existed in the harshest of terrain without modern convenience nor company. The pursuit of adventure mixed with naive zeal is arguably a dangerous combination but without it where would we be? The next morning a rainbow appeared over the bus with the back drop of blue clouds and tree tops. It was like nature’s thumbs up to our voyage. I affixed my trinket to the ceiling. I'm usually guilty of numbness in such ‘real' moments but my emotions were reachable and plenty. That moment gave my journey an eternal sense of validity.

Talking with my fellow hikers we agreed we felt the bus held no sadness - no record of loss. We could only sense adventure and achievement - both his and ours. Chris braved what countless only dream of and in paying the ultimate price, he inspired countless more to step out of their comfort zones. Is 'Into the Wild' an overly romanticised account of his story? In my view - I would say most likely it is. Having since talked to a trusted person who met him shortly before leaving Fairbanks, I must recognise the role Hollywood has played in the construction of the legend. I feel there is so much speculation as to his motives and state of mind I would think it impossible to pin down many concrete facts of the real Christopher McCandless. Depending on your background and demographic the pendulum of opinion is likely to swing wildly between mysterious, melancholy drifter, troubled, lonely young man and arrogant, ill informed dreamer. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between these depictions but more importantly the wonderment and inspiration the story offers is as real as any argument either way. The essence of disappearing to the ‘wild' stirs in us something deeply emotive. I believe it is ancient and pervading - that it is part of our human condition. Alexander Supertramp took his chance and it is where his enduring legend status is richly deserved. I believe he sought healing in nature and it is an urge I have allowed myself follow. I hope and believe that his final months gave him peace and freedom. To finish on this chapter, as is often the case - thinking of a retort months after it is required - all things considered I now know how I could respond to that bearded man in Healy. I did not go to see where a drifter died - I went to see where Chris lived.

Mark's Garden

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As we ambled through the densely bordered Alaskan brush, Mark regaled us with tales of grizzly bear attacks, facts on geology, flora and fauna and stories of neighbours past and present. Our guide possessed a way of imparting knowledge that ensured its beneficiary felt effortlessly informed. He could animate every seed’s purpose and benefit, life span and cycle. His beard and burly appearance compliment perfectly a gentle bearish persona. He is a man as adept with a sewing machine as he is an axe. Eagerly accepting an invitation to visit his homestead, I accompanied two visiting artists to Mark’s house for dinner one early Autumn evening. He collected us from the relative bustle of McCarthy and drove us to the closest point a vehicle can navigate. The final mile, we would hike.

I was initially inspired to visit Alaska by the story of a young man who perished in his pursuit of the ‘Wild'. After visiting his death place, a rusting 1946 Fairbanks transit bus, I travelled further around America’s largest state, somewhat aimlessly, in the ignorance that I, after camping for 5 days, had experienced the essence of living in the wild. I had learned not to expect congratulations from locals at achieving my quest to honour Christopher McCandless. His mere mention attracted mocking scorn at best. After my pilgrimage to his ‘Magic Bus’, made famous in the book and film ‘Into the Wild’, I happened on a quirky town in the foothills of the Wrangell St Elias National Park. With the benevolent support of a local artist and business owner I achieved a placement on an artist's residency which enabled me to stay and become part of this eccentric community. Actors, writers, singers and misfits by day chopped wood and drove noisy four wheelers carelessly. By night the same bearded men and beautiful women drank whiskey, danced, sang and congregated by bonfires. It was like an Alaskan ‘Dirty Dancing'. In volunteering as a gardener, I came to meet Mark, who’s involvement in the Wrangell Mountain Centre and town council was long and respected. He had a sort of understated prominence that only became apparent as you knew him more. He had bought his land, roughly 12 miles from the townships of McCarthy/Kennicott in the early 1980’s without having ever visited the area. Living the first few bitter winters in various vehicles on the perimeter of his land, he painstakingly cut a mile through the forest and picked what he felt the right location on which to build. The last 30 years saw him create a bountiful vegetable garden and homely cabin allowing him to sustain himself on less than $4k pa.

Walking onward through deeper forest, our host imparted his encyclopedic knowledge with a contagious, childlike fascination. Pausing at an absent neighbour’s cabin he talked us through an extensive rock collection left like an open exhibition piece. It felt like a history of the earth itself. His generosity with knowledge defines him - as does the altruism I found in Alaskans alike. Onward through pretty moss covered paths we past tree hung antlers, long abandoned shacks and stationary rusting trucks slowly disappearing into the encroaching greenery. Mark proudly pointed out a moose jaw bone, forever part of the tree that had grown around it - a macabre mix of animal and plant. We continued, single file along a double width section of path, our guide just ahead. Watching him from behind, his solitary stride left a human sized space to his left, highlighting to me, the lack of another. I wondered was his life of financial independence costly in terms of human interaction? He is a person who engages warmly and openly. It didn’t seem likely to me that he would run or shy from human contact. As if preempting my thought process, he discussed his necessity in negotiating a difference between ‘loneliness' and ‘aloneness'. It was a statement that held as much poignancy as it did pride. Talking later it was reaffirmed to me that his choice of remoteness was more to do with escaping a life of debt and mindless consumerism. Simply put 'Why sprint to stand still?’ Reaching his work shed and the first of his vegetable beds he gathered what would be part of our meal. I enjoyed a tour of his main enclosure taking direction on what not to trod on and where to pause. He pointed out, with clear annoyance the scourge of moose tramplings in the same way a London gardener might bemoan slugs. Gently inspecting this leaf and that petal he talked me through what would soon be harvested and what might need more care. I stood back from him as he inspected his plants, to see a man so wonderfully defined by and in tune with his surroundings. We moved inward to the cabin. From my seat I could spy jars of pickled vegetables, salmon and moose meat lining the cluttered shadowy shelves. His life clung to every surface. It felt like a human cave - dark and safe; cluttered, cosy and comforting. Freshly gathered fruit and vegetables sat on newspaper, their muted vibrance like a renaissance painting. Onions dried, chunks of wood lay waiting for fire; jumbled books lined endless rows. This building was as much part of him as his skin. As dusk fell I went to use the outhouse, leaving the others inside sipping box wine and chatting as if old friends. Standing out of sight of the cabin’s windows I took a moment to soak in my surroundings. A mute wind chime swung gently. The trees swayed as if in slow motion - Fireweed Mountain towered confidently close by. There was a special sort of silence. I stood, cradled by a still bearable autumn breeze, completely content and surrounded by a life's work.

The remoteness of this dwelling translated into a strange sense of safety. He had made the unknown ‘known’. The ‘wild', tame. To imagine a life here is as Inspiring as it is terrifying. I realised how little I knew of surviving and this had become my new yard stick. When it came time to head back to McCarthy we set out into the ever darkening forest, equipped with head lamps and the confidence of giddy drunkenness. We were approaching the darkest part of the year before late autumn’s black nights are illuminated with snow fall. In spite of my smug self-anointed bravery at camping alone on the outskirts of town, It was still inconceivable a thought to walk through a forest alone at night. When blackness begins barely past one’s feet and the trees hide the darkest figures of your childhood fears, senses lurch into hyper-drive. Psithurism, instead of soothing, becomes a siren that makes your ears stand on edge. Sensing my growing agitation, Mark calmly encouraged a moment of mindful readjustment. Guiding our eyes upward he explained that if he forgot his head lamp, the tree tips would lead him home. We turned off our lights and saw the route emerge against the stars. These moments of connected safety were central to the healing I personally sought. Fearing not a forest at dark, to me, is the ultimate freedom. Connecting with one’s relative safeness is to connect with one’s breathing; one’s life. If you’re not afraid here - you’re not afraid anywhere. It’s odd to imagine what a random combination of events could lead me to compare two men whose desires to seek out the ‘wild' were each executed so differently. Mark’s methodology stands in complete contrast to Christopher’s meandering adventures. Two men each attempting to seek the solace of Alaska’s wilderness with the irony of the least successful being the most widely honoured. If a man survives in the forest - does it make a noise? With the popularity of 'Into the Wild' It could be argued not. Was it Chris's tragic death that gives his story more perceived romance? The irresistible narrative of a lonely drifter succumbing to nature’s brutality just as he learns his life lesson overshadows that of long term methodical planning and hard work. I’m not turning my back on Christopher - his story inspired me toward my life’s biggest turning point. Fighting my head to follow my heart rewarded me richly and it was his journey that helped me conceive my own. There is a place for risk and for spontaneity. The evolution of my opinion is more to do with witnessing first hand the result of sustained perseverance, hard work, gradual planning and measured maturity. This piece and these photos are to pay respect to those efforts. I met a man who made the ‘wild’ his home inch by inch and piece by piece, through ingenuity and single-minded ambition. Having met Mark and many more unsung hardy and hearty frontier folk like him, I feel I am a touch closer to understanding the sacrifice and hardship a life in the wild demands. You could say, I suppose, I have seen the wood for the trees :)

The Eagles Nest

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'I can’t do it’. After a gruelling five hour upward hike, my goal seemed unreachable. The Erie Mine Bunkhouse, now just metres away, sat beyond an unexpected, razor thin ledge, which was less a problem than the terrifying sheer drop it crowned. 'It’s not the fall that kills you - it’s the sudden stop at the end' I recalled reading somewhere. The bunkhouse, long revered for its impossibly lofty position, was demanding one more test of my worthiness, like an ancient gate keeper taunting the hero with a final riddle. While indeed proud of my progress, I’m no Indiana Jones. I’m an acrophobic Irishman with a known history of hang overs and hysteria. ‘Why do you need to photograph some wreck, anyway’, I thought, already bargaining defeat. Attempts at self trickery fell flat. Past this ledge lay precious treasures.

I had flown by the remains of the Erie Mine in the summer of 2016 while living in the Wrangell St Elias National Park, Alaska. After a sunset pleasure flight in a two seater Cessna, my pilot friend and I had descended over the Root Glacier en route back to McCarthy. Feeling like a speck of dust amidst the landscape’s majesty, I caught my first glimpse of the partially collapsed structure, perched precariously on the northern flank of Bonanza Ridge, 1200 feet above the glacial moraine. Completed in 1924, the building, aptly known as the ‘Eagle’s nest', was left to the elements with the closing of the Kennecott copper mine just fourteen years later. The working men were given just one day to vacate their home. Posters were left hung on walls, shoes strewn on floors, plates on tables and linen on the beds. The plane flew on and the building fell out of sight. Its weathered facade spoke of perseverance and the merciless march of time. This was a human place - as unique as it was unlikely. It was distant, dangerous and fast disappearing. I needed to get there and given the building's swiftly worsening structural state, I’d need to be quick.

Over the coming months I investigated the route. The miners had been transported by tram, a mechanism long dismantled. The only way up to this mountain-top Marie Celeste was on foot, climbing above the site and scaling down Bonanza’s steep cliff edge. Any mention of my aim was met with parent-like looks of concern, and stories of tetanus, loose scree and broken limbs. Having spent the winter in Ireland, I journeyed back to McCarthy in June 2017 with my resolve barely intact and secured a willing team. Conveniently forgetting to mention the 'ledge of doom', my fellow hikers, both locals, altruistically tricked me to this final point, where my desires could battle my dread in full sight of the prize. And there I found myself, with a year’s ambition wilting by the minute. The loose rock bordering the ledge, if grabbed for support, disintegrated to shards, like a cruel and dangerous joke. My whimpering escalated, as tears of frustration and panic filled my eyes. 'Paul, Look at me! Put your foot there and take my hand,' a calm yet decisive voice distracted my demons. I gulped, grabbing Bryan's out-stretched arm and launched myself over the chasm. Crumbling to the ground, I feverishly expressed relief and gratitude peppered with repeated profanity. I had passed the test.

The final triumphant trek lead us over various dismembered beams and planks, dislodged by blizzards and gales. The building’s front aspect is of breath taking beauty, with the glacier far below undulating south in icy waves. Piercing blue pools and a sea of white hugeness reflect light all around. Donohoe peak lies opposite; its ancient limestone slabs slicing diagonally downward. We entered the building to the rear to find a long, dusty mess hall, mostly intact. Every step was taken with the uncomfortable thought that it could be our last. Having battled Alaska’s harsh conditions unprotected these 80 years, the building could easily be coaxed to collapse by the movements of three heavily bearded men. Buried in a real-life deck of cards, we would be hours from help. We ventured forth, like children alone in a toy shop at night - cautious, curious and alive with expectation. Peering into my camera bag, too giddy to choose a lens, my mind raced at so many objects, angles, corners and stories. ‘Breathe’. The ceiling above the main room has long buckled downward, spewing part of the upstairs corridor to the ground floor. A section of wall on the far side caves noticeably inward as though being nudged ever closer to infinity by the mountain behind. This battle for territory holds irresistible drama. Nature’s desire to erase these man-made aberrations creates hybrid spaces, temporary and ever changing. The first two bunk rooms sit far left in opposing corners, the right hand of which offers a dual aspect glacierscape. Bunkbeds sit peering through glassless windows. Rust spilling from the white wooden wall slats resembles dried blood. ‘Eerie’, I mused, considering the aptness as an icy breeze sliced through the summer’s warmth.

Past the mess hall lies a dark, dusty pantry where desolate shelves speak eloquently of emptiness. Food is life and both are long gone. The kitchen's roof has also buckled, rendering the room impenetrable. A further social space beyond hosts a chaotic array of broken chairs and barrel heaters. The remnants of half burnt candles cast the shadows of midnight card games, and illicit whiskey drinking. These walls recorded brawls and banter, cheer and loss over many long winters. Here had been a place of sanctuary and conversation where backgrounds blurred and words, foreign and native, built brotherly bonds. These men had come to work in a land so inhospitable and unknown, rooms like this were as close to comfort as they could be. Time has not erased this. Its passing amplifies it. Swapping my lenses, I worked with hurried efficiency. Rain clouds had settled and the light was dropping fast. Moving upward, I tread the stairs carefully, naively believing gentle steps might lessen my body’s weight. The rain drops tapping inward guided us to safer spots. Avoiding the wettest floorboards ensured the best load bearing surface. The landing, lit from a front aspect window, offers a long view toward two further bunk rooms. Every detail spoke of people. A twisted rag, now ingrained on the rotting floorboard, once soothed an aching man’s shivers. Its final resting place made the perfect composition with Donohoe Peak peering in from across the glacier. A rubber boot lay flopped double, echoing century-old footsteps, ready for battle and weary from work. Becoming fixated at every step, I was only urged onward by excited calls from Bryan and Jeremy, telling of yet more trinkets. I paused at the frame of each consecutive door, to imagine faces that peered to whitewash wilderness from windows glowing orange as the dark winter raged. In the corner of a rear facing bunk room we found the tiniest scrap of a poster still stuck to the wall. An unidentifiable 1930s starlet, her gaze fixed, her oglers long dead.

The far side of the corridor offers two more doorways to front facing rooms, each minus their ceiling. The missing, front ‘4th wall’ leaves them bare to a breathtaking panorama. They have become like a stage, with Donohoe their audience. Bunks that hosted the homesick dreams of Erie’s workers now lie rusting and strewn with debris. These spaces, once cosy and safe, now freeze under winter’s blanket for much of the year. It is amongst the most peculiar places I’ve ever visited. Perhaps not the top or the edge of the world but somewhere close to both. It is remote, fragile and awe-inspiring. The corridor, at a point, becomes too dangerous to tackle, having suffered almost complete collapse. Given our bountiful findings, any further risk seemed unnecessary. As if waking from a dream, our hike home became more real and the blue light of dusk continued its creep. We retraced our trusted steps, gathered our thoughts and our things and reluctantly left the barracks. My second brush with 'the ledge', whilst still a challenge, involved a considerably lower volume of whimper. With my feet firmly on the home-side of the chasm, I felt like my own hero. The process of dereliction and nature’s roll in that drives me forward in my work. The 80 winters since desertion have created a new space; half from nature, half from man. Seeing these artifacts frozen in their authentic state connects me to the past in an extraordinarily immersive way, so far from the caricature of ‘vintage’ we are so often sold. As objects reach out to us from across decades and centuries they gift us stories of lives we’ll never live and people we’ll never meet. Erie Bunkhouse offers history as untouched as can be expected. Its position is as impossible as its continued survival. Someday when I hear its walls have succumbed, I’ll feel ever the more honoured to have walked its halls and met its ghosts. Paint fades, metal rusts, wood cracks and people die but it’s in the darkest corners I’ve found the most meaningful stories, so rarely found more than in this unlikely 'Eagles Nest'.