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  • Writer's picturecoffeeandwoodsmoke

on fog and topographic maps

We prepared three weeks for this moment.

We learned the art of orienteering–navigating with topographic maps and compasses–to find our way through the Alaskan wilderness and arrive each day at a designated camp site. We crossed glacial-fed rivers, icy and slick-bottomed, carefully and safely. We practiced placing our food storage, cooking, and sleeping areas in a triangle, all points at least 100 yards apart, to minimize the possibility of bear incidents. (We had, indeed, watched a grizzly meander through the cook site our second day out.) We tromped through a hundred miles of ankle-bending, lemon-scented, spongy tundra; delicately picked our way across steep scree slopes; kick-stepped our way up and over snowy mountain passes.

And now, the moment had arrived to put that knowledge and experience to the test: we set out on our own for a five-day small group excursion. We felt prepared. Our topo map lay folded inside a ziploc bag, protected from the elements. The drainage confluence where we were to rendezvous with the other small groups and instructors in several days’ time was marked clearly amongst its squiggles.

The first three days went well enough.

When we awoke the fourth day–our last full day as a small group–we unzipped the tent fly and looked outside. By all appearances, there was nothing to see. A thicket of fog enveloped our world. We pulled the topo map out of its plastic bag, unfolded it and pressed it against the tent floor. We noted the dot that signified the spot where we planned to camp at the end of the day. Scrutinized the terrain between here and there. Took note of the mountain ridges and river bends that were to provide us with reference. Re-read our route description:

Head north towards pass between 5306-foot peak and-4950 foot peak. Go through pass, drop to a 4000-foot elevation and traverse around gully/gorge with river at bottom. Two peaks to NE (5300-foot and 5623 foot): go through the pass between these two peaks. Immediately cross one tributary. Campsite is at 3900 feet between this crossed tributary and next tributary.

We looked outside again.

All our waypoints and geographic guideposts had been swallowed up in a giant, grey cloud. There was nothing by which we could chart our course. The map and route guidance seemed almost worthless. We could train our compasses and hope we were going the right direction, but without the peaks, gullies, and tributaries serving as reference points, we couldn’t be sure.

We dressed in layers of fleece and Gore-Tex, pulled on woolen socks and heavy boots, and made our way to the cook site. Huddled around the hiss of the Whisperlite stove, we were quiet. We sipped hot tea and ate breakfast, then broke down camp and loaded our packs. We trained our compasses and set out the only way we knew how:

Mindfully, one foot in front of the other.

What should have been a relatively routine six-mile hike turned into a twelve hour slog. We hiked in circles. Once, certain we were on the right trajectory, we walked up and up (and up) to what we thought was the saddle we needed to cross. At the top, a sheer cliff awaited us. We looked at the map and deduced where we must be–far astray from our charted course. We backtracked and corrected. We pitched a quick temporary camp when rumbles of thunder met us on high ground. We munched on mac and cheese and tried to keep spirits up.

We ultimately came upon another of the small groups, likewise turned around and disoriented. They had called it a day and pitched their tents in our campsite. So we continued on, out of their sight, to a similarly suitable spot. We crawled into our canvas palaces and collapsed.

The next day, the curtain had lifted.

Some years out, what I remember most about that day are the colors: the greens of tundra, greys of fog, bright blues of our rain slickers. Also the colors of emotion. Determination and endurance. Exhaustion and giddiness-beyond-exhaustion. Gratitude for the long hours of light that grace Alaskan summer days.

I’ve never found it particularly helpful to make new year’s resolutions. I do find this time of year lends itself to reflection, however, and a chance to be more aware of the way in which I wish to navigate the path ahead.

As I look outside now, white clouds wrap the mountains and snowflakes swirl to the ground. As I look inside, I contemplate some big changes looming on the horizon. I notice a stirring of some of the emotions that surfaced that day in the fog in Alaska’s Talkeetna mountains. Uncertainty. Apprehension. Unsure of my course, I clutch a map whose utility seems questionable.

Yet I have to have faith. In the weeks, months, and years I’ve spent preparing for the trek ahead. In the tools I’ve been given, the skills I’ve learned. In the icy rivers I’ve crossed and steep mountain passes I’ve traversed. In the small-but-mighty group I have around me for love and support. With the knowledge that I can always course correct, I have faith that somehow I will find my way to the confluence. And so I enter the new year the only way I know how:

Mindfully, one foot in front of the other.

Maple Chipotle Pecans

We rarely stopped for a full lunch while backpacking (mac and cheese in thunderstorm excepted). Instead, we steadily munched on trail mix throughout the day. The dried apricots, plums, and M&Ms were prized, and it took willpower of epic proportions to ration them until the next resupply.

Fortunately I don’t need to ration these spiced pecans. I go through batch after batch this time of year. They bake up quickly. They’re warming and crunchy, sweet and salty, and all-around addicting. Use them to top oatmeal or a salad; to add a depth of flavor to granola; or to enjoy by the handful as a snack. These are my all-time favorite spiced nuts. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!


  1. 2 1/2 C raw pecans

  2. 1 T butter or olive oil

  3. 2 T real maple syrup

  4. 1/2 t cinnamon

  5. 1/2 t sea salt

  6. 1/4-1/2 t chipotle chili powder (or cayenne, if you want a bigger kick!)


  1. Preheat oven to 250F.

  2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

  3. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat (or heat the olive oil till warm).

  4. Whisk in the maple syrup, cinnamon, chili powder, and salt until well-combined.

  5. Add the pecans and stir to coat them evenly with maple syrup-spice mixture.

  6. Place pecans in a single layer on the parchment-lined cookie sheet.

  7. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven to stir.

  8. Return to oven and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven to stir.

  9. Return to oven and bake for 10 more minutes.

  10. Remove from the oven and carefully lift the parchment paper (with the pecans still on it) and transfer to a plate or cooling rack to cool.

  11. Once cool, store in an airtight container for several days (if they last that long!). They also freeze well if you want to make a larger batch and store some.

  12. Enjoy!

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