Back Right where a side channel rubs up against a washed-out portion of the stream bank, I step into the dense bush. Stika alders close tightly around me. It's a jungle of limbs and trunks rising from a sea of moss, ferns and other low-lying vegetation. Visibility is twenty yards at best. I don't like it. I feel vulnerable in here. Behind every clump of green there could be a sleeping bear who's in no mood for company. I push through the bush, fingering the trigger on a can of red pepper spray that someone with an evil sense of humor nicknamed "bear repellant." This non-lethal weapon provides no comfort whatsoever when visibility drops to ten yards. The firearm strapped to my side isn't much better in that respect. Visibility is everything. In an attempt to make light of the situation, I start singing a whimsical little ditty about me and Mr. Bear, making up the words as I go. It doesn't help. In fact, when visibility drops to five yards, I stop singing and start laughing nervously at my predicament. "Alaska, for chrissakes," I mutter into the bush, as my lower lip quivers around a fading grin, "What the hell am I doing here?" Once the muscles in my face have tightened into a grimace, I stop dead in my tracks. Then come the tears. I'd be utterly ashamed of myself, if there was anyone around to see me. But that's a big "if." Deep wilderness solitude strips away all inhibition. Thirty-six years on this planet and I have never felt terror such as this. Behind every cluster of leaves and stems lurks a huge predator capable of tearing open my chest with one swipe. The bush itself seems menacing, claustrophobic. I can't breathe. Then it occurs to me: if I go down here, who will ever know? Less than a mile from camp, I have vanished into the bush. Coming to Alaska was a big mistake. Coming in here was an even bigger one. My gut tells me to get the hell out of here, return to the relative safety of open ground. Common sense demands that I go directly back to base camp and stay there until pickup. But I haven't come over 4,000 miles just to cower in my tent for two and a half weeks, have I? No sir. So I take a deep breath and press forward, singing an old Beatles tune, Norwegian Wood, to calm my nerves. What is it again, my reason for being here? Oh yeah, to confront my Maker somewhere deep in that valley ahead or die trying. Well, considering the circumstances, the latter seems most likely. But I'm here now, so I might as well keep going. Hmm. . . Spiritual enlightenment as hairshirt adventure, as life-threatening experience. . . Where do I get such ideas? No doubt about it now, I'm God's fool. A set of small tracks pressed deep into the mud next to a rivulet assures me that I'm not the only creature on the menu out here. Looks like some kind of weasel passed this way recently. I step over the rivulet, entering a relatively open forest. The dense alder bush gives way to a stand of towering cottonwoods. I breathe easy again. Although the devil's club growing thick beneath the cottonwoods is difficult to plow through, now at least I can see what's around me. The river comes back into view and that's no small consolation. I follow a bend in the river, picking my way through downed trees and stumps chewed to points by beavers. This familiar sight reminds me of home. If it wasn't for the scale of things, I could be tramping through Vermont woods. Not completely out of my element, anyhow. Next