MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — Deep in the bowels of Alaska’s Brooks Range, Dave Metz found himself performing a dry-land version of the breast stroke as he “swam” through miles and miles of thick brush.
Feet sloshing through muck, and with his trusted Airedale dog Will behind him, Metz spent entire days putting his hands together in front of his face and parting the thick brush like a swimmer slicing through the water.
“You have to walk with your hands free and literally have to peel the brush apart,” Metz says. “Up and over ridge after ridge; it can be really discouraging.”
The Roseburg native swam the Brooks brush until he plopped out onto a dirt road near the Canadian border town of Old Crow to complete a journey every bit as difficult as it sounds insane.
Last summer, the 47-year-old Metz completed a three-year, more than 1,200-mile hike from one end of Alaska’s remote Brooks Range to the other, blazing his own trail through some of North America’s roughest and most remote lands.
He faced grizzly bears, had a stare-down with a pack of wolves, perpetually fought hunger and once went 50 straight days without seeing another person, all the while wondering whether this goal hatched 15 years earlier was doable.
“I don’t think I ever got over it, but I got better at it,” Metz says. “Sometimes I’d say out loud, ‘I’m hiking across the Brooks Range. I’m really going to do it.’ “
But Will and the dog’s brother Jimmy always seemed to believe in Metz. Though Jimmy died of cancer before the final leg of the journey, Will was there to slip through those final thickets to find his feet touching graded dirt as if he expected it to be there all along.
“I think they thought the whole ordeal was a game,” says Metz, who now lives in Cottage Grove.
The three legs were stretched over a five-year period, and in between Metz wrote a book about part of the journey called “Crossing the Gates of Alaska,” (Kensington Pub., $14.95). Published in 2010, the book details the first 600 miles of the trek from the Northwest coast to the Dalton Highway during four months in 2007.
Metz, who grew up hiking with dogs, already had several Alaskan adventures under his belt when at age 30 he became entranced by the Brooks Range, the continent’s northernmost range that spans 700 miles and divides the North Pacific and Arctic oceans.
Two years later, he began his quest. He was intent upon hiking the entire range in one trek, but he started in June and had to abort his attempt when he realized he had started too late and didn’t plan well enough.
“I was under-prepared,” he says.
Better prepared in 2007, he started at the North Pacific shore on skis, traversing large chunks of land each day and camping in temperatures of 20-below zero. He’d generally carry about a month’s worth of food for him and his dogs, picking up pre-shipped boxes of about 100 pounds of food at villages along the way.
“Food was always a challenge,” he says. “On the last stretch, I lost 20 pounds in 27 days, which is something I didn’t think was even possible.”
The Airedales ate better than Metz.
“I didn’t want my ambition to be a struggle for them,” he says.
Near the end of that leg came the one and only time Metz used the satellite phone he carried to call in an emergency food drop via a float plane after he realized he wouldn’t reach the town where he next box of food was waiting for him.
The four-month leg included 50 days without seeing another soul.
“I was talking to myself a lot at the end of that stretch,” he says. “You just can’t let the enormity of it get to you.”
He relied on a GPS, topo maps and eyeballing mountain peaks to orient himself. He figures 1 percent of the hike was on trails or roads, with small game trails occasionally useful.
But he always had the Airedales, who carried 20-pound packs themselves without wavering.
“They were pretty inspirational,” he says. “They often set an example for me to stay positive and upbeat.”
After that first stretch, he returned to Oregon and his job as a seasonal biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, thinking that might be it.
“I thought I’d never do anything this hard again,” Metz says. “After a year, I started to get the itch again.”
After writing his book, Metz and his dogs returned to Alaska in 2009, logging roughly 300 miles as the crow flies from the Dalton Highway to the border of Canada’s Yukon Territory in two months.
He returned last summer to finish the final 270 miles in less than a month, but with only one dog.
Metz occasionally carried a shotgun and always carried bear spray, constantly talking and making noise as he pushed through the dense brush.
“I did not want to get in a face-to-face encounter with a bear in the brush,” he says.
He saw many grizzlies, usually from a distance of a half-mile or so, and he varied his course to avoid them. Once, however, he and the dogs startled a grizzly that was about 40 yards away, and it took off running.
“It was probably more afraid of me than I was of him,” Metz says.
The wolves, however, spooked Metz. Once, a pack watched them from 40 to 50 yards away.
“They were really big,” he says. They just stood there, calmly looking at us. After a few minutes, they walked away.”
With the Brooks Range behind him, Metz doesn’t have any bucket-list hikes in his immediate sights, but he expects to be back in Alaska soon with a pack on his back and Will at his side.
“I certainly think I’ll take a trip there this summer, but definitely not a trip that far,” he says.