Outdoors & Recreation

Heli-Camping and Alpine Hiking

Written by
Zac Bramante

After taking over operations at Caribou Lodge, a remote fly-in lodge owned by my wife and me, I quickly learned that as the hiking guide, I not only have to be knowledgeable, but very mentally prepared—for anything! Camping with clients is far different than camping with friends and family. If you're into any outdoor activities, chances are you have those select partners that you can trust with your life and with whom you have the most fun. With friends and family, I don't always take the easiest hiking routes. I don't set up anyone else's tent or make the coffee and food for everyone on the trip. And I definitely am not the only one carrying pepper spray or keeping an eye out for bears. It wasn’t until I was packed and ready to hop in a helicopter with a couple of clients that I realized the mental strain bringing a group of strangers into the Alaskan wilderness can cause.

On this particular back-country trip, I was guiding three men from Germany deep into the Talkeetna Mountains here in Southcentral Alaska. This is an amazing trip, far above the treeline, where glaciers consume the tops of untouchable peaks in the high alpine draws, and where only bear, wolf, fox, and caribou roam. If you're lucky, somewhere after the green tundra ends and the snow capped peaks disappear into the fog, you’ll see mountain goats and Dall sheep.

After the helicopter landed at the lodge with the first two guys and some of their gear, I greeted Emil and Anska, and one of them handed my brother a large bag filled with two cases of beer. This beer was to stay at the lodge for three days until our return from the camping trip, so they would have it to drink when they came back for their two-night stay in the cabins. Emil was a big, tall guy with nice trekking poles strapped to his bag. Anska borrowed my trekking poles, but had a very well-worn quality pair of hiking boots. At this point I made two simple observations: one, they like to hike; two, they like to drink. But there was no more beer left on the helicopter, so I didn't think too much about it... We hopped into the helicopter and after slipping the headphones on, we started getting to know each other a bit, chatted with the pilot about our route, and enjoyed the flight to our camping spot.

Caribou Lodge sits on a small lake just outside the Denali National Park boundary, providing magnificent views of the Alaska Range.

The helicopter is a small R44 and only holds three passengers or 600 lbs, so the pilot had to go back to the airport in Talkeetna to pick up my last camper and a lot more gear. She wouldn’t return for at least an hour, which gave the three of us some time to start setting up camp, take pictures, and talk. I remember thinking that if this third guy was anything like his two friends, this was shaping up to be a pretty relaxed trip. These boys knew the outdoors, were looking forward to roughing it in a tent, and wore light layers when it was verging on parka weather. Even in July it can be very cold in these mountains. I could just tell that even though this was their first time in Alaska, it was definitely not their first time camping deep in the mountains.

The sound of the helicopter coming back with Ari made its way through the valley before we could see it, and Emil was visibly happy... Come to find out, it was not because he missed his traveling companion, but because there was more beer on board flight number two, along with other stuff to drink. They ended up at camp with about 90 lbs of gear and what seemed like 200 lbs of booze. So, I made two more observations: one, this could either be a bad trip with angry drunks or a very fun three days with some very happy Germans who can hold their liquor: two, I wouldn't ever consider letting them hold the gun. (I carry a .44 mag and pepper spray for bear protection on almost every hike.) All in all, we ended up with two large cases of beer, three bottles of wine, and a gallon of vodka.

The weather was amazing, and after setting up tents and a camp kitchen, we set off on our first hike.

My brother, Joe, has done this trip several times so he had given me ideas on where to hike. From camp, you can look north into an amazing amphitheater-shaped mountainside and see two sets of waterfalls cascading down into the valley where our tents were set up. As we looked up toward the horizon, we made out the silhouette of a lone caribou on a very scary portion of an animal-made trail that Joe had told me to stay away from. It's one of those trails you might try with friends, but not guiding strangers whose comfort and skill level is untested.

We began to make our way up a ridge from the west and took our time getting to the summit where we could stand on what we call Razorback Ridge, and look down into the next valley. Directly below us, about 1500 feet, was a tiny lake left from a receding glacier.

We could look behind us and see our camp at the bottom of the amphitheater. Here we sat down for lunch. My pack is heavy all the time because, as the guide, I don't want my clients’ packs heavier than mine. I also consider it my responsibility during these back-country trips to not only provide the food, but to make sure it just magically appears when my guests get hungry. They were happy to have lunch at this incredibly picturesque spot, and I was happy to lighten my load.

After lunch I said something like, “Well guys, are you ready to head back to camp?” I knew this was a stupid suggestion as soon as I saw the looks they gave me. These guys had hiked so fast that we didn't burn nearly enough of the afternoon. The only rest any of them took during our ascent were smoke breaks for Ari. During one of these breaks, Emil half-jokingly said, “Ari likes to smoke and then take little hiking breaks.” I didn't mind because it gave us time to visit and catch our breath. Plus, Ari kept all the cigarette butts in a small tin in his fanny pack, so I didn't even have to give the “leave no trace” speech.

Since these guys, all in their early 40s, didn't want to go back to camp yet, I asked them what they wanted to do. Ari told me that they wanted to hike the goat trail where we saw the caribou from camp ... the very trail Joe told me to stay away from with clients. I was a bit nervous but thought if anyone could do that trail, it was these men. So I agreed to take them, and we slowly made our way over a section of cliffs carved out by Dall sheep and mountain goats.

On the trail there wasn’t room for both our feet and trekking poles. We had to hold the poles in one hand and balance ourselves on rocks with the other hand as we passed by. It was so narrow that caribou hair had been rubbed off at chest height on the very rocks we were using to balance. Even with my closest hiking companions, I would classify that as one of the most dangerous sections of trail I have ever traversed. But these guys were having a blast and were totally sober (in case you were wondering). Once across this portion of trail, it emptied out into an enormous boulder field plateau with fairly easy hiking and shed caribou antlers were everywhere. It's amazing to realize the types of places these animals spend the winter.

The only downside to extending our hike for Ari's sick pleasure was the fact that we didn't pack enough water. I always keep that in the back of my mind so I know when to start rationing, but all the guys quickly ran out. It wasn't a life or death situation, and the upside to this downside was that once we got to a lower elevation, we were all going to sample the water coming from the waterfalls we had seen earlier. It ended up being an amazing day, and I was looking forward to telling Joe that we traversed the goat trail he told me to stay away from. So, back at camp with my three guests all safe and sound, day one was a success.

These guys were very methodical about their alcohol consumption. They knew we would be out for three days and were far better at rationing beer than water. Every day they had enough for five beers each and one bottle of wine to share, and they were careful not to have more than a third of the vodka every night.

On the morning of the second day, as I was making breakfast under our rain cover, Emil—sitting next to me chatting and watching me cook—discovered that vodka paired very nicely with apple cider. Once Anska and Ari woke up, it didn't take long for my supply of cider packets to start disappearing.

Before we left camp for the day, a caribou walked right up to us, probably curious to discover the source of the pancakes and syrup smell wafting through the valley. Caribou are very curious animals by nature, and any number of things could have brought her close to camp, even our voices.

This day was to be our longest—an amazing 12-mile round-trip hike that would bring us to creek crossings, wildlife, and one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the world. As a bird lover, one thing I vividly remember was a short-eared owl that circled us for at least five minutes as we hiked through his hunting grounds. We must have scared off his dinner or something because his stoic eyes were burning holes in our heads. We made our way across the glacier-carved valley, and every time Ari stopped for a smoke break, it gave me a chance to catch up. As the guide it's always embarrassing to be out-hiked, but even more so when you're out-hiked by a smoker...

"I had a food supply for six days, so the fog didn't mean we'd go hungry. What I didn't realize was the men had polished off the last of the wine, vodka, and cider packets, thinking we would be back at the lodge in time for a mid-morning beer."

We reached the lake around noon, took pictures of more caribou, and ate lunch as we enjoyed the scenery and each other's company while they began to teach me some of their language. I learned very useful German words like, “clothespin,” “beer,” and “cottage cheese.” Ha!

After we ate, I thought to myself, Huh, we made it here kinda fast, and I doubt they want to be done... So I asked them what they wanted to do, and mentioned another lake farther up the valley that I knew of on the map, but also told them this would add three miles to our day. They didn't even hesitate to respond, and before I knew it, our 12-mile day turned into a 15-mile day. If you've never experienced it, hiking over open tundra exerts far more energy than hiking on an established trail. After taking a quick count of extra granola bars to make sure we had enough to be gone longer, we headed out.

The clouds threatened rain all day but never made good on it as we hiked our way to the upper lake and then back to camp.

That day we were lucky to see three Dall sheep more than 1,000 feet above us on the jagged rock face of the left valley wall.

Back at camp they taught me some more German and offered me a beer with our Mountain House freeze-dried dinners. I struggled taking from their stash, but it sounded so good that I decided to take them up on the offer. I don't drink much alcohol, but looking back at breakfast, I can vouch for the fact that Emil was right about that apple cider concoction...

The Germans sit in the cook tent at camp, probably enjoying a refreshing cold one.

Day three greeted us with fog and rain. It dampened our spirits a bit, but didn't keep us from exploring. We wanted a good view of the neighboring valley, so we made our way east past the small waterfalls that formed the creeks flowing through camp and were keeping the beer cold.

We made our way up a fairly steep pass, which was more of an avalanche chute. It made for easy bouldering, or rock hopping. The day was wet and uneventful except for our discovery of some unoccupied bear dens. They were too high up the mountainside to go explore, but we did get a good idea of what these creatures go through to find a decent place to sleep for the winter. When we camp at these locations in July and August, there are no bears. They leave their dens between March and April and head down into the valleys closer to our lodge, where they spend the summer eating fish, blueberries, and anything else they can find.

These three gentlemen loved being out in nature, and I honestly don't think they would have ever wanted to go back to camp if there wasn't alcohol waiting for them. By the third night, the stack of empty beer bottles outnumbered the full ones, and they knew they had planned it out right so they wouldn't need anymore beer until we flew back to the lodge. Well, at least they thought they knew....

The fog and rain never let up, and as we sat in camp after dinner watching lightning hit the valley where we walked the day before, it looked likely the bad weather would continue through the night.

On the morning of day four, I woke to the sound of rain on the tent. I got an anxious feeling as I unzipped the door, not because rain is a problem—it's fog that will keep the helicopter grounded back in Talkeetna. Sure enough, when I stuck my head outside, the fog was so thick I almost couldn't see the other tents. My job didn't change much at that point. I still had to get up, put on my boots, and start making these guys some coffee and breakfast. A nice thing about being dropped off with a helicopter or bush plane is that you can pack way more than you'll need. I had a food supply for six days, so the fog didn't mean we'd go hungry. What I didn't realize was the men had polished off the last of the wine, vodka, and cider packets, thinking we would be back at the lodge in time for a mid-morning beer. So when I told them that this weather was going to delay our pick up, they weren't nervous about the lack of food or cigarettes, just the lack of beer.

We were still at camp by 12:30 p.m., so we went ahead and ate lunch. The fog would come and go at camp, but obviously it was bad in town because there was still no sign of the helicopter. I knew these guys were getting antsy when they started asking me if we could hike home, wondering how far it was and if it would take more than a day... Even though we were only 20 air miles from the lodge, the terrain directly between camp and the lodge is nasty, and to safely hike home I would need to take a route that usually takes three days. I couldn't afford to be easy-going about their suggestions at this point and told them they had to trust my judgment. I assured them that it was far safer to stay put and eat all our extra food, waiting for what could be two hours or two days until the fog cleared. I don't think they would have minded if we could have fermented some blueberries while we waited, but it definitely wasn't the lack of food making them jittery.

Finally, at about 4 p.m., we heard the awesome sound of the helicopter chopping through the light cloud cover. I was relieved that we didn't have to stay an extra night and my three companions wouldn't have to go a day without beer. We rushed to tear down most of the camp as the pilot landed, leaving some food and a tent just in case the weather got bad again and the pilot couldn't come get Ari and me. Thank God we didn't need to set up camp again. The helicopter showed up for us about 40 minutes later, and we all got home safe in time for dinner at the lodge.

On the far left is Zac, and far right is his brother, Joe, standing with their clients in front of Caribou Lodge. 

When you spend that much time in the wilderness with trustworthy people, a bond is formed, and good memories are made.

I will remember these three characters for a long time, and as I look back on that trip, it didn't feel like camping with clients. It felt more like camping with friends. PROST!

No items found.

Heli-Camping and Alpine Hiking

Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Zac Bramante

ZAC BRAMANTE was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Northwest Montana. Hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing with his dad and brothers was common practice for him. Now, as an Alaskan for more than 14 years, he owns and operates Caribou Lodge Alaska with his family. Hiking, camping, and showing off Alaska as a nature guide is a dream come true and an answer to many prayers.

After taking over operations at Caribou Lodge, a remote fly-in lodge owned by my wife and me, I quickly learned that as the hiking guide, I not only have to be knowledgeable, but very mentally prepared—for anything! Camping with clients is far different than camping with friends and family. If you're into any outdoor activities, chances are you have those select partners that you can trust with your life and with whom you have the most fun. With friends and family, I don't always take the easiest hiking routes. I don't set up anyone else's tent or make the coffee and food for everyone on the trip. And I definitely am not the only one carrying pepper spray or keeping an eye out for bears. It wasn’t until I was packed and ready to hop in a helicopter with a couple of clients that I realized the mental strain bringing a group of strangers into the Alaskan wilderness can cause.

On this particular back-country trip, I was guiding three men from Germany deep into the Talkeetna Mountains here in Southcentral Alaska. This is an amazing trip, far above the treeline, where glaciers consume the tops of untouchable peaks in the high alpine draws, and where only bear, wolf, fox, and caribou roam. If you're lucky, somewhere after the green tundra ends and the snow capped peaks disappear into the fog, you’ll see mountain goats and Dall sheep.

After the helicopter landed at the lodge with the first two guys and some of their gear, I greeted Emil and Anska, and one of them handed my brother a large bag filled with two cases of beer. This beer was to stay at the lodge for three days until our return from the camping trip, so they would have it to drink when they came back for their two-night stay in the cabins. Emil was a big, tall guy with nice trekking poles strapped to his bag. Anska borrowed my trekking poles, but had a very well-worn quality pair of hiking boots. At this point I made two simple observations: one, they like to hike; two, they like to drink. But there was no more beer left on the helicopter, so I didn't think too much about it... We hopped into the helicopter and after slipping the headphones on, we started getting to know each other a bit, chatted with the pilot about our route, and enjoyed the flight to our camping spot.

Caribou Lodge sits on a small lake just outside the Denali National Park boundary, providing magnificent views of the Alaska Range.

The helicopter is a small R44 and only holds three passengers or 600 lbs, so the pilot had to go back to the airport in Talkeetna to pick up my last camper and a lot more gear. She wouldn’t return for at least an hour, which gave the three of us some time to start setting up camp, take pictures, and talk. I remember thinking that if this third guy was anything like his two friends, this was shaping up to be a pretty relaxed trip. These boys knew the outdoors, were looking forward to roughing it in a tent, and wore light layers when it was verging on parka weather. Even in July it can be very cold in these mountains. I could just tell that even though this was their first time in Alaska, it was definitely not their first time camping deep in the mountains.

The sound of the helicopter coming back with Ari made its way through the valley before we could see it, and Emil was visibly happy... Come to find out, it was not because he missed his traveling companion, but because there was more beer on board flight number two, along with other stuff to drink. They ended up at camp with about 90 lbs of gear and what seemed like 200 lbs of booze. So, I made two more observations: one, this could either be a bad trip with angry drunks or a very fun three days with some very happy Germans who can hold their liquor: two, I wouldn't ever consider letting them hold the gun. (I carry a .44 mag and pepper spray for bear protection on almost every hike.) All in all, we ended up with two large cases of beer, three bottles of wine, and a gallon of vodka.

The weather was amazing, and after setting up tents and a camp kitchen, we set off on our first hike.

My brother, Joe, has done this trip several times so he had given me ideas on where to hike. From camp, you can look north into an amazing amphitheater-shaped mountainside and see two sets of waterfalls cascading down into the valley where our tents were set up. As we looked up toward the horizon, we made out the silhouette of a lone caribou on a very scary portion of an animal-made trail that Joe had told me to stay away from. It's one of those trails you might try with friends, but not guiding strangers whose comfort and skill level is untested.

We began to make our way up a ridge from the west and took our time getting to the summit where we could stand on what we call Razorback Ridge, and look down into the next valley. Directly below us, about 1500 feet, was a tiny lake left from a receding glacier.

We could look behind us and see our camp at the bottom of the amphitheater. Here we sat down for lunch. My pack is heavy all the time because, as the guide, I don't want my clients’ packs heavier than mine. I also consider it my responsibility during these back-country trips to not only provide the food, but to make sure it just magically appears when my guests get hungry. They were happy to have lunch at this incredibly picturesque spot, and I was happy to lighten my load.

After lunch I said something like, “Well guys, are you ready to head back to camp?” I knew this was a stupid suggestion as soon as I saw the looks they gave me. These guys had hiked so fast that we didn't burn nearly enough of the afternoon. The only rest any of them took during our ascent were smoke breaks for Ari. During one of these breaks, Emil half-jokingly said, “Ari likes to smoke and then take little hiking breaks.” I didn't mind because it gave us time to visit and catch our breath. Plus, Ari kept all the cigarette butts in a small tin in his fanny pack, so I didn't even have to give the “leave no trace” speech.

Since these guys, all in their early 40s, didn't want to go back to camp yet, I asked them what they wanted to do. Ari told me that they wanted to hike the goat trail where we saw the caribou from camp ... the very trail Joe told me to stay away from with clients. I was a bit nervous but thought if anyone could do that trail, it was these men. So I agreed to take them, and we slowly made our way over a section of cliffs carved out by Dall sheep and mountain goats.

On the trail there wasn’t room for both our feet and trekking poles. We had to hold the poles in one hand and balance ourselves on rocks with the other hand as we passed by. It was so narrow that caribou hair had been rubbed off at chest height on the very rocks we were using to balance. Even with my closest hiking companions, I would classify that as one of the most dangerous sections of trail I have ever traversed. But these guys were having a blast and were totally sober (in case you were wondering). Once across this portion of trail, it emptied out into an enormous boulder field plateau with fairly easy hiking and shed caribou antlers were everywhere. It's amazing to realize the types of places these animals spend the winter.

The only downside to extending our hike for Ari's sick pleasure was the fact that we didn't pack enough water. I always keep that in the back of my mind so I know when to start rationing, but all the guys quickly ran out. It wasn't a life or death situation, and the upside to this downside was that once we got to a lower elevation, we were all going to sample the water coming from the waterfalls we had seen earlier. It ended up being an amazing day, and I was looking forward to telling Joe that we traversed the goat trail he told me to stay away from. So, back at camp with my three guests all safe and sound, day one was a success.

These guys were very methodical about their alcohol consumption. They knew we would be out for three days and were far better at rationing beer than water. Every day they had enough for five beers each and one bottle of wine to share, and they were careful not to have more than a third of the vodka every night.

On the morning of the second day, as I was making breakfast under our rain cover, Emil—sitting next to me chatting and watching me cook—discovered that vodka paired very nicely with apple cider. Once Anska and Ari woke up, it didn't take long for my supply of cider packets to start disappearing.

Before we left camp for the day, a caribou walked right up to us, probably curious to discover the source of the pancakes and syrup smell wafting through the valley. Caribou are very curious animals by nature, and any number of things could have brought her close to camp, even our voices.

This day was to be our longest—an amazing 12-mile round-trip hike that would bring us to creek crossings, wildlife, and one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the world. As a bird lover, one thing I vividly remember was a short-eared owl that circled us for at least five minutes as we hiked through his hunting grounds. We must have scared off his dinner or something because his stoic eyes were burning holes in our heads. We made our way across the glacier-carved valley, and every time Ari stopped for a smoke break, it gave me a chance to catch up. As the guide it's always embarrassing to be out-hiked, but even more so when you're out-hiked by a smoker...

"I had a food supply for six days, so the fog didn't mean we'd go hungry. What I didn't realize was the men had polished off the last of the wine, vodka, and cider packets, thinking we would be back at the lodge in time for a mid-morning beer."

We reached the lake around noon, took pictures of more caribou, and ate lunch as we enjoyed the scenery and each other's company while they began to teach me some of their language. I learned very useful German words like, “clothespin,” “beer,” and “cottage cheese.” Ha!

After we ate, I thought to myself, Huh, we made it here kinda fast, and I doubt they want to be done... So I asked them what they wanted to do, and mentioned another lake farther up the valley that I knew of on the map, but also told them this would add three miles to our day. They didn't even hesitate to respond, and before I knew it, our 12-mile day turned into a 15-mile day. If you've never experienced it, hiking over open tundra exerts far more energy than hiking on an established trail. After taking a quick count of extra granola bars to make sure we had enough to be gone longer, we headed out.

The clouds threatened rain all day but never made good on it as we hiked our way to the upper lake and then back to camp.

That day we were lucky to see three Dall sheep more than 1,000 feet above us on the jagged rock face of the left valley wall.

Back at camp they taught me some more German and offered me a beer with our Mountain House freeze-dried dinners. I struggled taking from their stash, but it sounded so good that I decided to take them up on the offer. I don't drink much alcohol, but looking back at breakfast, I can vouch for the fact that Emil was right about that apple cider concoction...

The Germans sit in the cook tent at camp, probably enjoying a refreshing cold one.

Day three greeted us with fog and rain. It dampened our spirits a bit, but didn't keep us from exploring. We wanted a good view of the neighboring valley, so we made our way east past the small waterfalls that formed the creeks flowing through camp and were keeping the beer cold.

We made our way up a fairly steep pass, which was more of an avalanche chute. It made for easy bouldering, or rock hopping. The day was wet and uneventful except for our discovery of some unoccupied bear dens. They were too high up the mountainside to go explore, but we did get a good idea of what these creatures go through to find a decent place to sleep for the winter. When we camp at these locations in July and August, there are no bears. They leave their dens between March and April and head down into the valleys closer to our lodge, where they spend the summer eating fish, blueberries, and anything else they can find.

These three gentlemen loved being out in nature, and I honestly don't think they would have ever wanted to go back to camp if there wasn't alcohol waiting for them. By the third night, the stack of empty beer bottles outnumbered the full ones, and they knew they had planned it out right so they wouldn't need anymore beer until we flew back to the lodge. Well, at least they thought they knew....

The fog and rain never let up, and as we sat in camp after dinner watching lightning hit the valley where we walked the day before, it looked likely the bad weather would continue through the night.

On the morning of day four, I woke to the sound of rain on the tent. I got an anxious feeling as I unzipped the door, not because rain is a problem—it's fog that will keep the helicopter grounded back in Talkeetna. Sure enough, when I stuck my head outside, the fog was so thick I almost couldn't see the other tents. My job didn't change much at that point. I still had to get up, put on my boots, and start making these guys some coffee and breakfast. A nice thing about being dropped off with a helicopter or bush plane is that you can pack way more than you'll need. I had a food supply for six days, so the fog didn't mean we'd go hungry. What I didn't realize was the men had polished off the last of the wine, vodka, and cider packets, thinking we would be back at the lodge in time for a mid-morning beer. So when I told them that this weather was going to delay our pick up, they weren't nervous about the lack of food or cigarettes, just the lack of beer.

We were still at camp by 12:30 p.m., so we went ahead and ate lunch. The fog would come and go at camp, but obviously it was bad in town because there was still no sign of the helicopter. I knew these guys were getting antsy when they started asking me if we could hike home, wondering how far it was and if it would take more than a day... Even though we were only 20 air miles from the lodge, the terrain directly between camp and the lodge is nasty, and to safely hike home I would need to take a route that usually takes three days. I couldn't afford to be easy-going about their suggestions at this point and told them they had to trust my judgment. I assured them that it was far safer to stay put and eat all our extra food, waiting for what could be two hours or two days until the fog cleared. I don't think they would have minded if we could have fermented some blueberries while we waited, but it definitely wasn't the lack of food making them jittery.

Finally, at about 4 p.m., we heard the awesome sound of the helicopter chopping through the light cloud cover. I was relieved that we didn't have to stay an extra night and my three companions wouldn't have to go a day without beer. We rushed to tear down most of the camp as the pilot landed, leaving some food and a tent just in case the weather got bad again and the pilot couldn't come get Ari and me. Thank God we didn't need to set up camp again. The helicopter showed up for us about 40 minutes later, and we all got home safe in time for dinner at the lodge.

On the far left is Zac, and far right is his brother, Joe, standing with their clients in front of Caribou Lodge. 

When you spend that much time in the wilderness with trustworthy people, a bond is formed, and good memories are made.

I will remember these three characters for a long time, and as I look back on that trip, it didn't feel like camping with clients. It felt more like camping with friends. PROST!

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Author

Zac Bramante

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