Nevadan in Alaska: A Written and Photographic Diary – May 2-10, 2011
May 2, 2011
7PM – I sail over Olympia, WA in a little de Havilland jet, and beneath the buzzing, great dark bodies of water loom through the clouds – larger than any water body in the desert. Entire towns of water. Entire cities of water. Entire counties of water. Cloud wisps float like angels above the rough and bumpy green earth. Channels of deep gun-metal blue are wrinkled, like dry skin, from the wind. Islands of green float like barges, and ships, like fish, swim past in a hurry, zipping, somewhere to go. The jet plane dips down, bumps, and suddenly, factories, houses of concrete appear in the wet and misty sunset of Seattle.
10:55PM – It’s been over 3 hours now, and the sky has not changed. All the way to Anchorage from Seattle, I stare at the baby blue West, the pink sunset licks her lips and lingers, never quits. Time is frozen, melting slowly. This is the farthest I’ve been from home. This is the longest plane flight. I’m only 8 feet from the jet engine, and the sea looks peaceful as I float above the sky, cheating time and history. In a jet plane, I cheat history and the frosted mustaches and beards plowing north, the chain of furry hearts pawing through the infinite Yukon territory. These days, it only takes 3 or 4 hours to travel to The Great Land, but the sun sets slow, as if to tease, to remind me of the jet plane cheating I’m committing.
At 11PM, the plane dips, and more snow than I’ve ever seen – pointed triangles towards heaven – floats over the black and empty earth and the sea’s inland fingers point north. The ocean’s inlet fingers are clasped with pure, crystalline white, even in May. “Overwhelming,” I was warned before I left the lower 48.
May 4, 2011
5:30PM – Two days ago, I arrived in Alaska. The plane gently danced over glaciers and white pyramids before violently landing in Anchorage. I walked straight to baggage claim, and thirty seconds later, my pack, with knives, a gun and two saws, fell onto the conveyor belt. Smiling, I proudly hoisted the pack onto my back, secretly hoping someone had noticed the sleeping pad and camping gear sticking out of the top that says: “I’m going places. In Alaska.” On both flights here, I found a gal I’ve been traveling with since Reno, and she’s working for the season as The Grand Lodge restaurant manager in Denali National Park. I discover she’s making about the same I do as a fire lookout in California, but the locals here say the real pay is just being in Alaska.
My gal pal, Emily, picks me up in a dirty, white 4WD Honda CRV with a cracked windshield, and at the terminal gate, I meet my first “Eskimo,” Theo. Theo’s friendly demeanor immediately puts me at ease, and pretty soon, I find out that his roots lie in the western native Alaska tribe, the Yupik. “I don’t pick, Yupik!” exclaims Theo. We’re on our way to drop off Theo, but we find ourselves invited in for a “quick” visit. Theo dips into the kitchen of his contemporary cabin, only to reappear with a double shot of raspberry Schmirnoff. “Welcome to Alaska!” As the Schmirnoff settles to my head, I find a bowl of moose meat spaghetti in my lap, and I’m liking Alaska already. Theo “works” on his car, and several more shots of Schmirnoff are poured into my brain. Emily and I find out that Theo’s birth name is “Angisak,” and he’s eager to show us photographs of his grandmother adorning the wall of the stairwell. An old, leather faced woman is dressed in furs, and her toothless grin bares her soul. “Doesn’t she look happy?!” asks Theo.
The next day, Emily and I head out about 1PM. A 4AM bedtime and a midnight sunset make waking difficult, but by one o’clock, we’re rolling out of Theo’s driveway, thanking him for his native hospitality. Emily and I head for Potter Marsh on the south side of Anchorage. Potter Marsh is the accidental wetland created by the Alaskan Railroad’s passage up the Turnagain Arm at the turn of the century. Here, we spy on Pintail ducks, Mallards and Sandhill Cranes while admiring the misty expanses of reeds and grasses stretching towards the ocean. Afterward, we step into Chugach State Park and ponder how the giant locomotive snow plows worked many years ago.
Before heading to the Interior, we stock up on non-perishable groceries and cooking fuel, but not without stopping at the Twin Dragon Mongolian BBQ – “Alaska Best Cuisine.” Alaska is known for its Mongolian BBQ joints, right? We leave Anchorage, and as we travel up the Glenn Highway, the gray city, like every other sprawling urban expanse, falls away, and the road opens up to fields matted fresh from melted snow. Stunted, dwarfed and struggling “Dr. Seuss” spruce dot the prairie. Some spruce are no longer alive, and their crippled skeletons stand alone on the yellow-gray prairie, baring witness to Alaska’s dark winters and stunted growing season. Many of these ghost trees and “ghost forests” are the result of the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964. The ground sank 10 feet in many places, leaving forests to suck saltwater and eventually die. The skeletons say, “Here we are, but not without a price to pay,” like all other Alaskan locals.
Our little white car speeds into the hills, and we skirt over bridges, spanning snakes and braids of silty water. The Matanuska River begins to take shape, and great white peaks on both sides of the canyon bust towards the sky. We pass through the towns of Palmer, Sutton, and finally, the great Matanuska Glacier comes into view. We pull off at the side of the road for a nature speed-walk through the aspens, alder and willow for a better glimpse of the Matanuska, and on the trail, I find my first sign of the great, brown road hazards: moose poop. The Majestic Valley Wilderness Lodge, where my other gal pal works, isn’t far away. As we speed towards the lodge, I catch a view of a large, brown figure in the woods. U-turn! I see my first moose nonchalantly browsing in the aspen near a private road. We snap a couple of pictures, Blair Witch Project-style, of the busy moose for proof, and we’re off to see Janissa at the Majestic Valley Wilderness Lodge.
At the lodge, two scruffy looking dogs greet us, and Janissa plunders outdoors with rain boots on. “Welcome to Alaska!” The prominent Chugach Mountains grace the skies with their abrupt and jagged peaks. By midnight, the skies have fully darkened, and we settle into the ’60s style lodge, chortling jokes and growing weary with sleep.
May 6, 2011
9AM – On Wednesday, the Matanuska Glacier was on our mind, and we got an early start at 11:00. We left the lodge and bumped down the highway about twenty miles. “Glacier Park,” is the sign for the privately owned land skirting the Matanuska, and “access” to the glacier is $20 unless we want to bushwhack through public lands. The folks behind the counter of the glacier’s gift shop try to keep a stern demeanor, explaining that a guided tour with crampons and helmet is $50. But Emily seems to know the way to the heart of the gentleman guide, and the three of us charm our stranger into hiking the glacier with us, even though we’re “thirty years too late” for charming him.
We meet our funny stranger, better known as Bill, at the foot of the glacier, and the four of us set out for the beast. Bill tells us about the black ice, silt, and how innocent looking “criks” or cracks in the ice can be hundreds of feet deep. We follow Bill into electric-blue caverns, skip across glacial rivers, and Bill shows his three “ladies of the day” hidden, pristine glacier lakes waiting to be skinny dipped. I’ve never seen water so clear, or tasted water so refreshing. Invigorating handfuls slide down my throat. We climb walls of white ice simply by kicking in our toes, and “rely on your feet” is the message of the day. Finally, we’re far into the foot of the glacier – inside the pinnacles of baby blue seen from afar and atop hills like white elephants, and we obediently and silently begin to follow our guide back down the glacier. Jokes and chatter recede, perhaps out of awe, and maybe a bit tired, we follow Bill single file.
When we left Glacier Park, the three of us drove two driveways east and grabbed a bite at the Long Rifle Lodge. The owner, a chill gal about our age, served up Prime Rib french dip, peasant soup and an Alaskan salmon burger. The Long Rifle is filled with interesting geological treasures and a zoo full of taxidermy wildlife that watched us as we ate. A trip to the Long Rifle isn’t complete without the purchase of the owner’s handmade soap composed of Matanuska Glacier silt and the restaurant’s own bacon fat!
After returning to Janissa’s home, I went hiking behind the lodge, towards the Chugach Mountains, but it wasn’t long before my feet were wet and cold. Hiking in Alaska in the springtime is like walking on a giant Alaska-shaped sponge. On this little walk, I found plenty of mushy moose tracks, but no moose. I also found a lot of rabbit feet (my dog’s souvenir), and I gave one to Emily. Emily hung it from her hitch to substitute “truck nuts,” but the foot only hung for a minute. The dog ate it. Emily, Janissa and I played scrabble and poker long past the midnight sunset. Aided by beer, we had plenty of laughs until we stumbled to bed.
May 7, 2011
10PM – On Thursday, we headed back towards Anchorage with Hope in sight. A trip up (and back down) the Turnagain Arm is a long one, and Anchorage is the last place to fill up the gas tank before a 2 hour trip to Hope, Alaska. We stopped to see a buddy of Emily’s near Girdwood, smoked and played frisbee in the park. The Kenai Mountains shone across the sound in elegant and powerful splendor. Against the sky, the Kenais look fake, like plastic cutouts or magazine pictures pasted against the sky. They are nearly unreal, and I couldn’t stop looking.
Around dusk, we pulled into the Chugach Outdoor Center, where Emily is attending her Swiftwater Rescue course. “Pick a place to camp!” we were told at about 9:30PM. We set up camp on the porch of a small half-built house before swinging into the river rats’ initiation party. Three? Four shots of whiskey and a beer? It put us all in a social mood. Emily cooked us up a pot of pasta and broccoli for dinner, which I scarfed in a hot drunk. By the end of the party, my senses returned, and we walked back to our porch camp and snoozed into a cold night.
On Friday, Emily woke early, and I followed an hour later while she was in her class. I boiled some water for a freeze dried egg breakfast and hit the road. I was about to hit the trail solo to Gull Rock. With my pack on my back I followed a vague trail through the woods. The moose had wrecked some of the trail; their heavy bodies had pushed their hooves down 6 inches into the mud, so surprising hoof-shaped potholes adorned the first mile or so of the trail. While hiking, I could hear the highway across the Turnagain Arm. I finally reached Gull Rock, a rock outcrop 1/8 mile above the sea, and sure enough, gulls were flying over a tiny island. I travelled a little further, crossing some more streams and a long, white avalanche chute before turning around.
Alaskans like to talk about their state, and they do have stuff to brag about. My Alaskan friends mourn and pine over Alaska when they’re in the lower 48, and Alaska “this” and Alaska “that” is everywhere up here.
So I’m stuck near Hope for a few days while Emily is in her class, but it’s beautiful here, and I couldn’t think of another place to be stranded right now. The town of Hope is a flashback to the turn of the century. In 1896, gold was discovered in Resurrection Creek, and “Hope City” turned into a booming mining camp.
The sun has set, and we rest near our campfire on the beach off of Hope Highway. We’re making s’mores and watching the bore tide roll in. My 10-12 mile solo hike has exhausted me, and I’m soon to turn into my tent and listen to the waves play at the beach.
May 10, 2011
1PM – Saturday, I found myself quite sore from my Gull Rock hike, and after a late start, I visited the Discovery Cafe in Hope. What a charming place! I got a taste of my first fresh Alaskan salmon – a hot filet served on a bun with fresh and home-pickled vegetables. As I perused the local newspaper, I discovered that a wildlife conservation center was in Portage. Since no wolves had stalked me or grizzlies marred me or moose stomped on me on my hikes, I thought this the perfect opportunity to see some Alaskan animals! After a hearty salmon burger and the best chocolate cream pecan pie I’ve ever had, I zoomed off towards the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
The AWCC is leading the native wood bison reintroduction program, so it was a pleasure to see baby wood bison. Also at the AWCC were musk ox, whose fur is worth about $50 per fist full. Supposedly, Qiviut (pronounced “kiv-ee-ute”) is the warmest, driest, hardiest, softest wool in the world, and a jacket can be priced beyond $1,000. Brown bear (grizzly) were munching on cantaloupe, and caribou snacked alongside elk. The blackbear were lumbering about as gracefully as they could, and an old 1-winged bald eagle named Adonis was served fresh, raw salmon for dinner.
Upon returning to the rafting facility in Sunrise, Alaska, I was treated to a fresh halibut and shrimp dinner. Thanks rafting peeps! With fish in my tummy and animals dancing in my head, Emily and I returned to the beach to light a campfire. The orange glow penetrated my eyelids, and I drifted into a solid sleep.
Sunday, I got an early start, as a big hike was planned in my mind. After dropping off Emily at her class, I drove south on the Seward Highway towards the sleepy community of Moose Pass. I decided on the Johnson Pass trail, but I didn’t know what I was in for. The hike started out peaceful, and it was my goal to reach the railroad tracks about 7 miles up the canyon. The trail starts out mildly along the lakeside and eventually separates itself from the lake, and I hopped over countless streams. Views are breathless, east and west, in this little valley, and nameless peaks jet above the clouds. During my walk, I noticed deep moose tracks in muddy areas, and all the while, I would occasionally clap or sing, as not to surprise any animal. Bears remained only in the back of my mind, as I was first preoccupied with moose.
After 2 hours, I caught a sudden glimpse of giant toe prints that could only mean Bigfoot was near. I knelt down. A paw pad was visible and 5 perfect egg-shaped toes. Beyond this foot print was another, and another, and I gathered that an extraordinarily large grizzly bear was heading down the mountain. My senses were heightened, yet I continued, in pursuit of the intersection with the Alaska Railroad. But the paw prints were still on the trail, and when one of them appeared with claws, I removed my .38 special from my backpack. Clutching the pistol as a baby does her blanket, I proceeded cautiously, noiselessly and alert for the presence of the beast. I entered dense spruce woodland, and the trail snow deepened. Monster bear tracks padded across the snow. In my mind: “Holy %$#&!” An unseen rustling in the brush and trees about 30 yards out spooked me to shout, “Hello?” At this point, surrounded by a multitude of grizzly bear tracks in mud and snow, I deemed it foolish to continue after an intersection with the railroad tracks. I ceded to the spirit in the trees, deciding it was his or her territory and not mine. “Ok, all yours!” I said aloud as I turned around, “I’m getting the hell out of here!” By now, my heart was racing as I followed the bear’s own footprints out of the forest. An adrenaline rush carried me down the muddy, snowy trail, and I rarely stopped until I had returned to the car.
About 3-4 miles down the mountain, I found an abundance of Dall Sheep hair strewn around the trail. What a unique find! I continued to pick up more and more (dog souvenir) before I suspected that a Dall Sheep had given it’s life to a freshly resurrected spring grizzly to quench it’s winter-long fast. My imagination was running wild. I next found hare fur on the trail, and I threw it in a sack with the Dall Sheep.
Another mile down the trail, I was met with the most distinct grizzly evidence yet: a near flawless front paw print in soft, wet dirt. I’m still convinced that this was new since my hike up the mountain, and I quickly snapped a couple of photos before continuing back towards the lake. As I neared the trailhead, pistol pocketed and a giant stick in hand, I warned a party of hunting men about a grizzly up the pass. “Just what we’re looking for!” one of them exclaimed. One of them was leading a grizzly bowhunt, backed by three high powered rifles. I parted with the hunters, and they continued up the pass in search of grizzly bear food. An exhausting but short drive led me back to Emily, and I picked her up from her final day of Swiftwater Rescue training. We capped the day with a fine slice of chocolate walnut pie a la mode and a beer, cooked dinner on my backpacking stove and said goodnight to the cold stars.
Monday was my last day in Alaska, and a bright sun greeted us for a relaxing, late morning drive back to Anchorage. I’ve been happy to discover that many Alaskans (if not most) are not like Sarah Palin. In Bird, we stopped at Mary Lou’s Fun House, where a ’50s pin up girl (now in her seventies) sells t-shirts, shot glasses, panties and other “hardcore” Alaskan gifts. Mary Lou arrived on a plane in Barrow, Alaska in high heels in the late ’50s. She fell in love with an Alaskan and never went home again. Old photographs of her Alaskan Uncle “Diamond” Jim are plastered on the walls of her fun house, and she told us the story of her “near death” encounter with a grizzly bear in the back yard. She’s got newspaper articles, photographs, drawings and a plaster cast bear print to prove it. It was difficult to say “so long” to Mary Lou, as she was a fast talking story teller, but a couple of t-shirts and a box of matches later, we were heading towards Anchorage once again.
Our first stop was a friend of Emily’s – Paul. Paul collects the work of local artists, and his walls are decorated with Japanese ink wash paintings and oil paint impressionist works. I developed a particular fondness for the art of Kevin “K.C.” Crowley, who does ink drawings on fibrous paper. K.C. learned his art in Korea, and his drawings of birds fascinate me. “I love birds,” I confessed to Paul, as he showed me more of K.C.’s work. Paul offered me a small ink drawing of a Great Blue Heron. “This is for you. Since you like birds, you may have this one,” Paul gently told me. I was surprised and grateful to receive such a gift. Paul is a quiet and uniqe man, and he fed us lunch before taking off. I enjoyed a homemade Alaskan veggie burger on a toasted tortilla, and we said goodbye, in search of K.C.’s art exhibit at Alaska Pacific University. K.C.’s dark and haunted raven drawings and paintings were displayed in a hallway gallery at APU. “I love your work. A lot,” I wrote in the guestbook.
Next, we traveled to the Alaska Zoo of Anchorage. I was about to leave Alaska, and I wanted to see a wolf. I also wanted to see a grizzly bear, so I could measure what I missed the day before. Most of the animals at the Alaska Zoo have been found and rescued as orphans or were injured later in life, and the environment at this zoo is “natural” and relaxed. I saw a pack of 6 wolves lounging in the sun, two grizzlies and a number of other animals.
Sushi was next on the list for our day in Anchorage, so we headed over to Dami Japanese Restaurant for some fresh salmon sushi, accompanied by Emily’s guy pals, José and Michael. Afterwards, we visited the “spiral staircase” at the shorline in downtown Anchorage, where I caught a distant view of Mt. McKinley, or Denali, “The Great One,” as the natives refer to it. My Alaska trip wasn’t complete without 2 more moose sightings on the way to Earthquake Park, where the 4 of us played frisbee, skipped rocks and watched the sun set slowly. The beach at Earthquake Park was created by the 1964 earthquake, where the cliff dropped over 30 feet to make a rock beach beneath the path of the incoming and outgoing jet planes at the airport. When it got too dark to see, Emily and I drove to José’s house with ice-cream. It was about 12:30AM when we knocked on José’s door. After the ice-cream, I couldn’t stay awake any longer, and my head hit the pillow for the last time on this adventure.
2PM – So I’m on the airplane. I’m leaving Alaska, and somewhere behind my eyes is a flood of tears. I have unfinished business up Johnson Pass, and the grizzly bear, did she live? Has she survived the hunters? Is she still creeping the dense spruce forests, spring sunlight sparkling her fur as her giant paws tread through soft mud? I don’t know if the grizzly survived the hunters or not, but she will always live on in my mind, in my chest, and I left a part of myself on that mountain pass.
The plane lumbers down the runway, and I suppose this is where my story ends. There is no anticipation today. A sadness is inside of me. Back to routine? I hope not. I’ve been reading Carlos Castaneda’s “Lessons From Don Juan,” and Don Juan is teaching me to “disrupt the routines of life.” Disrupting routines does not mean that I should be more random or adventurous, because that, too, would soon become routine. I’m grateful to have disrupted my routine and immerse myself in one of the most beautiful places on earth, to breathe the freshest air and feel the glacial silt between my fingers, the northern basalt rock on my lips. I’ve seen the Alaska state bird, been terrified to discover the size of a grizzly bear’s toes, seen three moose and climbed on a glacier.
The plane roars suddenly, and I tear off towards Mount Susitna, the “Sleeping Lady,” Fire Island is on the left. Denali, “The Great One,” towers in the distance, stands there as it always has, never changing, but sees the world spin around beneath it. The plane begins to head towards the Chugach Mountains and beyond to the endless, jagged peaks worshipping the heavens. The jet plane sails over marble, rough knuckled mountains of blue, black and white, laced with melting snow. I fly over glaciers giving themselves to the sea, and it seems as if the white, pyramidal peaks will scratch the belly of the plane.
Alaska is a land of will: of will to live, will to press on when things get tough, will to fulfill one’s destiny, will to discover. Alaska is a land of discovery – to discover what lies inside the soul, discover the unfamiliar. Most of all, Alaska is a land of endurance. Whether it be the Iditarod, the biting cold, a way to make a living, one more step or the dark winters. As one native Alaskan told me yesterday, quitting is not what Alaska is about. “This land will chew you up and spit you out, if you let it.” Many have been chewed up and spit out on death’s door, to despair or back to the lower 48. Many have endured, and many still do. Generations of natives have faced and embraced the north as their home, their wise smiles, some toothless, but happy to endure Alaska.
When my plane took off from Seattle, I began to follow the chain of Cascade volcanoes – Mt. Rainer, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood. The landing in Reno was rough, literally and figuratively. I wearily walked through the tiny, empty airport, grabbed my backpack and stepped out into the cool, warm air of “The Biggest Little City,” casino lights sparkling several blocks away. I can hear the incessant, snaking freeway, and a siren has sounded. I walk past an advertisement for a local hospital: “Landing under the weather?” Yeah. As I walked towards my car, tears flooded my eyes, but I laughed when my vision clouded, remembering I’m a sensitive bird. I left behind a jewel, ditched a most beautiful gift. Had I left behind reality to embrace what Don Juan calls “my routine?” But I will not become predictable. I will not adopt “routine” or become incessantly accessible. For if I do, like old Don Juan Matus says, I am better off dead.