Shortly after setting out this morning I came to a road block and discovered that the highway had been shut down until 9:00 PM for bridge repair. This turned out to be a good thing as it got me out of the car and hiking in a place that I would have passed up otherwise. There was a lot of thick brush surrounding the road, but I stumbled on a pipeline access road that led through the brush and above treeline. I then spent five hours roaming the tundra and climbing to two small ridges that afforded awesome views. The plants on the tundra are all tiny and often completely alien from the sort of plant-life I’m used to — I found one little plant that was about an inch high and emitted a cloud of smoke when I touched it, while others looked more like something that would be found under the ocean. Even though I’m five miles from the Arctic Circle the weather was warm enough that a t-shirt was often sufficient, but the Brooks Range on the northern horizon is completely snow-covered, reminding me that today’s warm weather is probably just a fluke.
The condition of the Elliott and Dalton Highways has improved dramatically since I was last here in 1994 — the seventy miles of the Elliott Highway leading to the start of the Dalton Highway are now all paved, and the Dalton Highway itself, once a road described by a travel guide as “anus-clenching”, has several long paved stretches scattered along its 414 miles. Maybe I will be able to make it up to the Brooks Range and beyond after all.
Stopped for a bit at a roadhouse this morning that had a sign out front reading “Not a single mosquito out here… they are all married with large families”. Luckily the mosquitoes are mostly gone after mid-August. Talked to the folks at the roadhouse, and they were nicest people you could ever hope to meet. They’ve been up here for years and years and have twenty-three kids, eighteen adopted. The people in Alaska are like no where else I’ve ever been — very down-to-earth, independent, and full of an appreciation of how great life is. There are of course also a fair number of cranky old-timers and slightly crazy folks to keep things interesting.
The country along the Dalton Highway is almost completely wild, with views to the horizon of nothing but mountains, evergreens, and golden birch trees. No radio stations, no cell phone coverage, almost no services — the sort of environment where the “civilized” world fades into memory. Today is definitely looking like it’s going to be a good one.
The wild places of the Kenai Peninsula are best visited by boat, but unfortunately a kayak is hard to come by after Labor Day. As a result I decided to head north again. I stopped for several hours yesterday along Turnagain Arm watching for belugas, and a group of four passed just twenty yards out from the rocky point I was sitting on. Unfortunately no more whales came by before it got too dark to see, but four whales at twenty yards was nonetheless a special experience.
Today it snowed while driving back towards Denali, and now that I’m here the mountain peaks are white and most of the trees are completely bare — I’m hopeful that winter will stay away for a bit longer, since the park road opens an additional fifteen miles in five days, weather permitting, and miles twenty to thirty are prime spots for wolves. Until then I’m going to head north of Fairbanks and perhaps drive just a bit of the Dalton Highway — that road is notorious for killing cars, so most likely I won’t be going too far.
Stopped for a shower last night (the owner cleaned with enough Clorox that even Vicki would have been proud) and was a new man by the time I went to bed. Woke up at 4:30 to an absolutely amazing display of the northern lights — they’re tough to describe, so please forgive the bad analogies, but unlike the first time where I was reminded of a slow-burning fire, last night they were sort of flashing and reminded me more of the fountain outside of the Bellagio. They faded after an hour, but I’m hopeful that there will be an encore performance tonight.
Heading down along the coast towards Homer today. I knew the tides on Cook Inlet were extreme, but apparently they’re the second most extreme in the world behind the Bay of Fundy — last September a tide was recorded that differed forty-one feet from low tide to high tide, and differences of at least thirty feet are common.
Hiked up to the Harding Ice Field today in Kenai Fjords National Park. This trail joins the Half Dome trail in Yosemite and the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon as one of my all-time favorites — it’s only four miles one-way, but the elevation changes two or three thousand feet and the terrain is rough so it’s definitely not easy. On one side of the trail is a valley containing the massive Exit Glacier, and on the other is a steep slope grazed by mountain goats. The whole way up the views were amazing, my heart was pumping, my legs were burning, and I knew what it meant to be alive.
About half way up the trail the 750 square mile Harding Ice Field comes into view, and the crevasses of Exit Glacier begin glowing blue in the light. Once at the top the ice field stretches off to the horizon, with mountain peaks barely sticking out of the ice here and there to serve as reminders of just how massive the ice field really is. There’s also a small storm shelter near the end of the trail, and inside are hundreds of messages written on the walls by people who have hiked the trail — most are brief quotes of utter joy with a name and date attached. Anyone hiking the trail in the future can try to find a few short words left by a traveller from California on September 9, 2002. An amazing day.
Went out for an eight hour boat trip today — the trip started out with four bald eagles flying in a tight group, was followed by nearly a dozen sea otters floating together, and included sea lions, seals, many glaciers, puffins, and thousands of big jellyfish. Pretty cool trip. I spent almost the entire time out on the bow of the boat, and it was cold so I was taking advantage of the free coffee — must have drank about seven cups, and as a result discovered that certain bodily functions are considerably more difficult while on a boat being tossed around by the waves.
Hanging out in Seward today. Tried to rent a kayak, but of the places I checked one closes for the season tomorrow, and at the other no one seemed to know where the owner has disappeared to — I’m told that’s normal for Seward. As a result I ended up just booking a spot on a boat trip to see the Kenai Fjords tomorrow.
I spent nearly an hour talking to an older fellow who was living outside of town — he shared conspiracy theories about his neighbors (his across the street neighbor is a retired school principal who is “trying to take control of all of us”) and imparted such wise tidbits as: “Good people chop wood, and low-lifes go to bars. I don’t like chopping wood, but that doesn’t matter ’cause it’s mighty warm in those bars.”
The Seward Highway parallels the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, and while driving this route and watching the tide come in a pod of about a hundred beluga whales appeared in the water not more than thirty yards offshore, swimming in with the tide. Watching that many white whales swim by practically a stone’s throw away is a damn cool way to spend a half hour.
Drove to Valdez today, but for what was offered the trips out onto Prince William Sound were out of my price range so I’m headed off to the Kenai Peninsula instead.
I’ve gotten almost no news since leaving, so I looked at a newspaper in Valdez and the front story was about Bush wanting Congressional approval to go to war with Iraq — I normally steer clear from politics, but unless something crazy has happened in the last month I found this idea scary as hell. What is going on back in the lower forty-eight???
Woke up at 5:30 this morning and stopped in Cantwell to do laundry and shower (so nice!). Planned to take a couple of days driving across the Denali Highway, but the Alaska DOT no longer maintains the dirt road, and only ten miles into it I popped a tire. Drove the remaining 125 miles through bright reds and yellows on the tundra, but didn’t stop anywhere for too long as I was nervous about not having another spare. The plan is to fix the tire first thing in the morning, and after that depends on what the morning brings.
I’m watching the northern lights for the first time in my life, and I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep tonight. There are a small number of events in this world that people always take the time to stop what they’re doing and admire — sunsets, rainbows, fireworks — the northern lights definitely belong in that group. They’re one of those things that until you see them you simply have no concept that beauty of that kind exists — I’ve seen photos and videos, but actually watching the entire night sky bend and twist with myriad lights, almost like the afterimage of some heavenly fire, is an experience unlike anything I could have imagined.
Another excellent day — absolutely perfect weather, which was much appreciated after the recent rain. Woke up, threw on my last pair of dry socks, and within a half hour of starting out hiking came across an enormous bull moose — he was like an elephant with antlers. I watched him from about fifty yards, and given the generally open terrain and his constant grunts I had no desire to get any closer. It was still very cool, although I somehow lost him after less than an hour — he wandered off, I tried to follow, but between the high willow and trying to make sure I didn’t get too close he disappeared. Any pride I had in my tracking ability is gone.
Hiked a bit more, accidentally spooked a fox on the way back to camp, packed up my tent, and then began heading back along the park road. The plan was to hike for maybe ten miles and then catch a camper bus, but after about four miles I stumbled upon a grizzly next to the road eating blueberries. Not wanting to either get too close or to have to bushwhack around him I waited for him to head off, but after forty-five minutes discovered that this bear was apparently in the world’s best blueberry patch and wasn’t going anywhere. Hopped on the next bus and got some photos of the grizzly at short range from the safety of the vehicle. A few Dall sheep ewes later made an appearance right along the road (probably five feet from the bus) and another grizzly showed up at a distance, and then it was back to the Subaru and time for warm stew, which after five days of peanuts and dried pineapple tasted utterly delicious.
Mostly spending the day hanging out by the beaver ponds and trying to dry out after yesterday’s soaking. There was some sun early in the morning, but it has since gotten cloudy and considerably colder. A bit of hiking might be nice, but after yesterday I’m rather concerned about the number of clouds hanging across the horizon.
Three caribou came through my campsite last night, passing within fifty feet of my tent. It was pretty neat. There’s also a family of at least three beavers who let me know any time something comes near their pond by slapping their tails against the water. Kind of a cool spot to be camped in.
Wet and cold, but surprisingly not unhappy. My permit required me to move to a new area today, but given the weather I was going to stay put and only after a long break in the rain decided to move on. The weather break turned out to be temporary, and shortly after getting on my way it was raining again — backpacking through waist-high brush in a cold rain is no fun, and I was soaked in a very short time. However, as things were becoming completely miserable a flock of perhaps two hundred sandhill cranes flew by overhead, I saw two big bull moose rutting with one another, and when finally I’d reached the area my permit was for I found an idyllic little spot on a hilltop between two beaver ponds to pitch the tent, so while today was a rough one, it would be tough to call it a bad day.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
— Douglas Adams