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.
The night’s camping spot is a few miles east from the terminus of the thirty-two mile long Muldrow Glacier and along the McKinley Bar, a mile-wide expanse of gravel, mud, and meltwater that extends from the terminus of the glacier. A caribou was crossing the many channels of the bar earlier today, and twice had to swim through deep, fast-moving water, and many, many times had to wade across channels that often were as deep as its shoulder.
Today has been a good day — sun in the morning, views of the mountain while on the bus out here, and then perhaps eight miles of hiking before clouds moved in and I set up camp. I’m almost afraid to get in the tent and go to sleep for fear of missing something — I was lucky to see the caribou, and can only guess at what else might pop out of the brush as the evening wears on.
I didn’t get out of Fairbanks until 10:00 last night, and after driving fifty miles with the moose rutting season beginning and the conditions dark, rainy and foggy I decided it wasn’t worth risking either the life of a moose or the Subaru, and pulled off the road for the evening. Spent almost two hours reading through e-mails and catching up on news that I downloaded while in Fairbanks — thanks to everyone who wrote, it’s definitely nice to find out what’s happening back at home. The saga caused by my lack of wool socks was especially amusing — the Fairbanks K-Mart luckily solved the sock dilemna, so hopefully everyone can once again sleep soundly 😉
The intention today was to only do a short bit of hiking, but after starting out I spotted five caribou about two miles away and decided to go and hang out with them. Without realizing I was doing it I started giving them names, and after a couple of hours Scooby and Darlene had gotten comfortable enough with me around that they wandered to within about twenty-five feet. The big bull that was leading the group, Melvin, was a bit grumpier, and refused to let me or any of the other caribou get too close to him.
Tomorrow I’m going out for five days of backpacking, starting near the terminus of the Muldrow glacier and heading towards Wonder Lake. The fall colors have gotten even more spectacular, so unless the weather turns really bad it should be a memorable time.
Did just a short bit of hiking near Savage river this morning looking for caribou, but they were in hiding. Despite having good weather yet again I needed to get a few things so I left the park early in the afternoon and headed up to Fairbanks to re-supply. While here I grabbed a shower, which was very a good thing. There was a mirror in the shower place, and I’m definitely looking lean — it was actually a bit of a surprise seeing my own reflection as I didn’t think I’d been losing weight.
I ran into the guys who had been volunteering in Juneau for a third time today at the park visitor center — if I believed in fate I would send in my application for their volunteer program immediately, but as it is I’m still strongly considering it.