Saturday, September 26, 2009


Ashley and I left Seward for Anchorage, where we were hosted by another Couch Surfer, Kyle, and his dog Indy.  Anchorage was essentially just a jump-off point for Denali, but we did manage to see a little bit of the unremarkable city - the state's largest and home to just over 40% of its population of roughly 680,000 - when we went downtown to grab some pizza with Kyle.

We checked the forecast for Denali the night before we left, and it said something along the lines of 63 and sunny with a very low chance of rain.  I thought, "Fat chance!", after all I had heard about typical conditions in the park, i.e., only 30% of visitors to the park get to even see Denali (Mt. McKinley) because of fog, clouds and rain.  As we drove the four hours toward the park the next morning, however, my cynicism was put to rest; there was not a cloud in the sky, and we could already see Denali, in all its glory, from 130 miles away.

Once inside the park we boarded the camper bus, because private vehicles are not permitted beyond Mile 15 of the 90-mile park road.  The bus was brimming with excitement about the exceptional weather, and even Alan Seegert, our blasé driver who has worked at the park for decades, seemed eager.  Alan carried himself much like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack, low-talking with a side-slung underbite and looking through catatonic eyes.  He told us repeatedly that whether or not we were to see an abundance of wildlife was all "sloppy luck" but that we had come to the park on what was probably the most beautiful day of the year.

We rode through about five hours of slopes and valleys shaped by glaciers 10-14,000 years ago, and along the way we saw a grizzly and her two cubs grazing along a stream and a caribou taking a drink from a pond.  The vegetation on the tundra was starting to take on burnt Fall colors, and the views of Denali made my heart swell.  The four-mile high peak, with a greater rise and bulk than Everest, evokes a certain feeling of reverence that is rare and impossible to forget.

Other highlights of the bus ride included the caribou fight that Ashley and I had when we hoisted sets of extremely heavy antlers above our heads and also the friends that we made: a couple of guys from Milwaukee, who we saved from getting left behind by the bus, and a Frenchie named Julien, who we invited to share our campsite at Wonder Lake.

Our campsite, just 26 miles from the base of Denali, was not lacking for views or good company.  Julien, so grateful that we had taken him in, perched his tent next to ours and promised us a French-themed party when we were all back in San Francisco, and a group from Seattle shared with us utensils and pulls from their bottle of Jaigermeister.  We all watched the moutain range turn into a soft pink color when the sun set around 10p.m., and thanks to sloppy luck (or maybe karma), Julien spotted the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) a couple of hours later.  As we watched the green lights make waves through the night sky I grabbed and hugged Julien and told Ashley that we did well in bringing him there with us.

The temperature had dropped to thirty degrees by the time we retreated to our tents, making it difficult to find sleep, but I thought it was a small price to pay for the day we had just had.  What made it even more worth it was that conditions the next morning were optimal for seeing Denali's perfectly still reflection in the pond made famous by some Ansel Adams photographs.  The bus driver that day, a guy named Chuck, told us that we were extremely lucky because a reflection that clear can only be seen about five days out of the year.  Not only did we have that good fortune; we also got to see a large bull moose, a herd of caribou, and a grizzly that walked just in front of our bus for a good five minutes.  Oh, la vie est bonne!        

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seward's Folly Makes Me Jolly

Past the Turnagain Arm (where we did not, unfortunately, see the 40-foot bore tide or any belugas), lies Seward, Alaska, named after William H. Seward, the Secretary of State who spearheaded the Alaska Purchase, or "Seward's Folly" as it was commonly referred to at the time.

A peaceable harbor town, Seward sits on Resurrection Bay and is just a few miles from the Harding Ice Field.  Ashley and I set up camp at a dinky municipal campground, heated up a couple of cans of soup - a nice change from the pb&j's - and headed to Exit Glacier.  The trail head at the glacier, like many we encountered on our trip, had bear warnings that described how to avoid bears and what to do in case of an encounter.  The matter-of-fact instructions went something like this:

Black Bear: Fight back.
Brown Bear: Curl into the fetal position.  If it starts to eat you, fight back. 
(Ohhhh okay, so if the grizzly puts my head into his mouth and starts sinking his teeth into my neck, I should maybe try to punch him in the face...  Alright, let's hike.)

So we hiked to the edge of the formidable, brilliant-blue glacier (without any bear run-ins, thankfully), and as I got close I could feel its chilly glacial breath.  There was a moment where I forgot where I was entirely, and I had to remind myself that I was here on Earth, in a magical place called Alasssska!

Back at camp, Ashley and I made fish foil meals (delicious concoctions, usually made with beef, for which the Pat Cassedy family takes undue credit), and we made friends with some North Dakotans next door.  These fellas, not amused by my asking if people in ND speak like the characters in Fargo, were so kind as to share with us some of the silver salmon that they had caught that day.  Ash and I were too poor to charter a fishing boat ourselves, but at least we still got to reap the benefits.

The next morning in Seward was one of those wonderful times when you think, "Holy Hell, my life is good."  We found a 2-for-1 sea kayaking deal and were delighted to find that the expedition would be just us and John from Illinois, our lovable guide.  As luck would have it, the conditions of the morning were perfectly serene.  The bay was basking in warm, early-morning sun, and the wind and water were calm, which John said was rare.  We were surrounded by mountains; otters and porpoises circled near our kayaks, peeping out of the water to check us out; and a couple of bald eagles were perched regally on shoreline trees.

We beached our kayaks to hike to a waterfall and then to a salmon spawning area, and we snacked on blueberries that grew amongst trees dangling with a moss, which is known for obvious reasons as Old Man's Beard.  John was happy to have a couple of low-maintenance girls who could actually paddle, and the three of us cursed false ideals of stability, 8-5's with benefits, and mortgages.  After all, you only need the Bare Necessities...

"Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life...

...And don't spend your time lookin' around
For something you want that can't be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin' about it
I'll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you"    

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cheechakos in The Great Land

After another night with our friends at the double-wide in Skagway, Ashley and I left Alaska only to come back in at a point further north. The logistics are somewhat complicated (especially for those of you inept at geography, you who didn't even know it was possible to drive from the Lower 48 to Alaska), but you have to travel back through Canada to drive from the Southeast Peninsula to the rest of the state. This drive was an adventure and a good sign of things to come. More specifically, we had a close encounter with our first grizzly. He (or she) was slinking across the Alaska Highway and grazing just alongside it. We pulled to the opposite side of the road and stuck our upper halves out of the sun roof to watch it from about twenty yards away. Ashley was snapping a few photos, and I was looking on with unabashed excitement. The grizzly then took notice of us and stood on its hind legs to check us out. Having heard what we've heard about grizzlies, Ashley yelled, "Sarah, go, go, go!" and I slammed my foot on the gas; our adrenaline was pumping, but we couldn't help but die laughing.

Now Alaska being the size that it is - more than twice the size of Texas (sorry Texans but you're not as big and bad as you think) - we had to crash for the night between one small "town" and the next (namely, Glennallen and Palmer), and in the morning we headed toward Seward, on the eastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula. We slid through the Chugach mountain range, and as we approached the Anchorage area, we began to see, for the first time since Vancouver, signs of development such as a Best Buy and fast-food joints. These came and went, however, because soon we were on the peninsula - Alaska's Playground - and back into nature and passing through the occasional Northern Exposure-esque "town" like Moose Pass.

Oh, The Great Land!

cheechako: a "tenderfoot" who has never spent the winter in Alaska or the Yukon