Ten Days in Oregon

_MG_8913Since the first time I booted up my Apple computer with a 3 1/2 inch floppy drive and played The Oregon Trail, I have had dreams of going “out west” to Oregon.  Finally, almost twenty years later, I made it!  We drove straight from Seattle to Portland in an afternoon, arriving at the doorstep of my Aunt Ruby and Uncle Pete just in time for a delicious homemade dinner. We spent the next ten days traveling, reading, wining and dining all over Oregon and here are some of the highlights.

Portland Farmer’s MarketFarmers Market PortlandOn Saturday morning, we met our friends Fred and Rebecca Gerendasy at the Portland Farmer’s Market.  If you recall, we originally met Fred and Rebecca while in Cordova, Alaska.  It was really fun to be able to see them again and check out the farmer’s market through the eyes of local food experts.  I loaded up on Portland-made vegan delicacies that we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, such as Chia Cheeze Sauce and chocolate hazelnut butter (a much healthier version of Nutella). There was so much colorful produce and a large array of locally-made, generally healthy food. We strolled through the market at turtle speed, freely handing out money to the musicians who entertained us along the way.

Wine Tasting in Willamette Valley_MG_8954On Sunday afternoon, we piled into Pete’s Biodiesel truck and drove into the Willamette Valley for an afternoon of wine tasting.  Oregon’s Willamette Valley is home to 316 wineries and more than 600 vineyards.  There’s nearly 17,000 vineyard acres and over 11,000 of them are for Pinot Noir, which happens to be my favorite type of wine.  We drove into the valley for about an hour, looking for a vineyard with a great view of Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.  Torii Mor Winery provided that for us, with a balcony that overlooks the Cascade Range and the rolling hills of the valley. Our tasting went beyond the menu and we had seven different wines and finished with a tasty port wine. For the first time, I realized how complex and varied pinots can be.  We drove down the road to Lange Estate Winery, where we once again enjoyed beautiful views while tasting fantastic wine.

Oregon Coast_MG_9040When Nick and I left Portland, we spent a day driving down Highway 101, which snugly parallels the Oregon Coast.  The coastline is about 363 miles long, divided into North, Central and South coasts.  In 1967, the Oregon Beach Bill granted free beach access to everyone and private landowners stopped paying property tax in exchange for allowing passage to the public. Nick and I spent a good portion of a full day driving from Portland to Florence, stopping a few times for views, beach strolls and photographs.  The geography of the beaches was totally unique. We saw black boulders beaten by Pacific waves, soft sand, tall grasses – all shrouded in a thick and rapidly moving mist.

Florence, Oregon_MG_9050Florence is a small town along Oregon’s coast, located about mid-way between the Washington and California borders. Originally a fishing and logging town, the economy of Florence is now largely based on tourism.  Nick and I spent a night with my mom’s childhood best friend, MJ, and her husband Dave but wish we could have spent more time in the area.  Dave took us sandboarding in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which was definitely the highlight of our short visit. Sandboarding is essentially snowboarding on sand and Florence is home to the first sandboarding park in the world.  We spent a couple hours racing each other down fresh dunes before becoming prisoners to our car for the remainder of the day.

Ashland, OregonAshlandAshland, Oregon is a town located about 15 miles north of the California border.  We heard of Ashland through our friend Joe Jackson, who we met in Santa Fe through Outside Magazine. We visited Joe and his wife Sarah for a few days while also checking out what Ashland has to offer. The landscape reminded us of our previous home, Santa Fe, surrounded by sage-peppered mountains.  We spent a lot of time in Ashland’s well-groomed Lithia Park and walking around the Shakespeare-inspired downtown area.  Ashland is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which 11 plays are produced on three different stages for nine months out of the year.  Through a friend of Joe’s, we were able to see Shakespeare’s Cymbeline on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage.  During the three hour play we watched the sun set and the following twilight faded into a clear, starry night.

Crater LakeCrater LakeOregon has a recent history of volcanic activity which is easily seen in the varied and rugged landscape throughout the state.  Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, the two tallest peaks in Oregon, are both active volcanoes. The Cascade Range is a volcanic range that is surrounded by buttes, lava fields, old lava tubes and other features that make Nick and I, self-professed geology nerds, very happy. Crater Lake is actually the collapsed caldera of a volcano that erupted about 7,700 years ago.  Since then, the giant crater has filled in with rain water.  Because the water is so pure, the lake is a brilliant pure blue color.  At nearly 2,000 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in North America and among deepest lakes in the entire world. We felt so lucky to have an annual National Parks pass, a gift from my mom, because we have visited many National Parks during our road trip (8 so far!) for free.

Bend_MG_9117As soon as we told people we were traveling through Oregon, nearly everybody we met told us we would absolutely love Bend. Its location in the Cascade mountain range along the Deschutes River allows for easy access to kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing, camping, white water rafting, etc.  Nick and I spent a few days checking the area out. When we first arrived in town, we got internet and Boba Tea from Townshend’s Tea.  As the sun set, we walked along the Deschutes River.  We camped near Mount Bachelor, Bend’s ski mountain, taking advantage of our location with an early morning hike. Back in town, we had to replace a broken Thule key, which left us with some time to walk up Pilot Butte, have a beer from Deschutes Brewery, walk the Deschutes River again and a late dinner from Pizza Mondo.  The next morning, before an 18 hour driving day, we checked out Smith Rock State Park, a local rock climbing spot. The nearly vertical rocks jut straight out of the ground along the river. It was a bittersweet stop because the beauty immediately drew us in but we had to get back on the road and drive east.

Staying with Family & FriendsNatural BridgeAs with Washington, we owe some of our best Oregon experiences to our hosts throughout the trip.  My Aunt Ruby and Uncle Pete introduced us to an abundance of amazing vegan restaurants, helped us navigate downtown, took us to breweries, vineyards and even to Bob’s Red Mill.  The special treatment continued with my mom’s friends MJ and Dave. Without Dave’s advice, we never would have driven along the Umpqua River, where we stopped along the road, swam in the river and sunbathed on the rocks during the hottest part of the day. In Ashland, we got a home-cooked meal from our friend Joe and a tour of the Papaya headquarters from his wife, Sarah.  Per Joe’s suggestion, we stopped at Natural Bridge on our way to Bend, where we saw Rogue River totally disappear underground and reappear 200 feet away, right into a waterfall.

UmpquaAfter all of this, our time exploring the west, living out of our car and having the company of only strangers and each other, drew to an end.

Ten Days in Washington

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Re-entering the Lower 48 was definitely a bittersweet moment of our trip.  It felt nice to be closer to family and not have to drive through Canada anymore (by the way, look at Google maps and zoom out to see, really, just how big Canada is).  However, it was difficult not to feel like the “adventurous” portion of our trip is over.  As I write, it has been almost a month since we were last in the remote areas of Canada and we already both yearn for the long stretches of empty road and wilderness. But the adventure continues, for we have explored the Pacific Northwest for the first time.  These are the highlights from the ten days we spent in Washington.

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Deception Pass Bridge, which connects Whidbey Island to Washington’s mainland, is the central point of Deception Pass State Park.  The bridge creates a scenic backdrop to the various activities one can partake in at the park.  In the company of Ally and Hally, we did a couple short hikes on either side of the water, seeing the tidal exchange between Skagit Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The trees in this part of Washington are healthy and tall, creating a sense of smallness in their presence. Being among those aging giants makes you ponder the long and complicated history they have silently observed.  We walked down a steep path to the coast, where we watched people fishing from land and sea, witnessing a shouting match between that group and a gillnetter who greedily coasted through the area.

Fort Ebey State Park & Coupeville, WA_MG_8800

Another day trip in Whidbey Island is a visit to Fort Ebey State Park for a hike followed by an afternoon in Coupeville. At the park, we walked along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and returned to our car on a different path through forest.   One thing we love about Washington is the contrast between sandy and grassy beaches compared to the dense forest that grows just fifty yards inland.  Fort Ebey was originally built for defense during WWII, so we walked through an underground structure which was a hallway with a bunch of small, dark rooms.  It felt like we were ghost hunting. We then drove to Coupeville, the second oldest town in Washington. We walked around town, learning the sad history of humans and orca whales that came to a brutal climax in 1970 in Coupeville’s Penn Cove.  I fell in love with the area, especially after discovering Thrive Vegan Cafe, which is how we concluded our visit.

Bellingham, WA_MG_8810

Bellingham is the fifth largest city in Washington and just 21 miles from the U.S./Canada border.  Nick and I spent the better part of a day exploring Bellingham and didn’t take any pictures apart from some leaves under a bridge. This is not a testament to the beauty of the area.  We walked around the downtown area and along the waterfront, noticing that there’s plenty of funky movie theaters and perhaps an overabundance of coffee shops.  We spent a good amount of time browsing a used bookstore and dining at the Old Town Cafe (all of the employees share tips and rotate duties).  Our favorite part of Bellingham was Whatcom Falls Park.  With views of waterfalls, moss-blanketed stone bridges, healthy trees and lush ferns, we felt like we walked onto the Lothlórien set for Lord of the Rings (and for two LOTR nerds, that’s a big deal).

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In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the border between the US and Canada as the 49th parallel but the details became vague when considering the islands between mainland North America and the Pacific Ocean.  This resulted in the 12-year “Pig War” between the U.S. and Britain, a bloodless conflict “fought” on San Juan Island. The conflict ended in 1871 when Germany decided, as an unbiased third party, to draw the border in favor of the U.S., which is why the San Juan Islands are part of the state of Washington.

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Nick and I spent time on the Island of San Juan.  We rented bicycles in Friday Harbor and biked all the way south to San Juan Island Park, the site of the American camp during the Pig War. With hotter-than-expected weather, we biked back to Friday Harbor and sought refuge in the San Juan Vineyard Tasting Room.  The price was $1 per taste, so we had three each. My favorite was, of course, the most expensive wine – a very complex Pinot Noir. We read our books along the waterfront for a while and grabbed vegan tapas and local brews from Mike’s Cafe & Wine Bar.  In the midst of a conversation about travel with both Mikes at the bar, we realized we had to catch our ferry back to Anacortes, so we ran to the terminal, wishing for more time in Friday Harbor.

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This is thus far the most beautiful national park I have ever visited. Located on the Olympic Peninsula, this park has everything – old growth forests, temperate rain forests, 70 miles of pristine Pacific coast, glaciers, alpine forest and all the other ecosystems that occur between sea level and 7,788 feet. Nick and I spent a night at Elwha Campground, which is near the Elwha River, the largest watershed in the Olympic Peninsula.  We hiked all day on the Geyser Valley Trail and into the surrounding forest.  The tree and fern-lined path took us past the historic Humes Ranch Cabin, over beautiful unnamed creeks, along the enormous Elwha River and to Goblins Gate, where the Elwha River takes a severe right-angle turn through a narrow cliff opening.  That evening, we camped under moss-coated trees and listened to the rain tapping on leaves as we drifted off to sleep.

Washington State Ferries
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Washington has an amazing and affordable ferry system that Nick and I took advantage of a few times during our trip.  First, we did an hour-long ride from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, which cost $12.45 for each passenger but allowed for free ferry rides around the San Juan Islands and back to the mainland.  We drove our car onto a ferry from Whidbey Island to the Olympic Peninsula, which cost around $16 and another ride from the Olympic Peninsula into Seattle was the same price.  By doing this, we cut out hours of sitting in the car and also got a waterfront view of Seattle as our ferry docked.

Gasworks Park & Canoeing Union Bay_MG_8892

No visit to Seattle should be complete without a visit to Gas Works Park. Located on Lake Union, the land for the park was originally set aside in 1906 for the construction of a plant that converts coal to gas.  Once Seattle began importing natural gas, the plant became obsolete, so the city bought it and the park opened for the public in 1975.  The original machinery still stands and the park looks over Lake Union to a view of the Seattle skyline.  Nick and I threw a frisbee at the park with his friend Richard and we decided to drive to the University of Washington to rent canoes and paddle around Union Bay.  For $9 an hour (plus a $40 parking ticket), we got an arm work out while canoeing around bridges, lily pads and elegant waterfront homes.  We walked back to Gas Works Park after dinner and saw the many lights of the nighttime Seattle skyline.

Pike Place Market & Downtown Seattle
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Pike Place Market, which opened in 1907, is the one of the oldest continuously operating public farmer’s market in the United States.  With over 10 million visitors a year, it is among the most popular tourist destinations in Seattle. The market offers fresh produce, baked goods, artisan foods, delis, gorgeous flower arrangements, handmade crafts, etc. We walked there just to look at things but I couldn’t resist splurging on some gifts and a vegan cinnamon bun.  The first ever Starbucks is just across the street from the market, so we stopped there to watch an acapella gospel group and I shuffled around inside the Starbucks with all of the other tourists just to say I’ve been there.

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We spent the rest of our day walking around downtown Seattle.  Taking an elevator to the top of the Space Needle costs $40, so we didn’t pay for that and I don’t have any regrets. We walked around Olympic Sculpture Park and walked on the roof of a hobbit-sized house.  Our status quo is to check out bookstores and coffee shops, so we spent time in Left Bank Books and Uptown Espresso. Overall, we ate well and had a great time walking around and exploring Seattle.

Staying with FriendsIMG_8813

Our time in Washington was particularly amazing because after months of spending almost all of our time without any of our family or friends (other than Mike’s visit), we stayed with ones of my closest friends, Ally, and Nick’s friend, Richard.  Ally lives in Oak Harbor with her husband Bo, and we spent an entire week with them.  We used their house for laundry, cooking and recovery sleep. It was just what we needed.  Ally and I are both Integral Yoga instructors and we enjoyed four yoga classes from Ally’s studio.  Nick met Richard through Harvard Taekwondo.  Richard has to be one of the most intelligent people I have ever met and was a gracious host.  He even stayed at his girlfriend’s place and let us use his apartment in downtown Seattle. Richard showed us around town and we wouldn’t have had nearly as good of a visit without him.

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One thing I have learned in our time spent on the road is that the best way to see a place is through the guidance of a local.  In all the places we’ve been, I feel like we only really get to know an area if we’re with somebody who lives there.  Getting to know other people, especially in another city, is an experience that is just as fulfilling as traveling. I am so grateful to the many hosts we have had along the way.

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There’s so much to say about the beauty and diversity of Washington, but you’ll have to experience it for yourself!

The Road Back: Denali to Vancouver

Denali Highway

We’re a bit behind in updates on our whereabouts since Denali National Park. In the days following, we’ve driven out of Alaska, down the long empty roads of the Yukon and British Columbia, around the Pacific Northwest, and more than halfway across the country to Indiana via Big Sky country. We have much catching up to do, but that’s what happens when you’re living an adventure. You live it. Sometimes documentation must wait. But now that we have a moment to stay put, we’ll tackle our latest doings in a series of new posts.

Some highlights from our drive back to the Lower 48:

Denali Highway campsite

Denali Highway
From Cantwell, just south of Denali National Park, to Paxon, the 135-mile gravel Denali Highway was not long ago the predominant route accessing the park. The eastern 21 miles are now paved, but the rest remains little used, poorly maintained, and wild. The first thing we saw upon turning east and entering was a large moose crossing the road directly in front of our small-seeming car. The second was a young boy at a lakeside play-firing his toy gun at us, then enthusiastically waving as if in thanks for playing his imaginary victims. The next hundred miles of washboard dirt cross the Nenana and Susitna rivers, winding over the Amphitheater Mountains with long views to the dwindling Alaska Range and distant glaciers.

We camped about halfway that night at a roadside pullout just before a storm hit, the dark line of rain clouds rolling swiftly in from the southeast. The next morning we discovered we had a flat. So, rain still coming down, by the instruction and foresighted gifts of Paige’s dad we took the wheel off, pulled out our tire repair kit, extracted the offending headless screw, plugged the hole, and reinflated with the air compressor. We were quickly becoming seasoned experts in the maintenance and repair of our Subaru.

And that was good. Because the next morning before pulling out of camp in Tok–the drivers’ gateway town into Alaska–we had to extract yet another screw from the same tire and plug two more holes mere inches away from the first one. Feeling pretty competent, we topped off our oil, tightened a few bolts, shipped our gun from Three Bears Outpost, and drove our Frankenstein-wheeled rig back into Canada.

free construction worker

Cassiar Highway
Returned to the Yukon, we retraced a portion of the Alaska Highway (our only repeated section of road) to British Columbia. It felt good somehow to be on a known route, even if that familiarity came in the form of a wild and empty path. Empty of people but not lonely, abundant with majesty and life. We would come to know desolation in long roads ahead, but for now we were enveloped in the fecundity of nature, hugged by it on either side of a narrow road.

Day two retracing the Alaska Highway was warm and beautiful, even in a Far North tinged with autumn. On a map at the side of the road we spotted the Takhini Hot Springs marked just west of Whitehorse and decided to head there on a whim. A divided pool separated hot and warm sections with a narrow channel between, and we swam between the two, soaking and floating for a couple of hours in the Yukon sun before taking once more to the road. A welcome diversion.

The next day we turned south at the lonely junction for the Cassiar Highway, an emptier, narrower version of the Alaska Highway that passes 547 miles through the isolated wooded ranges of northern B.C. An American gentleman at the crossroads gas station was surprised to learn that he was in Canada. He had no recollection of a border crossing from the U.S. though we were at least two full days’ drive and many hundreds of miles from any such crossing. Paige passed as a Canadian as the woman at the counter bemoaned American ignorance.

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Black bears were abundant on this stretch of road. To that point, we had seen mainly grizzlies on our trip, ten of them, and no black bears in Alaska. Yet within twenty miles the black tally, including a pair of cubs, matched the grizzly as they grazed along the roadside every few miles. We’d stop on the road and watch them eat; they’d look at us from a few yards away, curious but unfazed, and continue eating. The final bear we saw–and we have not seen another since–was killed by the car in front of us, who had only recently passed us. The driver looked remorseful as he dragged the dead or dying bear off the road. We sat for a few minutes silently pondering that needless and unfortunate death.

Roadside camping

That night we slept at a rest stop where a dirt road ran down a short hill to a lakeside. Others had clearly made fire there before, and we were away from the road enough that we wouldn’t be disturbed, we thought. Once we’d set up our car for sleeping, though, some folks came down the hill in a couple of trucks full of plywood. We were reading as the light waned and hoping for an early night as the newcomers built up their bonfire and blared bad music two feet away. We exchanged a few friendly words but hoped they’d soon depart and kept reading. Some time later, when a particularly obnoxious girl left in the music truck to seek more booze and wood, we came out of our little shell to chat with the few remaining guys around the fire, and they were more to our liking. They were locals, in a manner of speaking, workers putting up power line towers along this part of the Cassiar. Some came from Prince George or other nearby towns, some from farther provinces, and they came to this spot to get away from camp for a midweek bonfire on the lake. We talked a bit and drove to the top of the hill to a quieter spot for sleeping.

Whistler Olympic rings

Whistler
South of Prince George and the Highway of Tears–a particularly ominous stretch of road where in the last 40 years 18 women have been murdered or disappeared–we turned coastward down the Sea to Sky highway. Starting from the sky side we wound through gorgeous canyons and valleys nestled between high snow-slathered summits. Chamisa, sagebrush, and ponderosa dotting the eastern hills reminded us of our far away former home in Santa Fe, but these quickly gave way to the lush and verdant coastal flora of the wetter mountains. We soaked our feet in Fraser River, cool, clear, and swift and slept the night in the parking lot of Joffre Lakes park before reaching Whistler the next morning.

This time of year Whistler was rife with downhill mountain bikers armored for fast lift-served descents. That particular weekend Whistler was hosting the Ironman. Scores of cyclists in alienesque track helmets and aero wheels lined the highways between Whistler and Pemberton. We managed to hit that portion of the route the last day it was open before the race, and that is the only path to Vancouver without a long backtracking detour. We walked Whistler village, got some coffee, then drove south to walk to 217-foot Brandywine Falls, a worthy sight that reminded us of The Lord of the Rings and the Brandywine River at the Shire’s edge.

Brandywine Falls

Vancouver
The drive along the coast south to Vancouver was idyllic. Cliff walls and green peaks rose to the left, dark blue coves and bays dotted with sailboats and fine homes to the right. On the bridge to West Vancouver we encountered our first shock of traffic, unwelcome after weeks in the relative wild. But the city, by my reckoning anyway, was aesthetically pleasing. Joggers and skateboarders peppered the walkways and parks, people were outside and engaged with their surroundings, however urban. It was a few steps up from, say, Anchorage, our most recent city. Yet we didn’t spend much time in it beyond looking for parking and stepping into a cafe to search for the most likely accommodations. These were outside of the city in Surrey, where we got a long awaited Mexican meal and spent a good few hours wandering, reading, and eating wild blackberries along the trails in Tynehead Park before returning, at long last, to the continental U.S. to visit friends and explore the Pacific Northwest–what we hoped might become our future home.

from sky to sea

Backpacking in Denali National Park

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Denali National Park and Preserve is the third largest national park in the United States, containing 4.7 million acres of virtually uninterrupted wilderness.  It is home to Mt. Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, the largest mountain in North America, standing at 20,320 feet.  There is one 92 mile-long road that goes through Denali and it is only open to buses for most of the year.  According to a park ranger, about 80% of visitors only see the park from the Denali Park Road.

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Nick and I decided to be part of the other 20% and we backpacked in Denali’s pristine wilderness. The entire area of Denali is broken up into 87 units and the more accessible have specific quotas.  This is to ensure minimal impact on the park land as well as a true wilderness experience for the hikers.  Nick and I chose units with quotas of 6 people each, meaning only up to four other people could be sleeping in the same seven square miles of land each night.

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Hiking in the backcountry of Denali is unique because there are no trails.  Hikers are expected to have a topographical map, a compass and the knowledge of how to use them.  We also had to carry all of our food and scented items in a Bear Resistant Food Container – a barrel-shaped canister with two locks designed to prevent curious animals from obtaining the contents within.  There has only been one bear-related death in Denali  and due to mandatory use of BRFCs, bears do not associate humans with easy food.

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We went into the park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and camped in a primitive gravel lot next to Sanctuary River.  During the bus ride, we encountered plenty of wildlife (moose, bears, caribou and dall sheep) but the most impressive sight was of a distant Mt. Denali. It towered above its neighbors, cloaked in white snow, even in the middle of August.  Only 30% of park visitors see the mountain due to weather, so we were once again in the minority.  I won’t attempt to describe the mountain or the feelings it stirred within my spirit… you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

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On Wednesday, we boarded a bus heading deeper into the park and eventually came to the Toklat River, where our off-trail hiking began.  Less than an hour into our trek, we had to cross the river.  We looked for a portion where the water was wide and shallow, then switched into sockless tennis shoes and crossed the Toklat.  The murky glacial water came up to our knees, splashing at our rolled-up pants and around Nick’s hiking poles as he used them to test the depth of each step. As I clutched the straps of Nick’s pack for stability, I began laughing, overwhelmed with the sensation of pure humanity. With the help of no other man or animal, we crossed the river.

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We walked a few miles on a gravel bar, gazing at mountains, for they towered in every direction the horizon could provide.  Ahead in the distance, a glacier clung between two peaks, steadily melting into the braided river we walked along.  We camped on the gravel bar because we were away from berry patches and would be able to see any approaching wildlife.

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While reading, we observed a pair of adolescent grizzly bears in the foothills near our campsite.  They were far away and unaware of our presence.  However, while we were stashing our bear canister far away from our tent, the bear pair reappeared in an area much closer – too close.  At the same moment, a pair of caribou came over a nearby hill, pausing for a moment at the top to survey their surroundings.  We believe the bears began chasing the caribou with little hope of actually catching them, but the caribou were running in our direction.  We shouted “Hey bear!” and waved our arms, which caught the attention of the bears.  They paused, contemplating the two brightly-colored creatures who so boldly startled their chase, and turned the other way.

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Our next day’s task was to make it over the mountain range that divides the Toklat River into an East and West section.  Using our topographical map for reference, we decided to cross at a relatively low saddle.  It wasn’t until we had climbed a couple thousand feet that we discovered we had missed our intended path and had set ourselves up for a more challenging hike. We continued up the ridge because the view was incredible and it’s fun to walk straight up a mountain with 30-50 pounds of gear on our backs.

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Coming down the mountain was probably more difficult than going up because the majority of the mountainside is covered with thick brush.  The bushes were originally knee-high but gradually became stunted trees, around 6-8 feet tall, thus obstructing our view of each other or any potential bears.  We pushed through the thick growth, taking care not to walk in the same path because the park does not want any trail system to emerge in the backcountry.  It was exhausting work but, as with the river crossing, we felt a raw connection to the surrounding land.

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We camped on a gravel bar once again, retreating to our tent after another meager, unsatisfying supper.  Throughout the evening, a steady stream of strong, glacially-chilled air blew along the river valley.  Denali National Park was already on the verge of an abbreviated and chilly autumn.  The next morning, we crossed the Tolkat River as soon as we began hiking, for it was much stronger on that side of the mountain.  Even in the early morning, before sunlight or rain could increase its flow, the water reached the middle of our thighs. Another few miles of walking along the river brought us back to the the park road.

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With another night to be spent in the park, we took a bus further into the park to the Eielson Visitors Center.  On a clear day, the view of Denali would have been impressive.  We had to settle for boundless peaks, valleys, rivers and fall foliage.  During the ride out of the park on Saturday, Denali showed even more clearly than the first time we saw it five days prior.  The bus was filled to capacity with other exhausted campers and backpackers.  Those of us who were awake simply gazed at the mountain, watching its dwindling mass until a final turn of the road let it slip out of sight and into our memories.

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“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness” – Theodore Roosevelt

Alaskan Geology and The 1964 Earthquake

Prince William Sound glacier

When speaking of Alaska as a physical place, as a raw and textured landscape replete with massive ranges, volcanoes, and mountain-studded coastline, it’s important to remember that it lies along the Ring of Fire at the boundary of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. If not for that fact, Alaska would be an entirely different sort of place. It would certainly be less dangerous, and maybe therefore less alluring. Mountain climbers would not flock here to tackle the continent’s highest peaks. Few would find reason to hop a ferry up its vast shores from town to town, exploring the tall fingers of coast on Prince William Sound or the glaciated bays along the Gulf of Alaska. Possibly, the fish would find its rivers less hospitable, and so too would the fishermen. In short, a different breed of wanderers, if any at all, would find themselves dreaming of the inimitable beauty of the Far North and seeking adventure here.

So, because Alaska has turned out to be the sort of place it is, we’d like to delve for a moment into the geologic drama that has shaped it and ultimately brought us here.

Bush plane in Denali

Alaska is essentially an immense mosaic. The accretion of its myriad pieces was and still is driven by plate tectonics, wherein the Pacific plate, like a vast and insistent conveyor belt, thrusts into the North American plate, compressing and folding the lands together to form a slew of valleys and ranges from the Brooks to the Alaskan and Chugach, to name a few. These pieces–once islands, chunks of ocean floor, bits broken off from other lands, and volcanic excretions–came together over the course of hundreds of millions of years of slow collision.

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It’s that process that drew Denali, North America’s tallest peak at 20,320 feet, skyward and continues to do so by a millimeter per year. Because it is composed mainly of granite unlike its older sedimentary neighbors (once submerged in ocean waters,) it’s much more resistant to weathering, giving it that striking 18,000-foot relief from base to summit–greater than Everest, K2, or Aconcogua. The Denali region is also rife with volcanic rock, as seen in the variegated slopes of Polychrome Pass.

Denali National Park

Outside of old stones in Denali and elsewhere in the interior, though, Alaska’s volcanism is still very active. Many volcanoes have erupted this year. Volcanoes exist almost exclusively on the coast as a result of subduction, which creates heated magma chambers at the plate’s edge. These same tectonic forces are responsible for earthquakes. Most are small and go unnoticed, but they’re occasionally devastating, like the infamous temblor of half a century ago.

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At 5:36 PM on March 27, 1964–the evening of Good Friday–a magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck near Valdez, violently shaking all the coastal towns along Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula on up to Anchorage. Everyone in Alaska, and parts of Canada and Washington, felt the earth’s convulsions over an astounding four continuous minutes–minutes, maybe, in which many folks had been contemplating the long, momentous death of one man on a cross. Those four minutes would prove momentous for the south-central Alaskan coast as well, and much was changed so that the shape of things here is now reckoned from them.

The consequences are still evident almost 50 years later, as we saw in several places we visited. Cordova’s Million Dollar Bridge was built in the early 1900s to haul copper on the railway and then converted in the 50s to a highway for visitors to the Childs and Miles glaciers, which flow into the Copper River from the Chugach mountains. It was destroyed in the upheaval and left broken for the next 40 years. Even now, sections of plank remain on the reconstructed portions, and the bridge is somewhat cockeyed where it was torn. Even the terminal face of Child’s glacier, visible from the bridge, is still largely masked by the earthen debris deposited on its southwestern flank.

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Orca Adventure Lodge, where we stayed in Cordova, was renovated from an old dorm for workers at the now-defunct Orca Cannery, which once harvested the abundant Razor Clams on the shore. The quake raised the seabed around Cordova six to eight feet, lifting clam beds out of the intertidal zone and crashing the clam industry there. Remnants of the old docks now stand isolated and rotting in the water, an old piece of machinery abandoned on an island of beams. Orcas, once frequent visitors, for the most part stopped entering Orca Inlet, now too shallow for their comfort.

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This sort of thing happened in many other nearby towns. Valdez, which we saw from our ferry back to Whittier, was originally four miles farther east, but it suffered enough damage to warrant relocation, and the native village of Chenega was destroyed entirely, a third of its population lost. A significant section of the Seward Highway on the Turnagain Arm, which we drove to visit Seward and Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, sunk below the high water mark in the tremor and had to be rebuilt in the following years. I don’t know the details of Seward’s damage beyond the expected wrecked buildings, but in Homer the popular Spit sank some eight feet, shrinking to a thin spur. The vegetation there died, leaving the gravel and sand surface that you see today.

Homer Spit

The Great Alaskan Earthquake killed 131 people, most from subsequent tsunamis, and destroyed several villages. It remains the second largest recorded temblor in history, and like all of the strongest ones it was a megathrust earthquake. These occur at plate boundaries, in this case the convergence of the Pacific and North American plates. What happens, essentially, is that the dense Pacific plate subducts beneath those surrounding it in the Ring of Fire. At the Alaskan coast, that means a slow build up of immense pressure as the Pacific compresses into Alaska some six centimeters a year. When that tension finally releases, the earth’s crust shifts and the denser Pacific plate crashes down below. Most of the time, these are subtle shifts, like an animal settling into sleep. But in 1964, the pent-up pressure was so huge that its release was catastrophic, a massive beast disturbed into paroxysmal wakefulness.

Childs Glacier

Wildlife in Alaska and Canada

_MG_8522This entire post is dedicated to wildlife we’ve seen in Alaska and Canada. Many of our wildlife sightings went undocumented, but luckily I have a few photos to share.  Pictured above is the prints of a grizzly bear and elk.  We saw those prints about 50 yards from where we were camping in Denali National Park.

_MG_8550This is the Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska. In the winter, their feathers turn white with a black tail.  They are pretty large for a bird and sound almost duck-like.  While we were camping in Denali’s back country, a few ptarmigan surrounded our tent and woke us up with their silly sounds.

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While hiking, we came across a big group of these Black-billed Magpies, members of the crow family. Their black, white and blue coloring makes them quite beautiful songbirds. Adult magpies stay together year-round and often for life. Fun fact: Magpies in South Dakota have a “divorce rate” of 8% while the magpies in Alberta, Canada have a much higher rate of up to 63%.

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The ground squirrel is a member of the “marmot tribe” of squirrels.  Small ground squirrels are usually referred to as chipmunks and large ground squirrels are called marmots or prairie dogs.  We often saw these medium-sized ground squirrels standing on their hind legs. This one was hanging outside of The Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park.

_MG_8697This is our buddy the tree squirrel.  He hung out at our campsite in the Yukon Territory for an entire morning.  He seemed to have little fear of us and frequently hopped onto our picnic table, drinking water that had pooled from an overnight rainfall.  He even walked over to me and put his two front paws on my leg, like a begging dog.  We finally had to kick him out when we found him on the front seat of our car.

_MG_8579During our back country experience in Denali, we were walking through brush taller than we were.  When we emerged to waist-high brush, we were right next to this caribou.  He is a member of the Denali Caribou Herd, which lives almost entirely within park boundaries. There used to be about 20,000 caribou in Denali but due to hunting the population declined to 1,000 before they became a protected species.  There’s around 1,700 in the park now. 

_MG_8632Grizzly bears! We actually had a pair of adolescent grizzly bears get too close to us, but didn’t have a camera and were more concerned with our safety than anything else.  These bears were around 300 yards away, which is the minimum distance for safe viewing.  There’s 300-350 grizzly bears in Denali National Park.  Their coloring ranges from blonde, the color of the pictured sow, to dark brown, like her cubs.  Cubs stay with their mothers for three years, which is an additional year compared to a typical grizzly bear.  Denali grizzly bears have an 80-85% vegetarian diet and typically weigh about 600 pounds.

_MG_8711Black bear!  While driving along the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia, we saw ten black bears grazing on the side of the road, including two cubs.  They are much smaller and more docile than grizzly bears, though we only got this close to the bear because we were safely in our car. The bears hardly acknowledged us as we passed by and seemed very accustomed to human attention.  Sadly, the tenth black bear we saw was hit and killed by the car in front of us.

There were plenty more wildlife sightings and a few pictures of animal butts that I am not including.  We saw otters, bald eagles, moose, dall sheep, porpoises, marmot, bison and a bunch of birds that we wish we could have identified.  The abundance of wild animals in the north is amazing and something we’ll really miss when we’re back in the Lower 48.

WWOOFing in Talkeetna, Alaska

_MG_8261WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and the organization has been around since 1971, now established in 99 countries all over the world. As WWOOFers, Nick and I volunteer our labor on an organic farm in exchange for free room and board.  In this case, we worked for Brian Kingsbury of Talkeetna Grown and lived on the farm in a camper.

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We met Brian on a rainy Saturday night at the Flying Squirrel Bakery Cafe.  After seeing organic bread, vegan cookies and wood-fired pizza on the menu, Nick and I knew we would be back.  At the time, we didn’t realize that Brian and his wife Anita own “the Squirrel” and live next door with their 7-year-old son, Oliver.  We also met Lina, a college-aged intern from D.C. who has been working on the farm since the beginning of May, when snow was still falling heavily on the ground.  We made dinner and enjoyed our first shower in over a week (and the first time I washed my hair in 10 greasy days).

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Brian’s farm was about 20 minutes away at Birch Creek Ranch.  Brian’s parents acquired the land in 1982 as an Agricultural Land Disposal Parcel, which meant they had to clear a certain amount of their land for agricultural use.  Out of all the original land parcels, theirs is the only operational ranch left. The outdoor vegetable farm is about two acres and the greenhouses and tunnels make up around 5,000 square feet. The rest of the farm is used for hay production.  I won’t list everything that is grown at the farm but highlights include tomatoes, strawberries, kale, pumpkins, green beans, peas, corn, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower and squash. The land is beautiful, with sprawling green pastures and small mountains framing the eastern horizon.

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Our first task was to shovel rancid barley and hops from giant crates to a compost pile.  We layered the hops with hay in order to make a steaming compost pile.  The smell was reminiscent of an old, rotten IPA and when the slop accidentally splashed onto my clothing, I looked like I had a battle with some unsavory bodily functions.  Then, Nick and I weeded a very large greenhouse, with the distracted help of little Oliver (who has a future in micromanaging).

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Monday, we headed into town for a day off.  We spent some time at Brian’s house, washing our clothes for the second time ever. (Next time I travel like this, I am bringing twice the amount of underwear.) In downtown Talkeetna we stopped for lunch at Denali Brewing Company & Twister Creek Restaurant. I had the single best beer of my life, the I Squared, brewed with six malts and hops from all over the world.  We walked down Main Street to Talkeetna River Park, where we stacked and skipped rocks for a while, marveling at the fact that we were actually in Talkeetna, Alaska.  We picked up Lina from the side of the road and had a pasta dinner at Brian and Anita’s house.

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We were out in the field by 8 on a sunny Tuesday morning, picking various veggies and learning a lot in the process, like how to estimate what 10 pounds of kale looks like. Tuesday is a market day, so Lina headed out with our fresh picks in the afternoon.  I spent the rest of the day weeding and Nick learned how to use a rototiller.  Wednesday the weather turned for the worse.  We picked for the CSA share and an upcoming wedding which would feature locally grown produce. By the end of the day, muscles we never knew we had were aching.  That is when we began our nightly massage exchange, something we continue to do now.

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Thursday was another off day, so Lina, Nick, little Oliver and I went to a Ranger Talk at the Talkeetna Ranger Station.  The talk was about the technical challenges of climbing Denali, complete with maps, photos, example gear and a scale model in the middle of the room.  It took place in a museum exhibit about Denali, so we got to see a bunch of photos from Bradford Washburn’s personal collection, flags from recent Denali summits and other pieces of recent history.  We went back to the ranger station to watch a short video on climbing Denali, which was so inspiring.  All the climbers register and begin their life-changing journeys from the Talkeetna Ranger Station – right where we were sitting.

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Brian met us in town and took us out for drinks at the Wildflower Café, which had about 25 Alaska-brewed beers on tap.  After that, Lina took us out to lunch because “even though I don’t make much money, you guys aren’t making anything.”  I am fine with accepting pity in the form of pizza.  We went back to the camper and the plan was to nap for a couple hours before going out to “Hip Hop Night”, but the nap turned into a long sleep.

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That turned out to be a good idea because Friday morning we were picking feverishly at 8 in order to be ready to go to the market before noon.  Lina and I headed off to the market, though fitting everything into the van took a serious amount of calculation.  The market was rainy and smaller than normal, but we sold quite a bit.  We met  Nick, Brian and Oliver at an art opening at the Squirrel.  Nick had spent the entire day tilling and hilling potato fields and told me we were not going to have potatoes in our future garden.

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Saturday was another early picking day, but we had an established routine and things went smoothly.  Nick spent an hour in the strawberry field, which to him felt like forever, but I had fun helping him for a few minutes and snacking on overripe or misshapen berries.  The day ended rather early, so we went into town for drinks and dinner and met up with Lina. We went out to a bar to watch Aloha Bluegrass Band, who was a lot of fun and inspired some violent dancing.  Lina and I rubbed elbows with a climber who had just returned from the summit of Everest. I was star struck.

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Our original plan was to leave on Sunday, but Brian extended our welcome another day, so we worked on the car all day.  It was our first time under the Subaru. Due to my misdirection and error, we accidentally drained the transmission fluid, which needed to be changed anyway, but we weren’t prepared to do it then.  Luckily, Anita was doing a grocery run, so I went with her to buy replacement fluid. After changing the transmission fluid, I also changed the motor oil, which is cleverly hidden under the dust shield.  This was all done in the rain after our last shower for over a week, so there was plenty of colorful language involved. We spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen warming up and watching Brian, Anita and Lina freeze pack about 100 heads of broccoli.  Preserving surplus food for the winter is going to occupy the upcoming months, as it is now autumn in Alaska.

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On Monday, we left town. Getting to know Brian, Lina and Oliver was the best part of our experience thus far and we really enjoyed working on the farm.   We both agree that if we could repeat just one thing from our entire Alaska trip, it would be the time spent in Talkeetna. Their elected mayor is a cat named Stubbs… how could we not love the place?

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