The Kenai Peninsula

Resurrection Bay

South of Anchorage, the 200-mile-long tooth of the Kenai Peninsula cuts the Cook Inlet from the Gulf of Alaska in a variegated swath of subarctic terrain. The northernmost crown of the Ring of Fire, the Kenai, they say, is Alaska in miniature. It bears each of the state’s ecosystems aside from Arctic tundra–boreal forest, coastal rainforest and wetlands, sea ice in the fjords, and no shortage of soaring mountains–and it consequently made for an ideal five-day tour with our friend Mike Webster who kindly flew up to meet us.

Mike left Santa Fe, Phoenix-bound, the same day we did more than a month earlier, so it was good to see our friend again, and a little surreal now that we were all together in Alaska, exploring a small part of this state as we so often explored northern New Mexico, camping and hiking and generally being outside amidst all the natural beauty. We reunited at the airport, stocked up on grocery essentials and some Midnight Sun Kodiak Brown and headed south to Seward at the north tip of Ressurection Bay.

Lost Lake

The Seward Highway is a national scenic byway and a worthy destination in itself. Glaciated peaks thrust skyward from the water along the fjord-like Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. Dozens of waterfalls litter the shore, and you can trace the thin ribbons of water up to high snowfields where they originate. Mike was snapping iPhone photos at every bend in the road that opened to new vistas. But as he noted, you can’t quite capture the majesty of this place, merely hint at some portion of it. Sometimes a cloud hides the neck of a mountain and you look higher to be astonished by its true height peaking above.

Exit Glacier

We grabbed a spot in the Primrose Campground 17 miles out from town. The mosquitos were few, but flies swarmed in their place with unexpected fury. Somehow Paige and Mike didn’t seem bothered, but I couldn’t stand still without being attacked. The next site over was a clearer, more open space where the flies were less abundant and the ground flatter, so we moved, carrying Mike’s already-setup tent. Having decided to do the long hike to Lost Lake and back, which began from our campsite, we paid for two nights and headed toward Seward to check out Exit Glacier and the town.

Exit Glacier

Like most glaciers of the world, Exit Glacier was once much larger. As we passed into Kenai Fjords National Park to see it, signs indicated where its terminal face had once been more than a century earlier, and we could track its insistent retreat to the slope partway up the foot of the mountain from which it flows. The hike to the face was quick and easy. Where it stopped, water trickled out in a little cloudy rivulet with the sound of further retreat on a warm day.

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Mile 0 of the Iditarod Trail, Seward is a small town of about 2,600 named after William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State who was responsible for negotiating Alaska’s purchase from Russia. We walked the few blocks of pleasant main drag down to the water for a little wading and relaxing on the shores of Resurrection Bay, where we almost lost Mike. He’d gone back to the car for a jacket. Paige and I, ready to head back to camp for dinner, thought we’d intercept him as he walked back. It is, after all, a rather small town with approximately one main three-block street. But he’d come back down a street that was not quite as main as the one we simultaneously walked up, and we kept missing each other for the next 20 minutes, the maximum length of time you can lose someone in Seward who isn’t climbing Mount Marathon.

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Because computer and internet time is pretty limited for us here in Alaska, I’m forced to make the rest of the Kenai visit brief, but I’ll be sure to include a lot of pictures to make up for it. The next morning we went out for a tiring but excellent 15-mile hike. It started out very buggy in the trees for many miles, past an abandoned miner’s cabin, but once we emerged into the tundra, the morning fog had lifted to reveal gorgeous views of the mountains around us. We found Lost Lake, hungry for lunch, and spent a good amount of time lounging and even napping on the shore. It was an idyllic place, the kind that makes you forget about any other worries beyond the bare moment.

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We spent the next two nights in Homer at a hillside campsite overlooking Kachemak Bay and the snow mantled peaks across it. We hung out a bit on the Spit, grabbed a pizza and walked around the shops there. All the kayak tours seemed to be booked through the weekend, so we just decided to take it easy in Homer, which amounted to: a guided beach walk at the nature center, the nature center itself, skipping stones at the water’s edge on the Homer Spit, cruising Skyline Drive (a scenic road above town, bordered by hills rife with fireweed, with expansive views over the bay,) burritos at Cosmic Kitchen (breakfast, lunch, and Mexican,) and a little fireside beer tasting.

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Homer Spit

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Five days is too short a time to spend with such an excellent and admirable friend as Mike, and it ended all too soon, as things are wont to do. On the last day, we drove back to Anchorage, walked around the Saturday Market, and got lunch at our favorite Anchorage establishment, the Glacier Brewhouse, before dropping Mike off at the airport. It was sad to see him go, not knowing this time when exactly we’d next meet, that sadness made more acute with the knowledge that our time all together in Santa Fe is gone. But we know it won’t be long, and the memories we’ve made will only be bolstered by those we have ahead of us, as good friends. Meanwhile, the adventure continues. And we’ll drink to that.

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Anchorage

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Alaska’s largest town, Anchorage holds forty percent of the state’s modest population, but its sprawl, along with a relatively contained downtown scene, lends it the feel of a small city. Unlike most towns in Alaska, it wasn’t built on a history of fishing or mining but was rather established as a port for WWI-era railroad construction. A couple of periods of rapid growth–products the aviation scene and oil in Prudhoe Bay–are apparently responsible for the characterless and incongruent architecture of a city that appears to have stumbled into existence without much cohesion. If not for the stunning backdrop of the green, rocky peaks of the Chugach mountains or the perpetually snow-clad Alaska Range trailing off north, you couldn’t call it a pretty town.

Paige and I  got a room at the Qupqugiaq Inn, a nice hostel with a quirky and talkative proprietor who seems to have stumbled onto a few NASA secrets when a top-level scientist checked out and left his confidential papers in his room. All I can tell you is that Alaska may be at the center of NASA’s attempts to tamper with our atmosphere in an effort to curtail the inevitable effects of global warming and other imminent disasters.

In Inuit folklore, the Qupqugiaq is a sensitive ten-legged polar bear who renounced violence (killing other animals for food) to bring peace and cultivate learning. For us, it meant our first bed in a couple of weeks, and we relished the comparative luxury of a bathroom, a lighter car, and the freedom of knowing where we’d be sleeping for a few nights.

That night, we wandered the downtown street scene for a while and baffled our server at a pizza joint when we ordered our pie without cheese. (“This is the weirdest pizza I’ve ever seen,” he informed us). Buoyed by a lingering sun, we stopped at the Glacier Brewhouse for a midnight beer. We opted for the 9% (mine) and the 10% (Paige’s) special brews, both of which were damned good.

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Dwellers of the lower latitudes, we are constantly delighted to discover logical but surprising natural phenomenons of the north, like unending summer days. The sun, furthermore, rises in the north, swings a slow arc across the sky, and sets again in the north, tucked for a time beneath the horizon. It is never directly overhead.

We noted these things in part because we’ve had incredible weather in Anchorage, which the locals have called a heat wave. It might spell impending doom for the earth, but 80 and sunny feels pretty good up here. So we spent most of last Sunday walking along the inlet coast on the Tony Knowles trail into downtown. Here, a strange occurrence suggests a growing mental connection between us. Near the edge of a pond, before we hit the inlet, gulls flocked and cried overhead, making their way to bigger water. Out of nowhere, at exactly the same moment and with the same cadence, we both said, “Follow the seagulls!” I can’t convey the strange ridiculousness of that moment. Paige is always reading my mind, but it’s getting weird. We fell into a fit of hysterical laughter, and people looked at us like we were mad. And maybe we are.

The tide was out and long puddled mudflats lay exposed. These are deceptively dangerous, like wet quicksand that will suck you in and hold like concrete while the tide comes back in. And it comes fast, drowning the flats with the impudence and cold persistence of nature.

Downtown we found the weekend market, a pedestrian grid of Alaskan food and art. The band on stage played a strange, psychedelic sort of folk rock. Most didn’t play their instruments well and bore expressions that suggested their current whereabouts struck them as a constant internal mystery. The singer counted out each song with a jubilant and awkward, “Ready, set, GO!” Nonetheless, they managed a cohesive sound that somehow worked if you weren’t quite listening.

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Our last day in Anchorage, for the moment, put us on a steep and strenuous 10.5-mile roundtrip climb up Wolverine Peak in the Chugach Range, some 4,500 feet above town. I packed the bear spray, Paige clipped a bear bell to her pants, and we climbed. The trail rose above the pines, which gave way to stubby shrubs and green thickets. Paige soon developed terrible blisters on both heels and continued up barefoot until the trail grew rocky. Moleskin strapped on, she toughed it out in her rigid boots, agonized by every step but determined to get to the top, no damsel in distress. I was proud of her for that and impressed.

Along the last steep ridge, wreckage of an old 1950s bush-plane crash lay bent and rusted on the slope. Pikas chirped and darted under rocks. We made the peak in good time and sat atop its pinnacle, 4,491 feet above the water and buildings below. To the west, snowy peaks drained into two sweeping valleys topped with blue pools that spilled out into long, tumbling ribbons of water.

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We’d ascended quickly, and despite the modest elevation Paige was wracked with nausea and headache. She purged the mediocre PBJ we ate (the spew with the view!) and we headed down to alleviate her altitude sickness. That could not have been a pleasant descent for her, with a few more purges and the still-tender heels, but she said she enjoyed the hike.

Mid descent we spotted a big moose grazing a hundred yards away in the little valley below us. We’d been turning distant rocks into grizzlies but fooled ourselves. Then Pete called, and while on the phone with him we saw, on the opposite slope, a grizzly frolicking down into the valley. It looked like it was just playing, reveling in the summer sun. But it was also moving somewhat in the direction of our descent, so we kept hiking before it could cross to our side. Paige rang her bell and I called out to the bear so it knew humans were nearby. Down in the tress again, we saw fresh scat on the trail we’d come up, but we avoided an unwanted encounter.

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The remaining miles were slow as Paige hobbled barefoot the rest of the way to save her heels. I offered to carry her many times, but she’s a bit of a masochist. She’s been wearing sandals ever since, even in the cool Cordova fog we were headed for, to learn about the salmon.

The Road to Alaska, Part III: Crowsnest Pass to Dawson Creek

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The Icefields Parkway ranks as the most scenic drive in the world, at least according to National Geographic, and it’s certainly near the peak of my own list. Starting at Crowsnest Pass, the route winds 144 miles through the craggy heart of the Canadian Rockies, through Banff and Jasper National Parks. Grizzly country. A country of fog, verdant slopes, dramatic peaks, sweeping valleys, ablating glaciers.

From Crowsnest Pass, the graveled Highway 40, closed in winter, runs some fifty miles before hitting pavement, a long stretch of rocks that took us into a deep wilderness where cattle roam free along the road berm, sidled us up to stony rivers and past the occasional fly fisherman, swung us around wild corners into big views of moody mountains. Sean Barret narrated Bradburian tales to us along the way, a fitting accompaniment to a somewhat dreary but exhilarating path.

About forty miles down this road we got a disappointing surprise: Road Closed. We stopped, pondered our options with a quick yoga flow (I don’t think gravel will be replacing sticky mats for yoga practice) and made for an alternate route nearby. We got about thirty yards. Road Closed. Somebody could have mentioned this earlier. Maybe a sign at the beginning of the road would have been appropriate. But we weren’t about to be thwarted by some official fool’s idea of a minor, easily surmountable road hazard, so we dodged the sign back on 40. “I’ll just keep my eyes open in case the road ends in a cliff,” I told Paige, joking. I thought. Fifty yards later a big tree trunk spanned the road. On the other side, a big cliff cut the road, which continued another twenty yards beyond that abyss. So we backtracked a few dozen miles to another side road that connected to the main highway, and went on up the Cowboy Trail, another route, to Longview.

In the Little New York Cafe, the chef cooked some custom veggie pasta dishes for us, a welcome relief from our road diet, which is not unlike that of the backcountry hiker, dense and tiresome. A good meal.

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We stopped to camp in Banff for the night and waited in a short but glacially-slow queue to register for a site at Lake Louise. I thought we might have to camp right there in line and watch the glaciers melt and refreeze into the next ice age. But we got there about a decade later and nabbed the last spot in the whole camp, which was surrounded by an electric fence.

Our site was right by the showers (we needed them) and a grassy field at the foot of snow-speckled peaks. Paige went over to take photos and called me out to join her. There in the grass, forty yards away and grazing for berries, was a big female grizzly. My first wild bear sighting. I’d been waiting to see a bear in the wild for years and never had any luck. Now we were watching a grizzly, so close. Too close if it hadn’t been for the electric fence. But it paid us no mind. This was Grizzly 72, and this field was her territory, from which she’d recently kicked out two sad three-year-old cubs who, now that they’d come of age, traveled together to make their own way in the Banff wilds.

The sun dropped more slowly with each night we drove north, and we spent this one reading by natural light until well after 10, stomachs full of a good meal (courtesy of Paige,) content after hot showers.

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In the cool morning we packed up and drove through the Columbia Icefield and into Jasper, winding up and over a mountain pass with dramatic views, past tumescent glacial rivers, bright milky blue from icemelt and debris. To the west flowed the Athabasca Glacier, an immense river of ice. Massive snow coaches jacked up with monster tires drove visitors out onto the glacier, but we only looked.

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Beyond Jasper, the road north to Grand Prairie was mostly empty. We stopped in Grand Cache to load up on groceries in some kind of stupor. The lack of movement and unvaried diet was taking its toll, and we walked and then drove the remaining miles like aspiring extras on The Walking Dead, silly.

We never knew quite where we’d camp for the night, and a lot of wandering eventually brought us to the Saskatoon Island campground outside of Grand Prairie, where we overpaid for a site near a sedentary, weed-grown lake surrounded by undulating fields of highlighter-yellow flowers. But at least we had plenty of free firewood in this logging province. Once again, the light lingered longer into the night, and our appreciation for the homemade car curtains we’d assembled grew.

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Alberta finally behind us, a Dawson Creek fill-up in British Columbia brought us to Mile 0 of the Alaska highway. There we met a couple in a huge RV who had just finished from the north. They were researching for next year’s edition of the Alaska Highway guidebook. They gave us two copies, and I jumped in the driver’s seat. A sign read “Alaska” with a long arrow to the West. We turned left.

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The Road to Alaska, Part I: Denver to Montana

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Greetings from Anchorage! Sorry for the blog delay, but we’ve been in relative wilderness for the last week and a half, many miles now behind us. I wrote this update on the way. Now that we have more reliable internet, expect more to follow.
It’s day eight of our drive from Denver to Alaska as I write this in the car. We’ve just left Grand Prairie, Alberta, soon to cross into British Columbia. We’re making progress. But we’ll come to that later. It’s been awhile since we’ve had any internet access, since we’ve updated you folks. So we’ll start where we left off, leaving Denver. So as not to overwhelm you or ourselves, we’ll break things down into a few posts, starting with the first leg: Denver to Montana. We’ve done and seen a lot, so I hope you’ll pardon a non-exhaustive account. Man, this is a long drive, and there’s much to report.

We ran out of gas on our first day, 16 miles from Lander, Wyoming on the side of the highway. It’s the emptiest state in the country. In our defense (mine, since I was driving) I tried to get gas in Cheyenne with a full quarter tank, but saw no gas exit. The place was pretty empty. Only 40 miles to Lander–no problem, we thought. But it turns out that our gas gauge is off considerably. A quarter tank means we’ve got 20 miles before puttering out, which is exactly what we did near a deserted looking farmhouse. While Paige guarded the car I hopped a barbed-wire fence and walked across the field to that farm, where a couple were about to get into their car. I asked them if they had a can of gas to sell me, but they were just “neighbors.” The owners weren’t home and they were late to a Cheyenne rendezvous. “Try the guy by the firehouse across the highway, a quarter mile down the road” the man suggested. Then they were gone.

As I walked back across the field, a pronghorn sprinted in front of me, and up from a hill three horses meandered toward me. I stood still and waited. They walked right up like they knew me and nibbled my fingers as I stroked their long faces. A very surreal and magical moment for me in the midst of our small crisis. Then I hopped a couple more barbed wires and, after finding the firehouse deserted, bought some gas from a rancher, who drove me back to the car to refuel. He had 400 head of cattle he’d just driven to their summer pastures, was a volunteer firefighter and former state trooper, and his brother was an FBI agent on assignment in Anchorage.

We drove till one in the morning that night, camping just off a forest road under an endless expanse of stars and the clear bright band of the Milky Way. A horsewoman and her two dogs passed us in the morning.

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In Grand Teton we saw our first moose standing in a river and finally got out of the car for a real hike to Taggart Lake at the foot of Grand Teton and Mt. Owens, jagged snow-salted peaks that towered above. Unfathomably tall waterfalls dropped in high and distant valleys. On the hike back, a crippled pika dragged itself under a dead tree and chirped as we passed. There, another couple our age caught up with us and shared our concern for the injured pika. We hiked together along the rest of the path, talking of our various adventures. They’d been on the road for a couple of months, driving across the southern U.S. from Brooklyn, where they were from, to California. Now they were headed back east across the northern route. It was good to make friends on the road, if only for a fleeting moment, even if we’d never see them again. They gave us a little honk as they passed us going toward Jackson. Our path took us north.

Paying $27 for a park campsite didn’t appeal to us, so we drove ten miles down the rough Grassy Lake Road into Caribou Targhee National Forest and camped in a cloud of mosquitos. Not terribly fun, but free.

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Yellowstone is a vast and varied park. Our first stop was Old Faithful and the surrounding geothermal wonderland of geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and mud pots. As with so many famous wonders, actually witnessing the eruption of Old Faithful was surreal. Behind us a little girl yelled in genuine awe, “It’s a water volcano! It makes the clouds!” And she was right. The water, like most water there, trickled down in bright orange rivulets, colored by hungry thermophiles who loved boiling water like a miner loves gold. (Come on, baby, let the good times roll.)

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We tread the boardwalk path in a big loop around dozens of other geothermal features, boiling with such tremendous heat. It’s a forbidding place where taking the wrong step could mean your last in some fireless water volcano. Hence the mandatory boardwalk, one of those rules with which Paige and I felt obligated to comply, by virtue of its common sense. Imagine with what perpetual nervousness early travelers must have inched forward, with no guiding boards to steer them right.

Down the road, a whim took us to a one-way diversion through Firehole Canyon, where we got a refreshing and much needed rinse swimming in a swift, warmish river, vertical rock walls dwarfing us. That may have been the day’s best moment.

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But I’d also been looking forward to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone ahead. There we hiked a short rim-top trail to the brink of an immense and gushing waterfall, snapping photos along the way. I particularly loved the way the sun’s slanted light struck the textured canyon walls and a little waterfall tucked in a small gorge where most probably never saw it. The big waterfall, on the river’s main course, churned and heaved over the brink with such astounding force. I couldn’t fathom the quantity of water tumbling down every moment, and Paige in I watched in awe for many minutes, rapt, before turning back and continuing our long drive north and west.

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By the day’s end, we’d spotted bison, elk, pronghorn, yellow-bellied marmot, and about a million crepuscular insects that became well acquainted with our windshield like a pattering and messy rain, our welcome to Montana.