Alaska (2005)

Alaska.

The Last Frontier.

Everyone knows that Alaska is big. How big? Alaska is one-third of the size of the lower 48 states. It is approximately 586,000 square miles in size, and has a coastline of 33,900 miles.

It is the northernmost, easternmost AND westernmost state in the United States.

In a word, Alaska is IMMENSE. Almost incomprehensibly so.

On our way to Alaska, as our jetliner approaches Seattle on a clear blue day, we look out our window to the south and see a series of five snow-capped mountain peaks all lined up…as if along an earthquake fault line…Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, Hood and Jefferson.

We board Alaska Airlines for the Seattle to Anchorage flight. It is our first visit to this frigid yet exciting land to the north, and we can hardly believe we are about to set foot there. Before our trip, a friend of a friend has suggested that I sit on the north side of the plane so that looking out the window would provide me with incredible views of the mountain ranges we’d see flying from Seattle to Anchorage. I notice that we are to be seated on the south side of the plane, so I ask the agent at the desk if we can be moved to the other side. I’m thrilled to learn that there are, in fact, seats we can be moved to on the other side. But to my extreme frustration, when we sit in our revised seats, I discover that the new seats put us in the very last row of the plane, where there is NO window!! Not only that, but the window in the seats occupied in front of us is completely obscured by an enormous jet engine!!

I comfort myself when I realize that our plane is departing Seattle at 8:30 pm. Surely, we couldn’t see a thing anyway once we got to Anchorage 3 hours later. It’s a moot point. But to my surprise, I find that even at 11:30 pm, the sun has just set in Anchorage (and actually has more daylight at this time of year than Seattle at 8:30). So my clever re-seating plan was a foolish mistake…

Our rental car agent convinces us that our reserved Geo Metro car is too small to safely negotiate the Seward Highway we plan to drive the next morning. I insist we’d be okay, but she persists. She gives us a four-wheel drive mid-size car at no extra cost.

Driving to our Anchorage hotel, I am appalled to discover that Anchorage appears to be nothing but a vast, unending cesspool of strip commercial fast food joints, auto & tire kingdoms and vast seas of asphalt parking lots as far as the eye can see (or the SUV can drive, in this case) — in stark contrast to the mountain range and lake that envelopes it. It is as if the city has resolved to do what it can to negate the natural wonders around it with a wretched human habitat within. “Anchorage is the most awful place,” says Douglas Duany. “All people know is that nature is beautiful; and they do not give a thought to the city they inhabit.”

But as much as Anchorage is frightful, the Alaskan wilderness beyond the city is simply breathtaking.

We awake early on our first Alaskan morning (6 am Anchorage time and 10 am back at our Florida home) and expectantly drive south on the Seward Highway, billed as the most scenic in the world. Almost immediately, we see why, as enormous, stark, snow-peaked glacial mountains loom all around us (see photo) as we drive along the Turnagain Arm and the Chugach Mountains (“Turnagain” because James Cook, the famous explorer, mistakenly sailed up Turnagain thinking it was the Inside Passage he sought. Instead, he realized he was once again wrong and had to turn around and go back where he came from.)

Turnagain Arm has enormous tidal fluctuations, second in size only to the Bay of Fundy.

We quickly notice something very unusual and impressive about Alaska. Despite the heavy tourism and the very noticeable lack of trash cans (rare because the public provision of trash cans attracts bears), there is almost no litter to speak of along roadways, trails or parks. In our 2 weeks in public places, we hardly even saw a cigarette butt or soda can.

On our way to Exit Glacier, we stop for lunch at the Resurrection Roadhouse. The outdoor seating provides us with a dramatic view of 5,000-foot carved mountain peaks off in the horizon as we enjoy our blackened halibut sandwiches. Quite impressive café seating for us flatlanders.

We are to learn, over the course of our trip, that “roadhouses” are seemingly found every half mile on Alaska highways (as are espresso bars). Originally built to cater to miners and hunters, these character-filled wooden buildings are today an enjoyable glimpse at Alaskan history.

Exit Glacier, for a popular tourist destination (the most accessible glacier in Alaska), is surprisingly impressive. It is 3 miles long and got its name when explorers found it to be a useful way to exit the icy mountains. It is our first up-close glimpse of glacial ice. Warning signs are posted at a distance of 100 feet from the glacier face (large, calving ice shards have been known to come crashing down on people). Of course, the signs merely give me ADDED motivation to get close enough to touch it (don’t try this at home, kids). An interesting feature: distance signs are posted along the access trail that show, incredibly, how far the glacier had extended in 1978 and 1951 (a LOT of receding since then…).

Later that day, we have time to kayak the Resurrection Bay in Seward with Liquid Adventures. Despite a 4 pm arrival time in Seward, the 10:30 pm sunset meant that our 7 pm kayak departure left us with plenty of time (particularly because our Seward lodging was just a short walk from Liquid Adventures).

Seward, with a population of 3,000 full-time residents, is the scenic gateway town to the Kenai Fjords and Peninsula. It was founded in 1903. The 1964 earthquake destroyed 90 percent of the town. But today it seems to be a pleasant place to live (at least in the summer).

We use a tandem kayak provided to us by Liquid Adventures. Along the way, we get a close-up look at a bald eagle in a pine tree near the water, then a sea otter lazily lounging on his back in the water 20 feet from our boat. Early on, we beach near a glacial creek, which seems modest enough. Upon close inspection, however, we are amazed to notice the creek is choked with an enormous population of huge salmon in the clear-running, two-foot deep waters.

We finish at 10:30 pm with plenty of daylight remaining. A day of perfect, cloudless weather just after a string of 12 consecutive days of rain here, comes to a comfortable close.

A short stroll back to Angels Rest finds us back at our “Hobbit’s Loft” cabin, a delightfully cute little log home with tiny hallways, dollhouse doorways, a cute little bedroom and a small bathroom that certainly seems as if it were designed for, well, Hobbits. We highly recommend it (and wish we owned it).

The next morning, we board the Alaska Coastal Tour Boat for a day-long trip in Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords. I was expecting a somewhat hokey, touristy, crowded trip, but was very pleasantly surprised.

Kenai Fjords National Park is 670,000 acres in size. The park contains several deep blue tidewater glaciers. We see a large number of bald eagles (already, I have seen more in Alaska than in all of my previous life). One of the eagles is spotted by a small fishing boat passing by us. They stop and toss a caught fish into the water. Soon, the eagle magnificently swoops down to scoop up his dinner for the morning.

Then, before us is a nearby pod of orcas (killer whales). One male in the group has a dorsal fin that proudly stands six feet out from the water. Soon, we are treated to a great many sea lions soaking up sun on rocks within the bay. We also visit cliff faces exploding with vast numbers of various sea birds.

Best of all, our relatively small, uncrowded boat comes within five feet of a pod of approximately 15 Dall porpoises that show us their lightning fast speed as they repeatedly break water just off our bow for approximately 15 minutes.

Now within the fjords, Holgate Glacier looms ahead of us like a menacing, colossal, 700-foot wall of white ice. We come within a few hundred feet, a distance that safely keeps us out of range of potentially deadly, building-sized ice chunks that occasionally come crashing down off of its face. While there, we witness large chunks calving off the glacial face. Several seconds pass after we see the water splash. When the sound reaches the boat, it is the cracking sound of a terrifically powerful rifle or explosion, confirming to us the power and size of the chunks that seem rather harmless from a distance.

Once again, as our boat nears the marina, we are entertained by the cutest, most delightful, care-free sea otter, who is lying back on the water, his four cute little legs sticking straight up in the air as he casually and quizzically looks over at us with curiosity (perhaps wondering if we will toss him a sardine). His round face and whiskers gives him the appearance of being a little old man.

After an unusually restful night of sleep, we awake the next morning and drive five miles north to the highly-touted Lost Lake Trail, a day hike that is 15 miles round-trip. The trail starts off steeply, then emerges from the forest into an open valley revealing towering, proud, stupendous mountains flanking us on both sides. We are literally dwarfed by the immense size of the valley and mountains.

Walking the trail is a great pleasure, due to well-maintained trail conditions and the surrounding, stunning scenery (see photo), yet at the same time a disconcerting experience because it seems so perfect as a grizzly bear habitat (and occasional trail bear scat to remind us that our concerns were justified).

On this day, Anchorage breaks its all-time record for high temperature for August 12th. The mercury reaches 77 degrees, shattering the old record of 73 degrees.

I should note here that for the many hikes we are to do in Alaska, we find the trails and trail heads to be relatively well maintained. The State is clearly putting efforts into creating rewarding hiking experiences. Apparently, this is an Alaska trademark.

After the hike, we return to Anchorage. On the advice of our Liquid Adventures guide, we visit Moose’s Tooth, a very popular pizza restaurant that serves a good number of draft microbeers (their Pipeline Stout and Prince William Porter are outstanding, as is their Backpacker pizza).

We are picked up the next morning by our Adventure Alaska tour company van and head north of Anchorage. Stopping alongside the highway, we get our first view of Denali Mountain. It takes my breath away, consuming most of the northern sky in front of us. Denali is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from base to peak: It rises 18,000 feet from its base of surrounding lands. By contrast, Everest only rises 11,000 feet from its surrounding lands.

We camp near Denali National Park, where we hike taiga tundra on another very hot, dry day. A very unusual, interesting experience, as the dense mat of vegetation and moisture floating above the permafrost gives the sensation of walking over a huge slab of wet sponge. As a consequence, hiking tundra is rather tiring. Sorta like walking in soft sand.

The Alaska Range mountains loomed around us and dwarfed us in all directions as we hiked. In fact, we feel tiny for most of the trip. 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the US are in Alaska.

I learn of two “small world” coincidences during the hike. One of the hikers in the group is the son of a woman I knew while working briefly in Boulder CO nine years ago. Our guide is married to a woman who grew up a few miles from my childhood home near Rochester NY. A small world in a big state…

The night is thankfully chilly after the day-long hike, and we are treated to howling wolves in the wee hours of the morning.

As our van drives to Denali National Park the next morning, we catch a glimpse of a large red fox on the shoulder of the highway. It is a hint of things to come for us this day, for we are to take a full-day bus tour into the heart of the park.

The park is 6 million acres in size, making it slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts. Only one road enters the park and terminates near its center. The road is slightly less than 100 miles in length and has a simple gravel surface.

Like the boat tour in the fjords, I was not expecting much from a bus tour. It seemed like such a “touristy” sort of thing. But as was the case on each of our days in Alaska, the bus tour far exceeds my expectations.

Our first sighting is a large caribou with enormous antlers. Then a large female moose well over a thousand pounds. We see Dall sheep on the slopes above us. Next, we spot a grizzly mom and her three cubs in a river valley below us during our lunch stop at Polychrome Pass.

We have these exhilarating encounters throughout the day, experiencing no less than five grizzly bear sightings (since it was always a sow and her cubs, we see 15 grizzlies), nineteen caribou, and five moose.

Astonishing.

It is a wonder that the caribou and moose are able to stand up given the enormous size of the antler racks that many of them carry.

During one of our grizzly sightings, we observe mom with her three cubs. The cubs are so small that when they attempt to cross streams, they are often swept downstream a bit when trying to cross. At one point, it appears that a cub is — not surprisingly — hesitating to cross. Apparently quite irritated, mom loses her temper and storms back to the tentative cub. Mom uses her giant paw to knock the little guy on his back. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! He quickly complies by fording the stream.

Denali Park surprises me. I had an impression that the park would be heavily forested with large, dense pine trees. Instead, it is nearly treeless tundra here. Like most of Alaska, spruce pine dominates the park. An odd tree, as it has very short, stubby branches in order to cope with the vicious winds and heavy snows it must face each winter. The tree is so slim that we see what appears to be forests of dark green pipe cleaners.

Denali Park makes it painfully obvious to me what my biggest trip preparation mistake was: I had stupidly neglected to bring my telephoto zoom camera lens and was stuck with my wide-angle lens. Fine for shooting photos of urban streets and huge mountains, but essentially useless for capturing images of wildlife — even those nearly touching me.

Near the Denali entrance, after our wildlife-filled tour, we take a short hike down to the picturesque Horseshoe Lake. There, we watch three beavers frolicking near their shoreline beaver lodges. Only a few feet from us, they playfully dive into and out of their lodges and munch on tree branches and green leaves while floating on their backs (apparently a pastime of quite a few marine mammals in Alaska).

First thing next morning, our van drives us eastward on the famed Denali Highway — one hundred miles of which is unpaved. Vast tundra is seen as far as the eye can see along this lonely road. Like so many places we visit, the corridor is flanked by gigantic mountains.

We arrive, at the far eastern end of Denali Highway, at the remarkable Gulkana Glacier, after eating lunch on the roaring Kennicott River and crossing the treacherous, swaying, wood-planked suspension bridge over the fierce, icy river. A two-hour hike along the river brings us to the terminus of the glacier.

At its terminus, a glacier is typically covered with a thin layer of gray-black soil and rock which camouflages the massive ice below.

For the first time ever, I strap crampons onto my boots so that we can hike on the top of the crystalline, sheer ice surface of the 100-foot thick glacier. For the next two hours, we enjoy the extremely unusual experience of walking on the glistening ice of an enormous glacier. The crampons take some time to get used to, for they eliminate the strongly ingrained urge to walk tentatively on sloping ice. With crampons, incredible friction is achieved. One feels as if casually walking up an icy wall is not only quite possible, but even necessary. Slipping becomes impossible.

So this is how Spiderman feels when he walks!

Throughout the hike, we come upon chimney holes and giant glacial crevasses filled with glacially pure water, creating stunningly blue (and frightening) precipices. On a great many occasions, we lean over to disconcertingly peer down into these caves of oblivion, sometimes dropping a stone into them and listening for several seconds before the rock splashes at the bottom of the glacier. Many times, deep blue sparkling glacial rivers flowing at the surface of the glacier enter these holes on their way to the frigid depths below, where underwater rivers gather.

These rivers, of course, were irresistible to me. I had a water filter and simply could not pass up the opportunity to sample the coldest, purest water I would ever have cross my parched lips.

We take off our crampons after our glacial exploration, and suddenly become mortals again, because we once again need to worry about slipping on ice.

After Gulkana, we stop at a convenience store. Our pressing quest: to restock our Alaskan microbeer supplies. Over the course of the trip, I sample an oatmeal stout, an amber ale, a summer ale, a nut brown ale, pale ale and an ESB by Alaskan Brewing. All were very good. The Alaskans, not surprisingly, take their beer seriously.

This is no ordinary convenience store one finds in the lower 48. In the wide open spaces of the Alaskan frontier, when there may not be another store for 400 miles, convenience stores essentially need to carry every imaginable consumer product. Here, we see stools, fur coats, rifles, a large Radio Shack section, all imaginable power tools, various pieces of lumber, screws, nails, guitars, a restaurant, an ice cream parlor, and fresh and frozen food. For all I know, the place sells pick-up trucks out back.

The van turns east off of Route 4 and after a few miles, we again find ourselves bumping along on a dusty dirt road leading us into the heart of the little-known Wrangel-St. Elias National Park. Curious that the park is almost unknown (probably due to its unwieldy, unpoetic name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). At over 13 million acres in size, it is the largest national park in the United States. Twice as big as Denali National Park. Six Yellowstone National Parks can fit inside this gargantuan park. Indeed, it is larger than the states of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

BIG. In a mind-boggling way.

No less than 9 of the 16 tallest mountains in the United States are found within its borders. At over 18,000 feet, Mount St. Elias is second only to Denali as the highest peak in the nation.

With no paved roads within its boundaries and very few trails, the park is a nearly unexplored place for almost all but the most adventurous and skilled of travelers.

Inside the park is the mighty Copper River, historically one of the best copper mining areas in the world. The river is also home to the internationally renowned Sockeye Salmon, considered the most delicious and therefore most sought-after of all the salmon species found in the world. The fish is so strongly desired that connoisseurs at posh eastern restaurants willingly spend hundreds of dollars to taste the first catch of this esteemed fish each year (freshness provided with a guarantee that the fish ends up on the customer’s dinner plate less than 24 hours after it exits the frigid Alaska waters — a fleet of jetliners from a major airline wait at the beginning of each season to whisk the fish east).

We stop for a short hike and for lunch at Liberty Falls within the park. We then cross a railroad bridge (now used for car travel) built in 1910 and still standing strongly enough to pass recent inspection by the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The unfathomable size of the park obligated me to opt for the only way to truly get a visual grasp of its vastness: A 70-minute “flightseeing” tour on a small plane. After all, one could hike the park for 40 years and not see more than a tiny fraction of it.

The flight was astonishing and breathtaking. Glaciers that are several miles long, thick and impossibly wide are seemingly countless in number. Vast mountain cirques and lava-shaped mountain shield domes and cones. Deep, deep river valleys. Our plane cruises past the famous Stairway Ice Fall twice, yet even our second pass makes it hard for me to believe its size. At 7,000 feet in height, the Ice Fall are the second highest in the world.

That night, after yet another day that leaves us shaking our heads in disbelief about what we have seen, we camp along McCarthy Creek.

The Town of Kennicott is a copper mining town five miles from the Town of McCarthy, near where we camp for the night. Kennicott was a company town. From 1911 till 1938, the mines operated 24 hours a day and delivered 591,000 tons of copper.

Both Kennicott and McCarthy were created to cater to copper miners. Kennicott was intended to be “sin free.” It was free of alcohol, ladies of the night, dancing, gambling and the like.

McCarthy, on the other hand, was the alter ego of Kennicott, built by the Kennicott Copper Corporation in 1910 to cater to “Wild West” needs. Here, saloons were found, as were all manner of, shall we say, extra-curricular activities. The Town was a place created for “wine, women and song.” At its peak, several hundred residents lived in the town.

A Kennicott-McCarthy transit bus takes us to our Root and Kennicott Glaciers trailhead. The bus has been retrofitted to run on peanut oil, and I stand behind it after getting off. Sure enough, the exhaust smells like french fries.

Our hike takes us at the edge of Root Glacier, which sits at an elevation below us at the bottom of a steep talus slope. Even below us, the gigantic size of the glacier makes it seem as if we are looking up at it. Looming in front of us for quite a distance is the fearsome Blackburn Mountain, known far and wide as a very difficult, technical climb that only expert climbers have a chance of summiting.

Also in front of us is the surprisingly well-preserved copper mine processing buildings, painted red and containing such features as dormers, detailing, sloping roofs and windows that indicate more pride and craftsmanship went into its construction than the bleak, boxy industrial buildings we erect today. The east side of Kennicott Glacier alongside of us is a mountainside that contains some of the richest copper deposits ever discovered. Where copper ore in the lower 48 typically contains about 2% copper, at Kennicott the ore contains 13% to 70% copper.

Near the end of our hike to the Erie Mine near the Stairway Ice Fall, we must traverse an extremely narrow, treacherous footpath. So narrow that the loose-rock talus slope plummeting down to Root Glacier frequently gives way as we walk on the tightrope path, obliterating a chunk of the path for the next hiker. The other side of this 8-inch wide passage is hardly a picnic either, as it, too, mostly features an abrupt drop-off down to a talus slope formed by the copper mine activity high above us on our other side.

A rusty, thick cable (probably made of copper) lying on this steep slope is evidence of conveyance of copper ore from the mine hundreds of feet way, way above us by large metal (probably copper) buckets. High up the slope is a mining building somehow built at that elevation approximately one hundred years ago — perhaps employing the same mysterious, impossible methods used to erect the Egyptian pyramids. There was, after all, no motorized mechanical equipment available to hoist heavy, unwieldy building materials up the seemingly endless and steep mountain slopes.

Our group of 8 splits up. One group staying back and a second group pressing a few hundred feet further down the razor-thin path for a better view of the glacier and ice fall. This second group stops at an impressive vista, and we are amused to find ourselves being approached by a large, seemingly friendly (hungry?) magpie bird. He comes within a few feet of us. We have no food to offer, and soon start hiking back to the others. The magpie continues to follow us for several minutes on our serpentine route, apparently taking some sort of liking to us. A friend and I stop and happen to glance up the steep mountain slope, looking for our new friend. We spot Ms. Magpie swooping toward some medium-height shrubs about 60 feet from us.

Suddenly, a black figure jolts into the open. I excitedly point and shout “Animal!” to my companions.

A black dog? Here in glacier country?

Within seconds, we realize that it is a young black bear. We watch as the bear scampers along the slope above us. He puts on this show for us for several minutes. I glance down to our hiking pals who had stayed back, feeling sorry for their misfortune in not coming along to enjoy our encounter. But when we arrive to let them know of our fortuitous sighting, they let us know that the bear had passed by them earlier (and much closer) as they watched from the trail in amazement. Indeed, they had whistled and waived to us in hopes that WE wouldn’t miss the bear now that he was coming toward us. Fortunately for us, we had a friendly magpie to lead us to the bear…

Shortly thereafter, another encounter would make this event seem not even worth taking note of. Coming around a bend in the trail, our group finds itself a mere fifteen feet from a medium-sized grizzly bear who is sitting in the middle of the trail gobbling berries. Our guide is in the lead. He makes eye contact with the bear. It is his closest encounter ever with a grizzly (and certainly for us). He claps his hands and somewhat loudly says “grizzly!” With great relief, he watches the grizz dash off into the slope above us, where he continues to happily gorge on berries. We watch in utter fascination for a number of minutes. Our group remains 15 to 20 feet from the grizzly — Dead Man’s Distance. The grizz seems preoccupied with raspberries instead of terrorizing humans, fortunately. I ask Maureen, in hushed tones, if she has a good line of sight of the bear. She does.

Our guide starts pointing out to a small group of seemingly unconcerned hikers near us that there is a grizz just up the slope and it would not be a good idea to camp here. They nonchalantly seem unmoved, and I wonder, as I write this, whatever became of them. The conversation with these hikers is enough of a disturbance that our grizz dashes over a small hill and is out of our sight — perhaps waiting for a more peaceful time to resume his berry dinner (this is, after all, hunting season and for all he knew, we were preparing to gun him down).

We again camp in the park and arise early for our drive out of the park. We stop to observe a set of “fish wheels” — wooden windmill-like contraptions that subsistence farmers use to catch salmon running the river. By permit, these people are allowed to catch up to 500 salmon per year, and only for their own consumption. The wheels are only allowed to run when the farmer is present to monitor them. As is now commonplace, we observe a bald eagle watching over the wheel from his perch on a spruce pine on the far bank of the river.

The guide takes us down the highway for a look at the infamous Trans-Alaska pipeline, which runs for 800 miles from the North Slope to the northernmost ice-free port in the US — Valdez. Approximately 400 miles of the pipeline runs underground. It is 48 inches in diameter. The line crosses three mountain ranges and over 800 rivers and streams. It cost $8 billion to build in 1977, and was at that time the largest privately funded construction project in US history. Construction began on March 27, 1975 and was completed on May 31, 1977. By the middle of 2004, over 14 billion barrels of crude oil had moved through the pipeline system. The oil is super-heated to 400 degrees to ease its flow along its frigid route, taking approximately 30 days to travel from Prudoe Bay to Valdez.

Several “instant towns” were built along the pipeline route in the 70s to provide housing and services for the pipeline workers. The pipeline has a zig-zag alignment to better contend with extreme temperature changes in the Alaskan climate and to better survive earthquakes (Alaska is an active earthquake zone). The zig-zagging allows the line to bend and compress without breaking. Nevertheless, it does seem shockingly vulnerable to, say, terrorist sabotage. Indeed, we are told that a gunman with a high-power rifle shot several holes into it recently, creating gushers of oil from the pipeline.

How valuable is the oil industry to Alaska? Our guide tells us that about 80 percent of all state tax revenue comes from the oil industry.

That night, we camp along the cliff edge of the Copper River, which is hundreds of feet below us in a great valley, and our tent only a foot or so away from the crumbling cliff edge (our exhaustion from another day of Alaska adventure, though, meant that we slept quite soundly, despite the precarious position of the tent).

Early Friday morning, Maureen stands at the cliff edge looking out over the horizon. I join her and she informs me that our guide was correct. At this vantage point, he tells us the day before, one often sees bald eagles gracefully glide by at eye level as they hunt for salmon in the river below. Maureen gloats about how a bald eagle had, a few moments before I arrived, passed by her a mere 15 feet away.

The destination this day is the Matanuska Glacier, a 27-mile long (four miles wide at its terminus) ice floe which our guide has been assuring us for several days would be a staggering, unforgettable experience. We strap on our crampons again, transforming ourselves into superheroes (able to ascend sheer ice walls in a single bound), and walk into the curvaceous, wave-like glacier.

Our guide was right. The glacier is an unbelievable, surreal experience.

The glacial ice glistens and shimmers in the sun for us. Enormous, curving, sloping walls are suggestive of standing in the middle of a stormy open sea with giant waves that have suddenly frozen solid around you.

That evening, we are enjoying our Discovery cabins at the headquarters of our tour company based in Hope AK. Hope is today a small gold-mining town of about 225 residents. Our clean, rustic cabin has a front porch just upslope and only a few feet from a delightful mountain stream. We take a short walk to a nearby restaurant, and as our group returns to our cabins on the walk back along a road, I step away to relieve myself in a wooded area. I return to hear the others excitedly explain to me what I had just missed: A young black bear had just galloped across the road in front of them as they walked.

Damn. I’m heartbroken. Me and my bad timing. I NEVER get to see such things! First, I miss the bald eagle. Now, a bear! Never again will such an event happen in a million years…

But then, three minutes later, my disappointment abruptly evaporates. A SECOND black bear (this one about three years old) crosses in front of us!

Amazing.

Saturday morning starts us off on a full-day hike along the exceptionally scenic Bear Creek Trail. The trail offers wonderous, grand sweeping views of Turnagain Arm off in the distance down the valley. We spot a pair of large caribou, make a sighting of rare white mountain goats, scramble across rocky talus slopes, and soak in the tremendously gorgeous, deep-blue glacial melt lakes at the end of the trail. In all, a 10-mile round trip hike that had slopes steep enough to leave this flatlander gasping for air on a number of occasions.

Our last day, and I’m deeply troubled by second thoughts: Do I REALLY want to go whitewater rafting on Six-Mile Creek as I am signed up to do? A glacially-fed river thundering down a mountain range with icy-cold, 30-degree water?? How soon will one die of hypothermia after falling into the frosty Class V rapids? And even if, by some miracle, a warm-weather Florida boy like me is NOT abruptly, violently ejected from the raft, won’t my hands, face and feet be suffering from advanced frostbite?

But somehow I find the courage. This will be my last-ever chance to sample whitewater in The Last Frontier, I say to myself. I’ll deeply regret passing up on this opportunity for the rest of my life if I chicken out.

So I throw caution to the wind. I commit to doing it over my breakfast cereal.

To add to my unease, there is a steady, cold Alaska rain coming down outside as we eat. And our cabin host assures me that rainy weather does not matter “one iota” to rafting companies. My remaining hope that the rafting will be called off is dashed.

We are driven to the river put-in point by our hiking guide. I feel like I am being led to my doom. What will my puppy back home think if Maureen returns without me? Won’t he be terribly heartbroken and wonder where I am?

The raft company is efficiently preparing the already-assembled group of rafters as we arrive. Explaining how to put on dry suits (necessary to protect the body from hypothermic shock, and donning a dry suit is another first-time experience for me). I feel like I am putting on a space suit and being led to a space shuttle. At the river, we are given the most thorough, detailed safety talk that I have ever experienced in my years of rafting. And for the first time (for me), there will be a “rescue raft” always in front of us in case someone goes “swimming” (that is, if someone is jettisoned from the raft by an exploding rapid, and suddenly must contend with a ferocious, unforgiving river outside of the raft and flailing around in the water).

Not only that, but I am horrified to learn of another first for me in rafting. “Each of you will be obligated to jump out of the raft and into the raging river a short way downstream to demonstrate that you can successfully assume the ‘feet first’ floating position. “Be aware that in rapids, there is a good chance you’ll need to rely on yourself for a ‘self-rescue,’ since we might not be able to get to you.”

I’ve dreaded this moment for almost two days now (I had read the raft brochure, where you are informed of this safety procedure). Am I actually going to jump from the raft into that ice water VOLUNTARILY? You must be JOKING!!

Before I know it, I’m in the raft. There are only 3 of us, and we have a relatively small boat, which means our hair-raising ride will be like screaming down the river in a sports car.

So, I’m in a “hot rod” raft. We’ve just been given an extraordinary, unprecedented (for me) safety talk. A rescue raft will be in front of us at all times. Always be prepared for “self-rescue.” The water is cold enough to freeze in the Sahara Desert. The Six-Mile Creek is considered “the most challenging whitewater in all of Alaska.”

What have I gotten myself into???

Soon, we are paddling and taking instructions from our raft guide — working in perfect synchronicity as if our lives depended on it (which, of course, they do). Our guide tells us to get in the water and float down to the calm eddy downstream. Mindlessly, I obey.

Astonishingly, the dry suit keeps me quite dry and comfortable. The air temperature is 45 degrees, frigid rain is beating down into chilly river water, and I’m suddenly finding myself willing to go for a leisurely swim!

We shoot through the 3 narrow canyons (so constricted that we sometimes need to raise our paddles into the air to squeeze through). The furious Class IV and V whitewater rapids are exhilarating. Not as deadly as the dreaded Gauley River I had done in West Virginia a number of years ago, but not exactly for the faint of heart, either.

Along the way, we spot 3 bald eagles watching over us in trees leaning over black sand beaches. At the end of our trip, we are given the option of jumping back in for a relaxing float on our backs. I happily do so, and my 15-minute ride is utterly enjoyable as I lie my head back on the liquid ice cube water with snow-peaked mountains above me. Who needs a spa?

After the rafting, my tour group is taken to Virgin Creek Falls Trail, the former stomping grounds of our guide in Girdwood. The trail is in a village containing the well-known Alyeska Ski Resort, where ski bumming is said to be a popular pastime (or at least an initial aspiration before reality sets in). The trail passes through the northernmost temperate rainforest in the world. And is simply gorgeous. Lush with bright green vegetation, a soft bedding of pine needles on the trail, moss hanging from tree limbs, and impressive waterfalls cascading through large boulders.

Finally, we return to Anchorage and head up into a city park for some vista views of the region. As we have come to expect, a large moose and her youngster are soon spotted down in the valley below us.

In all, after our 8 days with the tour company, we have hiked 50 miles and driven 1200 miles (a large percentage of which were on gravel roads).

One must be very self-reliant in Alaska to survive. You must be skilled at “self-rescue” (as I learned on Six-Mile Creek), since chances are good that there won’t be anyone near you if you get in trouble.

In our Alaska travels, we often notice an important aspect about much of the Alaskan wilderness: A profound, exquisite silence. Compared to other places I have been, we notice almost nothing in the way of shrieking sirens, blaring car horns, roaring motorboats, whining planes, whizzing leaf blowers and obnoxious boom boxes. None of those audible signs of human selfishness, incivility, or laziness increasingly assaulting us back in “civilization.” It is good to know that such a tranquil place still exists.

People ask “what were the highlights of your trip to Alaska?” My response is that Alaska is so overwhelming that just the experience of being there is spectacular and unforgettable in and of itself. It is impossible to identify the best experience for a single, discreet part of the trip. A trip here is a continuous, seemingly unending stream of highlights. After all, when one visits a CITY PARK in Anchorage at the end of a trip and watches a young moose sprinting ahead of his mother for a number of minutes — and are almost bored by the sight because it has been so frequent for so long — it is quite difficult to say that a moment within several days of these exhilarating experiences rises above and beyond the endless parade of peak experiences.

Near the end of our trip, our guide points out that regularly, a statement about Alaska ends with the phrase “…in the WORLD.” As in “the most delicious salmon in the world.”

One quickly discovers that you run out of superlatives in your Alaska travels in your frequent efforts to describe what you see and do.

Alaska.

Immense. Exhilarating. Unforgettable. One of the best places to experience outdoor adventure IN THE WORLD.

Don’t miss it.

This YouTube video shows photos that I shot while on this trip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-p8ZnKNI-8

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Categories: 2001-2010, Alaska, Hiking, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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