This year we didn’t sail to Alaska on S/V Aurora so this page is special and not part of our sailing (b)log. We’d long wanted to take that Great American Road Trip – on the Alaska Marine Highway – across the Gulf of Alaska to explore South Central Alaska and the Athabathcan lands. When Jack fell off his Segway just before New Year’s, breaking his ankle, 2013 became the year. (We’ll cruise to the San Juans and the southern areas of British Columbia later this summer.)
While this log mitigates our weakening ability to remember details, it is mostly an appeal to our friends to get onto the Alaska State Ferry in Bellingham and completely unplug for several days. (Slideshow of 2010 trip here.) Then hit the road in an RV (and do not worry about what others, especially your kids. say.) as this is the only way to submerge yourself in America’s last (and wild animal populated) wilderness.
Saturday, June 8 – Bellingham and beyond We take the MAX to PDX and board Alaska Airlines for Bellingham, a bridge collapse in Skagit County and a new overpass being put in in Clark County having made our long anticipated Bolt Bus trek north on I-5 impossible and the long backtrack along it from the airport necessary. (Too long a sentence. Blame my reading Edward Hoagland.) Once we get settled in an ample ADA stateroom on M/V Kennicott, I walk up the hill to the market for gin, vermouth, apples and a couple of cans of smoked sardines and we pull out Bellingham at 6 pm Alaska time in spectacular warm late afternoon sun.
Sunday, June 9 – Inside Passage from Seymour Narrows to Milbanke Sound About 3 am Jack feels the rocky rush of Seymour Narrows but I don’t wake until 5, just in time to wistfully watch the turn off for Shoal Bay. It is a long day spent reading and whale watching but the open waters at Cape Caution and then again at Milbanke Sound are soundless lullabies. The short hours of night, took us through Grenville.
Monday, June 10 – Dixon Entrance to Frederick Sound At dawn, out in the observation deck, with curtains down to not interfere with night navigation. To see the entrance into Ketchikan, I check with purser to see if I can roll them up and she dispatches a steward. Dixon Entrance with the sun breaking over Portland Inlet, a long fiord with Canadian villages on its east shore and an isolated Alaskan one on the west bank of its headwaters, is a rosy calm, a mirror rippled, not dead flat like last year.
At dock it takes us no time to walk the brisk mile walk in the sun to the local sign shop, which has a Fed Ex counter: Jack emails a doc, it’s handed to us printed, we sign, pay and leave it to be faxed while we move next door to MacDonalds to read our email.
Rather than head inside to Wrangell and Petersburg, the Kennicott takes the big waters west of Prince of Wales and pass between Admiralty and Kuiu, the large island paired with Kupreanof across the narrow, magical, bull kelp and otter clogged Rocky Pass.
Tuesday June 11 Juneau and North At dawn we are passing Juneau but it takes another hour to pull past the majestic Mendenthal Glacier into Auk Bay, where the Bellingham bound Columbia and the Skagway-bound M pull out, leaving the Kennicott room at the dock. All the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway are named after glaciers (and all of them, I believe, are named after people). From a display on the ship’s bulk head I learn that Robert Kennicott, a naturalist affiliated with the Smithsonian, led the 1865 Western Union Telegraph Expedition. Although he did not survive the first scientific exploration of the interior, the team’s research strengthened negotiations for the purchase of Alaska two years later. Later I find posted the essay of a Copper River student who won a statewide contest to name the then newest ship in the fleet. The Alaskan legislature lets kids compete to make consequential decisions, a charming habit exemplified by Benny Benson, the 13-year old Aluet orphan who designed the state’s lovely flag.
AT&T checks in with four bars and I spend the next four hours dealing with several dozen emails and two voice messages.
The weather holds bright and sharp as the orcas’ fins circling just off port and, a bit later, the lingering spray of a circle of humpbacks, bubble feeding off starboard. My thoughts start to embed themselves one in another as I finish Edward Hoagland’s Alaskan Travels. Based on notes from the early 1980s but published thirty years later, the book lends itself to occasional sweeping sentences: I flew back to New York that early spring to resume my fractious but loving fifteen-year marriage to Marion, who, as managing editor of Commentary magazine, had been helping during the 1970s and early 80s to invent, incubate, and nourish the nascent Neoconservative movement, which cheered on Reganism, mocked environmentalism and Gandhi, vilified the Muslim world, but didn’t attain its full flowering of influence until the George W. Bush presidency and the invasion of Iraq.
Wednesday, June 12 – Yakutat into the Gulf of Alaska Wake up to fog on the desolate coast north of the infamous Lituya Bay. About 6 we turn into an arm of Yakutat Bay and soon can make out the shoreline, muddy and convoluted at low tide. The pleasant surprise was the small Tlingit village of Yakutat, which is not even mentioned in our guidebooks. There is no ferry terminal there so M/V Kennicott pulls up to a dock packed with stacks of green 40-foot Alaska Marine Lines containers, blue and white plastic fish boxes, large fork lifts, and fixed cranes. We don’t exactly fit so the harbor master comes out in a small skiff and ties us up to a couple of substantial steel and concrete pylons at some distance beyond either end of the dock.
We get down to the car deck to exit but the large door opens on a view of low tide mud and the underside of the dock. What to do? Soon a long open elevator with a large truck cab drops down, pivots so the cab can drive off and be strapped down and we can get on to be lifted into the morning of the village.
It’s early spring here, with the salmonberries still in bloom. When the Alaska Commercial Company opened at 7 we ducked in to chat with locals over lattes and a hot from the oven raspberry turnover. Attracted by one of those fascinating Tlingit community bulletin boards, we wandered over to the not yet open True Value hardware store. Since no one in Yakutat has a lawn, we found this ad helpful.
Thursday, June 13 Anchorage When dawn breaks, we’re in Prince William Sound, where we have to jam everything back into our bags and leave our home of the past five nights. As the Kennicott ties up, the sun breaks on Whittier, hemmed in by steep slopes, stripes of spring green and snow-white punctuated with the occasional waterfall. Lovely small harbor and one big building where most of the 300 residents live. Whittier was built during WWII, then accessible only by sea or by rail through a three mile tunnel. In time, the single track rail tunnel was renovated to take cars, trucks and busses. We hop on the Magic Bus for along with some of our fellow passengers: Jane and Alden, big rig drivers from Armadillo who’ve been married 47 years, and lots of Mennonites. a honeymooning couple plus unrelated families, whose men don their tall, wide brimmed straw hats as they disembark. Our 90 mile ride through the tunnel, across Potter’s marsh, up Turnagain Arm to Anchorage is a spectacular shared farewell.
Anchorage is very orderly, a bit too. We stay at the Voyager, extremely competently run by the Cenega Native Corporation and Jack works out at the gym of the stately Captain Cook Hotel across the street. Wonderful museum and bike trails.
Friday, June 14 Chugach National Forest Our 24-foot Cruise American RV features the fall colors of West Virginia on the front, the Golden Gate on Starboard and a New England lighthouse on port. After a briefing on its operation, we drive through a bunch of big boxes to Walmart, mostly in appreciation of their charitable welcome (which we later find has been reneged: in the past anyone could sleep in their vehicle in the parking lot.) RVs can stay free anytime in their parking lots, a little like the Stadium Fred Myers in Portland lets homeless people sit as long as they like at the tables between the flowers and the deli section. We head south out of town past Potter’s Marsh and along the always spectacular Turnigan Arm. We head into the mountains and stay at Granite Creek Campground in Chugach National Forest at Mile 62 of the Seward Highway. Only $7 a night we were seniors.
Saturday, June 15 Seward and Ptarmigan Creek. We head down the Kenai Peninsula toward Seward. Mountains, glaciers, good spruce forests, and always blue skies. There we visit the Alaska Sea Life Center, which is right on Prince William Sound and partially built with post-Exxon-spill reparations funds. Collaborating research centers are the Vancouver and Seattle Aquaria and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. Excellent bird display with breeding pairs of rare Black-Legged Kittiwakes.
We save the boat trip to the Kenai Fjords National Park glaciers for the next time and visit the only accessible by car, the impressive Exit Glacier. We get the last space at the 16-site Ptarmigan Creek Campground. Also run by the US Forest Service, it’s filled with Alaskan families enjoying the early summer heatwave. Still not a drop of rain.
Sunday, June 16 Deep Creek State Park in Ninilchik. What an absolutely wonderful place. Apart from two humungous bus mounted Texas and Mississippi-licensed motor homes, whose occupants never exit, we are among Alaskan families. A large multi generational family from Fairbanks launch inflatables from the beach to fish for halibut and return with their per person daily limits. I spend some time watching some fancy fast knife work and packing of filets into plastic bags for freezing in town. Other folks are digging clams. Most people just hang out and watch the bald eagles play and feast on the halibut skeletons, cheeks intact, that the fishermen thrown into the surf.
Up the beach larger boats – both sports and personal use fishermen – are being expeditiously launched by retired earth moving equipment. At the end of the day we marvel at the speed at which trailers are pushed into the water and boats are winched on and pulled out. Less than 60 seconds.
Monday, June 17 Heading north from Homer we again pass through the ugly highway sprawl of Soldotna, stopping briefly for breakfast at the city’s Swiftwater Park, high above a walk where people are casting into the fast, deep Kenai River. Then we continue north along the beach route to the original urban center of Kenai, where pick up a historic walking tour map at the visitors’ center. Standing on the steps of the Russian Orthodox Church is Father Thomas Andrew, the Native Alaskan priest who invites us in and shows us around. He is understandably proud that membership in the tiny parish is growing, particularly with converts. Soon a young white parishioner appears with a simple plastic icon, which she has found improperly displayed in a thrift store. I guess that’s what happens when shops in Sitka sell icons. Father Thomas accepts it gratefully, promises to repair and find it a home and tells us the story of the saint.
At Anchor Point there is another beautiful beach and the only other place we saw with late caterpillar rigs launching and unlatching boats. An unsuspecting Russian tourist takes my picture in front of a sign saying “North America’s Most Westerly Highway Point”. He has with a sweet young woman in tow and, no, they don’t want their pictures taken.
With nine days worth of dirty laundry, full grey and backwater tanks, and an empty water tank, we head for Homer and Heritage RV park. Beach on both sides and glorious white peaks all round but our walk to the end of the spit means traffic and a touristy string of businesses that have to make their year’s income in three months. On return I check email. Yoga chum, Alaksa-savvy Alice has sent a photo with a sole recommendation: Driftwood In and RV Park. The next day we ride though Homer’s small historic district and find it. Indeed this is the place to stay.
Tuesday, June 18 Kenai River and Quartz Creek. The area along the Kenai River is spectacular and evidently the fishing is as well. Lots of folks in waders. With a view to safety in the fast flowing snow melt waters, they stand shoulder to shoulder, leaving just enough space to cast. The beautiful USFS campground at Quartz Creek sits on a narrow strip of land between board walk bordered creek and the turquoise lake. We build a fire and cook a big meal on a very well designed fire ring.
Wednesday, June 19 Tern Lake-Anchorage-Wasilla Visit to the Wilderness Preserve at the far end of Turnagain Arm. There are the usual rescued animals. Bear cubs not taught survival skills can never be returned to the wild. One black bear cub was found strolling on a Juneau street; another was rescued after falling into a well. A grizzly (what South Central Alaskans call what people in South East call a Brown Bear) whose mother was shot by an Anchorage homeowner who wanted to protect his dog and didn’t notice the cub. But far more impressive were the breeding flocks of bison and musk ox awaiting release in the while. Archeological evidence and oral accounts show that Wood Bison were common in Alaska two centuries ago but later extinct. Thanks to collaboration with Canadian wildlife authorities the herd at the center is now sufficiently large and well balanced that it will be released into the wild next year. Recent research shows that this particular species of bison has a positive impact on its habitat. The Musk Ox has a distinctive horn structure that allows bulls to survive head butting charges at speeds reaching 17 miles an hour. But since their survival instincts in the face of predators call for the entire herd closing together around the young, they are no match for gun toting human, who hunted them to extinction in Alaska. Thanks to breeding stocks imported from Greenland, musk oxen are now found in several northern preserves, where Native Alaskans prize the long wool known as quiviut.
In the evening we pick up Selena at the airport in Anchorage and drive north to Wasilla where we’ve reserved a place in an RV park. We start dinner about 11 pm as the sun starts to fade. No night. No stars. Or rather only one, The sun. All day every day.
Thursday, June 20 North on the George Parks Highway. McKinley looms clear and bright. At the boundary of Denali National Park where we pull into our spot at the Grizzly Bear Campground. Selena and I take part of the trail that leads to the park Visitors Center. We get distracted watching a beaver at work and then run into some bear scat which puts an end to our wondering if what we’ve taken to be a short jaunt is not. (We later learn it’s a 9.5 mile strenuous hike).
Friday, June 21 Grand Tour of Denali National Park. What a wonderful day! Some folks go to Denali and never see the mountain. Not only is Mount McKinley (20,320 ft) out the whole time we’re there, so are the animals: the grizzly stretched out enjoying the sun, the caribou placidly munching themselves up a canyon, moose including the iconic bull with a huge rack, lots of curly-horned Dall sheep high up on improbable ledges, eagles soaring over head, and a sweet bushy tailed red fox.
Denali National Park is an intact ecosystem. It’s impeccably well-managed, having incorporated lessons learned at other, less fortunate parks. A single 91-mile road partially penetrates the park. All visitors, many of whom arrive at the Park gate by the Alaska Railway, travel by bus, a service started in 1972 and run by the local Native Corporation. Some busses ferry campers to sites. Others are the jump on jump off kind that shuttle hikers who explore the trail-less taiga and tundra wilderness.
Jack has booked us on a superb day long tour with a professional naturalist named Scott Johnson, who also drives the bus. Jack and Selena are in the front seats and I’m two rows behind with a couple from Minnesota and their adult daughter. Couldn’t have a better seat mate than Debbie. She was one of seven kids who hunted partridge and pheasant for the family table. The boys were issued guns, the girls binoculars and off they’d go in the car. Debbie is the master wildlife spotter for the whole bus. When you see something, you shout “Stop” and tell people where to look using o’clock directions. Mis-sightings are quite okay – glacial erratics make take the shape of bears. Little by little your eyes get trained up and you see stuff. And by this time you’ve learned so much about the habitat that everything fits together.
At the end of the day Scott asks, “What’s the rarest thing we have seen?” A very long list is generated from the back of the bus but the answer is always “no”. The rarity is the wilderness itself, in all its wholeness and unfathomable complexity. “The bear you don’t see might be a bear that’s never seen a human. And that’s only possible in a place this large and wild.”
Saturday, June 22 Denali State Park Running next to Grizzly Bear campground is the great Nenana River, which is born in a glacier of the same name and forms the eastern boundary of the Park. When Selena hears I’ve never done river rafting, she says we’ve gotta do it. We don dry suits – I want one for sailing! – and take off with a skilled river guide. I get why Selena loves river kayaking so much. I vow to get to know the rivers of Olympic National Park.
As for hiking trails, they seem sort of rare in Alaska. At least we had trouble finding out about them. It may be because Alaska’s so big and under populated. It may be because Alaskans hike purposively to go hunting or find the perfect place to wade into a salmon stream. It may be because of the bears. Not only do you have to pay attention, you have to keep singing, or clapping, or talking to yourself (“Tell the bear what you had for breakfast”, suggested one summer ranger) so you don’t surprise them. Selena mentioned that after four days in Glacier National Park, the restorative nature of the wilderness was so compromised by the compulsive need to make noise that she and her climbing partner cut their hike short.
But one place to find really great hiking trails is Denali State Park, which borders the National Park and offers spectacular views of McKinley and the glaciers on its southeastern slopes. After lunch at the Coal Creek Trailhead we leave Jack to take a nap and set off. It is one of those wonderful climbs with a rapid succession of ecosystems: braided river, cottonwood trees, woods of spruce, deciduous, flowers and small lakes, taiga (Russian word for “sticks” which is what the spruce trees look like at this altitude, open slopes of brush and berry, tundra, and finally ice shattered rocks with colorful lichen interspersed with large patches of snow. The views from are to die for. Next time we’ll take a couple of days and walk the ridge and descend at Byers Lake, where we spend the night at a state campground after a short 25 mile drive south.
Sunday, June 23 Talkeetna and Anchorage Byers Lake is lovely so Selena and I head out to hike and to see how the Denali State Park trails link up. We do about 100 meters before we are beaten back by mosquitoes! Alaska’s unprecedented 2013 heatwave has been an insect bonanza. We have only a few drops of our carefully rationed bug juice and stocks are everywhere sold out. Back in the campground I pause to chat with a bearded fisherman. “You know those mosquito net hats that cover your face?” he says. “Well I’ve had one for thirty-five years and this is the first summer I’ve used it.”
We drive south and then north again to the tiny, charming, touristy town of Talkeetna. This is where the Mt. McKinley expeditions have their orientation and small plane with hybrid wheel-ski landing gear drop them at base camp. The small town museum with lots of too-familiar antiques from the 1950s is fun. At the National Park Visitors’ Center, the ranger takes us through an interactive decision-making exercise based on scenarios that confront climbers making the McKinley ascent. Of the great peaks of the world, none is at the latitude of Denali. Less than 60 percent of climbers normally reach the summit, but this year looks better than average, although new fears of a thaw could change that. As we lunch on halibut burgers and IPA at the West Rib Bar in the rear of Talkeetna’s historic Nagley’s store, the waitress tells us that Thursday’s temperature of 97 degrees F is the highest on record.
We head south somewhat reluctantly. After passing though the miles of national fast food chains and big box stores around Wasila, we round Knik Arm and find our way back into Anchorage. We camp at Creekside Motel and RV park, which is very near the airport. Selena and I jog along one of Anchorage’s lovely paved bike – ski path until we reach downtown, where we walk though the Captain Cook Hotel, a gem on the otherwise ordinary but pleasant 4th Avenue.
Monday, June 24 Home to Portland Selena leaves at 5 to catch her flight. I clean up the RV, we drop it off at Cruise America, paying for a few extra miles, and head to the airport. I plan to finish this basic log during the trip but by the time I’ve finished Sideways Rain, we’re nearly to Salt Lake. We’ve forgotten about Central Time so the wait is short. Snooze all the way to dark, wet Portland and hop on the MAX straight home.