Some days, when you are barely aware of time,
Observing the spaces between the lines of a thumbprint is a day’s work.
Occasionally, one is occupied solely with wildness.
Some days are domestic and reassuringly normal.
But some days, you just drive.
Pelé is a quick study and a patient little guy. He adjusts to pretty much anything we are doing. However, he knows when a “just drive” day is coming. He slows way down, will stand anywhere from 10 to 50 yards away and just stare at you. He isn't overly obstinate, and will generally motivate in your direction after one or two clicks and whistles.
Leaving Haines, we had a whole bunch of driving ahead of us, and Pelé knew it. The first night out of town (and back in Yukon, Canada) we stopped along the Quill river, and Pelé pulled every stick he could manage to get his teeth around out of that water. He darted around and played a game of chase with me that I will remember for the rest of my life. When not slapping mosquitoes to death, we tossed the rescued sticks and played and played.
From there, it was a whole day of driving to the town of Tok (back in Alaska). Tok seemed to be a large truck stop type of town and was filled with RV's and greasy places to eat, get fuel, or both. We passed on both and headed to a free campsite outside the Wrangle St. Elias State Park. Were it not for the sound of mosquitoes, it would have been as close to true silence as one can get.
Next day...more driving. We drove for a bit into the Wrangle St. Elias park and stopped to eat breakfast and take a small hike, but the actual entrance to the park (and all of the big trails) was about 40 miles down a very rough road, so we passed on it and headed south to Valdez.
A small note on rough road driving. We are well aware that rough roads are going to be an inevitable reality on this journey. We have encountered many so far and can count on many more in the future, but whenever possible, I try to skip them for a few reasons. The main reason I try to pass on them though is due to my ears. I am a chronic listener when I'm driving. Every squeak, knock, bump, or scrape is received, categorized, and filed in my brain somehow.
I can tell the difference between a rock being dislodged from the groves in the tires or something hitting the bottom of the vehicle. I know the sounds our engine should make. I have a range of tolerable noises from the interior and can identify their sources. When a new noise pops up, my senses are triggered, and I need to know right away what the cause of it is. If the noises fall outside of the tolerable range, I can't relax until I either find the source and if possible, fix the problem.
When driving on rough roads, the range of tolerable sounds is pushed beyond the limits of my ability to be “cool” about things, and I just flat out worry about the machine which houses everything I own. I hear terrible noises in our water tank, I can feel the suspension bouncing. I can picture insulation panels dislodging and plumbing lines chafing and leaking. I have this fear that there must be a frequency achievable on a washboard road which when reached, would cause every screw in the van to simultaneously back out, causing total failure of our crazy project.
Of course, I know my fears are overblown, and I shouldn't worry about something which hasn't happened. Anything you worry about is guaranteed to suck at least one more time than it should. A more relaxed attitude towards mechanically hazardous roads should be and indeed is my goal. My road to that sort of equanimity has its own series of bumps, washboard sections and holes to navigate.
Rough roads were in fact, the reason we did not make it to the main bit of that beautiful and enormous park. We stopped after 20 nerve-jangling miles and made breakfast in a little campground. After breakfast, we hiked around a bit, looking for animals, rampaged through a local mosquito population, and managed to get some exercise for Pelé. The visitor center for the park and trailhead were another 27 miles from where we stopped. We decided to just turn around, and save my brain the stress.
From there, it was a haul straight to Valdez, with only a few planned stops; Worthington Glacier, and a couple of waterfalls. The Worthington Glacier, in-spite of having such a regal name that would seem more appropriate for some fancy mustard, or a type of silver-gilded pheasant shotgun, is a crazy, jagged and wildly beautiful piece of natural history, which can be seen from the highway. In fact, there is a small snack stand/gift shop at the base, and an interpretive trail, complete with information on the geology, physics, and history of the glacier.
The parking lot was full of vans, cars, trucks, campers and RV's. The atmosphere was more like a Cracker Barrel than a goddamn miracle of time and ice. Once you got away from the parking lot though, the true beauty and abject danger of the thing became much more apparent.
We scrambled up to the mid-point of where the Glacier was clinging to the mountain and watched as a small river of water rushed out from below the glacier, melting, and, melting, and melting. I know that is what Glaciers are meant to do in the summer. Were it not for the melting of glaciers, we wouldn't have Colorado or the mid-west, but somehow, the rapid melting of the glaciers we have been seeing feels different. Perhaps it is my liberal bias and my seedy past as an advocate for renewable fuels and energy efficiency which makes me feel a sense of loss when I see just how far these glaciers have receded over just the past ten years. Many of the parks and public places where you can visit glaciers, with those little plaques at the base, have some means of showing you the path of the glacier's retreat since the industrial revolution. If you aren't careful, the gravity of the situation could slip into your buzzing, joy-filled consciousness, and seriously damage your buzz.
From there, we were only a few miles out from the city of Valdez. What a town! Surrounded by a beautiful bay, waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers, Valdez is a hiker's playground. There is even a beautifully paved bike path which will take you from miles out of town, directly into the center of the city. If you are currently wondering how to improve upon whatever town you find yourself, begin petitioning for the creation of something similar.
If you are wondering how a place can recover from having its name become synonymous with man-made calamity, I can't tell you. All I can do is not mention it by name...
We camped every night in Valdez around the bend from the Valdez glacier. Our view from the van was of icebergs, slowly melting in a beautiful lake. We were told by a kayak guide that the glacier could only be seen on a kayak tour. We noticed the mountain to our left looked like it might have a trail somewhere on it, so we decided to clamber up and see if we could get to the glacier. We hiked around a cliff edge for about 20 minutes until we found a small trail, cut into the thick growth of the forest overlooking the lake and icebergs. In less than half an hour of scrambling, we were on an overlook, directly above the Valdez glacier.
Our bike ride took us to the opposite side of the bay (near some fairly substantial petroleum infrastructure) and watched as several enormous sea lions were feasting on Salmon near the hatchery. The total mileage was only about 25, but every bit of it was worth it. We thoroughly enjoyed Valdez and would recommend a visit to any fan of beauty, character, and wildlife.
From Valdez, it is a bit of a hike up to Anchorage, which we blew through on our way south to Seward. On the way to Seward, we stopped in a town called Girdwood to meet a potential podcast guest. It didn't work out, but the way it came to be is worth recounting.
Instagram, and the social web of strangers in private in which we find ourselves is a strange beast to me. We have been in touch with a listener of the show, who reached out to us before we made it to Alaska. We missed the opportunity to meet with him in his hometown of Haines, AK, but his interest in our having a good time, and meeting fun and interesting people was undimmed by our odd timing. He sent us a number of fantastic recommendations and put us on the path to meet with the erstwhile guest-not-to-be in Girdwood.
Our internet pal was kind enough to reach out to his friend and wrote back to say that his friend would be expecting us. Tiffany and I decided to haul it to Girdwood as quickly as possible and just made it to the brewery before they closed. I walked in, ordered a beer for Tiff, and a kombucha for myself, and inquired about the whereabouts of our guest-not-to-be...let's call him, Chet.
“Chet?” the bartender said sweetly, “he hasn't been here for hours.”
My big dumb face is incapable of hiding emotion; my disappointment was sufficiently obvious, so she asked, “was he supposed to meet you?”
I explained the situation to her, and she decided to call him. It was kind of her to do so, but ultimately unnecessary. As kind and good intentions go, our friend from the internet was a prince for trying to connect with someone he finds interesting. Unfortunately, a third party stranger is immune to the strange magnetism of internet friendships, and just flaked out on a meeting with people to whom he owed nothing.
Girdwood however, was worth the drive. We found the best little laundromat/public shower we've seen so far. The town is surrounded by mountains and the bay. We planned on taking a hike, but a sudden case of debilitating and wildly unexpected unrest in my intestines prevented us from fully enjoying the experience.
Seward was our goal, so onward to Seward, it was.
As is often the case with towns in AK, our first impression of Seward was not great. Throngs of recently floating tourists were drifting around town, distractedly eating ice-cream, looking at their phones, and meandering into oncoming traffic. A fairly cold and thick cloud-cover was also doing its best to keep us from falling immediately in love with the less-than-obvious charms of the place.
The initial approach into town sends a motorist directly into the belly of that strange beast, to directly encounter the wandering, sticky-fingered masses as they drift through gift-shops and sweet-shops. Any surface which wasn't covered in tourists in windbreakers and ball caps was then covered by RV's and bedraggled campsites.
Fortunately, we carried on with our tour and made our way to the considerably more charming part of town, where the crowds thinned out, and the gift-shop density thinned out a bit.
My tone may sound cynical; don't let that fool you. We are having a great time, and we have no real complaints; cynicism is something of a default for me.
In any case, we decided to head to see the Exit Glacier (a few miles out of town), and camp there for the night. We were all glad we did. The next morning, we made our way to the glacier for a little hike. Unfortunately for Pelé, the park is a National park, so all he can experience is the parking lot. Our hike around the Glacier was nice but brief.
We found several fantastic hikes in the area, but the best one was the Lost Lake Trail. That is a 15-mile hike up through beautiful which climbs through a dense forest, above the tree-line, into the tundra at the top, which then rolls up and down, terminating at an alpine lake. You are surrounded by peaks, waterfalls, rolling hills, beautiful wildflowers, and gorgeous views of the bay and the impressively more attractive-at-a-distance town of Seward. If you make it to Seward, don't miss this hike.
We also decided to buy a 24hour pass to a local gym to take a yoga class and get a shower. To our surprise, the gym honored the full 24hour period, so we were able to take two classes, and two showers in the same 24hour period. It was worth it to me. Yoga has been helping my knee on my road to recovery.
For our last day in town, we booked a brief little kayak trip in the bay. Before that though, we heard about a spot where we could fill our water tanks from a deep aquifer which was continuously pumping crystal-clear and clean water for free. We drove dons a narrow road, past some fishing industry and boat building facilities, and saw a muddy patch of dirt at the bottom of a mountain; from it, a small white hose pouring water was just visible.
The water source was at the base of a mountain, but up a small but steep hill. I could tell that I needed to approach at an angle to keep from bottoming out. I backed into the space and found that I could not get the hose to reach. Defeated, I pulled out of the spot. Unfortunately, I forgot about the need to keep the hill at an angle to our long vehicle, and subsequently got completely stuck.
The back of the van carries a large metal towing hitch receiver. I use it to house a small wooden bench which is only really useful for tying my shoes or standing on to make the bed. This large metal structure is what was keeping our vehicle from going anywhere. When I hit the gas, the back tires spun freely. The suspension was unweighted, and the back tires could get no traction.
I tried to dig out the area below the bar, but my tiny little shovel is only really made for sandcastles or shit-holes. I tried to wedge our bright orange and inconvenient to carry traction pads...nothing worked.
Two cyclists stopped to help us out, but when one of them took out a wrench and tried to take off the ladder on the back door, I knew I would have to look elsewhere for help. Fortunately for us, there were two guys working across the road who were friendly enough to help. They came over with a couple of pry-bars, and we were planning on lifting the rear of the vehicle while Tiffany drove off. What they really ended up doing though, was to draw attention to the fact that a big dumb tourist had gotten his sticky finger toting van stuck on the side of a hill, and was troubling locals for help. Another local, who had a tow rope, flagged down yet another local with a truck, and in less than five minutes, we were free to drive away, without a single drop of water.
The following morning, we woke early, took the yoga class, and made our way to a place called Miller's Crossing for a kayak tour. We drove past the watering hole, facing our shame with dignity, and arrived early to get the boats ready for our short paddle around the bay.
Miller's is an incredible place. Originally homesteaded many, many decades ago, it is now a combination of a campground, water taxi hub, charter fishing boat rental, guided kayak tour company, and something of a cafe (barely). There are tons of people working there, most of them seasonal. Our guide for the kayak tour, a young woman in her early twenties, was knowledgeable, capable, and only slightly disdainful of the sort of person who would book a mere two hour “fun paddle”.
After our amazing tour, we asked her if she could recommend a fun and interesting seasonal worker for us to chat with. She pointed to a woman I had noticed before who had been driving a mid-sized forklift tractor, hauling boats on a trailer. I approached the woman and asked if she would be willing to speak with us about her experience when her shift was over. She agreed, and we set a time for her to come by the van and tell us her tale.
Her name is Jennifer, amazingly she is only 19, but as smart, confident and capable as many people I have met who are twice her age. We recorded a conversation in the van, which will be released in the next few weeks.
From the kayak trip, and Jennifer's interview, we mad our way back to the water hose, determined to get some of that good, clean water. This time, I parked the van safely across the street, and just hauled our 7 gallon jug across the road a few times until we were full...it was slightly more difficult than just running a hose into the van, through the door, but 100% worth it to not suffer the indignity of being stuck.
The drive from Seward to Homer was on the menu, and it was pretty damn spectacular. We camped near the end of a crazy dirt road, near Lower-Skilak lake, in between Seward and Homer.
The next morning, we drove over to a town called Kenai to wander around, and to watch the spectacle know as “dip-netting”. As you might guess, “dip-netting” is a method of fishing, available at certain times of the year, exclusively to Alaska residents.
The fishermen are strewn along the shoreline in large rubber pants and boots, with 5' nets on the end of long poles. Each head-of-household is allowed 25 fish and 10 more for each additional family member. We walked a couple miles of beach and watched as hundreds of people pulled fish by the dozen from the waters. It was a spectacle, to be sure. There were tents, teams of children and parents, cleaning fish, dipping nets, there were coolers covered in fish guts and blood, shorebirds were munching on fish heads, and Eagles were stalking the beach like fighter pilots looking for a village to strafe.
We spoke with one man who had just caught his last fish and was taking a break before he pitched in to help prepare them. He had 5 children, and a wife, which entitled him to _ fish per year from the dip-net method. He said that every summer, he would freeze hundreds of pounds of salmon, and eat every bit of the fish for the next year.
We took the beach road from Kenai back to the highway and stopped at a seafood processing facility to get some fresh fish and a pack of smoked salmon bellies...my new favorite. From there, we made our way to Anchor Point to park the van briefly at the furthest western point to which a person can drive in North America. We watched as two tractors, each hauling an empty boat trailer, drove fairly deep into the crazy ocean to collect the owners of the empty trailers in their boats. I've never seen anything like it.
The drive from Anchor Point to Homer was brief and spectacular. It was a clear day, and we saw three large volcanic peaks in the distance as we drove the highway. We made our way into Homer, trying desperately not to judge this new town with the same eyes we had been casually landing on other towns in this strange state. We knew to expect some sticky-knuckled tourists, an overabundance of unnecessary shops filled to the brim with terrible deals. We have learned to ignore that, and await the unexpected to greet us...it usually does...it certainly did in Homer.