ALASKA



     I believe most people regard a single place as their ultimate destination; for devout Catholics there are cathedrals and then there is the Vatican, for Muslims there are mosques and then there is Mecca, for American children there are amusement parks and then there is Disney World, and for gamblers there are casinos and then there is Las Vegas.  As for myself: there are national parks, forest, mountains, and wilderness areas, and then there is Alaska.  

     Separated by a couple hundred miles of Canadian coastline, alone at the highest latitudes extending above the Arctic circle, stretching out further west than even Hawaii, containing many of the continent’s most rugged mountain ranges and the highest peak, the state of Alaska is much larger and seems to be much greater than another one out of fifty — more like a separate country or perhaps a colony.   While America’s “lower forty-eight” is now an overwhelmingly peopled landscape dominated by the infrastructure of highways and power-lines, the vast majority of the Alaskan land mass remains off grid, both physically and psychologically.  Wilderness in the far north is not a place with borders to escape to for a vacation, but the overwhelming fact of life.  In Alaska the frontier is still frozen.

     I began the journey to my ultimate destination at Bellingham, Washington.  There I drove my van into the lower deck of a “blue canoe”, one of the passenger ferries of the Alaskan Maritime Highway.  The system is a vital transportation link for the isolated communities on the Alaskan coast as well as a budget cruise line for out of state tourist.   The food was fair, the coffee good, and the ambiance that of an interstate rest stop.  At first I set up my tent outside on the upper decks, but after the wind almost blew it overboard I moved my camping gear into the Solarium.  After a day of spectacular weather on the waters off British Columbia, the ferry made it’s first stop in Alaska under the dreary skies of Ketchikan early the next morning.  There was enough time to take a bus downtown and walk on the historic boardwalk in the old red light district — now a modest tourists trap.  A few dead salmon littered the stream below. 

     The next day I drove off the ferry into Juneau, the capitol of Alaska.  A small city surrounded by high mountains, featuring a backyard glacier and an isolated road system; from here I flew out to Glacier Bay National Park.  While the typical cruise ship tourist sees the park as a harsh environment of steep, rocky terrain and ice, the area around Bartlett’s Cove where I camped was a dark green rainforest.  There was a remarkable variety of fungus along the few trails I hiked on near the campground.  However, like all other visitors to the park, the main event of my stay was upon the frigid water.  I took the tour boat operated by the park’s concessionaires.  The highlight of the six hour trip was an up close look at the enormous John Hopkins tidal glacier, one of the last in the park still advancing.  A few huge chunks of ice, “the size of buildings”, according to the Park Service ranger announcing over the ship’s loud speaker, crashed into the inlet’s water and caused a wave that rocked our relatively small boat floating more than a half mile away.


 

     After returning to Juneau I boarded another Alaska Maritime Highway ferry to a terminus north on the mainland, at the town of Haines.  On a day of good weather the inside passage of southeast Alaska is possibly unrivaled for it’s raw, unspoiled beauty.  During that fine morning one impressive waterfall after another passed both port and starboard in a continuous procession as snowcapped peaks slowly drifted behind them.   Gulls and other birds flew along side the boat while porpoises skimmed across the water.  Even the scarce evidence of man — the fishing boats, lighthouses, and lonely houses — seemed to enhance the scenery.  I heard rumors on the ferry that just south of Haines, at the mouth of a river, a grizzly bear sow and cubs could be seen.  The rumor turned out to be true, and there I saw for the first time grizzlies in the wild, the sow fishing and swimming while her two cubs played above on a big rock.  Overhead a bald eagle soared.   


 

     There is only one road out of Haines, leading north into Canada.  The higher elevations of that highway felt like an otherworldly place, gloomy and foreboding.  With nobody else around I just stopped my van in the middle of the road whenever I felt like taking a picture.  After reaching the Alaskan Highway in the Yukon Territory I headed west.  I crossed the border back into Alaska late, at the beginning of the long northern twilight.  I was amused by the proud display of a bear skin and an array of animal heads on the wall of the US customs station. 

     I spent a couple of rainy days in the interior of Alaska until arriving at the starting point of my bike ride to Kennecott, in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest property under the care of National Park Service.  In addition to my canoe I had a bicycle trailer tied on top of my van for this trip, to haul camping gear over the badly potholed McCarthy Road, an old railroad grade with many layers of crushed gravel piled on top of it.  The forty-five mile ride was uphill, muddy, and exhausting; after crossing a foot bridge and reaching McCarthy I headed to the closest bit of National Park property I could find, setting up camp on the opposite side of the glacial moraine. 



     The next morning I arrived at the bygone boom town of Kennecott.  This is where much of the copper that electrified America in the early twentieth century was gathered, refined, and loaded onto trains after being removed from the surrounding mountains.  A remote outpost with wintertime temperatures of forty below, the town’s heyday spanned only a couple decades and was completely abandoned as soon as the copper became unprofitable to mine.  I then hiked up to Jumbo Mine, with a partner who was heavily armed in case of a bear attack.  He was younger, but rode on a motorized bike rather than the pedaling variety, and I had to coax him up to the top.  Above the tree-line and the clouds, the view we shared above the old mine shaft was both stark and wild — and classic Alaska.



     I found another example of classic Alaska at the Golden Saloon that evening back in McCarthy.  This was probably the most authentic frontier establishment I ever moseyed into, with many of the bar fixtures obviously dated from the time when the miners traveled down from the dry company town of Kennecott is search of vice.  Given the ramshackle condition of the village outside — lacking a stop sign let alone a stoplight — the food and beer selection was unbelievable.  And I was glad to get a little drunk, it helped me sleep next to the noisy nearby glaciers again, creaking and calving into the water all night long.

     A few days later I was in Anchorage, a standardized American city.  After first driving south to explore Kenai Fjords, I then embarked on the most expensive leg of my journey, an airline flight to King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula, followed by a sea plane flight to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park.



     Katmai was originally brought into the National Park Service because of the largest volcanic eruption of the Twentieth Century, that in 1912 covered a large area in the vicinity of Mount Katmai under hundreds of feet of hot ash.  The smoldering aftermath, called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, was considered to be geologically unique enough for Woodrow Wilson to designate it a National Monument under the Antiquities Act in 1918.  Over time the smoking ceased, but the ample salmon runs and brown bear populations began to bring in tourists and fishermen, and in 1980 about four million acres was designated as a National Park.

     Like most visitors to the park I came to see and photograph a brown bear.  My stay was during August, between the peak bear viewing months of July and September.  I found the photographically famous Brooks Falls quiet, without crowds of either people or bears.  Only a couple of bears were still around, but what these few lacked in numbers they made up in girth.  After feasting on protein rich salmon throughout the summer they had gained weight enormously, growing much larger than the grizzlies in the interior of Alaska who have to get by on a mostly vegetarian diet. 

     At least one super-sized brown bear made an appearance at the river bottom near the lodge each afternoon, fishing the exhausted salmon for about an hour and a half.  I remember the sound of his heavy breathing as he swam closer to the viewing platform I was safely standing on.  He then ducked his head under water and effortlessly captured a salmon within his teeth and claws.  The sound made of his powerful jaw crushing the salmon’s skull was like a gun being fired.  

     I doubt there is anywhere else under Park Service control where they allow people to get as close to brown bears as Brooks Camp.  Eating is strictly limited to the lodge and the campground, which is surrounded by an electrified fence, so the bears had become habituated to the presence of humans without expecting to be fed.  This, and other rules, seems to be working, no one has been killed there yet.  But a park ranger I was talking to assured me that sooner or later a fatal incident, probably caused by an act of human stupidity, was bound to occur, and that would change everything.  I argued that a small element of danger is what makes the time spent at Brooks Camp exciting and worthwhile — the wild is not a zoo.  He agreed with my sentiments, but he said, that is not how an American court would likely view the matter.  

     I replied that hopefully that this future case would be heard in Alaska instead.


   

     After three nights in Katmai I returned to Anchorage.  I had my van’s oil changed at a Jiffy Lube, got resupplied and refueled, and then headed north into the interior of the state, towards the climax of my trip: “the high one” at Denali National Park. 

     My first impression of Denali wasn’t positive.  I was first stopped for road work at the park’s entrance for some time and then had to wait in a long line for a bus ticket and a backcountry camping reservation at the welcome center.  The next day was a significant improvement, after a scenic bus ride on the park road to Wonder Lake I backpacked out three miles to a remote area besides a braided glacial river and set up my campsite.  I carefully followed the park’s rules about storing food, eating, and sleeping in spots at least sixty yards away from each other — another bear precaution.  The payoff for this effort was an unobstructed view, alone, of North America’s highest mountain peak on a clear afternoon.   A year before Mount Rainer in Washington State impressed me greatly, a solitary peak you could hike around and that seemed to be within reach.  But Denali was untouchable; all I could do was to marvel at it and the other big, beautiful mountains of the Alaska Range from a distance, like a spectator at a fashion show.

     I then spent the next few days in the park’s front country, hiking on mountains of much more modest proportions.  It was now the first week of September and the fall colors were brilliant.  I headed to Fairbanks next to continue enjoying Alaska’s early autumn.   I decided to visit the nearby Chena River State Recreation Area.  There I hiked for a day, paddled the swift river in my canoe, and dipped into a hot spring.  I also saw the northern lights for the first time late one night.



     This was as far north as I wanted to go, I had no desire to transverse the upper half of the state on a dangerous dirt highway for a look at the Arctic Ocean.  So I headed south towards home on the only way out by car, the Alaskan Highway.

     Over fourteen hundred miles in length and not entirely paved, the Alaskan Highway is a very long drive through Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia.  I spent five days to get from one end to the other, but I wasn’t in a hurry.  Mountain ranges of all varieties — rounded and jagged, tree covered and ice capped — were constantly within view while wildlife abounded.  For a stretch the road really did seem like a sub-arctic safari and I was able to photograph from within or near my van a grizzly, wild horses, wood buffalo, caribou, a moose, and stoney mountain sheep.



     Once I entered Alberta I began driving without interruption across the remaining western provinces of Canada for a quick return to the United States.  My first time across Canada, I found traveling on their highways and bypassing their cities to be nearly the same as in the US, except in kilometers.

     I crossed the American border in Minnesota, near Lake Superior.  Just a short walk away from the visitor center there was a waterfall, the tallest in the state.  The next couple days I traveled down the North Shore Scenic Drive (Highway 61) and although the road lacked many clear views of the Great Lake, the large number of nearby waterfalls were striking.



     Finally I returned to Bayfield, Wisconsin; a neat little town that is gateway to the Apostle IslandsThe sea caves along the lakeshore were my last challenge.  The previous year I took a guided sea kayak tour on the unpredictable waters of Lake Superior with my Dad, but the poor, cloudy conditions of that day prevented me from taking a good photograph.  So I pulled again into Meyers Beach, the place where we had launched before.  But now I was all by myself, and with my leaky open canoe instead of a watertight kayak.  The wind had calmed down in the late afternoon and the light was ideal so I decided to grab my paddle, zip up my lifejacket, and go for it.   The lake surface seemed easygoing while the nearby shoreline remained a shallow beach, but as I approached the rocky cliffs waves began to appear in earnest.  The closer I got to the formations I wanted to photograph the higher the canoe bobbed, and I perceived a real danger of capsizing into the extremely cold water.  Afraid, perhaps, I still did not falter, and even dared to float through one of the arches twice.  

     Back on solid ground at sunset, satisfied after my foolish adventure, I looked across the sparkling water and knew it was time to head back to Maryland. 



NEXT CHAPTER

 

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