Hooray! We made it to Alaska! Well, so we thought.
Some may not know, but I’m a bit of a spiritual person. I have been through some bizarre experiences that helped me to realize that there is far more to life than meets the eye. I think we each have, to some degree, an instinctual part of ourselves that we can connect with. Just as the bird knows which way is South, and the salmon know when and where to swim upstream, deep within us, we have an internal sensor. And since arriving in Alaska, something didn’t “feel” right. I personally have been dealing with mixed feelings about Alaska ever since we arrived in Haines.
I’ve tried to rationalize these feelings. For example, I thought part of it has to do with the fact that we are no longer at the top of the food chain. The grizzlies out here can get HUGE, and sometimes they dine on moose, and the occasional human. It is a bit disconcerting to hear some of the horror stories. Of course, these negative encounters are extremely rare. There are more moose maulings than bear maulings in Alaska, but even these are rare. Overall, you’re more likely to get into an accident on the highway. Please note, we never saw any large mammals during our stay in Alaska… not one! But that instinctual feeling persisted.
Since arriving in Haines, the weather has been ugly. The highs were in the 50’s or 60’s with constant gray skies and rain or drizzle. So against my better instinct, after a few days in Haines, we headed North dipping into Canada for a bit, driving around the perimeter of Kluane National Park in Canada and Wrangell – St. Elias National Park in Alaska. The weather was somewhat clear during our day of travel along Kluane National Park, and we had some nice views.
Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias has the largest collection of glaciers in the world outside of the Arctic. Our ferry that we took up the inside passage was named after one of the most massive non-polar glaciers in North America, the Malaspina glacier. It is a piedmont glacier, where the ice flow spreads out over a large area, and covers some 1500 square miles. It is larger than Rhode Island! When these two multi-national parks are combined, they cover more square acreage than the entire country of Switzerland. We spent a rainy night on the edge of the park down Nabesna Road, one of the two roads that penetrates into the park a short distance. The rest of the park is only accessible on foot or via airplane. We stopped at the visitors center, supposedly in view of some gorgeous peaks, but only caught glimpses of the base of the mountains through the rain. We did a short walk at the visitors center when the rain stopped for a few minutes.
I’d have a hard time conveying to our readers how remote these parts of Alaska and Canada are. For us, Great Basin or Big Bend National Parks were the most remote parks we had hit, but these don’t hold a candle to the remoteness of rural Alaska. Check out this population density map. Apart from the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, it is miles and sometimes days between tiny, tiny towns. There are only a few roads that connect some of these tiny towns. Side gravel/dirt roads jut off of these roads, sometimes connecting an even smaller community or native village. Other communities are even further isolated, with access only via boat or airplane. We camped along some of these “highways” and could count the number of cars we heard drive by in one night on one hand! And due to the remoteness, everything is very expensive. For example, we saw a bag of Doritos in Glennallen (pop. ~550) for $6! With such a short growing season, fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury out here. For example, we picked some pricey tomatoes up which were grown in an Anchorage hothouse.
We dropped down into Valdez for three nights, stopping at Worthington Glacier and a few waterfalls on the way.
We actually had a pretty good time in Valdez, despite the continually nasty weather. We’ve had a hard time cooking in the rain with our configuration, so we stayed at the Blessing House in downtown Valdez, making use of their kitchen. It was a very “homey” experience, and we enjoyed chatting with the hosts as well as the other guests. During our stay in Valdez, we took a wildlife/glacier viewing trip on the Lu Lu Belle, and even with the rainy weather, we weren’t disappointed. Captain Fred was a character, but also an excellent captain. He provided us with a tremendous amount of information and talked the whole 7 hours we were underway. We saw sea otters, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, humpback whales, and funny looking birds called Puffins (also the namesake of one of my favorite cereals). We got within a quarter mile or so from the Columbia Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska. He also edged the nose of the boat into some shallow, narrow sea caves for the puffin viewing.
We left Valdez and headed North to Talkeetna and Denali National Park. We made a quick stop in Palmer to snap some shots during the brief moments sunshine.
In Palmer, we also visited a musk ox farm. These gentle creatures once used to roam Alaska, but were wiped out due to their defensive behavior. Musk ox will form a circle around the weakest members and hold their ground, using their powerful hooves to kick out any intruders. This is fairly effective against wolves and grizzlies, but not effective at all against a shotgun. They are slowly being introduced into remote areas in Alaska. This farm in Palmer collects the soft wool of the musk ox and offers it to women in remote indian villages so they might supplement their income.
We were supposed to hook up with friends Barak and Kim in Talkeetna. Barak and I met at an Earthskills Rendezvous a number of years ago. The rendezvous is a primitive skills gathering held twice a year in the mountains of North Georgia or Western North Carolina. Barak and I teamed up in a wet scrape braintan buckskin class during one of the rendezvous. We learned how to process a deer hide, converting the hide from rawhide (literally raw hide) to soft supple leather in a long day of processing. We worked that hide until we had a beautiful, soft piece of smoked buckskin leather. It’s the most amazing piece of cloth material I’ve ever seen. He took the majority of the hide for some moccasins, and I took a little slice for a native flute bag. Anyhow, we managed to stay in touch with Barak and Kim through Colbert Sturgeon, our “primitive” friend who lives down in Valdosta, GA in a cabin, in the swamp, with no electricity or plumbing. Barak spent years with Colbert perfecting his primitive skills and currently lives 8 miles from Talkeetna, Alaska (pop 870) in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing (that we are aware of)… and that would be an 8 mile walk or ATV/bike ride from Talkeetna. They are living the primitive dream. Amazingly enough, both Colbert and Barak now have cell phones… and yes, both have automobiles. Did we mention, we have some interesting friends? 🙂
I was in touch with Barak since we had entered Alaska. As to be expected, he was out enjoying the amazing bounty of the land known as Alaska. He had picked up tons of salmon to last him through the winter (he has freezer access in Talkeetna). He constantly keeps a trap line baited. One evening I called him and he was processing grouse for dinner. And the last time I talked to him, he was out on a canoe near Denali National Park. We finally got to Talkeetna, but it was once again pouring rain.
It rained so much, that the Parks Highway that would have taken us up to Denali, had closed due to massive flooding which washed a bridge out. Barak and Kim were stuck on the other side of the damaged bridge. To make matters worse, there was a rumor that the Glenn highway, which would be the only road to take us back towards the continental USA, was in danger of being closed as well due to mud/rock slides.
There was a story and a great photo from the Anchorage Daily News, but they have remove it and our link is no longer valid.
It was at this point that I figured out exactly what my intuition had been telling me all along. Alaska didn’t want us there… at least not now All the locals had told us this is the worst rain Alaska had seen in nearly 20 years, and the bridge washout confirmed it. We couldn’t get to Denali without a major detour. Even if we could get there, we wouldn’t be able to see the magical mountain through the rainy, cloudy weather. Cold rain and heavy clouds. That pretty much sums up our Alaska experience. It was time to go home… or at least start building it! And when we made that decision, it was as if a load had been lifted.
Before leaving Alaska, we had to stop in Chicken, a kooky little tourist trap in the middle of nowhere on the Top Of The World “Highway.” Supposedly, this town was named Chicken because the miners in the area couldn’t spell Ptarmigan, so they went with the local slang word for the bird instead. It has a year round population of 15 or so, and consists of three establishments all selling tourist junk. We visited all three. With no electricity, all establishments were running diesel generators! We just had to get the “I got laid in Chicken” t-shirt.
We headed out of Chicken up to the border crossing, passing through the remote outpost of Boundary, AK, getting our last “cheap” gas at $4/gallon. Gas in Canada can be as high as $5/gallon. By the way, it is still raining!
We’ve got nearly 4,000 miles in front of us, but Colorado, here we come!
Sun on the horizon?