I made my way to the airport in Anchorage for the seventh time this summer (it’s been a busy season of visitors!) to pick up my friend Casey. She generously donated a bit of her September to getting away from Yosemite to roadtrip with me through Alaska, across Canada, and into Montana.
It was amazing to have the company and the time with such a good friend. We spent several days in the Kenai Peninsula as I wrapped up my last days at work. To bring new and established friends together is a beautiful thing and was the crowning touch on an unbelievable summer. Everything considered, Alaska wouldn’t mean nearly as much to me if it weren’t for the people that I’ve shared it with.
We hit the road on a classic stormy Portage morning and drove out of the rain and up to Fairbanks. Not for anything specific, but just to see the Interior portion of the state, to soak in the rather odd Chena hot springs, and stop off for a quick photoshoot at Santa’s house in North Pole.
Then we headed south and picked up the Alaska Highway, driving straight through from the end in Delta Junction, into Canada, to the beginning in Dawson Creek. It’s a long trek, even with good company and lots of catching up to day. Also, cold this time of year. We dubbed it “chasing fall.” We were a bit overdue as we headed north into Fairbanks- the leaves had mostly long since abandoned the trees and fresh snow was dusted across the peaks. As we moved further south into Canada, we were stunned by the bright yellow landscapes. And by the time we got into Montana, it felt like late summer.
We were together on the road for 7 days. Lots of time to accumulate too many highlights to remember. The biggest treat (beyond the mere being together) was the wildlife. Wood bison, mountain goats, moose, Sitka deer, caribou, elk, porcupine, black bear. And glaciers in Jasper and Banff National Parks! And taking Casey to Liard hot springs – the best stop off in all of Canada, by far. And the poutine; how can I describe the wonderfulness that is poutine? The cold nights camping under so very many stars. The Nat King Cole sing-a-longs. The weariness of miles that further solidify a kindred bond.
And then there was the big change of itinerary that took us on a detour into southwestern Montana. Casey’s grandparents live only a couple of hours off the route I’d planned. A hot shower, a warm bed, and friendly faces? Yes, please. Such an incredible – though very short – time with caring people. They welcomed us in and shared a glimpse into their rural Montana life before sending us on the last bit of our journey together.
After an early morning of foggy sunrise, a quick jump into Idaho, and dodging a few cattle, I left Casey at the airport to head back home to the Sierra. It was oh so tempting to carry her east with me or to want to turn west to familiar paths. But that’s for another time to another destination. My road leads to DC, with a few exciting stops on the way and a different way of life to reacclimate to.
Funny to realize how far we are into the summer. The days have learned how to fly.
Looking over the season, at the things I’ve done and yet to do, at the visitors that have come and are coming, at the noticeable way the weather is changing here, I took a moment to closely examine my calendar. And I realized I’m more than halfway through my time in Alaska. In 58 days, I’ll be settling down into a (hopefully not too) packed car for the long cross continent drive home.
My Alaska experience has been different that I thought it would be. Not necessarily in a bad way, but also not in the best of ways. It’s been more beautiful than I imagined it could be. It’s been scarier than I imagined it could be. It’s been more intense than I imagined it could be.
Honestly, maybe secretly, I was hoping I’d find a place that felt like home here. That hasn’t happened yet. I’ve found much to love here (namely, the glaciers) and much to temper it with (namely, the deadly wildlife). I’m still enjoying the experience of being here; soaking up the culture and scenery; embracing all the varying opportunities that I can. But… home still beckons and I’m watching closely for approaching autumn.
I am now a true Alaskan. I’ve faced down a grizzly (two, in fact) and lived to tell about it (without injury and without using my bear spray, though I did have it at the ready).
Hiking in grizzly country is a different experience than hiking anywhere else. I hike with bear spray; easily accessible in a holster on my belt. I hike with my hands as free as possible; because why have bear spray if you don’t have a hand accessible to grab it with? For me that means camera in my pocket and just one trekking pole instead of two. I hike loudly. In other places, I hike quietly and stealthily; I want to see birds and other wildlife (preferably from a safe 50 yards for the latter) and move through the wilderness like a ghost. Here, I want to announce my presence; I don’t want to sneak up on anything. I do still want to see wildlife – but from a safe 300 yards. So I shout as I hike, “hey, bear! …ho, bear!” (Some folks sing, play music, or wear a bell. I’ve tried those things, but I think shouting works best). It’s really just a different mentality. Hiking in Yosemite was introspective and meditative; I could wander, lost in thought, or I could zip down a trail, letting the miles melt away like so many worries. Not so here. Hiking is a conscious decision to interact with a wild unknown. There’s a vigilance to it; I’m constantly scanning my surroundings, looking for movement or animal signs. If I’m passing through areas with limited lines of sight, I do call out periodically (more or less frequently depending on the terrain).
When I first arrived in Alaska, I went through bear safety training with the Forest Service. It was thorough and memorable. I learned how to judge a bear by its physical characteristics and by its behavior; how to react defensively and aggressively (when needed); and I practiced spraying inert bear spray at a moving target.
I’ve slowly developed a certain comfort level with hiking in grizzly country and accepting the risks that go along with it. When Paul was here and we backpacked in Denali, we had several safe, thoughtful, and nonconfrontational grizzly observations and encounters. I’ve hiked solo a fair bit now too. I’d say I’m a confident and capable hiker and wilderness user. That claim was put to the test yesterday.
It’s been super rainy on the Kenai Peninsula, so I decided to spend my weekend up near Anchorage, hiking in the Front Range of the Chugach State Park. I got a 6:30AM start from the Glen Alps Trailhead heading, not up the popular Flattop Mountain (a steep 1.5 mile ascent to a summit with a great view), but instead out onto the Powerline Trail to pick up the Williwaw Lakes loop. The length of that trail – 16+ miles – prompted my early start.
A few cars were already at the trailhead and most folks seemed to be heading up Flattop, probably trying to beat the forecasted afternoon storms. I quickly made my way to Powerline. It’s a highway of a trail following, unsurprisingly, huge power lines. I passed a couple out walking their dogs but otherwise the morning was one of solitude. The trail to the lakes is a narrower single track trail dropping down through some low trees, crossing a creek, and then curving through meadow, tundra-like terrain. Mostly knee-high grasses and wildflowers with great lines of sight and sporadic stands of willows.
I took my time, stopping to photograph unique flowers and take in the sweeping mountain scenery. I also made sure to make plenty of noise approaching and in the willows. Entering the second thicket of the morning, maybe 15-30 seconds after my last “hey bear!”, I stepped forward on the trail to a space that had a big break in the willows to my left with an open view out (and with a solid wall of willows to my right). Instead of sweeping mountain scenery, I see two subadult grizzlies (guessing about 500 lbs each) bounding straight toward me. They were about 20 yards away at that point. We saw each other at the same time (I’m certain they didn’t hear any of my previous calling and were unaware of my presence until this moment as they weren’t charging me but just running on a path that happened to be right at me – or they’d heard me calling and were running away from where they thought I was). Surprising a grizzly is not something you want to do. At this point, even with each second feeling like it was moving in slow motion, I didn’t have time to think and my training and instincts kicked in. I brought my forearms up with palms facing front, and shouted sharply, “whoa!”, and reached for my bear spray. The bears closed in a few more yards before turning and running into the willows to the left. I’d unclasped the safety on my spray and was holding it at the ready. I could hear them panting and huffing in the willows (were they just out of breath from running or showing agitation? I opted to assume the latter). I started up a steady flow of words as I started to move to my left, back toward the trailhead, and, incidentally, right past the thicket I knew to be housing two huffing brown bears (I didn’t consider moving to the right since that was a great unknown, terrain-wise, and I couldn’t move backward because of the willows). Slowly, steadily, warily. “Hey, bears. I’m moving away now. Just passing by to give you space. Ho, bears.”
I move out into the open, gaining a view of the side of the stand of willows, still making noise, still holding my spray at the ready. I can still hear huffing and, though I don’t see any movement, I know there’s a chance they’ll come charging out toward me. I keep moving away down the trail. I pass through another smaller stand of willows and then I have a solid, extended view. I’m out of hearing range of their huffing but certainly still in their view. I pause to watch for a moment, pull out my phone to take a quick picture of the willows.
Seeing I have reception, I call Paul. He know my itinerary and knows I’d have good reason to call so early in the day when I’m on an all-day hike. I put him on speakerphone (for added voice and noise quantity) and fill him in on what happened, where exactly I was, and what I was doing (which was continuing to move down the trail away from the bears and back to the trailhead). I’m still moving away when I the trail drops down a bit and I lose sight of the willows; this is right at the time I lose reception and the line goes dead (I can only imagine how Paul must’ve felt at that moment!). I won’t have reception again for a while, as it turns out. I get back across the creek and start moving up toward the main (Powerline) trail, pausing from that distance to scan more frequently and closely with my binoculars. When I’ve gained a little elevation I see them again, about a quarter mile away and moving to my right. One disappears into willows and is gone. The other lopes along a bit more and then stops to sniff the air. Seems like we’re on the same page with trying to get our bearings. He stands up on his hind legs, facing my direction, smelling. Then he drops back down to all fours and seems to get distracted by grazing. I keep going, wanting to get back to Powerline’s higher ground and lines of sight. Once I’m there, I spot him again a bit even further away now (the other still seems to be long gone). I see other movement, closer, and watch a moose cow and two calves moving away from the bear and generally in my direction though angling well to my left. I continue to watch the bear for another minute or so. He’s still intent on grazing and is showing no signs of agitation. I’ve replaced my bear spray in its holster and thoughts of moving on and back to my car and phone reception are in my mind. Then I see movement out of the corner of my eye. It’s the cow and calves. They’ve popped up on the trail and mama moose is eyeing me from about 50 yards away.
Imagine my exasperation. My heart rate has finally slowed though I’m still on an adrenaline high and I’m nurturing a growing sense of safety (especially with being back on the main, wide trail). And now this. I’ve heard people say that moose present a much greater danger to people than bears; they don’t ever bluff when charging and are much more prone to quick, unprovoked aggression – and this one has calves to protect, which is definitely not in my favor. I stay silent and still, waiting on her, and reach my hand down toward my bear spray (multi-mammal spray at this point). But it’s not necessary. She dismisses me as an obvious non-threat and turns to walk away on the trail, glancing back periodically to check on me. Of course, she’s moving in the same direction I want to go.
I give her space (I wait until she disappears out of sight just to be safe), take one last glance at bear (still grazing far away), and continue heading toward the parking area. During this time, I’ve also been trying to send a text to Paul to let him know I’m ok. When I finally get a signal, I get a flood of texts from him. Poor guy has had a solid half hour to worry about me and my grizzlies! Once all is calm and my safety is verified, it’s a short and uneventful walk back to the car.
I’m super grateful for the effectiveness of my bear safety training. I’m proud of myself that I didn’t panic and that my instincts kicked in and I did everything I was supposed to do. I’m grateful that, given the circumstances, everything played out in a best case scenario sort of way. I’m grateful it was two subadults and not a female with cub (I’m certain I’d not be sitting here to write about that). And now… I have my own extreme Alaskan story to tell.
In Alaska, that means something a bit different than it does in the rest of the US. Not only because Alaskans tend to hold themselves apart from the Lower 48 (AKA the Outside). Here it’s not a celebration of American flags and fireworks (it doesn’t get dark enough for fireworks). Seems to me it’s more of a celebration of things uniquely Alaskan.
In the Kenai Peninsula folks congregate in either Seward or Girdwood. Seward is a bit of a drive for me and the festivities sounded a bit out of my style. Add in all the locals’ warning about the crowd level, and I opted to check out Girdwood.
Girdwood is home of the annual Forest Fair. Think renaissance fair meets music festival. A handful of costume-clad revelers, vendor booths of fair food and local artisans winding throughout the community park, two music stages, and a beer garden. I caught the last couple of hours after work with some of my housemates. Living in a dry house (no alcohol allowed in forest service housing), I naturally migrated toward the beer garden. And then up to the after-fair concert at the ski resort area.
Some locally brewed beer, fun live music, and meeting new people. It was the most at home I’ve felt since moving to Alaska.
At some point over the last few weeks, I went from getting a handle on my new surroundings to falling into a routine here. My life as an Alaskan is one of full throttled intensity. Somehow the long days feel short as I try to squeeze every last drop out of this experience.
I live in a bunkhouse nestled away in the middle of a valley. It has a very college dorm feel with its shared rooms and communal kitchen and living spaces. I have an 18 year old roommate that, through no conscious effort, makes me feel ancient on a daily basis. I miss my privacy and having complete control of my surroundings though it’s nice to have the house camaraderie and a short walking commute. Fortunately, I’m an early riser and have a quiet house to enjoy my coffee in most mornings. Add in this view from the big picture windows and I’d say I have a pretty sweet deal.
I’m in a temperate rainforest and it rains accordingly – more days than not, and I’m told that the percentage of rainy days will only increase as the season progresses. The rain here tends to be blown sideways by the near-constant wind in the valley. Most days, I wear both a rain jacket and rain pants for my quarter-mile walk to the visitor center.
Speaking of, the visitor center is a “busy” place. Lots of folks pass through the Kenai Peninsula on their vacations and road trips. And many of them stop in to check out our exhibits, upwards of 600 on weekend days. Yosemite left me more than prepared to at ease with a traffic flow that feels staggering to my co-workers. I like bookstores and am so glad to be back to working full-time again.
The extended daylight of living so far north means that the workday doesn’t cut into my exploration time. Weather-permitting, I spend a portion of my evenings wandering the nearby walking paths. Months of living in DC has trained me to ignore my car, so I save driving expeditions for my weekends. It’s frustrating to be surrounded by inaccessible mountains, but there’s lots to explore on the flat planes as well. Wildflower season is in full swing and I can entertain myself for hours seeking out, identifying, and photographing all the flowers, lichens, and fungi.
Another, less pleasant, aspect of the extended daylight involves convincing my body that it needs sleep. It doesn’t come easily. I’m used to being an early bird — that’s not a sufficient label here. As one of my friends put it, during Alaska summers, I’m not an early bird or a night owl but rather an exhausted pigeon. My best solution: wear myself out to exhaustion. And that’s what weekends are for anyway, right?
It’s a rare day off that doesn’t find me on some sort of adventure. Whether it’s a roadtrip to go sea kayaking in Homer or to a birding festival on the Kenai River, or jumping on a glacier cruise boat out into Prince William Sound, or hiking around Anchorage or Girdwood, there’s always something to go see or do. I mean to take full advantage of all the things Alaska has to offer (well, things that are reasonably within my grasp this summer).
June. A month so full of adventure and emotion, sunshine and renewal.
Paul’s visit has come and gone, all too quickly. We explored a lot: Seward, Kenai Fjords NP, the Gulf of Alaska, Denali NP, Fairbanks, the Denali Highway, and Portage Valley. So much fun and so memorable!
His trip culminated on the summer solstice – the longest day of summer this far north is quite the sight to behold. The sun dips below the horizon, but for such a short time that it feels like there’s barely time for twilight to settle before it’s dawn (in reality, in southcentral Alaska, it’s around 4 hours). So, when I dropped him at the airport close to midnight it was still pretty light out. And driving down the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm afterward, the strawberry moon rose into a still quite light blue sky. Such a calm and breathtaking sight to help soothe a heart heavy with a fresh wave of homesickness.
All things considered, how could you not love a view like this?