Portage Cruising


I work by a lake. A very young lake – a hundred years ago it didn’t exist. Instead, there was a glacier. The glacier is still there, but, as it’s melted and retreated over the past century, it left behind a deep valley that filled in with its liquid remains. Such is the nature of time and the effects of climate change.


Because of the extent to which the glacier has retreated, it can no longer be seen from the shore. The hike up to Portage Pass that gets you a view requires a jaunt through a timed-entry toll tunnel (which makes me disinclined for those two obvious reasons). The other option is to purchase a ticket and go out on the cruise boat that runs hour-long tours to the face of the glacier.


It’s taken me four months of living and working on the edge of this lake to get out on the boat (factor in that I get to go for free and I really have no good excuses). It was well worth it and a fun way to spend a sunny afternoon in Portage Valley.


That was a big item on my Alaska summer checklist. With only one more weekend left before I migrate south, good thing I got it in when I did!

 

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Portage Cruising

Alaskan Sunsets

The days are getting shorter.

Leaves are turning shades of yellow.

The third of my four visitors this summer will be here soon. And the fourth shortly after that to accompany me on my drive home.

Fall plans are starting to take solid shapes.

It’s a bittersweet experience watch the seasons change.

But the sunsets are spectacular and early enough to stay awake for.

And there’s a hope for northern lights. 

And a few more memorable adventures. 

Alaskan Sunsets

alaskan days

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.

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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.

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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).

 

alaskan days

alaska’s bergie bits

Glacier cruises. If you come to Alaska and you’re near the southern coast, you should go on one. It’s one thing to see a glacier from a road or a trail – but it’s another experience entirely to be in a boat cruise right up to the edge of a tidewater glacier like this one:

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blackstone glacier

Thanks to my role in the National Forest, I was able to shadow a ranger program on a glacier tour in Prince William Sound. Very typical of southcentral Alaska, the weather was overcast, cold, and drizzly. The three hour trip took us past a black-legged kittiwake rookery and two large glaciers. Bumping through the bergie bits (small icebergs and chunks of ice floating in the water that have calved off of the glacier), we edged up impossibly close. The size of the glacier was incomprehensibly large, the ice was an almost-glowing blue. Harbor seals floated around the pieces of ice and rested up on the bigger ones. Kittiwakes and other hardy sea birds coasted through the air or rested on the cliff walls. The air was suitably wet and chill. Despite the uncomfortable weather, I could’ve stayed there mesmerized all day. Icebergs are one of those things that I’ve heard about, that I recognize, but that I’ve never really seen, never really experience. The whole thing rounded out, rather surreally, with a humpback whale sighting.

This is rugged wild. This is melodramatic extreme. This is iconic Alaska.

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kittiwake rookery

To give a little bit of perspective…

I didn’t realize until after I arrived in Alaska that all the glaciers here are concentrated in the southern portion of the state. I know I can’t speak nearly as intelligibly as I’d like on the nature of Alaska. And some of the specific stats I’d like to share for perspective are elusive (though this very science-y article get a little more into why glaciers are where they are). I do know it’s a land of great scale and intimidating magnitude; of water and ice and tundra and brush; of surprising warmth and startling cold. And I know it’s one of those places that words fail; that you have to see to begin to understand; that deserves to be a personal experience instead of a second hand retelling.

alaska’s bergie bits

alaska today

It’s sunny here. Especially nice in a place that’s often raining.

The Chugach National Forest is the second largest forest in the country and the northernmost temperate rainforest in the world.

Today it doesn’t feel so much like a rainforest. Between the warm summer sun on my face, being back in the workforce, and being surrounded by mountains and glaciers (though one of my housemates just pointed out to the me the Donnie Darko -esque long-eared rabbit face in the snow on the mountainside that’s kind of creeping me out), Alaska is starting to slip its way into my heart.

alaska today

alaska highway

The last two weeks have been such a whirlwind that I almost don’t know where to start. When I decided to leave Yosemite for DC, I made the conscious choice to be open and see where the winds of opportunity would lead me. I fell into a great path interning with the Smithsonian and immersing myself in the urban experience of our nation’s capital. But mountains and wildness called and I jumped on an opportunity to spend a summer in Alaska.

And here I am. In the past eight months, I’ve lived in three very different places: Yosemite, DC, and now here. Specifically, I’m in the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska. The heart of the mountains, sandwiched between Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound. My summer promises to be cold and rainy surrounded by unswimmable waters (due to the extremely cold temps and glacial silt content) and mostly unascendable mountains (due to lack of trails and treacherous, eternally snowy/icy terrain). Don’t read that as negativity. Read it as bafflement. At a wilderness that’s a completely different kind of wild. This is truly the last frontier.

But I’ve got to step back a moment and reflect on the long road trip that brought me here. I chose to drive to Alaska rather than fly so that I would have more flexibility to explore the state during the summer. I’m glad I made that decision. Already I have several small regional road trips in mind, starting with heading down to Kenai this weekend for the Kenai River Birding Festival. The drive itself was a huge life experience and an integral part of this summer. I went from DC, through North Dakota, into and across Canada, up the Alaska Highway, past Wrangell – St. Elias, and down into the Kenai Peninsula. All those miles and days of travel, with so many hours of boredom and introspection and new experiences. I won’t go into a play-by-play, but some summary highlights: I drove a fifth of the way across the planet; I have now been to Canada (4 of its provinces/territories, including the Yukon) and driven in a foreign country (note to self: be solid on the km to mi conversion beforehand next time); I’ve driven the Alaska Highway; I’ve seen moose, caribou, stone sheep, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrel, gray jay, harlequin duck; I’ve seen the Canadian Rockies, glaciers, braided rivers; and now I not only live in Alaska but also in a National Forest. It’s been a long summer and I haven’t even started work yet!

 

alaska highway

Of arrival

10 days and 4,700 miles later… I’m in Alaska!! It still doesn’t feel real. 


I’m adjusting to the new time zone (of course, AK has its own). And the colder temps. And the enormous scenery. And bunkhouse life. And the endless daylight (unless you count our three nightly hours of dusk). 

This is so very different from anything I’ve experienced before. I’m captivated. And already developing an impressive wildlife sighting list and, naturally, some interesting stories to share too. 

Of arrival