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.
So, what does one do when deposited back at the trailhead at 8:30 in the morning? When, by 8:30 in the morning, the day has already included the thwarting of an all-day hike by a too-close encounter (thankfully injury-free) with two grizzly bears and then with a moose and calves?
If you’re me, even thus traumatized, a day set aside for hiking can’t be that that easily diverted, especially when the weather is even vaguely amiable. If you’re me, you take a car nap (because exhaustion follows quickly on the heels of intense stress), you make another round of coffee in the trailhead parking lot (because you’re always prepared for that sort of thing when you’re a dirtbag car camper), and you find somewhere else – more popular – to go hike (because weekends are made for hiking). On this day, already being at the Glen Alps trailhead outside of Anchorage, Flattop Mountain was the obvious choice.
3 miles roundtrip. Steep. And one of the most popular trails in the region.
I’m normally a fan of less-traveled trails and less-visited scenes. Not so in Alaska; not so in grizzly country. Not right now, at least. I’m now a fan of busy trailheads and lots of faces on the trail. I see little potential for solitude in the Alaskan landscape. But I do see lots of challenge and beauty. And, as long as I’m an Alaskan (read: for the rest of the summer) I’ll be out in it.
Flattop Mountain is a great trail. That perfect balance of hard and visually rewarding. I was surprised at the number of people (including smallish children) that scaled the rock scramble at the top to find their way to the summit. And, true to name, it is a wide and flat top. A bit too windy and drizzly for lingering long, but the clouds were moving in and out such that I got to enjoy some great views of, alternately, cloud-shrouded mountains and long swatches of Cook Inlet beyond Anchorage.
There’s certainly a reason this is such a popular trail.
And being so close to an urban area allows for recovery and contemplation with all the modern comforts one could hope for to round out an eventful weekend.
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).
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:
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.
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.
This past weekend, I attended the Kenai Birding Festival which took place mostly in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as well just along the Kenai River and Cook Inlet.
It was my first real introduction to Alaska and the folks that choose to make this place their home. I was floored.
The festival was the weekend after the birding festival in Homer (which I missed) and draws (so I’m told) a much smaller crowd. There was a full 4-day schedule of walks, river floats, and lectures, as well as a 24-hour big sit and closing potluck. I attended several walks, a lecture, the potluck, and part of the sit (I missed the floats due to my work schedule). My experience was of small groups that consisted mostly of locals. I’ve never been to a birding festival that was so intimate! It was really great to get to know some local folks and make connections in the Kenai Peninsula region since it’s my new summer home. I’ve found that, while the terrain here can be intimidating and feel frustratingly inaccessible, the people are hardly so – they are warm and friendly and welcoming.
The sit was probably the most interesting part of it all. 24 hours of daylight (with a bit of dusk in the mix) is a lot of birding time – and the birds were active throughout. At 6AM on Saturday, a couple of hardy folks (myself included) showed up at the designated viewing platform on the Kenai River with binoculars and spotting scopes. The mudflat was already alive with gulls, eagles, and terns. There was a breezy drizzling rain falling (with clear skies to come as the day wore on). I came and went several times (once to deal with a car issue that’s a whole other story and other times to skip off to walks and talks). It was a really neat experience to just sit and watch what came by – especially with a bunch of seasoned local birders to use as ID resources – and with a really strong spotting scope (which is now on my wish list).
And I haven’t even gotten to the actual birds yet. Oh, the birds! I tend to group the birds here into three personal categories:
Bird I’m intimately familiar with. Yellow-rumped warblers, robins, ravens. My usual suspects that seem to show up wherever I’m living or visiting.
Birds I recognize. Bald eagles and black-billed magpies. Those two especially are quickly escalating from being recognizable to familiar friends. As an aside, my roommate informed me that magpies look like flying oreos and that’s now what they are to me. I’m grateful that I’m back to the lifestyle of being an hour from grocery stores or I probably would’ve already stocked up on oreos since I now see birds that make me think of them every day.
Birds I have to scramble in my bird book to confirm. Sometimes, it’s a bird I recognize from hours nerding out with my field guide – like a Harlequin duck with it’s incredibly distinct and crisp blue and white pattern. And sometimes it’s one that I’m completely baffled by until I happen upon it while ravenously flipping pages – like a red-necked grebe with its classic grebe shape in surprising colors.
My summer bird list is looking pretty respectable so far and I’m just getting started…