alaska’s flattop

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.

alaska’s flattop

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 birding

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…

KenaiBirdFest

Alaska birding

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 introductions

Alaska feels like it’s on a different planet. But really, it’s attached to worlds I’m more familiar with. #AlmostAdjacent

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There are so many new faces here. My first moose sighting stopped me in my tracks. My first red-necked grebe and my first harlequin duck both took my breath away. And I still haven’t gotten used to the opaque blue of glacial water. Yet familiar friends can be found as well. Cottontail rabbits make fast work of the blooming dandelions. Lupines are making an appearance (fat, squat nootka lupine). Robins, golden-crowned sparrows, and bald eagles ensure that I’ll always having some measure of success on my birding forays. And the so-green aspen-like birches transport me to the Eastern Sierra.

Regardless of if a moment finds me entranced by a new sight (like lungwort lichen) or wondering just how an orange-crowned warbler migrates so very many miles, there’s no question that Alaska is a beautiful place. My explorations thus far have been mostly limited to my immediate summer home base. Long rambling strolls, either alone or with some housemates, always on trail (no bushwhacking through prickly devil’s club and brown bear-concealing willows for me), have yet to fail at yielding a learning opportunity or an arm-pinching reality check. A slow crawl with tree and wildflower field guides, a stop-and-go walk with binoculars, a blood-warming hike to a glacier viewpoint, a dash back to the indoors while flailing ineffectively at hordes of Alaska-sized mosquitos.

It’s a pleasant mix of comforting knowns and stunning unknowns. Wonder is a great salve (though certainly no cure) for homesickness.

alaska introductions

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