Alaska

It’s been over seven months since we came back from Alaska, and I didn’t think I’d get around to writing anything about the trip. At the time when memories were ripe for recording, I instead became preoccupied with other ways of spending the remainder of my summer break—visiting my mom in Oregon, helping plan a baby shower, and getting pregnant myself. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had not, apparently, forgotten about our trip. A few months ago it sent me a hefty envelope containing a survey on my fishing activities, along with maps of the state’s rivers and illustrations of the various fish I may have caught, so that I could provide the most precise information possible for their records. Upon seeing the greeting “Dear Angler” on the cover letter, I casually tossed the whole thing in the recycle bin. Surely, I had not earned the title during the four hours I spent joyfully harassing some salmon in the Russian River.

Cut to last week, and the same very official looking packet appeared from amid a stack of campaign mailers. “DEEARRRR…ANGLERRRR!” the letter now read. It was the same letter, but it added that my prompt response would allow the Department to cease its mailing of future surveys. Fine! I had Ben complete it since it involved filling out a rather complicated looking grid and he likes that kind of thing. Besides, he’s the only one who actually caught anything worth keeping.

Like anyone else, we were drawn to Alaska by the promise of experiencing its legendary wilderness. We wanted to see rugged mountains, rushing rivers, and moose crossing the roads (at least until I read about all the bad car accidents caused by moose crossings). Some people go to test out their survival skills and to camp where no one has camped before, but we looked forward to seeing grizzlies from the safety of a tour bus and sleeping in a hotel here and there. We planned out an itinerary that would let us see much of Denali National Park and a swath of the Kenai Peninsula. We packed two extra-large duffel bags with camping gear and clothes for all kinds of weather.

After landing in Anchorage and picking up our rental Prius at dawn, we had a few more camping items to rent, including a can of bear spray. The young lady working at the store assured us that only one of their customers ever deployed a can, but that he was part of a bachelor party and the can wasn’t directed at a bear at all. We stocked up on groceries and beer at Fred Meyers and then made our way to Denali.

After setting up camp, we took a long afternoon hike to get acquainted with Denali National Park. While we didn’t have any run-ins with big animals, we did come face to face with a porcupine and we studied each other for a minute before the porcupine lost interest. We asked another couple of hikers if we’d be able to see Denali herself from one of the nearby trails, but it turned out we’d have to get much closer for that. Overall, it felt like we were in a grander version of the Sierras.

Ben_river_Denali

At night, we inflated the queen-sized blow up mattress that fits just right inside our tent. Like I said, the goal wasn’t to rough it. I thought of John McPhee who wrote about Alaska in Coming into the Country. As part of his research, he stayed with a couple in their cabin in a very remote part of the state. One night, his desperation for comfort won out over his need to look like a tough guy in front of his “rugged pioneer” hosts, for whom comfort was apparently no longer a human need. “My hand goes into the pack. The pillow is small and white. The cover is handmade, with snaps at one end, so that it can contain a down jacket, which it does. I mumble an apology for this, saying that nonetheless I feel a touch ridiculous—in their company, in this country—reaching into my gear for a pillow.” (Ben fashions a camp pillow in a similar manner, by stuffing his down jacket into the drawstring cover of his sleeping pad.) The rugged pioneer responded, “Don’t apologize […] We’re not out here to rough it. We’re out here to smooth it. Things are rough enough in town.”

On an all-day bus tour of Denali, we saw grizzlies with their cubs, moose, ptarmigan, eagles, and caribou. The caribou, which would amble down the road right in front of the bus, were looking rough from an unusually warm year, with big patches of fur missing. An impactful piece of evidence of climate change. A couple of hours into the ride we started getting glimpses of Denali, which had “come out,” meaning we were lucky. She often hides behind storm clouds. Eventually, we came to a lookout point and the mountain was revealed as a magnificent centerpiece to the expansive wilderness that comprises the park.

the_mountain

The next day, walking along Horseshoe Lake Trail, a beaver crossed our path. He ambled along, unhurried by our presence, towing a sizable branch, and disappeared into the trees. Another cute creature to add to our mental list of wildlife sightings before it was time to leave the park.

Back in Anchorage, we stopped by a Bass Pro Shop for a couple items and I was gobsmacked by all the stuffed wildlife you can see there. I could see the fine detail on a grizzly’s paw that I just couldn’t make out from half a mile away on the tour bus.

Not that we starved while camping in Denali, but once in town, we were willing to let someone else do the work, so dinner was at Glacier Brewhouse, which I highly recommend. The herb-crusted halibut was perfection and the in-house beers are delicious.

Anchorage

We got up at 4 am the next morning and drove down to the Kenai Peninsula for a 6 am rendezvous with Angle 45 Adventures to go fishing. It was dark for much of the drive, but by the time we neared the Russian River it became clear how charming and beautiful the Kenai is. We parked, met up with our guide, and found out that we would be the only members of the trip that day. Private fishing lessons! In the boat, we chatted with our guide, who was younger than us but had a warm and knowledgeable ease about him. Shortly after rowing to the first spot, we were in our waders, standing in a blue-green river, learning how to cast. The early morning sun came through clouds that released an occasional sprinkle. It was pretty easy to get the gist of fly fishing, although it was a modified form of fly fishing that a novice could pick up quickly. Over the course of the morning, I caught a couple salmon, but released them both: a humpy and a too-mature silver. I also hooked a few that got away after an exciting struggle on both ends. Ben caught two silver salmon that we kept. Our guide cleaned and filled them for us right there on the river before we turned around.

After camping right on Kenai Lake where we ate our first meal of fresh-caught salmon–with toasted pine nuts and buttered green beans–we slept in and then continued down the peninsula to Seward, the point of access for Resurrection Bay and the most adorable seaside town you can imagine. We settled into a quaint hotel and went to the delightfully kitschy Thorn’s Showcase Lounge for dinner, not because we were at all hungry after another filling picnic lunch of salmon, but because I have what Ben calls food FOMO. But of course, by the time we finished off our stiff cocktails and the “bucket-o’-butt” arrived on the table, we had no trouble finishing off all the delicious morsels of fried halibut.

At 8 the next morning, we boarded a ferry to Fox Island for a kayaking tour. The island was covered in trees and mist, rising up dramatically from a rocky beach. It was cool and just barely raining. We joined a big group of kayakers, put on our gear, and leisurely paddled along the coast, getting an up-close view of puffins, starfish, urchins, and the like. Afterwards, we enjoyed a buffet of (what else?) salmon and mashed potatoes at the lodge while watching a ranger’s well-rehearsed presentation on the geology of the Kenai Peninsula.

We climbed back on the ferry to continue exploring and learning about Resurrection Bay, looking for wildlife and admiring the gorgeous scenery. Our enthusiastic, verbose, and surprisingly young captain maneuvered us responsibly close—but still closer than I imagined we could get—to a pod of orcas, which was incredible to watch. Ben had made a good call buying binoculars at Bass Pro, after all. We even caught sight of a humpback whale in the distance.

In that long and fulfilling day we got an unexpected glimpse of everything we hoped to encounter in Alaska. All we had left to do was set up one more campsite, try to eat the rest of our salmon, return our unused bear spray, and go back to roughing it in the city.

 

Down a River in Utah

At certain points, the cliff walls that overhang the Green River seem to be on the verge of crumbling down at any moment, as if they’re carefully holding their breath and the dislodging of one particle of sand has the potential to send tons of boulders crashing down into the lethargic water below. I entertained this thought while paddling through Labyrinth Canyon in a canoe, even though the looser-looking chunks of sandstone above had been resting there for who knows how long, and would likely stay put for the duration of our journey, if not longer.

It wasn’t so much the fear of being squished by a rock that spurred my imagination but rather the wonder at how such a presently tame waterway could cut through the hard, compact earth in such a way as to create this:

canoeing

The stillness was suspenseful, until I got used to itUnless a flash flood happened while we were there, which would have been super inconvenient, I was unlikely to witness any change at all. I do wish someone could make a time-lapse video of a blind arch becoming (and becoming, and becoming, and becoming) an arch. I’ll check back in maybe five thousand years. 

I’m grateful, of course, that the Green River kept its cool while it transported us through the canyon for the forty-six miles from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom. We had a few more things going for us: we were the last group (six people, three canoes) launched by Tex’s Riverways for the year, so there was no one else with whom to compete for places to camp or to contradict the notion that we were intrepid explorers of a unique sort. Also, since it was late October, we avoided exposure to heat during the day (this is desert, after all) and the night chill only made the campfire more enjoyable.

I’ve seen many herons but rarely one of the blue persuasion.

The boys–Ben, Mike and Dane–had a couple advantages being at the back of the canoe. For one, they could trail their fishing lines behind them and cast frequently without snagging their canoe-mates, in theory. No fish were caught; the murky-water dwellers turned up their noses to the Powerbait. I’m not saying that there’s no enjoyment to be derived from even fruitless fishing, but at some point you have to put up the pole and paddle, dammit. The other advantage was that they could simply stand, turn 180 degrees and relieve themselves into the river without interrupting our progress. Since the only permissible place to piss was in the river, this advantage must not be underestimated.

As for the ladies–Liana, Alexis and myself–getting the front seat is the advantage itself.

cloudy skies

We did spend a lot of time on the river but we would pull up to the bank for a leisurely lunch and stop for exploration by foot through some empty river beds whose crust was damp but cracked. After the first docking experience during which we discovered one can easily sink up to the navel in silt, we became more selective about where to land. We (i.e., Alexis) referred to a detailed waterproof map to keep track of our progress and to decide on which bottom, strategically speaking, would work as a camp site.

We explored the riverbed where the temptation to slather oneself with nutrient-rich clay is just too much for some people.

We explored the riverbed where the temptation to slather oneself with nutrient-rich clay is just too much for some people.

Since conventional means of entertainment were absent on this trip, we entertained ourselves with roasting marshmallows, campfire stories and hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. We found that canned re-fried beans, when placed directly into the fire, behave like a jack-in-the-box. I won’t go into Ben’s display of “freestyle canoeing” here but suffice it to say it made quite a splash.

Here we saw the footprints of either a badger or large bird. Debate goes on.

Here we saw the footprints of either a badger or large bird. Debate goes on.

Within 24 hours of the last meal on the river, while Alexis and Mike went back to Colorado, the rest of us were checking into the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, with its anemic animal sanctuary and cigarette smoke, showering for the first time in five days and then dashing over to the Bellagio for buffet. I saw the big platters of shellfish and thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway, picking up a crab leg from a buffet table after being rescued. The lobby had a stunning fall-themed display with an Oz-like animatronic tree, giant pumpkins, and elaborate waterworks, but it had nothing on our riparian wonderland.

I think the author of The Wind in the Willows would agree:

`Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolute nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: `messing–about–in–boats; messing—-‘

`Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

`–about in boats–or WITH boats,’ the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. `In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?’

A river’s a great place for reflection.