A Travellerspoint blog

Haines, Alaska

The Last Stop of My Springtime Alaskan Adventure

semi-overcast 64 °F


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Have you ever been to Haines, Alaska? Haines was never on my Alaskan places to see list. I had seen it on a map, but breezed over it for sexier locations like Denali, the Kenai, Glacier Bay, and Tracy Arm to name a few. Fortunately, I have friends in Haines. And these friends who have collectively said, “Come visit us. We have a place for you to stay.” While I was figuring out the end game for this Alaskan adventure, I decided to go and visit my friends, which is how I ended up in Haines.
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Haines isn’t an easy town to get to. There is only one highway into town, highway seven, that cuts south off the Alaskan Highway in the Yukon Territory. Alternatively, a ferry runs from either Skagway, or Juneau. I rode the ferry from Juneau, and recommend this option. Finally, you could take a small plane in from Juneau. Bank robbers aren’t making a fast get away from this outpost.
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Haines carries a small town atmosphere. It is a refreshing change from the tourist ridden, knick-knackeries of Juneau and Skagway. On my first walk through downtown, I was struck by the modest appearance of its shops and services. There’s no flash to Haines, and to me that is its greatest allure. When I stepped into the nicely appointed shops and restaurants, the shopkeepers looked up with a smile and a genuine, “Hello. How are you?” The owners of the establishments were generally hard at work in the kitchen, stocking shelves, or running the till. They were an active part of the service, not hiding in an office somewhere or teeing off at the ninth hole (though after work you might find them at the local disc golf course).

The Alaskan pioneer is still alive and well in Haines. Many folks are living off the grid. They live far enough out of town where they don’t have running water, or electricity they didn’t make themselves. Some have to plan their day around the tides-meaning they can only get to town at low tide. They live this way by choice, and continue the pioneering spirit that has made Alaska what it is. Granted, modern conveniences have made homesteading “easier” than in times past, but they are still over coming hardships that most of us wouldn’t even consider. Compared to the overweight, red-bull powered, television worshipping couch potatoes that we Americans are (prove me wrong!), these folks are our equivalent of modern pioneers. I applaud their spirit.

The days are long in the early part of June. Daylight lasted for just over eighteen hours on my visit. Summer is the busy season, when everyone wants to cram as much work and play into their day as they can. Summer is a big deal to the residents of Haines, especially after surviving last winter. This past winter broke many spirits all around Alaska. There were records broken, or nearly broken all around the state and year round residents of Haines had their hands full all winter long.
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“I stood on the top of this totem pole,” my good friend Kathy told me, “that’s how much snow there was.” This was coming from someone who as of March 2010 had never seen snow before. She survived this past winter, and lived to tell the tale. She’s seen more snow this past winter than most people have seen in the last ten. Girdwood, located just south of Anchorage, received eighty feet of snow this year. Eighty feet! That’s incredible.
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That’s why summer is so important to Alaskan residents. It gives them a chance to breathe a collective sigh of relief-no more snow shoveling for another five months or so.

Throughout my week, my friend Kathy introduced me to most of the town. “Hey Kathy, we saw you walking Frankie (her dog) and noticed you were walking with someone we didn’t know. We thought we’d see who it was.” I’d laugh, and Kathy would introduce me to someone new. In my line of recreation, I meet many people. The problem is, I’m terrible with names. So please forgive me if I remember your face, but can’t quite make the connection.
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As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time outside during my week in Haines. I love the lushness of summer in Alaska. Though the summer season may be short, every plant, wildflower, shrub and tree makes the most of it by blooming to its fullest. The pure green of the lowlands meshed beautifully with the pale blue sky and snow covered mountains. Add in some wildlife, such as a humpback whale in the canal, or Brown Bears munching grasses on the shore, and you have yourself another gorgeous Alaskan view.
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Highlights of Haines

Mt. Ripinsky
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Though I didn’t reach the summit of Mt. Ripinsky, I hiked to the top of its ridge three times. One of the trailheads was one hundred yards from my house. I went up for a hike with some friends on a summit bid. On top of the ridge, the heavy snow pack made the trail hard to find, and slowed us down. We bush whacked our way around the backside of the mountain eventually finding the main trail which took us back to where we began.
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On two other occasions, I went up to enjoy the eagle eye view of the town and surrounding mountains and valleys. I also found a mossy clearing where I set up my slack line.

Beach Barbeque at Mud Bay
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One day, the sun came out and my jaw dropped. Where once was a misty mountainous landscape obscured by clouds, there was now a brilliant mountain scene of blue sky and snow capped peaks. Then, the wind died down, and it became a perfect night for a barbeque. On the last day of shrimp season, a local fisherman gave Kathy a two-pound bag of Southeast Alaskan Coon Striped Shrimp that he had caught that day. We took them out to the head of Mud Bay, and after considerable effort, Kathy’s boyfriend started a fire using rain soaked wood. When the coals glowed orange, we pulled across a cast iron table over the flames and spread the shrimp on the grill. While they cooked, we watched the sunset, sipped PBR from a can (the Alaskan cheap beer of choice), and marveled at the beauty all around us. We pulled the shrimp off the flames with our fingers, yelping as we peeled off the hot shells. They were delicious! These freshly caught shrimp were some of the best shrimp I have eaten.
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The Chilkoot River
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The Chilkoot River is a beautiful river that runs from Chilkoot Lake a short distance to the ocean. Anglers of the skinny two-legged kind and the massive four-legged kind frequent the river. Somehow, they get along, but I think the four-legged anglers are in charge. The Chilkoot is a very picturesque river. Wildflowers grow abundantly along its bank, as do spruce, and other shrubs. A high mountain ridge forms the backdrop, and skinny waterfalls tumble down its side. I liked the rivers boulders. They had character. Some even provided homes to small Zen pines, which reminded me of Chinese gardens that I have visited (see Sleep Deprived in Portland, Oct 2011).

Rafting the Chilkat River
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Through the power of couch surfing (www.couch surfing.org), I made a connection with a local raft guide who invited me for a float trip down the Chilkat river. The Chilkat runs through a beautiful plain surrounded by lush forests and mountain peaks. It runs several miles through an eagle preserve, and we had several great views of these magnificent birds. At one point, we saw an eagle sitting on a log. Our guide asked us to be quiet. We slipped slowly past within twenty feet of this bird! It was awesome! I’m still get excited by eagles, no matter how many I see.
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I enjoyed the trip, and I was glad I reached out to the couch surfing network.

It’s safe to say, I enjoyed my visit to Haines. A week wasn’t long enough, but it was time to move on. I wanted to head south back down to the lower forty-eight for a while to take in some warmer temperatures, and work on my suntan. I’ll be back in Alaska in August, so I won’t be gone for long.

I took the evening ferry from Haines back down to Juneau arriving just after eleven o’clock at night. My flight was leaving at eight in the morning, and I didn’t have a place to stay for the night. I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel, not for that short of time, and the hostel closed its doors at eleven. I decided to see if I could spend the night at either the Juneau ferry terminal or airport. As it turns out, sleeping at the terminal is common, though their doors close from 11 pm to 3 am. As I set up my bunk on the concrete, I talked to some of the other folks who would be sleeping out, waiting for their ferry the next morning. I wished them happy travels, and tucked into my sleeping bag.
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Author’s Note:
Chilkoot means “basket of fish” in the Tlingit language.
Chilkat means “bigger basket of fish.”

Haines concluded my Alaskan adventure for now, and I’ve just returned from a five day backpacking trek on Isle Royale National Park. In two days, I’m heading to Colorado for three weeks in the mountains. As you can see, not only am I trying to catch up on my writing and photography, but I’m also trying to make plans for Colorado and points beyond at the same time. So this week I will be putting out two entries to catch up on my adventures. Thank you again for your continued support. It makes me smile to think of all the good people out there cheering me on, and inviting me into their lives.

Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats rivers flowers hiking towns alaska oceans rafting photography Comments (1)

From Homer to Haines: Crossing the Gulf of Alaska

Two Days in Homer, The Best of the Spit, On the Ferry, Alaskan Scenery, and the Fairweather Mountains

semi-overcast 57 °F


Homer, Alaska is a “quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” It is also the “halibut capital of the world” (so they say). I don’t know if either of those boasts are true, but I DO know that Homer is home to the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had (from K-Bay Coffee), and home to the best seafood I’ve ever eaten (Captain Patties). Beyond those opinions, Homer is an intriguing Alaskan town that catches hold of you like a virus. When you first arrive, you say, “Wow, that’s a hell of a view.“ Then, thirty years later, silver haired and rheumatic, you say, “Wow, what happened? I came here to visit and stayed for thirty years.“ I stayed for two days, and I regret leaving.
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I think it is the view. Homer sits largely on the side of a long, high bluff that runs roughly southwest to northeast on the north side of Kachemak Bay. On the far side of Kachemak bay, lie the snow capped and picturesque mountains of the Kenai Peninsula Mountain Range. It is a daily view of this mountain range, which captures the soul. I felt their pull. Every morning I would wake up and look out over the bay to those mountains and think to myself, “I want to go play over there.” In talking to a Homer resident, he put it this way, “There’s something powerful about this place. I could be having the worst possible day. On my way home I’ll look out at the view of those mountains and see the sunset lighting up the clouds in colors I’ve never seen before. Then a rainbow will form above it all, and I forget about what it was that was bugging me.” In my experience, it’s hard to feel bad when you live near mountains.

With two days to explore, I barely had enough time to see the town, much less Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond. If I had to do it over again, I would have stayed for a week and researched the region enough to make an adventure out of it. However, on this occasion I was just passing through, waiting two days to catch the ferry to Juneau.

My main goal in Homer was to visit some friends of mine. One of them was nice enough to put me up for a few days, a burden I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But she did it without complaint, and for that I give her my sincerest thanks. My other friend was an old classmate of mine who I had not seen in nearly a decade. It is roughly 2,600 miles from Homer, to the small town where we went to school (as the bluebird flies) in northern Michigan. I was curious to see what she had to say about life in Alaska, and we set up a time to go out for dinner at Captain Patties.
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On my first day, I was given the driving tour of the town. There really wasn’t much to it, but she showed me the downtown area that was full of the necessary services such as the bank, grocer, liquor store and hardware store. There were quite a few restaurants, and independent shops. Most of the businesses looked like fun places to visit. They were brightly painted, clean, with a funky feel to them. My friend told me that, “The meals you eat here in Homer, will probably be some of the best food you’ve ever eaten. The people of Homer spend all winter trying new recipes and tinkering with old ones.” It’s true. Homer serves delicious food. They also embrace the locally grown food movement, which is always good to see. I sincerely regret not eating at the Vagabond Café. I mean, who better to endorse such a place? I’ll eat there next time.

After our spin through town, we drove out onto the Homer Spit, and it was here where I would spend most of my time.
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The Homer Spit is a narrow piece of land that juts almost five miles into Kachemak Bay. The Spit-as it is locally known-is where the action is (at least during the summer months). The Spit is home to an eclectic mixture of tourist shops, restaurants, campgrounds, sport fishing charter companies, fish cleaning shacks, and industrial warehousing. The marina can handle any boat from a small skiff to deep water vessels hundreds of feet long. There is public access to the beach at Pioneer Park, and many people take advantage and use this park daily. Next to the road sits an asphalt bike path that runs almost the entire length of the Spit.

My host was working evenings, so I had plenty of time to roam around town. But since I was on foot, I decided to base my explorations on The Spit because of its scenic beauty, beach access, restaurants, and photo opportunities.

Scenes From The Spit
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The Salty Dawg Saloon is one of my favorite taverns that I have visited. This small wood tavern was built from the wood of several of Homer’s historical buildings and has been around since 1957. I had to duck my head a little to get through the front door. I went in and sat down at the end of the bar, taking in my surroundings. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. As it was, I couldn’t stop looking at the building’s decoration. There were thousands of dollar bills pinned to every open surface available. The bills displayed the name, and hometown of the people who pinned them up. It was really cool. I felt as if I had just walked into the secret room of a mad man obsessed with dollar bills. I ordered a brew from the Homer Brewing Company, and hung out, digging the atmosphere. A small group of friends began to sing a traditional shanty out loud, and it sounded beautiful. Besides the bills, there were unique pictures and pieces of maritime history from old ships that have passed through. As a mariner, I loved this place. And of course, I put my own dollar bill up on the wall.
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Taking the Ferry From Homer to Haines
The ferry was seven hours late. In Alaska, the tides control a lot of the timing for a large vessel. This is because the difference between high and low tide can be quite dramatic. The Alaskan ferry Kennicott was delayed by these tides somewhere along the line, and we had to wait. When it arrived, I was sitting in the ferry terminal building finishing up a chapter in my book. There were two kids staring at the monstrous ship as it slid close to the dock for mooring. I don’t know if they had ever been on a boat before, but they looked to be in awe.
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After I boarded, I checked in with the purser to see if there were any cheap cabins available. I would be aboard for three days, and thought I’d see if I could get a roomette. I was in luck, and I purchased a room for thirty dollars a night. The room wasn’t fancy, but it had a bunk, and a place to keep my stuff. I was happy with it.

I had never been on the Kennicott before, and I went for a walk to check it all out. I won’t give you all of the vessels stats, but its 382 feet long with a beam of 85 feet. This vessel is one of two accredited ocean going vessels that the Alaska Ferry System runs. On my walkabout, I found that the vessel had a large forward observation lounge, a dining area, a small bar, a solarium (where I would’ve slept had I not taken the cabin), and two aft observation lounges. Beyond that, it had two outside companionways on two different levels where the passengers could hang out and sit in the sun if it appeared. I would be comfortable enough.
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I sat on a watertight locker as the Kennicott’s deckhands hauled the massive mooring lines aboard. We were finally leaving, and I was at sea once again. I wanted to find a place on board where I could watch the passing scenery and have quick access to the exterior decks on either side of the ship if there was a scene I wanted to photograph. I found the aft observation lounge perfect for this purpose. Since it was directly over the propellers, the room was slightly louder than the forward lounge, and it also had a bit of a shake to it. Being a seasoned mariner, this didn’t bother me at all. I had the room entirely to myself for most of my voyage.

I spent my days sitting back in the aft lounge relaxing. It felt great to sit around for a few days, something I rarely allow myself to do. On a boat, you have no choice. Time passes slowly.
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After living in a plywood shack for two weeks in Denali, it made me appreciate having a warm, well lit room where I could plug in my computer, get a drink of water, and use the head. I was loving life! I took turns reading, catching up on my writing, playing games, taking photographs, and listening to tunes and podcasts. I ate when I was hungry. I made a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, and suffered through meals from the ships cafeteria. No offense to the good people who work on the ferry, but the food is awful. There is no love in it, and it’s all prepackaged, or frozen. Ugh. I’ll admit I’m a spoiled mariner, as I work on a cruise ship that serves fresh, local, nutritious food that I don’t have to pay for.

My plans for exploring the coastal towns that the ferry stopped at were dashed by our seven hour delay. At each ferry terminal, we were reminded that we would be leaving as soon as we possibly could, as the captain was trying to get us back on schedule. On the original itinerary, we were to scheduled to be in port for several hours at a time. Instead, we spent just enough time to unload and load passengers before moving on. We also arrived at most of these ports in the early morning hours when I was fast asleep. Ah well.

The following pictures are scenes from the Ferry.

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Islands and Clouds
I was amazed at how thick these low island clouds formed. They stretched out in a long low band across Ushagat and Amatuli islands. They were simply beautiful.
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Chenega Bay
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We arrived in Chenega Bay just as the sun was setting over the mountains. The surrounding islands and mountains were bathed in great light.

The Fairweather Mountains
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I’ve seen the Fairweather Mountains from Glacier Bay National Park, and I have seen them from far away (near Sitka, Alaska). But I’ve never seen them from up close. We passed by them on a stunningly beautiful day, and I sat outside in the chilly air all afternoon. Mt. Fairweather rises 15,325 feet above sea level. That high point was almost three miles above where I sat on the bow of the Kennicott. I don’t think I’ve seen a prettier mountain range. Bands of clouds flowed around the high peaks of Mt. Fairweather, Mt. Adams, and Mt. La Perouse among others. I saw the Fairweather glacier, and had a good look at the La Perouse glacier as we passed by. I love traveling by ship. Most vessels travel so slowly, it gives you a great chance to enjoy the scenery. In the late afternoon, we rounded Cape Spencer and passed into Cross Sound leaving the open ocean behind. I was back in familiar territory. We passed familiar places, such as the Inian Islands, Glacier Bay, Icy Straight, Funter Bay on our passage to Juneau (see May to September 2011 for more adventures and pictures of these incredible places).
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We docked in Juneau at 8:30 pm. I stepped on land for the first time in three days. It felt good. I spent two hours reading my book before I boarded the ferry Matanuska which would take me north to Haines. I slept on the ferry under the heat lamps of the solarium. But it was a fitful sleep where I tossed and turned on the plastic deck chair. When I awoke for our arrival in Haines at 3 a.m., I got a call from my friend who arranged to have her boyfriend pick me up. I was looking for a guy named Darren who had a full “Fu man chu.” He said “hello,” handed me a beer and drove me to the apartment where I would be staying. We talked a bit, but it was 3 am, and we were both beyond tired. I went into the spacious one bedroom apartment that I learned would be my home for the duration of my stay, and crawled into the bed that was already made up for me. I love having good friends! I fell asleep just as the sky was starting to get lighten up for the coming dawn.

I wonder what Haines is like?

Posted by Rhombus 08:17 Archived in USA Tagged mountains boats islands alaska clouds oceans photography homer taverns fairweather Comments (0)

From Healy to Homer: An Alaskan Ramble

All About Healy, Hitchhiking Tips and Tricks, The Journey South, Don't Mess With The Eagles

semi-overcast 65 °F

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Four hundred sixty miles is a long way to travel in one day, except by a jet airplane or high-speed train. My plan was to hitchhike this distance, starting from the outskirts of Denali National Park and ending on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in the town of Homer, Alaska. It was an ambitious goal, but I felt good about my chances. Alaska is a hitchhiking friendly state-a fact I put to use two weeks before when I hitched from Anchorage to Denali National Park (240 miles) in six hours.


I spent the day before I left preparing for the trip. I spread all of my gear out on the deck of the shack, packing it away according to a hitchhiker’s necessity. I buried my slackline and sandals deep, but I kept my raingear and coffee cup accessible. Along with packing, I made a giant hitchhiker’s thumb out of cardboard. I copied the design of a Frenchman that I had met at a coffee shop. He had recently arrived in Denali after hitchhiking his way across Canada. It is useful to have a sign, and if you can incorporate a bit of humor, it can definitely help in catching that ride.

With my packing finished, I joined my nephew who was already four bars deep into a Denali pub crawl. Luckily, he had wanted to go ten miles north to Healy, to tag three of their establishments and I joined the cause. Healy is a small Alaskan town. It is the kind of place where the police department, the medical clinic, the insurance agent, and the bank are all in the same building. In late May, the sun never really sets here, and the golden light lasts for hours on end. These long evening hours make the surrounding mountains and spruce forests glow, and I felt as if I was living in a postcard of “scenic Alaska.” It’s bizarre. At midnight, it feels like it is seven p.m.
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At one of the bars, I met a local man by the name of Moe. Moe was an elderly gentleman, his slim body toughened by years of hard work and play. He had silver hair with a light beard. Moe’s face had character. It was deeply tanned with light wrinkles around his eyes. He was a tempered Alaskan, beaten and smoothed down by hundreds of adventures over his lifetime. He drank Budweiser out of the bottle, and talked with a quiet, slightly western accent. While my nephew and his entourage shot pool, I talked with this seasoned old man.

It was time well spent. We talked mostly of his life in Alaska, and some of the scrapes he had been in. “The second time I jumped on the back of a deer from out of a tree, I fell off. When the deer recovered, he looked at me a second, then charged. It was all I could do to get out of his reach by climbing a tree. He was down below me, standing on his hind legs beating on the trunk with his front hooves. I stayed up in that tree for over an hour before he went away. Yeah, I wouldn’t advise jumping on the back of a deer to anyone, not anymore.” When I told him of my plans, he nodded his approval. “You should be all right.” This was a man who had been around, and his confidence gave me hope.

I caught a ride back to the shack with a friend, and wandered off to bed. I had plans to get up early so I could be on the road by seven a.m. At three thirty in the morning, I awoke to the stomping revelry of a drunken dance party taking place on the porch. I heard my nephew’s voice in the din, and I knew they were having fun. I sighed, then smiled. What can you do? I tossed and turned the rest of the night. I finally fell asleep again at five a.m. when the party had ended.

I awoke suddenly from a dream in which a younger version of a friend of mine yelled at me to “Wake up!” I looked at my clock and it read eight a.m. I was “late,” but it didn’t matter. I jumped out of bed, and packed away my final items. I hefted my packs as quietly as I could, and stepped outside. I didn’t feel that well. I was sleepy, slightly hung over, and wishing for a cup of coffee.

The weather looked favorable. It was dry, and the sky was white with high overcast clouds. I pulled on my backpacks, first my expedition pack onto my back. Then I adjusted my smaller daypack across my chest. Fully loaded, I waddled down to the highway. Instead of immediately starting to hitchhike, I followed the roadside bike trail across the Nenano River. I don’t like crossing bridges on busy highways because there is no escape. I felt much safer crossing the river on the trail. Once across, I walked back to the highway. I put on my giant thumb, and started hitching.

I had to walk about a mile before I caught my first ride. It took me thirty miles south to the scattered village of Cantwell. It always feels good to catch that first ride. It gave me a chance to wake up, and get my thoughts in order. My driver dropped me off at a gas station, the only business that was open along the highway. I went in to buy myself a cup of coffee. When I took my first sip of the “black gold” out on the highway, I felt like a new man.
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Thus revived, I took a good look at my surroundings. I remembered this stretch of highway; it followed an open valley surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped mountains of the Alaskan Range. Closer to the highway, stands of black spruce broke up the low wetland areas and open tundra. It was a beautiful Alaskan landscape. I smiled that old familiar smile of a man who is supremely happy. I was footloose and carefree, taking on a unique challenge through a magnificent landscape. I was in my element.
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It took awhile to catch the next ride. Many people waved and smiled at me, but nobody pulled over to give me a ride. By the look of travelers, they didn’t have a lot of room left in their vehicles for a hitchhiker bearing two bags. When hitchhiking, the less gear you bring with you the better. Drivers might have room for a guy with a small backpack, but asking them to haul you and your kitchen sink generally turns potential rides away.
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I didn’t mind. I had fun singing sea shanties aloud as I walked along the road. I was on the look out for wildlife, hoping to see a herd of caribou, or a moose. Finally, after about an hour, a van braked to a stop a hundred yards up the highway. I tried running to catch up to him, but under the weight of my packs, the best I could manage was a hurried plod. I caught up with the van, saying hello, then tossing my burdens into his back seat.
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I learned that my new companion was driving all the way down to Anchorage. I was ecstatic. In two rides, I would be covering half the distance to Homer. It was early yet, but I began to get the feeling that my goal might be possible. We passed the afternoon by swapping travel stories, and comparing notes on our Alaskan travels. I gave him what advice I could, let him use my phone, and tried to be a good companion. We stopped at the roadside park that offered a view of Denali. We also stopped at Wal-Mikes, a beauty of a tourist trap found in the small village of Trapper Creek. It was jammed full of tasteful Alaskan mementos, anything from a wolf’s head hat, to a life size cardboard cutout of “the rock star.”
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Peter gave me some good insight into the mind of a driver looking at a potential hitchhiker. “Y’know, the reason I stopped was because you reminded me of my son.” I had pulled at his heartstrings by smiling, dressing decently, and looking the part of a young guy on the adventure of a lifetime.

Since Peter didn’t have any time constraints to his day, I asked him to drop me off on the southern outskirts of Anchorage along the side of the busy Seward Highway. It is almost impossible to catch a ride in large cities, especially on busy highways. Having Peter drop me off on the outside of town saved me several hours of walking, or the cost of a cab ride. From where he dropped me off, I had two hundred eleven miles to go. No problem.
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My next ride took me down to Girdwood. We followed the narrow and twisting highway along Turnagain Arm, a long stretch of water that reached deep into the surrounding Chugach Mountains. My companions were friendly and comfortable. They had a new puppy that licked my hand every three seconds. Then it collapsed with a sleepy sigh into a puppy nap. They were a sweet old couple, and I smiled when the husband asked his wife, “Can I get you anything, my love?” when we stopped at the Girdwood gas station.
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In Girdwood, I caught my best ride of the day with an Alaskan rambler by the name of Greg. We were kindred spirits, and the conversation flowed easily. For fun, he and his buddies spent their time searching for old ghost towns, panning for gold, camping out, and cracking open rocks. He showed me some rocks that he had split open with a hammer that had fossils etched into it. “We hauled ‘em up to the college, and they said they were 65 million years old. Hell, we don’t even know what we are doin’. We just go down to the creek and crack ‘em open.”
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Earlier in the day, I found a full roll of duct tape lying in the grass. I picked it up, shoving it into my pack knowing how useful it was. I forgot all about it, until it reappeared while I was riding with Greg. I gave it to him, because he seemed like a guy who would use it. I like to think that it will help him out of a jam sometime, somewhere down the road.
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It wasn’t long before I caught my first glimpse of the famous Kenai River. When July comes around the Kenai is jammed full of anglers. There are so many of them, that they are almost elbow to elbow jockeying for position to catch big Salmon that are running up the river to spawn. The river was empty of fishermen on our visit. I enjoyed the chuckling sound of the river over the rocks, surrounded by high foothills covered in springtime greenery.

Greg took me all the way to Soldotna, dropping me off on the western outskirts of town. Greg had hitched before, and knew all about “moon walking”- walking backwards for miles through a town- unable to catch a ride. It was seven twenty in the evening, meaning the sun was still high in the sky. I was getting tired, having traveled well over three hundred miles already. I thought about quitting for the day, knowing I could sleep at the city park campground or even splurge and get a hotel. However, I didn’t want to give up. I would try for another hour and a half to catch a ride. If that failed, then I would hole up for the night.

My persistence paid off, and I caught my final ride of the day. I asked him, “How far are you going? “ “I’m going all the way to Homer, “he replied. I felt a tingle of happiness in my belly. I was going to make it in one day! While we drove, he said that he saw me in Girdwood, and had planned to pick me up after he fueled his truck at the gas station. When he pulled back onto the highway, I was already gone. Luckily, I had stayed ahead of him.
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Chris was a good man. He gave me some advice on what to do in Homer, where to eat, good hiking trails, and the like. This stretch of highway travels along the western coast of the Kenai Peninsula. As we drove along, I caught quick glimpses of the ocean and distant mountain range on the far side of the inlet. It was gorgeous. Chris noticed my cameras and asked if I would like to go down to see the ocean at Anchor Point. Since I didn’t have to worry about a ride, I agreed. It would be good to see the ocean again.

What happened next was something I have never seen before.
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While we were enjoying the evening views of the ocean, a seagull that was standing near a group of four bald eagles on the beach flew away. One of the eagles began to chase it, and a high speed aerial acrobatics display ensued. Despite its tight turns and evasive maneuvers, the eagle easily kept up with the gull.
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Chris and I watched in amazement as another eagle joined the first, intensifying the harassment of the gull. The birds zipped around right in front of us, not more than a hundred twenty feet away. Two more eagles joined the chase, and the seagull was soon knocked down into the ocean. The eagles continued to strafe the unlucky gull, snaring it in their razor sharp talons. The gull was hurt, and it was all it could do to dive away from the eagles when they came close.
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At one point, one of the eagles landed on the hapless gull. The gull rolled, and the eagle ended up in the water. After a few jabs with its talons, that eagle began slowly swimming to shore while the others continued to harass the gull. I saw one of the eagles pick up the bird and carry it a short distance before letting go, tumbling it into the water once again.
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We didn’t stay to watch the end, but we knew the outcome. I may not have much, but I do have timing.

Chris and I continued south to Homer. I had sent a message to my friend letting her know that I was close. We planned a rendezvous at Subway, where I happily piled out of the truck. I hugged my friend, and said, “Hello.” I grabbed my gear, thanking Chris for the ride. My friends took me back to their home, made me a delicious three-course dinner of fresh salad, a giant hamburger, with a glass of red wine from a mason jar. I inhaled my food. I had not eaten much that day, and I was a proud member of the clean plate club. I took a shower, and for the second time that day, I felt like a new man.
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My last thought before I passed out, was that I had done it. I had hitchhiked almost five hundred miles in eleven and a half hours, by far my best day of hitchhiking ever. It would not have been possible without the help of Matt, Peter, Duncan, Greg and Chris. Thank you.

Hitchhiking at its basic element is simply one person helping another person in need. I went to sleep feeling good about my fellow men.

Posted by Rhombus 11:47 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds roads alaska oceans denali eagles hitchhiking kenai Comments (0)

A Day Hike In Denali

Hiking to Impress, Polychrome Mountain, Denali Mountain Dance, Clearing Skies, and Night Life

semi-overcast 54 °F

When I stepped outside of the dark plywood shack, it started to rain. I didn’t even get my boots on yet. My plan was to hike over to the WAC, and catch a bus into the park to enjoy a little day hike. My time in Denali was running short, and I wanted one more excursion into the park before it was time to go.

The first thing I found out was that my shuttle was free. If you buy two trips into the park, you get one free ride. I thanked the clerk, and went off to the coffee stand to purchase some coffee and pastries while I waited for my ride. I sat on the porch, sipped the surprisingly decent coffee, and ate some prepackaged danishes. Not bad.

The journey into the park was uneventful. We did not see much in terms of wildlife, and the clouds were still hanging low over the mountains. The rain had quit, but it was still cold and gray. Maybe not the best conditions for a hike, but good enough. We finally saw some dahl sheep near Polychrome Mountain. We watched them for a while, as they sat unperturbed on a nearby knoll. Then the bus broke down. The driver couldn’t get it into gear, which meant we were stuck there until the next shuttle came.

I looked up at the mountain and figured that I could start my hike here. Why not? It looked steep, but I was used to that. I got up and filed past my fellow passengers to the front of the bus where I asked the driver if I could start my hike here. She asked me which way I wanted to go. I told her, “Up.” She said, “Sure, so long as you don’t go near the sheep.”
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I grabbed my daypack, exited the bus, and started hiking up the first slope directly along side of the bus. Now, I knew I had an audience. Besides the sheep, I was the only interesting thing that was happening on that bus- the weirdo- who left the bus and was actually hiking straight up a mountain. I wanted to get away from the bus as quickly as I could, but I wanted to look good as I did so. I started at a good clip, picking my way expertly up the rocky tundra, through the willow whips, matted lichens and around the scattered brush. The first slope was about two hundred yards long, and every step took me higher than I was before by a significant amount. My legs began to burn. I began to gasp, sucking in air as if I had just been underwater for five minutes. Still, I didn’t want to take a break. I kept going. “Gasp“, step, “GASP“, step, “WHEEZE“, step. My “good clip” had slowed to a very bad clip, but I made it out of sight of the bus without stopping. Success! I celebrated, by collapsing on the tundra, and continuing my gasping. Eventually, I caught my breath, and let my wobbly leg muscles recover. As I lay there, I enjoyed imagining the envy of the other passengers. “That weirdo sure makes a lot of noise when he goes hiking.” “Say Mel, pass me a cookie.” “I wonder when the other bus is coming.” When I recovered, I smugly started up the next section, out of sight, and out of mind.
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To reach the top of the ridge, I had to climb a steep talus pile of jagged rocks that gave way with each step. I made decent progress, though with each step I slid back down a little bit, sinking up to my ankles in sharp rocks. Then I caught onto a sheep trail, and followed it up to the top of the ridge. My plan had worked, and I had reached my first goal.
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The wind was raw, and I was glad I had a good windbreaker. Not that it breaks wind (which is another term for farting) (which would be silly), but it kept me warmer than my adventure shirt would. As I walked along the ridge, scanning my surroundings for wildlife, I came across this flower. The wildflowers bloom quickly, here in Denali.
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I was among the foothills of Polychrome Mountain that loomed above me separated by several steep ridges and valleys. Since the walking was now quite easy, I decided to cross the canyon and climb up to a high point on the other side. I figured I could get some good views, and perhaps follow that ridge back to the east fork of the Toklat River, which could take me back to the park road. I didn’t know if I could, but I figured it would be a good place to start.

I descended the steep slopes of open tundra, and lichen covered rocks. I picked my way down carefully, as I didn’t want to twist an ankle out here. That would spell trouble. Once again, nobody really knew where I was, I didn’t leave a hiking plan with my nephew, as I didn’t know where I would be hiking. This is bad hiking etiquette, and I do not recommend it. I digress. At the bottom of the canyon, I stepped over a small creek, and began another ascent. This one was much easier to accomplish, as I did not have anyone to “impress.” I took my time, enjoying my thoughts, my exertions, and my day. As I neared the top, I found this feather stuck into the ground. In some cultures, feathers are thought to carry powerful energy. I handled this one carefully before returning it to where I found it. The bird that left it might not like to kindly on my handling of its feathers.
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When I gained this second ridge, it was easy enough to follow an old path up to the high point that I wanted to climb. As I neared the pyramid, the trail steepened, and the rocks grew slippery. However, it didn’t slow me down, and it wasn’t long before I was high above the surrounding countryside. Do I have to mention the view was incredible? It was.
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Inspiration struck, and I decided to do my version of a Denali Mountain Dance. I didn’t have any specific goal for the dance, as in, “make it rain” or “make it stop snowing” or “I’d like a pizza dropped from the sky,” but my spirit carried me on for the sake of the dance. I set my camera on a time lapse setting and got down with my bad self. In truth, it was all improvised, there are no steps, and you simply dance for the mountain. What fun. It was so much fun in fact, that I did two Denali Mountain Dances. That’s good stuff!
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I happily sat down out of the wind, and pulled out my lunch. It was simple food for a simple man, and I enjoyed it while I gazed out over the earthy purple, tan and gray shades of earth that make up the countryside, stretching from Polychrome Mountain as far as I could see into the Wyoming Hills.
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It was time to turn around, and make my way back to the road. I just didn’t know how I wanted to get there. I could have went east to the river and follow that back south to the road (the hard way), or I could follow the ridge I was on west to the road (the easy way). Looking at my options, I chose the hard way, after all, I am me. At the end of the ridge, I realized the hard way was going to be a lot harder than I first thought, and after a little deliberating, I decided to cancel that approach and instead hike back down the canyon and back up the other side, summiting further south from where I started. At the bottom of the canyon, I stopped to filter some water into my water bottle. I figured it is always better to fill up when you can, rather than wish you did when you cannot. From there, I started back up the canyon wall yet again. At the halfway point, I took a break. I was getting tired. This was my third ascent of the day, and the foothills and mountains of Denali are not easy. They are steep!
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When I reached the top of the ridge, I had to cross several patches of knee-deep snow. The sun still hadn’t gotten to these areas yet, but I didn’t mind. I could see a small section of the road below me, and as I descended, I realized it would make a great picture. I found an appealing perch on the tundra and decided to wait to see what happened. What happened was that the clouds that were once so thickly covered the higher peaks of the Alaska Range, were breaking up. The sun came out, and blue sky began to appear in growing patches. My Denali Mountain Dance worked!
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The following images of are among my favorites that I have from Denali. The park road was a perfect leading line into the awe-inspiring mountain landscapes. The pack of dahl sheep I had seen earlier in the day reappeared, adding yet one more element to theses photos. They are small, yet you can pick them out in the bottom of some of these photos.

Denali Visions
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On my way down to the road, I saw my first marmot, which looked like a giant rock squirrel. It perched on a rock not more than 25 feet away from me, happy to be out in the sunshine again. Down on the road, it took well over an hour for a shuttle bus to pick me up. I really didn’t mind, as the glacial river valley that I was walking along was absolutely gorgeous. This was a fine day to walk in the park! Finally, a bus rounded the corner, and I flagged it down. It was time to go. However, I was well satisfied with my efforts for the day, and this day was seized.
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As a final parting gift, “the high one” came out of the clouds, and I was able to see Denali one more time.
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I capped off my day, by hiking back to the shack. There I enjoyed a “luxurious” lukewarm shower. I ate a gigantic dinner, with some good beer, and hung out with the hill people until I was able to convince one of my new friends to come over to glitter gulch for some fun. What happened was another night of Denali carousing in its most beautiful forms. We drank, we laughed, and we giggled at everyone. There was karaoke being sung (which I did not partake in, thankfully). There was some dancing, many friends hanging out and having fun. Somewhere near the end, there were a few nips of tequila. I stumbled off to bed at 3:30 a.m. (it was still light out). I smiled to myself about how good this day had been.

I am still smiling about it. Denali is awesome.

Posted by Rhombus 16:09 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks flowers hiking roads alaska dancing photography denali Comments (2)

Denali's Backcountry

The Denali Experience, Into the Wilderness, Igloo Mountain, Mountain Grandeur, The Front Country

semi-overcast 49 °F

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Denali is a wild place. In the past week, I have spent time in Denali’s front country, the area of the park near the entrance, and two days in the wilderness that is Denali’s backcountry. While not in the park, I have been living in a hillside community of Denali workers. They are here to service the multitude of tourists that visit this park each summer. I am in a unique position, because though essentially I am a tourist, I am living with the summer community of amazing people that work in the Denali region.
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My position has allowed me to see both sides of the Denali experience. I’m free to explore the park as I will, unhampered by the need to work everyday. Because my nephew works here, I have been able to stay with him in the plywood shack that he calls home. The people that work here are a motley collection of folks from all around the world that are here to take in Denali, and make some money. When they aren’t working, they take advantage of their free time by hiking, white water rafting, going on a tour, and partying hard. Your liver gets a workout when you live up here in Denali.

The Denali Backcountry

Denali National Park is unique among our national parks because of its designation as a wilderness area. There are no trails in the backcountry. There are no easy paths to follow to your next campsite. If you choose to leave the comfort of the shuttle buses that take visitors into the park, you are on your own, and you had better know what you are doing. Denali’s backcountry is unforgiving. It is a hard land that is difficult to navigate, and people have died here.

That being said, the landscape is absolutely amazing. I am in awe, and I cannot believe that I’m finally here, ready to explore this amazing jewel of our national parks.

To gain access to the backcountry, I had to watch an informational video at the WAC (Wilderness Access Center) and fill out a free backcountry permit. Denali is broken into numbered sections, and in order to keep the park wild, the park service only allows a certain number of people into each section. As this was my first visit to the park, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go. After looking through the descriptions of the sections, I chose one to my liking. I exchanged forms with the clerk, and I was on my way. I purchased a ticket on shuttle bus into the park for the next morning, and I went back to the shack to pack for the adventure.

The next morning, I walked back to the WAC, where I would meet my shuttle into the park. I was tired, I had stayed up too late, hanging out with the hill people that I call neighbors. I yawned, sipped some coffee, and I checked my gear. I studied the topo map of the land near Igloo Mountain. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was on my way.
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The bus ride was somewhat lame. Granted, we saw some herds of caribou, a moose, a lynx (the first I had ever seen), among other animals, but the bus driver was a nitpicker for petty rules, “You HAVE to wear your seatbelt.” and my fellow passengers were pretentious, full of stupid questions, and mildly rude. I hate to be negative about my fellow men, but these were a bad lot. I was happy enough to ignore them and focus on the amazing scenery and wild animals all around me.

I saw long sweeping views of the snow capped mountains of the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range is home of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The land is a mixture of taiga, spruce forest, swampy wetlands, wide braided and rocky rivers, arctic tundra, grassy highlands, foothills, and snow capped mountains. My words and photos cannot really do this place justice. Denali provides a vivid sensory overload that left me speechless.

The bus stopped and let me off at Igloo Creek. I was happy to be free of the bus, but as it pulled away, a twang of uncertainty rippled through me. I was about to walk into the Denali wild, and not one soul on this earth knew where I was, or knew where I was going. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know either.
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Igloo Mountain towered high above me, and I knew I had to decide which way I wanted to walk around it. I decided to scramble up to a rocky overlook and take stock of the landscape. On paper, the mountain looked approachable from any direction, but in reality, a lot of it looked impassable, and I did not want to have to turn around. From the high point, I had my first breath taking view of the Cathedral Mountains, and of the Teklanika River Valley. The Teklanika is the same river that stymied Alexander Supertramp’s escape back in the early nineties. I looked over the landscape, decided to try to walk around the mountain to the east, and backtracked back down into the spruce forest.

Having lived and worked in northern Minnesota for many years, I was quite comfortable walking through a boggy spruce forest. It was still a lot of hard work, as my heavy pack seemed to catch on the stiff branches of the brush. I worked my way around the mountain, eventually finding and following a moose trail. Moose, like elk, know where to walk. It made my hike a lot easier.
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As it turned out, I had chosen wisely, a long grassy taiga covered ridge led up a long ridge onto Igloo Mountain. Since I was only going for one night, I wanted to find a place that wasn’t too far into the wilderness. This ridge looked ideal. I wanted a good view, and I wanted a good campsite. I began to climb up the spongy taiga and loose gravel that took me higher and higher up onto the mountain.
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Eventually I made my way to the top of the ridge, and found a few promising campsites. I set down my pack, and grabbed my camera. The high ridge was dotted with pockets of beautiful wildflowers, and the view of the distant mountains was incredible. I did not expect wildflowers to be out this early in the mountain season, but I wasn’t complaining. I found three varieties, and I had fun putting them into focus.
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After eating lunch, I put on my rain gear and laid down on the dry spongy taiga. I was very comfortable, and I grew sleepy. The moss was perfect, and it wasn’t long before I passed out. I awoke to the gentle patter of rain on my rain gear. I sat up, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and decided to have an early dinner. I walked to where I was keeping my food in the black bear proof container some distance from my campsite. I made a sandwich of peanut butter and honey, crunched some almonds, and ate the last of my beef jerky with a couple nips of red wine. I ate this wonderful meal, sitting on the bear barrel, as another rain squall passed over me. I was glad I had good rain gear.
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Mountain Grandeur
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After dinner, I started hiking up a ridge that looked like it would take me to the top of the mountain. I took only my small camera that fit easily into my pocket. The ridge was easy to follow, though it was steep, made up of loose scree, and wet from the rain. I was feeling good, energetic and moving fast. Then I found myself atop a twenty-foot high rock tower. It was made of very sharp rock, loose, and untrustworthy. I decided to climb down it instead of backtracking and finding a way around it. It wasn’t the smartest thing I have ever done, but using basic climbing techniques, and double checking my holds on the wet rock, I made my way down safely.
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From there, it was an easy trek. I followed the ridge higher and higher onto the shoulder of the mountain. Then I followed a Dahl sheep track across a steep open talus slope to the top of the mountain ridge. The rain had quit, and I had stripped down to my hiking gear. The thick clouds weakened and broke open in spots allowing the sun to shine through. The white light highlighted the mountains, and low clouds near the breaks. It was some of the most breathtaking mountain grandeur I had ever seen.
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To get to the very highest point, I had to walk a knife-edge of sharp rock. If I slipped, I would have fallen thirty feet on either side, before sliding down the mountain. This was a badass hike if I had ever seen one. I climbed the last twenty feet up a slippery rock face covered in wet grass, loose rock and mud.
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I summited. I sat down, and I soaked up the mountain views all around me. “My God,” I said aloud, then, waving my arms around me in every direction, “This IS my God.”
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I looked down on the pale ribbon of the Denali Park Road that wound through the zebra striped mountains of brown and white. It looked tiny in comparison to the immense landscape around it.

I was in awe. I keep saying this, but I was. The following poem came to mind, written by Chia Tao

Searching For the Hermit In Vain

The master has gone alone.
Herb picking, somewhere on the mount.
Cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown.

I love the last line. And that is exactly where I was.
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On my way down, I retraced my steps back down to the ridge. Instead of following it, I decided to put on my rain gear and try sliding down a snow slope that would take me down to my campsite. After one gentle push with my arms, I began to slide easily on the snow. Then, I began to slip faster and faster, more or less rocketing down this slope. I giggled, whooped and dug in my heels trying to slow down. I laughed all the way to bottom, where my weight caused me to dig into the soft wet snow near the edge of where snow met the grass.
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I thought about climbing up again for another ride, but instead walked back down to my camp. Another rainbow appeared, the third of the day. That’s when I named the ridge I was camped on, “Rainbow Ridge.”
I sat in the rain and enjoyed the rainbow. The clouds moved in, and it rained harder. I laughed. I drank the rest of my box of wine, and went to bed.

Front Country Scenes

The Denali front country has been very good to me as well. From visiting sled dogs, to shooting pool with my nephew and talking philosophy under an old railroad bridge, and long hikes up into the mountains. Denali has been amazing. These are just a few scenes from my first week.
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Posted by Rhombus 18:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes mountains snow parks flowers hiking alaska family denali poetry Comments (2)

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