Great Alaskan Adventure: Part Two

18 07 2011

With only half an hour of darkness at this time of year, 4:30 AM was bright daylight, although it didn’t feel that way to Brian and Annalise, who experienced this phenomenon in order to be at the dock to go deep-sea fishing.  I left Marie to her own devices to be at the dock by 7:30 to catch my boat out to Fox Island where I would spend the day sea-kayaking.  Day Four in Alaska was shaping up to be a grand one, with yet another day of “cloud malfunction.”

On the boat to Fox Island, I talked with some railroad employees who were sight-seeing on their day off.  Add this to your “Small World” file:  turns out that one of them was from Aiken, and we even had some friends in common!  It wasn’t long before a whale was sighted off the starboard bow, and as we were scanning the waters for it, it breached right there in front of us.  After we picked our jaws up off the deck, we continued on, docking at Fox Island for some of us to get off.  I had signed up for the six hour kayak trip, and after meeting the guide, Daniel, I discovered that I was the only one on this trip and so would receive a personal guided tour!  We took off in our tandem sea kayak to circumnavigate the island. (If Magellan’s crew could circumnavigate the world, how hard could this be?)  Starfish jostled for spots on the waterline of the rocky cliffs, starring in photo after photo, until we rounded the bend to see a bald eagle perched high up on a limb of a Sitka spruce tree, its nest sprawling over several branches.  As we watched, an eagle feather floated down and landed in the water in front of us, a true gift of nature.   It wasn’t long after retrieving this feather that we were visited by a harbor seal who poked his head up to keep a cautious eye on us.   Daniel provided “edutainment” by identifying the various types of kelp, plants and animal life that we encountered.  As we came close to a spit of rocky shore left by a glacier (a terminal moraine), a river otter played tag with us, teasing us with one quick glimpse before submerging and resurfacing in a totally unexpected spot.  We pulled up on shore, got out, and stretched our legs.  In a sea kayak, I was told to keep my knees pressed outward on the sides for added stability, which in addition to the stability, caused my legs to become exceedingly stiff.  We explored the land and once again Daniel identified plant after plant: the chocolate iris, beautiful but smelly as an old shoe, wild celery, parsley, Devil’s Club, and cow parsnip with the curious ability to cause your skin to blister after exposure to sunlight.  Mermaid’s purses, otherwise known as skate egg cases, were all around on the beach, as were another couple of eagle feathers.  My collection of treasures increased.   We ate a bag lunch on the beach and stuffed ourselves back into the kayak.

Crossing over a narrow stretch of water to the land on the other side, we explored Resurrection Peninsula.  Puffy basalt cliffs gave evidence of volcanic activity, and Daniel’s vast knowledge of geology (his under-grad major) kept my curiosity satisfied.  A cascading waterfall into a little inlet lent the appropriate name “God’s Cove.”  Crossing back to the island, ocean waves failed to splash the perpetual grin off my face as we dipped and rolled in the water, although this was a relatively calm day on the bay.  

Rock Formations on Fox Island

The seaward side of the island was ocean-carved, with arches, erosional caves, and windows through to the other side.  Around the bend, we encountered a colony of puffins, murres, cormorants, and gulls who kept us entertained with their antics.  We surprised an oyster catcher on a rock and then were surprised in turn when we saw a fluffy chick scoot away.   I hated to see the dock in sight as we entered the harbor, having made it all the way around, a 14 mile kayak trip.  Looking up at the trees at the top of the cliff, I spied a bald eagle pair, a fitting way to end this glorious experience.

A bald eagle bade us farewell as we ended our kayak trip.

Before leaving the island, I partook of a salmon bake, along with the members of a day cruise who had disembarked on the island.  I spoke with an elderly Israeli couple who were vacationing in Alaska after having visited the states to see their children.  They too were headed to Talkeetna and then Denali.

Finally getting back to the RV around 6:30, I found that Brian and Annalise had also had a good day, having caught their limit of halibut.  Annalise was worn out and napped soundly until bedtime.  Marie had spent the day tootling around town, visiting the shops and seeing the sights.

Day Five saw us reluctantly leaving the Kenai Peninsula, driving north through Anchorage, wrinkling our noses as we passed through Sara Palin’s town of Wasilla, and finally pulling into the bush village-turned-tourist attraction called Talkeetna.  Gatlinburg on a small scale, Talkeetna’s claim to fame was that it was the launching point of Mt. McKinley climbers, with an added footnote of being able to pull tourist dollars out of wallets with scarcely a wince.  The streets were packed as people strolled from one gift shop to another in search of the perfect tee shirt or novelty toboggan hat.

The next day we drove to the airstrip where we had reserved seats on a flight-seeing tour.  Although the clouds from yesterday had broken up and blue sky appeared, we would not have been able to see the Mountain or land on a glacier.  We opted to try our luck later, and at 2:00, we hit the jackpot.  We would be able to do both!  Just as we donned our snow boots, the Israeli couple from Seward came in off their flight.  It was heartwarming to see their reaction to seeing me again–almost as if I were a long-lost friend.  We found it constantly amazing how easy it was to strike up conversations with fellow travelers, finding connections and forming instant relationships.

Eleven of us took off, flying first over tundra, taiga, and braided rivers draining glacial melt from the mountains.  The view out the window was stunningly beautiful:  at times I needed to pinch myself as a reminder that this was actually happening and was not some crazy 3-D IMAX movie.  We soared over valleys filled with glaciers and around steep craggy mountains, swooping close by a jagged rock cliff and skiing to a bumpy landing on a cirque glacier.  [This I now know:  There are at least three types of glaciers.  Tidewater glaciers like Holgate come right down to the ocean.  Valley glaciers form as “run-off” from nearby mountains, but don’t end in the ocean.  Cirque glaciers are round (hence the name) and form in depressions in the mountains.  End of lesson.]

View of rivers and rainbow

Breath-taking does not come close to describing the experience.  Stepping out onto the glacier was emotionally akin to Armstrong’s first step on the moon.  The surface was slushy, making us glad for the snow boots provided by the tour.  Sunglasses were a must, as glistening white stretched out ten football-lengths in width and at least two miles long.  We were surrounded on three sides by rocky cliffs stretching up impossibly high, forming ridges that embraced the ice field in an impassive hug.  Color assaulted our eyes: white, of course, but also the endless blue sky punctuated with more white from clouds like none I’d ever seen before, dark brown-grey rocks, and the eye-popping red of the aircrafts.  People from our plane as well as several others peppered the whiteness. 

Then the constantly-shifting clouds parted and there she was: Denali, the High One, officially Mount McKinley.  [Interesting fact: After having been Denali for lifetimes, all it took was one prospector in the late 1800s to “name” it for his favorite president.  Although the state of Alaska wants it called by its native name, members of the Ohio congressional delegation where President McKinley is from continue to block any change.  You know, we can’t undo all the wrongs done to our native inhabitants, but this one seems to be a no-brainer.]  Back in Talkeetna I had learned that Denali was the highest peak in North America, but is actually surpassed by some 400 peaks in the Himalayas.  Looking up, and up, and up, I found this hard to imagine.  I was comforted by the fact that while it may not be the highest (measured from sea level), it is one of the three tallest (measured from its base).  Take that, Mount Everest!

Denali is just over her left shoulder.

All too soon it was time to leave.  Although we would be closer as we headed north to Denali National Park, we would not see her again, as the High One chose to stay cloaked in her garment of self-made clouds.  I resisted the urge to bow down, but was reminded of human’s relative weakness when compared to the forces of nature.  Sometimes I need that reminder, that for all human’s inventions, innovations, and activities on this planet, the Force that created this universe and all that is in it is greater than anything we can comprehend.  Denali is a spiritual experience.

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3 responses

18 07 2011
Janet Blanks

Your words are inspirational & describe everything in Alaska as God’s Country! Loved all your passages w/ your gorgeous photographs! I can’t wait to return to this beautiful place!

28 10 2011
Thalia

Beth, I am thoroughly enjoying taking your trip through your blog. And your photograpy is perfect! What kind of camera did you use? Did you have a special lens? Have to sign off for bed—-then on to the next installment! Thanks, Thalia

28 10 2011
eberteach

Thanks, Thalia! I’m afraid I don’t have a special camera…just a Canon Powershot that’s quite a few years old. I make up for it by taking lots of pictures, choosing the best, and then cropping them if I need to. That, and the fact that it’s really hard to take a bad shot in such beautiful country as Alaska!

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