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Alaska 1991 (archived)

18 December 2022, home

One month from today, I will fly off to the biggest adventure of my parks challenge - learning to mush a dog sled team, then taking them into Denali park.

I have travelled to Alaska once before, and fondly remember the grandeur of the 49th state. What better time than now to revisit that adventure? My description (and pictures) of the trip were just waiting on my computer to call up...

Here I am, at it again, two years less a day after I started on my Europe adventure. This one seems tame by comparison, slated for only 23 days, but there is nothing tame about the destination: Alaska. - Juneau, 16 Aug, 1991

Alaska, "the Great Land", "the Last Frontier". After five years of vacation epics on foreign shores, I was finally going to spend idle weeks in a place where greenbacks were good and passports were passe.

I'm not sure when the notion of Alaska occurred to me. Maybe after seeing the fjords of Norway and the fjords of New Zealand, the fjords of Alaska were a logical progression. Perhaps my awakening interest in our great National Parks spurred me to the uncluttered jewels of the collection. No matter what first caused the idea to arrive, it found fertile ground once here.

I began planning the trip as a solo journey. Sue was unable to accompany me, due to no vacation time and even less money. While I was in the midst of making arrangements, though, an old friend heard of my plans and invited himself along. Together, Nick and I decided to do up Alaska (or at least three weeks worth of it) right.

Departure was bittersweet as usual: leaving Susan sentenced to boredom and loneliness as she attempts to recuperate from the hepatitis she recently caught. Handed out roses [from my garden] to the stewardesses, and was surprised when they reciprocated with a bottle of wine. Endured sitting next to a chatterbox on the Seattle-Juneau flight, but did have a window out on some beautiful scenery. The approaches to both Sitka and Juneau are stunning, with Sitka being more scenic. Both airports are small, with Juneau probably similar in size to Long Beach and Sitka smaller than Florence (maybe).

The weather here is pleasant - temperature in the 60's, overcast/breezy but patches of sun. And no rain! - Juneau, 16 Aug

Our first destination was Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park. Heeding the warnings of how expensive Alaska was, we planned on camping much of the time. After a wonderful meal of salmon and halibut in the Glacier Bay Lodge (one of the best meals of the trip, it turned out), we bedded down among the moss and trees of the Alaskan rain forest.

The park's tour boat introduced us to the beauty of Glacier Bay the next day. From 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., we cruised through spectacular scenery

spying abundant wildlife on the shores.

We visited four tidewater glaciers, hearing the popping and cracking of ice (it's clear why the natives named this place 'Thunder Bay'), floating through iceberg-laden waters,

and occasionally seeing new bergs calve (break off) from the glacier face.

The prolific wildlife we saw while cruising was but the beginning of a parade of animals that would accent our whole trip. In the first few hours, I sighted a humpback whale that ended up as only whale of the vacation. Farther up-bay we saw sea lions, Dall sheep, bald eagles, and gulls, and had our first peek at the amusing puffin. This small bird, about the size of a duck, is best described as a penguin sporting a toucan's bill.

A low ceiling of clouds threatened rain throughout the morning, though it only sprinkled for a few minutes. Later, the clouds lifted enough to get glimpses of some surrounding peaks. On the return to Bartlett Cove, we sighted patches of blue skies and sun, though the clouds remained in control.

Under these threatening skies, we prepared for one of the trip's premier adventures: kayaking for two days in the wilderness of the park.

First we needed supplies, so I wangled a ride to Gustavus, twelve miles from Bartlett Cove and the only town not a boat ride or plane flight away.

Gustavus is an authentic Alaska bush town. Two hundred-some people live here in rural splendor, surrounded by water, forests, and mountains. Visitors enroute to Glacier Bay support a couple of B&Bs, a general store, a post office, and an air strip. As I sat by the town's busiest intersection (dirt roads, of course) waiting twenty minutes for my return ride to the Cove, I counted a handful of cars, a few more pickups, an equal number of bicycles, and an old man riding an ATV who passed by three times (waved at me every time, too).

Back at the park, we rented our kayaks, got briefed on back- country travel, and loaded the gear we would need. Finally, we waded into the icy waters of the bay, and pushed off to solitude.

It was truly a wilderness experience, nature both good and bad. Definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but for those willing to submit to nature and endure some discomfort, it can be magical.

First, let me state the bad. The weather was never great (we did not see the sun), and clouds obscured the surrounding peaks most of the time. Ensconced in out kayak 'cocoons', though, the intermittent light rain was not uncomfortable. The low point occurred as the drizzle became constant just after we set up our tent [the second night], exiling us to twelve hours in soggy sleeping bags and breaking camp in the rain.

The positives tipped the scale. Though cloudy, the skies continued to offer hope, and on occasion a few distant peaks were revealed. After an initial jostling start on a slightly tossed sea (any waves, even small ones, are an adventure when you've only plied protected harbors before), the sea calmed and was glassy smooth in several side bays, reflecting the islands surrounding. The shorelines were inviting, with small streams bubbling from the rain forests,

tall grasses protecting glades of tiny wildflowers from the rocky beach,

and stands of wild strawberries ripening in the long days of August. The wildlife completed the scene: flocks of glaucous-winged gulls crying as they dove into the frigid waters; the excited chatter of the black oyster-catchers, waving their thin red bills as we drifted by their nesting isle; the numerous harbor seals that swum close by, eyeing us suspiciously and diving once we spied them; and out of sight, the sound of whales blowing, traveling unimpeded through the silence of the bay. Whether paddling hard to cross an inlet in the face of an infrequent wind, or drifting noiselessly in the current with the wilderness passing by, it was a treat to the surrounded by such majestic (if largely unseen) scenery, far from the world of man. - Bartlett Cove, 19 Aug

'Twas a truly memorable experience. Though the weather was less than kind, leaving us to imagine how magnificent it could have been, I have no regrets for having done it. The misery that we endured the second night was partly our own fault: if we had worn our rain pants instead of allowing our clothes to become wet; if we had double-wrapped our sleeping bags before packing them in a wet kayak; if we'd had something to read while stuck in the tent. Such are the lessons of life.

We waddled back to Bartlett Cove Monday morning,

to dry out, eat up (after deviled ham, canned tuna, and raw veggies for two days, we were ready for a hearty meal), and hope the weather broke enough for the Gustavus air strip to reopen. It did, and we were off to Juneau and the Inside Passage.

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