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and the Winner is...

Updated: Aug 29

12 August 2023, Katmai to Lake Clark

The wind kept up into the dark hours and beyond, shaking our tents mercilessly with what felt like hurricane force. In addition, spells of rain joined in the fun and games, guaranteeing a night without sleep. (Or if I did catch a few winks, it didn't suffice to rest me.) Finally, with the clock creeping up on 5:30, the wind abated.

I arose at 6:30 to a world still capped with clouds, with those same clouds spitting drizzly sprinkles at us. This time, no bears wandered within our sight, but soon we saw something more exciting: patches of blue sky!

No relaxed, lingering preps today. By 8:00 we got the word that our rides out of the wilderness would arrive at 9:30. After a cold breakfast of granola, we set about breaking down camp, stuffing the sleeping bags, rolling up the pads.

Breaking camp always comes with a tinge of sadness, the knowledge that this magical interlude had ended, and the persistent light drizzle accentuated that feeling. At least the wind had dropped to a level easy to ignore, a level that wouldn't make flying out a challenge.

The planes arrived as promised, the same two that had flown us in.

This time, we had to stage the flight out. As Ashley explained, "Takeoffs take the most energy. Fully loaded planes require a long 'runway' to get enough speed to lift off, and Crosswinds Lake's straightaway would make it tight.

That's why they shuttle us to Mirror Lake, which is longer."

Half of our group and most of the bags boarded the planes, which flew a short distance up the pass to Mirror Lake. After debarking them, they returned for the rest of us. While we waited, Mei explored our immediate area, asking Ashley what those tiny, orange-ish berries were. "Those are cloudberries," she replied. "Probably not quite ripe yet."

Interesting. "How can you tell if they're ripe?" I asked.

Ashley leaned over and gently tugged on one. "That one's not ready." She tried another one, which easily came free. "If they're easy to pick, they're ripe," she told me, handing me the berry.

I tried it, then found a couple more ripe ones. They were too small to impart much flavor, but I did detect a slight tang to them. Maybe I'll pick up a little naturalist skill while I'm out here.

In 20 minutes, the planes had returned one more time. Time to say goodbye!

This time I scored the co-pilot seat, getting the up-front view for the return. The light drizzle-come-mist continued, and the tiny droplets were pushed back along the curved cockpit windshield by the airspeed. A select few of the droplets found a seam in the window gasket or a gap in the door frame, breaking through into the cockpit, where they peppered my face.

At Mirror Lake we re-boarded our other people and packs and took off again. Quickly we gained altitude while heading north.

As soon as we crested the pass, a new world spread out before us: the massive surface of Lake Iliamna. Its bays, islands, and shoreline stretched across our field of vision. This time, though, we got the eye candy we'd missed three days ago.

The cloud ceiling had raised, exposing a string of peaks in front of us. Even better - no more raindrops on the windshield (or my face)!

Iliamna ranks as the second-largest lake entirely within the U.S., behind only Lake Michigan. We crossed it at a high elevation, marveling at the beauty. On the far side, we gained more elevation, climbing next to precipitous slopes cloaked in green.

On the far side of the second pass, I made out the waters Lake Clark. I worried about getting cramps in my shutter-release finger as the scenery kept unfolding.

The descent into Port Alsworth and Lake Clark showed off the montane landscape we had missed on our earlier flights. Once we landed,

the lodge staff quickly grabbed our gear bags from the planes and delivered them to our cabins. Minutes later, they delivered the laptop bag I had stored from our earlier flight. Let me get this rain gear and base layers off so I can enjoy the comfortable temperatures here!

Our guides quickly assembled an impromptu lunch, salami and tapenade on mini pitas. Afterwards they freed us to wander about and enjoy the environs.

I took off in search of more photos, then walked with Mike and Karen to the National Park Visitor Center. While they looked at the exhibits, I busied myself selecting trinkets from the gift shop for the awards dinner I'd planned for that night. The rest of the afternoon passed quickly while I ambled about the grounds, searched for more photos, chatted with the others, checked in with Sue (who informed me of the tragic news coming out of Lahaina), and finally revelled in a nice, hot shower. Life is grand, reduced to essentials.

The Farm Lodge has one sitting for dinner and breakfast, so we assembled in the dining room at 6:00.

An excellent repast followed: dinner salad with apple cider vinaigrette dressing; steak with potatoes, broccoli, and baby carrots; and berry swirl cheesecake. The waitstaff provided exemplary service, from timely serving to collecting our cell phones to take our group pictures.

But first! On other package tours or Habitat builds in my past, I dreamed up 'awards' to hand everyone on the trip, something to reflect on what we learned about them, or relating to a trip anecdote. The award and trinkets always generate laughter and glee. For this crew, I enjoyed getting creative:

* Guy Fieri Award, named for the chef who punctuates cooking with 'Bam!': We honor her unsurpassed skills in reconstituting dehydrated glop and converting it to delicious, gourmet glop-in-a-cup. Congratulations, Colleen! and since every chef knows that it's all in the sauce, here is a water bottle in which you can store a stash of your Secret Sriracha Sauce.

* Anne Sullivan Award - named after the educator who taught Helen Keller to communicate with the world around her - goes to our crew's Educator. I'm sure Karen would love to follow in Sullivan's footsteps, opening the eyes and minds of first graders to the wonders of Katmai. Karen, here is a refrigerator magnet with a soaring eagle to represent the students taking off into the heavens of knowledge. To accompany that, how could you not like a blank note card with a picture of baby moose on the cover?

* The Edith Piaf Award goes to our sultry songstress who entertained us with her song stylings and stories about chansons Francais. Lisa, please accept this magnet featuring a float plane - maybe you can be co-pilot next time! It comes with another Lake Clark sticker.

* Mei, are you familiar with the pop star Madonna? Then you may recall her song, Like a Virgin. Mei, you're no longer an NP virgin! I speak for everyone at this table when I say, "Thank you for letting us be part of your National Park Debutante Ball." We know more parks are destined for your future, and you'll need a way to keep track of them, so here is your own NPS passport book.

* Next is the Cecil B. DeMille Award. This hearkens back to the immortal line from Sunset Boulevard, when the aging Hollywood starlet says, "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." In our group, Mike is always ready for the closeups, with his lens extender and monopod always set to spring into action. To recognize your talents, here is a magnet of Tanalian Falls to remind you that you must return here to see them, along with another magnet as consolation if you can't.

* The Euell Gibbons Award, named after that naturalist who let you know you could feed yourself off of nature or out of the forest. For us, we know that our resident fun-guy would keep us fed with mushrooms if we left civiliation behind. Tim, you mentioned to me how you're good at writing logical documents - manuals, specs - but less so at creative or emotional writing. The secret is to find a mentor - a person, a book - who does it well and emulate them. Here's a book on Lake Clark that you could start with. And by the way - didn't Euell Gibbons die of Dutch Elm Disease?

* Finally, the Little Peggy March Award references the young singer who had a hit in early 1963. Of course, back then lyrics were all about teen angst and puppy love. With 60 years gone, I have updated the lyrics, and the group will help me debut it for you. Readers can sing along also, to these lyrics:

We will follow her (follow her, follow her)

No matter where she may go (may go, may go)

There isn't a river so deep,

No tundra so steep that could keep, keep us away

Away from Ashley!

We love bears (we love bears, we love bears)

And where they go, we'll follow (we'll follow, we'll follow)

Katmai is very special (so special, so special)

So now until forever (forever, forever)

We will follow her...

Now I'm looking forward to my first great night's sleep of the trip, followed by two relaxing, scenic days in Lake Clark NP.

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