Part 1 of this Alaska story is largely plagiarized from my e-mail I composed during one of the few brief reprieves from bears. Of course, the original beta version has been edited for typos and generously embellished with even more humor for your enhanced reading pleasure. The trip had several goals: (1) to see Denali; (2) to see moose (singular or plural will do just fine); (3) to see bears; (4) to survive said bears; and (5) catch sockeye salmon (once again, singular or plural). What happened? You, faithful reader, must read on to be enlightened. Of course, you could just cheapen the experience by going straight to thepictures, but, of course, you'll wait to do that until after devouring this melodramatic saga.
Totally surreal. An umbilical from the mainland, the sinuous sand spit reaches a few miles into the ocean at the top of the world. Here in Homer, Alaska, population 5,000, things are relatively happening. You can choose from 4 radio stations, 102.3, 103.9, 104.3, and 106.9--they are all broadcasting the same country music station. Actually, there is another station, but unless you're into Christianity proselytizing and anti government rhetoric, you're better off choosing from among the 1-in-4 radio station. If the radio and plethora of gun and over-sized knife shops are any indication, you'd think that Alaska were a renegade province, rather than a bonafide state. Just the same, young folks from the other 49 sister states have made the pilgrimage to this little outpost to work the fishing boats and party at the Salty Dog, Homer's finest bar, which absolutely must be checked out next time you're up here.
While the scenery is dramatic, all of the travel brochures I read prior to the trip conveniently omitted the fact that rain is a way of life up here. People don't think of it any more than you stop to think about the oxygen surrounding ya. Undaunted, I set out on a 7-hour hike up a mountain, past verdant rain forests, tundra, and finally snow-fields to reach a wooden shelter on the edge of a vast 300-square mile glacial field. Upon arriving, I did not find the Buddha. However, I did find three other intrepid travelers whom had made the arduous trek. All were engrossed in reading the graffiti left by the thousands of previous years travelers whom had donated their artistic talents for posterity. Amazingly, I noticed that one signature, Beth, had been left that very day. I not-so-cleverly deduced that one of the other three travelers was the owner of this signature and called out her name. After rapping with her for a bit, I discovered that she was from the Lower 48 as well.
"Where about," I asked.
"Where in California?"
"The San Francisco area."
"Oh, really, where in the area?"
"A little town in the East Bay called, Orinda."
"I live in Orinda!" And offered my driver's license in response to her incredulous look. "I'm just off Miner Road," I told her.
"I live on Lombardy!"
Lombardy is the same street I live on! What are the chance of that?! Well, just to prove that it's a small world, on the remainder of the trip I met people from all of the places I have lived-Northern Virginia, Durham, North Carolina, and Charlottesville, Va (Wahoowa). Not to be fooled, Alaska is vast--bigger than CA, TX, and MT combined. Everything is up here is big-- big parks, big mountains, big tides, big animals, big attitudes, and big women. Denali Park, Alaska's biggest tourist attraction, is larger than the state of Massachusetts. Denali's main draw, 20,000 ft Denali Mountain (formerly known as Mt McKinley), is the world's tallest mountain when measured from base to summit. Cook Inlet boasts the 2nd biggest tides in the world-30 feet. The cuddly back bears from the lower 48 would make bite-sized morsels for Alaska's behemoth brown bears, also known as grizzlies. All of this prodigious bounty has imparted an equally prodigious attitude among the human denizens, whom largely, particularly the women, live off the land. "God put it here for us to use it and we don't need any damn government telling us how to do it." Call me narrow-minded, but I didn't exactly go out of my way to interact with them. A prominent bumper sticker I saw may help to explain, "If it's tourist season, why can't we shoot 'em?" Of course, it's hard to blame them. The highways are choked with 40 ft RV's sporting Florida license plates that drive 45 mph... and that's their blinding speed on those few occassions when they are not sight-seeing (i.e., almost never)-most of the time they are crawling considerably slower.
Anyway, back to the glacier hike.... On the hike up to the glacier, amidst numerous reports of bear sitings, I ran into a couple of women and started rapping with them. The mother/daughter hiking duo were bear novices as well. It was my civic duty to inform them of the #1 rule for hiking in bear country-- always go with someone who runs slower than you do. As I was hiking alone, I asked them if they cared to join me. I guess they must have figured they could run faster than I could, for they decided to join me. Well, they turned out to be a lot of fun and we start rapping about things to find out that Jessie, the daughter, is from Vegas. So I mentioned that I was there for Halloween and she replies that for Halloween she went to a concert by a band called "Phish." Funny thing, I was there too. In short, between this discovery and her mom's, Betsy, remark about breaking out a pipe in the shelter for us to keep warm, I knew that we would make a good team for the rest of the day.
The next day, I caught a cruise ship around Kenai Fjords National Park, where we saw otters, porpoises, humpback whales, and, from the safety of the boat, a bear on the shoreline. Yes, my first wild bear encounter--I was truly fearless amidst the company of 100 others, standing 40 feet high in a boat, 200 yards across the water.
Today, I might not be so lucky. Equipped with my bear bells (jokingly referred to as dinner bells for the bears) and armed with my bear repellant (i.e., jumbo pepper spray)-- which the clerk advised me to spray at the bear, rather than on myself, as someone else had done-- yours truly is about to set out on a solo hike in a remote area where someone was killed by a grizzly a couple of weeks ago...I hope the bear didn't find that human very tasty. If I survive, tomorrow, I'm gonna fish a local river for the bright-red Sockeye Salmon, which are just starting their migratory run in mind-boggling numbers. Hopefully, the bears won't mind a little friendly competition for their food source! If by some miracle, I should survive that excursion as well, I'm gonna head off on another masochistic trip to the grizzly haven of Denali. If the sun makes a couple of cameos, I hope to get a few good pictures to post to my web page.
Having spent a small fortune composing Part 1 of this tale from the only cybercafe in an area the size of California, I set out from Homer with visions of Denali, moose, salmon, and, oh ya, bears-- big bears with nasty claws and sharp teeth. I was in good spirits. My scientific experiment the previous night had been an unequivocal success. Up until then, I had subscribed to the propaganda that it never gets dark in Alaska- at least not during tourist season. I had been going to sleep around midnight and had yet to be granted even the ersatz darkness of twilight. Yes, I was beginning to believe that the protracted sunset raced along the horizon just to be rejuvenated as a sunrise shortly before its demise-- a perpetual celestial game intended to confound the diurnal cycles of nightfall-accustomed tourists. No siree, they were not about to fool this tourist. Performing painstaking research at the Salty Dog over several mugs of Alaska's own Amber Ale, I launched a surprise attack on the cosmos. Stepping, others may say stumbling, out of the confines of the Salty Dog at 2:00 am., I caught the sun napping for last call. Aha, put that in your tourist brochures!
Yes, they must have known that their gig was up and they decided to appease me the following day. The giant glowing orb in the sky certainly resembled the sun... as best I could remember. Even if it was just a good facsimile, I was glad for the change. I decided to take my time driving to hike in grizzly bear country, even if they were still satiated from recent human hors d'ouevre. I pulled over to pick up the 3 hitchhikers. Greg, Thornton, and Luke were just 1/3 of the way into their 18 month tour of the Americas from their homes in Athen, Georgia. They were thankful to get a ride and I was glad to oblige them, being a firm believer in the universal karma theory-- otherwise known as, "what goes around comes around." In the newly found lighting, we could now see our surroundings-apparently those majestic mountains had been out there all along. Several photo stops were in order.
Alaska must have more "scenic views," as designated by the little road signs with a picture of a camera, per mile than even Ansel Adams could tackle in a lifetime. After selectively stopping at the first 20 or so scenic views in the first few miles, the Athens trio realized that I was just a bit into photography. So they asked me what wildlife photos I'd taken on the trip, and I mentioned my prize bear photo (i.e., what would later turn out to be a brown speck on the photo... no, not that speck, that's a rock... the other speck). I mentioned that having successfully captured a terrifying bear on film, I was now searching for a moose. Blazing past the RV's on an open stretch of highway through a forest, I hear Thornton yell out, "moose!" Through the trees, it could be seen in a postcard setting-at the edge of a mirrored pond reflecting a mountain backdrop. How he saw it, I have no idea. I could only surmise that it must have been a plastic decoy, the truth of which was known only by a surreptitious organization of hitchhikers. Regardless, in a photograph it would fool even the most discerning eye... I needn't reveal their secret to anyone else-- mission accomplished. By the time we arrived in the metropolis of Cooper Landing, population 100 (give or take 99), it was dusk. Well, at least it should have been dusk, given the hour. Setting up camp was in order; hiking would have to wait-any hungry bears were out of luck this day. They would have to wish their brethren in Denali better luck. But that would have to wait until after my pursuit of the legendary Sockeye.
Upon the introductions by our guide, I immediately recognized my two fishing partners. Carter and Allison had been sitting next to me in a bar 60 miles away three nights prior. It was just 6:00am as the four of us set out on in our row boat on the Kenai River. Our guide layed out the only rules: (1) all fish were to be relased; and (2) no politics were to be discussed. As he skillfully worked the oars to maneuver our craft downstream through the swift current, he started humming a tune to himself. He was taken back when I joined in with the chorus to "Row Jimmy," a Grateful Dead song. Well, in the land of political reactionaries this came to him as a welcome relief and Rule #2 was quickly thrown overboard. For the first stop, we beached at his favorite spot on the river. My third cast found a target. The rod doubled-over as the line screamed from the fishing reel. As the surface of the river erupted in a fury, I saw it-a trophy-sized rainbow trout. My enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by a realization; the presence of the trout meant that the sockeye had not yet made their way this far up the river. Still, as we drifted downstream, noone would complain as we all landed several gorgeous rainbows and dolly varden. Heedless of rule #1, bald eagles demonstrated their fishing proficiency as we glided by gently. Several hours later, the tempered Kenai delivered us to turquoise Skilak Lake. The fishing trip had come to an end, with no signs of the impending sockeye run. The quest for the elusive fish would have to wait. The day of my flight home I could squeeze in one more fishing trip, hopefully, enough time for the sockeye to arrive.
I had just one more day before it was time to head to Denali to face my destiny with the bears. I set out from the Kenai wondering where I would go on what might be my last day as an able-bodied person. Who did I find hitchhiking but the Athens trio. Once again, universal karma balanced itself as they told me about an amazing camping spot outside Denali Park. It was rumored that from there, Talkeetna, one could actually catch glimpses of the reclusive mountain. As I descended upon the tiny little town I stopped at a designated view point for Denali. Already staking a claim there was a rather odd fellow on a bicycle. He promptly ignored my arrival as he gazed at some distant mountains.
"How's it going," I asked.
"Off the top."
Not having any idea what he was talking about, I surveyed the horizon to find Denali. All I could see was a chain of similar snow-capped mountains shadowed by an immense cloud. I wondered which one was the famed mountain.
"There, off the top, you can sometimes see it."
Yes, I now understood! For a few seconds, towering above the enormous cloud that obscured the mountain chain stood a single, thinly veiled summit--Denali!
"She shows herself when she wants."
I pondered his words as I turned left at the only street junction in town and headed towards a camping spot along the banks of a glacial river. If I could survive the bears at Denali, with the comforting safety of my bear spray, I thought to myself that I would surely get more spectacular views of The Mountain. Already I was beginning to doubt that the brief glimpse I had caught hadn't been an illusion.
I could delay the inevitable no longer. Early morning found myself making last minute preparations for my journey into the bear-infested park. I strategically placed the bear spray in an open pouch of my backpack for quick emergency access--I applauded myself for my cunning. The scheduled camper bus arrived to carry me and several other fatalists into the feeding grounds. I yanked the backpack from my car. "Snap!" I was left defenseless. The top of the bear spray had sheared off on the car door. Regardless, destiny could not be denied. I boarded the bus.
All week long I had been wondering where, other than the RV's, all of the supposed tourists were hiding. Denali's visitor center resembled a bee hive. Tourists swarmed around Park Rangers to vie for the few precious spots available on park buses. The Rangers must have wisely deduced that mere automobiles would not afford sufficient protection from marauding grizzlies inside the park. The buses provided the only means of accessing its vast interior along a 94-mile-long dirt road. One could get on or off a bus at any point along the road. You may wonder why any sane person would voluntarily venture into the bear's homeland. To me it seemed something akin to a food delivery service provided by the rangers for the bears. The eye-opening realization then struck me. Sure Denali received 250,000 visitors every year, but noone ever revealed how many visitors actually left Denali. Oblivious to the obvious cover-up, unsuspecting camera-toting tourists blissfully boarded the buses to be delivered like sardines to the waiting bears. Still, my undeniable destiny required me to be dropped off at mile 89. Damn that cheap pepper spray container!
A sadistic ranger briefly jumped on board our full bus to survey the cargo. Keeping up the charade, he told us that he would turn on all of the animatronics (robotic animals) on cue so that we would get good wildlife photos. The tactic worked. Rather than fleeing the bus during this last chance at escape, we anxiously held our cameras at-the-ready. I had come prepared with my newly acquired telephoto lens. If I survived this trip I was now gonna have photographic proof... and not just mere brown specks of bears this time. As we left the safety of the pavement and ventured onto the dirt road, the bus driver asked us which animals we should stop for--he too was obviously part of the conspiracy. Someone from the back yelled out, "no ptarmigans!" Now, the derisive remark seemed a bit misguided as the ptarmigan, not the mosquito, is the official state bird. Two minutes later, the bus screeched to a halt for our first quarry. Dozens of cameras greedily snapped at a family of ptarmigans. The fervor swept through the bus and soon people began frantically taking pictures of ground squirrels, mosquitoes, and anything else that moved. By the time we stopped for a couple of caribou, there was an all out frenzy. Yes, the rangers had played it perfectly. We were blissfully ignorant of our impending fate. With the siting of our first brown bear, the delirium grew to the point of irrationality and people were actually hoping to see more of them. One couple was so delirious, they actually asked to be dropped off just a short while after the bear siting. Animatronics, or not, I was not yet ready to take my chances. I was at least going to stay on board until mile 89, where I would get a close-up view of Denali before my final fate. 7 bear-sitings later, I found myself at mile 89, Wonder Lake. The origin of the name was obvious--it is a wonder that anyone would voluntarily come to this Lake, drinking trough for the bears. Alas, it was the closest spot on the road to The Mountain.
Picture verdant tundra that stretches to the left and right as far as you can see. At the distant edge of this immense space, paint a row of cragged, snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks. Towering above them, paint a majestic 20,000-foot mountain and generously add clouds until the mountain is totally obscured. You now have Denali, a native term meaning, the Great One. Great One not referring to its size, but rather its mystique--something akin to the evasive Wizard of Oz. Yes, there's supposedly a mountain behind those clouds but how do you know? I had yet to meet a fellow traveler whom had unequivocally seen it. It is a big hoax. Even worse, it is a ploy to maintain an adequate supply of tourists to keep the bears well fed. Those crafty tree-hugging park rangers will stop short of nothing in the name of their twisted crusade. I had to admit though, the ubiquitous clouds dancing around the mountain were pretty convincing. I felt like I was watching a celestial peep show, hoping to catch just a glimpse of the ostensibly shy giant.
The bus pulled up to mile marker 89, Wonder Lake. Damn, that pepper spray manufacturer again! I took a deep breath as I exited and braced myself for the ravenous bears, which were no doubt waiting behind some nearby bushes. Hmm... they were obviously waiting until the bus pulled away. Apparently, they had been trained by the rangers not to reveal the gig in the view of the remaining passengers on the bus. They were very clever. The bus drove off to deliver it's next load of victims. "OK, bears, come and get me." Nothing. "Hello, bears?" Hmm.. it seemed they had already eaten their fill of tourists that day. I figured that I'd be safe until the morning. Shortly afterwards, another lucky tourist appeared. He too must have figured that the bears had already eaten that day. He had even better news. There had been numerous reports of a black bear, but no brown bears. A puny black bear, ha! I'd fight it bare fisted!
In the evening, a park ranger gave a wolf lecture. He intended to distract us from the sinister ploy that was no doubt claiming the lives of unsuspecting tourists elsewhere in the park at that very moment. He instilled in us a sense of awe with fascinating tales of the regal hunters. I added a wolf to my photo wish list.
Early the following morning, I arose before the bear's breakfast time and cleverly caught the first return bus before they awoke. I timed it perfectly. No sooner had the bus pulled away, than we spotted a hungry grizzly. I felt sorry for the poor chap I had met yesterday--maybe he would at least catch a convincing Denali illusion before the bear got him. After two more bear sitings, we hit the jackpot. A lone wolf nonchalantly trotted down the road in front of us. A torrent of camera clicks ensued. Still, the wolf was in no hurry and actually seemed to enjoy her audience. She owned us and she knew it. Claiming her ownership of the road and her dominion over us hapless humans, she stopped in the middle of the road to defecate in our general direction. The cameras obligingly whirred away. Just then, an immense grizzly appeared less than 20 yards to the side of the bus in plain view-- more fodder for the ravenous cameras. Not to be outdone, the wolf continued on her meandering way. The bus driver polled the passengers, "bear or wolf?" Bears were now passe; a unified chorus yelled, "wolf!" As we continued to follow the wolf for some while, I realized that it seemed quite tame, perhaps even domesticated. Hmm... I suspected another sham. No doubt it was actually a ranger's pet german shepard with a Clairol treatment.
Having been one of the lucky few to survive Denali, I forgave the park staff for the whole mountain charade and set out once again to catch a sockeye. En route back to the Kenai River I picked up a trio of hitchikers coming off work at a fish cannery. They informed me that it was a banner year for the salmon run. I would not be denied. The kind woman at the fishing tackle store painstakingly tied the hook to the line. I was not going to take any chances that may compromise the integrity of the rental fishing gear. I thanked her profusely and eagerly headed to the river, hoping that the heralded sockeye run had finally arrived. With just a couple of hours until my flight back home departed, I prepared to cast my line. Across the river, an angry sockeye leaped out of the water--the front line was just arriving. Several casts failed to find a target and then it happened. The limber rod spasmodically jerked toward the water as the line screamed from the reel. I fought back and managed to gain a few yards on him. Now, even more determined than before, the mighty warrior leaped out of the water in a brilliant flash of red. I pulled back on the rod and was able to easily reel in some slack... too easily. As I continued reeling in I realized that the salmon was not attached. He was freely swimming upstream with the hook still in his mouth--the fishing knot had given way. And with that realization, I knew that I would be back in Alaska some other day.