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Coastal Alaska
Valdez and the Kenai Peninsula, Weeks 9 and 10
Friday, June 27, 2003
We walked into downtown Valdez with the intent of renting sea kayaks for a multi-day sea-packing trip and walked away with a reservation for an 18-foot fishing skiff. We felt justified because of the expense of the kayaks topped by our reluctance to sit through an hour-long “safety course.” 

Of course, the constant rain and prospect of sitting three inches from complete submersion in 40-degree salt water wasn’t a hard selling point either. Suddenly, $200 per day for a stable, gas-powered aluminum boat didn’t seem so bad. 
We spent a day in town before setting out to sea. Geoff and I hiked through a mist-drenched rainforest to see the Valdez Glacier, a quiet river of ice slumping down the steep, snow-capped mountains that surround the shoreline. I brushed away the layer of scree to see the blue ice hidden below. Geoff ventured down into a crevice and found a fjord, as we called it – a motionless stream of water through a canyon of ice. The hike back was wet and muddy – most of this town is. Valdez receives 64 inches of rain every year, and for the entire summer it falls in a light but steady drizzle. 

The next day we woke up at 6 a.m. and darted back into town to rent our skiff. We hadn’t planned on getting up that early, but we were excited to hit the high seas. We wanted to fish for halibut, though we had no idea how. We just though we’d stick some poles in the water and see what came up. 

On the first day we cruised (cruised!) passed the poor shivering kayakers at Shoup Glacier to the bigger and better things at Jack Bay – namely, the elusive halibut, the florescent orange rockfish and an endless supply of tasty pink salmon. Four to seven-pound salmon eagerly bit on nearly every cast while we dropped herrings and sinkers the size of golf balls to the bottom of the ocean, 100 to 300 feet down. Without an anchor we drifted along, watching the bay with the hope of catching a glimpse of a killer whale. Sea otters floated past on their backs. One even seemed to “wave” at us. We snuck up on another while it was taking a nap, and puttered around it a full minute before the otter woke up startled and darted into the water. 

The first two fish we caught were by far the most exciting. As we trolled around looking for a place to camp both Geoff and Chris felt a tug on their lines at the same time. Chaos ensued as they both reeled in thick lines 200 feet out while shutting off the motor and groping around for the net. After a few minutes Chris had a huge pink salmon and Geoff had a tiger rockfish, which look like freshwater bass with spiny fins. That day we proceeded to catch ten more salmon until we got bored, kept five, and spent the rest of the day holding out for halibut. We didn’t catch any, but we did find a comfy spot to camp on a small island, nestled in thick deciduous trees and bear-free. We had a delicious dinner of fresh roasted salmon and burritos. 

The next morning we awoke to find the boat completely beached on the shore. The tide was slowly coming back up, but it became clear that the rising water was at its peak and would not be enough to carry the boat back to sea. Frantically, we dug around the gravel and pushed and pulled the boat. The prospect of being stranded on an island gave us strength, and we had much fishing to do before our 7 p.m. After about a half hour of this we had it back in the water, and not a moment too soon. The tide was subsiding.

That day we aimed for halibut and caught several rockfish, some the color of fluorescent goldfish at about 10,000 times the size. We attempted to keep one but Geoff dropped it, accidentally, back in the water. Besides, what we really wanted was a meaty 20-pound halibut, but had to come to terms with the reality that we had no idea how to get one. We went back, the clueless fishermen, with our trophy salmon fillets and our memories of the struggle with 12 pink salmon, six rockfish, and two unidentified ocean fish. Geoff caught the most, and I, with three fish, caught the least, and Jen, who hates fish and is thereby morally opposed to fishing, sat on the boat and wished for killer whales. We never saw one, though we did see a large wake that was either created by a whale or a submarine. We don’t know which, but they both sound good. 

We spent another day in town doing chores and leaning about the history of Valdez – the remnants of a large gold rush, the industry of small fishermen, a 9.2 scale earthquake, which, in 1964, pulled the entire town into the harbor and forced a complete rebuilding… not to mention the booming oil industry, the infamous Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989, and finally a safe and secure future in tourism. Fascinating. Chris estimated that over our five days in Valdez the four of us spent over $1,000. A bargain if you ask me. 
posted by Jill at 2:11 p.m. on June 27
Monday, June 30, 2003
 Well, here we are in Ancourage, as Geoff's posting says below. Here in the big city, with a coastal breeze blowing in from the Sound, it even smells like California, and the streets are packed with water-hocking salesmen and reindeer sausage stands. Towering office buildings and miles of suburban development seem out of place in this state, but it's home to most and feels strangely real, a gray island in a sea of blue and green. 
Yesterday we did a bike ride just outside of town, a quick 26-mile jaunt around a lake that has one of those native names I can't pronounce and can't remember, and since Geoff told me that no one who reads blogger really cares what the name of the lakes are, I won't try to make it up. But, as usual, it was a placcid turquoise body of water stretching legnthwise across a glacial valley. We biked 13 miles along the pine-covered shoreline and across the rocky valley expecting to see a glacier at the end. After hiking a mile to the end of the canyon, all we found was a roaring stream emerging from a tiny patch of snow. No bigger than a patch of snow you would see at Snowbird in July. Pathetic by glacier standards. Everyone decided that the glacier was probably on the other side of the mountain, but it was a strange development. After all, this ride was supposed to take us to the base of the glacier, it said so in the brochure. Where we stood a granite wall and a roaring river blocked our passage on all sides, and there was no glacier. Either it melted a lot in the last few years, or else this has really changed my perspective on glaciers. Maybe, that solid sheet of show that rests below the base of Timpanogos Peak really is a glacier. That's what I've called it all these years and people made fun of me. "You Utahns think everything's a glacier. There are no glaciers in Utah." Right. I've seen people snowboard down that Timpanogos patch of snow in September. If anyone could achieve that on this so-called glacier with the native name I can't pronounce, than I'll eat a gallon of scree-covered snow. I guess this is the paradox of Alaska... at times everything is so extreme that you feel that you're running head-on into the wilderness express. And then there's the other times, when you're in Ancourage, when you realize that most Alaskans are just like Utahns. They're just like everyone else. They live and breath dirty air and do 26-mile bike rides to see dirty snow. Ah, relief. 
posted by Jill at 6:25 p.m. on June 30

Wednesday, June 30, 2003
well, we've made it slowly, after almost two months on the road to anchorage. it's hard in some ways to accept being here in such a large city now. the rest of the state just has a different feel to it than anchorage does. even fairbanks is nothing like here. in fairbanks you find yourself suddenly upon a city in the middle of wilderness. anchorage though is the other way around. you just kind find the city to go and go for several miles, seeming to take weeks to actually take you back to the wilderness. 

granted we have found the conveniences of any large city here. groceries nearby. camping with showers and laundry service. numerous restaraunts to choose from. we're even going to an amatuer league baseball game tonight. still though, i can't understand why more people live in the anchorage area than the rest of the state combined. alaska is half the size of the entire lower 48 and all these people just packed in this one area as if there were atually some reason to be here. i guess it's a place to be and a place to have a job, but i can't help but feel as though so many of these people just live here and work here so they can afford to live here and work here, and for no reason other than that.

we'll be spending the next 2 days here and then a little more time here when we come back up from the kenai peninsula. for me though, i'm looking toward this time between and the time after anchorage with much more excitement than these few days when we're actually in town. it's just such a hard adjustment to make when you've been living in such a different way for almost two months. everything we've done has been so sharply different than what anchorage is that suddenly being thrown here out of the wilderness is just a shock right now. just last night we were camping out in the woods in a relatively remote place in a fairly secluded site, and now we're camped in the middle of town, sandwiched between a trailer park and a stip mall, lined up side by side with other tourists from the lower 48 and their RV's. $17 for a space just large enough to fit our van, trailer, and three small tents. and at this we consider ourselves luckly to have found this place. it was the second place we had checked out and according to the visitor center in downtown there are only three places in all of town for tenters to camp. the first one though made this place look like a tenter's heaven so here we are at the "gold nugget" RV park tucked away in our little corner, pretending as best we can to be out in the wilderness, ignoring as best we can everything around us.

it aint so bad though. we've already planned out some things to do here in town the next few days and before we know it we'll be back out in "real alaska" and back into our comfort zone. in the meantime i plan to just make the best of this town and what it has to offer, even if this seems just so damn confusing right now.
posted by Geoff at 5:32 p.m. on Wendesday, June 30
Tuesday, July 1, 2003
 Today was one of those truely tiring days in the most satisfying way. It rained most the morning, and after noon we set out on our bikes with no particular destination - just wanted to see Ancourage from all the corners. We found what must be one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation. Over 300 miles of bike paths within the municipality - I've never seen anything like it. We set out from the Golden Nugget RV Camper Park and biked all the way through downtown, along the coast, and to Kincaid Park without even having to cross a street. All the paths take tunnels below the roads, and most of them follow a strategically-placed greenbelt in the center of town. Rumor has it the paths are all the doing of a handful of cycle-enthusiasts who had the foresight in 1971 to set aside land as permanent green space. Visionaries. What they created is a beautiful thing, and Geoff and I took full advantage of it by cycling the 15 paved path miles to Kincaid Park, and then spending another two hours riding a maze of trails up and down the coastal hills of the Cook Inlet. This is the kind of mountain biking I love. The trails were smooth and hard-packed, not muddy, and they climbed steep hills, dropped, and immediately climbed again, a veritable roller coaster, and I never felt bad about giving the crank everything I had on the uphill because I knew another downhill was not far away. All around us were the wild flowers and tame mooses of Ancourage - purple roses, white daisies and enough moose blocking the trail to feed a small Atanaskan villiage. None of them seemed to care about us, and for this I am thankful. We pounded the ride back out in just over an hour, until my legs felt rubbery and soft. When we came back to the Golden Nugget we found Gretchen and Kathy, our two visiters from New York, stretched out at our camp site. Now there will be six of us for the next 10 days, on an adventure through the Kenai Penisula. If nothing else, we should come back with some great pictures. Keep checking back!
posted by Jill at 9:43 p.m. on July 1, 2003
Friday, July 4, 2003
Holiday traffic streams down the Seward highway. Cars veer over the double-yellow line and blow by in a frantic fog. The weekend vacationers. Cars, RVs, ORV-packed trailers and beer-wielding men and women in white caps and flip flops crowd every campsite, hovering over their useless fires and throwing Frisbees at a parade of scraggly dogs. Geoff is livid, because we are tourists in Alaska and there is no escape from the tyranny of the three-day weekend. 
Today is America’s 227th birthday and we are headed for Homer, alas, the most touristy place in Alaska. It just happened to work out this way, and now there are six of us crammed into this slow moving van on a two-lane highway that cuts through the mountainous peninsula. We picked up Jen’s sister, Gretchen and her friend Cathy from the Ancourage airport on July 1. They are visiting from New York on a vacation of their own, and now we’re showing them around the Kenai Peninsula, a narrow arm of land that takes city-bound folk to the sea. Though we came here with many plans in mind, this trip so far has been full of unexpected discovery. 

After leaving Ancourage, we nearly blew by the road that leads to Whittier. Just another coastal town, we thought, nothing to leave the road for. Then, from the backseat, Cathy, who has never been to Alaska in her life, piped in about this place once owned exclusively by the government as a military base, accessible only by a single-lane, three-mile long tunnel shared by trains and vehicles alike, where the entire town rests in a single 14-story building nestled between the mountains and the sea, and the only other notable building in town is the abandoned military barracks home now only to hibernating bears. 

What the? Cathy told us she read all about it in the Continental Magazine, one those horrible airline magazines that are stuffed between Highlights Magazine and the barf bags on planes. Of course, we were all convinced she made that up on the spot, so there was no way at that point that we weren’t going to Whittier. The tunnel, in fact, was exactly as she described it. The toll was $20. We waited in a small parking lot as a train exited a small opening a huge mountain, and once clear, we entered. The tunnel was, in fact, nearly three miles long, dark and looming chiseled granite. When we emerged we saw a few tourist businesses on the shore, and in the distance, two buildings – one that loomed over the hill like an abandoned mental institution, the other looked like a large hospital that was, exactly, 14 stories tall. No shit. 

We drove up to the newer building and went inside, where we found several floors of apartments, storage in the basement, and on the first floor a general store, a post office, a bakery, a church, city offices and a social hall. There were a few other buildings surrounding – a bar, a hotel, a few houses. But this was the town. Open space everywhere, and Whittier is one big building.

At that point we had to visit the haunted mental institution on the other end of town, which Cathy, the Whittier expert, had told us was until recently a military building but was now essentially useless. We climbed the fire escape and explored each floor of the building – the graffiti-covered walls, decaying bathroom stalls, moss-covered floors and leaking pipes, broken windows, empty elevator shaft, and slimy stairs leading to the world’s creepiest basement. We spent nearly three hours there until we were thoroughly disoriented and confused, convinced we had left Alaska through that tunnel and entered another dimension of existence. We waited for our passage through the tunnel, and vowed to either never leave Whittier or never speak of it again. 

The next day we planned to head down to a town called Hope and bike the Gull Rock trail at the end of the road. Geoff, Jen and Chris all opted to ride the root-covered, technical trail, and I opted for a more-relaxing hike with Gretchen and Cathy. The hike proved to be relatively uneventful. The three riders abandoned their bikes after 3.5 miles and we walked another three to a grassy campsite overlooking the sea. By the time we finished dinner at the trailhead it was nearly 10 p.m., and we doubted, on the eve of Independence Day, that we’d find anywhere to camp.

Before leaving town we noticed a handful of tents pitched on the edge of small RV Park – in a swamp, but there was room for us. We headed down and found a muddy but flat spot where a river met the sea, just as the sun was beginning to set over the mountains. And in the RV Park was a small bar, packed to the doorway with tourists and locals taking turns playing live music at the front. All we wanted was a place to lay our heads that night, and suddenly we found ourselves crowded around a country bar table with a mixture of purchased and smuggled drinks singing along the muddled covers of the so-called band – “Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong!” Chris grabbed the microphone and told a joke he had already told us four times that night – about a Bear in a Bar in Barrow. Geoff made the rounds with the locals, discovering the stories of the people that live in a place called Hope, Alaska. 
posted by Jill at 2:12 p.m. on July 4
Thursday, July 10, 2003
It’s been 9 days now since we were last here in anchorage. In that time we’ve driven down through the Kenai Peninsula, all the way to Homer and back. Along the way we spent full days in the towns of Whittier, Homer, and Hope, as well as two full days backpacking into the mountains along the Russian River trail. We’ve done a lot and seen a lot in this time. Having Cathy and Gretchen with us added a new dynamic to our travels. Nothing too drastic but just a nice comfortable change brought about by having some new people with us for a bit. 

All of this though, these past 9 days has mostly just blown by in a blur. I won’t even attempt to recount too much of what we’ve done because even here in my mind it all seems quite clouded. Jill has already talked of our time in Whittier and Hope, and looking at our newly published pictures page will depict most of the rest of our time down on the peninsula as well or better than my clouded memory will. Instead though I want to write shortly of the one memory from the past several days which still sits quite clearly in my mind. 

We had been to Homer, dealt with the madness of July 4th weekend, and were on our way slowly back to the city to drop Gretchen and Cathy off at the airport. Along the way we stopped at the Russian River campground where we would spend a couple days camping out in the woods along lower Russian lake – one night in a cabin and another in our tents. First though I opted for a bike ride along the trail the day before we’d be hiking into the cabin. I had done 20 miles up the Resurrection Pass Trail already and now I was biking along the Russian Lakes trail, anxious to check out the Barber Cabin, curious to see what kind of place we’d be staying the following day. As it turned out though I’d have to wait until the following day. About a mile from the cabin the trail split. Upper Russian Lake to the left and The Barber Cabin to the right. My eyes quickly scanned the sign as I biked past at about 20 MPH. I slowed a bit to make sure I was going the right way but then I pushed hard on my pedals and was back up to speed almost instantly on the smooth downhill surface. Eyes back on the trail now and then instantly brakes locked and skidding to a stop in just a few feet. In the trail ahead, perhaps 100 feet away a medium sized grizzly. There may have been a split second in there in which I saw the bear before I realized that it was running directly toward me but my memory more clearly paints a picture of the bruin running directly at me as soon as I saw it. Also somewhere in there I got off my bike and while positioning it between the bear and I, moved 20 or 30 feet, all the way back the sign at the junction in the trail. I don’t actually remember any of this happening but when things cooled down a bit I looked and saw my skid mark at least this far in front of where I now stood. Back though to the bear running directly at me. Initially I was just shocked and didn’t really think at all. After a second or two though I began to think of my bear pepper spray attached to my hip or of playing dead if the bear continued to charge. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to use the spray. It seemed a bit too windy, but mostly I think I just determined right then and there that I probably wouldn’t ever use bear spray. For whatever reason I just felt way more comfortable with the idea of laying down, with my bike on top of me, and playing dead than I did with trying to actually spray a charging bear in the face with pepper spray. It just seems like way too many things could go drastically wrong with the latter approach. So this all ran through my mind almost instantly and then I remembered that I was actually thinking too far ahead. Finally I did what I was supposed to do while the bear was still as far away as it was (only 40 or 50 feet by now). Almost instantly when I began to wave my arms over my head and speak firmly toward the bear it turned and ran off the side of the trail and down into the valley below. The whole ordeal was over in just a few seconds but still a few days later it takes up more space in my memory of the past week than everything else combined. It wasn’t enough time for me to really get scared or to even get much of an adrenaline rush, but I’ve thought about it enough afterward that I’ll likely remember this few seconds quite clearly for the rest of my life.
posted by Geoff at 6:53 p.m. on July 10, 2003

Friday, July 11, 2003
 Today, on our way to get the van's brakes fixed, we rolled past some people collecting canned food for the homeless. Two women clad in homemade Campbell Soup costumes waved from the street corner and directed our attention to the white wooden sign directly behind them - a plea for understanding - that read "When You Have No Choice, It Isn't Much Fun Camping."

I laughed our loud, though no one else in the van was paying attention. They were too busy talking about how annoying it is to pay someone $400 to fix our brakes. Poverty has been the theme of this morning, with Jen and Chris trying to secure a place to live this fall for next to nothing and Geoff and I planning further wayward homelessness. Yesterday two tourists staying in the same RV Park as us offered to give us everything they had left over from their two week trip - a small barbeque, a cooler, random items of food and soap. They were flying home the next day and didn't want to throw it all away - and they came from the opposite end of the RV Park just to offer it to us. They next morning we awoke to a table full of loot that they had dropped off - everything from half-eaten six-bean salad to laundry detergent. Jen, Geoff and Chris tore through the bags like it was Christmas morning. As I lingered in bed in a state of half-consiousness I would hear shouts about cookies, charcoals, macaroni salad. It made me not want to get out of bed. It's hard to say why. I mean, these strangers were very generous to give us all this stuff, but at the same time there's a gnawing shame in knowing that you appear so forelorn, so pathetic that travelers single you out among hundreds of campers to donate items they no longer have use for. 

Now we're planning a seven-day backpacking trip from Hope to Seward along the Resurrection Pass trail. Although I'm looking forward to hiking the trail, I'm not looking forward to the backpacking much at all. I would almost rather bust out all 38 miles of section one of the trail in a day, then come back and hike the last 27 another time, than hoist a heavy pack over the muddy trail for a week. I've been trying to pinpoint why I'm dreading this trip so much - usually, when I'm at home, I really like backpacking. Backpacking leads away from the gray energy of the city and into places that are peaceful, unmoving, built for eternity. I still feel that way. But today, passing those soup-can clad ladies and their appeal to the non-homeless masses, I realized that my plight, as a now-homeless person, is reversed. 

Every spirit is moved toward a change of energy, a change of scenery. When I was Salt-Lake bound, I longed for a place where I could lay down away from the incessent rumble of city noise. Now I live in the sticks and the trees, and the city presents this whole new energy that is both nostalgic and new. Both cities I've spent any time in on this trip - Fairbanks and Anchorage - have brought a new sentiment to my mind, essentially, that camping isn't fun when you have no choice. I live in the sticks, and each day is filled with the novelty of discovery. But it's been ten weeks, traveling has become my movement of life, and in a lot of ways, it's not fun anymore.

"Fun never ends" - according to a good song by Sense Field. Maybe it's true. But now I'm walking away from the sticks and into deeper sticks with only the things I can carry on my back - not out of fun, but out of necessity. What's more important? To have fun, or to take what are sometimes less than desirable chances? What leads to greater discovery, higher understanding, stronger memories? I still believe the latter, and that's why I'm still here.
posted by Jill at 2:19 p.m. on July 11, 2003