Camping

Driving the Alaska Highway

Greetings from Columbia Falls, Montana.  Last night we reentered the United States after eight days in Canada and arrived at the lavishly-decorated and Scottie dog-inhabited home of Jess’s uncle Jim and aunt Bobbi.  I’m writing this post from their back porch as I make note of the lack of road signs and adjust to life outside the car.

The majority of our past week was spent traveling the Alaska Highway — the 1,422 mile road that connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia with Delta Junction, Alaska.  In the spring we traveled this road to reach Alaska.  This time, armed with knowledge from the trip north, we changed our travel style to save money, opting for cooler meals and roadside camping, rather than patronizing the ghastly expensive businesses along the way.  The Alaska Highway is profoundly beautiful, but those views don’t come without a price.  One gas station wanted $1.66/litre, which after factoring in conversion rates and credit card fees, came out to around $7 per gallon!

Alas, even on a budget, some things are worth paying for.  Much like the drive up, the drive down featured life-list scenery, nonstop sunshine and Serengeti-caliber wildlife.  In one 30-minute stretch we saw eight bears!  Also rampant: caribou, buffalo, raptors and stone sheep.  Jess and I took turns driving, averaging about seven hours per day in the car.  At night we camped aside lakes and rivers and cooked dinner over the fire in total privacy… at least from humans.

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Today is day 9 of the 20-day trip back to Raleigh.  We spent the past three days in Banff and Jasper National Parks, two unbelievable places I’ll share here soon.

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Eklutna Lake

Alaska State Parks offers 60 public use cabins and 8 ice hunts for rent by the public.  These cabins are located throughout the state and cost an average of $60 per night.  Some cabins are reachable by car, but most are located off the road system and require at least a hike, if not a boat or plane to access them.

Nice cabins go fast — some are booked solid for months in advance.  Earlier this summer Jess and I were sniffing around online and found an opening for the Eklutna Lake cabin in Chugiak, Alaska.  We made the reservation then pretty much forgot about it until a reminder popped up last week.

Eklutna Lake is located 90 minutes north of Girdwood, circa Anchorage.  The cabin stands three miles down a dirt road from the parking area, a commute that prompted us to try bikepacking — in other words, carrying our camping gear on mountain bikes.  Bikepacking is no more strenuous than walking, only it allows for faster travel speeds if the trail is bikeable (most trails in Alaska would be difficult if not impassible on bike).  Turns out bikepacking is a delight!

As for the cabin, we very much enjoyed having this beautiful lake to ourselves.


Family Visit

Last week my mom, dad, sister and bro-in-law flew in from Michigan and Ohio to spend a week with us in Alaska.  As dad would be quick to point out, the action rarely slowed over the seven days.  Excited to play host to familiar faces, Jess and I drew up an itinerary we hoped would combine relaxation and adventure, a balance we underlined given the diversity of the group.  With my family now safely home and all the sheets washed, I’ve had some time to reflect on the week, and despite a full-day traffic jam and fleeting moments of out-of-my-element outrage, I believe we succeeded in the most important objective of big family vacations: creating a bunch of great memories we can all share.

I could write about everything we did, but photos are just a tad more interesting, aren’t they?

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These photos offer only a snapshot of the week.  If you are abnormally interested you can see all the photos here.  Thank you family for making the effort to come to Alaska.  Jess and I are profoundly happy to have shared our lives with you.  Big love.


Homer

I started writing this post before we even arrived.  Everything I’d heard about Homer was an endorsement — a cool little town on the Pacific, known for its bald eagles, halibut fishing and parties on the spit.  With our summer clock ticking like a timebomb, we decided this weekend to drive the four hours south and see for ourselves.

On the way down we stopped at the Kenai River/Russian River confluence to have a look at this popular fishing spot.  Each summer wild Pacific salmon swim in from the ocean and travel up rivers and creeks statewide to give birth and die.  After wading through a rulebook the size of a trophy sockeye, and obtaining the appropriate licenses and permits, native Alaskans, residents and outsiders alike can don waders and try their luck at landing a cooler-full of this toothsome meat.

A little further up the road we decided to stop for the night.  As is our tactic for finding a campsite, we began pulling down unmarked roads in hopes of finding a quiet place with a view (these places are abundant in Alaska if you have the patience to look).  After a few failed attempts, we turned down Kalifornsky Beach Road then Kasilof Beach Stub to reach a place that made us reel in amazement.  At the end of the road was a “community beach” — a sort of unmarked oceanfront settlement of tents and campers, which dotted the shoreline and looked like home to more than a few.  Not the privacy we’ve come to enjoy, but the soft, cool sand was a reminder of home, and as if propelled by an ocean breeze, we drifted toward the crowd and set up camp for the night.

Low tide grubby beach glamour shot


Saturday we awoke to a thunderous dirt bike symphony and hit the road promptly.

Iffy on sleep, we arrived in Homer that afternoon and our moods were instantly buoyed by the looks of things.  The highway approach on Homer comes from above, rewarding drivers with a bird’s eye view of the valley and the impressive water and mountains that surround it.  The town itself has an Asheville vibe, quietly functioning as a cultural anchor in a part of the state where a microbrewery, art gallery or meadery might otherwise feel out of place.

Farmers market

Harbor junkyard

Obligatory stop at the Salty Dog Saloon

Obligatory post-Salty Dog tetherball match


Wild raspberry creme brulee at Land’s End

Camping on the spit


Seward

Drive south on the only road out of Anchorage — past Girdwood, Portage and a handful of other could-be Northern Exposure film sets — and eventually you’ll reach Seward, one of the most bustling cities in Alaska.

Home to only 2,600, Seward is not a big town in terms of population.  But due to its location on the Pacific coast, each summer it sees waves of tourists stepping off cruise ships and railroad cars and into its many gift shops, tour vans and fishing boats.

As the cash register rings, the sea lion roars, and on and on it goes until, like the ocean tide, everything dries up and the locals are left to their saltless pretzels at Pit Bar and whatever asshole music happens to be playing on the jukebox.

After two ill-fated attempts, Jess and I finally made it to Seward on Saturday.  We ate baked salmon and halibut at Exit Glacier Salmon Bake and set forth in search of a campsite.  To us, the perfect site is a great view with no trace of human presence.  After driving around the city and finding nothing but crowded family campgrounds, we turned up Exit Glacier road and struck gold at mile 6.5.  Along the road were a handful of gravel turn-offs leading to private sites along Resurrection River.  We grabbed one of the last open sites and set up camp for the night.


The next morning we drove around the corner to Kenai Fjords National Park and embarked on a 8.5 mile round-trip hike up the Harding Icefield Trail.

Two miles into the hike I spotted a black bear about 20 feet up the trail.  I quickly readied the bear spray and camera, in that order, but despite a few arm-waves and stern hey bears! the animal appeared utterly indifferent with our presence.  Girdwood bears bolt at the first sign of humans, but this bear regarded us in the manner a vegetarian might regard a burger.  Whatever.  We stood and watched for a spell until eventually it was time to move on.  With my thumb on the trigger, we eased our way past the bear, at one point coming to within a hockey stick of touching his nose.  Not once did he look up.  Once safely on the other side of the trail, we looked back in awe at this beautiful and deadly animal and considered ourselves lucky for witnessing (and surviving) such a close encounter.

Another hour or two of climbing and we reached the Harding Icefield.  It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, snow and ice as far as the eye could see.  It was a nice setting for lunch and yet another example of the extreme beauty and diversity one might find in Alaska.



After the hike we returned to camp and Jess made dinner while I attempted to start a fire in the rain.  (Tip: Find something dry, there’s always something.  In the fire pit light the dry material from the bottom and add whatever small, dryish sticks you can find.  Twice as much as you’d think.  Once the wood begins to burn add a few larger sticks in teepee shape and begin stacking the big pieces squarely around the pit to dry.  Once the fire is indefinitely ablaze, crack a beer and whittle a stick to make gummy worm-wrapped s’mores.)


We awoke Monday to sunny skies and drove into town to check out everything in general and the Alaska Sealife Center in particular.  Utilizing a BOGO coupon we found in the Tour Saver, we wandered the two floors of seals, birds, fish and info placards until our short term memories were full and it was time to leave one great place destined for another.


Overnight Guiding at Carmen Lake

Alaska Backcountry Access is a small outdoor adventure company based in Girdwood, Alaska.  Shortly after arriving in town, I met owner and lead guide Andy Morrison by chance at a Girdwood Chamber of Commerce BBQ.  He needed a guide, I needed a job, and so it was agreed I would tag along the next couple trips for a sort of unspoken probationary period.

And so it became, midway through the summer, I was being dropped off at a remote lake in the Alaskan wilderness to guide two complete strangers on an overnight camping trip.

Not sure whether I passed or failed.

I’ll get to the trip shortly, but before I go into the work and delight of guiding an overnight camping trip, let’s back up a minute.  Working as a guide doesn’t always involve getting dumped in the woods with strangers and a pile of gear.  In fact, most of the time it means driving a handful of tourists up a dirt road and doing something reasonably dangerous and exciting for a few hours.  Namely, Gold Rush Canyoneering — a 3.5 hour trip I’ve been guiding lately that includes a tour of the Crow Creek Gold Mine and a series of rope-and-harness repels into a rainforest slot canyon.  Everyone seems to enjoy the trip and it’s priced to sell at $139 a person.  My role is generally to inform, entertain and ensure a safe and satisfying trip for everyone involved.  It’s a job I find challenging, but more importantly, it’s one that pays me to do something I love.

When no canyoneering trips are booked I typically guide extended gold mine tours and the occasional whitewater rafting trip.  Andy and his other two guides Opie and Ashley are the whitewater champs, relegating me to fourth fiddle.  But this summer I’ve gotten to lead two paid trips down the class 2-3 whitewater of Glacier Creek — and any attempt to describe the exhilaration it brings me in 12 point font would be watered down.

One downside of the job is lack of hours.  I guide an average of five trips a week, totaling about 25 hours of paid work plus tips.  Will I get rich doing this?  No sir.  But it’s a dang fine way to spend a summer if you ask me.

Flash forward to the overnight.  The two people I found myself marooned with at Carmen Lake were Roger and Claudio, two spry twenty-somethings from Switzerland at the tail end of a six month world tour.  During their stint in Alaska, they wanted to experience an authentic wilderness camping trip — but without gear, transportation or knowledge of the area, they hired Andy to make it happen.  After a few text messages and some paperwork, the four of us (Jess tagged along to help and hang) were in the back of Andy’s jetboat zooming up Twenty Mile river and into the wild.

After setting up camp and building a fire Jess and I cooked a dinner of halibut, reindeer sausage, rice, vegetables and caesar salad.  After dinner we loaded into kayaks and paddled around the lake, taking in the many wildflowers, blue ice glaciers and beaver lodges along the waters edge.  The weather was sixty and clear.  Not a manmade object for miles.

The following morning after breakfast the guys went for a hike while Jess stayed back and read by the fire.  We climbed a steep and slippery snowfield and eventually reached a point where the snow became a waterfall, making it too dangerous to continue.  The altitude we gained afforded us a magnificent view of the lake, allowing the grayish blue water of Carmen to appear almost Caribbean against the forest green alpine.

After a lunch of tuna & cucumber pitas, cheese & crackers, swiss chocolate and IPA, Andy arrived in the jetboat and dragged us away from the spot we were just starting to call home.

As for the trip, I think it went well.  Jess and I worked hard to be helpful without being too weird about it.  The weather and conversation were nice, and I believe Roger and Claudio were able to appreciate the beauty and solitude of Carmen Lake.

So long gentleman, I hope you too find what you’re looking for.



Swanson Visit

I know that all things must come to an end, but I’ll never claim to be good at handling it. I always get sad when a book ends, or a concert comes to a close… I always want one more chapter, one more song…

My mom and dad just spent a week in Alaska with us. We managed to squeeze every second out of every day, and truly shared the trip of a lifetime together.  Over the course of seven days we went backcountry camping in a yurt and cooked moose burgers over the fire (my parents’ first camping experience), flashed back to the 70’s at the Girdwood Forest Fair, canyoneered at Crow Creek Mine, whitewater rafted down Glacier Creek, explored Prince William Sound on a six-hour glacier cruise, jetboated the Twenty Mile River and rode an aerial tram to the top of Mount Alyeska for a blue sky wine picnic.  Ooohs and ahhhs were on repeat.

Whew, I’m worn out just thinking about all that!  My parents hit the ground running and were game for anything we threw at them.  I bet they need a vacation to recoup from this vacation!  I can also bet they never felt more alive as they did here in Alaska.  Anyone who knows my mom knows she isn’t much of a daredevil, but on this trip she proved to us and herself that she’s capable of a lot more than she thought.  🙂

One of the perks of Scott’s job is access to a pile of awesome outdoor equipment. We took full advantage of this perk and Scott was our own personal adventure guide throughout the week. My mom trusted him enough to step into a harness, and after a crash course on canyoneering, repel herself down a 50’ rock face!  And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, on the third repel her shirt got caught in the belay device, forcing Scott to scurry up the cliff and cut her free.  What a thrill!  I’ve got to hand it to her, despite the shirt incident and her fear of heights, she handled the trip with courage and grace.

I caught myself stopping frequently to consider the magic of the moment. I loved watching my parents take in the all beautiful scenery for the first time. The sense of wonderment spilled out of them and made me fall in love with Alaska all over again.

But enough words, I believe the trip is better summarized by photos.  Here are a few of my favorites from the week.  Mom and Dad, thank you for sharing in our Girdwood summer. We couldn’t have scripted it any better, I love you both.

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Hiking the Albert Loop trail to the Eagle River yurt

First obstacle! Scott made a bridge to help us cross the river

Enjoying breakfast outside the yurt

At the trailhead in Eagle River, Alaska

Girdwood Forest Fair

@ the Sitzmark in Girdwood

Canyoneering at Crow Creek Mine

Jetboating the Twenty Mile river with Mark and Shoman

Whittier harbor before the Prince William Sound glacier cruise

Surprise Glacier!  We saw bits of ice “cave” or break off and drop into the sea

Mom taking in the scenery

Elk basking in the sun at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

SW Dude Ranch

Turnagain Arm photo shoot

Scott pumping up the raft as we crossed the Winner Creek hand tram

Dad gearing up for whitewater rafting

Thumbs up and ready to go!

Taking the aerial tram to the top of Mount Alyeska

On top of the world