A Northern Place

Time to blow the dust off this rusty blog. We are still on hold but did manage to get a little adventure in…

My younger brother has been living in Alaska for just under two years. Not a long time, but enough time to experience the weather and the rain, the rush of tourist in the summer and the long periods of quiet isolation that comes with winter. Enough time to call me every few months and slip tiny images through the phone of wildlife creeping from the woods, or the rings of water as whales surface the channel, or the roar of a floatplane engine in the sky against enough vast space it feels quiet and alone and amazing. A person can only hear but so much…

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If I was lost in an airport and couldn’t manage to read the gate numbers or the screen that sits behind the ticket counter announcing the destination, I could find my flight to Alaska. You only need to see the group of people going to this northern place. Beards and boots, thick coats and flannel shirts, fishing poles in insulated sleeves, hard hats slung over backpacks. It’s workers going to the Northern Slope, and sportsman dreaming about the big catch, and wandering souls wondering if this escape is far enough from everything else. How far do you hope to go? How much space do you need? Alaska is the biggest of all 50 states. If the size of Texas, California and Montana is not big enough for you, well, you are in luck because Alaska is bigger than all three combined. With the total population in the entire state less than the city of Columbus, Ohio, I am pretty sure you can get lost and find yourself alone. But we were not looking to find ourselves alone.

We found rain. As the plane touched down in Anchorage the rain poured. It was about 2am our time and 10pm Anchorage time. We were tired and hungry and not that upset when we missed our next flight to Juneau. United Airlines payed for a hotel at the Puffin Inn with no frills but a clean room and warm bed. The next morning we would be fresh and ready for Juneau. The days following agreed with us and we hit a streak of sunny days, it didn’t rain again until our way out, so the weather was not the problem. The biggest problem we faced was narrowing down the things to do in only five days. We debated our plans from the confines of Kiona – my brother’s boat and as we soon learned, his project. “I really should have gotten this thing inspected,” he said while pointing to the two buckets collecting last nights rain. Although the boat was a good size and contained just about everything a person would need to live cozy and comfortable, it has some problems. The advice he received from a fellow boat owner down the dock weren’t exactly words of encouragement, “if I were you I would drill a hole from the bottom up…from THE BOTTOM UP!” For now the only holes were on the top and covered with a tarp. So back to our plans and our first flight to Angoon.

momma

Juneau sits within the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska made up of islands – thousands of them. Getting from one place to the next doesn’t consist of road time as much as air time. People living in Alaska depend on airplanes for mail, for food, and to get out of town and back. We jumped on with my brother who was delivering mail to a Native town of Angoon and picking up a resident who needed to get to Juneau for shopping. We took off in a Beaver, (a floatplane from Alaska Seaplane’s Fleet) from a man made water runway called the pond. Within seconds we are skimming from water into air and for the first time I can actually see where I am. 500 feet above land in a small metal body big enough for a pilot, three passengers and some mail, you can feel every bump, every dip and turn. I’m holding earplugs in my hand and with my eyes glued to the window, I don’t even notice the engine hollering because the view has me distracted. We glide over deep green forest that covers a landscape moving from flat to slopes then breaks. Perfectly placed pine trees huddled so tight I can’t see the floor until slices of river make their way through. Tiny tree islands break from the group surrounded by almost turquoise water. There is not a soul to be seen. Not a road or homes just absolute natural landscape gone untouched. The shores surrounded each island are dark gray rings made of rocks with gentle waves slapping the shore and bringing driftwood. In the far horizon I can see sharp peaks of the coastal mountains. The contrast of cold mountains, forest islands boarded by blue water, and wispy clouds hanging in the sky, this is a sight not possible to tire from. We find our way over Admiralty Island and at this point Kyle taps me on the shoulder to alert me that this is the spot to see Brown bear (the Grizzly). My eyes are now scanning the island below for movement. But I know my record for being the person to spot wildlife is not good. On several occasions I am the person almost in a panic because I can’t see the very thing everyone else has spotted…

”It’s right there…right in front of you,”

“I don’t see anything,” I respond my eyes darting in every possible direction.

“Do you see the big tree with branches?”

“Yes, I see lots of big trees with lots of branches.”

“It’s the biggest tree with the biggest branches and the deer/turtle/bird/bear/skunk is standing directly next to it…looking right at us!”

At this point I still do not see anything except lots of trees and depending on what the wildlife is I have a choice to make. If we are looking for a deer I usually lie and say, “oh yeah, there he is…I see him.” But if it happens to be something I really want to see then by the time the creature is running away from us is about the time I make direct contact…with the ass end of the animal. This is exactly what happened in Shenandoah NP when the black bear was finally sighted. I saw his rear end high tailing it away from us. I have higher hopes in Alaska. And within minutes from the first tap of the shoulder something is spotted in the water. Rings and bubbles are moving on the surface. Kyle yanks the yoke and the plane turns almost on its side making a circle around the ripples of water below. The closer we get I can see the spot, but not sure what I’m looking at. “Whales,” shouts Kyle and luckily my side of the plane is facing the water and now my face is flattened against the window. A dark shadow rises from the spray of water and the backs of three whales surface. Nearly two minutes later and another shout from the pilot, “brown bear!” Same position as before, face smashed to window and this time it takes little effort to see the brown body running through the creek below. He looks big from 400 ft away.

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Later that day we venture towards a scenic drive on a road going out of town and properly named, Out the Road. We cruise past Auke Bay and from paved to gravel roads deeper into woods and closer to dusk. We see a little movement from a little something on the side of the road. Slowing down to catch a glimpse, the little something turns toward us and huddles over a stash he does not want us to know about. He gives us this signal by raising a body full of quills and his statement is clear “my secret stash and I’m not going anywhere…move it along.” Just past 40 miles, like all the roads in Juneau, this one dead ends as well. There is a trail that connects the road to Echo Cove and we make our way in that direction. A few feet from the safety of the truck I start asking about bear spray. No one seems to have any. Kyle mentions that he has taken this road and hiked down this path and has yet to see a bear. Nature hears this conversation and gives us a little sign, bear scat. A nice fresh pile for us to clearly see (and almost step on) in the middle of the path. Now Colin sounds concerned and I’m moving my way back to the truck. As much as I love the good hunt and seeking wildlife, I don’t want that to be the last thing I ever see. We pile back in the truck and head towards town. About 5 miles in and I am the one who spots the big black bear. He stops and looks at us. I wonder what he’s thinking, “hmmm, I don’t see any guns. I can tell they don’t have bear spray…I’m moving along”. He takes his time slinking across the road, through some brush, and out of sight. About half way back we see the same porcupine in the same spot protecting his stash. We’re not sure what he has but it must be good. He agrees by flaring his quills…just in case we were thinking about it. We weren’t and drive on. Day one. Not bad.

We flew every day. Every chance we could get we jumped on and took off in a new direction, over different terrain and just as untouched and remote. A short stop in Pelican leads to an unexpected tour. Cheryl has called this tiny town on stilts, surrounded by water and mountains, home for over 30 years. We take the only path through town which is a boardwalk above marshy land below. She points to every home (some newer, some repaired and plenty others in desperate need of repairs) and describes who lives there, who once lived there and where they are now. Cheryl smiles as these stories unfold, which brings old characters back and memories of them come alive. There are no roads in Pelican, no driveways, no cars. You can only get here by floatplane or boat. Only 65 people make up this community with 90% working in the fishing industry, which is slowly shrinking. As we take off heading back towards Juneau Cheryl glances back at this remote town and a proud look beams from her face.

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We are running out of days and still have the town of Haines on our list. A 40-minute flight can get us there and a plane is leaving to deliver mail in the middle of the day. We pack the basics for one night stay and race to the airport to make this flight. We take the Piper and the pilot, Jered, asks us if we want to take the direct route over Lynn Canal or the Ice Fields. Is seems like either one should be good but we answer ice fields not really knowing what to expect. Not knowing that this field of ice would bring about an almost religious experience. I say almost because I am not a practicing religious person. I grew up Catholic and during the time I lived under my parent’s roof, which also meant under their rules, going to church was one of them. Catechism on Wednesday and church service every Sunday…sometimes kicking and screaming. What a happy moment in a young person’s life to turn 18 and earning the freedom to make these choices on our own. Although I left my parent’s house I still go back, I can’t say the same thing about church. But there are moments when you hear a story, witness a scene, or see a site that screams without words, “this is Bigger than you,” much, much, bigger. For 35 minutes during this 40-minute flight I felt smaller than the speck of dirt amongst the blue glaciers that carved their way through these mountains. The summits pushing through clouds and highways of ice driving their way through the middle. We flew between peaks and felt like bugs making our way around the edges and above absolute blue ice. We were ants hovering around giants. I shout to Jered, who is whistling the Marine Corps hymn and slides his head set off to hear me, “Do you ever get tired of this?” He looks at me with a serious expression and shakes his head no. As if there was any question. There were a few moments when we peeled our eyes from the plane windows to each other as if to say, are you seeing what I’m seeing? The only words we could think to say were, Oh My God.

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Haines is a special place (as if the journey there wasn’t enough); surrounded by mountains and glaciers, their reflections like a mirror on the water. Chilkoot River makes its way from town rushing around the foothills over smooth rocks and filling Chilkoot Lake. We have heard that the brown bear are out in force catching the salmon running up river to spawn. Taking a rental car, the drive tracing this river is already worth the effort. Every direction is outlined in snow-capped mountains. As the river narrows, we see people pulled on the shoulder of the road walking toward the riverbank. We do the same and join the small group. Colin is weaving his head around the folks in front to catch a view and I am trying to get the lens off my camera. In a whisper he says, “look.” A sow and her cub walk out directly in front of us – now that I see! Mamma is scanning the water for fish but takes time to check in on her cub, who is always a few steps behind. In a second she lunges toward the river slapping the water and the prize is flapping in her mouth. She finds a nice spot on the riverbank and sits to share the catch with her cub. A ranger standing a few steps from our huddle points across the river. Just through the trees two more brown bears sluggishly make their way to the water. One stretches out over the fast current and with a slap of the water the head goes under and back up with a fish. It looks too easy. Two Bald Eagles glide in circles crisscrossing each other and land on the rocks in the middle of the river. They to want these fish, which have worked so hard to swim against the current, pushing their way up stream to the place where they were born. I think about all the obstacles they must endure to make it home, only a few make the complete journey. We stand along this road and watch for hours. The sun dips behind the peaks and the light fades with it. We wait until we can hardly see, taking in every last second, but the time runs out and we make our way back to the car.

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In the morning we have most of the day to scout around town. We find museums that share Tlingit history, galleries, adventure tours and freshly roasted coffee at an organic market. We find Haines Brewing Company in an old movie set that was made for White Fang. And meet the brew master who shares with us the history of beer while sipping his latest IPA. Haines is full of surprises – home to the Bald Eagle Reserve that becomes home to over 3500 eagles in mid September. We were a little early for their arrival. Before we are ready to leave, we find the airport and head back from our quick 2-day trip. We hop back to Juneau on a Cessna Caravan that seats 8 and takes less than 40 minutes going directly over Lynn Canal. One last dinner out and 5 days has come and gone. As we board onto Alaska Airlines we dread the long trip back to Virginia. The plane lifts off and Juneau fades and soon I can’t place it. As we fly over the clouds my mind replays the last week and the people who make up this northern place. They are tough cookies with hearts full of life and greatness. They love this land and survive crazy weather because they just can’t get sick of the view. I can’t blame them. I think about our night in Skagway (not too far from Haines) and the enormous cruise ship that actually takes your eyes from the mountain view to the boat, because it is so huge and out of place. The massive crowds of cruise-ship tourists flood into town and buy cheap t-shirts and jewelry from stores that are owned by the cruise line. As night comes the crowds head back to the boat like a cattle call to dinner. The place is quiet and we get a chance to chat with the locals. They need the tourists and appreciate their business, but there is something missing. Maybe the way the outlet store is full while the town’s museum is empty. But the roads are paved and the locals get business and that is thanks to the cruise ships.

We didn’t meet a lot of people from (born and raised) in Alaska. Most are from every other part of the county; they came here, fell in love and learned to deal with the winters. They stay even when work is hard to find, groceries are costly and housing is at record highs. They stay because the search for being content stopped when they landed here, and sometimes that is enough. (See more pictures in the Photo Gallery)

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