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Travelogue - 07/14/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages

 

Finding Time

So much for my vow to post shorter travelogue pages more often. I get so caught up in what I'm doing day after day that there just doesn't seem to be time to sit down and write about it. The trick and the challenge is to find the time. 

Time itself is different on the road than it is at home. Albert Einstein proved time is relative, and although he was relating it to objects in motion the notion rings equally true for the earthbound traveler. Time slows down when you travel. It's fuller. Unlike the mind-numbing repetition of normal home life, each day traveling is a succession of new experiences, lots of them. The senses have to work overtime observing, assessing, categorizing, maneuvering, recording and filing each one of them. Constant newness demands your full attention just to navigate through it. This tends to keep your mind in the "here and now," especially if you're seeing Alaska for the first time.

This is how it is for me. Most of the time I'm living moment to moment, as spontaneous as combustion, heading off on sudden tangents and absorbing new input constantly until I am giddy with it. Bear with me if I get distracted and don't write about it so often. 

Eleven Days (seems like a month)

I left Molly Leary's house and hid out in an eerie, mist-bound mountain pass north of Palmer to give the 4th of July weekend traffic time to get wherever it was going. On Saturday the 3rd, I emerged and headed for the one place I was sure would be empty. 

Sure enough, the city of Anchorage was largely deserted. Everyone who could get away had gotten. I spent the day seeing some sights, getting online at an Internet cafe, and picking up a few supplies. There was a large flea market downtown, where booths selling native art and crafts vied with food vendors featuring such local delicacies as buffalo burgers and caribou hot dogs. Anchorage is Alaska's largest city, but it's not big by Lower 48 standards. Population about 270,000, it boasts a couple of museums and theaters, a few high-rise hotels and some office buildings, but most of it is low profile. Still, there are stores and businesses of every description, which become less touristy and more useful as you move away from the city center. 

After spending a quiet night camped in the parking lot of a huge shopping plaza along with a dozen other RV's, I arose early and headed south towards the Kenai Peninsula. I didn't have to go very far to find my next Alaskan adventure. 

 

Girdwood

Hardly an hour out of Anchorage I exited the two-lane highway for a tiny town that The Rough Guide to Alaska describes as being "popular with neo-hippies, outdoor enthusiasts and escapees from Anchorage." Well, that seemed to sum me up pretty well, so I went to check it out. 

Girdwood village used to be on the shores of the Turnagain Arm, a 45-mile saltwater tendril of Cook Inlet that boasts the second greatest tidal range in North America, something like 39 feet! However, the entire town sank in the great earthquake of 1964 and had to be abandoned. It was rebuilt a few miles inland alongside a broad, shallow river, surrounded on three sides by glacier-clad mountains. It seems like a quiet place off the main tourist route.

My first indication that something unusual was happening in Girdwood was the appearance of hand-painted signs, lots of them. It didn't take long to figure out that this little town was celebrating the holiday weekend in a big way.

   

Girdwood's annual Forest Fair is apparently one of Alaska's bigger summer events. Several thousand people converged on the hamlet for the weekend, many from as far away as Fairbanks. A lot of them were young, "Dead Head" type hippies. Even though I can no longer hangout with hippies - they being too young and I being too... mature - I still like seeing them. They remind me of my own long-haired bohemian days. Today's batch seems more inclined towards body piercing & tattoos and less interested in world peace, free love and mind-expanding drugs. Oh, well, that's their loss. 

They pitched their small tents by the score along the broad, rocky riverbed & banks, and throughout the adjacent woods. I opted to commute from the nearby National Forest, since I was hearing that the river parties went on much later into the night than I was likely to appreciate.

It was still early Sunday morning when I arrived in Girdwood. The parties had ended hours ago, and the Forest Festival wouldn't get going until later, so I parked out at the edge of town, launched my mountain bike, and went exploring. After checking out the two-block town center, the quiet festival grounds and the nearby river campsites & trails, I headed out of town and picked up a narrow footpath that ran into the forest proper, following a noisy stream. There were fewer tents out this way, but some were tucked into the dense underbrush and along the banks of the stream. 

Abruptly the trail ended in a clearing populated by a loose group of college age kids, most of whom weren't quite awake or recovered yet from the previous night's revelries. One fellow who was up and about greeted me in a friendly way and invited me to join him for coffee, which was brewing on the campfire. So I leaned my mountain bike against a tree and pulled up a stump. We got to talking and I wound up visiting for an hour or two. As others awoke, they mostly stumbled around zombie-like in search of something to kick start their day, but a few turned out to be as amiable and intelligent as my original host and we all had a pretty good time exchanging stories and information. 

My newfound friend, Eli (in the blue T-shirt), is in his final year at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. A bright, personable fellow, he hosts his own radio program on the college station and, like most kids in Alaska, has grown up with a working knowledge of the great outdoors. Before I left that morning to return to the festival in town, Eli gave me his contact information and offered to show me around when I get to Fairbanks. I had made my first new friend in Alaska. 

As a parting gift, one of the group gave me a homemade brownie, which turned out to be every bit as good as they promised it would be, enhancing my Independence Day with a mild, comfortable glow that lasted well into the late afternoon. Some hippies never grow up.

The festival was upbeat and fun. Two music stages provided non-stop entertainment, some of it very good, and there were enough interesting art, craft, food and vendor booths to keep the crowd continually flowing along the various paths that meandered through the fairgrounds, which was spread over five acres or so of a wooded park on the edge of town. For a look around, click on these thumbnail photos to enlarge them:

 

 

(Sara, this doll maker reminded me of you when you were her age.)
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I don't usually buy things at fairs, but there was an artist at this one whose work caught my eye. One painting in particular stuck in my mind all afternoon and so I finally bought it for my granddaughter Gabrielle's 1st-birthday present.

 

Showdown at Girdwood School

I had left my camper in a vast open lot adjacent to the Girdwood school. As I peddled my bike down the road towards it, I passed a scruffy, long-haired, bearded man walking in the same direction with the uneven shuffle of a drunk. 

I got to my RV, put the bike up on the stern rack, and was rustling around in the galley when the same drunk crossed the lot to a pickup truck parked off in a corner, up against some bushes. He looked like he had come in from the bush for the festival. Soon I could see him through the windshield of the truck's cab, sitting by himself, probably sleeping off his bender I thought. 

Then something unexpected happened, completely out of character with the fine, fun day I'd been enjoying. The drunk got out of his truck and came loping towards my van. I went and stood in the doorway to greet him and see what he wanted. When he got within 10 or 15 yards he stopped, squared his shoulders, and started shouting in the slurred garble of someone seriously wasted on alcohol. "I want you to get the fuck out of my view, goddam it. Get the fuck out of here! Go!," he cried, flailing with one arm as if to point the way. I was taken by surprise, to say the least. I'd seen nothing up 'til then that even hinted of this great anger he was now venting. Before I even had a chance to think of a reply, he lurched a few more steps towards me and yelled, "I said get the fuck out of here. Now! F'you don't think I'm fuckin' serious, I have a .45 in my truck that'll show you I'm fuckin' serious. You want to fuck with me? Huh? I'll show you fuck with my .45. I'm not fuckin' with you." With that, he turned and began to zigzag back towards his pickup truck, talking to himself as he went.

Well, I have a gun, too, but I sure didn't want to get into a gunfight with this drunk over a parking space. Whatever his issues were, he was plainly mean, mad at the world and way beyond reasonable discourse, and I had no reason to doubt he had a gun and that he'd probably use it. "Hey," I yelled at him and he spun around, glaring." "Take it easy, man, I'm moving. No problem. I'm outta' here. You take it easy, now."

I think he mumbled something like, "Fuckin' right. You think I'm fuckin' with you? I'm not fuckin' around..."

Feeling that discretion was the better part of survival, if not valor, I fired up my engine, drove out of the big lot, and found a pretty spot a little ways down the road to park and cook my supper. But my adrenal gland had been triggered by the threat of violence and I confess there was a part of me that sorely wanted to grab my shotgun and go back there. Stupid machismo, I know, and I pushed it aside, but had he caught me in a different mood (I'd had such a pleasant day until then), I can see how someone could get shot over nothing at all. Anyway, I kept my 12-gauge close at hand the rest of that evening, leaning by the door. It's not everyday someone says their going to shoot me and means it.

The incident served to remind me that there is a wildness to Alaska, that some people still live by their own rules here, much like the "old West," and that bears might not be the only danger to watch out for.

 

The Forest Festival had ended that 4th of July evening. By the end of the next day, the vendors and most of the visiting hordes had departed, leaving Girdwood to its habitually sleepy existence. I decided to stick around for a few days and see the surrounding countryside, beginning with a not-quite-abandoned gold mine a few miles up the mountain valley. 

Crow Creek Mine wasn't really a mine at all, but a big sluicing operation. Today it's a minor tourist attraction. Still, people regularly pull gold nuggets out of the river by panning (after paying the current owner a few dollars a day for the privilege).

       

A small group of Japanese tourists were panning for gold in the river when I arrived, laughing and chattering excitedly, smoking cigarettes and snapping photos of each other. Several of them pulled small bits of gold from their pans.

In its heyday as a professional operation they say this place yielded 700 ounces of gold a month. At today's prices of $400 per, that would amount to $280,000 a month. And what a beautiful setting in which to work! I'm beginning to see why someone would want to be a prospector.

Girdwood's main tourist draw is a big ski resort. It's closed for the summer, but they keep a tram operating and I rode it up to catch the view, hike around a bit and contemplate my next move.

 

Seward

The road from Girdwood led me south to Seward, and what a road it was! The Seward Highway weaves gracefully through majestic mountains and lush valleys. Signs warn of avalanches in the winter. Dirt roads and hiking trails strike off into the surrounding countryside, affording rough access.

The town of Seward is perched at the head of a vast fjord that was carved out by glaciers in the last ice age and then filled in by the ocean. The body of water therein contained is called Resurrection Bay in honor of its fortuitous discovery by some European mariner on a stormy Easter Sunday long ago.

For me Seward was a fortuitous discovery of another kind, enticing me to stick around days longer than I had planed. The town itself is home to about 3500 residents plus an endless flow of tourists this time of year. It's pleasant and low-key and I got around easily by bike, leaving my RV at the edge of town each morning. 

Everywhere you look it's stunningly beautiful. Across the fjord a procession of lofty, snow-speckled, green-skirted mountains march proudly out towards the ocean, while the town is flanked by a bald mountain sporting a powerful waterfall far up it's steep slope. South of town a stony beach stretches out to forested cliffs, while a short drive north and east leads to a readily accessible glacier. I hardly knew where to start!

There is a fleet of eco-tour vessels based in Seward, taking tourists out to see the abundant marine wildlife and a few of the 35 glaciers in the Kenai Fjord National Park. I decided to query some of them about skippering a boat here next summer. I figure by that time I will have been traveling pretty much non-stop for a year and it might be fun to spend a few months earning a little money and getting to know this awesome place as a summer resident rather than as a tourist. I found most of the big passenger vessel operations have captains that stick around year after year, plus a waiting list of hopeful mates. An opening at one of these outfits is a long shot. However, I was offered a job running a 24-passenger schooner that'll be arriving in the spring. I may even get hired to deliver it from Seattle to Seward in April, which would really be cool. We'll see. I'll be discussing it some more with the owners.

Even if it accomplished nothing else, talking to the charter companies in town did get me comped on two of the big tour boats, saving me a couple of hundred dollars and allowing me to see the sights for free from the captain's wheelhouse, where I was a professional guest. And what sights! Check these out:

(click on the thumbnails to enlarge them)

The grand finale of the second cruise was a visit to a calving tidewater glacier. The skipper shut off the engines and we drifted for a while close off the glacier's face. From inside the ice came thunderous creaks, cracks and groans - sometimes it boomed like canon fire! - as the giant mass heaved, buckled and shifted under its own enormous weight.

We waited 20 minutes before a section of its face finally, suddenly broke away with an angry rumble and plummeted into the ice-strewn sea. I've seen films of glaciers calving, but it was much more dramatic seeing it in person for the first time.

 

The glacier I mentioned earlier that's northeast of Seward wasn't too shabby either. I drove out there the next day and was able to hike right up to it's base:

On the south side of Seward I discovered a quiet little community in surroundings that are as beautiful as any I've ever seen, and believe me that's saying something. There is a small cottage there, the last in a row along the stone beach, bordering a state park that borders the national park that stretches all the way to the ocean at the mouth of Resurrection Bay and won't ever be developed. 

When I get back to Seward, I'm going to find out if the old couple I saw up on the porch would consider selling that cottage. It just might make a fine home base for this homeless vagabond, though probably not year-around. 

Not that it's so cold here in the winter. Seward is America's northernmost ice-free harbor. The warm Japanese Current sweeping past the mouth of Resurrection Bay keeps the seawater here at around 48 Fahrenheit and, as a result, the air temps aren't much different than in New England. No, it's not the temperatures, but the darkness that I imagine would bring me down. I've adjusted to the constant daylight of the summer up here, but I don't think I'd be happy living through the interminable night of the Alaskan winter.

I lingered in Seward still another day, accessing the Internet for free via a wi-fi (wireless Internet) hotspot right in the middle of the town's waterfront. Each evening I'd drive a couple of miles out of town to one of two idyllic campsites I'd found - one by a river and one by a pond - avoiding the crass RV parks and commercial campgrounds as always. It's what cruising sailors call anchoring out, my preference by land or by sea.

 

Megan

When I left Seward, it was to visit another of my childhood next door neighbors, Molly Leary's younger sister Megan. Meg is living with her husband in a cozy home on 40 or 50 wooded acres outside of Soldotna, Alaska. 

 

 

Megan came to Alaska many years ago on her own. She mostly stayed up around Fairbanks and lived an adventurous life as a single woman in a rough, wild land. She had some grand stories to tell during my afternoon visit. Megan eventually married an Alaskan mining legend, Jack LaCross, whose biography sounds like it would make a wild movie. He built their fine log house himself and they've raised two daughters. 

Here are some photos of Megan as I knew her in Larchmont:

               

 

I've been heading for Homer to pick up mail ever since I left Tok a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I might actually get there the afternoon I left Megan's house. Alas, sometimes it's the seemingly insignificant little hamlets along the way that reach out and grab you. About 45 miles shy of my intended destination, I pulled into the tiny fishing village of Ninilchik and here I have remained these past 4 or 5 days. Actually, I've lost count and don't really care.

Ninilchik

You may have noticed that I occasionally scarf together several photographs taken in series in order to give a more panoramic view of a place I consider special. Unlike the example above, I usually endeavor to blend the parts together so they make one continuous scene. It's a time consuming process, however, so I don't do it often, but here I have taken the time. Click to enlarge these expanded views of Ninilchik.

Ninilchik is reminiscent of what I imagine parts of Cape Cod felt like 50 years ago. Nestled in among steep, dune-like hills squared off against broad Cook Inlet, this community of fishermen share their offbeat paradise with a muted flow of tourists, the village being just off the main highway between Anchorage and Homer. Yet when you turn off the highway and rattle down the dirt & gravel road into this hidden place, you pass into another reality altogether. 

I knew at first sight Ninilchik was special, and when I discovered I could park my RV out on the point, simultaneously overlooking the tight little fishermen's harbor and the open water, I gave up any notion of passing through quickly. Here at last I have stopped for a while to write a little, catch my breath and, well, stop.

To give you some idea of where I'm sitting as I write this, here is a photo I took a couple of nights ago at half past midnight from the doorway of my camper. This is where I'm looking right now if I turn my head to the right.

That night the fishermen were catching an evening tide to move their boats out of the harbor, then anchoring out so they could go fishing in the morning. The channel, which is the mouth of the lazy stream that meanders through the village, is barely wide enough and deep enough for one boat at a time at high tide. At low tide it's just ankle deep where it crosses the beach. Only on the full flood can the trawlers escape to the open water, or return to their berths inside. 

This strikes me as an unusual adaptation, though perhaps it isn't in these parts. See for yourself. Here's the channel at high tide: 

And here it is at low tide:  

See how it all but vanishes at the mouth? I wouldn't want to run this inlet in a strong onshore breeze, not at any tide.

While Cook Inlet stretches off to my right, the cramped harbor is outside my port windows. I am parked on the sliver of land in between. (Can you make out the distant, snow-capped volcano just off my van's bow?)

A hundred yards from me, at the head of the small harbor, there's a small fisheries packing plant. A little further down the beach a rustic cafe & chowder house balances on long pilings. Then there's a small, commercial RV lot  (I've got much a better view than they do, with no-one jammed in alongside me, and mine is free!). A state park campground, little more than a gravel parking lot, is at the far end of this half-mile beachfront road. From there the road curves in to the village proper, where a scattering of dilapidated shacks and vintage cabins mingle with a few new-built houses, all of it overlooked by the old Russian Orthodox church on the hilltop above. The village is very quiet. I suppose many of the bearded fishermen and their families live elsewhere, perhaps across the highway. 

     

There is no glitz or glitter here. Nothing much to do besides walk the miles of empty beach, take a few photographs, read, write, play a little music. I've cleaned house and changed the engine oil*, so I even feel productive. The ceaseless whoosh whoosh of the surf lulls me to sleep at night and laughing seagulls (and raucous ravens) awaken me in the morning. Here at last, however briefly, I am finding something I have sought all these long, dusty miles. I'm finding time.

*(Odometer = 62,311 mi.)

 Next Entry: 07/29/04

 
 

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