Alaska, Hiking

Spring Doesn’t Last Long in Alaska

Down in the lower 48, spring lasts a good 3 months or so in most places. Here, one week it’s winter, the next week the snow is melted and it’s t-shirt weather! When I got here back at the beginning of the month, there was still a lot of snow on the ground. I usually would wear 2-3 layers in my strolls around town. Within a week’s time however, all the snow piles were gone and trees everywhere all simultaneously burst out in green. The past couple of days I’ve been walking around in short sleeves and have been completely comfortable. It’s in the upper 60’s and the breeze is refreshing walking around in the warm sunshine.

I’ve pretty much hiked every trail within a 5 mile radius of Thor’s apartment, and everywhere else in the town I can easily walk to. According to my Google Timeline Insights, I have walked a total of 65 miles this month! I usually hike 3-5 miles a day, it’s becoming an addiction! I had major phone issues the second week I was here (I had to switch from T-Mobile to AT&T, what a nightmare that was!) and ventured down to the midtown area for the first time to try and remedy my communication problems. It’s kind of scuzzy down there with all the bums, but I discovered a great Hawaiian restaurant in the process.

There’s quite a few homeless here in Anchorage, but there are great mobs of them congregating everywhere the closer you get to midtown. I was hiking a trail down there the other day and the whole forest along a major multi-use trail was populated by homeless camps. One twacked-out fellow came up to me asking if I had seen some big dude on a bike, probably his dealer or something. Other than that I’ve had no issues, but some places around town give me a sketchy vibe. Not hard to avoid those spots though. 

Ship Creek runs through north Anchorage and is the site of the only urban salmon run in the country. This place is also the site of the original tent city of Anchorage.

A couple of weekends ago, Bethan suggested that we get out of Anchorage and go down south about 40 miles to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Bethan and her mom packed a picnic lunch and we all headed down there to check it out. Bethan wanted to stop at this little nursery along the way and buy some flowers, so we made a detour and checked it out. It was at someone’s private residence, which was pretty cool. There was a lady selling her art out front and the place was happening! It was Mother’s Day and it seemed like that was the place to be. It was a beautiful garden, well maintained and stocked with any plant you could desire.

Forget-Me-Not Nursery.

After Bethan adopted a few new plant friends, we made our way down to the center. It’s a pretty big place, they’ve got lots of space for their animals. It’s a conservation center, so the animals that are there can’t survive in the wild for whatever reason. They’ve got all kinds of animals, like wood bison, wolves, musk ox, moose, reindeer, and black and brown bears. The black bears put on a show, but we never saw the grizzlies. They have the largest enclosure full of hiding spots, so it is probably not surprising we didn’t see any. The Conservation Center is in a really beautiful valley outside the turnoff to Portage, and is a nice place to spend an hour or two.

I’m sure the animals appreciate the view!

A few of the critters we saw at the center.

After we got our fill of walking around the Conservation Center, we got back in the car and make the short drive over to Portage Lake. Bethan and I came up here last year in early June, and the lake was almost ice-free then. There was more snow on the mountains than last year around this time, and there were still sheets of ice floating around on the surface. When the wind blew, the sheets started grinding against each other, piling up big ridges of ice crystals everywhere. It made a rather pleasing sound as the sheets crashed into each other, like glass shattering into shards. We got out our picnic spread and enjoyed the view while we ate our snacks. The wind coming off of the mountains was a bit chilly, so after we got done we didn’t linger for very long. While it was pretty warm down in town, winter was still lingering around the lake!

A fine spot for a picnic.

Last weekend, Thor told me that his friend Amy had some yard work she could use some help with. I leapt at the chance, as I definitely needed some positive cash flow. Amy is a cool lady, she works for the park service up at Denali National Park. I guess she helps pick fish on Thor’s boat when he needs the help, so we’ll probably be working together at some point during the summer. In the course of my workday I had to go pick up some supplies from the Home Depot. She let me take her Toyota Tacoma to run the errand. When I got back I told her how much I liked driving it. It was a stick shift, and I really miss driving a vehicle with a manual transmission. She then told me I could borrow it and go road tripping if I wished!

Her suggestion was that I should take it up to Talkeetna (where she is from) and check out the town. There’s great views of Denali to see from there as well. While I was up there, she also said I should stop by and visit her brother at their family’s old homestead. After a call to see if it was ok to stop by, I was informed that her bro could use some help moving some things around on the property. Just like that, I had a working vacation set up! I thanked her for her kindness, and promised her I’d take care of her baby as if it were my own.

The next day, I got up early and hit the road. After a couple weeks of only having my feet to get around on, it was awesome having some wheels. I headed up Highway 3 into Mat-Su Valley. The road went through Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, which is probably the most boring and bland Alaskan town I’ve yet been to. They have a Sonic and Raising Cane’s there though, so that took my appreciation of the town up a notch. After Wasilla there’s not much in the way of civilization. There’s a few houses sprinkled along the highway and a gas station or two, but other than that it’s just empty land for the most part.

After almost 3 hours on the road I pulled into the village of Talkeetna. Now this was the small town Alaska experience I was looking for! The place had quite a bit of character. There were throngs of tourists everywhere, I guess this is a popular place to visit on the road to Denali. I was pretty hungry, so I stopped at Shirley’s Burger Barn for a caribou green chilie cheeseburger. It was pretty tasty, it was like eating a burger made from lean hamburger meat.

After I ate, I walked down the main drag to a park that was located at the end of the street. There was a lot of snow on the ground still up here, and it was a bit colder than down south. The Susitna River was still full of ice, breakup was in full swing. Denali stood in full view to the north, and for the first time I got to see this monster of a mountain. You can actually just barely make it out on the horizon in Anchorage about 225 miles away, in Talkeetna it dominates the skyline and it’s still 150 miles away. It’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen by far! It was incredible to be so close to the roof of North America.

A lot of the older people I meet call it by its old name, Mt. McKinley. It will always be Denali to me! At 20,310 feet in height, it seems like you could almost reach out and touch it from 150 miles away.

I took in the sights of town for a while, and when I had my fill I rolled on over to Amy’s family homestead. Amy’s brother Chris was in the middle of trying to get a snowplow off the front of his truck and not having much success. As we both tried to figure out how to remove it, we got to talking. He’s an interesting fellow who works for the railroad. He’s coming off a 6 month medical leave of absence, and wasn’t able to get around that well. This being the case, I offered to help him with whatever I could while I was there. He took me up on that, so after we got the plow off of the truck we got his boat out of storage and pulled it out into the yard with his tractor. Chris is a commercial salmon guy like Thor, although Chris fishes king salmon out of anchored nets. His season is kind of crazy, they only get one day a week from 7 AM to 1 PM to catch as many fish as possible. I guess it has to be regulated like that to keep the fishery going.

Chris’s dog Winchester is a good ‘ol Alaska hound dog. I gave him a good ear scratch and he kept hounding me for more.

Chris wanted to move his broken-down snow machine into his shed, but since it weighed close to 500 lbs he wanted to wait until a friend of his got there to help move the thing. While we waited, he broke out a bottle of vodka and we got to drinkin’. He had some moose meat to cook, so I decided to make a moose sauce piquant and show him how to cook Cajun food. Eventually Chris’s girlfriend and his friend made it home (bringing more vodka) and we got our party on. While the sauce piquant was cooking, we went and manhandled the snow machine. I pulled something in my back in the process, but we got it indoors. Those things are so heavy, I don’t know how they avoid sinking in the snow! Allegedly they can even ride on water short distances when you’re going fast.

After the work was taken care of, it was time for dinner. I was stoked to try out my Alaska-Louisiana fusion creation, unfortunately the moose was so tough it was inedible. It tasted good, but it was like chewing on leather! I figure some time in a pressure cooker would take care of that problem. The sauce piquant part came out good however, we had some rice to eat with it so the dinner wasn’t a total loss. We kicked back after dinner and got pretty hammered. It was my first time hanging out in an Alaska house party situation, and it was just like hanging out with Louisiana people. Obviously it’s different, but it felt like the same down-home vibe I grew up with. Country people are the same everywhere, no matter if they live in the Deep South or the Far North. I definitely felt at home hanging out with those cats, I really enjoyed being there.

As it got dark around midnight, I felt like I needed to lay down. I vaguely remember staggering to my bed in the guest house. I slept really well, and I didn’t wake up until late morning. I needed to hit the road, so I went to the main house to tell everyone goodbye. Chris really wanted me to stay a few more days and work on some projects with him. Thor and I had plans to go down to Kenai the next day however, so I had to turn him down. He gave me some cash for helping him out the day before, and I thanked him for his hospitality. I then made the uneventful trip back to Anchorage. All in all, I highly recommend Talkeetna! The town has character, great views of Denali, and really friendly locals. I hope to spend more time there in the future.

View of the Kenai River mouth. I’ll be seeing this place a lot this summer. Mt. Redoubt (an active volcano, tallest in the Aleutian range at 10,197 ft) looms in the background.

Thor and I returned to Kenai the next day to handle some business, and to see what was going on at the cannery. We were anxious to move into our trailers and start getting the boat set up. When we got to the cannery, the foreman told us they were wrapping up the electrical work. It still would be a few more days though. We really needed to start on mending our nets, so Thor said we would come up and stay on the boat while we worked on it. I wasn’t too keen to stay on a boat in dry-dock with no power, but it was what it was. I was glad to be moving forward, regardless of accomodations.

We ran a few more errands, and then Thor took me to old town Kenai to show me where he grew up. They still have gravel roads there in that part of town on the bank of the Kenai River. It’s a very unique place, I really like it. At the center is a big Russian Orthodox Church (which I forgot to take a picture of) surrounded by old cabins built by the Russians (also forgot photos). This is the first time I’ve seen remnants of Russian Alaska, so that was cool. Thor took me to this cool little cafe called Veronica’s Cafe and Coffee House for lunch. It was also in a historic building, really cool little spot.

Well, that pretty much catches me up on everything I’ve done these past 3 weeks. I didn’t expect to have this amount of time to explore and get into things, but it worked out great. There’s nothing I love more than seeing new places, as well as meeting cool people and doing interesting things in said places. I’ve gotten a perspective on life here from the local point of view, which is how I like to roll. Once we start working, I won’t have the time to explore around, so I’m glad I was able to ease into the season this way. It’s been fun, but I’m ready to start fishing! It won’t be long now!