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!

Alaska, Fishing, Hiking

Back in the Land of the Midnight Sun

It’s been a while, but I’m back in action! After I got back from the desert last fall, I headed back home to Louisiana for a couple of weeks. I partied in New Orleans a bit and finally got around to moving all the stuff out of my storage unit down in Madisonville. I took it all up to Natchez, MS and moved everything into a new unit, which was quite a mission. I then spent some time with the family before returning back to Santa Cruz in early December. I had been traveling and working by that point for almost 6 months, and I hit a brick wall on my return. To finally come to a stop after all my traveling and adventures was jarring. All I wanted to do was to hop on a plane and come back to Alaska, it was hard to get back into California life. I had spent all my summer money by then so I had to find employment. There wasn’t much work available from my usual sources, so I had to get a job at the local natural food store working in the deli. I worked with great people and management, but it was just soul-destroying work. I hadn’t worked a job serving the public in many years, and I came to remember how much I loathed having to cater to the whims of entitled customers. I put my nose to the grindstone and got through it, but I feel like that’s going to be the last winter I can stand living out of my truck and working such a miserable job. I’m just so over living that way, it’s hell on my body & mental state.

It was a long and painful slog, but I got through it. A couple of weeks ago I parked The Beast up at Last Chance once again for the summer, and I hopped on a plane to journey back here to Alaska. The year didn’t feel like it started for me until early April, when me and the boys had a great opening day on the king salmon opener. I had bought a new Penn Squall reel just for the occasion and it caught not only one, but two salmon! Bear-Tits caught one on my rod, and I got the second one after a textbook takedown and retrieval. Hopefully my luck with salmon continues for fishing up here this season!

It’s great to be back here in Alaska, I feel like myself again. All the stress and anxiety that I had been feeling just melted away the second I saw those big beautiful Alaskan mountains on my approach into Anchorage. The first weekend I was here I stayed at the same Airb&b over by Bethan’s house that I rented out last year. I spent some time with Bethan and her mom, it was really nice. We did a lot of hikes and saw a few critters. It was a nice way to ease my way back into Alaska life.

On the Monday after I arrived, Captain Thor picked me up and we drove down to Kenai. During the 2 and 1/2 hour drive, we got to know each other. He’s a pretty cool fellow, we seemed to hit it off really well. Thor and I had planned to stay at his trailers on the grounds of the Pacific Star cannery in Kenai while we started getting the boat ready for the season. When we got there, the management said we couldn’t stay on the property as they needed to do some electrical work. When pressed on when we would be allowed to move in and hook up our trailers, they said it would be at least a week, possibly two. With nothing else to do, we returned to Anchorage. Thor said I could stay in his spare bedroom at his apartment located in the downtown area, so that’s where I’ve been based out of the last couple of weeks.

Every day I’ve gone out and hiked around 4-5 miles a day. His apartment is only a couple of blocks away from the coastal trail, so I’ve been out on that a bunch. There’s so many awesome restaurants within walking distance as well. There’s even a couple of Cajun restaurants downtown that serve food just as good or better than I could get in Louisiana! Anchorage is one of the most diverse cities I’ve ever visited, and there’s so many ethnic restaurants around as a result. The markets tend to have quite an Asian influence which I really like. There’s a market a few blocks away that sells all the Cajun products I love, plus things like poke and canned juice drinks from Hawaii. I’m like a kid in a candy store every time I go and get groceries, it’s almost like being back in the islands.

My favorite view from Elderberry Park, which is about 5 minutes walk from where I am staying. It’s a good place to get stoned and people watch. I usually plan my day while sitting here taking it all in.
This room at a local bar called Chillikoot Charlie’s is full of bras and boxers stapled to the ceiling! Kind of nasty, but I guess it’s an Alaska thing.

It’s actually been really nice to explore this part of Anchorage and get to know Thor. He’s a really cool guy, he’s an accomplished artist, sculptor and boat designer. He’s actually sketching out blueprints for his son to build his own boat, which I think is pretty cool. Thor’s a easygoing dude and we’ve been getting along great, which is a relief. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so being able to get along is huge. He’s a big reader and has a lot of cool books. One he gave me to read was written by his friend Pat and is a memoir. It’s all about commercial salmon fishing with Thor and his dad back in the 70’s and 80’s. It actually was a really good primer for me in regards to what I’m going to be doing this summer. There’s all kinds of tales in there about fishing back in the day. If this season is anything like the ones described in the book, it’s going to be an interesting time to say the least.

Anyone who wants to know about the Alaska commercial fishing business should read this! It’s very well written and full of great stories.

Thor’s introduced me to a lot of people, and I’ve been going out on hikes with his girlfriend. She’s a member of a hiking club and I’ve been going along with her. Our first hike was to the summit of Flat Top mountain, which overlooks the city. I went and bought a pair of YakTrax (chains attached to a rubber band that attaches to one’s boot) to put on my hiking boots. The trail up was still covered in snow and ice, so they were definitely needed for traction. When we got to the trailhead, half the group wanted to stay and hike the relatively easy trail around the mountain. The rest of us headed up the trail leading to the summit. At first, the trail was pretty tame. Occasionally we’d fall through the snow (known as postholing) but I never sunk in deeper than my knees.

I soon fell behind, as I’d stop and take pictures every now and then. The members of the hiking group I was with were like mountain goats and straight charged up the mountain, leaving me in the dust. I’m in decent shape, but the trail conditions started hammering me pretty hard. It was pretty much straight up, and I found myself having to stop and catch my wind pretty frequently. I was set on making the summit however, and I forged ahead. When I got to the last third of the trail, I found that it was pretty much climbing up snow mixed with some rock scrambling. I really could have used some snow poles at this point, but I felt I could accomplish it with the gear I had.

There must have been a dozen times I wanted to quit, as I was running out of energy. The summit was right there though, and I knew if I wimped out I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself. The last 30 feet I was climbing the snow like a ladder. Finally, I made the summit! It was exhilarating, and the views were just spectacular. I finally get why people climb mountains now, it’s just the most rewarding experience. The feeling of accomplishment is like being high on a drug or something.

Incredible views off of the summit.

Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. It seems that the hikers ahead of me had slid down the mountain for their descent. After walking around the summit for a bit, I realized that I either follow their lead or go back down the way I came up. I took one look at the drop that went for a mile downslope and realized that if I didn’t slide properly, I’d just tumble all the way down…possibly breaking every bone in my body in the process. Since there was no one with me to show me the proper technique of sliding down the mountain, I decided I’d have to go back the way I came. I got myself together and eased my way over the lip of the summit doing a kind of crabwalk. My main goal was to inch my way down and not get into an uncontrollable slide. It went well at first and it seemed I would be able to control my descent.

Alas, soon gravity took over and I felt myself beginning to slide. Suddenly, I was off like a rocket! My backpack and water bottle was ripped loose and slid down with me. Snow filled my pants and shirt as I careened down the mountain. A whole bunch of snow was sliding down with me and for a moment I thought I was going to start my own personal avalanche. As I shot straight down the mountain, I found that I could kind of steer with my legs and was able to make my way over into a bunch of snow that was broken up by footprints. The rough snow finally stopped my slide and I came to a halt. About this time my phone rings and it is Thor’s girlfriend, Ingrid. It seems everyone else had made it down and she was wondering where I was at. I told her I was on my way back and I was busy sliding down the mountain at the moment, I’d be back to the parking lot momentarily.

I was pretty shaken up by the experience, but it was pretty exhilarating at the same time! I seemed to be all right at the moment, but as I made my way back down and the adrenaline wore off I started feeling some bad pain in my right forearm. I peeled back my sleeve and saw that I had a major scrape. I must have tore it up on a rock or something on my way down. I could have messed myself up far worse, so I counted myself lucky. The rest of my descent was without incident, although I got off the trail close to the bottom and got my leg stuck in the snow for a few minutes before I could dig it out. It’s amazing how the snow can harden like concrete once you’re stuck in a drift. I can definitely see how doomed someone would be if they got stuck inside an avalanche. If there ain’t someone around to dig you out if that happens, you’re pretty screwed.

I didn’t know you could get road rash on a mountain, now I do.

So that’s pretty much the goings-on of my first week. I’ve done a lot more things around here since, but I figured I’d save that for next time and split this into two parts. Stay tuned for further Dogfish Tales coming at you from the Great White (well, green now) North!