Another summer in Alaska. Whole lot of time on the rivers, a little bit of wildlife, extended light and endless amazement at the sheer beauty of it all. The magnitude of the landscapes, the severity of relief. Seeing the same mountains day after day and marveling at their infinite capacity for captivation, their ability to generate wonderment, reverence. Watching colossal skies shift color endlessly, a steady transformation constantly at play between heaven and earth. A scope of supreme proportions.
One can’t help but to sigh, to struggle with comprehension. The perfection uplifting and oppressive at the same time. The immensity of it all. The impossibility of so much space and land and beauty and indifference.
Once again, however, I feel as if I failed at Alaska. Perhaps it’s hard not to. After so many years of heading north, so many dreams of figuring it all out, of allowing myself to be totally consumed, or at the very least of seeing a little bit more of the place – I’ve still yet to come anywhere close. It’s always the road, the planes, the machines. It’s staying too close in. It’s lacking the proper dedication required to find oneself far far away from anything like this world, a thousand miles, at least, from the closest chain store. It’s the inability to summon the attitude and attributes necessary to disappear into real wilderness for weeks at a time. I still believe in the idea of it all, dream of possibilities, but continue to falter. To pretend to have more pressing things to do. Work, for instance, making more money to spend at strip malls and supermarkets and all manner of soul-sucking endeavor. Bah.
No matter, for now. We do the best we can, or say we do. And still, to be there, to breathe in that place for a while, to see those mountains, the same ones, though always different, day after day – there is some success in that. In the knowing that it’s all there, uncaring. In the knowing that it is there. Simply that, sometimes, is enough.
So we celebrate small victories. Celebrate making the most of all that our self-imposed constraints allow. Celebrate fragmented explorations and scratching the surface. Celebrate the day hikes and short trips and seeing a couple new places. We celebrate, as always, the floating of rivers and running of rapids and sleeping on sandy beaches. We celebrate life itself, the living of it. And even if every single day isn’t maximized to its fullest potential, there’s a close proximity to such. There is appreciation. So that’s what this is all about, for now, a little bit of success. A few small victories. A tiny tiny sliver of a domain unto itself. A summer’s worth of small adventures and daily encounters with grandeur.
Stacking up the fun tickets, as one James would say. Work, if you can call it that. Most days I run a couple of trips down the Matanuska River. Rowing folks down the morning float, putting them to work on the whitewater. The Mat runs gray, silty, and cold, like most glacial rivers in Alaska, and I love guiding on it for several reasons. The fact that it’s wild and free and constantly in flux, first of all. The level can change considerably between morning and afternoon trips, and significantly from day to day. I also love it because NOVA is the only company that runs it. No lines at the put-in, frustrations at the get-out, no ten boat trips of slack-asses dragging eddy lines in front of you. Just get in and go downstream and have the whole place to yourself. I love it because it’s fun. Three miles of scenery, three miles of crushing waves, and a bit of messing around on the last mile to the take-out. I love it for the ‘glacial facials’ the river dishes out daily. And I like working at NOVA, the 40+ year history of the company, the old school atmosphere but with quality gear, the solid team of guides, and the generosity of the owner, Mr. Chuck Spaulding, employer and friend.
Both creator of and counterpart to the river. Mostly I see it on the drive-by, admire it from afar, but I’ll go out and walk around now and again. Check out the formations, maybe kick a few steps in some slush and mess around with a couple ice axes and the glacier guides. Pretty amazing out there in the early summer, before the melting and flattening begin. This year featured the appearance of some monster moulins, massive potholes in the ice, and a secret ice cave to hang out in, its walls crystalline blue.
An Alaskan classic, they say, though I’m not selling it quite so hard. Do feel privileged to have had the opportunity to run it a few times, but the scenery can get a bit monotonous, low hills, low clouds, and half-dead spruce forests. More than anything, I suppose, a lot of flat water for a 3-day whitewater trip, and, again, not the most engaging landscapes Alaska has to offer. Lots of salmon streams to stop at during the right season, however, hundreds of multi-hued forms visible under the surface, and generally plenty of other wildlife to be observed. Eagles, caribou, bear, moose… And the half-day of whitewater, if the river gets going, certainly has the potential to make the trip truly memorable – continuous miles of big hits, huge waves, and terrifying pour-overs. I saw it BIG the first time, and will not forget. Did I mention that you fly in and raft all the way back to town? And that town itself, the celebrated Talkeetna, is a cool little place in its own right? Certainly worth the time, and worth checking out if you have the chance, but if I was spending my own cash on a charter I would either spend a couple days hiking in the high-country after flying in, or more time fishing, or perhaps search out a different destination altogether. Perhaps even the…
Another trip we offer, and run quite often, mostly with organized groups of southeastern teens who do things right and spend 8 days hiking through the Talkeetna Range to the headwaters, where we fly in with boats and a whole mess of food to meet them and raft the 30 river miles back to the highway. Now this is some amazing scenery, massive peaks and granite cliffs the whole way down. It’s just on the other side of the mountains from the Talkeetna River, but the landscapes are far removed. The river itself, like all the rivers I’ve been on in Alaska, never stops moving, though also never gets too crazy, mostly Class II with a couple more exciting parts, and one annoying boulder and log jumble we call Hotel Rocks that warrants attention. Would be awesome to fly in to the airstrip (more like a BMX track in the middle of a bunch of alders…) and check out the basin for a few days before getting on the water.
Other Places of Note
As mentioned, most of the summer was dedicated to income generation. There weren’t many days off, and our departure came premature due to quick changes in personal obligations. But, when there were opportunities, we took advantage of them. A few words and photos from those times.
Highly recommended if you’re in the Palmer/Anchorage area and up for a worthwhile challenge. An amazing day hike to test both legs (ha, both legs…) and endurance. Like most trails in Alaska this one goes straight up (and straight down) the side of the mountain. With a starting elevation around sea level and the peak at almost 6400’, obtained in a mere six miles or so, you might guess there’s a degree of suffering involved, though in my experience more during the descent than the climb. The rewards, however, in the form of awe-inspiring panoramic vistas, are immense and almost immediate with abundant and ever-changing vantages of the Knik Glacier/River and the ice-covered Chugach Range in the distance. The option to turn around whenever you like always exists, of course, but one of two basic goals generally determines most peoples’ motivations. The first stop is at the top of the ridgeline, about 4.5 miles up. The views from here are probably almost as good as from the peak, but if you’ve got heart (lungs and legs) enough to keep going, the hiking gets even more remarkable from this point as the trail follows a narrow ridge the remainder of the way up. A bit more heavy breathing, a few short breaks, a couple exciting scree encounters, and you’ll be there. And there is a good place to be. Views of the confluence of the Matanuska and Knik, the estuary, and the Inlet/Pacific Ocean await your arrival, along with glimpses of Marcus Baker, highest point in the Chugach, to the east. Take a while to be there if you make it, as there’s no reason to hurry to the knee-walloping walk back down. One of the best days I had all summer.
Gold Cord Lake
Hatcher Pass is one of the more popular destinations in South Central AK, in summer and winter both. Just outside of Palmer, year round options for recreation abound amongst a backdrop of stellar mountain scenery. The area offers several great trails, and opportunities to explore old mining ruins, the most popular being Independence, one of Alaska’s top producing gold mines until WWII. With only a day’s rest after Pioneer, we took it a little easy and opted to walk up to Gold Cord Lake, then stroll through the mine site on the way back down. One of the most traveled trails in the area, the path climbs from parking lot to lake in a mile or so. We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves for a short while, and were treated to fluffy clouds mirrored across the emerald green water. Afterwards, we drove over the pass itself, a dirt road leading over to the town of Willow and eventually on back to Palmer and the Arkose Brewery (best beer in AK if you ask me).
Copper Center to Chitina
A week before taking off, we got in a 24 hour mini-vacation and headed southeast, eventually ending up in the tiny town of Chitina where we camped out beside the mighty Copper River. Along the way we managed to check out a couple of short hikes, one to the Tonsina River, and another to a waterfall and high mountain lake. The next morning, we found another trail overlooking an upper portion of the Tonsina, and walked in a steady rain for a couple of hours before heading over to Copper Center. That afternoon we met up with some guides from NOVA’s sister company, River Wrangellers, and rowed a raft down the Klutina.
Had a chance to float about 18 miles of the Klutina one afternoon in August. Long bumpy 4×4 drive along the rim with great views of the river on the way to the put-in. Once in the boats, it was fast moving, turquoise blue water, big sedimentary cliffs, and bald eagles galore. The guides there do mostly fishing trips, and could talk of nothing but Kings.
And that was that. Time moving. Months disappearing, the days convoluted blurs across the backdrop of mind. Better enjoy each one as it passes, no matter what you’re doing as it does. I try, I really do. Currently in a part of the world I have never spent much time in, Ohio. The fabled, or perhaps rarely discussed, Midwest. Specifically SE Ohio, and, from what I hear, there is a distinction to be made. The foothills of Appalachia, rather than the flat fertile expanses of farmlands one might imagine. A long way from Alaska, to be certain, not only in distance and geography, but all manner of comparison. There’s beauty to be found everywhere, however, and this place does not lack for it. Guess it’s exactly where I should be for the meantime.