Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Notes on Alaska

The first time my dad went to Alaska, he kept a journal. I didn't do so well, but I did take a few notes; and more importantly, I took in a lot of sights, sounds and smells that create some pleasant memories. I'll share some highlights with you here.

For those who care and may not already know... Alaska is bigger than the next three largest states, or the 22 smallest states. Yeah, it's big.
Denali National Park and Preserve alone (the third largest national park, after two other parks that are also in Alaska) is larger than the state of Vermont. I couldn't begin to fathom its six million acres, but I sure did enjoy every bit that I experienced firsthand.

I learned a lot while visiting. More than I wanted to know about coal, less than I would like to know about the geology of the place, and plenty of historical tidbits. However, I won't share all of them here, because although it was all very interesting, what was marvelous about Alaska was just seeing and being there. I don't get much happier than I am when I'm on top of a mountain, seeing for miles around; or walking through a forest, breathing in the sweet smells of wildflowers and spruce trees. And honestly, I don't think I've met more quirky people than I did in my short ten days in Alaska. (Whether they're quirky 'cause they're in Alaska, or the reverse, I'm not sure...)


So on my "dream vacation" (which, by the way, cost a LOT less than it typically would, thanks to my daddy who works there, whose wife has connections, and whose success in the local poker tournaments provided some prime gift certificates to area attractions), I got to do a lot of things including: A day cruise, whitewater rafting, a Jeep safari, an ATV safari, two dinner theatres (which were better than I expected - food-wise and musically:), ordering "whatever we wanted, as much as wanted" (literally) for free at the most expensive restaurant in the gulch (dad's refrigeration skills paid off!), and relaxing in a hot tub at the end of every [17 hours of] day[light].

But the best parts of course were things that are free anyway: Hiking, being surprised by wildlife, picking and eating wild berries, attending a presentation on "Subsistence and Conservation," watching a family fly kites at a city park in Anchorage, touching the Exit Glacier (I said free, not necessarily legal...), viewing The Mountain (Denali/The High One/Mt.McKinley), and spending time with family and new friends.

Animals I saw for the first time with my own eyes in their natural habitat:
Sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, puffins, moose, caribou, porcupine, dall sheep, beavers, marmots, ptarmigans... finally (after hoping and hoping) some wolves and... I kept saying "I want to see a bear, but from a distance, when I am safe in a car/bus" - well by the end of the trip, I did - seven or eight of them - but, especially after hearing a couple of our guides talk about their up-close grizzly encounters, I began to wish I could see them a little bit closer. But I guess that'll have to wait until...

Next Time:

I knew before going, as with most trips, that I'd end up wanting to go back in the future. I didn't know ahead of time that I would feel like staying and never even bothering to come home. It's the bug... you can see it in the faces of two out of every three males in the state (and those are usually the, ah, more unshaven ones)... and I started to catch it! Oh, if it weren't for grad school starting in a couple short weeks, I would've been glad to take a job there for the rest of the summer, as there seem to be plenty available this late in the season.
So anyway, about halfway into my first day, I started a list of things to do "next time" - if there is a next time. Things like hiking to the Harding Icefield, taking a rail trip, going to the hot springs, hiking ALL the way up Mt. Healy and on the WHOLE Triple Lakes trail - and numerous other longer hikes that are available, actually camping in the park, and climbing Mt. McKinley. Just kidding, I don't ever want to do that. Too risky.

Speaking of risky, Alaska, and Denali in particular, is not without some very disturbing and sobering events.

Only recently have loaded firearms been allowed in the park and preserve, and it is still illegal to discharge them. (Yeah, I questioned that when I first heard it, too. Why is it legal to carry a gun yet illegal to shoot? Oh, yeah... a "right" to bear arms. Silly Americans.) Well, a couple months ago a hiker and his girlfriend encountered a grizzly bear in the park. (By the way, the NPS and everyone else who hosts visitors to Denali is very good at educating on the proper ways to respond to bears, moose, etc. No one has an excuse to be ignorant. Although I wouldn't blame anyone for freaking out and not knowing what to do in an actual event.) Supposedly the girl was threatened by the bear, and the guy instinctively shot at, and killed, it.

While I was there, a young man and young woman tried to cross the Teklanika River near the end of Stampede Road (made famous by the book and movie, "Into the Wild"). They had a poorly-rigged rope system to help them, and the current was too strong, and the woman ended up drowning. My dad's wife, Lori, told us the news after she heard it from some hikers who had just spoken to the young couple the day before, and were pretty shaken up about it. Lori herself was frustrated (and she's not alone in her frustration) over how many people, idealizing the story in the book and movie, come to Denali in search of "the bus," and are unprepared and unwise in how they approach visiting the area.

During my week long stay in Denali, I became increasingly convinced that such a beautiful wilderness is just that - we should be careful to respect and preserve its natural beauty, and we should not think we are greater than the natural forces that can be so wild and unpredictable.