Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Alaska. Finally.


What was once simply an adventure destination for me, became so much more over the last 3 years. It's no secret I abandoned the state to lick a few wounds and do some soul searching for a spell. After spending these gap years between West Africa and Colorado with some travel peppered in between, it was finally time to head back to the land of salmon, glaciers, megafauna, and of course, Denali.

It was finally time to chase down some ghosts and reclaim a world I'd ignored for too long.

Grab a cuppa something, this is an endurance post...
I know some pretty amazing people up in that pretty amazing place who made this trip happen. After a job opportunity came up that I couldn't refuse, a plane ticket was purchased and suddenly I was northbound once again. Life in the Kenai Fjords is sweet and this company is truly something special in a sea of tourism capitalists. Old and new friends alike made this an incredibly magical introduction to an ecosystem with which I was previously only acquaintances.  After tasting the washed up kelp, picking through piles of bear scat, smooshing my face into the mossy cliff side, and sunbathing under the after-dinner sun; I'd call us down right intimate friends now.

Work training. We're getting paid. At this moment.

Just another work day  

After a month of hiking and canoeing (mostly) jovial guests around glaciers and beaches (life is so hard!), it was time to move on. I'd finished my contract and now, for me, the real work began. I had some people to see and some miles to cover. And so I headed to Cooper Landing on the Kenai to see if the salmon were running and hug a few more folks.

Alaska welcomed be back hard this entire trip, and my old stomping grounds were no exception. I'd spent some formative years there and was ready for the next chapter. It didn't disappoint. Crushing embraces and blinding smiles, that's how I remember walking back into my old home.

Squishy feelings aside for a moment, perhaps the most notable change was the baby faced staff! When did they get so young?! As I still have zero self awareness of my age and do indeed delight in frivolity, shenanigans, and a good ol' naked dance party every now and then, I was slightly caught off guard when an adorable, young raft guide (who, to me, would have looked more appropriate in a baby bjorn carrier than sitting next to me at the bar) sized me up and quipped:

"You're THIRTY?! You look goooooooood!"

Le sigh. As my social and career circles continue to evolve...30 seems pretty damn fresh faced...

And so when not another hug could be managed, I headed south to Homer. It was time to kick off a bit of solo mojo travel time. While I truly needed to reconnect with old friends, this trip was just as much about rediscovering Alaska on my own terms.

Camping on the Homer spit.

Camped on the Homer Spit for a few nights. Enjoyed the sea spray on my face, ate fresh halibut, and drank a brew while watching an enormous raft of sea otters frolic...who were probably up to no good.

And then it was right back into the mix! The first sockeye salmon run had finally made it to the upper Kenai. I'd very seriously had dreams about catching these fish again. After trout fishing in Colorado, I just wasn't prepared for the fight. The fly line ripped through my index finger, which casually held the plastic coated thread in place until the fish would run into the current, leaving a burning reminder on my hands that I wasn't in Kansas anymore!

First dolly varden! Kind of a big deal...
FINALLY caught a dolly varden. I wasn't much of an angler the last time around. Salmon and halibut filled my freezer but the true art of angling eluded me. This beauty was a true gift and the hilarity that ensued between a girlfriend and myself once we realized what it was, (picture: rain pants ripping, lady screaming, "GET THE CAMERA" kind of fun) was probably appreciated by our neighbors...I'm sure.

After catching enough salmon to send 30 lbs of meat home to to my own Dalai Mama, I headed north. Having guided trips all over the state for 3 years, this was more north time than I'd EVER had to myself. A friend had tipped me off to drive the Denali Highway... If I ever disappear of my own accord, that's where I'll be. Just leave me to it.
Tangle Lakes on the Denali Highway
I drove from east to west, hunting grayling fish and views the entire way. A nice surprise was all the camping along the way. I did stop at Brushkana campground one night and was promptly invited into the Fairbanks home of the campground host.  Once again, it became clear that while Alaska is a brutal environment, the people are some of the best and most welcoming I've encountered.

July 4th camping on the Denali Highway

One of my larger, professional goals of this trip (because God forbid I just enjoy being somewhere!) was to check out the University of Alaska - Fairbanks.  While I have no idea if I'll be accepted anywhere, I'm throwing my hat in the ring for a PhD next fall and UAF quickly rose on my list after a visit.

Sure. Some days the whole place was under a smoggy blanket of forest fire smoke. Sure. It hit 90 degrees during most of the week I was there. But the faculty and student welcome was genuinely impressive, especially for summer.  Best surprise? The 9th Avenue Hostel! Clean beds and great host. Most people I know scoff at the idea of spending 5 years of one's life in, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. Seemed like a pretty sweet option to me.  From what I observed, the dating scene alone could fuel this blog for years...

And then it was time to hit the road again. Denali or bust!  Anyone with whom I've ever spoken about Alaska knows my eyes glaze over and knees go weak when I talk about that place. I love that park more than most areas I've been to and...that damn mountain!
Denali - The High One

She is my special place. While I have no desire to become a mountaineer (way too dangerous...and cardio. Ick.), this mountain was truly my first love up here and inspires an eye watering, gut-punch feeling of wonder in me. Something I haven't felt in a very long time.

Was nice to fall in love again. 

I hiked around the back country for a night. But if you get dropped off at 8pm, all 90 miles of the way back into the park. Beware. Tundra and mosquitoes nearly drove me insane. After SLOGGING for a fews hours through tussocks and falling down like a drunk baby with a 30-pound pack on several times, I made for the river.

Clearly, I'd picked the wrong back country quadrant as the water was un-filterable due to high mineral content. Couldn't get to any of the clean streams I'd picked on the map since I'd been foiled by waist-deep tundra.  No idea if I camped on park or private lodge land that night. Don't care. I'll head to the park backcountry again, MUCH wiser and humbled for my poor planning this time.  No matter. I saw the mountain and gaped at the wildlife. She still has her spell on me, no question.

My Argentinian Hitch Hiker
Figured the second salmon run was on, so I scooted out of the park and made my way south. Stopping just once to pick up a hitch hiker. Esteban had completely blown the back tire on his motorcycle (that he'd rode up from Argentina?!).  We made a plan, found no tires within 200 miles, and headed for Anchorage.

Sleeping in a truck cab in a McDonalds parking lot in Wasilla quickly forms a lifelong bond. Can't wait to see this guy on his home turf! I don't think we'll be riding motos though....

With just a few days left, I headed back to the Kenai in search of salmon. Turns out the second run was slated to hit the upper portion a week after I left. Cue the sad trombone.

A friend and I decided to try our luck. It was my birthday eve anyways! With minimal fanfare, we loaded the booze, food, rods, tents, and booze on to our tiny TINY raft, pushed down the river, snagged 1 lady in the belly, and promptly decided there just weren't any fish in the river that day.

Birthday eve bear viewing

Which was fine because BEARS! We watched two bears scamper and frolic (seriously, I can think of no better words to describe their actions) for about half an hour. Because there were no fish, there were no other fishermen. So it was just 2 girls, 2 bears, and one boat on the river. Best birthday gift ever.

My birthday day was just a few days before I flew out. I spent it writing postcards, staring at Kenai Lake, and evaluating my journey over the last year. It's been incredible!

Live in the present. Be thankful for the past, it's making me who I am.

Birthday eve fishing
And so it was with a very full heart, I stuffed my backpack once more and headed back to Colorado. So excited to explore more rivers, hike new trails, and use my brain. This trip was been amazing but one thing became clear, I can't camp and hike away from my future.  Alaska will always be there. We kind of have a thing, she and I.  Finally, moving forward on my path...