to the sea

The docks at Seward's Resurrection Bay

Shoreside Marina, with a stunning backdrop of the Kenais

During the good old days, when my boyfriend (now fiance) still serenaded me, he took us on a trip down south (by south I mean the Kenai) for a week-long getaway. Our itinerary included a night in Anchorage, then a drive to Whittier where we’d board the Chenega Ferry with the Alaska Marine Highway, and a jaunt across Prince William Sound to the small fishing village of Cordova. Cordova is inaccessible by car, and just as a side note, I sometimes like to imagine us having our wedding there–more specifically at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, overlooking the inlet and docks, where we’d know everybody and everybody would know us: the fishermen, the bartenders, and all the locals.  It’d be an unforgettable party, because people in Cordova know how to drink. And the next morning we’d host a brunch (because we’d live there), with jars of salmon straight from our homemade smoker, and invitations to take a steam in our sauna. Then we’d go out on our boat for bloody mary’s on the river. But that’s just a fantasy. I only really know one person in Cordova.

Anyway, we hadn’t planned on going to Seward, but when we got to the requisite tunnel for getting into Whittier, the road was closed. A boulder had fallen inside the tunnel, making the route impassable. Except for the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m, when a DOT worker would lead a convoy of vehicles carefully through.  But our ferry was supposed to leave at 4. We couldn’t believe the ferry system, who we’d made our reservations with, hadn’t contacted us about the closure. But everyone else couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard about the thing on our own accord.

So we turned around, pulled over to draw up a plan B, and cracked open a couple of beers. Then we drove to Seward for dinner. An hour or so away, we’d get back in time for the 7 o’clock convoy, spend the night in Whittier–we didn’t know where yet–and catch the early morning ferry for Cordova.

Dinner passed. We toured the docks and marveled at the boats and mountains and the fact that Seward is one of the most northern most ports in the world, because it’s right on the cusp, but doesn’t freeze up. We drove back toward the tunnel, got through it successfully, and entered Whittier.

My boyfriend/fiance wanted to camp, but the only place passable for a campsite was a gravel parking lot on the edge of town.  Even in May, it was cold; the surrounding hills were still laden with snow. So I thumbed through our Milepost, looking for suggestions on indoor lodging. I found a B & B. It sounded quaint, so I called them up. We were driving by an old derelict building with graffiti on the insides, water flowing into the bottom floor in a steady stream.

A woman answered and I asked if she had a room available. “Sure,” she said. “Let me put some clothes on and get one ready for you. Do you know where we are?”

No, I didn’t know.

“You know the really tall building in town? The tallest one we have? With the blue strip across the top?”

Yeah, I knew. It was indistinguishable–industrial and ugly.

“Just go on up to the top floor, room such and such, and I’ll set you up.”

I got off the phone and read a blurb about the building in the Milepost. It was an old army barracks and now functioned as the lodging quarters for the majority of the town’s residents. It was also the setting for the B&B, and we were staying on its 14th floor.

We pulled into the parking lot and walked into the large swath of concrete. Flyers were tacked to an events board in the entryway, advertising old folks outings and the upcoming goings on for the residents. I’m sure some rooms had views of the port and the bay, where the manager said she watched barges load and unload all day, but ours only had a view of the center courtyard and the other wings of the building. Concrete and stale air surrounded us, and I thought I was getting strep throat. We didn’t even have sex that night, and everyone loves good sex on vacation.

The quaint B & B

We high-tailed it out of Whittier the next morning on the Chenega, and the travels to come, it turns out, were worth the stopover. We saw an orca pod from the ferry viewing dock, sea otters playing in the bay, and big oil tankers. The fresh air also cured me of the strep.

The mighty Chenega

There goes our oil!

Even though we thought we were staying in a refurbished lighthouse in Cordova, and it turned out we were just staying at a regular inn with a small model lighthouse in the backyard, we had great sex and margaritas that night.

We drove out to Child’s Glacier and saw the mighty Copper River full of silt and runoff the next day. To be honest, we didn’t see the glacier calve (even though we told everybody we did, because it made our trip sound better). But apparently there had been a TV program out there the year before, filming an extreme sports enthusiast surfing on the waves caused by calving glaciers. It sounded exhilarating, and terribly dangerous.

The next night we camped in the most beautiful waterfowl refuge in the Copper River Delta. One of the most serene places I’ve ever been. We had chips and salsa and more margaritas, and made beans and rice and Cajun sausages on the camp stove for dinner. It was the first time I’d been tent camping in years.

A trumpeter swan makes its way through the Alaganik sloughs along the Copper River Delta

Wild calla lilies grow along the sloughs, which are filled to the brim with lily pads

Our campsite for the night, with thunder clouds looming over

A burn area along the Copper River Highway, near Child's Glacier. I love this image for the austerity of the colors, which reminds me of Fairbanks in the wintertime.

We left Cordova the next day, after hiking Haystack Trail where I swear we saw a white moose, with plans of returning to Fairbanks. But we didn’t want to go back. So we made a detour out of Whittier and headed south and west for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where we camped one more night. The peninsula, with its proximity to Anchorage, draws a lot of weekend visitors–a far cry from roadless Cordova, which I’d grown to love. But my boyfriend/fiance bet me that I couldn’t drink a full bottle of wine on my own, and with my stubborn Midwestern pride (which I think he took advantage of), I accepted his challenge and won, and the next morning, he told me that I’d been a whole lot of fun.

2 responses to “to the sea

  • monsieurlepeep

    Kate, I love the picture of the burn area on the Copper River! That monochrome tone makes it look nearly black and white. I’d love to make a print and frame it. Will you sell it? I like your blog! The story about Whittier is compelling. I’ve thought of it many times and I think I’ve even dreamed about it. There’s something about that image of the tall building, the blocked tunnel that I find deeply interesting. It reminds me for some reason of my grandparent’s apartment in Buenos Aires. They lived on the 11th floor and I would get lost taking the stairs because all the doors looked alike and they were the only people I knew in that great city, it seemed.

  • Kate

    I’ll probably just send you that photo for free. I wish you’d take me with you to Argentina/Uruguay some day. I envision cobblestone and great wines and meat everywhere. There’s a wonderful piece of writing in the 2010 Best American Travel Writing, called “Me, Myself, and Ribeye,” about how heavenly beef is in Argentina. Apparently Argentinians know how to cook up a piece of meat better than anyone stateside, including Montanans, who have great beef sensibilities. I’m sharing this with you because I know you secretly eat all the meat you can get your hands on when you’re in another country.

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