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.


fire season

A burn area that charred everything from the trees to the road sign, on the Elliot Highway, where I was working with the DOT

After-effects of a low-lying ground fire in the taiga, near Minto Flats

my tire garden

Pansies brighten up the place

Green leaf lettuce growing in a tire

The whole thing

The tire looks a little redneck, I know. But with the short growing season and the ground hardened from permafrost, it proved helpful in retaining heat.  I worked a lot that summer with the DOT, and was out of town week after week, so my garden was small and low-maintenance. Pansies, beans, rhubarb, broccoli, green leaf lettuce, a tomato plant, and some herbs (which never really took off). I love the chore of keeping up a garden, as well as the color that it brings.

shaw creek

Getting ready to canoe down the Tanana from Shaw Creek, just north of Delta Junction

An overhead view of the Tanana, from Tenderfoot bluff

Not many people canoe the Tanana, and for good reason. With an incessant current, deadly cold temperatures, and silt from glacial runoff that’ll fill your clothes and sink you to the bottom, it has a reputation for fierceness. Log jams could flip the boat in a heartbeat. And sandbars, popping up all over the place, make it easy to get stuck. But the river was my backyard, and we weren’t going far. The takeout spot was just below the bluff where I lived and we wanted to check out the not-accessible-by-foot surroundings.

As we navigated the river, I thought of the community just a few miles away, to the west of the river, in the Middle Tanana Valley, called Whitestone. Accessible only by boat in the summer, and by a road constructed of ice, which crosses the river, in the winter, the faith-based community  is truly isolated. The community began in 1982 when a church group from New Hampshire contacted the man who staked a claim on Whitestone during the Federal Homestead Act. They bought the land and later turned it into an agriculturally-based village. Since that time, community members have built impressive infrastructure, including a powerline, a  fuel storage facility, a landfill, and a weather station used by NOAA to collect data. Barley and wheat fields, along with a private school, also populate the land. Residents of Delta, the town 10 miles to the south, sometimes refer to Whitestone as a cult or commune. But the community does integrate itself somewhat, as a means of making money. It owns a greenhouse along the Richardson Highway, and helps maintain Rika’s Roadhouse, a historical park and popular tourist destination in Big Delta.

It’s easy to let your imagination run wild in such a secluded and extraordinary place, since a lifestyle like the one the Whitestone community lives is beyond what many of us know. What I mean is, I wonder if the Whitestones are communists. (If they are, I think it’d be fascinating. I’d want to interview them.) I elude to this because there’s been a large influx of Russians in Delta, and their hometown, Claremont, New Hampshire, also experienced a Russian population boom in the early 1900s. Most of them were orthodox, and most of them were members of the communist party, escaping religious persecution and economic hardship. Having never met any of the Whitestone folks, I have no idea what their intentions and exact backgrounds are–other than that they want to live a life in tune with their religious beliefs, and that means isolation. But I think they could be staging the next revolution. So look out, Delta Junction.

Our trip down the river was without incident. We went back to the area across from the put-in spot a few times that summer to set hooks for burbot, which people say is the poor man’s lobster. But we never caught any. I can only assume how good it must taste, broiled, with melted butter for dipping. I bet the Whitestone community knows all about–the proletariat lobster.

land of the midnight sun

The sun finally skirts the horizon around 12:30 a.m. at the Midnight Sun Baseball Game

The Goldpanners in action against the Military All-Stars

This past summer solstice, the Goldpanners played the Military All-Stars during the Midnight Sun Baseball Game. With names on the backs of our opponents’ jerseys like Hiroshima, Okinawa, Hero, Free at Last, Colonies, and Four Score & 7, it was hard to root against them. I’m sure that’s not any part of their strategical plan, though.  The All-Stars are made up of active-duty members of our armed services, and they say they play in the league to bring awareness to Americans in support of the military’s sacrifices. The Panners, on the other hand, are just a bunch of college kids, from all over the country, playing over the summer in hopes of staying fit and gaining experience in the minor leagues. Despite their amateur status, though, they’re a blast to watch. And some of it end up making it big.

Barry Bonds, for instance, who exceeded Babe Ruth in home-runs on the all-time list, and left-handed Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, known for his eccentricity on and off the field, both made their debuts with the Panners. When asked what accounted for his bizarre pitching style and personality, Lee said, “I used to play for the Alaska Goldpanners, and when you play on permafrost, and it warms and your centerfield disappears, that leads to eccentricity.” In 2008, “Spaceman” came back to Fairbanks at the ripe old age of 60 and pitched six continuous innings during that year’s Midnight Sun Game. Fans couldn’t have been happier.

Baseball is one of summer’s greatest past times as is. But in the land of the midnight sun, when the first pitch isn’t thrown ’til 10:30 p.m., and the last play may not end until four in the morning, baseball becomes a whole new ballgame. No matter if you have to work the next morning, these guys are worth watching.

just for the halibut

Our campsite on the Homer Spit, Fourth of July Weekend

Cut up herring for the halibut to eat

Going home happy

The take-away

We (me, my boyfriend, his brother, and my best friend from high school) pulled into Homer on Fourth of July weekend, the same weekend hundreds of motorcyclists arrived, just across the street from our campsite, at the finish line of a 7,000+ mile rally that began in Key West. It isn’t really 7,000 miles from Florida to Homer, although it’s close. The bikers took a circuitous route along back roads and secondary highways, mapped out for them by race officials and disclosed to them at checkpoints along the way. In this spirit, they never knew for certain where they were headed next.

The word rally was a bit misleading, too, but smartly used, since races, as far as I know, are illegal in this country. The object of the event was to cross the finish line first and go home with $500,000 in gold. I mean, that’s a lot of money. Maybe even enough to make you want to step on it some. I’m sure motorcyclists obeyed the speed limit restrictions rule, though, as well as the regulation that disqualified anyone showing evidence of having used performance enhancing drugs.  Motorcyclists generally seem to be an obedient and docile bunch.

Unfortunately, but not entirely surprisingly, one man died during the event in Converse County, Wyoming. Another man was hospitalized after colliding with two bicyclists training for a series of triathlons on the Parks Highway near Nenana. Since there was no evidence that the motorcyclist hit his brakes, police suspect he fell asleep while driving.

We didn’t realize any of this would be going on in Homer when we planned our trip and reserved our charter boat. It was all fortuitous, but probably could have been better planned. The Homer Spit–a four and a half mile gravel bar that extends into the bay–was kind of like a third world country that weekend. Kids were running around barefoot on the littered beach playing hide-and-seek in porta-potties. Porta-potties that hundreds of people were using. And the smell of dead fish left an indelible mark.

All in all, though, we had a fabulous time. (And just a disclaimer: I’ve loved all developing countries I’ve ever visited.) And we met two of the motorcyclists, and a guy from their support crew, that were perfectly nice people. We were on our charter boat fishing for halibut in Kachemak Bay; they were having a good time, we were having a good time, and we became fast friends. When someone would announce that they’d caught a fish, and the person across the boat would ask how big it was, we all made jokes about how quickly we were getting to know each other. We figured size is typically a personal matter.

We ended up catching our quota–two halibut per person–and walked away with 80 pounds of fish. Our deckhand filleted them in front of us on the boat, and having pounded three Red Bulls in 15 minutes, he did it faster than my eyes could follow. He’d slice the fish open from anus to head, gut out the entrails, chop off the head, and cut fillets in 30 seconds top. He truly made an art form out of it.

My tried and true method of cooking the fish: season it with coarsely ground pepper and pan-fry it in olive oil, then put it on a plump kaiser roll, buttered and put under the broiler to toast, with horseradish sauce and a lemon on the side. I also made halibut tacos, complete with homemade guacamole and a mango salsa my mom made, and a recipe I tried to replicate from The Reluctant Fisherman in Cordova, where they drizzle a fillet with olive oil and top it with thinly sliced Parmesan and sun-dried tomatoes. It doesn’t get any better than that.

the interior

Smoke plumes out of a power plant in Fairbanks

My cabin in the woods

Where the shitcicles grow

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I lived in a place without running water, in this day and age, in one of the most highly developed countries in the world.  I did live outside city limits, but only by a mile, and still there weren’t ordinances about shitting into a hole in the ground. When you think about it, it seems like a health hazard. What happens to the groundwater? I’m not a scientist, and maybe the potable water we tap into is at a level deep enough that it’s not effected, but it seems like there’d be some contamination.

Geographically, Fairbanks is a fascinating town–it’s situated in the Tanana Valley and surrounded on all sides by rivers, hills, and a 100 mile area of flatland that eventually meets the Alaska Range–visible, and truly magnificent, on a clear day.  During winter months, Fairbanks has one of the most extreme temperature inversions on Earth. Because of its low elevation, cold air gets trapped in the low-lying areas of the city, and warm area rises to the hills. It’s the opposite of what you might expect. At sea level, it’s bitterly cold; up higher, it’s balmy.

The winter solstice in Fairbanks means just over three hours of daylight, while the sun skirts across the horizon before sinking back down. On June 21st, it’s the land of the midnight sun. The extremes are mind boggling, but once you get used to them, or at least know what to expect, it’s an oddly comforting routine. For eight months out of the year, you know how Mother Nature will behave.  Cold, dark and unforgiving. There isn’t any of that wishy-washy stuff. When it snows, it stays. There aren’t cloudy days, then sunny days. There’s just dusk, then dark. The starkness is breathtaking, actually. It’s reminiscent of a Russel Chatham painting. The colors of the landscape consist of the whiteness of the snow and the green of the spruce. And when the sun pokes its head up, just briefly, a swath of faint purple and pink.

When the weather gets too relentless, you hole up in your cabin, warm up by the stove and read a good book. Drink a hot toddy. Or get in your truck and seek refuge at The Oasis (a bar), where you can get the best halibut melt of your life and put quarters in the jukebox until 3 a.m.

%d bloggers like this: