by: Memo Meños
||Imagine a cross between the reality shows, Survivor, The Surreal Life and the twisted cartoon Drawn Together. Set it in the state of Alaska, the last frontier and land of 100,000 lakes and glaciers and you can begin to imagine what is was like to tour with OUT IN ALASKA.
Founded by the Director of the Outdoor Activities Program at the University of Fairbanks Tim Stallard,
At least, that’s how our trip went.
The adventure starts with getting to Alaska. From Los Angeles, it was a relatively painless 5 hours. But for others arriving from D.C. or Ft. Lauderdale, it was nearly 9 hours of flight before touchdown at Anchorage International Airport. Tim Stallard, along with his business and life partner, Bob Burgess corral everyone up at the airport on Friday afternoon, before depositing them at one of several gay owned bed and breakfasts in Anchorage. (We stayed at the Wildflower Inn, a comfortable house owned and run by Allan and Larry who took fine care of us). Guests are given the afternoon to explore the city (an afternoon is about all you need) before convening for dinner at one of the many bustling restaurants downtown.
Anchorage is blessed with a number of very good restaurants. We all met at the Glacier Brewing Company, which on Friday night was abuzz with energy. It seemed like everyone in the surrounding area had wandered into the city for dinner and libations, and it was as enjoyable a dining experience as one could have in Any Big City, USA.
After dinner, the group meandered down to MAD MYRNA’S, one of Anchorage’s two gay establishments. With a drag show, two dance floors, your typical oval cruise bar, and a couple of pool tables, you’d have to try at not having a good time here. The bar was mixed, with as many women as men, along with some professed straight people checking things out. (Sure they were.) Everyone was friendly, and it went a long way at thawing the natural chill that exists amongst a group of strangers suddenly drawn together.
The next morning, after a hearty and pleasant breakfast at our B & B, we were picked up by the van, now packed with equipment for a week in the wild. As we shuttled to gather the rest of the group, there was still a bit of reservation, despite the evening on the town we had shared the night before. Understandably, the group was still hesitant, and perhaps even a bit on edge for the journey we were about to undertake.
We headed off nearly due East to the town of Portage, where we took a one-lane tunnel through a mountain to the city of Whittier. Traffic in each direction is shuttled at intervals to allow passage along the former rail line, now been filled in to allow vehicular traffic. Whittier is the launching point for a 6-hour cruise to the port city of Valdez. Most Americans know Valdez as that infamous place where the oil tanker ran aground years back. In fact, that accident occurred miles away from Valdez out in the Prince William Sound. Valdez is the terminus for the Trans-Alaska pipeline, an 800-mile long delivery system for oil extracted from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope to the northernmost ice-free port in North America.
Known as “Switzerland of Alaska”, Valdez is one of the most beautiful spots you will ever lay eyes on. Ringed by jagged black peaks, dotted with white snow patches, the mountains seem to mimic the killer whales that patrol the waters of the sound. Nestled in this wonderland is a quaint fishing village from which a host of sea activities spring. We drove though on our way to a campground where we would set up base for the night.
In the rain, and the cold, camping is a challenging proposition particularly with a troop of, shall I say, discerning travelers. As our van pulled into the campground, there was a collective, subconscious, “Are you kidding?” vibe mushrooming within the van. It didn’t help that it had rained the entire day, and we just minutes earlier passed several cheap, but surely dry and warm motels on our exit out of Valdez.
Our guides swung into action, picking a spot next to a waterfall and with picnic tables under a shelter. Within minutes tents were laid out and dinner preparations were underway. There is nothing like a night in the rough to bring people together. We dined on chicken fajitas, swilled scotch from the bottle and settled in for a surprisingly dry and warm night.
The rain didn’t stop, but the waterfall disguised the downpour. We awoke to another gray and cold sky, and gave serious reconsideration to the day’s agenda. A kayaking trip in Shoup Bay to the mouth of Shoup Glacier was on tap, but it didn’t seem prudent given the weather. Tim and Bob consulted with the group, and then distributed dry suits to those in need, along with diving booties to keep our feet warm, and we were off.
After a brief safety demonstration from two kayaking guides who would go along with us, we were whisking back through Prince William Sound in a water taxi just big enough to handle the dozen of us. As the boat coasted onto a gravel beach, the raindrops began to fall a little harder, breaking the glassy surface of the pristine bay.
We unloaded the gear and the taxi departed leaving us stranded, but for the kayaks, on a deserted inlet of the sound. Within seconds of entering the water, we were greeted by two bald eagles, tending to a nest on a rocky outcropping. One swooped into the bay and then made way to the nest above, while the other sat at waters edge, just eyeing us as we drifted by. It happened so suddenly that we were unable to get the cameras out. And as luck would have it, it was the shot of the entire trip; the one that got away, anyhow. It was spectacular, particularly for one who had never seen bald eagles in the wild.
We kayaked atop the smooth bay until we reached a kittiwake colony of some 10,000 sea gulls inhabiting a group of rock islands within the bay. More spectacular than the birds, were the 10 or 12 waterfalls, perhaps 800-1,000 feet in height pouring down the emerald green cliffs into the sea. It was as if we were in Jurassic Park. Even the rainforests of Hawaii don’t compare.
We beached for lunch at the foot of one small glacier with a river running through it, draining out to the bay. Wildflowers of all colors and varieties littered the rocky surface, as we chowed down on sandwiches, nuts, dried fruit and candy bars. Food and snacks were always at the ready on this trip.
After lunch we headed to Shoup Glacier where the sun tried to peak out from the gray skies. Harbor seals, apparently warming to our presence, began to peak their heads out of the water and swim towards the group. Blue icebergs bobbed in the chilly waters as we glided past.
By the time we rendezvoused with the water taxi we were soaked through, but somehow the cameras stayed dry. A group decision to visit a laundromat to dry our things was made easier by it’s adjacent location to a Chinese restaurant in Valdez. Living on the edge, and Chinese food, you can’t beat it.
Despite the rain and the cold, the day was nearly perfect. A campfire and our attempt at smores made up the finishing touch.
Day two saw our first sunshine, however brief as the morning dawned. We set out on a 6-hour journey to the town of McCarthy. Along the way we stopped briefly to witness the salmon running on a small creek and for a jaunt on the Worthington Glacier. Alaska has so many glaciers-more than 5,000- many are unnamed.
McCarthy is an old mining town, several miles from the Kennicott Copper Mine, long since abandoned, but the heart of a thriving community at one time. Now it is a hub for flight seeing, one of the most popular tourist endeavors throughout the state. Despite the prosperity, it is at the end of a 60-mile unpaved road that on this day was playing victim to the unending rain. Water ran over the road in numerous places, but at mile 40 the road was inundated. We were warned we would be turned away, but the promise of cabins and warm showers, not to mention real toilets, powered us forward.
The van was collectively silent as we approached mile 40, and let out a cheer as we sloshed through 3 feet of water than ran across the road at the critical point. But we made it through and settled in at the Kennicott River Lodge with individual log cabins, electricity, warm showers, porcelain toilets and a fully functioning kitchen. The view from the dining table in the kitchen was a panorama of snow-capped peaks and a huge ice flow-the Kennicott Glacier.
After the long drive, we sat down to a gourmet meal of fresh oysters and almond encrusted halibut. It was a roaring dinner party, partly because we were glad to be off Mr. Toad’s wild ride to McCarthy, partly because of the jaw-dropping windowscape, but mostly because we were fast becoming friends. The warm showers didn’t hurt.
After dinner we moved upstairs to a gaming room where some played hearts, (we had a supposed hearts champion with us), and others traded stories of the exotic adventures on which they had been. We had a storied group of wanderers with us. Several had been to Mount Kilimanjaro, while another had hiked in the Himalayas with zoes and Sherpas. (I learned a zoe is a cross between a yak and a cow, or some such thing.) Still another had hiked to Machu Picchu. It was some group, and on this night we were gelling like felons. The owner of the lodge had to admonish us about 11:30 that we were being too loud for the other guests. The reality was that the other guests wanted to be a part of our party.
Morning broke, and of course it was raining and cold, so we decided to forego our glacier trekking for a day of exploring in McCarthy and Kennicott. After a short walk over several footbridges, which crossed Kennicott Creek (more like a raging river), we were in McCarthy. It was like being on a movie set. The town was essentially one intersection with a hotel, a saloon, a coffee house and a gift store. Several flight companies and a museum completed the locale.
After loading up on the best lattes ever made (everything always tastes better in the mountains), we headed up to Kennicott for a tour of the old mine. Terraced into the side of a cliff, with a 270-degree view of the glacier trail, the mine is an awesome wood structure, some 14 or 15 stories tall. We climbed into the bowels of the decaying monster, bottom to top, on a really interesting tour.
After the tour we meandered back down to McCarthy where a pitcher of Alaska Amber was calling us. It turns out the Golden Saloon is owned and run by two local guys, who happen to be gay. (Is everyone in Alaska gay?) On this night, with the nine of us infusing the place with a certain happy magic, this was a gay bar through and through. The locals didn’t hesitate to join in. Can you imagine, being in the middle of nowhere, and having a night out at the clubs. What a trip. If you saw the movie Westworld, it was not unlike McCarthy. I was waiting for Yul Brenner to swing open the doors to the saloon and start shooting the place up. It was classic!
The next day we set off on a short hike to Root Glacier, a tributary of the Kennicott Glacier, where the world of moulins and blue waterfalls mystified our senses. To be honest, the thought of hiking around on ice mounds didn’t thrill me. You’ve seen one ice patch, you’ve seen them all, right? Au contraire mon frere.
Glacier trekking is fantastic! Once you strap on those crampons, you’re like a billy goat. You can walk nearly vertical without much risk of falling (though if you were to fall, you could slide several hundred feet before stopping.). Once on the glacier, it’s all about water. Blue streams cascade down the ice, pooling at points, breaking out into waterfalls at others; cutting through the ice to form underground blue grottos. It was breathtaking! A moulin is where the melting water swirls around cutting away at the glacier to form a sort of inverted cave. Some seem to go down forever, with no bottom in sight. To hang your head over one of these and see nothing but blue darkness below is a thrill indeed. Some tethered themselves to ropes and ice-climbed down into the blue depths. Wow!
Another group spotted bears on the trail back from the glacier, but we didn’t see them. The wild berries were plentiful, and so the grizzlies were spending their days getting fat on blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, currants and other varieties of wild fruit. Better at keeping them nourished during the long hard winters, than a couple of bony tourists.
It was not lost on us that Grizzly Man, the documentary about the death of legendary grizzly naturalist Tim Treadwell and his girlfriend at the hands of the bears was opening this month. Further fueling our concerns were the deaths of a couple of wildlife experts by grizzlies just 30 days earlier in Northern Alaska. Tim, our guide, came upon a mother and her cubs with a group just a week prior, but on this trip we managed to stay clear of harm’s way.
Day six of our journey saw us depart McCarthy, back down the 60-mile dirt road, with potholes and washout from the rains that required us to slow to nearly a stop in many points. But the scenery along the way was fascinating. Because of the permafrost, water pooled up at nearly every flat spot, making for a swampy marshland thriving with bird and plant life.
Mosses blanketed rocks and tree trunks, while a myriad of mushroom species poked up from the damp ground.
Our destination was due south, back towards Anchorage, near the town of Palmer. After stocking up on groceries and beer, we found our way to the Knik River where another guide (who also happened to be gay) air boated us up the river to a campsite at the foot of Knik Glacier.
On the way we spotted a moose crossing the river.
We quickly set up tents, leveling the shale scattered about to make soft foundations upon which to sleep. It was midnight before we got around to our dinner of pasta and salad.
The next day we awoke to a wonderland. The sun was shining, and we had an entire wilderness to explore. It was like Mysterious Island, the Jules Verne classic about a shipwrecked family’s survival adventure. We weren’t shipwrecked, but we were left on the shore to survive on our own just the same. We set off to explore our surroundings and quickly discovered a host of animal tracks in and around the area we were camping. Bear tracks, moose tracks, and wolf tracks circled our outpost. A half-eaten caribou carcass lay in the riverbed, which we shadowed until we came to a cliff with a perfect vista of the river and the horizon.
We climbed the cliff, swatting at bees and wasps on the way, only to find an abandoned A-frame cabin at the top. It was the perfect spot, nestled amongst wild blueberry bushes, from which we harvested the next morning’s breakfast. On the way back to camp we nearly stepped on an underground bee’s nest, which would have been problematic for three in the group who were allergic to bee venom. All in all, it was our very own mysterious island and we ended the day with another campfire, a game of hearts and the gooey goodness of graham crackers, toasted marshmallows and chocolate.
All that remained was the airboat to our van, and a short drive back to Anchorage where the group shared one last meal at another of the city’s fine restaurants. It was a memorable week, with adventure and risk at every turn, as well as comradery and friendship to match. As an added bonus, I lost 5 pounds, though we ate quite well, with salmon, chicken ravioli, yellow curry and fajita burritos for dinner.
Like Survivor, there were alliances made, secrets revealed, boundaries crossed and trusts betrayed. Some guests could easily have been tossed “off the island”, but we were better for not having done so. OUT IN ALASKA is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable venture into the great state of Alaska, where real men, and animals roam free, and glaciers shape the landscape. Be prepared to bond with a new group of people on a challenging excursion. It is a harsh environment, where a wrong decision or two can quickly evolve into a serious predicament.
But under the care and experience of Tim Stallard and Bob Burgess it was truly an adventure I will never forget.
* * * * * *
Copyright © 2005 Manmade Multimedia Inc.