I sit across the table from the world’s grumpiest human. One hour earlier I was wrapping up a beautiful morning in Hope that included yoga on the beach, a short walk and a few good-byes. Now the two of us are at an adorable diner called Tito’s Discovery Cafe and the most effervescent wait staff in all of America is pouring us coffee. Diesel doodles in a notebook while I make a mental note to apologize to my mother the next time I see her for being such a sullen, moody teenager.
I offer to retrieve the Lonely Planet from the car so I can show Diesel some of the hikes I’d been looking at for the day.
You know, like the weather here it’s unpredictable. I don’t know if we can go far when it’s like that. Says the man who, just over a week ago was battling freezing temperatures and howling winds on North America’s highest peak.
Ok. I consider whether offering to drive him back to Anchorage would be socially acceptable.
You and I are in different moods. I’m in chill Alaska holiday mode. When I’m at home I can just sit in a coffee shop all day and read or draw, you know? His eyes haven’t left his doodles, which are starting to look very much like mountain peaks.
Especially in this weather. There’s going to be some days where there’s not too much we can do and you kind of just need to accept that. Even though he’s been up for almost an hour his voice still sounds groggy. I wonder if it is as difficult for him to speak as it sounds.
So…..this is your vacation, Mariko and I’m happy to be here with you, but.. He puts down the pen and looks up at me. You gotta like… sieze that moment, you know? Grab it with both hands.
I envision Diesel and his notebook being engulfed in flames. I can hear the sound of my own breathing. The urge to seize the day by collecting my things and making a break for the car is strong. My eyes fixate on a place a few inches away from the corner of the table. I stare and breathe for a good thirty seconds, maybe longer. Eventually I look up to see him watching me.
Can we go now, please? I reach for the keys.
So that’s what that look means.
Outside, the peaks of the Chugach poke through a sky dotted with decidedly non-threatening clouds.
We have to backtrack 16 miles before we are back on the Seward Highway and another 18 before we exit onto the Sterling highway towards Homer. I want to try clamming near the seaside village of Ninilchik, because the Lonely Planet says it’s a cool town and that’s what they do there. Diesel has opposed that idea both times I’ve brought it up so I am imagining myself clamming solo.
The highway near Cooper Landing is littered with outfitters, most of which provide fishing gear, guides and licenses. Some offer packing and shipping. After fishing, white water rafting appears to be the number two tourist draw in this small roadside town. Diesel tells me again how he would love to catch a big fish so that his brother, who never catches big fish, can see him holding one.
I pull into one of the first shops I see and for the first time today, Diesel is excited. He runs into the shop and returns five minutes later, explaining in an animated fashion that he is going to get a three day license starting tomorrow so he can fish in Homer and on our way back here.
As we pull back onto the highway, he starts flipping through the pages of my Lonely Planet and explains that there are two rivers for fishing here, the Kenai and the Russian.
The silvers are done, he says. But the reds are coming! I assume silvers and reds are salmon.
He starts thinking out loud about the logistics of renting versus buying gear and getting the frozen fish back home to Quebec, while the mighty Kenai River rages beside us. I’m glad to have a traveling companion who is excited about something. We pass a sign for the Russian River crossing, where we can see dozens of fisherman knee deep in the chalk blue waters through a thicket of trees. Soon, we exit the Chugach National Forest and Diesel reclines his seat and closes his eyes.
The next stretch of highway has almost endless exploration potential and with every sign we pass with the name of a trail head I promise myself that one day I’m coming back to this place so that I can really investigate the wild wonder that is Alaska. Beside me, Diesel sleeps restlessly. Sharp corners, and bumps in the road wake him with a flail and hyperbolic gasp.
Are you ok? Are you tired? Do you need a rest?
The drive towards the Cook inlet is beautiful but not relaxing. I am hopeful that when we reach the North side of the Peninsula and turn west, I’ll be able to see the sea. And I’m looking forward to clamming in Ninilchik. It is the one activity that I sort of looked into before coming up. Cooking fresh clams marinated in beer on a beach is going to happen one way or another.
Diesel is just waking up by the time we reach the truck stop town of Soldotna. It reminds me of a mini Anchorage… there is purpose here in the box stores and mini malls, but little pleasure. We are both hungry and eager to finish off some of the provisions that won’t last much longer in the cooler. Diesel suggests pulling over in a parking lot because it would be quicker while I propose finding a spot at the beach.
Turn Here! He leans forward and points to the right.
I worry something is drastically wrong as I pull into one of the mini mall parking lots. It turns out he wants to look for a fishing rod in the sporting goods store there. Very badly.
I assemble sandwiches in the parking lot while he browses. After fifteen minutes I eat mine and leave his on the dashboard while I run off to find the little girl’s room. Fifteen minutes after that I return and wait another five minutes before he emerges with a small rectangular box.
Hey! Do you have your iPhone? He jokes as we get back into the silver Mazda.
He tries to make me guess what’s in the box but all I know for sure is that it isn’t a fishing rod and he is extremely lucky I’ve just eaten a sandwich because I get cranky when I’m hungry.
It’s a freaking hunting knife. Made in Switzerland. With a white handle. And he is somehow more excited about owning it than he is about fishing. I’m hoping that by pretending to be excited for him I can trick myself into at least being indifferent about it. Never in a million years would I have expected this man to be so interested in hunting knives that he has a collection.
Twenty minutes later he is still playing with the white handled swiss knife as I turn off the Sterling Highway into Clam Gulch. I’m not planning on clamming here, I just need to see the ocean. Very badly.
We drive around a campground high on a bluff overlooking the sea. I muse about the idea of camping here on the way back, but I keep the idea to myself. I wander towards a view point and Diesel follows. The large white flower heads of the pushki, a native relative of giant hogweed, frame a peek-a-boo view of the ocean.
Not really much of a view, here. He is using his groggy morning voice again. Yippee.
Ninilchik is another twenty minutes down the road and as soon as I see the town I fall a little bit in love with it. It looks like a ghost town and a quaint seaside village were forced to merge. The buildings we see to our left are made of wood so old that they are grey and look like they may not hold up in the next storm. Cottage style houses dot the hillside to our right. An eclectic mix of knickknacks adorn the landscape and buildings, including a life-size doll that reminds me of raggedy Anne, counteless bouoys and life rings and other seaside trinkets. It’s awesome.
The beach is teeming with eagles. Diesel takes a photo and then heads back to the car as I venture out onto the beach that fans out from the man made dyke along the rivers edge. I have always been captivated by eagles and revere them with a mystical awe as though they were capable of omnipotent wisdom. Like they can see into your soul; past present and future while you contemplate ancestral reveries. A large juvenile is perched on a nearby post while several others stand in the shallow waters near the mouth of the river. I make out at least one silhouette on a rock in the distance. I like it here.
I’m curious about everything as I pick my way closer to the water’s edge. About the mahogany coloured seaweed, what type of fish the fisherman are catching, whether they are commercial or sport or full of tourists. I look for signs of razor clams, but the only indentations in the sand look like mini waves, not clam holes. As far as I can see the beach is three quarters sand to one quarter stone. The sandy patches must be where the clams are. In the distance small fishing vessels float on a restless sea before a backdrop of distant white peaks. The two largest are active volcanos, Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt.
Diesel is sleeping when I return to the silver Mazda and he stirs long enough to tell me Ninilchik does nothing for him. I wonder silently what it is about Ninilchik that makes it an undesirable place for sleeping in a car, which is what he plans on doing while I hunt for clams. I think it will be good for him. For both of us.
I spot a sign tacked to a post from the US fish and Game and when I read it I have no choice but to laugh out loud.
Due to low survey numbers in 2015, the ban on razor clam harvesting has been extended into 2016.
I guess it’s going to be one of those vacations then – why am I not surprised. Not long after seeing the humor of the situation, I start to worry. Two years ago this was the best place to harvest razor clams and now there are so few of them there isn’t anymore to take.
That is not cool. What the heck happened?
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