We sit in a silver Mazda six, coming very close to failing at our first task of the day which is to pick up a rental car. Five minutes ago we were outside of it hi-fiving. Now Diesel is trying the start button over and over while I flip through the driver’s manual wondering why the section on starting the vehicle isn’t in a more obvious place. It takes much longer than I’m sure either of us would like to admit before we discover the automotive industry’s best kept secret and are able to pull out of the garage and start exploring Alaska.
I’m anxious to get out of Anchorage. The edge of Chugach National Forest looms in the distance where over 5.3 million acres of Alaskan wilderness beckons. I want so badly to answer right this second. What I’ve seen of the city so far is entirely unspectacular, with the exception of a cool hostel and a fabulous liquor store. It looks like it’s just mini mall after mini mall, which ends up being handy because apparently we are grossly un-prepared for a week long excursion away from the city. Thankfully for me, Diesel knows this. We spend the majority of the day running errands and accumulating supplies. A stove, a cooler, a travel towel, groceries, and more alcohol.
We have a tent, which I’m secretly hoping we don’t have to use. It’s two man tent from The North Face, and it’s one of the most awesome things I have ever purchased. Thirteen years ago, it housed me and my 90lb fur kid for two tree planting seasons, plus a season and a half of fruit picking. So it’s seen it’s fair share of snow, rain, scorching hot sun and ravenous insects. This tent owes me nothing. It has a lot of patches in it and although I did manage to get it set up in my apartment before I left, I’m pretty sure it will disintegrate in a strong gust of wind. Or moisture of any kind.
By the time Anchorage is in our rear view mirror it’s going on four-o’clock. The plan at the start of the day included, errands, a hike up Aleyaska and then camping near Hope. When I finally glimpse the stoic Chugach mountains that surround Anchorage, I have to let go of the idea that I might spend any quality time in them today. Partially because I left my iPhone at the grocery store and we had to go back for it.
I don’t think I ever fully grasped the concept of vast until I spent time up north. But that’s the biggest difference here – Alaska is vast.
The shallow waters and mud flats of Turnagain arm sprawl to the south, which is on our right. This is one of the few places where you can experience a bore tide, a really cool natural wonder that happens when the returning tide enters the narrow bay and forms a surge of water or a wave. Here in Alaska, surfing enthusiasts will be watching the tide charts to calculate when a good time might be to hang ten on a 6-10 foot high wave from one of the surges here.
Left of us, to the north, the massive Chugach mountains ascend into sky. Rugged peaks with prominent ridge lines entice even the most unseasoned hikers. Conifers take root at the base of them with intermittent patches of cottonwood, while a bright green layer of forbs and small shrubs are sandwiched between the two. Its this bright layer of emerald green that distinguishes these mountains from the ones I’m used to in southern British Columbia.
Eight hours into our Alaskan adventure I realize this is the longest Diesel and I have ever spent together during our 13 year friendship. Today we’ve had a few laughs, and some friendly flirting, but the connection between us isn’t magnetic. It’s sporadic. He’s told me how much he would have liked to take me on the hike at Birdridge that we didn’t have time to do, and that he would like to do one near Hope tomorrow morning. As for today, the ridge near Aleyaska doesn’t interest him enough to climb it. Instead, we explore the funky town of Girdwood on foot and have a bite to eat and a pint of Alaskan beer.
Don’t forget your iPhone! Diesel jokes as we hop back in our slick Mazda six.
The landscape seems to open up a little bit from between Girdwood and Portage. There is now space between the highway and the mountains that wasn’t there before. By the time we reach the remains of Portage, we are at the eastern end of Turagain arm where the Portage River, Twenty Mile River and Placer River converge. A vast estuary.
Whittier is only 11 miles that way! I point to an exit I hope to take on the way back as the road bends and we face west, with Turnagain arm still on our right. Soon, it dog legs left and we are driving south into a valley, away from the mountains where everything is bright green and rugged and dotted with snow. Twenty miles later, the turnoff to Hope takes us through a narrow valley before delivering us back to Turnagain arm, offering a view of where we were only a few hours ago.
For most of the drive, Diesel has the seat reclined and is dozing, waking up with a start at every sharp turn, asking if I’m tired or in need of a break.
The campground we had planned on staying at is literally at the end of the road and it has many beautiful and secluded campsites on the water. Unfortunately, these are all taken and we have to double back.
As luck would have it, only a couple miles down the main road is a turn off onto a little dirt road which leads to the incredible town of Hope, Alaska. Immediately on the left is Sourdough Dru’s ecclectic looking gift shop, complete with ornamental phone booth and random head-in-the-hole figures. Further along, the rustic looking Seaview Cafe is alarmingly busy for a Sunday evening. The road ends at an expansive tidal meadow that reaches towards the mudflats of Turnagain arm. But what takes your breath away as you roll into town are those magnificent Chugach mountains looming in the distance.
The first thing we do is set up the tent. Diesel walks over the area and selects a spot he thinks will be good – on a little bit of a slope in case the weather turns and we get to experience some of that Alaska rain I’ve been promised. I’m glad to be camping with someone who knows these things. I have to remind him, though, as he designates one task after another, that over the course of 13 years I have probably set up the tent over a hundred times.
Later, we walk out onto the grassy meadow towards the edge of Turnagain Arm. It’s ten o’clock, my favourite time of day up north, There’s a distinct shift in energy as the subconscious awakens. The night begins to stir and nocturnal things that normally wouldn’t be seen reveal themselves. It won’t get dark enough to need a flashlight tonight and the emerald glow on the grassy meadow looks like fairy dust.
Diesel messes my hair and takes a photo of the two of us. He tells me I look like an astronaut when I have my hood on and I tell him I don’t care as I swat at him, playfully. We think of outrageous fake stories for us to tell people about ourselves.
Later, we are gathered around a fire with the remnants of a wedding party as we chat into the night. We swap stories with a fascinating Alaskan girl from Homer. Diesel tells stories of Denali and she tells us she is a former commercial fisherman who now has her captain’s license and runs a water taxi out of Homer Spit. She tells us of a hike she likes to do called Grace trail that takes you up to a ridge where you can see both sides of the peninsula.
We’re doing that. Says Diesel.
We call it a night early and head towards the Seaview Cafe, that swinging hot spot which earlier was literally crammed with people. It’s closed now, and Diesel is conveying his disappointment to me.
We could go warm up in the tent. I nod towards my intrepid North Face shelter.
That’s not gonna happen.
Ouch. Alrighty, then. I shrug. Well, I’m cold so I’m heading to the tent.
He joins me within a few minutes and soon he has his arms around me and we’re laughing. About planting trees, apple pie liqueur and moving to the Yukon which he used to ask me to do fairly regularly. Even then I knew that place had a grip on him the way the Alaskan coast is beginning to take hold of me. You can fall in love with a place, sometimes every bit as easily as with a person.
As our chatter subsides we can hear a group of people outside the Seaview cafe. Curiosity gets the better of me and I unzip the tent to have a peek. There’s woman with an Alaskan flag poised as though marking a finish line. We check on her periodically over the span of an hour or so before her friend crosses it to a chorus of “Yay Jill!” Much later, when sleep finds me, that same cheer is still ringing out over the campground. Loyal friends live in the northern state.
Alaska is providing a fine balance of lucidity, allure and the peculiar, and I’m starting to realize a week here isn’t going to be enough.
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