Thursday, October 6, 2016

Road Tripping Alaska: Making Our Way Towards Home in Seward, Alaska.

We finished our jobs at the Grande Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs Hotels almost a week ago, and have been on the Alaska Road system ever since. Fall is a wonderful time to drive and hike around Alaska, especially this year, because the snow has been sparse thus far. We left Denali on Friday, the last day in September, with a vehicle packed chock full of our belongings as well as food stuffs and bottles of water. We were bound for the Denali Highway, and wanted to be prepared in case of getting stuck. The State of Alaska stops plowing the road at the end of September, so in the event of snow, we figured that we might need to be ready to spend a day or two waiting for the snow to melt or get pushed down by other vehicles. As it turned out, the road was in excellent condition and the driving was spectacular. We've driven the highway in its entirety once before, last summer and a few times we've driven big chunks of it. My, the fall tundra was gorgeous! A further bonus was seeing the happy hunters driving out, their ATVs loaded on trailers, caribou antlers sticking out from beneath tarps. We later learned that the caribou had been late in coming down from the high country, and the state had responded by lengthening the caribou season. The close of the season happened the same night that we began our drive, so the exodus of hunters was in full swing.

We spent three peaceful nights at the Maclaren River Lodge, with few fellow guests since the hunters had departed, and the lodge was technically closed for the season. The staff there graciously let us stay a couple more nights, as they began their shut down procedures. We slept late, and went hiking in the afternoons. The tundra was surface-frozen, so walking across it made for a satisfying crunch with each step. One afternoon, we watched a small herd of 8 + 3 caribou run around on the ridge above us, keeping distance between us as we advanced towards Glacier Gap Lake. As we trudged around the tundra and marshlands, we stayed warm by virtue of our labor expenditure. The icy water was kept away from my feet thanks to my xtra tuff boots, except when I hit an especially boggy spot, I sunk in to my knees and I had to fight to extricate myself. After that, I walked faster to regain warmth.

Our journey continued from the Denali Highway south along highway 4, through Glenallen and on to the Wrangell St Elias National Park Visitor Center. There a ranger discouraged us from going on the McCarthy Road, quizzing us on whether we were properly prepared to face the challenges that the road might throw at us. Eventually, we gave up on getting information or encouragement from her, and decided to try our luck. When were we going to have another chance at getting all the way out to the small town of McCarthy! The drive out was incredibly beautiful and the road was very much passable. No flat tires! Even though we were adequately prepared with a good spare tire and an air compressor and plugs for fixing flats. What stupendous beauty! We stayed the night at an off-grid cabin in McCarthy, one among 5 cabins that constitutes the Blackburn Cabins. Mark, the proprieter kindly picked us up at the McCarthy side of the pedestrian bridge. The deal is that one can drive 60 miles from Chitina to McCarthy, but then a river with only a pedestrian bridge blocks ones way. People leave their cars on that west side of the river and walk across the pedestrian bridge.
That night we witnessed the magic of the northern lights dancing white, green, purple and pink acorss the sky, while listening to rock and ice bounce around off the Kennecott Glacier and in the river. We stayed outside watching even as our bodies grew increasingly cold as we really were spell bound by the surprise of dancing colors in the night sky.
The next day we walked up to and around the old mill town of Kennecott. Although it was cool to see, and I can add the area to my wish list of places to work, my energy was low the day that we walked the 3.5 miles to Kennecott, so I am limited in what I can say about the experience. I am grateful that we went, and that even on a low-energy day, my body was able to carry me there and back. We even extended the trip a bit by walking out to the Root Glacier, another 3 miles roundtrip. We stood and walked around on a glacier. Hard to believe that we were looking out on miles of ice.

So much beauty and wonder and we still have a few more days left on our travels. Today we drove from Kenny Lake to Valdez. It was another amazing drive, especially the section through Keystone Canyon. The sun was out and the temperature ideal for fishing. Reed practiced his fly fishing skills at Blueberry Lake, while I cooked in the parking lot on our Svea Stove. I cooked up a batch of cranberry apple sauce, using the cranberries that Reed picked walking around Thompson Pass. I picked some too, but I ate all mine while lazing in the sunshine. And we cooked the fish that Reed had caught the night before, a kokanee salmon! It was luscious flesh, and represented success for Reed in that he caught a land-locked salmon in a lake in Alaska, one of his fishing goals.

Tonight we are in Valdez, staying with a Couchsurfing host, Jeremy, a kind and generous host. We've had a full evening of talking and eating his delicious food, while learning from a local Cordova resident about what we have to look forward to in our travels there. Emily shared with us some of the good things soon to come our way in terms of sighs and experiences. Tomorrow afternoon we will board the Alaska State ferry bound for Cordova, which will meant crossing the Prince William Sound. It's been a while since we've been on salt water, and I can already see Reed's mood further brightening because of our proximity to coast.

We've been fortunate this year. Reed said that it's been one of our best and I think he's right. All the way from San Diego Trans County Trail at the start of the year to exploring around south central Alaska, plus so many other places and wonderful people. Gracias a la vida!

Early Winter on the Denali Highway
Hiking on Frozen Tundra near the Maclaren River, Denali Highway

The red of tundra in fall. 

Marsh walking near Maclaren River. 

Some of the not boggy walking. 

Walking near Kennecott. 

Our Blackburn Cabin at McCarthy. 

Kennicott Glacier in the background on a sunny and cool day. 

The old Mill Town of Kennecott. 

Walking on the ice of Root Glacier. 

The color scheme of a mill town. 

Evening fall fishing at Strehlna Lake. 

Happy Reed, thank you fish. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hiking the Park Road: 46 Miles in Autumn

Camper Bus: 3:30pm departure from the Visitor Center

The 35 mile hike turned into a 46 mile hike, because I love the miles! We had planned to start at Highway Pass, but the park was so beautiful and we wanted to get nearer to Mount Denali, so we stayed on the bus until Stoney Pass. 

It was just a few miles between Stoney Pass and Highway Pass and there was still light at 7pm, when we got out that way, so we walked on. That was how it went for two days, continued, steady pace and lots of foods. I love hiking and I love food, the combo is fantastic. 
At present, I'm weary from a couple of late nights and early mornings, and the end of the season busyness. We are nearing shutdown and a few employees depart each day, bound for their next adventures and employment and school. It's tough physically - the cleaning and laundry, and it's tough emotionally, saying goodbye to so many kind and hard workers. 
Today my mom departs Denali. It's been a gift having her here. We've never gotten to spend this much adult time together. Now I will go and drive her to the Grande Denali Lodge, so that she can finish her paperwork, and then I will drive her to the train station where she will board the Alaska Railroad bound for Anchorage. 
Summer is gone, I am now 35 and it was a fantastic hike. I'm grateful for it all. 

Site of our first night Campsite
Toklat River behind us

East Fork braided river

Sable Pass on our second day of walking

Teklanika River

A Birthday Feast provided by my mom, who came to meet us on the bus

Walking together east of Teklanika

Sanctuary River Campground, mile 22 and almost to the finish.

Looking down on Savage River as we near completion

At the Finish - Savage River Bridge. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A final walk in the Park for my 35th Birthday

Today is Thursday, the day of "Swinging Doors" radio show on KEXP in Seattle, Washington. It's also the day before my 35th birthday and thus occasion for us to take our day off from working for Grande Denali, LLC and take a final journey into Denali National Park. Reed and I will be taking the afternoon camper bus into mile ~58 at Highway Pass, where we'll sleep tonight and then begin walking back towards the park entrance. Our goal is to walk 35 miles in two days, and end our walk at about mile 23, which is near the Sanctuary River area.
It's been another full summer. Alaska summers, for us, have brimmed over with activity, much like the daylight hours here, which are unending in June and July. It's been a challenging summer in many ways and also a rewarding one. One of the biggest gifts that Reed and I have enjoyed has been having my mom, Sue Wiley, here to work alongside of us at our hotels. This is the most time, as adults, that we've ever gotten to spend together. Sue will be joining us at some point on our hike, just because a broken hip can't stop her!
I give thanks for the decades and years that I have gotten to live in the world, eating and drinking it up. My life has been full of many blessings, most of all my dear husband, Reed. At 21 and 22, I didn't know if I would be able to stay alive. I couldn't imagine my life in the future. I give thanks that here I am, and this has been my life thus far. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Unit 1 of Denali National Park: Climbing Flat Top Mountain off the George Parks Highway

It's been another busy summer of work and play here in Denali Park, Alaska. We're both working for Grande Denali, LLC again, Reed as maintenace at the Grande Denali and I as the Housing Manager for both the Denali Bluffs and Grande Denali. We've been grateful to have our jobs for a second season, to settle into them and get to explore the area more. 

This summer I wanted to try learn something new by working a second job that would allow me to get familiar with working in a small business, and would help me to meet people outside of our company. I was fortunate to get a one-day-per-week job working at Black Bear Coffee shop, down on the strip / mall of Denali's 'downtown.' This job has given me the chance to work with a skilled group of people, and to learn a little about what it's like to operate a small business.  
I still have two days off per week, but it means less time off during the work week to prep for weekend outings. Reed's done an excellent job at stepping up and doing the work of getting us ready to go camping each weekend. We've also been helped by our experience this past winter of prepping for outdoor adventures, which taught us to whittle down our packing to the bare essentials, as less weight and bulk allows us to do more, go farther. 
Last weekend Reed secured us a backcountry permit for Unit 1 in Denali National Park, accessible from the George Parks Highway. I worked until 9:30pm, then walked home and decompressed for an hour. By the time that we were on the trail, it was nearly midnight. Yes, it was still light, which is one of the amazing things about Alaska in June and July. We parked at the Triple Lakes Trailhead and then set out up the Triple Lakes trail. When we crossed the Alaska Railroad, we followed the tracks south, to the faint traces of earlier footsteps. The beginning was fine, walking across foamy-tundra and knee high blueberry bushes. Pretty soon, though, the vegetation thickened, the ground got muddy and we found our best option was to follow what was clearly a moose trail. Their recent footsteps were clearly visible, and the vegetation had been pushed back. Trying to depart from this narrow thread was less appealing. It was 90+ minutes of type 3 fun. Reed wanted to stop and set up our tent for the night. So did I. But there was nowhere flat or dry enough. So on we went. When we crested the top edge of the ridge, it was amazing to find that the mountain really way flat up top. 
By 2am our tent was set up, and we were snugly in our sleeping bags. We slept well until 9am, when we awoke, did our morning routine including eating granola bars smothered in peanut butter, (retrieved the Ursack from 100 meters away & watched a moose in the distance) and then went back to sleep. 

We were glad to get a bit of catch up sleep. We slept most of the day, until after 2, then got up and gobbled down more granola bars with peanut butter. The best part was that there was more up still available to us. We had camped on the low ridge, and the peak was clearly visible since the clouds and fog had moved along to the next set of peaks. We walked for another hour to get to the top. It was like a park at the top, with low grass and evidence of dahl sheep all around. I would have liked to continue on, but our time was running short, so we turned around and headed back the way that we had come. We passed near the moose we had seen that morning, or perhaps it was a different one. Their tracks were abundant. We picked blueberries; their deep blue caught our eyes and our attention. Then we found a chute to descend. It was steep, but so much less dense brush than the way that we had ascended. 

We were down by 8pm, having seen and experienced quite a lot for less than 24 hours. I love the proximity to the park that we enjoy working right here at the park entrance. On the way down, we passed by one of the remnants of the Alaska telegraph line, from the early 1900s. Glass insulators still atop the badly leaning pole. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Up Sugarloaf Mountain: Springtime at Denali

View from the windy top of Sugarloaf Mountain

Yesterday I got the chance to take my first hike up Sugarloaf of the season. I am hoping to get up there once per month this summer, for a total of five times: May, June, July, August & September. Denali is beautiful again, with far less snow this year. We are happy to be back to work another season at the Grande Denali & Denali Bluffs Hotels. This year we get a special treat - my mom came up to work alongside us all summer. It's such a joy that we'll get to spend the next few months together. 
The hike up Sugarloaf was tough, steep, crumbly, snow drifts to get over and around. I loved it! At the top, all I could do was take a snapshot, and turn around quickly while I still had a bit of body heat built up. It was crucial that I get myself out of the frigid wind before I lost that heat. Then there was the trip down. I continue to be grateful for my trekking poles, which saved my knees undue stress and strain and saved me from plummeting down the ridgeline. And all that joy was packed into just 3 hours. I got back to the Grande Denali employee dining room in time for a hot lunch! Here's to a summer's worth of hiking! 

Requisite selfie at the top - gotta prove that I was there! 

Nenana River, view south from the ridgeline of Sugarloaf Mountain

Monday, March 14, 2016

Day Tripping around Seward

View from Lowell Point on a sunny winter's day

On a Sunday morning run
 We've been in Seward for two weeks now and finally we can walk freely through our small house, unimpeded by boxes and plastic crates. We've been getting out and enjoying the cold, cool and bright weather. We're loving the chance to settle in here and enjoy this small town. Yesterday, Sunday, we did a Sunday run, trying to replicate, to some extent, the Sunday runs that I do with my group in Seattle when we are there. Yesterday we ran from our house, down to the waterfront and along Resurrection Bay out to Lowell Point, about three miles, and then back to the Cookery Restaurant, for brunch. The total route was a little over 5 miles and we were fairly winded and tired by the end and eager for food. We are out of practice of running and don't have nearly the endurance that we did just two months ago. It's time to start building back up so that I'll be able to run the half marathons that happen in Denali this summer.

These past two weeks have been slow paced, and quite different in that we've been based around our home and getting it unpacked and organized. It feels different to not be figuring out where we will sleep each night, as we were much of the winter. It amazes me how quickly that we adapt, though. It now seems normal to sleep in our same bed every night. It seems normal to wake up to our same house each morning. And now that we've gotten accustomed to this lifestyle, it's time for a change! On Friday we will be flying out to Dillingham, on the Bristol Bay, for a month's work. We will be working as research assistants for a UW Ph.D. project, interviewing salmon fishermen. We have two more free days to explore Seward, delight in the beauty and then we will be traveling again!

View of our house from First Avenue, shed in foreground

Friday, March 11, 2016

Early Seward Life: Unpacking and Exploring

Greetings on a snowy day in Seward. The morning's rain has turned to heavy snow falling steadily. The view out over Resurrection Bay is thus obscured, but the giant flakes are gorgeous in themselves. We arrived here ten days ago and have been unpacking and rearranging and getting acquainted with the town little bits each day. My trepidations from the drive north melted away as we have been able to walk to this cafe (Resurrect Cafe), to the library, bank, grocery store and hardware store. There is ample road running available as well as trails close at hand. There is the salt water of the bay, which delights Reed and will allow him to do plenty of kayaking in the coming years. I also enjoy the waterfront, especially for jogging and walking along, on the lookout for marine mammals. 

High above the Matanuska Valley,
on the Glen Highway between Glennallen and Palmer

  We found our little house much as we had left it last October. It was snug and cozy and much smaller than the last space that we inhabited, the two bedroom apartment on Beach Drive SW in West Seattle. We are struggling to rearrange in order to fit all of the necessary belongings inside of the space and still have room to move about. Each day the chaos decreases a bit. I am eager for when we can move about freely, without boxes blocking our path.
Soon after arrival, exterior wall of our house. 

The town is beginning to come alive for the spring, after what seems was a quiet winter routine. It seems that many people go away for a few weeks or months in the winter, to get away from the dark, see new places and visit their families. The gearing up for the summer season of many visitors and employment for all who want to work is beginning. All of a sudden, it seems that everywhere in town is hiring. We have committed to go back to work at Denali again this summer. We are looking forward to spending another summer up near the park, and at the same time, as we settle in here, we also long to stay and work here through the summer. Reed especially longs to work on the water here, as a kayak guide or deck hand. We reassure ourselves that we will do that next summer, and perhaps the summer after that. We still have time.
Low tide on Resurrection Bay, view from Seward waterfront park

Seward's Library - one of my favorite places in town! 

Some of our favorite things about Seward thus far are its accessibility. It's wonderful to be able to easily walk to the library, where there is comfortable seating, free wifi, plenty of books, magazines and movies to peruse. I sometimes can't believe my good fortune to be living in a town with a gorgeous library with a number of massive mountains jutting up all around it. Another new favorite is the restaurant, The Cookery. We went out for a celebratory lunch last week because Reed finished our 2015 taxes, which was quite an undertaking. The winter lunch program offers two different meals each day, so we got one of each. I had halibut tacos and Reed had a green pork burrito. So delicious! And the meal finished off with a homemade chocolate chip cookie. Last night we went out for dessert on the treat money that our friend Katherine gave us before we left the Seattle area. Her instructions were to spend it on chocolate or a dessert, something decadent that we wouldn't have bought for ourselves. So we ordered a dutch baby dessert, with all the extra fixings - blueberry syrup, cream cheese ice cream and bacon!

We just have five more days here in Seward before we depart for Anchorage, to catch a flight out to Dillingham. We will be working alongside two other people, doing interviews of salmon fishermen as economic research for a phD thesis. We're quite looking forward to getting to spend time in another new part of Alaska. In the meantime, we've got lots of unpacking and repacking yet to do. We're grateful to be in Alaska, and especially glad that we get to call Seward home!

At the base of Mount Marathon,
ready for our 30 minute morning walk to greet the day