With my newly found confidence in the sport, the next kayaking adventure presented itself. This time it came in the form of the San Juanitas gourmet kayak expedition in the San Juan islands off the Washington coast. Savor Seattle partnered with the San Juan Outfitters to promise us “pampered paddling” on a guided three-day kayak and camping getaway. There would be wildlife viewing – orcas and seals and osprey -from a sea-level view. We would be afforded stunning views of the islands and the sun setting golden in the ocean. Instead of freeze-dried camping fare we would enjoy braised short ribs and grilled salmon and salted caramels, all paired with Washington wines. I could certainly paddle for food and wine! I signed up immediately.
Our group consisted of seventeen women, some newcomers, some seasoned paddlers, all eager to try sea kayaking for a long weekend. The Alaska component of our group met at the Fairbanks airport to travel south to Seattle. We met up with friends from Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington, then travelled onwards to Anacortes where we caught the ferry to Friday Harbor on the San Juan islands.
Our preparations had taken some time. Our outfitter guides had sent us a packing list of clothing and items that we were meant to cram into two tiny dry bags. Quick dry pants, shorts, T-shirts, hiking shoes, paddling gloves, flashlight, towel, long underwear, wool hat, sandals, ballcap, sunscreen. There was no way all of it would fit. I eyed the miniscule space of my 20-liter and 5-liter drybags, which would have to be accommodated into my kayak. Contemplating the favorable weather forecast, I started pulling clothing back out of my pack. We would simply all be stinky and disheveled together, I decided.
In Roche Harbor, our kayaking departure point, we sat on a grassy lawn near the harbor, munching on chicken skewers and black bean salad while our guides gave us instructions. We listened as they told us how to put on the kayaking “skirt” and strap ourselves into the wobbling vessels, how to extract ourselves from these should that be necessary and how to efficiently paddle without immediately exerting all our energy. When we paired up, we were told that the more “confident” paddlers should climb into the three-person kayaks. I’m not sure how Dawn and I managed to end up in one of these. It was not until the end of the paddling day that we realized that our kayak was twice as heavy as everyone else’s because we were carrying camp stoves and tents and dozens of wine bottles.
We paddled along the northern shore of San Juan Island, close enough to shore to make out beautiful coastal homes and gardens. Even though Erik, one of the guides, assured us that our destination was “just around the next bend” we paddled nonstop for hours in the Spieden Channel. Many coves later, we just laughed at him. Plus, where was the current assist that he had promised us? I started to worry about a bathroom break, given the fact that we were a group of middle-aged women, but our guides had evidently taken that into consideration. We stopped at a beach with an outhouse.
Next came “the crossing” of the San Juan Channel, to my eyes a wide swath of ocean. We needed to traverse this to get to Jones Island where we would spend the next two nights. Mustering our arm strength, we stoically got into our boats again, remembering that there would be a nice dinner at the end. The group hoped for orca sightings. Someone mentioned that kayakers, from an orca’s viewpoint below, look like seals and thus believe them a credible food source. I swallowed and paddled even harder, keeping my eyes resolutely on the distant outline of Jones Island, our destination.
Cara, Danielle and Erik, the guides, each had their own unique traits. Erik was great at bolstering us when our arms grew limp, paddling his kayak up next to us to point out rip currents and rocks to avoid. Danielle knew to impart information on just about any topic we asked her: geological formations on the San Juan islands, the type of seaweed kelp we were drifting through, different cone-like barnacles that clung to the rocky shoreline. Cara took time to explain the maneuverings of sea kayaks and maritime terminology to us, always with a smile on her face.
Jones Island had no resident population except for deer and raccoons. There were two campgrounds, one with and one without water. To add to our adventure, we set up camp on the latter. While our guides busied themselves with food preparation in their amazingly efficient workstation “kitchen,” the rest of us embarked on setting up tents and sorting out sleeping bags. Dinner, after our long day, consisted of salmon, mixed greens with mustard dressing and black rice salad. Needless to say, it tasted heavenly.
Over the next couple of days together, we got to know each other. There were three “Taras” in our group, a challenge when we called for one of them in particular. Karina was adept at setting up tents, a skill we immediately pounced on. Rebecca, Steph and Jen started a game of cards one afternoon while the rest of us non-card players quickly scattered. Tessa led us in a Zumba dance lesson. We enthusiastically swayed our hips to Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Senorita,” never knowing we had it in us. When our unbathed state became too much, we challenged each other to a dip in the cold bay, one that only a scarce few of us took upon us. Over another fabulous dinner, we talked about books we had recently read and tea that was best brewed in a “Teaze” and Jack from “Virgin River.”
The next morning, amid groans of “I’m too old for tent camping!” we squeezed ourselves from our sleeping chambers. A group hike was organized to loosen our stiff muscles. We followed a loop trail down the center of the island, then skirted its western perimeter. We crested hills and walked right on the bluff overlooking the water. We came across Madrone trees, with red peeling barks and a fruit tree orchard, remnants of early homestead settlers of the island. Everywhere there were deer that were quite habituated to the presence of humans. Near the other campground, we learned that it not only had the coveted water spigots but also the “Jones Island Public Library,” an outhouse with a shelf of books.
In the afternoon we took the kayaks around the entire island. We came across seal pups sunning themselves on rocks. Some poked their heads out of the water curiously to watch us paddle by. The sun made the bay glitter. Our spirits were lifted. To our delight (and thankfully from shore) we saw two orcas glide elegantly by, their dorsal fins breaking out of the water in one smooth movement before they disappeared beneath the surface again. That evening, we sat together to watch the sun set into the bay. It had been a perfect day.
On the day of our return voyage, our guides suggested waiting until the tidal currents would work in our favor. We didn’t think anything of it, not even when Erik suggested we do some stretching and relaxation exercises on the beach before our departure. Perhaps we should have heeded a warning when he asked whether anyone needed seasickness tablets before we climbed into our kayaks. The channel was choppy and the wind came at us sideways. Within minutes we were drenched. One of the guides explained that the waves could be measured as three or four feet high when the people in the kayak next to one’s own disappeared from view behind the next wave. Valiantly, we paddled on, measuring our distance by a small island mid channel that we seemed to never pass. We made it across eventually, even though our journey back to Roche Harbor took us twice as long as we expected.
Tired but fortified by our seafaring adventure, we parted ways, exchanging numbers, promising to stay in touch. Our thalassic weekend had given us all it had promised. And a few new friends.
Always up for an adventure, my friend Tara suggested a float down the Chena River. “If you can kayak in Alaska, you’ll be more than ready for any kayaking trip.”
I looked at her skeptically. Coming from a person who was keen to paddle between ice floes right up to glaciers in Alaska, I had my doubts. I had never even stepped foot into one of the shallow vessels. They looked like they could tip over any moment. Of course, she was suggesting an introductory paddle on the calm, inland waters of the Chena River, not the open sea at Prince William Sound. Plus, she was a trusted friend, one who would not urge me into harm’s way.
Still, I hesitated as she pulled the kayaks onto the muddy banks of the river. I eyed the preparations she was making, tossing me a life jacket, assembling paddles, securing her phone and car keys into a drybag.
“There’s a current,” I mumbled, looking out over the river at the slow drift of the water.
“What current?” she answered with a laugh. “Water does move, you know.”
Next to us, a group of more experienced paddlers were pulling their kayaks to the river’s edge. I hoped that they would deftly climb in and paddle away before they had to witness me loading myself inelegantly into my wobbling kayak. No such luck. Even their dog, wearing a lifejacket, seemed to grin at me as he jumped onto the front of one of the kayaks.
“First time,” I told them, humiliated, as they suppressed amused smiles.
Tara was not letting that stop us though. With a few words of instruction, she pushed me “off the deep end.” Thankfully, I knew that the Chena River was notoriously shallow. Even if I did capsize, I could trust my relatively decent swimming skills to get me back to shore. At first, all I did was swivel against my moorings and clumsily splashed water into my kayak. Immediately my behind was wet from sitting in a puddle. Is this why Tara suggested quick dry shorts?
Finally, we were off. Tara took the lead. I paddled frantically to keep close behind her. The river, swollen and murky, flowed lazily. It was early on a Sunday morning and there were few people on the river. Tara gave me some pointers along the way. Stay clear of “drifters,” random tree trunks that floated in the river and could surface to submerge a kayak. If a motorboat came my way, I should turn my kayak perpendicular to the wake so I could crest the wave without wildly rocking about. I broke out into a sweat and kept my eyes peeled for logs and boats.
After a while, I started to relax. Shifting, I had not realized how tense I was. I repositioned myself into what I hoped looked like a more languid pose and took in the scenery. I had lived in Fairbanks many years but had never seen the town from the perspective of the river that flowed through it. Boat houses, decorated with moose antlers, stood on the river’s edge. At times, the decks of neighborhood homes looked right over the river. More often the wilderness encroached onto its banks. We spotted a bald eagle perched high on a bare branch. A beaver had built his dam close to the shore. Fireweed blossomed on grassy embankments and willows wavered in the breeze. We floated by a huge sternwheeler with a paddlewheel, feeling miniscule alongside it.
I started to enjoy the current that propelled me forward. My only purpose this morning was to drift on the water and to see what the river presented to me beyond each bend. My first experience in a kayak might not have taken me to the edge of great glaciers, but it had given me a new glimpse of a landscape that I had started taking for granted.
Our trip literally took us to the top of the world. I have lived in Alaska for twenty years but had never been to Chicken. I heard about this tiny community, near the Canadian border, halfway between the Tok River and the Yukon River. The road that led there was sparsely travelled, partly because the Canadian border was closed due to a new outbreak of the pandemic in Dawson City. We took the advice given to us, carried an extra water supply and filled our gas tank before we started. We should be prepared to be on our own. Alaska’s inherent social distancing this year allowed us to be tourists in our own state.
The road climbed to great heights and vistas. The northern terrain unfolded in a succession of ridges, in varying shades of grey and green. The fireweed alongside the road was blooming but on the higher slopes of Mount Fairplay snow still lay in patches.
We were in Fortymile River country, named such because the river merged with the Yukon forty miles below Fort Reliance, an abandoned trading post. It was rich goldmining country. As we passed the tributaries and creeks – Logging Cabin Creek and West Fork and Dennison Fork -with water rushing and clear, we could imagine early prospectors drawn to them as a source of hidden gold.
The terrain was also home to the famous Fortymile caribou herd, the largest herd of caribou in Alaska. Their migration followed the seasons. In the Spring they moved to treeless ridges to bear calves. They spent the summer on the alpine tundra, where breezes relieved them from the torment of insects. With the arrival of snow, they sought shelter in the lowlands, using their keen sense of smell to paw through the deep snow to feed on lichen. Every fall, the caribou crossed the very road we were travelling.
Chicken was tiny. It began as a gold mining camp at the turn of the century, but its inhabitants still continue to suction dredge in the Mosquito Fork for the much sought-after metal. An old gold dredge still stands tall. Some pan for gold the old-fashioned way, scooping river sediment into pans and sifting it until the sludge separates from the gold. A gold clean-up table attested to this. It was almost as though time stopped still.
Amused, we took in the sight. Downtown Chicken consisted of a café, a liquor store and a gift shop. We struck up a conversation with the young man that ran all three establishments simultaneously. He told us that his father was a trapper before he and his mother settled in Chicken. When his mother went into labor, she almost gave birth to him on a bush plane en route to Fairbanks. The same plane delivered mail twice a week, landing on a precariously narrow landing strip. There were no telephones. No overnight accommodations. No flush toilets. In the winter, when the temperatures reached 700 below, the road to Chicken closed.
“You just missed Chickenstock last weekend,” our new friend told us. “It was like the wild, wild West out here!”
The folk music festival, Chicken’s proud claim to fame, was organized once a year by the owners of the lonely settlement. It drew in an eclectic crowd of people from all over interior Alaska, who proceeded to pitch up tents on the hillsides and park campers near the river. Bluegrass musicians took to the stage. Overnight, the typical population of Chicken rose from 15 to over 1500.
Just before leaving we could not resist taking a photo next to the community’s namesake statue. A giant chicken. There have been other places named after the farm fowl: Rooster Rock in Oregon, Clucker’s Hall in Illinois, Chicken Scratch in North Carolina, Hatch in New Mexico. The acquisition of the name of Chicken in Alaska made us smile. Evidently, the original gold mining settlers came across plenty of ptarmigans in the area. Not knowing how to spell the name of Alaska’s state bird, they opted for the easily pronounced “chicken” instead.
“I managed to get a road permit into Denali National Park!” I said to the kids, both home from college for the summer. “Let’s drive to Teklanika.”
It was a fantastic opportunity to see wildlife up close. Having lived in Alaska for many years, the possibility of seeing wildlife was always present. But in the park the experience was different. The area covered six million acres. A vast wilderness unchanged by humans. A single road wound its way back into the depths of the park. In an effort to limit interactions between wildlife and humans, the road was only open to sightseeing buses that drove in at regular intervals. Every so often, park officials hosted a road lottery, allowing winners to drive into the park in private vehicles as far as time and weather permitted. Naturally, having secured one of these sought-after permits, we brimmed with excitement.
We camped near Riley Creek. Sitting around the campfire that evening, we made plans for our drive into the park. We would pack binoculars and hiking shoes and a picnic. Our friends Wes and Tara, who had driven the park road before, told us stories about grizzlies and their cubs that walked right up to the park road. Unencumbered and free, moose strode through the taiga forests. Caribou migrated across the tundra. Wolves roamed in packs. We squirmed with anticipation.
“You just need to keep your eyes peeled on the landscape,” Wes told us.
Earlier, we had walked along a trail near the campground. Ground squirrels chattered and snowshoe hares scampered. With effort we held back our dogs. Beyond a bend in the trail, we caught sight of a huge porcupine waddling along in front of us. If this was a preview of what tomorrow held in store for us, we were in luck!
The next morning, grey rainclouds scuttled. The air was brisk. It was early in the season. We noticed that the souvenir shops at the “glitter gulch,” a strip of hotels and eateries near the park entrance, were still boarded up. Plywood covered the windows and the boardwalk in front of the shops was deserted. The tourist season had not yet begun.
But we thought little of it as we piled into the car. We disregarded the forecast that warned of sleet in higher elevations. Typical of Alaska, it could be sunny one moment and wintry the next. We were not going to let the weather hamper our adventure. Fifteen miles into the park we stopped at the ranger station near Savage River to present our permit. Beyond the river, the vast, heretofore unreachable park beckoned.
The gravel road wound its way through an immense landscape that unfolded before us. We kept a look out for Denali, the highest peak in North America, which could present itself in its majesty if we looked west. But the mountain, elusive as it was, had its own weather system that kept it shrouded from view today.
Snow patches still lingered in the tundra. Mountain peaks towered, making us feel miniscule in our surroundings. Gazing out of our respective car windows, we scrutinized the spruce thickets and alpine meadows and creek beds for movement, a possibly signs of wildlife.
Tara kept up a quiet chant: “Come out, Mr. Bear, let us see you.” But an hour later we had still not seen anything. Were the bears still hibernating?
Every so often one of us would cry out, “Look towards 2 pm!” and all of our heads turned that direction. With binoculars and the camera zoom lens we pulled the blob in question closer, only to learn that it was a rounded boulder, not a bear.
“There!” Yanni said, triumphantly, and pointed to a ptarmigan sitting on the side of the road. And while we should have given Alaska’s state bird its due credit, we had seen so many of them in the course of our years in Alaska that the sighting fell short of our expectations.
Further down the road we spotted a duck floating on a tundra lake. “A bufflehead!” Wes exclaimed as he identified the waterfowl, tapping into his past experiences duck hunting. The kids yawned.
When we reached the Teklanika river, our turn around point, we still had not seen any wildlife. To cheer ourselves up, we picnicked on egg salad sandwiches and artichoke dip and pretzels. Immediately, our mood lifted. Even the kids agreed to go on a shorter hike down to the glacially fed, silty grey water of the Teklanika River. The wind picked up considerably as we started off, whipping about us unpleasantly. Our clothing was no match. Luckily, Tara had packed in most of her winter gear – parka, headscarves, hats – which she started to distribute to the rest of us. Thus clad, we walked briskly down to the river, took in the spectacular view and shot some photos of ourselves for documentation before hurrying back to the car.
Once again, we peered out of our windows. Hope was slowly dissipating.
“Are there any dinosaurs on this dinosaur tour?”
“I bet the folks on the sightseeing buses are having better luck,” someone suggested. “The bus drivers give each other hand signals when they pass each other on the road when they’ve spotted wildlife.”
“This day is a zero!” one of the kids decided.
Slowly we drove back, skirting potholes and bumping over the gravel road. Helen’s head started to bob, drowsed by the slow rumble of the car’s engine. At least the landscape, even without animals, was an enchanting sight, well worth the drive.
Suddenly, around a high bend in the road that overlooked the Savage River, we spotted caribou. We had come almost all the way back to our entry point and there they stood, a group of five, in full view. Captivated, we watched as they moved slowly across the tundra towards us.
We counted five, then ten, then twenty. All throughout the sweeping valley, they dotted the landscape. It was as though they had always been there, foraging on lichen and willow leaves. They migrated hundreds of miles, spreading their grazing so they would always find adequate food. Ironically, it had taken us all day, searching for something that was right in front of us. We did not need our road permit after all, we slowly realized. Encountering caribou on their own land was a privilege not because we sought them out, but because they granted us the sight of them.