Kayaking in Alaska

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.

Chicken, Alaska

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.

Snow in April

April is fooling with us. A winter storm has blanketed the Tanana Valley again. We gape at twelve inches of snow that have accumulated overnight. Is winter never going to end? We are not even asking for daffodils and tulips, like the ones we jealously regard in Facebook posts by friends in the lower 48 States. We would be content just knowing that great boulders of ice are jumbling and crashing as the frozen rivers break apart. It would reassure us that Spring is, indeed, on its way. Alas, nothing so far. No pussy willows clinging to stark branches. No crusted riverbanks re-emerging. No patches of dirt beneath the snow.

Instead, snow is piling high against the window ledges. Before long we’ll be able to slide off our rooftops with sleds. On Cleary Summit, Skiland has extended its season until the end of May. In Nenana, where a betting game has people casting their vote as to when the ice will go out on the Tanana River, people are changing their guess to early June. The sound of snowmachines fills the air again. Perhaps we put our snowshoes away too early.

We’ll simply have to outsmart winter, Rebecca and Tara and I decide. If Spring is not coming, we can still walk along the trails in the woods with the dogs. We are Alaskans. We will not succumb to a little snow. Our friend Dawn and her pup bowed out for our walk today. Thus, our typical group of four musketeers has dwindled to the present three stooges. Equipped with dog leashes and a resolve to tackle the snow, we set off with four bounding dogs. 

We encounter no one on the snowy trails. We are spared the humiliation of meeting the black labrador retrievers, a group of five dogs that we have encountered often on previous walks. They were so well behaved they put our mixed bunch of dogs to shame. While the black labs sat unmoving beside the trail to let us pass, not even twitching a tail and quietly heeding the commands of their owners, our dogs catapulted past them in a snowy cloud of general chaos, completely disregarding our reprimanding shouts. We have earned our name of “bad dog squad” multifold.

We walk in single file in the deep snow. Rebecca breaks trail. I follow. Tara is the caboose. Every so often one of us yells “Incoming!” as the dog chase each other and shove by us. We brace ourselves for impact as Fitz, the alpha female, whips by with a branch in her mouth. Buddy, Jack and Elias, the boys, are trying their best to get it from her. Knees bent, we exhale. We are still standing. We keep an eye out for moose, often a close encounter in the woods. Jack and Elias, the younger ones, would charge right after them. We yell at Fitz when she finds moose poop along the trail that she sees fit to eat.

“Can you shorten your steps?” I pant after Rebecca, whose stride is longer than mine.  I try to follow her deep imprints in the snow. “This snow is too much for me.”

Behind me, Tara grumbles. “I should have just stayed in New Zealand on the trip I took last year.”

Why on earth do we choose to stay in Alaska? I am the “newcomer” with twenty years under my belt. Tara has been here for close to thirty. Rebecca has called Alaska home for her whole life. Typical of long-term Alaskans, we gripe about the weather. Did we imagine, even for a moment, that we wouldn’t see snow again?

Today our walk took us twice as long as usual. Deep snow drifts made our plodding progress more slowly. We are soaked through with sweat at the exertion. When we emerge from the woods, however, we feel more energized than when we started. This is why we stay in Alaska. Sometimes it is enough to go for a long walk with old friends, even if the snowy day falls into April. We can be content to watch a group of dogs romp and wrestle. We still marvel at a landscape turned exquisite with new snow. Even as we shake the snow from our coats and mittens and load wet dogs into car trunks, we know that the gentler season is ahead.

“In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Glacier Ice Cave in Alaska

We are caved in, isolating ourselves from each other. Our world is changing because of an ominous virus that is stealthily spreading. Several weeks into this strange and troubled time, we practice social distancing, quieting down, finding a new normal. There are books to read, online courses to work on, lots of time to write. Luckily, the great outdoors in Alaska, vastly unpopulated, still provides us with opportunities to go outside. If we cannot regroup with others just yet, at least we can seek out venues where we are not likely to come into close contact with people.

“Let’s go see an ice cave!” I propose.

After several days indoors, the teenagers are immediately animated, not even balking at the idea of going for a hike, even if it means getting off the couch, sorting out winter gear, filling water bottles.  Eagerly, we leave our self-imposed den for a different type of cavern: the Castner Glacier Ice Cave.

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It is an easy, straightforward hike, we were told, a manageable day trip from Fairbanks.  “Just drive past Delta Junction to the Castner Creek Bridge,” were the instructions.  “Then you’ll see cars parked at a pullout. That’s where the trail starts.” We drive, in snowy conditions, visibility low. Squinting through the windshield, we wonder about this excursion. Should we have picked a better day for this? We pass only a truck or two on the otherwise deserted road. Would we even be able to find a cave in such weather? But then, just beyond the bend and the bridge, in an otherwise people-less landscape, we see a row of parked cars. The trailhead.

On the creek bed, people are heading towards the glacier. We follow, pondering the wisdom of our boots when everyone else is wearing snowshoes. Not long into the walk, sinking knee deep with every step, no inkling of the so-called trail beneath our feet, we understand why.  Arms flailing, trying not to topple over, sinking into deep potholes, we must look like the epitome of gracelessness.  Helen tries to run quickly across untrodden snow in an effort to not sink but lands, face-down, in deep snow.  Yanni opts for a “short cut” across to the right riverbank, seemingly higher, less slushy, only to double-back to our original trail when he becomes stuck. Periklis, a Greek student Yanni brought home from college with him, gawks at the terrain, telling us he has never seen so much snow in his life.  I try to follow in Nick’s deep foot imprints, huffing and sweating with the exertion. Where is the leisurely walk we were promised?

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There is no sign of a glacier cave until we practically stumble into it.  Hidden from sight, its opening suddenly gapes at us around a corner of the steep, snow-covered moraine. And then, we are literally beneath the glacier in an enormous ice cave.  We are astounded by its beauty. Formations of ice, scalloped along the cave roof, shimmer translucent and blue.  Further in, deep indentations in the walls are encrusted with hoarfrost and glitter in the half light.  Our feet crunch on ponded water that has frozen solid on the bedrock, reflecting shiny silvery light.  It feels as though we are in a fragile glass house that is nevertheless as massive and strong as the enormous glacier above us.  Silence grabs us as we take it in, almost as though we entered a sanctuary, one the earth has gifted to us. In time, the earth may reclaim it, as the cave shifts – widening, lengthening, melting, possibly collapsing. For today, however, we feel enriched, fortunate to simply have beheld it for an afternoon.

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Winter Solstice in Alaska

“I’ve been up for hours and it is still dark outside!”

The complaint is justified, at this time of year, when the sun, in its best effort, follows a shallow, horizontal arc along the horizon, never really rising well above the Alaska Range. The day is marked by dusky metallic light, slanting in at an angle, a mere three and a half hours in duration.  Overnight, the temperatures plummet to 320 below zero.  The cold snap is predicted to last for several days yet.  We cover our noses and mouths with thick scarves when we go outside, but the hairs in our nostrils still tickle as they freeze.

It is the winter that sets us apart from the rest of the world.

“How can you bear it?” my friends in the Lower 48 States ask.  “Is it not terribly cold and dark?”

Indeed, it is a formidable winter.  Ruthlessly frigid.  Dangerous, even, if one is not clad in proper clothing.  But there is so much to love about the winter as well, I tell them.

Practicalities sometimes become easier. It is so cold that the roads, under a packed sheet of snow and ice, have the texture of sandpaper, less slippery, much easier to drive on.  In town, the parking meters have stopped working and we do not have rummage for quarters anymore.  Chores around the house lessen because it is too cold to concern ourselves with outdoor tasks.  The ones that we do still have, such as picking up after the dogs, is made simpler because the dog poop is frozen solid in the snowy yard.  We never run out of room in our freezer because we can place our dinner leftovers onto the porch, a natural outdoor freezer.

On an aesthetic level, we cherish the crackling, still, white world. Someone has hung Christmas ornaments along intermittent tree branches along our favorite walking trail through the woods.  We follow these, bundled into heavy parkas and boots, as the sun rises behind the spruces and birch trees. By the time we get back to town, dusk is already falling.  Outdoor Christmas lights, turned on early in the year to offset the darkness, cast a comforting golden glow onto the snow outside. In the pitch-black nights, the northern lights are clearly visible, wavering like a green curtain, extending into the Tanana Valley below. The stars, defined sharply in the crisp air, look like they can be touched.  It is as though we are, literally, on top of the world.

For one night, midwinter, the North Pole attains its maximum tilt away from the sun. The longest night of the year is upon us.  Just when we think the cold has lasted too long, we celebrate the winter solstice and its promise of returning light. What good is the warmth of summer, wrote John Steinbeck, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This is precisely what our winter, rugged and fierce and beautiful, reminds us every day.

 

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