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Monday, September 23, 2013

My blog for 9/23/2013 Alaska

Alaska -- A Wimp’s Perspective

by Melody Scott melodydscott@gmail.com



Alaska has a mystique about it that transcends wilderness and brings all its individuality into anyone who is paying attention.  Its lure is its uniqueness—where else can you find the mixture of ice and wildlife, sea and monster mountains?


That is why my husband piled into our Dodge four wheel drive truck and left our home near Atlanta, Georgia to go see what our fiftieth state was all about.  The weather doesn’t become comfortably warm in Alaska until after May, and by October your nose could freeze, so Darrel left May 1 to drive slowly, visit some friends on the way and arrive before I flew in. Two weeks into June, I flew to Anchorage to meet him.


Darrel had taken tools, canned supplies, a cook stove and bedding housed in our camper-shell covered truck bed.  He said that when he was greeted at the Canadian border, the guard checked his supplies to make sure the quantity and quality were sufficient for his journey. Staying in campgrounds at night and visiting friends kept showers available and he was free to take off in any direction on a whim.  When I arrived by plane, things changed.


The first thing I noticed when I landed in Anchorage was a permeating feeling of recovery.  Winter had left the city streets abused.  The buildings lacked the pizzaz of windows, color, landscaping.  Each of them seemed huddled alone on dank streets that streamed with mud and brittle paving.  I did find the coffee kiosks on every block to be a charming note.  I can’t really picture somebody slogging through minus thirty degree weather to go to work in a coffee kiosk in Anchorage in January.  But I certainly can see patrons lining up in their snowmobiles.


As a treat, my husband had arranged for us to stay in a bed and breakfast.  It was a lovely accommodation in town, set up in a large home with layered separations by floors.  We must have just missed the truly violent weather because we were the only clients.

Sun was out, the temperature was wonderful at around 65 degrees, and after breakfast, our hosts made a beeline for their 100’ x 100’ front yard where they spent every day we were there planting flowers and otherwise turning their winter yard into a grassy floral garden.  In fact, they scurried about the house fixing and repairing, replacing and cleaning everything in sight.  The owner took time to explain to my technically-oriented husband about the high utility bills if not for the unique home-heat pipe system he’d installed in every room using hot water.  The window of opportunity for income caused a three-month flurry for the whole town, approximately 250,000 people, to earn enough money for a whole year’s livelihood.  


The habitable parts of Alaska are very limited.  There are, essentially, only three roads for the entire state.  When we left Anchorage, we headed southwest down the southern peninsula bordering Cook’s Inlet.  The inlet itself is 30 miles wide and 220 miles long, the peninsula ends in the Pacific Ocean.  Names of little towns I had never heard and will never forget are down the Seward Highway.


My greatest memory of the whole trip was Turnagin  Arm.  This is the “arm” of a fijord off of Cook’s Inlet between Anchorage and Seward.  It borders the road to Kenai, Soldotna and part of the route to Homer, Nikiski, Ninilchik and Seldovia.


Turnagin Arm, at first appearance, looks like a lake at the bottom of ice-covered mountains and glaciers.  But it’s really a ten-mile wide, forty-mile long estuary ending in the Pacific Ocean.  The tide change is 44 feet, the second highest in the world.  And this happens every day.  The tide comes in so fast, clashing with the freshwater glacier melt that it creates a bore wave six feet tall that tears across the channel, covering the moonscape-like mud flats created by silt from the glaciers.   The silted mud flats left when the tide is out resemble quicksand.  Once caught, you’re gone.  We watched a wet-suit-clad surfer ride the bore as we drove by.



We headed to Seward as Darrel had scouted around a bit before I’d arrived and wanted to show me some beautiful areas.


As soon as we were away from civilization is when the mystique struck.   Everything is forested and the road is like a path through pine forest.  Since the highway lacks fencing, trees and underbrush are cut at least one hundred feet back from the road.  The roads are not really paved, not really dirt.  They're highly maintained but often are washed out.


In my lifetime, I had never driven a hundred miles and seen less than five automobiles.  This was a major highway.  Construction crews appeared out in nowhere, hundreds of miles from towns, to repair the roads while drivers sit in their vehicles, forced to watch.  We waited two hours at one stop, with nowhere to go and only one other car waiting with us.


Since there was no requirement for speed and there were no cars on our bumper, ambling worked well.  We saw moose, Dahl sheep, bear, deer, elk, and cattle moving along next to the road, chewing cud, foraging  through trees, stopping to stare at us the same as we stared at them.  A mama moose, her child in tow, left the roadside as we slowed to ogle her.  She plunged into a stream below the roadway, where the little one was literally in over his head.  When she saw the problem, she nudged him toward the shore so he could find his feet, then she climbed up a bank he was too small to manage.  She had the maternal instinct to walk along the shoreline until he found a place he could disembark.


I was ready to get out and push before he was safe.  My husband held me down, assuring me the mama moose would not be pleased.


Seward looked like a small version of Anchorage without large buildings.  Coffee kiosks abounded.   We stopped to see an air museum which was along the shore of a large lake being used as a landing strip.  Planes were docked like boats in a marina.  Apparently air travel is the mode of choice to and from Seward.


When we left Seward we headed west out the Kenai Peninsula toward Soldotna, where we stopped at a restaurant to have a fish lunch.  Little did we know, the halibut we ordered would be the single best fish we had ever eaten, before or since.  Our goal was to stay in Homer, so we continued west.  We couldn’t resist stopping at Ninilchik.  The name alone was fascinating, but, more surprises awaited us. I got my first chance to see bald eagles that day.    The village of Ninilchik is built on the convergence of the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, which flow into Cook Inlet (named for Captain Cook).  Here salmon return to their freshwater homes from the sea every year.  We'd arrived in June, just at the beginning of the salmon season, and along the banks of the river's mouth, fishermen were lined up shoulder to shoulder with their nets, poles, tents and camper trailers.  There are no trees along the shoreline of both the sea and the river, so every activity was visible from the rugged terrain hillsides.  The town streets held tiny original Russian homes and a picturesque miniscule Russian Orthodox Church, complete with its tiny graveyard, graves dated circa 1400s.  Glamour was not a word I'd associate with the hardscrabble looking town.  But it was fascinating.  Since the salmon must acclimate themselves to the freshwater when they move from their salty environment, they're sort of stunned as they enter the river.  Game Wardens work hard to keep the crowds legal by insisting they stay back from the immediate river's mouth a specified distance.  Only inches from that designated place, the pole people push the parameters by standing as assigned, but nobody seemed to notice their lines drifting into the prohibited area. 


When a fish was hooked, the nearby fishermen obligingly moved their lines away from the lucky angler.  They even helped him by standing with nets at the ready while he worked the huge quarry into submission.


Since the gutting and cleaning occured immediately after a fish was landed, the guts were taken over to the beach area about ninety degrees from the river and left on the sand for the eagles, who were delighted to be the garbagemen.  There were eight soaring in and feeding at the time we watched. 


Further up Deep Creek, fishermen lined the crooks and niches made into the banks.  Some wore waders since the spread of the creek bed made it shallow in many areas.  I watched an eagle standing in the ice cold water, fishing.  That eagle and several fishermen stood fishing side by side, neither seemed to care the other was there.


Our next place to visit was Homer, located not far from Ninilchik on a little tongue of land called Homer Spit.  It, too, lay flat and sandy, barren of trees on Cook Inlet.

The spit is oriented around the fishing industry and boat charter companies advertised boldly every few feet with homemade signs practically scratched on driftwood boards.  If you owned a boat that wouldn't sink, you were a charter company.


We planned to sleep in the truck. It had a mattress-bed and all the comforts camping can offer (except facilities, of course.)  Campgrounds were available, though usually without hookups.  Mostly they just had water, but some had electricity.  Generally bathrooms/showers were available for a price.  What I hadn’t counted on was the midnight sun.  Since there were actually only two hours of what you could call “night,” people walked and talked around the campgrounds all night long.  Unprepared, without blackout curtains and earplugs, it was like trying to sleep during a daylight party.  After two nights of no sleep, I’d had it.  So when we reached Homer, we checked into a bed and breakfast, where there was a beautiful lodge home and separated cottages with blackout curtains.


The substantial, yet beautiful Nordic-looking woman who owned the bed and breakfast was herself a fisherman (fisherwoman?).  We learned all about how her father had moved to Alaska in the 1940’s when land could be obtained at no cost.  Rules of settlement and use were strict, but her family had been there ever since.


She explained about how Halibut fishing licenses were organized by priority of nationalism and size of boat.  Hers was a smallish fishing boat, so she was delegated only a few weeks a year for fishing, during which time she either made her income for the rest of the year or made nothing.  There is little concern shown with respect to the time of the year allotted each fishing boat.  If the time you are given falls during the six freezing months, then you fish during that time or you don’t.


It was then we began noticing the Alaskan women in general.  They didn’t come in petite, cute, manicured or three-inch heels.  They looked like ugly men in bad clothing, to quote Robin Williams.  Big, brawny and beefy is one definition.  Substantial is another.  From Russian/Alaskan stock, they tended toward tall anyway, and they worked hard for their everyday life, chopping wood, hunting, fishing, surviving.  No makeup existed as far as we could see.  Clear eyes and rosy cheeks prevailed.


After our trip was over and we’d returned home, my husband enjoyed looking at women again.  He even told one particularly attractive woman he saw at a baseball game that she could make a lot of money in Alaska.  She smiled graciously as she passed us with her hotdogs and french-fries, probably simply humoring the person with the Altzheimers Disease.

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