Saturday, May 24, 2008

Land of the Midnight Sun (Sort Of, more like the land of Midnight Twilight)

* The Sun here plays games with your internal clock. People who live in a place for a while can generally tell the time of day by the sun, ie early morning, late afternoon or late evening. When you get someone from the Maryland and have them to tell time in Alaska, that person is usually off by 3-4 hours. When we think it’s 5pm,- the sun is a couple of hand-width above the horizon,- it’s actually 8-9pm. When you see the sun setting over the mountains, it means it’s 11:30pm, not 8-9pm. This has been playing havoc with my sense of time, I can usually tell what time it is down to the 30min-1 hour range without looking at my watch, here, I’m usually off by at least 2-3 hours.

* Kayaking in Aialik Bay in Kenai National Park was a blast. Dave and Marty had dry suits and I had my basic synthetic clothes. We were dropped off in Bear Cove and the water was so clear and calm. This was awesome because the previous day we were practicing in 2 foot waves and choppy water. We kayaked and enjoyed the scenery and arrived at what was supposed to be our first stop, the Aialik ranger station. However the beach on which we were supposed to camp was covered by 5-6 foot of snow and the Ranger Station was still boarded up. We did find this flat spot that we were sure was above high tide and had minimal snow. However in the process of moving our gear, Marty noticed bird eggs in the middle of the rocky beach. We debated whether we should setup camp there or not; whether the birds had already abandoned the eggs. We decided to go a ways a bit and eat lunch and see if the birds came back. If they did, we’d move on and find another spot, if they didn’t we’d have poached eggs for dinner. The birds, which we later found out were endangered Oystercatchers, did return to their nest. Because of that we decided to head to our 2nd night spot a day early, the Aialik Cabin. This cabin we found buried under 6 food of snow and still boarded up. The outhouse was completed covered with snow and was un-useable. Upon examining the heater we found that the thermostat was busted but Dave managed to jerry-rig the thing with a safety pin making it stay on the whole time and thereby making the cabin unbearably hot. That night (10pm in broad daylight..) Marty had to return to the kayak to fetch something for Dave, on the way there she surprised a black bear less then 30 feet away from her. They both freaked out and the bear ran away as Marty slowly backed away towards the cabin. The three of us returned to the kayak a bit later and found the bear 200-300 yards away foraging for food. The next morning I went out to dig a hole and lose some weight... on the way back I noticed tracks in the snow that crisscrossed mine. On the way out, I was sure that I had the only tracks in the snow, upon examination of the tracks I realized they were bear tracks; so I had a bear walk less then 50 ft away from me while I was taking a dump... That day we explored the area and glacier. We even kayaked through the mini-icebergs, termed growlers. We watched the glacier calve while we had lunch. We had a blast over the next two days, as we had to be picked up a day early because of inclement weather; they weren’t sure they’d be able to pick us up if we didn’t leave a day early...

* There are two pictures I’d paint that would define this kayaking trip. One is me at 11:30pm walking out of the cabin in my boots, pants and t-shirt to brush my teeth. I walked up to the edge of the snow as it met the beach (6-7 ft drop-off as the tide washed the rest of the snow away..). Standing there brushing my teeth, I watched the sun set behind the Aialik Glacier, watched the birds swoop in and out and a random seal poke it’s head out of the water. Then I’d rinse my mouth with filtered snow-melt and then walk back to the snow covered cabin and go to sleep in daylight. The second picture I’d paint is the three of us would be kayaking and we would notice at least 1, if not more, seals would be stalking us. They would play this game of peek-a-boo; they’d poke their heads up just long enough for you to notice and the disappear back under the water and they would do this for a fairly long time and distance before they’d leave. They were also especially interested in Marty; we’d joke that Marty had a stalker.

* Our kayaking adventure wasn’t exciting enough we decided to have a gas adventure, this is where you run the gas tank down to the fumes in Alaska. According to my GPS the was only 1 gas station between us and Anchorage and that was a 10 mile detour off the highway to Whittier. We arrived at the junction exit and our uber-smart car told us we had 10 miles left in the tank. Then on the way into Whittier we found out that you have to pay a $12 toll to use a single lane tunnel that is also sometimes used by trains. The ironic part is the gas in Whittier costs $4.60 a gallon and the reason we didn’t fill up earlier was because all the stations we passed charged $4.30 a gallon and I knew Anchorage at $3.87 gas. So instead of saving money we had a 10 mile detour, paid 30 cents more per gallon for gas and had to pay a $12 toll. Dave has instituted the half-tank rule; we must fill up when the tank is less then half full.

* Food here is just expensive, a basic house salad (in most places would be considered side salad) costs $3.00, a cup of soup $3.00 and a bottle of Moosejaw beer $4.00, making a very light dinner $10.00 plus tax and tip. A full dinner in Alaska has been easily costing me $30, just crazy!


Anonymous said...


The kayak was a great Alaskan experience.

We spent the first day at Millers Landing taking a class and having the guide look at our float plan. We successfully completed all of the self rescue techniques in Resurrection Bay just off shore from the outfitter. This involved some swimming in the icy waters. The dry suits worked great and we were toasty warm in the water looking up at snowcapped mountains.

Day two was the kayak ferry out to Bear Cove in Aeaeeaeaelliiik Bay. I will never spell or pronounce this correctly. It roughly translates to 'surprise place'. The ferry drops us and our gear off in the cove and motors out in to the distance. This is about the time that it hits me that we are alone. We are truly out there alone. It is very very quiet. There is no need to speak up. Even a whisper can be heard a good distance away. The woods behind rise up to steep slope of scree. The waters ahead are as smooth as glass. The sun is shining, and we are finally in the Alaska that I dreamed of.

Meanwhile we have beach covered with gear and three kayaks whose holds are shrinking by minute. With a little repacking, a little creativity, and some brute force we cram everything in the boats except for Jie's bear vault. We test to make sure it floats. It does, so it gets ride in the cockpit with me. It is less than comfortable.

We paddle out and the cove is beautiful. We look straight down to the bottom and see starfish and marine plants. The only sounds are our paddle strokes and waterfalls. Everything is huge here. We make our way over to tooth cove for lunch. A bear is already there so we pick another beach. He climbs a steep slope and occasionally looks our way. Jie keeps an eye on him just in case the bear decides to join us for lunch.

As we prepare to leave tooth cove, we see our first avalanche. A mass of snow and mud and rock stream down the mountain side, pouring over cliffs, and piling up again further down the hill. I'm glad we saw this now. I will factor this in to our camp site selection. Through out the day we see many avalanches. We continue to hear them all day and night. Mostly they are small affairs but they all sound like distant thunder.

Later we move on to the ranger station. Its generally a good idea to consult the ranger about camp site closures and bear activity. The ranger station is closed. Its not only closed, it appears to be abandoned. Snow is up to the roof. Marty discovers in the privy, that waste is up to the rim. Wires are chewed and the shed is open. The only indication that someone closed up is that the windows are boarded up. The map says that there is camping here. With 10 feet of snow on the ground, I challenge you to find it.. We locate a shallow spot in the snow along the beach. I notice some peculiar rocks. The rocks are eggs. The eggs of the endangered orange billed oyster catcher. It occurs to me that this bird is endangered because it picks stupid places to nest. There is no cover here and the eggs look like an easy meal for any carnivore out there – and I am hungry.

With the endangered species campsite ruled out, we decide to skip camping in that area all together and paddle to the Aealik public use cabin area and look for a spot to camp. Jie checks out the cabin. Its snowed in to the roof line and his foot prints are the only ones out there. Well except for the bear's foot prints. Its now obvious that no one else has been here this season. We are the first . Given that the campsites have ten feet of snow over them, we opt for an early stay in the cabin.

The cabin is pretty nice. Its well constructed with a counter for cooking, table for eating, and bunks for two. There is ample space in the attic for more campers. The heater has some issues. Its take a few minutes to switch the tanks out back (remember there is snow to the roof line) . We follow the directions for the pilot light. The pilot works, however, the stove never heats up. I stare at it for an hour and eventually try shorting the thermostat with my multitool. The stove roars to life and we are happy for about 30 seconds. The stove shuts down. We bend a safety pin up and use it as a wire. Rigging an electrical connection in a gas fired appliance can not be considered proper use for a “safety” pin.

The next day is the best. We paddle out to AeAILik Glacier. It looks like its just across the bay. It looks like to should take about 10 minutes to get there. Kayaks are not the fastest craft on the water and the map distance is several miles. We encounter our first iceberg and its amazing. The ice is white and blue. Small waves crash in to the interior. It crackles and pops like ice in a soda. Except this sound surrounds you as if you were in the glass. You would never here this in a charter boat. The diesel sounds and mass of passengers would easily drown out this aural experience.

We pass a small rock of an island and take a peak at the map. The glacier is still far away. We paddle on for an hour where we encounter more ice. Big boats with props in the water need to worry about ice. Kayaks do not. I hit ice on purpose just see how it feels. The kayak rolls right over the small pieces and you can feel it drag along the haul. They feel like rocks in the river, except they float. The closer we get to the glacier itself, the more delicate art we see in the ice. This is ice has not yet been worn down by the sun and salt water.

We paddle on and the ice gets bigger. Car and truck size bergs are the norm here. A bus size berg rolls over just 20 feet of Jie's port side. I make a point of avoiding large bergs after witnessing that. The beach is ahead and we are hungry. Time for a break.

After all that paddling. The sound of thunder is no longer distant. Its the glacier calving in to the bay just a mile away. From here we set out on foot. The morrain beach is a moonscape of gray sand and rock. Further on we encounter a field of beached ice burgs. Its a lot like a boulder field and I envision a new breed of climber with crash pads and ice tools summiting the 15 foot summits of these icy boulders. I never imagined a landscape like this. The distant thunder is louder now. Just off the beach in a sea of ice bergs are hundreds of seals. Soaking in the sun, they lounge on the floating ice the same way I lounge on my recliner.

We paddle back to the cabin and spend the night in a sweltering heat. There is no thermostat. I wake every now and then to turn it off. Then I wake again to turn it back on. the cycle continues throughout the night. The next night we camp by Peterson Lagoon. I should note at this point that Marty and I didn't bring enough food. We have been sharing tuna packets and mountain house meals. "Serves 2," I think not. Not after a day on the water anyway. During a walk at low tide I notice mussels in the rocks. There are millions of them and I am hungry. I bring one back to the camp site and boil it. The shell opens and I sample this seafood. Its bland, but its food. I make a return trip to the tidal rocks with cook pot. It doesn't take long to fill the pot with mussels which I boil in sea water. Now this is a tasty treat and it provides some much needed calories. I later read about paralytic shellfish poisoning. There have been several deaths. Guess we were lucky.

The next day we struggle to get out of the lagoon. The tide is against us and the current is strong. Jie powers out and I follow. Marty makes the attempt but I can tell by the tone of her cursing that these attempts are not successful. We are all a bit tired and hungry now. I glide back in to the lagoon with the current and we sit on the beach. A tour group soon glides in after us. Three guides and three clients. Weather is coming in they say. If they don't pick us up today, it could be several more days before they can. I gladly agree to this and immediately rip into the food we had been saving. Rationing be damned. I eat well.

This was an enlightening trip. We saw incredible beauty. Snails are an order of magnitude faster than a glacier. Yet the power in this system is beyond my comprehension. Chunks of ice the size of apartment buildings fall off the face of this creation all day. Now I have seen how the U shaped valleys are carved out this seemingly solid rock.

Anonymous said...

Hey Elena, yea right!?!