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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Alaska: Summer 2016

"We remember a place not just for its beauty but for the way that beauty made us feel; those feelings are woven into the emotional tapestry we call self. The most special places are the ones that give texture to our dreams, that ground us, make us whole, remind us of what is real." - Jill Fredston, Rowing to Latitude, Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge

"What struck me most in the isolation of this wilderness was an abiding sense of paradox. In its raw, convincing emphasis on the irrelevance of the visitor, it was forcefully, importantly repellent. It was no less strongly attractive - with a beauty of nowhere else, composed in turning circles. If the wild land was indifferent, it gave a sense of difference. If at moments it was frightening, requiring an effort to put down the conflagrationary imagination, it also augmented the touch of life. This was not a dare with nature. This was nature." John McPhee, Coming Into the Country

Arriving in Homer and Halibut Cove, Kenai Peninsula
I arrived in Homer, Alaska on July 9th, 2016 at the end of the road, called Highway 1 or Seward Highway. Homer is an alternative city with its resident hippies and folks seeking a place to enjoy a world filled with space, mountains, glaciers and water. I had taken a job as a baker at a very upscale lodge called Stillpoint Lodge in Halibut Cove, 7 miles to the east of Homer in Kachemak Bay. I had been hired after the first baker had quit, supposedly for "family reasons" but I suspected it might be more complicated than that. But I had been ready to leave my seasonal job as a server at a "dude ranch" in the eastern sierra where the extremely long working days and bizarre staff were so mentally and physically challenging. Still I had had some wonderful days of camping and hiking the trails near Bridgeport but I was finally in Alaska and would have at least 10 weeks if everything went well.  My new boss Beka picked me at the airport and was a bundle of energy. Within 3 hours we had shopped at three grocery and outdoor stores, picked up lemon bars for her daughter's birthday at Two Sisters Bakery and  also another gift at Homer Jeans after a quick look at Goodwill. Then we picked up her daughters and a niece and nephew and met our captain JT with his boat The Far Side. Across from the Safeway, niece Thea spotted a mother moose and two young ones. I was mesmerized. As we came near the spit, Beka pointed out the sandhill cranes standing in the nearby low lying ponds. Sandhill cranes?? I would make the trek three hours in CA to see these same birds but here they were, almost as an afterthought. We drove down the long and rather unsightly spit with its rows of tourist shops plus rows upon rows of RV's and then campsites perched right along the water. We had transferred loads and loads of groceries from SaveUMore and Safeway into large plastic flat totes and these we hauled down ramp one and into The Far Side. JT was driving and there was his mother Jan, matriarch of Stillpoint Lodge. Beka's daughter Brightley and Thea pointed out the landmarks that I would come to recognize on my crossings. China Poot (a volcano with no trees), Gull Island, Grengwick Glacier and now the lighthouse on the cliff that is the best landmark of all as you then enter Halibut Cove.

The famous Saltry restaurant and bar was on the left and there was a boy riding a bicycle that powered a kayak. The cove was picturesque, almost storybook like and well groomed homes of every dimension and size were scattered across its islands on both sides. Inside I spoke to myself, "Well done, Karen, you have scored big time." I was content. I had gotten myself out of a deadening job into the wilds of Alaska. It had taken a leap of faith but here was my reward. As we docked, I saw the pair of resident eagles and then we were checking out my staff quarters (a floating cabin!) and I was meeting the staff, a mixture of young and some older folks who seemed friendly and at least more well adjusted than my previous crew.

Arriving in July was fortuitous as the flora was at its peak. Fireweed was bursting in its pink and tall exuberance, and the garden was full of huge ripe strawberries, salad greens and variously colored fox gloves. The sun never really set and I had to put up plastic coverings over the blinds so I could go to sleep at a reasonable hour. The first thing I noticed in 24 hours was the huge shifting of the tides, stressing the wooden docks and the "floating cabin" where I lived. Every six hours was a low or high tide with the average differential being 15 feet. Our staff dock with its kayaks would alter from an easy put in to a dry dock where one could be stranded from returning for hours, until the tide came up. The highest tide difference was tied to the full moon and I paid attention to the phases of the moon like the pagan I always felt myself to be. Besides tides were ocean currents and tail and head winds and these were mysterious and never comprehensible with any prediction and understanding on my part. I learned that the two sides of the cove, one with the main dock and one with the staff dock, could be quite different, with the staff dock being rather calm when the main dock might be quite windy. Lucas, the head guide, showed me how to enter and exit the kayak and took me around the main island, stopping at the post office and showing me the seasonal coffeeshop. It had taken Lucas a week to give me kayaking instruction and I was already feeling a bit of "island fever," since the local hiking trails were relatively short and overgrown, blocking many views over to Kachemak Bay State Park or east toward Homer. I invited myself along on almost any evening excursion on the Far Side, joining guests for late night paddleboard excursions where I could see the sunset and a distant horizon. Now that I could kayak on my own, I would paddle the 10 - 15 minutes across the cove, tie up on dock and wander the board walk in what I came to call "Clem World." At 92 years of age, Clem Tillion is the patriarch and owner of much of Halibut Cove. Legend is, he walked to the cove from Anchorage at age 23 and then proceeded to buy its largest island. In my first day of independent exploration, I saw Clem on his three wheeler and introduced myself, then walked along the boardwalk, past an open barn full of gadgets, old motors and other maritime detritus, past an art gallery called The Experience Gallery, past the softball field which houses community games on Sunday afternoons and up to the Diana Tillion Gallery which highlights the art of Clem's late wife who specialized in nature paintings made with octopus ink.  Staffing the gallery, I met the sunny woman named Bonnie who was spending her first summer in the cove as she had come to live with her boyfriend Don Darnell, a legendary character who owned the attractive floating house. Ismailof Island is covered with low green grasses and lots of alder trees. Clem's house rises near the dock that houses the post office. It's palatial and looks like what I imagine houses in Maine look like. Two large greenhouses are located near his house and I hear they are full of veggies, flowers and even fruit trees.

Arriving was almost like a love affair with its initial rush, everything new and exciting, and me wanting to know everything about the area - flora and fauna. Then a routine sets in but still everyday afforded a new glimpse into the complexity that is Alaska. In my new career as a seasonal worker, I have found that what seems extraordinary becomes rather ordinary within a few days or weeks. I will say that after a few days I was not surprised to wake up to the exceptional beauty of the cove, ever changing in its nuances, clouds here over the mountains, the ever present calls of gulls and eagles gradually changing into the calls of crows and in late August and September, the teradactyl cry of the great blue heron. Everyday, I would wake and take a few moments to scan the cove for its creatures and birds, looking for the black bear I had seen my very first day and always for the otters and seals. Again, as I came back from work I would sit and just observe, trying to memorize the quality of the water and light, the whole universe that makes up the life of a cove. I became intimate with the radiolarian chert, the layered rock that outlines this part of Kachemak Bay.

I especially looked for and observed many belted kingfisher right outside my floating cabin everyday plus harlequin ducks, common murre, pigeon guillemots, a loon, dozens of bald eagles (including 2 that are residents on the lodge property) and the great blue heron. In other animal spottings, two of my co - workers saw a lynx on a path about 15 minutes from the lodge but I was never so lucky.

Close Encounters of the Otter Kind and Spot
One September evening I got in a kayak and took a quick paddle. I gazed on two adorable northern sea otters (species found in AK) who were just hanging out or "frolicking" if I may use that word. I had seen otters everyday but they were mostly lying on their backs, eating something from a shell, rolling to wet their coats as they have no blubber layer, and swimming, sometimes quite fast. But these otters were lollygagging, one placing its flippers on the other's head, swimming languidly and letting me get rather close. I used my binocs to watch them very carefully but I could tell they knew where I was at all times. At first one seemed to be taking a nap, flat on its back while the other kept a watch out. After 10 minutes or so, the second darker one with a pink nose area began giving the head massage to the other with its webbed feet and basically they were off and cuddling. I don't know enough about otters and their behavior to know if they were mother and pup, mates or friends. Apparently these otters use their whiskers to sense vibrations in the water and they looked up every time a boat came within 500 yards or when I paddled within 25 yards or so. Sometimes the current took me even closer and they would look up, take stock and then continue to play. One made a continuous vocalization which took me quite a while to realize was coming from one of them. The info I read said that otters make a cooing or grunting sound when content. I would call the sound more of a whine, the kind that grates on any parent or babysitter.  The other thing that I realized is that when they roll in the water, they keep their front feet in prayer position, much like I had done earlier in the day in my yoga class. As they don't have a large territory, I kept observing over the next few weeks to see if I could recognize them again. More than anything, they seem like whiskered old men, the kind who are grumpy when awakened from a nap. I fell in love with them, grumpy and all. The other mammal I came to look for was Spot, the resident harbor seal. When Spot was orphaned about 25 years ago, Marian (The Saltry owner and daughter of Clem), fed and raised him so he became habituated to humans and loves to be near them. A couple of times, I would be paddling and sense something behind me, turn around and see Spot trailing me. Those harbor seal eyes would pierce my heart every time.

Travels to the Kenai Peninsula and Seldovia
One of the best amenities about this seasonal job was my ability to travel when we didn't have guests. My first sojurn occurred within 2 weeks when I was able to use the company van for 3 days to explore the Kenai Peninsula and the area around Cooper Landing. Highlights included a hike out to Crescent Lake where I practically had the lake and river to myself as this was the height of the salmon fishing frenzy when locals and tourists alike are fishing for sport and what is called "subsistence," allowing locals to fish and smoke this precious source of protein. I stopped off on my way back in Kasilof to witness firsthand the spectacle known as "dip fishing" with hundreds of folks wading into the ocean right where the Kasilof river comes in with its run of salmon on the way to spawn. Folks bring their vehicles right up and camp on the beach and the feeling is a very well-organized and focused community event. This was the most diverse group of Alaskans I saw my entire stay. Women and men, kids, folks of every color of the rainbow - all out to use a large net to snag a salmon and when they did, they used some kind of small bat to bong the fish on the head for a quick death. Then they would fillet the catch or just quickly add in to their stash in a cooler. Only Alaskans can participate and I was told that reps from Fish and Game would routinely come by to check fishing permits.

On two days off, I took the ferry to Seldovia, a 45 minute ferry ride from Homer and along the way we spotted orcas! Rather the woman captain did and we passengers oohed and awed. Seldovia was once a thriving herring canning factory but according to the sources I read, the herring just died off in these parts. Now it's a cute tourist town but with a Native Welcome Council and museum, not as upscale as Halibut Cove where I worked, and more inviting. The do - gooders here have a wonderful trail built by the high school kids and community called the "Otterbaun" and it was a terrific trail with lots of upended spruce trees at one section and it ended up at a gorgeous black pebble beach along the bay where I promptly took a nap. Somehow it reminded me of the beaches at Pt Reyes.

Kodiak Island
Could there be any wilderness left on the planet that compares with Alaska? I was in Manu Park last year in Peru and yes it does compare but for wildness that has stayed wild because it is so inhospitable and also because of folks like Muir, AK's seems to go on forever and ever. I took the almost 9 hour ferry ride south from Homer on the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak Island, on an uncommon and delightfully sunny and warm day so I lounged on the decks for the entire ride, chatting up everyone (as is my way) and having them chat back. It was dreamy as the volcanoes passed by slowly as did the Barren Islands, the humpbacks and even 2 puffin sightings. The ferries are the style and pace I enjoy - time to try and soak it all in although impossible, listening to Dave Eggers newest creation, Heroes of the Last Frontier about a woman dentist who succumbs to the dream of AK and takes her 2 kids there for an escape from the Lower 48 but of course what is she fleeing from?

On Kodiak Island, I stayed at the delightful Channel View Inn and became fast friends with my host Mary who is 5th generation from Kodiak and whose great grandfather named Madsen was the first bear guide and hotel owner on the island. Kodiak is the second largest island in the United States, behind the Big Island of Hawaii but it has a very short road system so folks fly mostly to see the brown (grizzly) bear where they are fishing salmon. I rented a mountain bike and biked to Fort Abercombie which was a fort during WW2 with 150 - 200 men stationed there. It reminded me a bit of a cross between Pt Lobos and the Presidio with only a handful of visitors. The mature spruce forest was covered with moss and every 1/4 mile was some fascinating addition, a lily pond now with dragonflies mating, then a pristine small lake called Lake Gertrude (gotta love the name), then a short ramble out to a black rock cove and beach with washed up and bleached logs.

As John Burroughs, Alaska, the Harriman Expedition 1899, noted:
"These woods were not merely carpeted with moss, they were upholstered; the ground was padded ankle deep, and under every tree was a couch of the most luxuriant kind."

I immediately saw 14 puffins flying, with their clownish shaped head and deep orange feet. I have only seen puffins a couple of times before and I couldn't believe there were so many. I watched them for over an hour as they mostly sat in the water but then began flying high up toward the cliffs but never landing, swooping back toward the water and then up again for about 10 - 15 minutes before landing ungracefully in the water, dunking their heads underneath as they landed almost like a cannonball dive gone awry. The Olympic judges would deduct severe points for the messy entry. The sun was intense and soon I was napping, until 4 children appeared with one mom, deciding to build forts very close to my perfect napping spot. I decided it was time to mosey on and picked up the coke can I had collected before noticing a plastic bag under their fort. I asked the 8 or 9 year olds if they had dropped the bag and one boy said no, so I also picked it up, deciding I would model my anti - littering campaign, telling the kids I was picking up the trash so others could enjoy the beach. The boy turned to me and prophetically said, "it's good to love life" then turned to his friends and said, "now pretend this is a cannon." 

It's good to love life...it's good to love life...it's good to love life...the statement was so pure, so true and it exactly embraced how I had been feeling.

On the ferry ride back I met up with two middle - aged men whom I had met on the ride over, minus one of their wives who had taken a flight back. After comparing experiences in Kodiak, I invited Serge (Russian Jewish Bay Area restaurant owner) and Scott, WASP semi - retired marketing and tech entrepreneur, to explore Halibut Cove. I helped them pack and sort their gear for 4 hours, and then we made the open ocean crossing of 7 miles from Homer to Halibut Cove in a 10 foot Zodiac with outboard motor, Serge and I lying over the luggage to help with the drag. They took me out for dinner at the local pricey restaurant The Saltry and we feasted on various fish dishes and had some good warm drinks. It's good to love life, especially when it's shared with new friends who have a similar passion for the wilderness and wildness that is Alaska.

Texan Relatives Visit
My sister and brother - in - law came to visit for a week right at the end of my tenure at Halibut Cove. I was able to leave a few days ahead of the rest of the crew and get docked half of my season end bonus. My co - worker Ashley took us tide - pooling to see quite a few sea creatures I had not seen during my stay including the aptly named Christmas anemone with its red and green coloring plus a leather star, sun star and tubular anemones. The highlight of our time in the cove was the day I hired neighbor Don Darnell to take us north in Kachemak Bay to see Bear Cove where he had built a small hobbit like house in 1975 using the "free entry" call where residents could acquire 5 acres for free if they had the property surveyed. I had read a memoir about a homesteader there beginning in the late 40's called Kachemak Bay Years and it was fun to see the large cove with a glacier behind it and hear of Don's early years there with his fellow hippies and their antics.

Tina and Bob had rented a car so we drove the first day from Homer to Seward, stopping near Ninilchik to spot two moose running on the less forested plain. The drive from Tern Lake south to Seward was stunningly beautiful and also a bit melancholic with its clear transition to autumn since I was last in the area in July. The mountain backdrop looking east from the marina in Seward reminded me a bit of my experience two years previous in Valdez but it was not quite do dramatic. The next day we hiked out to Exit Glacier, with the high and dry signposts almost a mile out showing where the glacier had existed only 60 years ago. As everyone but the most rabid climate change deniers agree, almost all glaciers worldwide are receding faster than my gums and that's bad news for us all.

The highlight of our time together was the last day when we hiked up a trail outside Hope, along Turnagain Arm, so named because Captain Cook said he had to turn again and again to find the end of the bay. A crisp and flawless day awaited us as we slowly climbed the never ending switchbacks through spruce and yellowing birch trees for more and more dramatic views of the arm. Bob and I were mesmerized by a spruce grouse that flew across the path, then landed in a nearby spruce. After our demanding hike we toured the old timey enclave of Hope, once a thriving gold rush town, where a local council meeting had attracted around 50 of its citizens to decide on local capital expenditures. We had our last dinner together at the famous (and only) ski resort in Alaska called the Alyeska Resort. 

The Inner Passage, Brown Bears and the Aurora Borealis
While Tina and Bob took a red eye home, I flew to Juneau the next day and took a taxi out to explore the national park of Mendenhall Glacier, certainly the most impressive glacier that I saw during the summer. A large lake fronts the glacier as well as a large waterfall to the north, all the result of runoff from the glacier, although there were none of the icebergs that make such lakes so enchanting.

I stayed at the Silverbow Inn and enjoyed its casual chic and hot tub tremendously. I took a wonderful hike right from downtown that followed the first road ever built in Alaska according to the historical plaques. Many other hikes fanned out from this well - groomed path, including Mt Juneau but I will have to return to experience their grandeur. I had taken bear spray from the hotel but need not have been very concerned as there were quite a few hikers and joggers who were enjoying the sunny if cool day. A local pointed out the mountain goats visible as moving white dots high up on the ridges of the mountains. Juneau has 30,000 folks but it was hard to imagine as the downtown is compact and walkable with a variety of good restaurants that serve the government workers and the lobbyists alike no doubt, with the Rainbow Market in an old church being the hub for organic groceries.

The four hour ferry to Haines via the Inner Passage passed fantastic scenery but it was a bit overcast until we passed the Eldred Rock Lighthouse on a tiny island where the clouds lifted and we were spotting glaciers and endless attractive mountains and intriguing inlets. I made a "fast friend" on the ferry as my airbnb host suggested I do to find a ride into Haines as there is no taxi service. Haines is a cheerful community attached to the highway system coming down from the Yukon and close to the Canadian border. I enjoyed walking its fort area where there are some bnb's and museums. I had come to Haines to explore another seaside town along the Inner Passage accessible by ferry but most of all to try my chances to see the brown bear as my last possible location to do so. I had seen paw prints and bear pee on the road in Kodiak but had never seen the actual animal. I hired an older and very experienced woman guide named Pam who drove me out to the Chilkoot River area to try our luck. On the way we saw three rivers otters sitting on a rock and playing in the bay. As luck would have it, immediately upon entering the Chilkoot river area we saw Speedy, a mother sow rambling next to a picnic table. Pam said this was the bear that was most regularly seen here with her two cubs and sure enough two cubs appeared near the river, almost on command. Pam had been watching Speedy (tagged on her ear) for 12 years and her behavior was pretty predictable. It was the cubs that we needed to keep a close eye on if they wandered outside our line of vision. We spent about an hour watching and photographing Speedy, dragging her paws along the river to find salmon, then sometimes catching it and sharing it with her cubs, the cubs also imitating her to catch some on their own. At times we scrambled back into the van when we weren't sure of the cubs' location. Pam seemed just a bit reluctant when I indicated that I was getting cold and ready to go. I was dressed in all my warmest gear including a down jacket and Pam only had on a long sleeved shirt and vest. Yes I was a wimp and ready to go have wood - fired pizza in one of the three restaurants in Haines still open in September. Over dinner, I got to know Pam and more of her story. She had been a teacher and also worked in the Peace Corps for several years. She had raised her kids in Haines and she worked part time as a guide and also was chair of the committee to restore the Eldred Rock Lighthouse that I had admired from the ferry. She had organized a group to "trespass" on the lighthouse land and make needed repairs when she had tried and failed to get permission from the US Coast Guard office. She was my kind activist and I imagined becoming friends with her or folks like her if I ever lived in Alaska again.

On my last night in Haines, my airbnb host and her roommate told me the chances looked good for seeing the "northern lights" or aurora borealis. Even if I couldn't begin to comprehend exactly what the aurora borealis is (the result of electrons colliding with the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere), I still  desperately wanted to witness it. Around 9pm we all sat in front of her plate glass windows looking to the north and within a few minutes we were seeing swirling blobs of green and then it seemed the sky was raining green in long streams. My host had a good camera with a long exposure and captured some excellent photos. It was mysterious and fleeting and I promised myself to return to see more of Alaska and explore Denali National Park in a subsequent trip.
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