Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Alaska 2016: hiking, rafting, and more!

I have just returned from an adventure-packed trip to Alaska, and want to recount some of the stories while they're still fresh in my mind.

The instigator of my coming to Alaska was Erik, my best friend from high-school, with whom I've kept in contact (and from whom I still receive monthly hand-written postcards!) for a dozen+ years. Erik got married in Alaska two years ago, and that was the last time I was in Alaska. He has now been assigned to work in Italy, and – on his way from the "lower 48" – had stopped with his young family en route to visit his parents and relatives.

Erik and Svenja, from their wedding in August of 2014, two years ago.

With Erik was Svenja, his lovely wife from Germany; her (and now-his-adopted) 7-year old daughter Savannah, who was an adorable 5-year old two years ago at their wedding and has only continued to blossom since then; and a one-year-old Linnea, who – while cute in her own right – was particularly fun to watch in the affection she got from her parents. It was an absolute pleasure to travel with them, and to see Erik – big strong army adventure man that I've always known him to be – hold the infant in his arms and murmur softly to her, or patiently feed her from his fork. As for Svenja, I don't know if I've ever seen a mother more loving and devoted, carrying little Linnea in a baby sling, singing quiet German songs to her, and being so fully and happily immersed in being a mother. Erik and Svenja, I couldn't be happier for you two!

Our group – Erik and his family and myself – first traveled to and camped at Portage, some 40 miles south of Anchorage. Katrina couldn't join me as she had twisted her ankle badly some weeks before, and it was still healing; and she was also in the midst of supervising the completion of our house in Washington (thank you, dear!). We camped at a pretty campground, with a lovely creek-side trail that we sauntered on in the evening, and a smaller and rougher trail that Erik and I walked on in the morning towards a swift mountain creek, while his family was still asleep.

A side-note about Portage.  Portage is known for its famous Portage Glacier, and its accompanying Visitor Center.  Minor problem:  in the forty (or more?) years since the Visitor Center was built, the glacier has receded so much around the bend, that you can no longer see it!  Those who are willing can buy a ticket on a boat, which will take you to the face of the glacier... but to the rest, all you see is a vast lake, and a big honkin' iceberg right in front of the visitor center.  Now, I've been to Portage twice (or thrice?) now, and I distinctly remember that last time there was an identical-looking iceberg right outside the Visitor Center's window, whereas the rest of the mile-wide lake doesn't have so much as an ice-cube anywhere else in sight.  We wondered whether the slow current slowly pushes the iceberg to the Visitor Center (which sits right at the terminus of the lake, where it become Portage River), though if that were true, it seemed strange that the iceberg was just one.  I joked that maybe the Visitor Center pays to have an occasional ice delivery... and sure enough, that's actually what it is!  The iceberg takes about two weeks to melt, and when it does and floats away downstream, the Visitor Center commissions a boat (I wonder if it's the same boat as the tourist boat... that would be quite a sight!) to retrieve a new showcase ice block.  Who woulda thunk!

The following day we crossed the 2.5-mile-long tunnel to Whittier (a first for Erik), and rode the Alaska Railroad train to Spencer Glacier (both train and the glacier being a first for Erik – this must have been the one and only day in my life where I've had more "Alaskan" experience than he has). At Spencer we got out and walked to a viewing spot for the glacier, with a lake and some beautifully-blue icebergs floating amidst it. (Note: these iceberg are not commissioned to be brought in by anyone, and instead make it to this side of the lake of their own volition).

Note the "light at the end of the tunnel", some 2.5 miles away, in the straight-as-an-arrow Whittier Tunnel

That evening we camped just south of Moose Pass, and in the morning did a short but fun packraft run from lower trail lake to Kenai lake. We then had breakfast (thank you Svenja!) and drove to Exit Glacier, where we went on a pleasant walk towards the glacier and the river that streams out from underneath it. I have been to Exit Glacier and the Harding Ice Field with Katrina some six (or more?) years back, and it was a beautiful trip, especially at the ice field. Like nearly all glaciers in Alaska, Exit Glacier is receding, and fast. All through the walk there are signs – 1917, 1923, 1945, etc. – showing where the glacier's terminus would have been in those years. Even in the short few years since I'd last seen it, it was easy to see just how much it's receded during that period, and how much further (hundreds of feet, maybe even a quarter of a mile) it was from the viewing platform. It's a somewhat striking sight, to see those behemoths melt away with each passing year. Hang tight, the Last Frontier!

We camped again at that same campsite, rafted again with Erik in the morning, and played an epic game of hide-and-seek with Savannah over breakfast.  We then headed back north homeward to Eagle River.

That very same afternoon, my mother and I, and my adorable niece Aiya, went to pick wild blueberries on a mountain-side in Eagle River.  And the next day, we went mushroom-picking in the forest by our house.

Like mother, like granddaughter...

A graceful creek crossing

I had two hikes in mind that I wanted to do on this trip. One was to Symphony and Eagle lakes, an Eagle River classic, and the closest hike to my parents' home. It's a beautiful valley trail, pretty at all seasons. The lakes themselves are a fair distance away (a 6-hour day-hike, as is the neighboring Hanging Valley lake), but some of the best views are in the first couple miles of the hike, before the bridge. Aiya was very fun to hike with – running alongside, walking on rocks, asking to be swung in the air, or jumping down from taller ground into my arms. When we reached the bridge we, as per an old family tradition, built a boat-like leaf-and-grass-and-flowers creation, and launched it downstream. Aiya loved it so much, that she asked me to build another... and then another... until we had launched a formidable fleet of floppy green boats.

Leap of faith

A floppy green boat

The other hike I wanted to do was Reed Lakes in Hatcher's Pass; likewise a classic hike, and somewhat of a yearly pilgrimage for many Alaskans who live in the Anchorage / Eagle River / Mat-Su valley area. The weather was gray and misty, but it only accentuated the stark landscape (I've seen Reed Lakes in the sunshine in years prior and can, with confidence, say that that hike is actually prettier in the rain). We picked some high-bush blueberries (a.k.a. huckleberries, one of the few accessible places where they grow in great quantity) along the way, and after braving the slippery boulder section (I said "prettier" in the rain, not easier), we decided to stop a little short of the "official" lakes, and instead enjoy a lushly-green and cheerful lake. It had picturesque cotton-grass growing along its banks, quite in tone with our Samoyed's white fur.

The obligatory cute-Marmot photo

I also wanted to go packrafting, which for me is always a treat, and in turn is something that my parents can't do without me. All four of us – my parents, Aiya, and I, repeated the train-trip-to-Spencer route that I had done with Erik; but this time, instead of returning by train, my dad and I would float downstream to re-join my mother and Aiya at Portage. We had fun exploring the icebergs, and my mother also paddled for a bit, before heading back from the viewing platform with Aiya back to the train. My dad and I, meanwhile, took the rafts downsteam. It was a beautiful trip – maybe the prettiest I've done on a packraft. We were on the wide and braided Placer river, with only fireweed and small bushes on the banks, surrounded on all four sides with unhindered views of snow-capped mountains. Other than on Kalalau Trail in Hawaii, I have never felt that I was in so remote of a place before, and in such a quintessentially Alaskan setting.

Aiya helps us prepare for the expedition

Flower and ice

View from the bow

Under the bridge.  The section here, and in the next 1/4 mile, was the only whitewater... and still very mild.

Quintessential Alaska

Inspired by the packraft trip's success, my dad and I did another trip, this time down Portage River. It was a pleasant and mellow scenic ride, on a somewhat misty day. The highlight of the trip was when, at the take-out spot, I discovered some incredibly tenacious mud (or rather, silt from the glacier deposits). The silt looked completely solid on the surface – but as soon as you started putting weight on it, it would bow slightly. If you continued to take your foot (or hands) on and off of it, giggling it, it would become increasingly elastic, and very slowly start to swallow the object (i.e., foot). We have the same thing out at the ocean shores in the Anchorage area, but there it's incredibly dangerous, as an incoming tide could a) transform seemingly solid ground into this muddy substance, and b) drown you with water if you get stuck. Here it was just a river bank, so – while I knew I was playing with fire – I felt moderately safe. And the mud was just too cool to pass by.

And then, as a culmination and grand finale of the trip, I went to float from Spencer Glacier again – this time with my mother. Since my dad and Aiya stayed at home, we had no one that we needed to coordinate with, and so instead we took our time exploring the icebergs. They were of beautiful and incredible variety, and all as picturesque as could be.
Waiting on the train

I spy, with my little eye...

A good number of the icebergs were animal-shaped. Proudly presenting:

A dinosaur's (or some other prehistoric creature's) skeleton:

An icy version of the Loch Ness monster:

A duck:

A pelican:

A swan:

A mythical winged animal (hippogriff?):

A flower-swallowing crocodile:

And even a tiny pet seahorse, that I adopted as we floated downriver:

Having played sufficiently on the lake, we headed downstream. The river was mostly mild, but it did have some rapids beneath the railroad bridge (side fact: rivers generally are more rapid-y beneath bridges, as those are built in the narrowest and hence the swiftest-flowing sections of the river). Packrafts are incredibly stable, so as long as you point them in the direction of the waves, and do some steering, you're fine. "Follow me," I told my mother, "and stay away from the one rock that's sticking out of the water." Two seconds later, when I looked back, my mother was gently patting the water with her paddles, and the river was swiftly carrying her – exactly to the rock. In another second the raft soared over it, and into a foaming white pool. The last I saw, before needing to turn and look ahead to avoid an incoming wave, was my mother's paddle flying out of her hands, and herself a millisecond away from tipping into the stirring white foam.

When I looked back again, the paddle was swiftly flowing downstream directly towards me – and, to my great surprise, so was my mother, still in her raft. By some magic, and some non-trivial skill in keeping herself balanced, she managed to stay in her boat, even despite water ripping off her spray skirt and getting into the raft. I caught the paddle, handed it to her, and then directed her to paddle hard semi-perpindicular to the current, away from a clump of rocks and caught branches that the current was ferrying us towards. She was still a little bamboozled from having lost the paddle, though, and, without enough time to react, proceeded to let the current take her – into the clump.

I should say that this is actually very dangerous – a clump of wood is an easy way to get caught on something underneath the water, especially when the raft bumps into it and dumps you overboard. A second later, as I went around the river bend, I saw the raft flip... but both mother and raft emerged. What I did not see was the paddle – the thing was nowhere to be found. I also knew just how cold the water is. Giving up on the paddle, I fought the strong current to narrow the distance between me (ahead and downstream), and my mother (floating and holding on to the raft). We finally neared a bank – not a particularly good one for getting out, but it would have to do. I clung onto an alder bush to stop the raft, gave my mother a hand, and she stepped out onto the shore.

I tried to assess the situation. No harm had befallen the raft, and we still had it in our possession – that was good. No long-term harm (i.e., getting stuck on a log) had befallen on my mother, which was even better. She was soaked and shivering through and through, but I had packed a dry-bag with extra clothing... and as good luck would have it, the dry-bag (which had been at my mother's feet, and could have easily floated away or got stuck when she turned) still stayed in the raft. All that was good news. Somewhat unfortunately, though, we were – quite literally – up a creek without a paddle. But not a whole lot I could do about that.

I got my mother out of the water, and was just about to get out myself, when I saw movement mid-river. It was the paddle! Shouting a war cry (or worse?), I launched my boat off the shore, away from the alder tree... and immediately flipped, as a further-out branch caught my raft. With what must have been sheer indignation, I hurled myself out of the water and belly-flopped onto the raft, kneeled down in it (skirt be damned!), and paddled ferociously towards the floating paddle mid-river. The whole thing must have taken literally a couple of seconds – to the point that my mother later said that she wasn't quite sure if I had flipped or not. Apparently, even my clothes weren't altogether sure: my water impact must have been so short, that almost nothing got absorbed through my outer layer, except up to my knees at my feet, and up to my elbows on my arm. Catching the raft, I re-docked at the still-swift-watered-and-unwelcoming bank, tied off my raft, and headed towards my mother, who was walking ankle-deep at the water's edge, holding the raft. Soon thereafter, I tied off her raft next to mine, got out the bag with spare clothing, and then we both climbed the steep bank up to the top.

I re-assessed the situation. We had been re-united with the paddle, so we were no longer up a creek without it, at least not literally. Figuratively, I wasn't so sure. My supply of dry gear was for one person (and even at that, was on the skimpy side), whereas we both had flipped, and my mother was shivering and teeth-chattering. When I went down to the boats to grab my shoes, I also noticed just how much colder it was at waters' edge, as opposed to on our wind-blocked bluff.

Stark scenery
The good news was that we were pretty close to the train tracks – in fact, as we explored that option, it turned out that we're literally a few hundred yards away. So, if worse came to worst, we could try to get picked up by a train. The problem is that a) the trains don't run very often, and b) a train takes about a mile to stop it's inertia, whereas we were just around a curve (i.e., invisible from less than a quarter-mile), and on a slight downhill slope.  Neither would be in our favor.

Quite surprisingly, though, we had cellphone reception. I called Katrina, and between her and my brother they were able to figure out when the next train would be (an hour+), and what number I could call if this was a true emergency. All this research took some time, though, during which my mother's teeth stopped chattering, and we felt more inclined to continue the trip rather than admit total defeat (and have to cause inconvenience, and possibly a fair bit of money, for our rescue). We decided on a compromise: we would keep the emergency railroad number on hand, but none-the-less try to continue downriver on our own, knowing that we can get out and walk to the railroad if we ran into trouble.

Relative to our adventures from the hour prior, the next two+ hours passed uneventfully. My mother got increasingly better at avoiding obstacles (progress is often swift when there's heart-felt -- and in this case, numb-to-the-bones-felt -- motivation), the wood clumps got less frequent, and the scenery around us continued to be breathtakingly beautiful.  It was mistier and more somber than when my dad and I floated this same river in full sunshine, two days prior, but the lack of sunshine wasn't so much a detraction, as much as a different perspective on the same beautiful river. We paddled a fair bit, both to keep warm, and aware that at some point it would get dark (thank you, Alaska summers, for being so forgiving!). We arrived safe and sound to our takeout spot, from which I planned to run the three miles to the car – but was picked up almost immediately by a passing car that kindly gave me a ride. Not even 15 minutes after we took out, I was back to where my mother waited with the rafts, where we loaded them in record speed, and drove the hour-and-twenty minutes to Eagle River. We were home, safe and sound, even before midnight, and even before the darkness had fully set in.

And with that epic adventure, my Alaskan trip was complete.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip!

Karla said...

Michael, thank you so much for sharing and creating this wonderful memory of your trip back to Alaska on the 2nd anniversary of Erik and Svenja's wedding ! My very best to you and your wife Katrina, and also, especially to your Mom and Dad, with whom I really enjoyed visiting
while I was there.
Karla T Shahan

Michael Zlatkovsky said...

@Karla, my pleasure, and thanks for reading! It was a really fun trip, and I'm glad that the joy of it also came through in the pictures and writing!

Unknown said...

Great adventure! Looks like time well spent. Quality time for sure.