Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that care nothing for hope or longing.
– Jon Krakauer
It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska. It means ‘that which the sea breaks against,’ and I love that.– John Green
The clouds started to clear as we approached Anchorage and could catch glimpses of what was below as the rain fell hard on the windows. Small islands dotted the land and water as far I could see. Coming from Seattle, rain or the threat of it always lurks so having it greet us didn’t dilute the excitement that Gabi and I both felt as we were about to land and begin an epic adventure. I love that feeling of anticipation as a trip begins to unfold. There was a plan in place but even the best plans are subject to change on a whim.
As soon as we got off the plane and started walking through the terminal I happened to see someone I knew. It completely caught me off guard and once again reminded me just how small our big world really is. We chatted briefly but set off quickly to nowhere in particular as we had hours to kill but this wasn’t a close friend and the last thing I wanted to be reminded of on an epic Alaska adventure was the lower 48. For a couple hours we lingered in the airport gazing out the windows imagining what mountains lie waiting behind the curtain of clouds. There was a man asleep on the floor in the same section as us but aside from that we had a wing of the airport to ourselves.
Even the airport wasn’t overly busy which I liked immediately. When the man awoke I asked him about the mountains that I couldn’t see. He gave me a quick rundown before breaking into the full history on the state of Alaska, Natives and the Pipeline. He was a native who worked the on the North Slope but lived down in Louisiana. I found this interesting but unsurprising. When the pipeline was nothing more than a pipe dream, it wasn’t a welcome idea to many Alaska natives. But bills have to be paid and the pipeline consistently delivers year round. I asked why he didn’t reside closer to work. His wife preferred the sunshine and alone time.
We took an Uber from the airport to the van rental location where we picked up our mini house on wheels for the week. The Uber driver was a man from Mexico City who didn’t like the cold and didn’t hunt, fish or hike. He’d lived in Anchorage for 30 years. The van place was cool and had a spot with all kinds of leftovers from previous campers. Everything from seasoning to noodles, macaroni and cheese to fuel canisters for backpacking stoves. All was free for the taking and we snagged a few items not sure if we’d need them or not. At the end of our trip we gave the remaining food and condiments to a lady at a gas station. She was pumping her gas just across from me and I asked her if she’d like a bag of food. Turns out she donated food herself and this was all good news.
We couldn’t make it out of Anchorage without saying we’d eaten at the Moose’s Tooth. It ranks as one of America’s top pizza restaurants. It didn’t even occur to me to try pizza in Alaska. Who thinks about pizza when traveling to the farthest region of America? Apparently a lot of people because the place was packed. The ambience of the local favorite was fast paced but friendly and inviting. The pizza was good but the breadsticks were out of this world. The pie was better the next day after a long trek. The Moose’s Tooth is the food side of a Brewery called Broken Tooth. In Alaska a brewery cannot serve food. To offset this there will almost always be a food truck parked outside. They did make their own in house root-beer that we made sure to buy extra for the road.
We didn’t take very many pictures of Anchorage or explore beyond the basics. It had a great REI, I’ll say that. There is awesome scenery from almost every angle in the backdrop but a lot of homelessness and dead eyed wanderers whenever you took your eyes off the rising mountains beyond. When I think of Alaska I tend to think about the Dick Proenneke version but that’s not the case in Anchorage. It was where we picked up our van and groceries and then we were almost off. I had to stop at a pot shop to see what legalized cannabis is all about in the great white north. And a chance to take a picture of a budding garden was hard to pass up. But then it was go time and we were on the road and headed south. Destination Girdwood, for an unofficial hike.
Although the day had been long and only left us with a few hours of daylight we were eager to get on the trail. It was the whole reason we were there to begin with! Although almost every single person we encountered asked us if we were there to fish. We had read about mostly locals only known trail with no real trailhead or maps but plenty of clues. We scoured maps and narrowed the search down to a small area. Camping direct across a path that happens to lead right to it certainly helps! It’s called Chutes and Ladders and it fits. They could add cave like and it’d be spot on.
It also lead directly to a bear within the first 10 minutes giving me a bit of pause. Enough so that I didn’t take a photo, I went backwards. He was down in the gully just beneath where I stood and looked right up at me. That really got my heart racing. He didn’t charge me but he didn’t need to because his presence and stare was enough. The bear casually walked off and out of sight. After he was gone we walked briskly back to the van to get our bear spray.
Pictures don’t do this waterfall justice. You can’t feel the power of this waterfall through a picture. It was like being in a with tunnel following a massive rush of water. It was vacant and loud and peaceful all in one. The way down to the falls had a lot of water interaction, stone skipping, ladders, ropes and a couple side tunnels. Going back we encountered some locals who pointed us in another direction just above our heads that provided a way back. Eager to keep the surprises coming, we waited until they were gone before we set off.
For the first night we decided to sleep at the Crow Pass trailhead. It was only a few miles further up the road than we were parked but the campsite that we had for the evening was within earshot of a wedding venue and the party was in full force. We drove up to the trailhead with a little light left in the sky. We parked right next to a waterfall at the trailhead which was a lot louder than either of us expected but it’s the perfect white noise for sleeping. There happened to be another noise that started right around bedtime.
We were exhausted from the days travels and ready to watch an episode of Alone and slowly drift off to sleep. But a beeping noise somewhere in our van had a different idea. Every 30 seconds or so a beep would go off and we nearly took the entire van apart trying to find the source. All the doors were opened, we plugged in the solar panels and checked everywhere we thought the sound was coming from. I started removing interior trim. We checked the manual but there was nothing. No pertinent information was found. We couldn’t search online because we didn’t have cell reception. It was driving me to the point of insanity when we decided our best bet was to pick up and get to cell reception so we could call the owners of the rental company.
It was nearly 10 PM when we reached out and figured it was a loss cause. We were going to sleep in 30 seconds increments while slowly losing our minds in the woods. It’s quite possible it could have been the beginning of a horror story. But the owners got back to us quicker than we expected although maybe not as quickly as we had liked given our patience had gone out the window. They said it might a dying battery in the carbon monoxide detector. And that’s exactly what it was, nestled completely out of sight and tucked in a food drawer. We drove back to the trailhead and once again attempted our 2nd lights out.
The next morning we awoke without the pressures of a rigid schedule. Casually but with intention we got ready and set out for our 2nd hike of the trip. Unlike Chutes and Ladders, Crow Pass is a very well known and traveled trail in the Chugach National Forest. Less than an hour from Anchorage and it felt completely remote. The trail started out very leisurely but gradually climbed for miles until we reached the Crow Pass Cabin. We didn’t have reservations for the cabin but we were able to explore it with three other hikers who lived in Alaska. We took it as a prime opportunity to escape the weather for a moment and glean some local knowledge.
This hike more than any other that we did in Alaska experienced more weather extremes than I was used to. I’m a well prepared hiker who always packs the 10 Essentials and then some. For this hike I brought all the layers that I thought were necessary and although I stayed warm at my core I was happy that I didn’t skimp on any of the layers that I brought. It was late August when we went but we experienced almost all 4 seasons in one. It didn’t snow but it was cold enough. We almost made it to the glacier but decided to turn back when all we could see was the path in front of our eyes.
We still had a 130 mile drive to our next destination, the Homer Spit. Nothing was rushed and the sun lingers long even late in the summer. We headed back out to the open road and started the next part of our adventure down the Kenai Peninsula. The drive down provided almost as much scenery as the hike we had just left and almost as quiet as well. It provided quite the ride down. It wasn’t quite the weekend yet but it was fast approaching with few cars on the road in either direction. Between the mountains and adjusting our soundtrack, I’d sneak glances over at Gabi. She’d sometimes catch me and smile widely back but other times she wouldn’t notice and I could see the happiness resting easily on her face. This was it, we were in heaven.
On the way down we took a right off the Sterling Highway to a town called Ninilchik. We came to a literal crossroads and had to choose left or right. Left appeared to go to the public beach where I saw a few vehicles. To the right were several houses and a dirt road that disappeared behind a bend in the road, obscured by a cliff. We went right. We ended up on a narrow path that bordered the small port and lead us out to the expansive beach that didn’t have a single soul. We were the only ones and we happened to get there right at sunset. Gabi made us dinner and then we sat in our rented chairs and watched the sun drop below Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
I haven’t posted in more than eight months. There was an epic 32 mile backpack trip that is nestled neatly in my memory bank that I should have posted. A summers worth of hiking that lingers in my mind. I haven’t made it a priority to sit down, edit photos, create videos and write. I’ve been hoarding lots of content that I am excited to finally share. I’ve also decided to put the effort into Justwannahike that it needs on a more consistent basis. I’ve still been hiking and backpacking but I’ve allowed life to take me away from my passion. Sharing the outdoors with anyone who is inclined to appreciate it.
I couldn’t believe it was happening as we were planning the trip and to have actually gone and done it is surreal. Alaska isn’t just another state and it wasn’t just vacationing. It was a once in a lifetime adventure with the best friend a person could ask for. I remember people giving me that look of ‘Alaska, for vacation?’ Because I live in the Pacific Northwest, an already damp and chilled environment, why wouldn’t I go somewhere warm? I like the weather here and my personality is such that only the extremes will suffice for solid satisfaction. That’s what Alaska is all about. Self reliance. Fierce independence. The open road. There is so much more to share and I can’t wait to get it all out. There will be an Alaska Part 2 and 3 and videos to come along as well. I am eternally grateful for those of you who have been with me on this journey and continue to stay.