Friday, August 28, 2009

North To Alaska... Staking A Claim

We had been told of a plywood platform constructed in the heart of a huge spruce grove near the center of the island. A prolonged study of bald eagles had been conducted from this site years earlier. It was there we intended to set up camp. Supposedly, there were no bears on this island. It was said one rested much more soundly knowing that a large Kodiak bear would not wake you digging a Snicker bar out of your shirt pocket in the middle of the night.

Sleet pelted us as we lowered our canoes over the side of 'The Alaskan Dream.' The four of us began to ferry food, camping gear, tents, weapons, bedding and a large variety of personal effects ashore. The wind had risen and the tides ran strong as we worked against the elements to achieve our goal. It proved impossible to hit the island shoreline at the same point with each transfer, so we ended up with supplies scattered up and down a 100-yard stretch of rocky beach. The tide was moving strongly out, and it proved quite difficult to locate the wooden platforms in the dark and driving sleet.

We finally established our campsite, and Larry and his dad began the work of constructing camp as Todo and I carried our supplies up from the various landing points along the beach. The trees and vegetation were extremely thick. Sweat soaked us from within and freezing rain sought us from without. Our breath huffed steaming plumes into the air as we moved through an Arctic jungle. A small dome of lantern light pushed back against heavy darkness that would have been complete.

There was no topsoil as such. A type of peat moss covered everything, making walking very difficult and tedious. The camp was finally assembled and secure. We fell into our bedding, completely exhausted, taken by sleep that was immediate and without dreams.

My eyes fluttered open just before the sky began to brighten the next morning. Slipping out of the tent, I soon had coffee boiling over the camp stove. During the night, the clouds had broken and bright stars were beginning to fade away into the early light of dawn. It was now in the mid-forties, and the others began to stir. We were in awe of the new world surrounding us. Huge spruce trees towered overhead.

Random droplets trickled from the boughs high above. When they passed through spots of air open to the rays of the newly risen sun, they would explode into flashes of brilliance in that golden light, then vanish passing again into shadow. Various ferns and smaller trees were abundant. Bald eagles roosted in the limbs above. Crimson streaked stray clouds in the sky beyond the canopy above. Bacon crackled in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top. Thoughts turned to breakfast, which was savored and unrushed.

Todo and I paired off in one of the canoes, stowed our gear and pushed off into the bay. Larry and his dad (now dubbed 'Yukon' Jack) moved to our right, moving east and deeper into the glassy waters. After several minutes, we approached the mainland. Ahead, a strong stream surged as its waters rushed to merge with those of the bay. Slack jawed, we observed silver salmon fighting their way upstream by the thousands, with the water roiling under their assault. We dug oars deeply into the water and pulled our canoe through the open mouth of that stream, passing what appeared to be an old mining barge beached some distance inland along the banks. Its timbers still appeared solid despite its obvious age.

Perhaps half a mile upstream, we pulled the canoe onto the bank into heavy cover. Bear sign was plentiful. Half-eaten fish, bear tracks and other sign littered the shore. Gulls swarmed overhead by the hundreds. They were joined by a good scattering of bald eagles. Everything seemed to be feeding on the glut of fish. Many of the salmon appeared healthy as I squatted to study them. They defied irresistible currents to fight upstream, find the perfect spot and lay their treasured eggs. This done, their bodies now battered by semi-submerged rocks and boulders, the salmon ceased to fight and drifted listlessly, slowly back downstream.

The birds dove with tireless beaks striking at the salmon broken bodies. The assault continued as they drifted listlessly back toward the bay, finally dying. Many were consumed by the birds and animals on shore. Others gently settled back into the still depths of the bay to feed other aquatic life. Otters frolicked and feasted across the bays in large numbers. Fleeting shapes of larger fish would flash by our canoes, just below the surface. Before our disbelieving eyes, an amazing panorama of life, death and rebirth was playing out its great drama.

Friday, August 21, 2009

North to Alaska... We're There!

It was just after eleven p.m. on August 31st as we crossed the state line into Alaska. The lone custom agent at the remote post had once been stationed in El Paso and even knew of our hometown of Premont. He flew into his current post daily in a single-engine Cessna. He was so thrilled to have people to see and talk with that it was difficult to break off and continue onward. He had answered many of our questions, providing us with a wealth of information.

Two hours later, we rolled into the settlement of Tok, Alaska. A red and green neon light flashed its welcome to a motel constructed to serve the workers brought in to build the great Alaskan Pipeline. It retained the feel of the boom days. The rooms were small and snug with clean sheets over beds that cocooned you in comfort. There were common showers for men to scrub down in. Amid steaming plumes of steam we sluiced away the grime of the day and eased the strain of muscles knotted and sore from prolonged abuse. It was a perfect respite from our long journey. Photographs of the construction work and nameless men lined the hallways.

As late as it was, Todo and I shared a toddy and reflected back over experiences we had shared and how unique this one was proving to be. The history of the place was strongly woven into its very fabric. It was a tangible, living thing surrounding us. I noticed in mid-sentence that Todo was snoring softly. Turning off the bedside lamp and closing my eyes, I was swept away. We slept like the children we had once been.

It's daylight now and we are pushing south out of Tok. Rested and refreshed after a good night's sleep, Larry and Jack look like different men. We still had a good drive ahead of us, with the port city of Valdez our goal. Streams and rivers flowed everywhere. Beautiful snow-capped peaks surrounded us. We were amazed and stopped to gawk at Bridal and Horsetail Falls.

Finally, we climbed through a saddle between two peaks and saw Valdez resting around a sparkling bay below us. There were gulls and bald eagles working the air over that shining bay as we slowly drove into the town. Various boats were tied along the docks, where sea otters rolled and chirped in the crisp sheen of the water. The clarity was such that you could see giant crabs prowling the floor of the bay just off the docks. Huge storage tanks held oil flowing from the great pipeline to the port to be loaded onto tankers for the long journey to fuel industry around the world.

Just after four o'clock that afternoon, we moved off the docks and into a sporting goods store called 'The Hook, Line & Sinker.' We purchased hunting and fishing licenses, then made contact with our boat captain, Jeff of 'The Alaskan Dream.' He was set to ferry us and our supplies some 37 miles southwest of Valdez into an area along the coast where we would be fishing and hunting bear. Captain Jeff and his first mate Chuck helped us load our gear aboard his boat.

Captain Jeff wanted to wait until morning to depart and was more than a little reluctant to chance the passage in darkness. We, however, wanted to waste no time in establishing our base camp. Time was a factor in our calculations. Our arguments prevailed as our possessions were stowed in the hold and strapped onto the deck of the boat. We labored beneath towering glacial ice straddling saddles in the mountains around the harbor. Their ancient frozen hues of bluish green were pierced by the slanting rays of a sun riding ever lower on the western horizon. The waters of the bay were like gazing into glass. The clarity was amazing.

Before boarding, I called Bonnie from the docks and was thrilled to hear her voice over the impossible distance. Our voices lagged a couple of seconds due to available technology. I tried to describe and will her into my surroundings, though that was impossible. Finally, saying goodbye, I slipped the mooring lines, then leaped aboard the boat as we began to maneuver through the harbor toward our destination of Fidalgo Bay and the island that was to become our home for the next five days. Todo took a fierce ribbing as we discovered his tendency toward sea sickness.

As the light faded, we passed a land-locked Indian village, which Captain Jeff told us had been constructed entirely with federal funds. There were no roads in or out of the community, making it accessible only by water. He related that the Indians apparently nurtured a strong distrust of whites and only allowed three outsiders to live in the village. Two of these were a married couple who taught school and the third was a Russian Orthodox priest. The golden dome of that church glowed brightly in the twilight. Necessary supplies were offloaded on village docks, and only rarely did any of their people venture into Valdez.

We surged into a heavy fog bank. A steady drizzle soon turned into freezing rain. Our sense of time and distance began to blur. Darkness fell. We seemed to crawl over the surface of the water. Much later, an island slowly materialized within the fog. We dropped anchor some 200 yards offshore. The captain would venture no closer. He feared running aground on submerged boulders and breaching his hull. The sleet grew heavier and the clouds denser, robbing us of any trace of lingering light. Our island was now a smudge on the horizon. Penetrating cold chilled us to the bone. I glanced back over my shoulder. The captain's face was illuminated in the soft glow of a lantern. He arched his bushy eyebrows and grinned. It was time to go ashore.

Friday, August 14, 2009

North to Alaska . . . Above the 49th

On August 31st around five o'clock in the morning, we crossed from British Columbia into the fabled Yukon Territory. Streams and rivers ran fresh and clear. Flashes of fall colors exploded in the golden sunlight of early morning. Grandeur seems an inadequate word to describe being visually overwhelmed by the shades of red, bright yellow and hues of brown scattered through varying shades of green among the juniper, spruce and pine. Random bursts of fall blossoms rippled in the cool breeze flowing over the slopes.

We viewed herds of wild horses or mustangs that still ran free in this rugged country. A bunch of bighorn sheep cascaded off a steep slope as we rounded a bend in the crusted road. We ground to a stop as they did, briefly, and stared in surprise and wonder at each other. The leader slowly turned and huffed. Their hooves thundered and they were gone. A young bull elk regarded us calmly as we paused again, then moved on.

We had just completed the most difficult stretch of our journey. It traversed some 320 miles spanning the distance between Fort Nelson in British Columbia and Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory. The road was full of curves and layered in gravel rather than paved for the most part. We slowly pressed forward through the darkness along the treacherous route. A chilled, persistent mist settled over us as our headlights punched ahead and jerked from side to side. Numerous beaver were seen along the road throughout the night passage.

It grew quite cold. The rear window of the Wagoneer shattered when one of the rear tires slung a rock into the front of the trailer, which ricocheted forward through the glass. Stopping to clear shattered glass from the rear of the vehicle, we noted ice was forming on the tarp covering our possessions in the trailer. Freezing slush and dirt formed into blocks of ice in the wheel wells and had to be broken and cleared away periodically.

The clouds burned away as the day progressed, then flowed back in late in the afternoon. We approached the end of our journey through the Yukon Territories. How to describe it? Sheer, towering mountains layered and colored by varying strata of tundra or grass. Kluane Lake was huge, to the point of seeming to be a bay, complete with whitecaps, with a surface area encompassing more than 150 square miles. The mountains dwarfed the Rockies that Bonnie and I have known and loved so long in Colorado. We passed through the city of White Horse, capitol of The Yukon with a population of 18,000--almost two-thirds of the people living in the entire province. We pushed on.

Twilight settled in at 10:20 p.m. as we rolled into the entrance to a lodge and inquired about supper. The owner was a polite man with an expansive, ruddy face and a beaming smile. However, he refused to serve us as he had committed to an early-morning grouse hunt the following day. We thanked him, changed drivers, grabbed a couple of candy bars and pulled back onto the road, threading west and a little north. It seemed that the fading sunlight had to be streaming from the mythical land we pursued with such determination--a boyhood dream called 'Alaska.'

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

North to Alaska . . . Heading Out

On August 27, 1988, Todo Myane, another friend Larry, Larry's father Jack and I left the sprawling metroplex of Dallas, setting our sights to the north and the fabled 'Land of the Midnight Sun' . . . Alaska.

Planning an early start, unexpected delays and extended preparations extended our departure until around six that afternoon. The temperature was still hovering around 102 when we found ourselves headed north. We drove a Jeep Wagoneer with two canoes strapped on the top, with a tarp-covered trailer in tow. As we rolled northwestward across a barren Texas landscape, dust devils and shimmering waves of heat created mirages in the distance. The air was hot and arid, and it felt as if we were breathing air from a furnace when we left the air-conditioned comfort inside our vehicle.

The sign read 'Welcome to the Land of Enchantment' as we crossed the border into New Mexico. The last light of the sun bled into the barren landscape and cast the few fleecy clouds in crimson as it slowly melted into the distant horizon. We continued the push toward Raton Pass in the fading twilight. A strong gust of wind slammed into the side of the Wagoneer, and the vehicle rocked against the force as we slowed to a stop to change drivers. Stepping out onto the shoulder, I felt the fresh chill of a strong north wind flowing around me. We pushed north into it, thrilled that the heat fell away into the lower sixties. The climb up to Raton brought us briefly into the realm of granite, pine-covered mountains. Light snow fleeced the very tops of some peaks. We rolled down windows a bit and pulled the cool sweet air into our lungs. All too soon, we descended back to the desert floor, pushing on through Pueblo, Colorado Springs and into Denver.

We had remained to the east of the Rockies, moving through sparsely vegetated foothills. Small groups of antelope were spotted occasionally along the way. We stopped briefly in Denver for vehicle maintenance, then moved on north through Colorado into Wyoming. I had not been here since a young boy on vacation with my family, and a young boy's memories came flooding back--log cabins with wood heaters burning compressed one-pound coffee can sized chunks of pine sawdust, black bears rummaging through trash cans outside looking for snacks, Old Faithful spewing plumes of steaming water high into the frigid air, a moose walking, unconcerned, along the side of a lake with impossibly blue water, his great antlers and strange beard rocking gently from side to side. These bits and pieces flowed unbidden from the past and lived again briefly in my mind.

We only paused to eat or change drivers, stopping briefly in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to check the possibility of an antelope hunt. We discovered that all available buck permits had already been issued, so we pushed forward into Montana.

Todo and I never tire of each other's company. We entertained Larry and his dad with tales of growing up together in the small town of Premont, deep in the Brush Country of South Texas. We had gotten into and out of so many situations that the telling of one story would trigger the memory of another. Our childhoods had been touched by magic. On the rare occasions when conversation lagged, we would break into an off-key chorus of "North To Alaska" by Johnny Horton. Apologies to him!

The Montana foothills slowly gained in height. Even here, we saw and smelled smoke from the great wildfires in Wyoming that were ravaging so much of the Yellowstone country. We heard a news report of a father who had taken his wife and two children camping in the area of the fires. That night the wind changed and flames swept over and through their campsite. He dragged his wife and children into a nearby stream and shrouded them in soaking sleeping bags to filter out the smoke so they could breathe. He was hailed as a hero. We viewed him as a complete fool. Who would take his family into the proximity of an inferno consuming tens of thousands of acres?

A beautiful mule deer buck crossed in our headlights. We later saw a freshly killed bear on the shoulder of the road. It had been hit and killed by a vehicle. Due to the steep cuts on each side of the road, we were unable to turn around and get a good look at the huge animal. We had driven almost continuously and crossed from Sweetgrass, Montana, into Canada just after sunrise on the morning of August 29th. This part of Canada appeared similar to West Texas. The crops were either wheat or alfalfa.

Entering Calgary, we witnessed a large, beautiful modern city. The roads and highways were excellent and exceeded ours back home in some respects. Farther north, we had an excellent meal near the community of Red Deer, meeting wonderful, gracious people along our way.

August 30th. Our first stop for showers and sleep under clean sheets was last night. The trip is taking a bit longer than planned due to a couple of maintenance delays, but is still going really well.

We have driven into beautiful forests. I see juniper, aspen and birch in abundance. The air is clear and sweet. Small lakes and ponds are numerous, many created by beaver dams of various sizes. Canada, thus far, is beautiful beyond description. We have just passed through Dawson Creek and embarked on the Alaska Highway. Images conjured by Jack London through 'The Call of the Wild' and 'White Fang' begin to materialize. Home stretch! There are only about 1,500 miles to go. We passed through Fort St. John. The Peace River overwhelms!