Pages of my life…

Living Large In The Wild Frontier

Posted on: December 14, 2009

I have avoided cold weather for most of my life.  Needless to say…Alaska was one of the very last places I ever expected to visit.  Last summer a couple of people who love me…decided to take me on a very special trip.  The excursion was billed as their "last ever" trip to the land they once lived in…and dearly loved.  All sorts of plans were made…but like a blindfolded guest…it was all a big surprise to me as I truly had no idea what to expect.  Arrangements were made to fly from different locations and meet along the way.  Anchorage was our first stop.  I had expected a rather large sprawling city and was pleasantly pleased with the small town feel of this "big" city known all over the world.  On the first day…we spent a good portion of time riding around looking at places they had lived…projects they had been involved in building…and exploring the local community.  We took a drive to the nearby ski mountain community known as Mt Alyeska.  In the midst of summer an interesting combination of wildflowers and snow capped peaks greeted us at every turn.  We spotted mountain goats with pure white fur scaling down steep rocks alongside the highway.  The raw breathtaking beauty was impossible to avoid.  We continued on to the sleepy little seaport of Seward and had lunch in a cafe that felt more like a fish camp with orders flying through the air for every variety of fresh catch.  My camera finger twitched with excitement…pointing first at the open sea and then snapping rapidly in every direction as there was simply too much to chance to memory.   On the way back there were glaciers on both sides of the highway that beckoned me to stop for a better look.  If I had been driving alone it might have taken me days to make the fairly short trek back to Anchorage.  By the time we arrived at the hotel…my travel companions were in need of a nap.  I hoped to go for a swim and headed to check the pool temperature.  I was thrilled to discover it was bathtub warm and scampered off to get my suit.  It was embarrassing to find myself wearing little more than my suit and a skimpy cover while getting on the elevator with a gentleman I did not know.  Sorely aware of the sound of my own heart beating…I uttered some lame comment like "nice day".  Flushed cheeks and shyness tell a story of their own.  We descended one floor to the lobby…and an hour later someone came to join me for a swim only to discover I had never made it to the pool yet.  It would have made for a good scene from a movie.  I had no choice but to excuse myself.  He smiled and said he would see me at dinner.  I explained we were going out to dinner.  He noted he would perhaps see me at breakfast.  I explained we were leaving at the crack of dawn to go halibut fishing.  He then commented that he would see me when we got back.  I explained that we were going to another hotel when we returned.  He asked where…but I did not know.   An unbelievable set of circumstances unfolded one by one.  At the crack of dawn I helped to load  luggage into the car as other early risers indulged in breakfast.  I almost leaped for joy when I went to return the luggage rack and discovered an incredible smile from across the room.  We exchanged a bit of information and I left for the next leg of our adventure.   The drive to Homer involved a switch back road but was fairly uneventful.  I did not know what to expect…but certainly would not have envisioned the flawless beauty of ocean meeting snow capped peaks standing proudly in the background.  It was an unforgettable coupling of high and low elevations.  I knew little about Homer.  Men In Trees was filmed there and it was where Jewel grew up.  Her Dad is an extremely polite and amazingly talented artisan whose bright smile and warm welcome speak volumes.  His fine wares may be located in the best gallery in Anchorage.  We enjoyed a bite to eat and then located our cozy cabin where we would spend the night with other family members playing games and visiting.  Early in the morning we met with the crew of the boat we chartered for halibut fishing.  Once again…I had no idea what the trip would entail.  We went twenty miles out to sea before stopping to put our lines in the water.  Along the way we saw rafts of sea lions laying on their backs…floating merrily along.  An abundance of wildlife greeted our eyes everywhere we looked.  Halibut fishing was a bit different than any other kind of fishing I have done.  The lines were loaded up with several pounds of bait…squid and fish and heavy weights.  You drop your line about 150 feet and then bounce it off the bottom to announce the arrival of food.  A reef below made the perfect spot for locating halibut.  Each fisherman can catch a maximum of two halibut per day.  Small ones known as chicken or hens weigh about 25 -30 pounds.  Some are as large as 130 pounds or better.  A derby is ongoing during the season to reward the biggest catch.   We each caught our limit and a massive quantity of halibut was flash frozen and sent back home.  Our fellow fishermen said  goodbye and departed in their new helicopter.  We returned to Anchorage for a day before heading north toward Whittier.  We stopped at a number of glaciers and took many pictures along the way before hopping on the ferry to Valdez.  We were treated to the sight of whales and other wildlife along the ferry boat ride but the massive quantity of sea lions basking in the sun along the beach was impressive to say the least.   Valdez seemed a rather small place to accommodate large cruise ships, ferries and fishing boats.  The next day we drove to Fairbanks by way of the North Pole.  I declined the chance to sit on Santa’s lap…but enjoyed wandering around the toy shop admiring everything.  Outside the reindeer sat waiting for their evening meal.  Fairbanks struck me as a town that had been largely assembled in a hurry with a boom in sight.  The Alaska pipeline visually wove in and out of the landscape but was even more obvious in places it had once impacted.  A variety of trailers and modular homes were strewn about like logs floating in the river near a paper mill.  No particular pattern seemed to be present…no architect had drawn their path or planned for future streets and neighborhoods.  It was one random sampling after another of prefab meeting skirting.  We took a steamboat the following day down the slough and past Susan Butcher’s home.  Her husband and the sled dogs put on a show for everyone…demonstrating their level of obedience and mastered art of teamwork.  A bit further downstream we watched seaplanes do touch and go takeoff and landings.  Finally we reached our destination and all the native village had to offer.  It was a chance to view rustic beginnings from another place in time and gain a better understanding of the native way of life.  En route back to Anchorage…we stopped for a day at Denali Park near the base of Mt McKinley.  The trip to the visitor center took hours as we stopped for every kind of wildlife one could only hope to see.  We spotted a mama grizzly bear with two cubs…a video image from my camera I will not soon forget.  There were deer, caribou, elk, bison, wolves and moose. Every possible kind of wildlife big and small was available to admire in their natural habitat.  On the way back to Anchorage we skipped the tiny towns of Wasilla and Palmer but made a pit stop at Big Lake…where an enormous moose stood casually by the side of the road as if to ask why we slowed down to look.  The last night in Anchorage we attended a dinner party with various artisans and an Eskimo family.  Their fascinating story is captured in another blog about the tale of a whale and a whale of a tail. It would have been difficult to choose a single defining moment in the trip…if it were not for the image of two generations of women…sitting and rocking back and forth on the boat as they sang every sailor, boat or sailing related song we could remember…and laughed until our sides hurt…just for the "halibut". 

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