Sunday, June 14, 2009

AK 7 - Cycling in to the Yukon

AK 7 – Cycling in to the Yukon

The distance back to camp clicks off with each milepost, peddling along the Chilkat Flats. At MP 8, I turn off and take a break, the river flows by a small beach sheltered by some Aspen from the heat of the day. The sharp glaciated peaks of the Chilkat range rise from the tide flats of Pyramid Harbor, holding back the icy mass that gives Glacier Bay it's characteristic fiords. Yet I lay on my back collecting my strength to push on those few last miles more. It has been a long day, with views that could not have been imagined. It seems with every turn in the road, the vistas only got better and better. If I had know that I was going to go so far I might have paced myself a bit. But early in the day when the miles were quick, I seemed to be pulled onward. Now I just lay in the grass, looking out towards the evening light cast it's shadows. It is 8pm and still the sun is out, warmth in the air, and miles yet to go before I sleep.

It started out from the town of Haines, having return from two days in Skagway. This village perched on the peninsula of the Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets, had history for me, memories so many they seemed to come at once in all directions. When I was young this had been where I spent many summer, aboard the Pacific Queen. Now looking at the mountains, I knew why the lure had soaked within me, always wanting to see what was behind that distant range. Here they are unimaginable, like told in sweeping panoramas, or tales of haunted Klondiker's looking to rise over their dizzying heights. While only reaching up to four to five thousand feet in elevation, their steep sights hold the visitors gaze. The day I arrived, I felt that I wanted to go far up into the Yukon, along the old Dalton Trail. Now made into a road to Haines Junction, a bike rental shop caught my eyes. A quick $35 dollars for a road-bike, helmet and saddle bags together. I went back to camp and awaited the next days dawn to come.

The light rose at 4 am, and I finished my breakfast of oats and packed up to go. At first the peddling was quick and I round the old field where the Ten Mile Cafe once stood. Memories of a Prime Rib Buffet seemed entice the appetite. But a few cliff bars and PB&J was all that I had brought. The Highway wound its way along the Chilkat Flats. Here in the coming weeks the eagles would begin to converge, drawn by the flash of Sockeye migrating up the river. Towards the fall, they would perch on every tree, gazing down at a virtual circus of animals taking in the grand feed. This valley is famous at these times, and photographers from all around converge to capture images of Eagles and Bear feasting as winters chill sets into the valley air.

At milepost 20 at the divide of two rivers, a lone Moose bull splashes about in his cold glacier feed bath. Looking up for me for a bit, the back to the crossing away from the busy strip. I peddle on up the river, passing Tsirku River, Klukwan and Mosquito Lake. Leaving the Chilkat, the Dalton follows the Klehini River as wild as any other, still milk-grey from glaciers rising to McDonell, Three Guardsman, and Nadhahini Mountains. Mark by meanders and sand bars, the river courses it's way to the Sea. The aspen groves rattle in the Chinook winds that relieve this biker on a hot June day. Skies blue and clear as any I've seen in as many weeks. Uncharacteristic for SE has this day ever been.

The road continues to rise through the Mining district of Porcupine Creek. Small cabins and sluce boxes line the rivers edge. Now with gold as high as it is, what was once dead places seem to find a little life again. There is still Yellow nuggets locked in these sand bars. The same that lured tens of thousands a hundred years past. But hard work and little payout is all a miner mostly find, so old family holdings seem to be for relaxation then searching for "the strike." The wheel beats the pavement groves slower with time, the road near Pleasant Camp and Canada begins to rise. Following the route old Dalton blazes to the skies.

Long slow switch back turn towards the summit top. A low pass by constant, I peddle without giving up. Realizing that maybe I should have turned back. The summit is close and the land is beginning to open up. Reaching the Pass. I pause at the summit. Until I realize I am yet to the Chilkat Pass, and the road still keeps agoing. Yet here at Three Guardsman Pass, I can see across to the horizon never ending. The trees yield to tundra, the alpine and fields. Just beyond the horizon lies the Yukon that I had wished to see. But at 45 miles from my camp, I'll have to wait for another day. Here the it seems you are on top of the world. Yet the mountains to the West and East still rise higher. That Spell of the Yukon seems to call deep to a mans heart. Remembering ol' Robert Service's lines, I could not put it any better this day.

"No! There is a Land. (Have you seen it?)

It's the cussedest land that I know,

From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it

To the deep, deathlike valleys below.

Some say Good was tired when He made it;

Some say it's a fine land to shun;

Maybe; but there's some as would trade it

For no land on earth – and I'm one...

"The summer – no sweeter was ever;

The sunshiny woods all athrill;

The greyling aleap in the river,

The bighorn asleep on the hill.

The strong life that never knows harness;

The winds where the caribou call;

The freshness, the freedom and farness-

O God! How I'm stuck on it all..."


Saturday, June 13, 2009

AK 6 -- Cruising the Alaska Marine Highway

AK 6 -- Cruising the Alaska Marine Highway

I lay back in my chair, enjoying the rays of sun that have been plentiful this past few weeks. The rumble of the ships engine seems to lure me into a state of holiday relaxation. Watching others move about the deck of the boat. Passing by the forest, islands, peaks and glaciers of the Inside Passage seem innumerable. Like slicing through a mirrored pond the M/V Columbia makes it's way north. Every now and then I get up to wander the sides of the Ferry. Catching a pod of Humpbacks and Seals along the shore. Vistas of great rivers of ice moving towards the sea or lone fishing boats plying the waters along sunset reflections. No matter where you look, beauty rises from the tide line towards the sky, calling the imagination in an upward gaze.

As I move north towards Skagway, names float by with long telling tales. Baranoff, Kupreanoff, Churchicoff and Mitkoff. The Russian traders who made these waters, on search of firs and wealth leaving names upon the landscape so far from St Petersburg and Moscow… Kasaan, Dyea, Stikine, and Taku, marks of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida who made this place home, exploring with the cedar canoes from island to island for good fishing, hunting and berries to harvest… Juneau, Sumdum, Skaguay and Dalton, words taking a man back to the days when a yellow stone made the men crazy with dreams of changing their lives with a few bits of stone and hard work. Built towns out of creeksides and brought the most determined to find a Alaska weaving a spell within them. Ship Island, Lincoln Rock, Eldred Rock and Wreck Reef, titles to warn those that navigate these sometimes treacherous waters. With wind, tide and weather capable of changing the mood of the long blue highways that take us along.

The ferry stops at the small towns along the way, giving a traveler time to explore the depths of this collection of islands. Formed by the collision of far off exotic islands, bent and folded the mountains tell the tales of millions of years past. The fiords leave little room for towns, yet each clings to the shores of the islands, for their essence depends on the sea. Wrangell a small fishing village at the edge of the large Stikine Tide Flats. Waters turned brown from the silt of the inner depths of Grand Canyon and high Plateau of it's Canadian depths. Petersburg Harbor, filled with the great SE Fishing fleet, bounded by Norwegian Tradition, enduring the long year round harvests of the sea. Juneau, the bustling city clinging to the side of glacier caped mountains, with the Mendenhall pouring down right to it's very edge. Haines, spread out along the flats of the Chilkat River and Mountains. And Skagway, a tourist town and Gateway to the Yukon.

With the Ferry comes the freedom that you don't find on the Cruise ships, to get out and explore deeper. There is the Alaska that we are all looking for yet get caught in the regular haunts of the tourist facades. Caught in the back-roads, and small towns. Never will a large ship visit Coffman Cove or Kloowack, Hoonah or Angoon,, these are where the true Alaska lives, and the stories are told over morning coffee before heading out to the fishing grounds. Watching from the sundeck along the glacier waters of Stevens Passage, the white cruise ships hurry their pilgrims to ports of call. Armed with 4 hours, it is curious to watch as they rarely leave the confines of the local dock, lined with diamond and trinket shops, toting wares from far off lands, China, India and the Islands of Indonesia. World Trade has touched even this corner of Alaska. But just a mile off of the docks, Alaska begins, trails leading towards mountains and rivers without end, in some ways a land that matches a dream.

The boat leaves the Stikine Flats and passes around Zarembo Island. Soon we are at the entrance of Wrangell Narrows near flood tide. More a river then a shipping lane, 84 buoys, lights and markers line it's tight channel. Having seen this passage at low tide, I am amazed by the work the Captain makes of it's frequent tight turns. The wake of the ship surfs the shore, blasting up the rocks on both sides into the trees at the edge. Yet in one spot, each side we are only at 20 ft to spare. Bear and Eagle perch on the sides, looking out to our passing by. Until at the end of Petersburg dock, if the rest were not enough, a small iceberg caught by the current, stands in with way of our likely route. From the distant LeConte Glacier, it has ridden the tide to here. As the ferry unloads and loads at the dock, seals take to lay on this floating rock. Translucent blue and as beautiful as they come, it is caught in Wrangell Narrows and will make and obstacle to some.

With a blast of the horn and lines cast off, we enter Fredrick's Sound at the last light of day. All the mountains and ice that surround, are caught in the cloak of alpenglow shades. Devils Thumb seems to lift to the sky. Towering over the range as the day heads to darkness. Making a sleeping bag bed on the top deck, I watch the moon dance from the back of the ship. Sounds of French, German, and Spanish surround, a surreal sense to this last light till dawn. Lighthouses and markers flash white, green and red. And the stars come out and play out overhead. I think of others tucked in their elegant cruise ships, but I would not give up my deck-chair with it's open air cabin on this blue ferry ship…

-- Ridgewalker