I think we were in the car driving to Central Market when Jo and Nicolle were on the phone. Nicolle said that she had an opportunity to go to Alaska for a few weeks to teach at a school in a tiny village on the North Slope in the dead of winter. I volunteered to travel with her on her way in. Which resulted in us being together a couple of weeks later on a flight coming in to land in Anchorage (it was breathtaking).
That evening Nicolle bought a cooler and stocked it with a small slaughterhouse’s worth of fresh meat and a few other things to supplement what she would find the single general store at Point Hope. The next morning, on January 6th, I dropped her off to continue her journey to Point Hope that still involved multiple flights.
I spent the rest of the day screwing around Anchorage. I strolled along the coastal trail where the Alaska Railways track runs south to the Kenai peninsula. Beyond the train tracks and the short strip of snow-covered land there were blocks of sea ice the size of cars on the Anchorage side of the Knik Arm and warning signs that I shouldn’t wander out there. I turned a corner and came up on the Captain Cook monument. He had arrived here in 1776 looking for the famed northwest passage – a way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific via northern Canada – worth 20,000 pounds in a law enacted by the British parliament in 1744. Cook sailed up what is called the Cook Inlet today and explored the Knik Arm and the Turnagain Arm, the later named by the infamous Bligh of Bounty fame who was a Master on Cook’s voyage. Once he realized these were dead ends, Cook returned to the Gulf of Alaska and headed north through the Bering Strait. In the Chukchi Sea he found impassable ice and headed back south. If only he had waiting for 150 years, global warming took care of that. In 2014, the Nunavik became the first cargo ship to travel the passage without an escorting ice breaker. Ironically it was delivering nickel from Canada to China. Today the northwest passage is a regular shipping lane. A disappointed Cook returned to Hawaii for repairs and to restock and was killed during a quarrel (see my post from 11 years ago – http://arunzadad.blogspot.com/2012/05/captain-cook.html).
All the walking in the cold made me very thirsty and I spent the afternoon visiting a couple of excellent brew pubs around Anchorage. Then I drove to the eastern edge of town and wandered around the surreal winter landscape of the Far North Bicentennial Park, past walkers, joggers, cross country skiers, and an occasional musher in dog sled with a small pack of 2-4 dogs.
The next day I went snowmobiling. I drove to the town of Girdwood an hour south east of Anchorage. I had traveled down this highway to Seward a few years ago during a hiking trip in summer and it was an amazing drive (http://arunzadad.blogspot.com/2015/08/school.html). I remember thinking – what would this look like in winter? Even more amazing. The body of water in the foreground is the Turnagain Arm. The mountains behind are the northern extensions of the Kenia mountains. The Turnagain Arm has the largest tidal variations in the US, with about 30 feet of change in level every twelve and a half hours. That is a lot of water flowing in and out. In fact, this body of water is one of very few that have a tidal bore – a wall of water than rushes in carrying the tide. It was low tide on my way to Girdwood and I asked if they could hold the high tide till I was on my way back. But Chaucer said that time and tide wait for no man. Boo.
Girdwood was a very successful gold mining town back in the day. It sunk eight feet in 1964 after a huge earthquake. Unfortunately, that Girdwood sits below the famous high tide mark of Turnagain Arm and had to be abandoned. I’m in the new Girdwood this morning to snowmobile. I like to hike. Motorized ways of doing the same are signs of poor moral character and sloth. 4-wheeling or ATV-ing across Big Bend State Park wouldn’t be my cup of tea. So this decision to snowmobile required some inner monologue-ing. Eventually the 4 degree F weather won. I get cold quickly in that kind of temperature. The man who outfitted my said that my jacket would be sufficient because “the handlebars are heated”. Hmm – OK.
Snowmobiling at the base of the Chugach mountains was spectacular. The heated handlebars did keep me warm. We stopped and had a fire in the snow and a picnic of reindeer sausage. We met some dogs that would be running in the Iditarod in a couple of months (they are skinnier and smaller than I expected). And I got to examine a sled that has been used in many past Iditarods.
I stopped by Alyeska, a ski resort in Girdwood. Alyeska comes from the Aleut word for “mainland” or “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed” and is the root of the name Alaska. The ski place is almost at sea level with 600 inches of base. How do you explain to them that in Colorado in December we’re excited about a 40 inch base at 10,000 feet? I was recovering from something happening to my big toe (gout?) and could not force my foot into a ski boot, so I got a nice cup of coffee and watched the skiers for a bit. Then I headed back to Anchorage with four hours to kill before my flight out. One of those were spent in a sensory-depravation float tank. I had never done this before. I suspect I may need to try it a few more times before I can quieten my mind which I find easier to do when I am walking. Then another hour at a pho joint. And two more watching M3GAN (the movie coincided with the world experiencing ChatGPT, making it all the more interesting). Then I stopped at a green light to let a moose cross, got myself to the airport, to LA for breakfast, and back to home for lunch with the family.
I am very excited about what I saw in Anchorage and Girdwood but then an old lady next to me on the flight back snorted “Anchorage isn’t even Alaska”. Nicolle of the North Slope, ye are in for a treat.