North to Alaska, July 1999

by Mike Baum

My wife Ellen and I recently returned from two weeks in Alaska, visiting the Anchorage area, Seward, and Bethel. Alaska is a place of such extremes-- stark, scraped harshness and abundance of life. It is a place of water in all its incarnations: water captured as permanent snow in the highest of the Chugach, Kenai, and Talkeetna Mountains, water escaping in slender cascades down these mountainsides in the hurry-up summer, water scurrying into streams to do head-on battle with the returning salmon hordes, water as near perpetual mist or rain so many days in the Yukon Delta, and water as snow compressed into ice fields which take on life itself, becoming vast, creeping popsicle-blue glacier-beings scouring through the mountains to the sea.

Our first destination was Anchorage, a city of over a quarter of a million people built on the waters of Turn-again Arm off Cook Inlet. It is a surprising city-- all our familiar franchises, sophisticated dining and nightlife, incredible flower beds and hanging baskets whose like I've never seen, all nestled in the spruce-covered Chugach Mountains. We stayed with Jane Atuk, Ellen's cousin. Jane lives in a subdivision that would fit right in Galesburg, except that a ten-minute ride took us to woods where we walked up to a stream full of 30-pound red salmon off a path with fresh moose droppings where a goshawk flew in and landed 20 feet above us and stared us down!

On Saturday, July 17th, Jane very generously acted as expert navigator driving us north out of Anchorage into the Talkeetna Mountain range. We stopped at Coyote Gardens, a bewitching private residence surrounded by wondrous perennial beds in the middle of nothing but forest. Poppies and peonies were still in bloom here, and there was a large bed of all sorts of columbines.

We continued north, stopping at a rushing boulder-strewn stream to marvel at a hen harlequin duck and her five bobber-like chicks. We found a Pacific Loon on an unnamed jewel of a take. We stopped at Rochelle's, a gaudy roadside sundries store and espresso shop. We bought lattés from Rochelle's grandma, a character from Kentucky we had to summon to the store from her house by ringing a remote doorbell. She leaves the old man in Arizona every May and comes north to run the store until fall.

By now it was early evening, but the sun doesn't set until well after ten and it is still light out at 12:30am. We continued on toward Hatcher Pass, driving hair-pin switchbacks up past the tree-line into an alien scope of moss, rock and wondrous alpines and wildflowers. We saw pika and marmot. Savannah and Golden-crowned sparrows were all around us. I had to get out of the car and plunge my arm into a snow drift. We drove right up into the clouds.

The interplay of sky, cloud, and sunlight in the mountains is mesmerizing. On the far side of the pass we had a dazzling long view of a valley dappled in sunlight wedged between steep, velvety, moss-covered granite swathed in wisps of of cotton candy bands of mist. And the lighting would change every ten minutes. We kept saying, ''Just one more picture.'' Well, OK, maybe one more.

All my life I've wanted to take a scenic train ride. On Sunday, July 18th, Ellen and I boarded Alaska Railways bound for Seward. The views were breath-stealing: here a cow moose trotting through a bog like a harness-racer, here an expanse of magenta fireweed smothering an entire mountainside, here a glacier lying over a pass like a monstrous alien's tongue and on our other side a vast, milky-gray lake of glacier meltwater hundreds of feet deep, here an ink-black tunnel bored through the heart of solid stone, here a valley floor dotted with pothole marshes, beaver dams, bald eagles perched in snags with a back-drop of spruce forest crawling up the rock till it becomes bare black mountain-top mantled in snow and shrouded in cloud. Everywhere we turn, the view is a postcard.

After a four and a half hour ride we pulled into Seward, a pretty little harbor town on Resurrection Bay off the Gulf of Alaska. It serves as the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. The resort we stayed at was the Alaska Saltwater Lodge, owned and operated by Jim and Kathleen Barkley. Located near Lowell Point, it is several miles south of town and right on the bay. I would freely recommend this resort to anyone. Our room was wonderful: blonde pine with a ten-foot vaulted ceiling, wood floors, and a bank of windows across the entire wall looking out over the bay and beach. I saw my first-ever sea otters and marbled murrelets as I was putting away luggage. We had a queen-sized bed, a refrigerator, a microwave, a coffee maker, a hot shower, and below us a common room where breakfast was offered from seven to nine a.m. The price for the room was more reasonable than in town. The one drawback was that every time we wanted to go to town, it was a $10 cab ride

On Monday morning we hiked the Caines Head Trail, a path near our lodge that starts out as a dry creek bed. Much of it winds through spruce/hemlock rain forest. One part of the woods was right out of The Hobbit, an eerily silent cathedral of trunks coated in thick velvety moss giving them the appearance of macabre topiaries in an understory of ferns, devils-club, and lettuce-leaf lichens. There was a daunting stretch where we walked nearly blind through a berry patch, expressing loudly to each other how little we would like to meet a bear. Coming out of the patch we stopped and gasped at a perfectly-framed vista. We were still 100 feet high on the trail. The forest opened up so we could see a stream winding out to the bay through a black shale beach, the broad sweep of the bay itself back-dropped by mountains on the far side, and a ghostly remnant stand of naked silver trunks guarding the beach margin, grim reminders of the Good Friday earthquake of 1964.

This quake measured 9.2, the strongest ever recorded in North America. When it hit, Resurrection Bay virtually emptied of water and then experienced a tidal wave that destroyed Seward. The phantom trunks we were looking at died because the ground they grew from dropped 18 feet, allowing the saltwater to kill their roots.

We crossed a bridge over the Tonsina River, looking down on spawning salmon. We lunched out on the beach, tossing crusts to a mama Steller's jay who would eye us from a driftwood perch, then kangaroo-hop across the shale to grab the pieces and fly off to feed her noisy fledglings. Nearby, a hen common merganser rested on the bay's edge with her four young, and a pair of pigeon guillemots flew a pretty precision drill out low over the wave-tops.

That night we went into Seward and had dinner at Ray's in the harbor. We started with seafood chowder and sourdough bread. Ellen had Thai sea scallops on spicy hot pasta, and I had salmon El Dorado. Washed down with a couple of pints of Alaskan Amber, it was a perfect end to an exquisite day.

On Tuesday morning, the 20th, we boarded the Mariah Tour's 43-foot boat bound for a full day among the wonders of the Kenai Fjords. To my delight, the captain turned out to be an excellent birder himself. He picked out a shearwater and got close to it as it scimitared over the wave crests. It came to rest on the water, and we identified it as a short-tailed shearwater. This was our first pelagic (ocean-going) species, a ''tube-nose,'' a type of bird with a special apparatus on top of its bill that allows it to process saltwater. Akin to albatrosses, petrels and fulmars, this species spends its entire life out at sea, coming to land only long enough to breed.

Moments later we encountered three Dall porpoises cavorting in unison off our bow. Then our captain spied a fork-tailed storm-petrel at a distance where the rest of us hadn't even seen a bird. This buoyant, tern-like wave dancer was an unexpected bonus, and we were only a short distance out of Resurrection Bay! Then we began seeing our first puffins. The captain didn't slow for these, assuring us that soon we would be amid thousands of them.

Our first whale fired off a spray of water near shore about a half-mile away, and we were of for a closer look. There is no second-hand substitute for experiencing the majesty of these animals. We spent the next half-hour escorting a humpback that would surface every five minutes or so. We would spot the spray, then the dorsal fin. It would make several brief shallow dives, then sound by arching its back up out of the water as it dived at a steeper angle. Then its flukes would break the surface and give one mighty slow-motion pump carrying it down into the depths.

We continued our journey, now passing through eight-foot seas. Ghostly jellyfish in ambers and translucent whites slipped past us as we made our way to the Chiswell Islands. Once here, I stared in open wonder at the bounty of bird-life. The island cliffs were coated with horned and tufted puffins, common murres, glaucous-winged gulls, and black-legged kittiwakes. The air was filled with arriving and departing birds. There was the feel of a hidden pattern set to wild cacophonous cries all new to me. A seabird colony is one of our planet's most amazing wildlife spectacles.

We next plied our way into Holgate Arm and shut off our engines to listen in silence as Holgate Glacier calved chunks of ice into the sea, pieces cracking off with the sound of a rifle report and cascading down to send up great spumes of water. Back out in open sea we encountered two salmon sharks, six-footers that passed right under us. We saw harbor seals and sea lions. Our captain knew right where to find rafts of parakeet auklets and the more elusive rhinoceros auklets, so-named for the protuberance at the base of their bills. One headland had three different species of cormorants sunning together. At one point our boat lay between rafts of foraging common murres that had to number in the ten thousands.

What a day for an amateur naturalist! And I cannot say enough good things about Mariah Tours. The bigger tour boats have a set route, an emphasis on amenities and niceties, and very little maneuverability. We, on our 43-footer, found and followed whatever we wanted to see.

Our last day in Seward, Ellen indulged me in my wish to find a dipper, a curious songbird that looks like a fat gray robin with wren-like tendencies and lives on and in fast-moving streams. Dippers feed by walking on stream floors underwater, gripping the stones with their claws as they forage for bugs and invertebrates.

We found a likely trail along the Resurrection River near Exit Glacier and hiked in. At one half mile we came to an ideal site which Ellen proclaimed her very special spot, adding, ''I'm sure you're going to get your dipper here.'' Not 30 seconds later, a dipper came flying in, perched on a snag limb on the edge of a beaver pond, sat for 30 seconds, then flew off in a long ellipse, disappearing forever.

We celebrated by proclaiming lunch. The border of the trail, about 60 feet above the pond, was shored up by a downed timber. We used it as a bench and, flopping our legs over the edge, peeled off our packs and had a picnic. As we were finishing up, Ellen said, ''There's a bear.'' Sure enough, an adult black bear had stepped out of the underbrush tangle on the far side of the pond, foraging not 120 yards away. We immediately packed up and started talking in loud voices. The bear looked up at us, then moved off into the brush, but not without stopping one more time to give us a long hard stare.

After our time in the mountains of Anchorage and the coastal waters of Seward we flew to Bethel for our last five days. Set in the Yukon Delta and on the Kuskokwim River, it is a town of 6,000. There are no roads to Bethel. It is home to a hospital that serves an 80,000 square mile area. We stayed with Ellen's sister, Rebecca, who is Chief Information Officer for the hospital. The facility is built up on stilts like everything else here. You cannot sink a foundation in permafrost-- or plumbing-- or wiring-- or even a septic tank. Everything must be above ground.

A city official once commented that Bethel appeared to have been laid out with a squirt gun. There is an unlikely juxtaposition of nice homes and shacks that would be deemed uninhabitable by our standards. There is a well-stocked grocery store, but prices are double ours. Other stores and shops seem to be scattered randomly. Don't look for Barnes & Noble or a Starbuck's, but here in this Yup'ik, village, you can get Italian pizza made by Albanians.

This is a place where there is more water than land. The nearest mountains are 50 miles away and visible only on clear days.

The only trees here are alder and birch just five to seven feet tall. The terrain is tundra and muskeg and is remarkably flat. The uniform of choice is rain gear and Wellingtons. It's easy, especially around pond edges, to step through a boggy spot and fill your boots with water. The mosquitos are formidable. My first morning I took a brief jaunt to a nearby pond sans bug dope. Big mistake. Fifteen to 20 mosquitos the size of dimes would try to land on my face at once. I could not stand still and focus my scope.

I found perhaps my very favorite bird of the trip in Bethel. It was a species I had given up on when we chose not to go to Denali. It was in fact the first bird of any kind I saw in Bethel. This was the long-tailed jaeger, a gull relative but with the habits of a bird of prey. It is large with slender, tern like wings and tail steamers that nearly double its body length. It foraged falcon-like over the muskeg and would fly out over the river sandbars from time to time scattering the gulls. Equal parts falcon, tern, and barn swallow, this creature is truly a bird-watcher's bird.

On Tuesday evening, July 27th, Rebecca's friend Curt Madison offered to take me up in his 1946 two-seat, fabric-covered float-plane. We had a mild, mostly sunny window of opportunity. The weather is remarkably changeable here. This proved to be our one chance to make a flight during our stay. We roared down the Kuskokwim River and lifted our combined 450 pounds into the sky. This was primal flying. I watched in awe as Curt read 50-year-old gauges and worked throttles and pedals like an alchemist as we rose to 850 feet at 90 miles an hour.

It wasn't until I saw Bethel from the air that I began to understand Rebecca's and Curt's fondness for it. One sees no distance from the ground. From the air all the world is a vast expanse of tundra and water with virtually no sign of man.

Land is a mosaic of splotches of sienna, taupe, terra cotta, and slate on a carpet of verdant green. There is water in skinny ribbons and ox-bows, brad swaths of mocha river, big lakes, little lakes, thousands of pot-holes, glass-clear marshes, their surfaces dotted as if from an eye-dropper with interlocking circles of vegetation, their margins sedges laid over as though combed.

Curt began picking out tundra swans for me. It was too loud in the cockpit to converse. He would point, then bank to get me a better look, often standing the plane on edge so that I was looking out my door window directly down on them. We wound up finding five or six pairs, some with gray downy young, and one group of five adults. They are most impressive, even at 900 feet!

We swept out over Three-Step Mountain, coming at it from the side that rises in stages from the tundra floor so that we reached the summit at an altitude of 50 feet and launched out over a 900 foot drop-- live Imax theatre!

As we returned, I thought to myself how comforting it was to see so much unchanged land. I was hypnotized looking down on arctic terns, buoyant specks working over the wetlands below me, unchanged and undisturbed for untold ages. Curt put us back over the river, and we scatted the glaucous and mew gulls as we shussed in for a landing, taxiing in to tie up on Rebecca's beach. That evening we shared one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen, a fitting climax to a most memorable day.


When we left Bethel it was 42 degrees, windy, and raining. We'd heard about the heat wave back home, but didn't appreciate it until we landed in Minneapolis at 10:30pm where it was still 91 degrees. Our first day back in Dahinda, I walked barefoot across the lawn to get the mail and the grass was so hot and crunchy it hurt my feet. The very air was a palpable, nearly unbreathable force field.

I had to convince myself I'd just returned from an incredible northern wilderness. I had added 25 species to my life-list. We shot 18 rolls of film. We made life-long memories. Alaska is all I expected it to be. Just go see for yourself.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online October 7, 1999

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