Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Rushing Russian

We averaged somewhere in the nature of four to five hours of sleep per night. After climbing snow saturated mountains, fording rivers, all the while subsisting on a steady diet of granola, beef jerky and silt tainted glacier water it was time to relax.

Relaxation came in the form of fishing for salmon in the Russian River.

"The Russian" as the locals call it is one of the most heavily fished sockeye salmon streams in Alaska. Fortunately or unfortunately for us, the salmon that coaxed us into coming to the Russian that day were running a few weeks behind their migratory schedule. Reaping the benefits of this irregular cycle, the four of us owned the pristine waters of the Russian River for a day.

Hip waiters pulled snuggly around our chests, fishing poles in hand, the crew and I struck out to catch our limit of natures bounty. Within ten minutes K-man had landed a decent sized trout.

As envious as I was, I snapped this picture and started walking upstream more than eager to stake out my own ground. I couldn't help but notice how absolutely gorgeous it was out there. The temperature peaked around 65 degrees, the sun was luminously shining and the air smelled of crisp mountain dew.

Besides K-man catching what appeared to be the same trout over again, as time went on fishing became something less than a fruitful effort.

Fruitless or not, it was still a very surreal and peaceful time. As I stood there in the stream listening to the water trickle by, I thought to myself how far I was from home.

As we were wrapping up and walking back to the car, Sal suddenly stopped and anxiously pointed across the stream.

A few seconds later a brown grizzly bear came lumbering through the brush. Indiscreetly trudging through the thicket and rooting around for salmon scraps this bear had no shame. Hell, we were in his backyard. This was our first bear sighting and it happened to be a grizzly.

It took a few seconds for the novelty to wear off and for me to realize that this primal beast was foraging around for it's next meal not more than 50 feet across a shallow stream from us.

While most of the typical Alaskan wildlife eluded us on our hiking excursion, this was definitely a convenient moment for us to get a taste of our first bear sighting. We were standing fairly close to the stairs up to the parking lot.

There was another fisherman standing just out of frame on the same side as the bear. Moments after seeing this grizzly the four of us started screaming... "GRIZZLY, GRIZZLY, GRIZZLY!!!".

I wish I was able to capture the look on this poor souls face. It was absolutely priceless.

Instinctualy, the man darted across that stream with little to no concern for the potential of drowning. Mind you that this was the same part of the stream I managed to get half way across earlier in the day and decided to turn around because it was a little too forceful for my tastes.

Even though I did not even catch a snag it was a great day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Crossing Part II

In my mind there were two distinct parts to this hike. I have categorized them as before the crossing, and after the crossing.

So allow me to explain. There were at least two or three snow crossings before this one. These slippery, snow filled crossings were as I've alluded to in my previous posts "manageable".

Manageable in the sense that serious bodily harm and/or death was not an imminent factor. As we approached the last crossing it initially seemed that it would be more or less similar to the others.

After painstakingly walking heel to toe for about 15 feet onto this crossing, I realized that it felt different. This embankment seemed to be pitched at a much steeper grade than previous passes. When I looked ahead to try to make out the end of the crossing it also appeared to be a lot lengthier as well.

It wasn't until I was approximately 1/4 of the way across before I gained up enough courage to look down. What I saw didn't immediately resonate in my brain. A long, snow filled, icy slope complete with a 3500 foot fall off of the mountain winked back at me. I was in complete disbelief. "What the fuck am I doing?", "I'm a calculated risk taker", "This is bullshit".

It is important to understand that the angle of this particular crossing was on par with any black diamond ski slope that I have ever skied on.

Lacking an ice ax or spiked shoes, if I had slipped, it is a forgone conclusion that I would have slid right off of the side of that mountain into the abyss. It was revealed to me a few minutes after completing this crossing that someone had recently died at the very same spot a week before.

Gathering what senses I had left, I managed to concentrate and continue on. At a couple of points I could feel my legs trembling from a variety of factors. The stress of walking heel to toe, shouldering a 40 pound bag slumped over my back, and lets not forget sheer terror. I remember at one point about half way through where I momentarily went into full panic attack mode. Somehow I was able to coach my nervous system out of it.

About three quarters of the way across the snow became noticeably harder which subsequently made it more difficult to gain any sort of reliable footing. Inch by inch, I walked slowly until I had reached the end of the crossing.

Sitting on this rock shortly after completing the crossing, I was actually angry at myself for doing this. I still have mixed feelings about this and whether I should have done it or not.

The Crossing Part I

We began our Alaskan adventure in the Chugach National Forest. Tasked with completing the Crow Pass Trail in two days, I confess, I was on edge from the get go. What about bears? Would seven granola bars suffice if we had to stay an extra day? How am I going to carry a 40lb backpack 27 miles?

Fiddling through my backpack and anxiously awaiting our destination, I knew my fate was sealed for me right around the the time we began navigating a remote, unforgiving, narrow dirt road one mile from the Crow Pass trail head. There was no turning back.

Around ten o'clock a.m we met up with the other two hikers and began assembling the last of our 40 pound backpacks. A few group photo's were taken, a couple "don't get eaten by a bear" jokes were cracked, and shortly there after we started our ascent to a higher elevation.

The initial climb was undeniably intense. Straight uphill, one of the more "in shape" members of our party confessed that he was already winded. As a result we took a brief rest. Shortly after recovering our winded lungs we came upon a section of the trail with several inches of snow.

One of the more distinct memory's that I have of the initial part of this hike was a cave that was carved out of snow by a bear that Sal had pointed out.

Here it was mid June and I was laboriously trudging through several inches of snow admiring bear caves. Where the hell was I, this is so foreign?

After several hundred more feet, aching legs complimented by sore backs we reached the three mile marker ..."the cabin".

From here it was less of a climb per say and more of an endurance of will power, nerves, and shear energy.

I honestly do not remember much from this point until we reached the first snow crossing (perhaps 2-3 more miles?). The first few crossings were hairy to say the least but in retrospect absolutely manageable.

Equipped with all the latest REI gear that a DC suburbanite hiker can get his hands on, one thing became apparent, I was completely unprepared for and lacked equipment for anything beyond these easy snow crossings.

Contintued in next blog...

Alaska - "The Last Frontier"

"Foreign, beautiful, immense, picturesque, vast, rugged, and dangerous".

These are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when someone asks me about my experiences in Alaska.

If one were to take notice, the phrase "Alaska the last frontier", is emboldened onto the states official license plate.

I found this phrase resonating throughout my head as we maneuvered over the many twists and turns of the Alaskan-Canadian highway in our rented four door, all wheel drive, Ford Escape.

Through tunnels, around snow capped mountains, and over scenic bridges we drove. The images of surrounding beauty were hard to reconcile with my protective conscious and knowing that the closest grocery store, car mechanic, or god forbid a hospital were hours away.

While thinking about "The Last Frontier" phrase, it became apparent that the large industrial complexes, corporate strip malls, incandescent billboards and fast food enterprises that have become synonymous with driving in much of the lower 48 states ceased to exist in this part of the state.

On one level, I found the tranquility to be a very novel concept to me. On the other, a host for many potentially horrifying scenarios. For instance, a typical Alaskan road side scenic pull off featured unfathomable views complimented with steep drop offs complete with sharp, unforgiving, rocky crags below.

I can only assume that building a protective barrier to protect aggressive tourists from plummeting to certain death and disfigurement must have been beyond the scope of Alaskan Tourist Association's budget. It made me wonder how many tourists a year stumble over cliffs or off of trails in an ill fated attempt to capture that "closer shot".

Concerning the people of Alaska, there were several things I admired about the people that lived in this environment. Here are a couple observations that are more notable. After several interactions with Alaskan residents and natives, not a single person mentioned anything considered "less desirable" about living there. Even after setting out bait such as "how do you feel about the 22 hours of darkness during the winter?". "That's ok, it just makes me appreciate summer that much more." Came the replies.

I also appreciated their social interactions. A comment about outdoor recreation often served as a great ice breaker. "I heard the Kings are running two weeks late in the Russian this season", is an example of one I heard. Whether it be hunting bears, angling for salmon, or trapping small game, activities took more social precedence than the standard "what do you do for a living" so commonly heard around Washington, DC.

In conclusion, twelve hundred miles later, a crust of dust, mud, and tar served as the outer coating on our previously sparkling white Ford Escape. After twelve hundred miles, several impromptu fishing trips, multiple cities covered, I felt dignified that we had covered such a substantial distance in Alaska. It wasn't until later when I looked on a map and realized that we barely put a dent into the Kenai Peninsula!

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Well, I'm back from Aleyaska <-- purposely spelled that way! And all I can say is wow, I'm completely drained of thoughts. I need a few days to "decompress"... if you will. Initial thoughts are just too overwhelming to even consider at this point. I hope you read on because I will be putting some serious thought and effort into this over the next couple of weeks!

Monday, June 9, 2008

ANC Bound By Way Of ROC

In approximately 48 hours from the time this blog is assumed to be published, I will be flying high in the open sky on my way to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Alaska is not a truck. It's not something that you just dump something on. It's a series of tubes!!!

So here is my tentative schedule.

4:00 pm: I strut my Xanax contaminated, jet lagged, and discombobulated body off the plane and make an effort to assimilate to my new surroundings.
~5:00 pm: I wander around Anchorage trying to find the hostel (mm... hrrmmm... that's "hostel" and not "hotel") that I've made reservations at.

$25 a night for a bunk style bed isn't so bad. And hell, I can finally check this off of my list of things to do before I die.

12:00 pm: I catch a cab and head back towards the airport to anxiously await my three friends arrivals.

7:00 am: We leave Wasilla, stop to pick up some last minute provisions and then it's off to the Crow Pass Trail head.
~1:00 pm: I run from an aggressive bear as fast as I can with a 45 pound internal frame Kelty back-pack strapped to me.
~7:00 pm: We set up camp and I mend my left arm back onto my torso with the stitches in my first aid kit.

Finish 27 mile hike and get on the road back to Wasilla to get rest.

It's off to Denali for some sight seeing and fishing.

Clean up, drag a razor across my face, pop some Xanax and hop a seaplane for our next excursion... Bald Mountain Air Service.

~8:00 am: Brings us to our Halibut fishing trip. (This event is definitely a contender for my most eagerly anticipated experience).
~8:00 pm: Go out to catch some nightlife in Anchorage. This is going to be somewhat difficult for me since I've recently put a moratorium on my alcohol consumption.

Two friends depart.
~8:00 pm: More nightlife???

I cruise back to Rochester in a Boeing 757, Xanax coursing through my bloodstream, exhausted, all the while trying to restore what's left of the pieces to my shattered sleep/eat/work cycle.

Stay tuned... there will be a lot more to come very soon...

Monday, June 2, 2008

Weekend Paradise Under Water

On a self reflective note, I just want to say that this blog has become borderline therapeutic for me. I've never kept a blog before as I'm a bit of a private person but there are stories that need to be told.

As I've learned from other peoples blogs, namelessness is an important pillar of blogging, so I've changed all names for the sake of friendship liabilities.

On a whim, Sal and I drove out to Assateague Island on Marylands Eastern Shore. With the self imposed promise of a good time, a weekend of camping, crabbing, fishing, and relaxation awaited the both of us.

Less than 24 hours later, we found ourselves scrambling to get off of Assateague Island in a frenzied, frantic mess that could be characterized by soaking wet clothes, water damaged cell phones, and a demoralizing sense of failure (at least on my part).

Things change quickly. The stock market fluctuates on a moments notice, the political climate changes on a day to day basis, life seems to change on more of a granular path. However, old Mother Nature abides exclusively to her own schedule.

After a long day of drinking beer, crabbing, fishing, and camping, Mother Nature decided to test our wills and make us earn our keep of crabs, mussels and potential fun times to be had.

What seemed like the end to a great day turned into havoc as a woman I met on the beach warned me about an impending tornado on the island.

After discussing it with our camping family, we decided we needed to act sooner rather than later and start packing up our gear. Not five minutes later, a mass of dark clouds rolled over our campsite. Soaking us with rain... lighting and thunder began to illuminate the sky. People began scrambling to pack their gear and get the hell off of that island as soon as possible.

As the winds picked up, panic ensued... fellow campers began ditching tents, chairs and camping supplies into the trees in a chaotic rush to get off of the island.

Car horns began beeping. Screams, shouts, and crying children could be heard. It was every man, woman and child for themselves. It was at this moment I decided I would become a pussy for the time being, but good ole Sal had his own agenda. In times of crisis people look to others for guidance. People that keep their composure and think logically typically emerge as born leaders. Thank god for Sal cause I had lost it.

A long story short, after packing up tents, food, coolers, and supplies we made it off the island in about 45 minutes. Drenched in rain water, swamped clothes and an accelerated pulse, after a few stops we found ourselves back home in DC. Safe and sound.

Thank you Sal for your level head and being the voice of reason! You have a natural talent.