From Jim Gilliam's blog archives
Black Bear

July 1, 2002 12:10 PM

I'm sitting in Black Bear coffee shop, right near Denali National Park. It's been a week since I left Seward. Since then I've taken a bus through a one way tunnel on train tracks to Whittier, taken a ferry to Valdez, a float plane to Cordova, a jet to Anchorage, and a van to Denali.

Kayaking in Valdez has been my favorite part of the trip so far. I went with four other people, and we were dropped off in a far away place in Prince William Sound and kayaked up to the Shoup Glacier. Part of the trip was during low tide, so we had to schlep our kayaks through mud and low water to get to a place where we could paddle again. That was pretty rough.

When we got close to Shoup Glacier, we maneuvered through pieces of calved ice, and docked at the beach, which was nothing but a bunch of rocks, and had lunch. My hands and feet were both numb and wet. Our guide, apparently familiar with this phenomenon, brought some dry socks and gloves which I changed into.

Eating lunch on a bunch of rocks, freezing, in some strange place in Prince William Sound, tends to get people talking about things. Dave, our kayaking guide, seemed to be a good example of the kind of person I've found in Alaska. There's a huge number of workers that come here during the summer and work for rafting, kayaking, forest service, and general tourist type companies. In general, they move back to some place, or even wander around during the winter taking odd jobs to make ends meet. Most are homeless and live in their trucks, or tents pitched in a forest somewhere. But they all live to come back to Alaska during the summer. It's amazing to see people so in love with Alaska that their entire life revolves around watching birds migrate, or flowers bloom, or hiking glaciers, or kayaking, or fishing, or even just driving a shuttle bus. None of this seems weird to anyone, and no one judges people since they all understand why each other is here.

Well, eventually we paddled our way back. The tide was higher, so we didn't have to schlep the kayaks around this time, and we met up with our boat ride.The next day I was sick as a dog, and still haven't quite recovered, but it was worth every sneeze.

While in Valdez, I had a scotch on the rocks at the Pipeline Club, which is where the captain of the Exxon Valdez had his scotch on the rocks the night before running his oil tanker aground and causing the largest oil spill in history, and bankrupting many of the local businesses in Prince William Sound. You can still find traces of oil in the water to this day, and I smelled a bottle of oil encrusted rocks found just a year ago buried a foot or two in the dirt.

Cordova is a great little town. It was pouring down rain when we got there, so we hung out at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar. The sign was upside down the same way The Standard's sign is upside down on Sunset Blvd. Needless to say, the similarities ended there. One of the guys on the trip, determined not to spend the night in the rain, negotiated with the owner of the building to let all 6 of us crash in the last remaining hotel room in this city of 2560 people. We were all very, very glad we didn't have to pitch a tent or cook dinner in the pouring rain.

The next day we went to our camp site in Cordova. Around midnight we heard loud splashes in the pond behind our tents and went to investigate, admittedly with a bit of trepidation. We found a beaver circling through the pond about 15 feet in front of us looking for food. Every 30 seconds or so he would dive into the water making a big splash. He was completely oblivious to our presence. It was fascinating to watch this little guy in action. I felt like an insignificant observer standing in the middle of a ritual that has taken place every night for millions of years.

Which brings me to the Denali park, where I've been for the last couple days. I took a sightseeing flight around Mt. McKinley (or Denali, as it is known here). I wasn't able to actually see the tallest mountain in North America, but I hardly cared since there were so many other beautiful things to see throughout the park. I have some amazing pictures which I will post when I get back to the city of angels. Apparently, Denali is so big that it creates its own weather patterns, so it's impossible to predict when it is going to be visible through the clouds. During summer, it's only visible about a third of the time. There's even a calendar at the visitor center where the rangers draw a visual log of the visibility each day.

I hiked a bit through the 6 million acres of wilderness surrounding Denali. There are no trails, so it really feels like you are in the middle of nowhere going to places completely untouched by the human race.

Tomorrow I'm off to Fairbanks as I head north to the Arctic ocean. I'll be in Manley Hot Springs on the 4th of July, and will reach Prudhoe Bay next Monday.

More from the archive in Me.

Black Bear (07.01.2002)

Next Entry: My Alaska trip is over. (07.13.2002)
Previous Entry: Seward (06.24.2002)

Jim Gilliam
Jim Gilliam

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