Seward bound… running from celebrity
I’m riding to the Kenai Peninsula for a Friday evening dinner cruise aboard the Chugach, a Kenai Fjords Tours boat that ferries hungry passengers to Fox Island near the mouth of Resurrection Bay for salmon and prime rib. I even starved myself with just a bowl of cereal for breakfast in anticipation of the bountiful meal. I’ve left early enough to make the 160 miles in four hours with time to spare before boarding. Barring a flat tire or other mishap, today’s ride should include a beautiful fall display of leaves and brush through the Chugach Mountains and clear skies. If anything, I hope the ride calms me down from the craziness of Palmer and the last nine days of that mess at the fair.
South of Anchorage on the Seward Highway, I ride past a pod of beluga whales. The tide is high and still while they each take turns surfacing for a new breath. Cars whiz by with their drivers none the wiser. The posted speed limit is 55-mph, and this is the speed for seeing the mountains, rock bluffs, and whales. A young driver waits for a ticket in front of a state trooper’s car at bird point. Maybe she’ll see the whales now.
I pass Girdwood and Portage before making my way to the Kenai Peninsula. The terrain changes abruptly, and the railroad disappears entirely. While the Seward Highway climbs steadily through the winding mountains and Turnagain Pass, the railroad takes a more direct route from Portage to Seward along a valley hidden from this view. This is the most divergent section of track and road south of the Talkeenta Mountains. Earlier this summer, friends from Florida rode the train from Anchorage to Seward with my brother and parents. They speak very highly of the ride. If the hidden valley is anything like this, I can understand their excitement. Lakes and rivers riddle the land for miles. Only the very distant mountains show signs of snow, yet these amber colored valleys look the touch of fall and will see snow in less than two months. The road loses its incline, levels, and then starts a steady descent to the Sterling Highway junction. For every turn in the road I see an inn or bed and breakfast along this stretch of road. Moose Pass brings a brief reminder of civilization, and then the view returns to endless trees and wilderness.
Cindy with the Seward Chamber of Commerce helps me check in at the tour desk. I meander about the shops and boardwalk to burn the thirty minutes until boarding. I watch tiny boats on the horizon get bigger as they gain on the harbor from a day offshore. But even as they pull into their slips, the Holland America cruise ship outsizes them all. It sits moored to a separate dock out of town where tourists are no doubt crazy excited about a drive up the Dalton Highway. I chuckle and make my way to the awaiting Chugach.
Picking a top deck seat on the sunset side of the cruise, I quarantine the space as my own and finally climb out of my riding gear. Jacket, liner, and pants come off in scratchy bursts of velcro ripping and zippers zipping. With the looks from the other guests, I guess I’m the only motorcycle rider on board. I now occupy more than my share of space with a helmet, tank bag, and pile of gear lined along the starboard wall of the top deck in front of my seat. A mother and daughter approach to take the seats at my left and don’t seem to mind the mess. We share smiles and get ready to leave the dock.
Our lady captain for the evening nonchalantly introduces us to the safety features of our vessel while she navigates through the marina. Should the trusty Chugach suffer from flotation issues, we guests are to don life vests and follow crew to the life rafts. All matter-of-factly as if this happens every day, the captain assures us of a quick rescue with the help of the ship’s emergency beacon.
I ignore the remainder of the captain’s remarks and take to my own memories of the ocean, boating, and the perils of being at the mercy of the weather. More than once I found myself bailing water and searching for a bridge to shield the rain while boating in Florida. The danger of sinking in the Gulf of Mexico meant a long swim to shore and a nasty whipping for losing the boat. Here, however, the water is ice cold in the summer and kills quickly. I’m very happy to be in this very heated, very enclosed boat today. Despite the captain’s scary hypothetical sinking, the Chugach feels sturdy and sure on its way into Resurrection Bay.
Fifty minutes at a steady plane brings us to Fox Island and the mouth of the bay. On a tiny flat in this mountainous parcel of land, buildings appear and take the shape of a lodge as we idle to the dock. The captain and crew iterate something about horns and getting left behind before they usher us off to eat. A giant deck and open ceiling lodge sit sheltered from the wind amid towering evergreens and soaring rock bluffs. Large picture windows with views to the bay glow orange in the low evening sun, and we all make our way to the chow line for salmon and prime rib. Just through the open windows, trees gust in the wind with nothing beyond but water and endless horizon. Displace the noise of hungry guests, and this place is perfect.
The Seward Chamber of Commerce gives this dinner cruise to volunteers as a special thank you for help during the annual Mount Marathon race, a very popular foot race from the streets of Seward to the top of Mount Marathon and back no less. Every Independence Day, the chamber holds this flagship fund raising event with the help of volunteers from around Alaska. I was fortunate enough to have made quick friends with a young family of fellow volunteers on the dock earlier, and we four eat dinner and tell of how we helped during the race. I share my background as a developer on the online registration system for the race, and we talk about the craziness of July 4th in the small town of Seward. The population of the city surges ten fold for the race, and I don’t envy Steve when he says he helped with traffic control. However, I don’t know if Bonnie’s job helping racers somewhere along the side of the mountain is any safer.
Three plates of dinner and two desserts later, I quit eating. Enough is enough, and three meals is enough. I’m reminded of the captain’s warning when I hear the first of the horn blasts. Tranquil and beautiful as it may be, Fox Island is not my camp for the evening. I head outside with Steve and his family for photos before boarding. I find my gear untouched on the top deck and decide to meander the ship on the return voyage. We pass the rocky bluff, aglow in evening sun, and the captain sets the course for Seward. Everyone aboard has found a way to enjoy the ride. The group on the bow sit with backs to the wind, and a chatty bunch talk to each other on the lower deck. On the top deck, a young boy stands alone and to himself with eyes closed and face to the wind. I pause to take his picture when a salty mist hits my nose. I feel a rush of memories from Florida fighting with Alaska. My nine years here have meant mountains and moose — not the sea and salt. This life of Alaska flows through my veins now, but it will always compete with my love for Florida’s gulf coast. In Seward, I’m very happy to find that I can love mountains and ocean together.
Back on my bike and ten miles from town, I make camp at a way side not way enough from the road. But as I plug my ears from the road noise, I recall the $20 noise at Chena Hot Springs and thank my luck for finding a free bed for the night. There’s no need for dinner; I make a quick bed and fall fast asleep. A day of water has me dreaming of water, and I’m soon blurry eyed and grasping for a flashlight that I don’t find. Despite the dark, the sleeping bag zipper loses the fight, but the tent seems to want it more. Not a moment too soon, I wriggle through a barely open inner tent, throw back the outer tent door, stand, and let an entire ocean flow. Some unseen target in the grass relives the rain of its life. I gasp relief and tilt back to stare up at a sky lit with a canvas of stars.
The north star, the big dipper, and countless more make a display of the night sky unlike I’ve ever seen. A belt stretches from horizon to horizon in a colorless rainbow painted with points of light. I shift my eyes to look where I think I see more, but a direct gaze hides the tiniest of stars I saw by not looking. Many moments later, I put away the reason for waking and dash back inside for warmer clothes and a camera. Moonless nights don’t come often enough, and most cities suffer from light pollution. Over the next two hours, I play in the starlight, snapping shots of the sky, my bike, and the silhouetted trees. I find the headlamp and use it to illuminate the bike. Despite looking at the LCD after each shot, waiting ten minutes to see the prize makes me impatient. I take to walking the road, jumping in place, and stretching to stay warm. Sleep eventually calls, and I put away the camera before wriggling back into my sleeping bag. This time, I put the light and door zippers where they belong. I can’t wait to see the shots on my computer.
I greet the morning not knowing how to spend the day. Cars and trucks start zooming by the way side in such haste that I give up on sleep and peek my head out the tent. A night of dew and humidity covering the tent finds its way down my neck and most definitely puts an end to sleep. The rock bluff across the road glows warmly in the morning sun, but this side of the road is wet and cold. I make a mental note to consider the rising sun for every future camp. I somehow managed to choose the flattest ground last night but also put a giant wall of trees between me and the heat I need to dry the tent. With gear piled neatly around my bike on the pavement, I drag the sopping wet mess into the sun and feast on breakfast while it dries. The ear plugs stay in, and I only barely hear the traffic and roar from the jet stove.
A thermos of hot coffee and pot of tasty oats later, I decide to return to Seward and visit the Alaska Sealife Center. Science and nature exhibits tickle the nerd in me just enough to make the return ride a non issue. A giant of a man greets me at the counter and knocks 30-percent off my admission ticket because I’m an Alaskan student. He directs me to the start of the self guided tour. I stand at the base of a rising escalator with a very heavy tank bag and a mess of riding gear about me. This is not good. A line of baby strollers catch my eye in time with an elevator door chiming in the distance. Problem solved. I neatly arrange my mess in the various pockets of the stroller and make my way across the busy entryway, wheels clacking noisily across the uneven floor.
Upstairs, from the mezzanine, I’m greeted with walls of information describing the bearing nature of the Bering Sea. Some absurd amount of US produced wild fish comes from this sea. Everything from pollock to crab, cod, and salmon find their way from here to our plates each year. Alaskans fish the Bering Sea fishery commercially and for subsistence living. The sea itself occupies an area almost the size of North America and is bordered by Alaska to the east and Russia to the west.
I make my way past the commercial fishing propaganda and into the real meat of the Center. I came to see fish made of fish — not paint and plastic. A handful of juvenile salmon swim circles around a giant cylinder of glass and water. The scene is reminiscent of some movie, except I don’t see an alien carcass in the tube. More tanks feature fish and crustaceans in isolated habitats. In the real ocean, these critters don’t have it so grand. Fish eat fish out there. I walk from tank to tank and imagine a Sea Life Center like my fish tank from Florida. I mixed a half dozen different species of fish, crab, and mollusk in a small fish tank. The ten gallon horror movie rewrite of Jaws I kept in my bedroom was more entertaining if not as beautiful as the sanctuary these fish enjoy in Seward. The close quarters of my tank exasperated the need to survive, and the crab almost always won. Here, shrimp just hang out, salmon swim in an endless pool, and nothing gets eaten that isn’t labeled “Fish Food.”
A kind man behind a waist high U-shaped pool of sea stars and sea anemones invites me to touch the creatures. I use two fingers like the sign suggests and gasp in surprise when I feel nothing despite seeing the florescent tentacles of the anemone move at my touch. I try again, but again I only feel the cold water. Where the sea stars and sea urchins hold their shape with hard shells, the sea anemones seem to use water itself as their structure. The attendant jests that I’d surely feel something if these were stinging anemones.
I next find sea mammals and marine birds — not sharing tanks. Seals swim a circuit over and over while a sea lion in another pool gawks through the window at a noisy group of kids on the first floor. I exit to the back deck for a brake and view of Resurrection Bay. Just through the doors, real sea life vies for limited food only to be food for another creature. Birds dash from the sky to the water and scoop fish, boats troll the water, and a mess of life below the surface feed on each other. An intercom brakes my thought when an attendant announces feeding time for the resident sea lion. I picture a 1500-pound dog faced manatee creature mowing on a school of frantic fish as I rush to the viewing deck. I arrive late as the feeders throw the last of a bucket of dead fish to the hungry beast who is more than happy to eat the prepared meal. If he only knew.
Around the bend from the mammals, the tour ends with my new favorite screen saver. A round window glows light blue as tens and tens of jellies appear and then disappear. They whisk their tentacles and swim up and up in a never ending current that disappears from view just past the top only to return for a new show at the bottom of the glass. I stand and watch for minutes, captivated by the methodical and slow motions of weightlessness with a purpose. Or, a perceived purpose at least. It’s not like they move to out swim a giant sea turtle in this tank!
I exit the mystical world of life in the sea and return to my life on the road. A tunnel to Whittier awaits, and the day is warm and glorious for riding. I stop at a sign advertising free “good” coffee along Turnagain Pass and chat with the church group brewing the goods. They’re out for the holiday weekend spreading cheer by way of liquid drug, and I suddenly realize my luck finding the Sealife Center open. Charged on caffeine and one very sugary powdered donut, I take a casual posture and ride the miles to Portage Glacier and a 7:30pm scheduled tunnel crossing.
Whittier is the other ice-free port connected to the Alaska Railroad. Before the road went from Bear Valley to Whittier, the train did. Trucks, trailers, busses, and trains share the tunnel on a precise schedule. Vehicles pass from Whittier to Bear Valley at the top of each hour; vehicles go the other way at half-past. Motorcycles always take up the rear of each passing as the last vehicles to go. A $12 toll on the Bear Valley side grants me passage to and back, as long as I survive the mile plus of parallel track, wet road, and falling rocks. Before I go, the attendant reminds me of the many safe houses should I encounter a sizable earthquake. He waves me on, but I don’t move. All I can picture is me shooting out the end of the tunnel in a torrent of water as a tsunami rushing into Prince William Sound finds its only outlet.
I catch the tiny town of Whittier during sunset on a clear evening. The marina glows orange and yellow with the sky against a darkening bowl of mountains and a deep blue and calm bay. I spend an hour in search of camp and ultimately decide on the municipal campground in lieu of the very sketchy but free camps on the hillside. If as few of people who live in Whittier can create as much graffiti and burned out vehicle waste I found in the party section of town, ten dollars at the city camp will buy me some peace of mind tonight.
Taking a suggestion from my parents, I opt to pay in the morning. Morning arrives, and the bill collector rouses me from bed to cover my debt. A miserably wet day of fog and misting rain lightly batters the tent as I fold a bill and pass it through the flap. He hands me change, and I crawl back to my bag hoping for sleep and sun. When neither comes, I start the daily chore of striking camp and wonder if the debt collector also enforces the 10 o’clock checkout. As noon approaches, he’s not to be seen, and I race off to catch a 12:15pm passing through the tunnel back to the real world.
By now I’m bundled up and ready for 150 miles of Whittier weather on the way back to Palmer. But when I exit the tunnel, the sky opens to blue and the temperature surges ten degrees. I weigh the effort of changing against the extra heat and opt to cook off the chill of the morning as I slowly corner through the twisties of Bear Valley and exit onto the Seward Highway. Girdwood appears in the distance in no time. In nine years in Alaska, I’ve only visited Alyeska Ski Resort with snow on the ground. Flush with green and full of the late summer, the resort mountain takes a very different look. What sits at snow level in January is three feet in the air now. Flat slopes of fast snow are actually steep faces covered in brushy overgrowth tall enough to hide a person.
After a curious ride around the rest of the resort to eye my winter playground in its summer clothes, I turn onto Crow Creek Road and ride up the valley. Following the historic Iditarod Trail, this road winds and climbs to the Crow Pass trail head. I hiked from the trail head 24 miles through Eagle River Valley with my mom, dad, and brother earlier this summer. What was green and alive then is now colored in yellows, golds, and reds. Cottages and huts line the road on both sides. I can’t help but wonder what these tiny homes look like in eight feet of snow. The sign ten miles ago warned of summer-only road maintenance, and these people are either crazy or onto something divine if they live out here year around.
At the pastry shop along the highway, I stop to eat an apple fritter and talk to another GS rider. Dean and I talk about riding Alaska, tinkering on bikes, and what riding on snow and ice is like. Given the lateness of my trek across Canada, I hang on every word, not relishing the idea of meeting snow. Wet snow rides differently than the dry snow of Alaska. Where dry snow makes ice and slick roads, the wet snow from down south packs nicely and offers great traction. I still don’t want to see any snow.
My return ride to Palmer as the sun sets across Cook Inlet includes watching wind and kite surfers jump the bore tide and white caps. I stop for a photo opportunity and marvel and the giant snow blower on the front of this train. At one time, it rode the tracks, hefting tons of snow a hundred yards off the track. Back when it really snowed in Alaska, this train was useful.
I pull into my driveway on Trunk Road and idle the distance to the garage. It’s good to be home, but this arrival is bittersweet. In a week I’ll leave for good, head to McCarthy, Tok, and finally Canada. Over the next seven days, I’ll pack the remainder of my stuff that leaves with the parents when they sell the house, say goodbye to many close friends, and prepare mentally for the journey ahead. So far I think I like the lifestyle. It has its ups and downs, great days, and poor days. Mostly I like to ride and rest, enjoy the environment, and talk to strangers. People I don’t know shake my hand and offer me encouragement. They say I’m doing it right and at the perfect time of my life.
Mom and Dad have giant hugs waiting for me inside. The house smells wonderful, and my bed looks amazingly comfortable. A shower sounds good, but for now I just squeeze and enjoy the love from my parents.