A Farewell To Alaska
I left Alaska 6 months ago. Hard to believe. It doesn’t feel that long. I was so ready to leave. And I certainly have no interest in living there again. Visit, yes, but not live.
Yet as I unpacked my belongings in my new apartment here in the tiny hamlet of Ashford, Washington (population 220), I found myself growing oddly nostalgic for Alaska.
So perhaps it’s time to give a final blog goodbye to a state that was, if nothing else, an intense experience.
In perhaps no particular order, my strongest memories from Alaska. Most are great, a few are less so. But they are memories that will stay with me a long time.
FIRST DENALI HIGHWAY PHOTO SAFARI
Part of my job was to organize employee activities. In June 2011 I presented a workshop “How to take better pictures (even with your cell phone)” which was followed by a van trip on the Denali Highway. I expected 5 or 6 employees. Imagine my surprise when over 20 showed up (at a property of only 125 employees), ranging in age from 19 to 70. We scrambled to find a spare vehicle, and 19 of us had a marvelous time exploring the breathtaking scenery. Watching the reactions of some employees seeing “the mountain” for the first time was priceless.
WHALE WATCHING TOURS IN RESURRECTION BAY
I did this trip 3 times, and loved every one of them. Hard to complain about seeing grey whales, humpback whales, orcas, porpoises, sea lions, otters, mountain sheep, and more birds than I could possibly count. And the company was always good. Two trips were with my co-worker and friend Holly. A girlfriend of the time, Carla, went along once. And one time alone I met two women who invited me out for a night of food and alcohol. Got back to the hotel at 4:30am after shutting down 3 bars. Once in a while I live it up.
THE 2012 VILLAGE MANAGEMENT TEAM
Nearly our entire management team returned from 2011 to 2012, setting us up for great success. We were a good team, and I’m proud of what we accomplished together. We were a family that laughed, cried, and drank together. We argued. We supported one another. And basically we kicked butt in difficult circumstances.
MY JOB IN 2011
Or perhaps more fairly – 2011 in general. Three weeks into the year, my wife asked for a divorce. Obviously, not a great start to the year. I arrived in Anchorage in March, still reeling, to a cold, dark, grey, and (let’s face it) ugly Anchorage. By May, my boss and I were not exactly on speaking terms. I was struggling. Flailing actually. I hated my job enough that by June I was interviewing for jobs outside Alaska.
But I stuck with it, and decided to return in 2012.
Happily, my work relationship with my boss improved enough in 2012 that we had a great time working together, and when I returned to Anchorage in 2013, we chose to be roommates for 3 months.
“The Pond” on the Denali Highway
In early May 2011 a co-worker encouraged me to explore the Denali Highway. Once the main route to Denali National Park, this “highway” is now a mostly empty 135 mile long stretch of spectacular Alaskan scenery. The views are non-stop. For reasons I can’t easily describe, one particular pond became my “spot.” Without fail, I stopped there every drive down the road. There are certainly more beautiful spots on this road, but this place grabbed me. I have many pictures, in many different moods.
THE DENALI HIGHWAY
The subject of numerous posts. I spent many of my weekends camping, hiking, exploring, shooting many photos. Few stretches of this road disappoint. In any other state, the Denali Highway would be a celebrated national park. In Alaska, it’s just another road.
I had numerous memorable trips on this road. Perhaps the most memorable though was a 3 night trip in 2011. The weather was perfect, and the light cooperated beautifully for photography. I got many memorable photos on that trip.
THE TIME I ALMOST GOT THE MONEY SHOT OF A COW MOOSE & HER CALF
2011. I already knew to “always have my camera.” And I did this evening. But since I was driving employees to a hike, I decided to only bring my wide angle lens, most suitable for broad scenics. The sun was low in the sky, and the light was perfect. Suddenly we spotted a moose and her calf swimming a pond near the highway. Everything was in place for great photos or video. But it was useless with my lens.
So instead I shot a photo of my employees shooting great video and pictures.
SUMMITING A PEAK AT 10PM
I have climbed numerous peaks in my life. Fifteen years in the west, most of them in Colorado, will do that. I climbed numerous peaks in Alaska. But one was more memorable. Halfway down the Denali Highway, I randomly picked a peak for no other reason than it was close to the highway and looked like it would be a relatively easy climb. And it would have been, were it not for the horrendously thick willows on a steep slope, and the mosquitoes trying to send me to a mental hospital. But eventually I broke through, cross some snow fields, and emerged on top to endless vistas. It was well worth the late dinner.
DENALI IN THE FALL
I may find something later to change my opinion, but to this day I firmly believe that for a short 2 week period in late August and early September, Denali is the most beautiful landscape on the planet. It’s…. it’s every over-the-top adjective you can think of.
Oh, and blueberries.
TOKLAT RIVER HIKE, AUGUST 2012
Sometimes it seemed that I spent too much time exploring outside the park, so in August 2012 I decided to fix that. I was rewarded with a beautiful hike up a beautiful valley and up a random peak. The weather was unsettled, and for about 30 minutes during my ascent, the light was as beautiful as anything I had ever seen. When the light first broke, it literally stopped me in my tracks.
THE WOLF DAY
September 2011. Last trip into the park for the season. For our bus driver, it’s his 2nd to last day ever driving, after 30 years of driving in the park. He suddenly starts freaking out, more excited than even us tourists. The entire Grant Creek wolf pack – all 11 animals – is slowly making it’s way down the Toklat River drainage. He breaks the rules by doing a u-turn with the bus, and for 15 amazing minutes we watch from the bridge.
I saw the northern lights numerous times in Alaska, but two times were beyond spectacular. And happily, both were within 2 days of my birthday.
August 2012. A multi-night trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. About a 5 hour drive from Denali. I leave after work, and end up sleeping in my car on the side of the road. Around midnight, I look out the window and – OH MY! The lights are going like crazy. Incredibly bright, constantly moving. I hurriedly dress and spend the next hour shooting dozens of images. Well worth the tired driving the next morning.
August 2013. The aurora prediction is only mediocre. On a whim I take a look outside my cabin. Success! Not only are the lights bright, but they are “dancing” – moving much quicker than the other times I’ve seen them. I’m not ashamed to say that I was clapping for joy several times.
WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK
The largest national park in the U.S. Huge. More than twice as big as Denali. I had to see it. What a birthday present to myself it was. Incredible auroras (see above). Great scenery. An incredible flightseeing trip. Hiking into ice caves. My only regret is that I didn’t get back there again.
MY (ONE AND ONLY) VISITOR
Nearly every friend said “I’d love to visit” or “I plan to visit.” Only one actually did. I “met” Camilla online – she’s a fellow blogger from the Netherlands. We started emailing regularly, and she decided to visit during our fall colors season. And what a visit it was – long drives in search of great scenery. Since she is also a photographer, we happily spent hours and hours shooting photos.
FRIENDS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
We hired lots of “J1 visa” students from around the world – college students working in the US on their school break. Typically we had about 20 countries represented, so now I have new friends from countries like Dominican Republic, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.
A DAY SPENT EXPLORING THE GROUND
Alaska lends itself well to grand scenics. And I did indeed shoot many of those. One grey day in 2013 I decided instead to focus on small things. It was truly a day only a photographer could love – I spent several hours in an area smaller than a football field. But I got some photos I’m truly delighted with, and I learned more about my surroundings. There’s so much DETAIL in the Alaskan tundra!
THE BEAR SHOT
I saw lots of bears (grizzly bears only – I never once saw a black bear in Alaska) in Denali. More than I can possibly count. Enough that if they were more than 100 yards away, I didn’t get very excited.
But then there was this guy (girl? who knows) from the bus. About 30 feet off the road, in a nice clear area. We spent almost 10 minutes watching him. He couldn’t seem to decide between laying down and sitting up. It made me think of when I was a kid and my mom would yell at us “are you inside or outside? make up your minds!”
And he was so close, getting a good shot was easy.
Unlike my co-worker and fellow blogger Jeff Bell, I was lucky enough to see lynx numerous times. Most of them were just quick flashes, as a lynx jumped across the road into thick brush.
In April 2013, while conducting manager training, a lynx very casually made it’s way down a sidewalk. I did not mind that interruption!
MY LUXURIOUS CABIN
National park jobs force you to re-evaluate your standards. In 2013 I was promoted to a regional position, which meant I was also “promoted” to this tiny cabin. My dorm room in college was bigger. On the plus side, it was a cabin, as opposed to being in a dormitory.
HIKING MOST OF THE PARK ROAD
At some point in 2011, I realized I had followed a decent portion of the length of the park road. Not necessarily hiking the road itself (though I did that too), but hiking the mountains, ridges, and hills paralleling the road. So I continued that in 2012 and 2013.
Many of my posted adventures were from these hikes, and it became a nice goal to work toward. Hiking the section around Sable Pass was a fitting end.
I’m not a sports person. But it was pretty exciting to live in downtown Anchorage during the start of the Iditarod. I arrived 1 week late in 2011, but in 2012 and 2013 I lived 1 block from the race course. In 2012 I was just 5 blocks from the start. It’s hard not to feel a bit of excitement when surrounded by 10,000 people and hundreds of dogs who can’t wait to get going.
A nice bonus was the World Sled Dog Championships, held annually in downtown Anchorage.
One of the things I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced is flightseeing trips in Denali. Most people would consider one flight a prime “bucket list” item. I went an unbelievable FIVE times.
For an incredibly minimal fee, employees were able to join flightseeing tours on a space-available basis, so I took full advantage of it. Two of those trips were glacier landings.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE MOOSE KIND
Lots of moose in Alaska. Although it’s always fun to see them, it ceases to be anything special after a while. Until they are really close.
May 2011. Coming down a peak I have just summited. I accidentally get way too close to a mother moose and her newborn calf. It is, quite literally, a brush with death. I get lucky – just bruises, cuts, and a huge scare. But I could have become a statistic.
August 2013. My birthday. On the bus. I have seen plenty of bull moose, but never very close. I’m OK with that. Then suddenly, an immense bull moose is literally just outside the bus. Passengers on the left side of the bus could literally reach out and touch it. It’s frighteningly huge. Big enough that I have to wait until it steps away from the bus to get a picture.
No more Alaska adventures. For now at least. I do hope to return for an extended vacation. I fantasize of being able to spend 6 weeks touring the state. Hopefully that will include southeast Alaska. Or the Brooks Range. Or the Bering Sea. Or….