Thursday, January 1, 2009

Northern Exposure

The bickering couple seated to my left on the plane has lapsed into a tight-lipped silence. She's glowering at the back of the seat in front of her, and he's playing video games on a laptop. He's closed the window so he can see the screen better, so I miss seeing Anchorage from the air as we descend for landing. My first glimpse of it comes as I trudge through the airport, a wall of stark, snow-streaked mountains rising sharply toward a low, cloudy sky. It's the Fourth of July, summer in Alaska. It's raining.

The car from the Glacier Bear Inn bed and breakfast picks me up and takes me to my room, where I find it is the custom in many Alaskan houses to remove your shoes before entering. I put on my warmest socks and join my fellow tour members in the common room. There are just four others beside me. Jim and Janice Mulvaney from Denver, Jim Crocker from Fort Worth, and Jerry Holl from San Diego. The Mulvaneys and Crocker have been on Edelweiss Alps tours. Holl and I are rookies.

After the introductions it strikes me that there are not enough names to go around. We have two Jerrys, two Jims, and a Janice—five names beginning with J. Also Keith Hull, our tour guide, and Keith, manager of the Glacier Bear. We have dinner that night at the Regal Alaska, a hotel on Spenard Lake. Along with adjoining Lake Hood, it's home base for the world's largest fleet of float planes, the only practical way to get in and out of the roadless bush country and the interior.

We assemble the next morning for the first of the briefings that take place each day over breakfast. Today we are riding to Seward, 120 miles southwest of Anchorage on Resurrection Bay. For part of the day we'll ride along Turnagain Arm, a body of water known for bore tides, extremely rapid inflows of water that can and do catch tourists off-guard and trap them in the quicksand-like mud. Keith warns us not to go walking on the mud flats. He drives the point home with a cautionary tale of a tourist who became mired and had to be pulled out by a rescue helicopter. "They got him halfway out," Keith says. "The top half."

The sky threatens rain as we leave the Glacier Bear. In addition to leading Edelweiss tours, Keith rents bikes. A few days before I arrived the BMW boxer I had asked for was totaled, so I am offered a Kawasaki KLR650 with triple Givi hard bags or a BMW F650 with no bags and a mere 200 miles on the clock. I opt for the Kawasaki.

Our first taste of Alaska is a flock of Dall sheep cavorting on a sheer cliffside along Turnagain Arm. Traffic slows to watch, and the sheep appear to be hanging around for no other reason than to witness a major wreck involving two or more of the lumbering motorhomes swerving dangerously toward each other as their drivers crane their necks to make out the tiny white shapes hopping from crag to crag.

Jim and Janice have gone on ahead. Jim and Jerry and I take a side trip to the Alyeska Ski Lodge for a cup of coffee. Rain spits down out of the gray sky as we pass the tiny town of Girdwood, which is reveling in its annual Forest Fair. A sign by the entrance to the Fair grounds says, "No dogs, no politicians, no religious orders." I order a blueberry muffin and get something the size of a small birthday cake. It is unbelievably delicious.

Back on the road we buck strong headwinds howling up the Arm. We take the road to Portage Glacier, only to find it's obscured by the weather. The rain is bucketing down now. I put on my boot and glove covers in the shelter of a closed rest room. Out in the water by the visitor's center float fantastically shaped chunks of ice, pieces of the glacier that have broken off and drifted away. Their cores are a startling shade of deep blue. This is a characteristic of glacier ice, which is so dense it absorbs all colors of the spectrum except blue, which it reflects. It is bluer on cloudy days than on clear ones. It is very blue today.

The group, including Keith in the Edelweiss Suburban, loaded with enough gear and food to provision a small army, and towing a four-bike trailer with the F650 on it, meets at the Summit Lake Lodge for lunch. We comment on the heavy traffic heading back toward Anchorage. Keith tells us Seward is a popular vacation town with folks in Anchorage. The procession of motorhomes and trailers is known to locals along the way as "the 'Bago train." After the Fourth of July weekend, traffic will decrease to a trickle. Lunch is prompt, good, and expensive by southern standards. To an Alaskan, even a Connecticut Yankee is a "southerner," as is everyone else who lives in the lower 48.

What has already come to be known as the 5-J Tour arrives in Seward. An enormous cruise ship is docked in the harbor, towering over the fishing and pleasure craft like a Sequoia in a cornfield. We check into the Harborview Inn, a new and tidy motel a block from the waterfront. I experience an X-Files moment when I see that our hosts at the Harborview are—Jerry and Jolene! Another Jerry! Two more J's!

On tonight's schedule is a picnic served by Keith in one of the pavilions along Resurrection Bay, from which an astonished fisherman hauled a 340-pound halibut the day before. Keith's resume includes a stint in the food service industry. That industry's loss is our considerable gain. His idea of a picnic is grilled halibut, barbecued chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, fruit, chips, drinks, and pie for dessert. The award for the hands-down, shoot-potato-salad-out-your-nose-funniest story of the day goes to Jim and Janice who, riding double, pulled up to the ticket booth at Exit Glacier north of town and were asked by the ranger, "Are you two together?"

At 11:30 that night, the streets of Seward are deserted. Despite overcast skies, it's still light enough outside to read a newspaper. Time seems unreal, like foreign money when you travel overseas. It isn't green, it has pictures of dead royalty or obscure landmarks on it, and it's hard to take seriously, like Monopoly money. Maybe it's a problem with the hour-exchange rate—the hands on my watch keep moving, but it's just not getting darker. Maybe we're on metric time. All I know is I can't get to sleep, and when I finally do it's time to get up.

A free day in Seward. Jerry Holl and the Mulvaneys ride to Homer and back, a round trip of about 340 miles. Jim Crocker and Keith and I explore some of the back roads around town, some paved, some not. Keith leads the way to the far side of Resurrection Bay. Looking across the water at the town, the cruise ship looks like a toy. The mountains that ring the bay loom large and ominous. They're imposing as hell, obviously designed from the git-go to be all mountain, with none of that wimpy hill-stuff leading up to the steep parts. They make the mountains around my house look like speed bumps.

We turn on a side road and see a building that resembles one of several Princess Resort Hotels in Alaska. It's new, and has a bright blue roof, lots of windows, and what appears to be a penthouse restaurant atop a tower. It is in fact a guard tower, and the building is not a resort hotel, but the new Spring Creek State Prison. I am informed of this by an armed guard in a light-barred Bronco who intercepts me in the parking lot. I play dumb tourist—not much of a stretch under the circumstances—and he tells me indulgently that this really isn't a good place to stop and take pictures. We leave with the distinction of being the only people ever to get thrown out of jail in Seward.

We seek tamer amusement at Exit Glacier. A short hike brings us to the face of the glacier itself, a river of ice flowing out of the 300-square-mile Harding Ice Field, from which eight glaciers reach the sea. Deep blue glacier ice is visible in the cracks. Signs warn hikers to keep back, as huge chunks weighing tons can break off at any moment. Tourists being what they are, several are standing under wide overhangs, slapping the ice and grinning for friends with cameras, while others climb above them and leap over crevasses 10 feet deep.

We walk back to the bikes, passing hikers wearing bear bells, jingling merrily. The bells are supposed to alert bears and scare them off. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and bells heralded the approach of the ice cream truck. I mention this to Keith, who says they sometimes find bear bells in the stomachs of "nuisance bears" killed by rangers. A stuffed wolverine at an interpretive center reminds Keith of a friend's assessment of that animal's temperament: "If wolverines weighed a hundred pounds I'd never go into the forest."

The KLR is working out better than I had expected. During an exploration of a dirt road it skips over potholes like a dancer. Jim's BMW twin skitters like a fat lady trying to keep the mud off her opera slippers. The rain gets worse, so we leave the bikes and our soggy raingear at the motel, pile into the Suburban, and warm up in an old church converted to a coffee house. Van Morrison and the Chieftains are playing on the stereo. The locals do their polite best to ignore us, and we do our best to blend in. Next we visit the Alaska Sealife Center, where I am suddenly 12 years old, with my nose pressed up against the underwater viewing windows in the seal tanks, and taking picture after picture of the comical puffins splashing and diving.

The next day we saddle up and head for Sheep Mountain, 247 miles from Seward. Backtracking along Turnagain Arm, the wind is sharp and cold. The sleepless nights and unrelenting headwinds are wearing me down. Through Anchorage and heading north, the KLR is out of its element on the 65-mph four-lane highway, and it's a toss-up whether duct tape on the frame rails would be more comfortable than the narrow seat. Over lunch in Palmer I announce my intention to switch to the F650, despite its lack of bags. The others immediately offer tank bags, rain covers, bungee nets. Are these guys pals or what?

At Sheep Mountain Lodge we sleep in bunkhouses, two to a room. A large contingent of touring bicyclists has arrived, and the management has churlishly bumped us from the private cabins Keith had booked. At breakfast the two groups steal surreptitious glances at each other's outlandish outfits, like caravan travelers meeting at a desert oasis, shy but curious.

Today it's Sheep Mountain to Fairbanks. Jim Crocker sees a small animal that becomes known as the Mysterious Furry Critter of the Frozen North. I spot my first moose, grazing in the water by the side of the road. Later I see a beautiful speckled grouse-like bird, a ptarmigan. It leaps in front of my bike and ricochets off the F650's front fender with a sickening thump. I mention this to Keith at lunch in Paxson, at the east end of the Denali Highway. He tells me the ptarmigan is the state bird. Great. I'm here three days and I whack the state bird. Maybe I'll get into Spring Creek after all.

We ride west on the Denali Highway until the pavement runs out around mile marker 20, then return to the main road. The side trip rewards us with glaciers and towering crags we would not have otherwise seen. The stretch of road between Paxson and Delta Junction and over Isabel Pass is simply stunning, spectacular, magnificent—pick your favorite travel writer's cliche, then multiply it by about 12.

We parallel the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At a construction zone we stop while graders push gravel and dirt around. I chat with the worker holding the stop/slow sign. He moved to Alaska from Oregon 26 years ago. I mention I live in Oregon. He bets me I've never heard of the little town he's from, and names it. The hell I haven't, I say, and to his astonishment tell him exactly where it is. Later that day I meet another Oregonian, this one from Tillamook. Who's back home, minding the store?

This is the longest travel day, 340 miles. I pause to gas up and grab a bite at Delta Junction before tackling the last 100 miles to Fairbanks. The sun comes out at last, while the weather to the south looks ominous. A miles-wide cloud trailing tendrils of rain drifts across the sky like a gigantic jellyfish. Nine hours after leaving Sheep Mountain I arrive in Fairbanks, 20 minutes behind the others, dog-tired.

Keith has a special genius for arranging unique lodging and meals. We stay in cabins on the Chena River, and dine on all-you-can-eat salmon, halibut, and ribs at Alaskaland, a tacky but entertaining theme park (suggested motto: "Admission is free, and worth every penny!"). A cloudburst drives us into a dining hall with a metal roof where the pounding rain makes conversation nearly impossible. Two of Keith's bike renters join us, a father and son from Georgia. They're bound for the top of the pipeline, at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.

After breakfast the next morning we visit the museum at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and make another pass through Alaskaland before leaving town. The flight museum there features complete aircraft, as well as numerous parts of aircraft apparently recovered from crash sites. A massive 16-cylinder radial engine is missing several cylinders, the bent stumps of broken con rods poking up through the crankcase testifying to the violence with which they were removed. I've seen museums dedicated to flight before, but never one that so emphatically demonstrates the consequences of failing to maintain flight.

On the way to Denali National Park, we pass a tavern called Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn. The walls and ceiling are covered with bills, mostly singles and a few fives, stapled there by travelers, ostensibly for Dick's retirement. The inscriptions on some of the bills would make a sailor blush—I can only imagine the effect on the economy if they are ever put into general circulation. Skinny Dick himself is behind the bar. "Has the conversation gotten around to sex yet," he pipes in a raspy voice, "or are we still talkin' about the weather?"

Lunch at the Depot Cafe in Nenana. The TV by the pool table reports a 6.4 earthquake yesterday, centered about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage. Jim Crocker, a Texas native, says almost wistfully that he's never been in an earthquake. Keith, Jerry, and I, who all have, assure him he's not missing anything.

The wind is tossing the F650 around like a kitten with a ball of string. From the front, then one side, then the other, but never from behind, which is the only direction I wouldn't mind. After about 40 miles of this I see a sign that says WIND. If that wasn't wind all along back there, what the hell was it? And how much worse can it get? My answer comes in the form of a bright orange wind sock, placed mid-span on a bridge over a river. It's sticking straight out sideways like a traffic cone.

My cabin is on the glacier-fed Nenana River. We have a free day tomorrow, and this is the perfect place to spend it relaxing. No TV in the room, no phone. I go to the gift shop for a book. Amid the Grishams and Kings and Clancys I find two true classics of the north, Jack London's White Fang and Call of the Wild, both in one volume.

Jim, Jim and Janice, and Jerry go flight-seeing over Denali Park. I'm not fond of airplanes to begin with, and the smaller the plane the less I like it. Or maybe I'm still thinking of the flight museum at Alaskaland. Anyway, I stay behind and read. Keith whips up another picnic on the deck by the river that evening, and we finish it off by passing around a book of poems by Robert Service and reading them out loud.

A free day in Denali. The lack of sleep finally catches up to me, and I feel as bad as I've ever felt without actually getting sick. I go back to bed after breakfast, wake up five hours later feeling better, and spend the rest of the afternoon loafing. Around four I ride into Denali Park to catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, which the Indians call Denali, the Great One. Measuring from its base, it's taller than Mount Everest, which sits on a plateau. McKinley rises 20,320 feet from an elevation of only 2,000 feet. But the mountain isn't "out" today, which is the case two days out of three.

Jim's Mysterious Furry Critter of the Frozen North is spotted again, under an outhouse on the road into Denali Park. It is positively identified as a hoary marmot. That evening I spot my second, third, and fourth moose, a female and two youngsters, in the trees beside the hotel parking lot. Peering at them through the dense brush, what I initially take for saplings are in fact the female's hind legs—her heinie must be six feet off the ground. I approach to within 10 feet to snap pictures. Keith creeps up behind me and whispers, "If she flattens her ears, run like hell." Which way? I ask. "Just follow me," he says, then adds, "but don't get ahead of me."

The final day of the tour takes us from Denali back to Anchorage. It's bitterly cold and raining, and when it's not raining the clouds are so low I feel like I can stand up on the footpegs and touch them. Despite the weather, Jim and Jerry and I stop at the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival. This event does not, as a group of particularly humorless animal rights activists are rumored to have believed, involve dropping moose, but rather the droppings of moose. The end-product of moose digestion is incorporated into jewelry, used in contests of skill, and lends it name to various chocolate confections.

As we arrive, the Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band strikes up "Scotland the Brave." We lunch at the Roadhouse, where we are served by one of the top 10 friendliest waitresses in North America (the other nine are in Alaska, too) and watch locals mixing with out-of-towners who wouldn't ordinarily be caught dead at such a rube-fest and are trying hard not to let on how much fun they're having. I pose for a picture with a reindeer, which responds to the touch of my hand on its bristly coat by urinating in a splashing torrent. Add one more item to the list of liquids that won't soak through Gore-Tex. People in colorful costumes roam the tiny town, and I see more mixed-breed dogs than I've ever seen in one place outside the animal shelter. Another hour and a half on the road and we're back at the Glacier Bear, from which we'll catch rides to the airport and home in the morning.

Human habitation has a way of taming a place, of softening it, civilizing it. There are only a little over half a million people in Alaska, and they haven't even begun to take the rough edges off it. Maybe they never will. Maybe they just can't. If Montana is Big Sky country, Alaska is Big Everything country. The state motto should be, "There's nothing small here." Words are inadequate to express the sheer size and scope of the place—lakes miles long, mountains miles high, wooded hills rolling to the horizon in all directions.

See it while you still can, big, wild, empty Alaska, full of sights that'll make your brain doubt your eyes. See it on a motorcycle. And see it soon, before somebody gets to work on those rough edges.

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