This place; the cold and damp mountain air, the crunch of the ice below my feet, the wolf tracks I am following, the not so distant peaks and their adorning glaciers, these forests, and the creatures that live in them all have a hold on me that is unshakable. The weather today is the type that makes any Alaskan winter day a stellar one. At 21 degrees, it is cold, but not too cold, and the clear blue Alaskan sky, and it’s wisp of distant clouds have become a play up for the jagged peaks of the Chilkat Mountains; their glaciers visible in a clean and striking fashion to anyone who may ponder their geographic position, and strikes in my heart and mind, an acuity that they are the creators of all life in this magnificent place. It is the glaciers. They are a gift; a cosmic bank account of life. They create the kind of river’s that Salmon swim to spawn, bringing the Eagles, the Wolve’s and the Bear’s. These are the things that have brought the Human’s here as well, over 12,000 years prior.
It has been some time since I have been immersed in a large, cosmopolitan chaos, save a stint in both Anchorage and Fairbanks earlier in the year. This I do not miss. Walking along the banks of this river, with the mighty peaks and glaciers above, I cannot imagine myself living anywhere else, and cannot imagine why so many others do. I am grateful that few have the desire to live in a place such as this; if it were different with people to want this kind of life, one of natural beauty and simplicity, this place would not be what it is. It would be San Francisco or Seattle, or even Anchorage. These places were once fantastic places of natural splendor as well, long before humanity got it’s grip around it, dammed the rivers, killed off the Grizzlies and Wolve’s, and polluted the landscape with a chaotic sprawl of freeways, factories, and skylines filled with concrete and steel. This, has not yet happened here. Yet. I hope, for the sake of the Bear, Eagle, Wolf, and Human, that it never, ever does.
In the forest it is dark, not errily so, but has a quality that resembles a dream that one cannot quite get a hold of; a reminder of a distant realm in which fantasies are conjured and aspirations are taken ahold. This forest is a prdoct of the those brilliant glaciers and all that precipitation that formed them. At 50 inches a year, Haines gets fairly wet, but is actaully in a dry zone compared to places further south on the coast. Juneau, an hour ferry ride south, for example, gets an average annual rainfall of around 65 inches, and Ketchikan, even further south, recieves yet more. The rain, and at higher elevations, the snow, is what defines this place. It is what has created the Muskeg bogs and the giant ferns and the gigantic Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and Cedar, and the massive Cottonwood trees engulfing the landscape here. I gaze out over the frozen river to it’s disatnt shore and visualize a world that allows things to grow and prosper in natural balance, free from the manipulization of corrupt human hands.
I grew up believing and later knowing that all places wild and free were special ones and as I grew older, began to slowly realize that these places were becoming smaller and fewer. The towns that edge some of these places, towns such as Haines, Talkeetna, Coldfoot, or Seward, are in existance still because of an occurance of a conumdrum; a paradox. These towns, and many, many more like them, exist, in part, to extract oil, timber,fish or metal from it’s surroundings, and left unchecked, serve to only desroy. They also exist to present to the “Eco-Tourism” faction to countless persons from such places like San Francisco or Seattle, and places across the globe. To show these people a lancscape that has not been destroyed; yet. Herein lies the paradox, yet there is a further potential contraditction. Will these “eco tourists” return home with a new, greater respect for these wild places in there hearts and let them be? Will they go further than that and even go to bat for said places and fight for them from the destruction of corporate gain? Or even still, will these people look at these places with an eye of opporotunity for exploitation. The latter has been historically more accurate, but I can only hope that by educating the people that come here, these forests and mountains will continue to be the sacred, magical places that they still are, and continue to be the home to more Bears and Wolves than Humans. This is what I wish for…
At 23 degrees farenheight, and winds at a steady 15 knots, the temperature at the vicinity of my roadside camp next to the Chilkoot Inlet is roughly 0. The seas are big this afternoon, with swells of around 5 feet, sending waves crashing into the granite boulders of the beach head surf. Every once in a while, a really big one will wreck into shore and a great splash of water explodes into the crisp winter air, highlighted by the dreamy peaks to the north. If a careful eye is surveyed across the channel, one may witness an Orca breaching or a Grey Whale spouting, ever reminding that this is there home too. The water here, always a vivid turquoise, commands respect. Even from the most seasoned vessel bound seafarer, as the water temperature, regardless of time of year, remains a nearconstant 45 degrees. In spring and fall, Brown Bears can often be seen scouring the western shorelines of the Chilkat Inlet or the mouth of the Chilkoot river. A mere 20 miles upstream from town, hundreds of Bald Eagles can be witnessed in the fall. Salmon runs are frequent here, with runs of all 5 species of the best food on the planet occuring at intervals spread throughout the non winter season. Winter here is 7 months and summer 3, with a month each for transitional periods in between. The climate is of the maritime variety with the ecology being regarded as that of a temperate rainforest. A short, steep, and beautiful hike up the Mt Riplinsky Trail exposes all. Giant Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock grace the slopes and valleys, and a walk among them will reveal great ferns and seas of moss covering the forest floor. A scan of the peaks on the other side of the Inlet exposes glaciers and icefalls; the hallmark of high latitude coastal mountains. The people here are as friendly as anyone could ask for and a genuine sense of community prevails. A walk down Main Street will be greeted with smiles and greetings. In Haines, even the cops wave to say hello.
That morning, leaving Fairbanks, in the dark, I had to concentrate enormously on the snowy, icy road. Two weeks prior I had an apiphany: I had to leave and go to Haines to make a life for myself and Angela. My job here, caring for and training 30 dogs was a mixed bag for me. I loved the dogs and I loved the forest and Sven’s beautiful cabin, and the quite and the solitude. But it was a seven days a week gig with little pay, and it was not Haines, which is where I wanted to be. Leaving, unfortunately, has damaged my friendship with Sven, a man whom I respect a great deal. So on the road I am, once again. Excitment now fills my heart as I pull away from Fairbanks, headed south, bound for Alaska’s northern panhandle.
It is 22 degrees, snowing lightly and the traffic thin. It is November 1st, 2013. I drive south, through Delta Junction, the scene of an earlier disaster back in June, whene I had lost an envelope containing my life savings; a sum of nearly 4000 dollars. I had a crazy idea or two that I might actually find the missing envelope in one of perhaps three places I could think of: A road side pullout, with views of the omnipotent Alaska Range, where a picture was taken on that day, a creek where a bath had been taken, a campspot in the woods near Tok, where I had spent two nights regrouping. Searching these places for my goods felt both empowering and futile at the same time. I was looking for a needle in the gigantic haystack of Alaska. I pull into Tok and proceed to walk to my usual camp there, located adjecent to the school in the woods near the edge of town. It is a nice spot and it feels somewhat like home to me. However, the envelope was not recovered, and on I went.
On the way from Delta to Tok, one becomes the Alaska Range. Mountains and streams appear, high counrty unfolds. It feels good to be in the highlands once again, and out of the beautiful but routine forest of the Fairbanks area. Being in the area of Tok, I am reminded how much I love this part of Alaska; it truly is one of my favorite places. The white spruce forests here are remarkable, the creeks and streams clear, the rivers deep, and the Alaska Range towering. It is a deeply beautiful and spiritual place to me. Earlier in the summer, I had stopped the bicycle to gaze upon a lone moose fiording the mighty Tanana River, keeping her head high and swimming madly. Southward I continue. Stopping for a walk along the icy banks of the Chisana River, I am gifted the sight of wolf tracks; mother and cub, traveling the river corridor, hunting and living the life they were born to live. The morning is crisp and cold and the Chisana is forming a skin of ice that looks as though could be walked upon but cannot. A breeze picks up a bit and it is getting colder still. I bushwack back to the truck and point it southeast, towards the Yukon border. After crossing, I see the sights of the mightiest Black Spruce Taiga forests I have ever seen. I remeber these from riding this part of the Alaska Highway back in 2011. Tha taiga goes on everlasting and my heart soars at it’s perseverance.
Eventually, I pull of the highway and drive up a small dirt road to a high point with a view. It is exactly what I had hoped for. From this vatage point, I can see all of the major peaks of the Icefield region of the Northern St Elias Range: Mt Luciana 17,147′, Mt Steele 16,644′ Mt Wood 17,000+, and several other unamed 15,000-16,000 footers. This section of mountains, the St Elias, and physically connected to the Wrangel Mountains in Southeast Alaska, is the largest chain of mountains in North America. The Alaska Range, though sporting the Queen Denali, and nearly 600 miles long, is still smaller than the Wrangel/St Elias. These Mountains are the real deal: Big, bad, remote and heavilly glaciated. In fact, the St Elias, the area surrounding Mt Logan in particular, contains the western hemispheres largest non polar glaciers.
I arrive, a bit later, at the hamlet of Haines Junction. With friendly folks, views of the tremendoulsy striking Kluane Range, and one of the best loved bakeries in North America, Haines Junction is a place I always look forward to visiting. However, upon entering town, I see first off that the great little grocey store there, the only one in town, has burned to the ground. Even worse, there is a “Closed” and “For Sale” sign on the bakery. Dissapointed, I buy 10 dollars worth of gas and head for glaciers of the Coast Range and the Chilkoot Valley, home of Haines, Alaska.
I cross the border, back into the USSR, and roll down valley, along the Chilkoot River, with forests of magnificent Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Cedar and Cottonwood. I camp in a pullout, excited to see Haines in the daylight. Morning time, I pass through the Bald Eagle Preserve there, and see more Eagles within my field of view than I had ever seen in all the years of my life previously. 60? 70? 120? Who knows… There are many. It is the last bit of the Chum Salmon run as well, and the Eagles are feeding well upon them. One brute of a fish, pink and black and bruised to hell, swims towards the shore and is nearly 4 feet long. I see no bears however; they have all crawled off to their winter nap and won’t be seen again till spring.
Haines is a great little town of about 2500 people, located along the inlets of the Chilkoot and the Chilkat, at the head of the Lynn Canal, North America’s longest Fiord. There are glaciers visible from town and is surrounded by the incredibly jagged peaks of the Chilkat Range to the east, and the Coast Range of the Glacier Bay region to the west. There are a ton of Brown (Grizzly) Bears here as well. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
The first week of being in Haines was rough on me, however. Cold nights, crammed into the back of my truck, looking for a job and a place to live, and not knowing anyone in town, was challenging to say the least. Self doubt began to creep into my heart. Had I made the right choice to leave Fairbanks and come to Haines? Should I just go back to Utah, which I had left more than 30 months ago? Should I just stick it out? A conversation with Angela on the telephone cheered me up and convinced me that I had made the correct decision. After a week or so, I had scored a free slide in camper for the truck, and a full time building job with some folks whom I enjoy being around. Each night I camp in a different, beautiful spot along the coastal waters of the inlets of the Lynn Canal, surrounded by the most beatuful mountains one can imagine, and dream of a long life here.