We landed in Anchorage knowing we’d be there again in about two weeks’ time (to leave), but with no idea yet how we would fill the fortnight in Alaska. How it unfolded is a four-part story.
Part 1: Anchorage to Seward
The road from Anchorage to Seward is an underrated blast of scenery, a tollboothless highway with million-dollar views for miles on end. Glaciers and snowcapped mountains abound across the Cook Inlet, an expanse of sea water capped with its own miniature mountains: wind-driven jagged peaks of cold saltwater. We were looking to camp for the night somewhere in the Bird Creek area.
Which brings us to a quick detour (one that will save time later on) to explain the origin of place names in Alaska. It’s a little-known fake fact that might as well be true, that the naming of every place in Alaska (besides major cities) took place in a small classroom in a remote fishing village during the late 1800s. A Lutheran missionary teacher-turned-Geological Survey president, one Mr Edward “Grizzly” Ramsbody III, instructed the children in his class to pick names of animals and names of features of the Alaskan landscape at random from hats. Occasionally an adjective would be selected too, and in rare cases, two features could be chosen. It all worked wonderfully well. The result was the evocatively-named landscape we enjoy today, where all small towns (and the streets in them) are variously called Bear Creek, Old Wolf Lake, Wolverine Mountain, Caribou River Falls, and so on. Recently, in a museum vault in Fairbanks, the hats and the bits of paper in them were found and put on display to the public. Today, almost every place in Alaska (besides major cities) is a combination of two or more of these elements (try to drum up a few singularly Alaskan names for yourself):
Adjectives: Great, Little, Small, Grey, Old, Brown, Green, White.
Animals: Bear, Crow, Eagle, Wolf, Wolverine, Beaver, Horse, Fish, Salmon, Grayling, Caribou, Elk, Moose, Rat
Geographical Features: Falls, Lake, River, Mine, Creek, Bend, Inlet, Glacier, Peak, Lake, Arm, Lane, Turnout, Mountain, Crag
And so, back in reality, we spent our first night in Alaska at a place called Crow Creek Mine. I can’t get enough of that name, Crow Creek Mine. Horror movie? Cowboy paperback? Crow Creek Mine. Anyway, as we had journeyed for something approaching twenty hours, traversing eight time zones to get there, and as it was already 11PM by the time we laid our heads to rest in our trusty tent, there isn’t much to say about what we found at Crow Creek Mine besides a deep sleep.
The next day we drove down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward, where we made camp for the next two nights.
The Comfort of Strangers
Around Seward — and in fact no farther away from us than the campers on either side of us — we encountered exactly the kind of spirit I was hoping we would find in Alaska. On one side, a chef from Minnesota (who, on the morning of our departure, without prompting or warning, cycled into town and came back with three coffees and three breakfast sandwiches — one for him, and one each for Meg and me). It ripped us clean out of our New York shells to be in the midst of a random act of kindness between strangers, and luckily we were soon able to pay it forward (more on that in Part 2). On the other side, an inspiring free-spirited young solo traveler from the Czech Republic who had hitch-hiked his way into Seward the night we arrived, and hitch-hiked his way back out after we left. Both of them solo travelers. Both of them living on a frontier of life, for a spell, out there, out west, in Alaska.
“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” – Wallace Stegner
Out there, in the great American West, at Mile 0 on the historic Iditarod trail, at the foot of Mount Marathon, looking out over Resurrection Bay at mountains and glaciers, we began to settle into our Alaskan groove.
On a lucky-weather day, we visited nearby Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Here, we struck up a conversation with a friendly commercial fisherman and his girlfriend who were headed back up the Kenai Peninsula to stock up on salmon — which piqued my interest and we talked at length about that — and then he told us that no visit to Alaska is complete without seeing Hobo Jim perform live at Hooligan’s in Soldotna, and that Hobo Jim would be at Hooligan’s over the coming weekend.
Suddenly, a plan was formulating. We now knew the salmon run would be thickening in the Russian and Kenai Rivers by the weekend, and that a guy called Hobo Jim — who is supposedly world famous (in Alaska) — was playing at a bar in a town that was on our way back up north. So, thanks to this stranger whose name we never caught and whom we never saw again, we knew where we would be in four days’ time. We still didn’t know where we would be until then, but we would figure that out soon enough — by talking to other strangers.
Oh, and “go camping in Alaska” is now checked off the bucket list.
In loving memory
Paul Cantor, 1925-2013, who, in his own time and in his own way, walked the earth too.
Categories: Alaska, North America