Alaska Planning, Round One
I meet with Bill and Susan, friends from the community who lived in Alaska for 25 years and are moving back next summer. I come prepared with notepad and pen, they have the maps and a VHS titled “Alaska’s Grizzlies.”
“I have nine days before the writing residency and I’ll be based out of Anchorage,” I say. Susan nods. Bill scratches his graying beard. “I can stay in my friend’s apartment in the city and she’s going to let me use her car for day hikes. What I’m looking for is somebody who can day hike with me or who is willing to ‘night hike’ when it is still light out…I don’t want to solo hike in Alaska.”
“You’re going in August, right?” says Bill. “Because in August you can ‘solo hike’ in Denali and there will still be plenty of people around, especially if you’re just day hiking.”
“That’s right,” says Susan. “But if you’re out at dusk and in the bush, that’s prime time grizzly time.” She points to a section of the map just north of Talkeetna, smack-dab in the middle of Denali National Park.
“Right,” I say. “Is it plain stupid to hike during that time, or just stupid to hike alone?”
“You’re better off with someone,” Susan says.
“Have you ever shot a shotgun?” Bill asks.
“Or a .44 magnum, you know, like Dirty Harry?”
“Well, it’s…you…I mean—” Bill cuts himself off. “Just talk a lot and be loud when you’re hiking. Don’t be embarrassed about it. I’ve never been a fan of bear bells and all that but you could get yourself some pepper spray.”
“You can buy that anyplace in Alaska,” says Susan.
“I can buy it in Ledger [NC],” I say, adding to the list in my notebook.
“I’m not a fan of pepper spray either,” says Bill. “And don’t spray your tent with it, whatever you do—the bears like the smell. But it’s kind of a last hope technique, if you will.” He pauses again, then looks down at the map. “You also have to worry about moose, but here’s the deal: There’s a lot of hype about the bears in Alaska. That’s good to a certain extent but it also gets a lot of people really nervous and then they do something stupid when the moment finally comes. Just be calm and you’ll be fine.”
“I’ve been around moose before. And black bear. And I’ve’ seen a grizzly from across a canyon, but I know that grizzlies are—”
“—different,” Bill and Susan say in chorus. Then Bill leans back in his chair and scratches his beard again. “Look,” he says. “You’re an attractive gal and you eat meat. That gives you two advantages when you move to Alaska.”
“She’s not moving there, Bill. She’s just writing there for a few weeks.”
He smiles. “Maybe…But you either get to Alaska and you think you’ve had enough, or there are those that Alaska just speaks to and you realize you just have to be there again…Like I said—you have two advantages. People live off meat there. As for the men, they’re all over the place. It’s not uncommon for a woman to get three marriage proposals in one day. Now that’s in Valdez and that’s during fishing season, but you get what I’m saying.”
“I’m not going to Alaska to meet anybody,” I say.
“I know,” says Susan. “We have a friend there though. He lives in Anchorage and he’s a writer and he’s a crazy hiker. He’s safe. He’ll take you out on the trails. He’ll go any time of day.”
“He’s safe…He’s safe? What do you mean? That he’s normal?” I ask.
Susan laughs. “What I mean is he’s not going to propose to you.”
“He works a hundred hours a week when he wants to, just all out,” says Bill. “Then he takes off for a while, goes out in the bush. Then he’ll come back and work another hundred. Forgets to call his friends. Nice guy though. Highly intelligent.”
Around Talkeetna and Denali, they tell me to take a day trip on the train from Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch. They have friends in Talkeenta who will put me up as long as I need and while I’m there I should eat at the Road House Restaurant and say “Hi” to the owner, Trish, for them. From there I can drive 2 hours into the park and day hike, or try to get reservations in the park at the Denali hostel. In the park they mention the Curly Mountain Trail and Curry Ridge, another trail around the lake, and few other suggestions. As for Anchorage, they suggest two excellent museums and a day hike outside the city called Flat Top Mountain. If I want to see giant produce, head to the city farmer’s market. Make a few rainy day plans or better yet, don’t plan much at all because in Alaska, everything depends on the weather.
“What about the Wrangells?” I ask, pointing to a map of the southeastern part of the state. “I’ll be based here, out of McCarthy, for 8 days. The folks from the writing center are going to pick me up in Anchorage and drive me 7 hours to the center.”
“McCarthy?” Susan asks. “I thought you could only fly to McCarthy.” She looks closely at the map, tracing a few black lines with her finger.
“They said you can drive. The last 40 miles are a one lane gravel road, but it’s passable in the summertime,” I say. “They promised me if I could get to Anchorage, they’d take care of the rest. Once I get there, I won’t have a car and I’ll be sleeping in a cabin. I’ll be running my laptop off solar power and have minimal access to showers. I’ll be with 15 other writers.”
Bill laughs. “When you get there, set up your bunk away from the windows to help you sleep—it’s going to be light out for 18 hours a day. When the other writers see you unpack a personal supply of mosquito coils and jungle juice, which you should buy when you get to Anchorage, tell them to back off.”
“They told me the mosquitos were bad this time of year but not torturous.”
Susan looks at Bill. Bill looks at the map and scratches his beard again. “You’ll need two layers of bug dope,” he says. “A base layer of the herbal or natural stuff and then a top layer of the jungle juice. And bring a pair of thin cotton gloves if you’re going to be writing because as soon as you slip your hand out of your sleeves they’ll be on you.”
“Do you have a mosquito net?” asks Susan.
“I have one for my head for hiking, but not for my bed. I called the writing center and they said I don’t need one for my bed.”
“Tell the writing center that you spoke to two citizens of Alaska and you want to know what kind of bed you’ll be sleeping in so that you can order the right size and style of mosquito netting,” says Bill. “It’ll be August. You’ll want it. Trust me.”
“Even indoors?” I ask.
“Unless it’s some kind of airtight modern cabin, they find their way in,” says Susan.
Around the Wrangells they tell me about an artist in Chitna who I’d like to meet and then they show me on the map where their cabin is. I could stay there if it weren’t for the fact that you have to hike several miles then canoe another 4 just to get there…not to mention the fact that nobody’s lived in it for two years. The cabin I’m staying in butts up against two massive glaciers that pour off the Wrangells and they tell me to get out there on those glaciers and walk around a bit. They tell me it will be like nothing I’ve ever experienced.