Catch Up – Days 10-12 (Warning: Long Post)

I went off the radar again, this time to attend the residency at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska—outdoor showers, solar power, no running water, etc. But I’ll be catching up on the trip through several long posts over the next few days, pictures included. The posts here pick up where I left off last week and chart my train ride and first sighting of Denali, along with a day trip to Prince William Sound and some epic berry picking. Thanks for reading, if you’re still out there, and sorry I haven’t been able to get online. I hope people are enjoying this. Here goes, picking up from the backpacking trip in the Talkeetnas and moving into the third portion of my trip:

8/8 Day 10
Day in Anchorage exploring the city.

8/9 Day 11
I need a down day to rest my backpacker’s muscles, reflect on my trip thus far, and mentally prepare for the coming writer’s workshop in McCarthy. After laundry and good food in Anchorage, I set out early the morning of Day 11 for the 2-hour drive north to Talkeetna, Alaska. This small town is halfway between Anchorage and Denali Park and the base site for many-a-famous expedition up the even-more-famous Denali peak.

There is one way out of Anchorage whether you’re traveling north or south, and that’s via the Glenn Highway, also known as AK 1, or to tourists, “the interstate.” Do no be fooled, however, by some notion of making any grand or swift exit from the city. This main way in or out is only four lanes and quickly narrows down to two. Further, do not attempt to find this highway by looking for state route or interstate logos, as it goes by so many different names in different places that rare is the common sign indicating the road as a main thoroughfare. Few and far between are actual exits, onramps, overpasses, or signs indicating the direction of travel (north or south).

“I know you won’t believe me,” says the gas station attendant I’ve asked for directions, “but there’s only one way out of this city and it’s right there.” He stops, points out the window the nearest intersection—an intersection that looks like all the others in most of downtown. “That’s 6th Avenue and it turns into the only highway. Just follow that for a few hours and you’ll drive right through Talkeetna.”

I leave the Chugach range behind, cross the moose-laden muskeg, pass signs for Palin’s Wasila and famous Palmer, and start seeing signs for Denali Park and Fairbanks. The Park is nearly 200 miles further, Fairbanks some 300 or so, and AK 1 whittled to a two-lane bumpy highway stacked with RV’s and rental cars this time of year. Traffic moves quickly this Sunday morning, though passing the slower cars proves difficult. The only indicators of location are mileposts and the occasional “For Sale” sign. At milepost 61.5 is a family clinic. Milepost 72 has a spray-painted FSBO sign, which I don’t figure out until milepost 80, when it dawns on me that this means “For Sale By Owner.” Every 20 miles or so there is a side road – No Sled Dogs Road, Answer Creek Way – but by and large the road stretches for miles without many signs of population.

I’ve come this far based on a recommendation from family friends who said the views on the Hurricane Turn train ride are spectacular. Three hours north from Talkeetna down the tracks following the Susitna River and on up toward the Alaska Range, then three hours back. After all that huffing and bushwhacking, it seems a perfectly luxurious thing to do and by lunchtime I’m at the depot, ticket in hand, following the engineer’s call for “All Aboard.”

All the tourists—twenty or so of them—have taken the first seats in the first car. I slide the doors to the next car and find I have the whole thing to myself.

An engineer enters the back of the train car, secures the rattling bathroom doors, and looks at me, then my ticket stub. He’s handsome—dark skin, clean cut, curly dark hair, and full lips. REI pants that hint at fit abs and tight, lean quads. A broad chest—firm but not too big, wide but not bear-like. His shirt bears the Alaska Rail Road logo and as my eyes follow the buttons up to the opening in his collar, then further to his clean shaven face, I think I must have blushed.

“We don’t usually do this unless you’re from Talkeetna,” the engineer says. He’s my age, maybe a year older. “But listen…follow me. I’ll show you the best view on the train.”

And with that he turns on his heels and slips into the next car. Without thinking, I toss my bag over my shoulder and follow him through a few more cars, all of them empty, and we arrive at the baggage car—a half-open air car with only chain-linked railing and to guard against tumbling out onto the tracks. There’s one other passenger back there (a local, I later learn), along with 2 other ARR employees.

I do not tell the handsome engineer that I am enamored with trains. I do not say that I have just written a book about footbridges that cross rivers and lead to trains. I do not tell him any of this because I am afraid I may give myself away, some wild sparkle in my eyes that says I’m here for the full Alaska experience, I’m here for the real deal, I’m here for just about anything.

Walking up to the chain, I place one hand on the duct-taped padding and one hand on the steel handle along the edge of the opening. The feeling is the opposite of fear, it’s elation. The engineer is right: This is the best view on the train, for in front of me is expansive, silky gray Susitna River pouring out of the mouth of the valley. I see fireweed, alder. Gravel bars, magpie. Bald eagles, muskeg. Black spruce, willow. The view is the size of a movie screen, the Alaska wild close enough to reach out and touch and all of it rolling by at a good clip. The engineer pulls up a chair so I can sit safely near the edge of the chain, leaning my head against a side steel beam. Though my perch is mighty chilly, it’s worth it and while I find the first few miles breathtaking, little do I know the best is to come.

[Susitna early 1-2]

What happens next would best be written by John McPhee and effectively already is, in Coming Into the Country, but what I see over the next few hours is the interior of Alaska at its best. Here on this flagstop train, the only way in or out for any of these residents is the train. Yes, there are canoes in the warmer months or ATVs and snowmobiles, but there are no roads. Everything these people need to live must come in in the train or a helicopter drop, and most of them have built their houses harvesting everything they needed from directly around them. From the baggage car, I watch residents literally step out of the woods in the middle of nowhere—no sign of a house or a road or a trail or a vehicle or ANYTHING in sight, and flag down this train.

The train stops, the resident gets on, sharing news:

“Ben got a grizzly yesterday across the river there, see that? Over there?” says one may to the handsome engineer. “Right there, shot him down. Says he was getting too close for comfort.”

Still another: “We’re prospecting up the Indian River, me and my boy, and we’ll be there till the river’s froze up. We’re staying at Sheehan’s cabin.”

More: “You going to see Wilson ten miles down the track? Tell him I’ve got the kerosene. Tell him I need to see him real soon. Tell him we’re expecting him.”

And celebration: “So good to see you all happy and healthy, yes it is. You are all looking great.” Families meet and greet, but only briefly – the train must continue on – and as fast as the engineers wave her forward, these people disappear back into the woods seamlessly, heading to cabins one can only imagine are tucked away in the woods.

Rare is the house that is visible from the tracks. Rare is the resident with much more to say than what’s necessary: news, good tidings, stories of current events in the woods, and well wishes to others along the tracks. Rare is the resident who does not need something in bulk or is not delivering something in bulk. Rare is the resident who gets on the train that doesn’t have some story of late to share. And all of them get on the train through the baggage car where I have been given special permission to ride. And all of them know each other and each other’s relatives. And all them help load and unload each other’s bulk belongings.

[Here, the prospector gets off and is handed his hand-packed supply of Ramen, toilet paper, tarps, and tuna fish. He knows the place along the tracks by look, I suppose, though I stare hard for a marker and see nothing. As the train rolls to a halt, the prospector’s’ son appears as if magically from the woods, two matching red beards dirty and beaming with the hope of gold flakes and nuggets. Have I emphasized this enough? We’re in the middle of nowhere.]

Heading further into the Susitna Valley, the views expand and we see expanses of muskeg, a rare homesite next the tracks, and a view of Indian Mountain:

[Muskeg, Homesite, Indian Mountain]

At the end of the line, the train rolls onto a bridge over the Indian River that is 300 feet above the ground. We sit there for ten minutes and I dangle my legs over the edge of the baggage car, high into the Alaska air. What happens next is not supposed to happen in August in Alaska, but it does: The wind blows somewhere in the distance where a cluster of white clouds seems stuck in the sky. For a moment the clouds lift and I see a brown rim of mountains, my first glimpse of the lower Alaska Range. More wind and the clouds lift further, and there, for no more than thirty seconds, is the mystic mountain Denali. A mountain so large she creates her own weather, shrouding herself in a shall of clouds most of the summer. My breath escapes me and then she is gone, clothed again in pure white air. I might have thought it was a mirage if the engineer himself hadn’t seen her as well. Indeed, something was in the air.

[View of Susitna, Bridge Shadow…]

The engineer, it turns out, will be my travel companion until I head to the Wrangells and the best fast friend I’ve ever met on an excursion. We’re attached at the hip for the next three days, driving hours in various directions across the state. We hike, we play, we talk, we sing, we play guitar, we tell stories, we read stories, we take pictures. We eat nothing but berries and fish for, I kid you not, three days solid. He’s caught halibut, red salmon, you name it, and he cooks and catches it. In other words, we fall into some fantastic wrinkle in time in this Last Frontier and have the time of our lives.

[Read on for our day on the sound…]

8/10 Day 12
CDB is my new traveling companion and he suggests a berry-picking adventure that sends us 3 hours south of Talkeetna, through Anchorage and along Turnigan Arm, then 2 1/2 miles through a tunnel in the Chugach Mountains to the small town of Whittier.

[Whittier, AK]

We go berry picking in the coastal peaks at Prince William Sound. Along the shore is the small town of Whittier, which includes a few tourist shops and a pet reindeer. Its primary man-made features are the abandoned army barracks and a fish processing plant. We park in town and start walking, high, higher, above the smell of guts and rust, beyond the ghostly barracks and chipped-paint empty stores, higher to a tiny boardwalk jutting into the woods indicating a trail.

The woods are reminiscent of Oregon’s coastal forests: giant ferns, burgeoning berry bushes, nurse logs, and mossy tufts dangling from tree bark. The trees, however, are dwarfed in comparison to the gentler climates south of the sound. We follow the boardwalk, clunk, clunk, which leads us over boggy areas, over a few small inclines, and deeper into the woods of the Chugach Mountains. The huckleberries (commonly mistaken for blueberries up here) are ripe and ready, and CDB picks them with ease. “If I can’t get three with one grab, I’ll skip it and find a different branch,” he advises. Already, it seems, his gallon bag is one-third full.

We leave the trail and bushwhack further into the mossy woods. Without the whiplash of willows and the uneven hummocks of the tundra, this bushwhacking seems a cinch compared to the Talkeetnas. Traversing the slopes and working our way slowly upward, we climb at times using our hands, other times grabbing the roots of black spruce for balance. Up and down, up and down, we work the mountainside picking berries with ease. There are more than enough for the humans and the bears here, and all the while birds chirp and banter in the trees overhead.

The higher we climb, the more sunlight filters through the woods until finally we find the boardwalk again and follow it into the light, heading straight for an abundant patch of salmonberries. In the light, these knuckle-sized, glittering globes hang like jewels beneath the green bush leaves. There are no thorns to battle, no briers to untangle from—just the sweet decision of which direction to go, which cluster of berries to reach for. Here an orange one, there a red one. And so many of them are something in between; a sort of glowing burgundy, so plump and full it seems as though an artery of color will bleed across my hands with each berry that I pick.

[Berries – Sorry, I forgot to take a picture until we froze the surplus…]

We take stock at the summit: almost three gallons of berries in just a few leisurely hours. The boardwalk crosses one more wet area, then leads to a platform overlooking the sound. It is at once protected and open, like viewing some great secret cove alight with blues and grays in every shade. We can see the glacier, stretching its strong and slow arm through the valley and into the sound. Ice flows bob in the water, minty-green vessels atop deep, milky saltwaters. In Home Ground, Gretchen Legler defines “sound” in the following way:

“Sound, referring to a feature of coastlines, comes from the Middle and Old English sund, ‘to swim.’ The word in its modern guise evokes both this watery root, as well as the idea of soundlings—measurements of depth, quests, or probings, downward and inward. A sound is a waterway connecting two larger bodies of water or two parts of the same body, though the term can also refer to an arm of the sea forming a channel between a mainland and an island. Examples of sounds include Puget Sound on the northwest coast of the United States, and Long Island Sound on the east. Prince William Sound in Alaska is also a classic example. It was here that in 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating an environmental catasrophe of unimaginable magnitude. American writer Marybeth Holleman, in her book The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, writes of Prince William Sound that it ‘is a world unto itself. It is delineated not just by the coastline, the way it indents at Cape Puget and at the Copper River Delta into what, upon his visit in 1899, John Burroughs called ‘the enchanted circle.’ It is contained by a string of mountain peaks, among them the highest coastal mountains in the world, some of them nunataks, jagged spires that jut through an ice field. These mountains enclose the Sound, hold clouds and rain in. They encircle it like sentries. The mountains, the water, the ice fields—it seemed to me they were all protecting this place, guarding it from harm.’”

[Prince William Sound 1-2, Higher peaks and glacier at Prince William Sound]

More soon…I fly to Seattle today and will be back in NC by 1am Saturday…

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