The Denali Highway is the worst of roads, and it is the best of roads. It is 100 miles of gravel potholes cutting through some of the best scenery in Alaska. Originally, it was the only way to Denali National Park before the Parks Highway was built in 1971. Today, it often looks like it hasn’t been graded since.
It doesn’t help the pothole problem when it rains for weeks during hunting season and thousands of monster pickups and campers pulling 4-wheeler trailers go blasting down the road , banging and bouncing even more gravel out of the holes and onto the windshields of anyone brave enough to face this free-for-all. Such was the case when we were there.
For an avid landscape photographer, potholes and crowds of other outdoor enthusiast are minor “occupational hazards”. Especially when the Call of the Wild drives them through the heart of the Alaska Range on a beautiful fall day.
Fall Color on the Denali Highway
We set out early on the Denali Highway for one of the most exciting photography experiences of our Alaska trip. The rain had stopped and glorious light broke through the heavy clouds to set the Alaska landscape on fire with color.
We had waited a week for the rain to stop – and it did – for one day! It started to rain at the end of the Denali Highway, and never stopped until our Alaska Trip ended. Every day of of the Alaska Highway home it rained – often all night long. We rarely drove on dry pavement. This made our time on The Denali Highway even more precious. These two days were some of the best memories I have of Alaska.
I will not bore you here with words, names, geography lessons, or history. If you want the details of our experience on this amazing road, I will be glad to share it with you – but for now – just sit back, forget you problems, and go with me once again to this wonderful place through photographs. Let them speak of that moment when my heart was on fire with awe and wonder; when praise for the Designer and Creator consumed all my earthly desires.
Here are just a few pieces of a vast landscape that is filled with numerous glaciers, rugged mountains, colorful tundra, sparse forest, rivers, lakes, and sky – all fit precisely into place doing exactly what they were designed to do. This beauty is not random molecular motion creating order from chaos by chance. It is more than the work of past and present glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes and all the laws of physics. It was ordered by design. And the work of that designer is good, and very good!
Photographs of The Brooks Range have intrigued and inspired me for years. When I considered coming to Alaska, my first goal was to see the Brooks Range – but that seemed unlikely, if not impossible. Other than a brief glimpse available off the Dalton Highway on the way to the Arctic Ocean, the only way to see it is by plane. That is very expensive since the going rate for a bush plane is $500/hr. and the Brooks Range is a long way from anywhere.
A Dream Comes True
So…I was elated when I was able to get a seat with the bush pilot that delivers the mail to three remote villages in the Brooks Range for $309 – for a 4 hr flight! It was one of the most emotionally intense experiences I have ever had. The thrill of the ride and the spectacular scenery was overwhelming at times. It still seems like a fantasy that happened to someone else.
Not only did we fly OVER the Brooks Range, we flew to the last village, Anaktuvuk Pass, THROUGH the mountains and into the Gates of the Arctic National Park – the best of the Brooks Range. According to the mail service, this is the most isolated village in the USA.
This part of the flight was low through canyons and over ridges – just like in the movies. For a novice like me, it was very spooky, and I expected at any moment for the turbulence to toss us into a rock face (why do these guys fly so close to the rocks?). The only way I kept from freaking out was to keep photographing, and to force myself to trust the pilot. He was experienced and seemed to know what he was doing – but how would I know? (How do these guys seem so confident and relaxed when I am on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown?)
This was not a scenery tour for photographers, it was a business trip for a mailman, so photography was very sketchy and difficult. Actually, it is nearly impossible to get sharp photos under these circumstances. I knew this before and was not too disappointed at the obstacles – I was just elated to see the mountains. However, if I ever get to Alaska again, I want to stay at Anaktuvuk Pass for a few days instead of a few minutes. I want to hike around The Gates of the Arctic and photograph from a tripod on solid ground with no scratched up plastic window or wing in the way.
Life is but a Dream
Our natural dreams and desires are never satisfied – we always want more next time. All over Alaska – as amazing and wonderful as this trip has been – I have been hindered from the PERFECT experience. Everywhere I go, whatever I do, and with every person I meet, there is something imperfect. There are mosquitoes, bad weather, poor food that upsets the stomach, overpriced campgrounds, scratched and dirty windows, scheduling problems, poor service, disappointing scenery, bad attitudes and bad hair days. Every day I struggle with that same cynical, pessimist, impatient voice sitting on my shoulder. But there are moments, in spite of all that is broken and bitter in us and around us, God speaks to us, and we suddenly KNOW that this moment is not all there is to life. In those moments we BELIEVE there is something ahead that is perfect and eternal and better than any experience we can have here and now. We believe that when we close our eyes for the last time, we will wake with perfect vision thatcannot be hindered by scratched windows or expensive plane fares. I can only wonder what it means to “know as we are known”, but flying through the Gates of the Arctic reminded me of that promise – and how fast that day is approaching.
Valdez is known for its scenery, fishing, history, and of course, the pipeline and the famous oil spill. However, the tourist info doesn’t mention how much it rains here. We were here three days and never saw more than a brief glance of the mountain tops just about the time we left. It had been raining for 3 weeks with no end in sight. Even so, you don’t want to miss Valdez.
Museums, Boats, and Beautiful Landscape at Valdez
Valdez has a lot to see, even in the rain. There are two wonderful museums for the price of one. The one near the ferry terminal featuring Old Valdez before the 1964 earthquake was my favorite. Don’t miss the documentary film. It gives you a vivid emotional connection to Alaska and it’s amazing history.
Boats of all kinds strike a deep cord in me, so I always spend time at the harbor and on the docks. Sometimes I get lost in the moment and forget to take photosValdez is a wonderful place if you do that too. I will never forget that strange stirring somewhere in my subconscious, when I watched a big fishing boat, with its powerful diesel engine chugging against the pull of the tide, pull away from the dock and disappear into the mysterious fog of the Valdez ocean. I will always wonder if they made it back.
The landscape around Valdez is dramatic in any weather. However, there were days it was raining too hard to take the camera outside, or the cloud cover was so thick even the base of the mountains could not be seen. Rain has been the norm for most of our time in Alaska. I would guess at least 50%. The last month has been 75%. There were probably folks that have visited for 3-4 weeks this summer and never saw a dry day – especially in Valdez and the other coastal villages.
The Sermon of the Salmon
They say you speak your loudest sermons without saying a word. That is what the Salmon do at Valdez. We heard it loud and clear.
There is a fish hatchery here on a side road across the bay from Valdez. They release millions of salmon into the ocean each year and only 4% return. The rest are eaten by fish or birds, die in the struggle, or are caught by commercial fisherman and end up in grocery stores.
Only a small percentage of the ones that return are harvested by the hatchery for the next generation of eggs. The rest die while trying to get up the fresh water creek next to the hatchery to spawn. They can’t get far until they reach a dead end at a huge waterfall that is impassable. There is a parking lot here where the tourist come to watch this amazing mass migration.
We arrived at the peak run of the Pink Salmon – the primary ones released in the largest numbers by this hatchery. At any time of the day, there were literally hundreds of thousands of Pink Salmon churning the water far out into the bay. They were waiting in line to die, crawling over one another, even leaving the safety of oxygen to squirm onto the rocks following the scent of fresh water that dribbled through the rocks into the ocean.
I have never seen or imagined anything like it. This was one of the of the most spectacular events I have ever experienced in 68 years. For days later, I would wake at 4: 00 AM and try to process this experience. The struggling, splashing masses of dying bodies, the stench of death, and the sight of the shore littered with dead fish was too much for me. I have never seen so much of death.
However, it was not the smell that stayed with me, it was the overwhelming sensation of power that was driving these fish. Some mystical force beyond human reasoning or science wascalling these creatures and they responded without questioning, with no regard for their own life. With only one single aim and purpose.
The Force was LIFE. It was the call to spread the seed and the life that was in the seed. Nothing else mattered. This was the highest calling, above every call – above even the instinct for survival of the individual.
This was not just a call the for the Salmon – it was a wake-up call for me. What woke me at 4AM was an intense desire to be a part of this plan. I want more than anything to be driven by a power like that. A spiritual power that will not stop at any obstacle or challenge. A power above every power. A power that calls me home to the source at all cost. A Power that instills in me such a narrow path and focus that nothing can draw me away. I want to live in, and by, and through this same POWER of LIFE !
I will not preach here today the complete sermon I heard. But someday I hope to have more to say about it. I will post video footage of this event later. Until then, if you ever get a chance – go somewhere and let the Salmon preach to you.
The remote harbor village of Whittier is quite unique. It sits in a hole, surrounded by jagged peaks and deep ocean.Its only land access is through a narrow, 2.5-mile long railroad tunnel dug by the army during WW2 – when Whittier was started as an army base and remained active until the 60s. Whittier was incorporated as a village in 1969, a few years after the 1964 Alaska earthquake sent a 43 ft. tsunami through town, killing 13 people. Now the 200+ residents mostly all live in one large condominium building that once functioned as an army barracks. Very weird.
In 2000, the train tunnel was adapted and scheduled to allow cars to use it. So, we paid the $22 toll, waited our turn at the stoplight, and drove on railroad tracks 2.5 miles through solid rock – hoping there was no sudden earthquake, flat tire, or train out of schedule. Very weird.
Whittier – a fantasy land for old kids
Whittier is now a tourist mecca with a train station, a harbor full of fishing, tour, cruise, and ferry boats, a line of tourist shops, and nothing much else except spectacular scenery. We snooped around and took a back street that wound along the bay a couple miles and ended at a picnic area on a rainforest creek at a small exotic ocean inlet with crystal clear water. It was a storybook setting and a great place for kids to play, explore, fish, and boat. Made me wish I was a kid again. (Even if some think I should try harder to “grow up, already!”)
Late afternoon, we headed north for a meal of halibut and salmon at Shane and Cindy Turners. Afterward, when Shane took Rod to get a fishing license, he got sidetracked and we ended up on Hatcher Pass – just a few minutes from their home. We saw 3 moose, great views and figured out at least part of the reason they moved to Alaska. We all went to bed excited about going salmon fishing with Shane at 4:30 the next morning. Little did we know, tomorrow would change all our plans.
Wednesday, we blogged, showered, cleaned house, went to the Dr. for my IV infusion, and prepared for Rod and Jer. They flew in from Ohio Thursday to spend a couple weeks with us. We toured the Kenai Peninsula their first week here.
Before they came, the weather went sour but started to break up when they arrived at the Anchorage Airport. False hopes. It wasn’t long before it clouded up again, and the last few days have been rainy and overcast – typical Alaska weather. We made the best of it, and it has been good just being together in Alaska – come what may.
The first night Rods were here, we drove Rt. 1 south to the Portage Valley, where we camped overnight at a pullover surrounded by glaciers overlooking Portage Lake. Here in the valley, we watched salmon spawning at a boardwalk over a creek, hiked to the bottom of Byron Glacier, took a drone shot of Portage lake, and stopped at the visitors center. We didn’t have the time just then to visit Whittier – our original goal, so we left in the afternoon for All Seasons Campground at Ninilchik.
Homer and the Spit
Saturday morning, Rod and Jackie had a reservation for a Halibut charter, but it was cancelled by wind and 8 ft waves, so we toured the Homer area instead. Rod and I tried catching a Silver Salmon in the Homer Spit“Hole” – to no avail. I am getting real sore about watching everyone else catch fish. I have never been an avid and successful fisherman but usually I can get something. I don’t know if its the way I am holding my mouth or my decaying attitude.
The Russian Villages
All day Rod and Jackie were cat napping because of the seasick meds they took before the charter was cancelled. This made it convenient for me since I was then free to drive where ever I wanted. However, they suddenly became fully awake when I tried driving the VERY STEEP 4-wheel drive road to the Russian Village at the end of the road, 20 miles east of Homer. Everyone’s panic and my own fears made me turn around at the first switchback, just before we watched a Russian women go tearing by us in a small SUV like she was on level ground. Oh well, so much for my macho 4-wheeling skills. (Where are you Seth, when I desperately need an experienced jeep driver?) If I ever get back to Alaska, I am putting this incredibly isolated village on my bucket list.
Rainy overcast in Seward gave us time to write and process photos at the library. Here are some photos taken in the last few days just outside town.
At the north edge of Seward is the side road to Exit Glacier, which lays just inside the Kenai Fjords Park. There are short hikes to the bottom and side of the glacier, and a long 4 hr. one to the top and great views of the ice-field. We took the short one for old flatland geezers, with Jackie desperately clutching the bear spray and more alert than I ever see her.
The road to the glacier follows Resurrection River. The river is fed by the glacier and numerous other creeks. The road only goes to Exit Glacier at about the 9 mile point on the river. A wild trail follows the river on further.
Pullouts are all along the river, where campers stay overnight. We stayed here a few nights. This is a quiet, scenic and FREE place to stay. That is unless you get a rude neighbor who runs their generator all night. I am amazed someone didn’t fill their gas tank with sand – or shoot them. (Or both). You really shouldn’t act that way in Alaska where everyone is carrying a big gun with REALLY BIG BULLETS!!!