Orlando: a Biography- Virginia Woolf

It occurs to me that it’s a little strange for a man to write about Virginia Woolf in general, and Orlando specifically. Not for any good reason, but it’s an oddity. Why should a book that is a reflection on gender roles and identity be the sole province of women? Well, I picked it up because I have a lifelong goal of trying to read every book in my house and I needed a fiction book in my queue. Overall, I have a fondness for writing in this era, the early twentieth century. (Is it called modernism, or Edwardian? Someone please enlighten me.) I enjoyed Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, and the British war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I’m also partial to historical fiction, so this seemed like a good fit.

                Orlando turns out not to be a terrific work of historical fiction. It drifts through eras and setting without the benefit of the kind of research one expects from authors like Gore Vidal or Kenneth Roberts. But that isn’t the point of the book. Woolf paints an impressionistic picture of these time periods with just enough detail to set a scene as Orlando lives through the Elizabethan, Georgian, Industrial Revolution, and Modern eras. Specific historical events are painted over and skipped, most notably the First World War. That said, the images of the frozen river and London in the time of Shakespeare are powerful. The imagery of the English countryside and seasons are evocative, and the vocabulary is a treasure trove throughout the book, but it just isn’t a proper historical fiction.

The film does a better job with historical setting, both because it is a visual medium where changes of clothing can serve to set a historical scene, and because there are so many conventions to draw on in film making for different eras. It occurs to me that this may be true for the writing in the book as well. Orlando is considered a satire on periods of English literature and that may be apparent in the language throughout the book. If that is the case it would be a cool technique, but I missed it dolt that I am.

                Why did I watch the film? Well, for one, the edition of the book that I have is a huge advertisement for the movie. The cover is Tilda Swinton in Elizabethan male costume. Stills from the film abound on the back cover. For another reason, I often gain a great deal from watching a film adaptation of a book. As long as it hews fairly closely to the book that is. I have a bad habit of drifting off mentally during a book, distracted by worldly concerns or prompted to tangential thought by something I read. Sometimes that leaves me missing vital points in the plot. I read and enjoyed The Hunt for Red October for instance, but completely lost the thread in certain places. Watching the movie cleared up quite a bit for me, especially the sub-plot about the radiation badges and the fake nuclear reactor incident. In Orlando, I somehow trailed off and missed what is probably the most important scene in the book. After surviving a revolt or coup in Turkey, the protagonist goes into a death-like trance and wakes up as a woman. Several pages had gone by before I realized what had happened, and I didn’t understand why it had.

                As far as I know, the book never answers or seeks to answer the question of why Orlando lives for centuries, or why he/she undergoes a spontaneous sex change. The film hints that the Highlander-like immortality is a kind of glamer laid by Quentin Crisp’s androgynous Queen Elizabeth. If this happened in the book, I must have been wool-gathering again. As to the sex change, as far as I can tell it is a deux ex machina in book and film alike. Overall, the movie makes a lot of changes to the story, especially to the ending. In the book, Orlando doesn’t lose her home, which I thought was strange when reading. The whole legal controversy that ensures when a landowner magically transitions to a woman was rather glossed over. In the film, this point marks a complete change to the storyline where Orlando ends up a single, dispossessed mother on a motorcycle. The movie ends in what appear to be 1993 which I thought was an appropriate change. The book ends on its own date of publication.

                The film had a few fun quirks. I enjoyed the absence of subtitles. There is even a good joke told entirely in French that must have been lost on nearly everyone who watched it, at least in America. Orlando tells his paramour Sasha (not a woman’s name by the way) that the English only speak English. Sasha asks how they talk to foreigners and Orlando answers that they speak English louder. It’s a solid burn on English speakers and it gives the art house crowd a quick thrill of feeling superior. Tilda Swinton is great in this movie and as far as I know she was relatively unknown at the time. When the movie breaks the fourth wall, I had flashbacks of something else. It took me a minute to realize that it was to Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge must have been channeling this movie on some level. Even the tones of Waller’s perfectly posh accent are a dead-on match for Swinton.

                I don’t want to delve far into the feminism of this book. I saw nothing particularly controversial to a modern reader. I agree that women should be allowed to own property and pursue careers and it seems obvious. But I’m sure that’s only on the surface. I hinted before that I felt like a stranger in a strange land with such subjects and it’s true. I’m aware how well-trodden this book is in such circles. I might as well try to pontificate to Richard Feynman on quantum theory. But I would like to make an open request that there be more guys like me thinking and talking about gender. The only time I’ve ever seen anything like that was in Fight Club. That was the only discussion of male gender I’ve ever seen that wasn’t directly related to war. Not that it said anything terribly smart or correct about masculinity, but it was talking about it, which was a change. Men tend not to think about being men the way that fish don’t spend a lot of time thinking about water. I guess I’m saying that there should be an Orlando for boys.

The Dalton Highway: Part One

                I don’t know what Fairbanks, Alaska is like when there isn’t a pandemic going on, but it didn’t put its best foot forward on my visit. That was disappointing, because at first glance, downtown was promising. The Chena River flows right through with a handful of pedestrian bridges crossing. There are nice little parks along the river, and the kind of density in building stock that usually means a downtown will be full explore. In practice, the parks were made a bit less welcoming by packs of aggressive and intoxicated homeless people and all the buildings were boarded up. There were exactly two restaurants in the area, and one had gone out of business to turn into a bar. I had planned a bit of a visit, but after an hour of walking, we were done.

                So, first thing in the morning we jumped in the car and set off on the craziest part of our Alaska trip. The eight-hundred-forty-mile, gravel road odyssey called the Dalton Highway. Originally, I had intended to make an open-ended trip up the Highway with no deadline to get back. But when we tried to go to Denali National Park, we found that because of Covid restrictions on daily visitors, we could only get tickets for the shuttle bus on one day. So now, we were headed into the Alaskan wild needing to be back in three days. Not ideal, but I was not willing to miss Denali, so there it was.

                The Dalton Highway essentially exists to get oil trucks between Fairbanks and the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. It only opened to private vehicles in the nineties. As soon as I saw it on the map, I knew we were going to drive it. Even to get to the Dalton, you have to drive more than a hundred miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway. While I was anxious about the quality of the gravel road, it turned out that the paved miles of the Elliott were worse. Something about the geology or climate this far north creates buckles in the asphalt deep enough to create violently jolt any vehicle moving more than forty miles an hour. I learned this the hard way and we heard our gear slam into the ceiling of the truck more than once.

                The landscape along the Elliott Highway is filled with beautiful and green mountains. In summer, it is hard to imagine why there aren’t people living all over the Alaskan countryside. It seems empty and enticing. But I haven’t seen winter here. It would have been interesting to explore the area, but with 828 miles of gravel driving in three days, I decided to save our stops for the Dalton. The night before, I had found an excellent PDF with mileage and some suggested highlights along the way. So, there was going to be a lot of stopping.  I also took a thirty-second video of the road through my bug-splattered window every ten miles.

                Following my checklist, we stopped at the first mile of the highway, a high view of a lonely, possibly bear-infested creek, and at a strange tundra geological feature called a pingo. These features only happen in permafrost environments and are essentially like an ice pimple or even an ice volcano, that pop up and create weird cones in an otherwise flat landscape. The pingo itself wasn’t much to look at it, but it was an introduction to the power of subterranean ice, a concept that is entirely foreign to me. Yet another way of reminding us of how strange and exotic Alaska is.

Our constant companion on our route was the Alyeska Pipeline. Occasionally, it would dip below ground to get through some obstacle, but it would appear again, snaking its way through the forest and over the mountains. We followed it as we drove north. About twenty miles from the pingo, we came to the dramatic crossing of the Yukon River. The south bank is on a high cliff and the highway crosses at a downward angle. The bridge is at least a hundred feet above the river and is surfaced with wooden planking. It looked rickety but obviously was capable of supporting massive oil rigs in all weather. As I crept along, filming every foot, the huge river, white with glacial runoff ran fast under our tires. Nearly 2,000 miles long and thus one of the longest rivers in North America, the Yukon is only crossed by four bridges. That fact was yet another reminder of how harsh and remote this region is. Under me was a river that looked as big as the Mississippi, but we were two hundred miles from the nearest decent-sized settlement. The fifth longest river on the continent toils in obscurity. We stopped at the north bank of the Yukon for pictures and to read some historical markers. They told us about the river’s use as a highway in winter. Far back into prehistory people have used its frozen surface to haul goods. I want to come back with skates and do a long skate/hike. Do people do that?

                A swarm of bugs drove us back into the car and we continued north. We crested several massive hills along the way. Each one has a name like Sand Hill, Roller Coaster, Beaver Slide, and Oh Shit Corner given to them by the ice road truckers. We had fun coasting down Roller Coaster, but I had to imagine how terrifying it would be in an eighteen-wheeler in January. The highway began to climb as we approached the foothills of the Brooks Range. Suddenly we were high up on treeless plains. I imagined we were getting a first taste of the tundra. As it turned out, that wasn’t far off the mark from a visual perspective. But when we got out to take a short hike, we were able to hop from rock to rock, avoiding the squishy terrain in a way that would prove impossible north of the Brooks. I was constantly grateful that we didn’t need to worry about snakes. The kind of broken ground we crossed would be perfect habitat in New Mexico. We picked our way across the treacherous pits and were able to reach a landmark called Finger Rock, which really does look like an index finger of granite pointing at the sky. A few pictures, a bit of scrambling on the boulders, and we were on our way again.

To be Continued…

The Anthropology of War

The Anthropology of War– Keith F. Otterbein

                While I was studying at George Washington University’s Elliott School, I had a penchant for buying books on military history. I’ve always had a problem with purchasing books and studying a field with so many great books was the perfect excuse. It seemed like I was acquiring knowledge when I bought a book, never mind the fact that there are only so many hours in the day. Occasionally I would add up all the pages and compare them to the number of minutes in my life. Each year more and more books hit my shelves, always just a bit more than I can actually read. The math was easy. I was going to die with a pile of unread books by my bedside. That would be true even if I wasn’t constantly acquiring more books, which I am.

                Regardless of that dismal calculus, I sometimes try to chip away at the glacier of tomes in my house. So, I picked up a slim volume called The Anthropology of War by Keith Otterbein. The origin and nature of human warfare is a topic that has always fascinated me. There are certain “facts” floating around about violence in the world of hunter gatherers and other societies. One of my favorites is the statistic that the death rates from homicide in these groups is higher than the global rate throughout the twentieth century. That includes the world wars and all the other conflicts that devastated the modern world. It doesn’t take many ambushes that kill twenty people before the proportional death rates skyrocket in a society of only two hundred people. It reminds me of the Stephen King and Peter Straub book The Talisman, where a small conflict in a less populated parallel universe leads to the Second World War in our own.

                If Otterbein makes one good point throughout this book, it is that these facts may just be, as Stephen Colbert would put it, truthy. They feel right, and seem to provide ammunition for a worldview that I hold, so I accept them without a thorough level of criticism. Now I’m not saying that primitive societies don’t have higher homicide rates than modern ones, they almost certainly do. I’m just saying that this is a very difficult thing to quantify.

                I want to make a quick point about using the term primitive here. Yes, it’s incendiary, and yes it carries a lot of baggage. I don’t mean it to put down these societies. There’s nothing wrong with being primitive in my mind. The word just means that these groups live in ways that would have been familiar throughout ninety-nine percent of the human experience. Perhaps there is a better word to encapsulate all these different groups. If there is, I don’t know it, but something links societies like the Yanomamo, Dani, and Ilongot. Someone please enlighten me. Primarily, I use the word to mean a lower level of technology. I believe that smaller societies, tribes, chiefdoms etc. lack the technology to organize at greater levels. So, in that sense only they are primitive. Otterbein talks about monotheism for instance as an idea that allows greater societal control and thus larger societies. I agree with that. Things like monotheism are superior organizational technologies. Societies with them are larger and more powerful than ones without them, not morally or qualitatively superior.

                Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. The main point I wanted to make about this book is that it reminded me of a problem with every general theory of military history that I read while writing my thesis. Sadly, it afflicted my own work as well. I was responding to Victor Davis Hanson’s famous book The Western Way of War. The thesis is basically that we have a particular way of war in the west that is inherited from Ancient Greece. Some of that argument is concise and based on particular facts about Greece and the Mediterranean lifestyle, but much of the book wanders off into vague generalities. This is especially true when Hanson talks about other parts of the world, areas that he is not a specialist in.

                Broad theories of history are dear to my heart. I love reading all kinds of history and pulling facts from all over that reading to create theories. It’s the antiquarian in me. But a lovely historical diversion doesn’t make for powerful analysis. It’s almost a form of brainstorming that asks other people to do the hard work. That is a strength of this sort of generalist thinking.  A weakness, and a terrible temptation, is the ability to cherry pick historical details to make one’s point. Otterbein meanders between a tight, scientific anthropological analysis that attempts to classify societies by war-making culture and a slapdash description of historical incidents. Frankly, he is weakest when he moves beyond the level of simple chiefdoms. This isn’t surprising. You can’t really spend ninety percent of a book talking about line battles and ambush, then jump into a mention of Hiroshima. Those are vastly different situations.

                This book would have benefited either from sticking to the strengths of anthropology, or from blowing up the sections on more technologically advanced societies into a much longer book. Darwin’s Origin of Species* is one of the most successful books to ever put forth a broad, inductively based theory. It is successful because it is exhaustive, literally. If a reader can suffer through all the details of finches and barnacles, it is hard not to be convinced of the overall theory. Darwin’s book was only the starting point for two centuries of evolutionary theory, but its broad thesis is incontrovertible. Otterbein’s field of the anthropology of war needs such a thorough treatment, and this short book isn’t up to the job.

*I always think of Darwin’s book as “Oranges and Peaches” thanks to the movie Party Girl. Anyone else?

Exploring Kachemak Bay with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies: Part Two

The first several hours of the visit were a hike through the hilly forest all around the research station. The young women who were guiding us knew everything about the plants and animals of the forest. It was great to get the chance to pick their brains. We learned to avoid cow parsnip and devils club, and also that both plants produce berries that bears love to eat. Bear scat was all over the trails, as were many areas where bears had clearly torn away the bark of trees to get to the juicy sap underneath. We saw no bears though.

What we did see were tons of new birds and a new phenomenon for me, squirrel middens. I don’t know if the grey squirrels of my native biome do it, but red squirrels leave little piles of pinecone scraps. Once it was pointed out to me, I saw them everywhere, and could imagine a squirrel sitting and eating like Donald Duck with a corncob, pine scales flying all around him.

The forest all around us was a sea of green to my desert-hardened eyes. It was not, as we learned, technically a temperate rainforest. The precipitation clocks in just under the requisite 50 annual inches of rain. But as far as I was concerned it might as well have been. There was moss everywhere, even dangling as epiphytes from the branches of spruce in a formation called old man’s beard. It was fun to look at, but our favorite thing was learning what we could eat. Alaska has a surprising amount of edible plant life to hand. I don’t know if it’s because we are visiting in the right season or whether there is just so much more natural knowledge in a place that still has so many native people, but it’s a slightly paradoxical thing I’ve noticed about what I had imagined would be a fairly hostile landscape.

Our guides showed us how to pick and eat spruce tips, the green tips of branches. They taste… piney, but also slightly citrusy. Not a lot of caloric content, but tasty and full of vitamin-C. We ate quite a few. We also got to sample false azalea, a plant that grows little flowers that can be sucked in a manner much like honeysuckle. Just like that Virginia summer delicacy, they are delicious. Later in the day, we also tried a bit of beach greens growing by the mudflats. They had a taste that I called avocado and my son called oyster, not my favorite.

After our forest hike, we sat by the research station and ate our packed lunches. Ours were awful. I had hurriedly thrown together sandwiches that hadn’t fared well during the day’s hiking. I’m just that kind of dad. After lunch, we headed down to the beaches to see what we could find in the bay’s tidal pools. Right below the dock, we found an octopus’ den. It was just a hole under a rock, just above the waterline, but all around the hole you could see the remains of the cephalopod’s meals. I suppose that’s where the phrase octopus’ garden comes from. I had the damn song stuck in my head the rest of the afternoon, but it was an exciting find.

We walked through mud wearing boots we had been given and came to a high ridge dotted with whitened tree stumps. Apparently, this is the ghost forest, the remains of woods destroyed in the wake of the 1964 quake and tsunami. On the other side of the remnant stand of trees we found Otter Island, a formation of rocks that looks just like a floating sea otter. It even has little hands and feet in the right places.

All around Otter Island, we found tide pools. They were absolutely littered with sea stars. The more I looked, the more I could count. You make a first scan, spot one and then suddenly realize every crack in the rocks is filled with more squishy, purple aliens. And the sea stars weren’t alone. Every nook and cranny was filled with invertebrates all along the spectrum of disgustingness: barnacles, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, marine worms with multisyllabic names, and the aptly named Christmas anemones. These took first prize in gross anatomy, red and green placental blobs lurking by the water.

As we climbed around the rocks, a sea otter floated in the waves watching us, as if to say each time I found some strange life form, “Are you going to eat that?” I slipped a few times, once managing to get shards of black and broken barnacle shell embedded in my finger. It would take a day to get them out. That’s a lot better than my trip to the Dominican Republic, when it took weeks to fish out a broken purple sea urchin spine from my toe. I have bad luck with invertebrates. Maybe I should stop calling them disgusting.

After an hour or so of exploration, we trudged back to the research station to wait for our boat. I would have been fine sitting and waiting, but my son insisted on following the guides on another short nature walk. This one was to a small bog with carnivorous plants. Despite my fatigue, I did learn that the difference between a bog and a fen is that a fen has flowing water. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Even with the walk, we still had a few minutes to sit and chat with an older couple that were with us on the trip. I mentioned to them that we were contemplating a drive on the Dalton Highway and they gushed about having made the drive decades ago. I was on the fence a bit about doing it and they urged me not to miss the opportunity. We’re totally doing it now and that will be a later post.

The boat came to get us, and we made the splashy trip across the bay to Homer. My son insisted on sitting in the stern despite the spray warning and was accordingly demolished by water. I sat just in the lee of the cabin and watched him grin broadly the whole time. When we got to Homer, I was planning on making a tired return trip to our cabin in Nikiski. Instead, when I went to get gas, an old man came up to us and told us Mt. Augustine, a nearby volcano, was smoking. My son and I exchanged a look, jumped in the truck, and drove to a lookout on the highway above the city. Through binoculars, we could see a cloud circling the peak a bit more than fifty miles away. It wasn’t exactly the last days of Pompeii, but to see anything of the sort was a thrill. We were buzzing with it the whole drive home.

P.S. I checked the USGS webcam on Mt. Augustine that night and the smoking calmed down fairly quickly. Homer was safe.

Exploring Kachemak Bay with the Alaskan Center for Coastal Studies: Part One

                On the southwestern edge of the Kenai Peninsula is the small fishing town of Homer, Alaska. We had heard that it was a good jumping off point for expeditions into the national parks on the opposite side of Cook Inlet, so one day we drove down to see what we could scrounge up. If we could cross over to Lake Clark or Katmai, we stood a good chance of seeing the world-famous gatherings of brown bears that make all the highlight reels of Alaska.

The Sterling Highway, which hugs the western coast of Kenai, gives lots of great views of the snow-covered mountains on the other side of the Inlet. Along the way, we saw a moose crossing the road and more bald eagles than we could count. But even with the views and wildlife, the highway became a bland stretch of road after the first trip. It reminded me of staying on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It doesn’t take more than one drive past the same miniature golf courses and t-shirt shops to dull the mind.

Our first visit to Homer was a bust. We visited a little nature center in the mountains called Earl Wynn and had a nice walk among the spruce trees on a boardwalk. We spotted birds and had fun watching a pair of Canada Jays fighting in the treetops, but it was pretty tame. Down at the shore, along the spit, which is a long strip of gravel and sand that juts out into the sea, we tried multiple tour companies that offered expeditions across the Inlet. None of them could do it for less than a thousand bucks. I’m sorry, but I’m not paying more than I paid to fly to Alaska to jump across a puddle in Alaska. We walked along the beach a little and saw some sea otters out in the water, but otherwise there wasn’t much for us on Homer Spit.

It was my fault to some extent. When we went home, I did some research and found some interesting options. There weren’t any reasonably priced ways to visit the national parks, but there were some fun options for crossing Kachemak Bay to the south. So, I booked us a nature expedition to Kachemak Bay State Park with a local research outfit called the Center for Coastal Alaskan Studies.

The night before the trip, we drove down to Homer and got a room in town. We were just too far away to get to an eight o’clock boat from Nikiski. We took our time getting there and had a nice hike at a state recreation area on the way. That stroll took us along the side of a creek filled with fishermen. Guides were rowing frantically trying to keep the large boats in place against the strong current, then paddling hard to help tourists reel in whatever it was they were catching. On the trail we spotted our closest yet moose, a cow browsing on plants just fifty feet off the trail. She glowered at us for a few seconds and I watched for the characteristic retraction of the ears that signals moose-anger. She stayed calm and let us pass in peace.

We got groceries in Homer. Even when we stay in hotels, I try to save by making meals in the microwave or just from sandwich materials. At the grocery store, a strange local version of Sam’s Club or Costco called Save-U-More, we saw large numbers of Russians. Not the modern, glamorous Russians of the twenty-first century, but the Old Believer, pre-Soviet type. They were bonneted and long-dressed and reminiscent of the Amish. I also made the mistake of buying a pack of Nutter Butters that turned out to lack the characteristic peanut-shaped cookies. Instead, they were disgusting gluten-free wafers that looked and tasted like astronaut food. Yes, I still ate them. Caveat om-nom-nomptor I guess.

In the morning we met our crew and the other tourists on Homer Spit. Of course, we were just barely on time, of course we had to be told to put on our masks, of course I parked in the wrong place, and of course we were chastised for not having rain gear. I’m just that kind of dad. But we were there and soon we were puttering on the water taxi across the bay. It was a sparkling, clear, blue-skied day and again there were glaciated mountains all around us. I’ve mentioned it several times, but it really can’t be overstated and should certainly never be forgotten. Alaska is beautiful and that beauty is everywhere.

On the way, we passed a pile of rocks called Gull Island. The crags were covered in kittiwakes and puffins, and there was even a little harbor seal popping up to say hello. The east end of the island was a sea cave that looked exactly like the first, lightning-streaked room on Pirates of the Caribbean, the one you pass right before shooting down the only drop of the ride.

We docked at an inlet called Peterson Bay, right next to a pay of oystercatchers poking around on the mudflats for clams. There was a steep walkway up to the land, steep enough that I had to dig my toes into the metal slats of the boards and that we were worried the less fit members of the party might have trouble. I think it was like that so that it could serve in higher tides.

The facility we came to was a research station built on the property of a southern doctor’s abandoned retirement home. We sat outdoors and were given wading boots and a talk on bear safety. There are no brown bears on this side of the bay (I wonder why), but the black bears are apparently numerous and not to be trifled with. I had bells and spray, so I wasn’t terribly concerned. We were also in a party of about twelve people, which makes bear attacks astronomically improbable.

To be Continued…

Kenai Fjords: The Four Ice Seals of the Apocalypse

                When I was in sixth grade, the Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound dumping ten million gallons of oil into the water. I knew about it, because Mrs. Winkler made us read about it in our current affairs unit. It was depressing, as was most of the news back then. We read articles in Current Science magazine about the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger disaster, the hole in the ozone, global warming, and lots of other cheery subjects for eleven-year-olds.

                The oil spill killed thousands of sea birds, marine mammals, and fish. It was upsetting at a remove, and now that I’ve been to Alaska to see these creatures in person, it seems like an unfathomable tragedy. But in Seward, we learned that some good did come out of the disaster. As part of their settlement for the damage, Exxon was forced to pay $37.5 million toward the construction of the Alaska Sea Life Center. A town like Seward, with about 2500 people, could never have built a state-of-the-art conservation center like this without that money.

                It may seem crazy after a day on a boat viewing wildlife, but my son and I decided to go the Sea Life Center the next morning. We’ve done this kind of thing before. In the environment of a zoo or aquarium, you can learn different things than you can in the wild. A smart phone helps enhance learning in the field, but the best places to see wild creatures are often the worst for cell service.

                Corona has severely limited the number of tourists visiting Alaska this summer, so we essentially had the aquarium to ourselves. At the first exhibit, we met a super helpful biologist named Derrick. He talked to us for quite a while about all the injured animals. They have otters and seals from all over the state. Our favorite was a little spotted seal who kept climbing out of his pool and doing little belly rolls for us. Like my kids, he knew exactly how cute he was, and he was milking it.

                My favorite takeaway from all the recovering animals was the existence of what Derrick called “the four ice seals”. Apparently, there are four species of Alaskan seal that live in the remote, icy Arctic and will basically never be seen by normal mortals like me. If I used footnotes, this would be the place for them, because I would like to leave it up to my reader to decide whether they care about the names of these seals. There is no way I’m not going to write them down. I’m bursting with it. They are the bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals. Somehow, someway, I’m going to see them. As yet another parenthetical, I’ll mention that when I googled “is there a ribbon seal in a zoo anywhere” I found that someone has looked up “is there a ribbon seal in the bible”. What the hell, people?

                I am equally obsessed with a new shark we learned about, the pacific sleeper shark. Apparently, scientists are only beginning to learn about them, and they are huge, as much as 23 feet long.  The biologist told us that the sharks can live for hundreds of years and that they feed on sea lions. I pictured them lurking around at the bottom of Resurrection Bay, which is one of the deepest bays in the world. They’re like an even more mysterious version of the Greenland Shark, which is one of my all-time favorites.

                We finished up the Sea Life Center with a swing through the lower levels where you can really get a good look at the marine mammals from underwater. My intuition about the California and Steller’s Sea Lions was dead wrong. From down there you could clearly see the that the male Steller’s they had was enormous. He must have weighed a ton, almost in the weight class of walrus.

                After the aquarium, we went back to the national park. First order of business, handing in the junior ranger book and getting sworn in. Through the corona-shielding plexiglass, he took his solemn vows and got his badge. Now when the park is in danger, they will light the junior ranger beacon and my son will have to fly back to Alaska to join with the other nine-year-olds in forming Voltron to protect the wildlife. Or is it Captain Planet?

                On our first visit, we had just sampled the trails around Exit Glacier. This time we wanted to make the difficult hike to the Harding Ice Field. The ice field is named for my favorite scandal-ridden president and my third favorite to die peacefully in office. Obviously, Harding trails William Henry Harrison (I died in thirty days) and FDR.

                We spotted a red-backed vole on the trail as soon as we started walking. Normally, I can’t tell one rodent from another, but there are signs all over the park announcing the existence of these little guys for some reason. As soon as we hit the steep portion of the trail, I realized my legs were dead. And it was a super steep trail. I brought three bottles of water and by the time we had hiked the two vertical miles to Marmot Meadows (great name for a British TV show) I had finished them. So, we pushed on a tiny bit to a point called Top of the Cliffs and called it a day. It was just high enough for my son to see his first glimpse of true, above-the-timberline, alpine tundra.

We were also within sight of the stunning expanse of the ice field. Until the twentieth century no one (and by that I’m sure they mean white people) realized that all the glaciers in the region were connected to a 700-square-mile ice field. It looked the way I imagine Antarctica looks, an intimidating blanket of whiteness dotted with crevasses, seraks, and other incomprehensible dangers. We got great pictures, but I was sad we couldn’t go any farther. Instead, we limped back down the mountain and made the long drive back to Nikiski. Tomorrow I’m rewarding myself with a lazy day around the cabin. Or at least that’s the plan.

Kenai Fjords: Whale Watching among the Glaciers

                Having returned safely to the truck, still free of bear chew-marks, we headed into Seward to get dinner. Aside from Anchorage, Seward is the most town-looking town I’ve seen so far in Alaska. There is a main drag with a few shops and restaurants, all leading to the Alaska Sea Life Center on the water. It makes sense that Seward feels more like a town. It was a huge port until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake demolished its waterfront. It still is to some extent. There are port facilities at the northern end of Resurrection Bay. Seward reminded me a bit of Galveston, Texas (where I lived for one memorable year in the mid-2000s),a tourist town with grand memories of dominance before a disaster dashed its hopes.

                We hit the Seward Brewing Company for dinner. I tried a few new brews and helped my son with his junior ranger book. It was a nice, relaxing follow-up to a strenuous day. I love to cap off a day of hiking with a brewery visit. After dinner, we took a long walk along the waterfront, watching kittiwakes and sea otters, hoping for a glimpse of whales, porpoises, or seals. We ended up traveling about two miles north. In the little tide pools, we found isopods and crabs. There is a huge marina in Seward, and we walked around the boats for a bit. We were surprised to find a sea otter floating just feet away from us. Someone had caught a good size halibut and had either thrown it to the otter or had it stolen. He was rolling on his back, tearing into the fish and eating big, white, jiggling chunks. From time to time, he would drop his meal and dive to retrieve it. I couldn’t tell if it was a genuine mishap or whether he was playing with his food.

                Even with the midnight sun, we could tell it was getting late, so we trudged back to the truck. My whole plan was finding a quiet spot to park and camp. We ended up partway up the road to the national park in a little pullout. I hollowed myself out a little area in the bed of the truck and had a fitful night sleeping diagonally in a space that must have been exactly my height.

                The next morning, we had a fun adventure planned with a cruise into the glaciers and fjords. I got myself some much-needed coffee and then we met up with all the other tourists on the docks. For such a large boat, I could tell there were far fewer passengers than the company would have liked. That’s good for us though I suppose.

                As we steamed out into Resurrection Bay, we were surrounded by spectacular scenery. Everywhere I looked, there were glaciers, bright blue water, and the Bob Ross dots of spruce and hemlock covering the mountains. The captain, or at least the guy on the loudspeaker, was a park ranger and he seemed to know everything about the area. I had a moment of worry when he stopped the boat and made a big deal about a pair of bald eagles on the cliffs above. Bald eagles are beautiful, impressive birds and I’m as much of a patriot as the next guy, but they’re incredibly common in Alaska. You can go to the town dump in Kenai and see a hundred bald eagles. I hoped we were going to see better.

                We were. Just past the eagles, we came to a group of islands that shield the bay from the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Apparently, in 1964, these islands stopped a 100-foot tsunami from completely obliterating Seward. 100 feet, think about that. It’s hard to imagine. As we approached, we saw a group of boats floating and an absolute horde of kittiwakes circling above the water. What had attracted them was a small group of humpback whales. As we learned from the park ranger, this is not common behavior. Humpbacks are normally solitary, and this was a strange and rare group strategy called bubble net feeding. The whales dive and blow bubbles, stampeding fish into the mouths of their… I don’t know what to call them, friends? Compatriots? Co-conspirators? I didn’t even know big baleen whales ate fish. Each flamboyant dive gave us a perfect view of the tail flukes. Flukes are like fingerprints for humpbacks, no two are the same. It was like the whales were waving and saying, “Hey, make sure you remember it was Paul the Whale you saw. I’ll be here all week. Tip your servers!”

                We watched the whales awhile then moved on past the islands where we headed out into the open Gulf of Alaska. The captain claimed that from here you could travel south for ten thousand miles before hitting land in Antarctica. Whether that was true, the seas were pretty serious. We rolled and pitched so much that for the first time in my life I could at least understand the concept of getting seasick. My son was not so lucky and got hit with a full lesson. I had to let him lie on my lap with his eyes closed all the way until we sailed into the calmer waters of Aialik Bay.

                He perked up when we passed a rookery of Steller’s Sea Lions barking and lounging on the rocks of a craggy island. We’ve seen sea lions before in California, but these dwarf them. The endangered Steller’s is about four times the size of the California Sea Lion. We also got strafed by a horned puffin zooming by from its own nesting site on the same island. Puffins were one of the big reasons we wanted to come to Kenai Fjords.

                The hit list didn’t stop there. As we went into the bay, we saw a small pod of Dall’s porpoises racing the boat. Through the waves you could see their striped bodies hurtling through the water at thirty knots. They were considerably faster than our boat and they were having fun with it. Through the superior set of binoculars we had borrowed, my son spotted a sea otter floating several hundred yards from the boat. It was a mother with a little pup resting on her belly. When you pay a hundred bucks for a day at the aquarium you don’t see that kind of wildlife.

                At the end of the bay, we came to a narrowing of the fjord. I don’t know how to use those words. A fjord is a narrow waterway formed when glaciers carve out high cliffs. So, a bay can be a fjord and vice versa, right? Anyway, at the end of the bay/fjord we came to the intimidating bulk of Holgate Glacier. Our boat stopped several hundred yards away, just close enough that we were supposed to be able to hear the ice cracking. I heard nothing. There is a safety rule that says you should never get closer to a glacier than twice its height. We watched as a small sailboat shattered that rule and sailed in right under the ice. If the glacier had calved at that moment, they would have been done for. I was still jealous.

                We lingered there for a few minutes and the crew dipped into the sea for a hunk of iceberg. Then they sold margaritas on glacier ice for four dollars a pop. As I had slept in a car and skipped showering, and as it was just past noon, it didn’t seem like margarita-time to me, but that’s a cool gimmick. So, I had one. My rating: cruise margarita 4/10, glacier ice 10/10.

We came about then and steamed out of the bay. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride back when we struck wildlife gold yet again. Close in to a small, pebbly beach, we found a family of orcas playing about. There were at least five of them, and two were calves. Somehow, they were swimming about within about ten yards of shore. I gather that glacial bays drop off in depth sharply, but this must have been a dramatic shelf. The adult male with the group was huge. He swam around our boat as if scoping out a potential threat. With each dive, his huge dorsal fin stood out of the water at least as high as the lower deck of our boat.

After watching the orcas for a good twenty minutes, we headed back into the open sea to make our return trip. We passed floats of both types of puffin, horned and tufted, and made an even closer pass to the sea lions. The surfeit of creatures was exhausting, but we were happy. Back in port, I caved in and got us a motel room at a place across the street festooned with cartoonish drawings of most of the marine creatures we had just seen. Even the relentless midnight sun couldn’t keep us from sleeping early.

To be Continued…

Kenai Fjords: 43 of 62 (Part One)

                After a well-earned day of rest, it was time for us to head out and explore, to chip away at my lifetime goal of visiting all of the national parks. For anyone who is counting, there were 62 the last time I checked. I’ve been to 42 of them. Next on the list? Kenai Fjords. Now, as I explained before, our cabin is in Nikiski, in the far northwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula. Same state, right? Same peninsula, right? So, it must be pretty close, right? Wrong.

                To get to the eponymous fjords of Kenai, a little beardlike dangle jutting out into the Gulf of Alaska from the peninsula’s southwestern edge, we had to drive 116 miles. The Kenai Peninsula, a little landform you can squint and make out on a map of the state, is bigger than West Virginia. So, yeah, the drive was a big chunk of the day. Along the way, we spotted a mother moose with two calves. We jumped out and got pictures of them from a nice, safe distance while they were nibbling on plants in a little bog by the roadside. I say safe distance because apparently a mother moose is force to be reckoned with.

                When we were nearly to Seward, we made a right turn at the Resurrection River and drove into the national park. There is only one road into Kenai Fjords, but that actually puts it high on the list of Alaska national parks in terms of accessibility. Out of the eight Alaska national parks, only three have roads leading into them. This road followed the river, which is really a smallish stream surrounded by a glacial outwash plain, leading us to our first view of Exit Glacier.

                A glacier is an awesome sight. I don’t know if it’s an innate feeling like the powerful impact of a great mountain, or whether the feeling comes from having read about glacial impacts, but the first time I saw a glacier it was like seeing the inexorable hand of nature’s god. Exit Glacier doesn’t even rank high on the list of Kenai’s glaciers, but it is a stunning sight, nonetheless. As we approached the visitor center, we passed a series of signposts emblazoned with the year that the glacier had ended at that point. They go back to 1815 and steadily move forward in time.

                Now, the point at which the glacial moraine ended in a given year is a simple fact, but I felt the signs were leaning toward a point about climate change. I’m not a climate denier, but I’m not sure this is great evidence. That date of 1815 also happens to be just about the time that the Little Ice Age ended. So, yeah, the glaciers have been receding since then, which seems obvious and almost circular.

                But I digress. When we got to the visitor center, it was closed for Covid. Fortunately, the rangers were holding a limited open house through a plastic enclosed window, so Alex was able to get his passport stamp and junior ranger book. I don’t know how many of those he’s gotten over the years, but I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say it’s more than fifty. They’re a necessity.

                It was getting late in the day, so we chose the lesser of the two possible hikes and marched directly to the glacier, bear spray and bells at the ready. We followed a paved trail through a forest of mixed spruce, alder, and hemlock and scrambled from there onto the outwash plain. The first thing I saw was a bear ambling toward the river. Then I saw that the “bear” had left his walker near the end of the trail, because the “bear” was an elderly man with such a badly bent back that from afar it looked like he was walking on all fours. God bless him for getting out there in that state, but I really felt like I should offer some help. In the end, I settled for passing with a friendly wave, assuming that if the man wanted help, he’d ask for it. I figured he was like John Locke on Lost and just didn’t want to be told what he couldn’t do.

                My son and I on the other, scampered along like the devil was chasing us. Sometimes when we get to an exciting new park it goes that way. I get so excited that I feel strong and fast enough to mirror his youthful energy. When we first saw Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spotted bison in the distance, and ran over three miles of badlands to see them from a nearby butte. This was a similar exhilaration. We ran over the outwash plain, then hopped up a crumbling ridge to reach the bluffs above the point where the glacier melted into the river. We were way past the proper end of the hiking trail, but we did respect some signs that warned that further progress was dangerous because of ice falls. This despite the fact that there was no ice over our heads.

                Beneath us, the glacier met the river, melting out an ominous-looking frozen cave. I both wanted to enter that cave and dreaded it like the gates of hell. Above us, the glacier stretched for what looked like miles to the point where it met the Harding Ice Field on top of the mountains. Both my son and I marveled silently for a few moments, and that silence from a garrulous nine-year-old should speak wonders, then began climbing back over the gray rocks to try and reach the main trail.

                The path I chose, thinking it looked well-trodden, instead led us into a narrow defile choked with alders. I looked at it and my roleplaying instincts kicked in. It was the perfect place for an ambush. If we ran into a bear nibbling berries in that thick stand of bushes, there would be no way for him to leave, as the guidebooks say, with dignity. But there was no other route. So, we jingled our bells as loudly as possible, and pushed through the mosquito-infested trees until we reached the trail. Whenever I tumble out from some unexpected place, such as a bear-haunted glen of alders, to the surprise of more normal tourists, I picture the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones emerges from the water onto the deck of U-boat to the cheers of a pirate crew. That mental scene played now as we surprised the hikers on the main trail. I had to imagine the pirates cheering for me, but it was still a thrill.

To Be Continued Wednesday…

Bearanoia

                On our first morning in Nikiski, we decided to go back to the well from which the wildlife gods had favored us yesterday, home of the weasel: Captain Cook State Recreation Area. We went with the full intention of stopping at every possible point and exploring the park. Unfortunately, at the first viewpoint, along the shore of Smith Lake, we climbed out and were immediately descended upon by those furies of the north, mosquitoes. I didn’t even realize until later that we were ducking under the fronds of a nasty plant called cow parsnip. We avoided it this time, but apparently if you touch it, you get a rash that becomes unbearably if you let sun fall on it. Personally, I feel like the botanists missed anopportunity to make some vampire-related pun a la James Howe, but I’m glad I avoided touching the damn things regardless.

                We slathered ourselves in cheap bug repellant and made a second attempt to explore on a little creek a bit farther into the park. The owners of our little chateau asked if our brand of spray was carcinogenic. I didn’t know, but I told him that since it didn’t work, it was probably safe. Our second foray was more successful. We poked around on the shores of the creek and I was overly nervous about bears again. After a few more days in Alaska, I’ve learned that the odds of encountering a bear are slim, and certainly not something to spend your time worrying about, but at this early moment, I hadn’t taken that in yet. Other than the bear-anoia though, our nature walk was just like a million from my childhood exploring the creeks of Northern Virginia. Of course, the “deer” tracks and scat we found were on a Pleistocene scale because they were moose, but we felt at home.

                Little multicolored birds hopped through the trees, and when we got back to the car, we pored through my son’s pile of nature books to identify them as varied thrushes, a mundane, but still novel sighting. Then the illusion of normalcy was shattered for us when we drove down to a picnic ground on the edge of Cook Inlet. Those white-capped mountains do it every time. It’s like George Lucas using a simple double exposure effect to tell us that no, Tatooine is not earth. We parked and climbed down to a gray-mud beach pelted by icy winds even in June.

                When my son was a baby, I took a picture of him on the beach where he was gazing pensively at the waves. It’s a famous family photo that we call the “Admiral of the Ocean Seas”. I got several updated photos of the commodore as we looked west toward Lake Clark and Katmai. They’ll go into my portfolio of the boy as a romantic poet series.

                But our appetite for adventure was only whetted by the relative peace of Captain Cook, so we headed back east, through the commercial jumbles of Kenai and Soldotna, typically American in their disorganized scatter of car dealerships, fast food joints, and strip malls. We had seen the sign for a visitor center on the way through the burnt-out district of Kenai Wildlife Refuge, so we thought we would double back and get ourselves stamps and junior ranger guides. No such luck. When we got there, we found a one-room shack that was closed for Covid.

                For a few minutes, we were disappointed, but we looked at the map posted on the walls and realized there was a side road, south of the main highway that dipped out into the refuge along the shores of a lake called Skilak (pronounced like a dearth of slaloming equipment). It looked like it was dotted with little hiking trails, so we jumped back in the truck enthusiastically.

A side note about our truck by the way. I had made a reservation with Enterprise, a company that uses the word “reservation” extremely loosely. I learned they do the hard way, when I showed up in Denver and was given a gigantic cargo van instead of car. So, I was really nervous when I got a voice message saying there was a problem with giving us a pickup truck. I pictured navigating the Dalton Highway in a Prius. It turned out that all the pickups had been given to firefighters so all they had for us was a full size Ford Expedition, which turns out to be much more useful for our purposes than a pickup; crisis averted.

So there we were bouncing happily down the Skilak Lake Road, looking for hiking trails. We found our first one, called simply the Kenai River Trail. Now I had to mull over my bear spray in a serious way for the first time. I had tried to puzzle it out at REI, but had made the jet-lagged decision to just but it while still in the dark. Now it was time to get serious. Fortunately, I had a knife, so I cut the little plastic safeguard. All I needed to do now was remove a harder safety clip wedged into the trigger, but I was too nervous to take it out when not needed. Of course, I had no illusions about how well I would do trying to learn a new skill during a bear charge, so I don’t know how much good it does to carry it. But I put it in my back pocket.

My son and I have discussed bear safety, perhaps ad nauseum, but here is our thinking. There are multiple lines of defense. First, make sure the bears can hear you. Surprising a bear is bad news (so is surprising a moose for that matter), so you have to let them know you are there. I made the questionable decision to read through the Wikipedia listing of brown bear fatalities the other night. One guy was killed (in Idaho I think) when he was mountain biking and crashed right into a grizzly on the trail. They didn’t even bother removing the bear after the killing, figuring that was completely understandable behavior. I suppose I might maul some guy who crashed into me on a trail with his mountain bike if I could.

So, if you have avoided surprising the bear, you’ve cut out a certain percentage of unpleasant bear encounters. Next is to make sure that once you see one, you don’t run. Running signals that you are prey and triggers a hunting response in the bear. Of course, the first time I saw a bear in Shenandoah National Park, that was exactly what I did, but I am an idiot. I promise I won’t do it again. Fortunately, that bear was busy eating berries, and may not have even seen me.

One of the hardest things to do in a bear encounter I think, is the third line of defense. This is assuming you haven’t surprised the bear and haven’t run, but it still behaves aggressively for some reason. When the bear charges you, you are supposed to stand still and not run because most charges are just bluffs to scare you. I guarantee this will scare me. I enjoyed the frankness of one of the bear country warning signs which advised you to “pretend not to be scared” when you see a bear. They don’t even countenance the possibility that you might be some Tarzan being who isn’t afraid of bears. Those are imaginary people, the park service admits.

Post bluff charge, and this is something I’m not clear on, you can go ahead and spray the bear. My question is whether I get the time to draw down on the bear once I know it’s not a bluff. Doesn’t the non-bluff charge result in me being torn limb from limb by a raging hell beast? So, I’m amending the list and going ahead with pulling out the spray before that charge happens. That bear gets it in the face if he gets within like thirty feet as far as I’m concerned. Sorry to you bluff-charging bears out there, but that’s my policy and I’m sticking to it. I hope you’ll understand.

On this trail though, we remained bear free. We walked down to a beautiful crystal blue, rushing river. There were anglers farther upstream and a side trail that led to a gorgeous view of the Kenai as it flowed west. A loon crossed the river as we watched from the heights of a fifty-foot cliff. We drove farther along the road and found a second, much longer trail called Hidden Creek. Ominously, there were signs about a man who had gone missing on the trail back in April. The bears, I thought. The damn bears got him. In reality, he probably fell into the cold water back in April and it was hypothermia that got him.

We hiked about two miles down a winding, thickly wooded trail and then out across a sort of alpine tundra of stunted trees and mountain flowers. We saw three-toed woodpeckers, and my son made the dubious claim to have seen a pine marten run across the trail while I was scanning the trees for ursine attackers. Then we were at Skilak Lake. We walked down to the water and scared a pair of yellowlegs who flew to the top of a tree and squawked at us. A bald eagle landed in the trees nearby with the ever-present icy mountains in the background. It was ideal Kenai.

We walked happily if a little tired back to the truck. I joked that it would be crazy if we saw a bear right before we got there. That was why it caught me a bit off guard when my son said, “There’s a bear!” right as we got to the truck. And there was. Just up the road was a momma black bear with two little cubs. She looked up at us as I tried to calmly walk to the truck. I imagine I looked about as calm as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but she ignored us. We got in the truck and took a slew of pictures of her and the cubs. They were adorable, and she was a smallish adult bear. It was a good way to take some of the edge of my bear-anoia. This was no grizzly of course, but hopefully the gentle introduction will ease some of our fears when we see the real deal.

The Alaskan Adventure Begins

                For the next month, I’ll be writing from Alaska. Originally, I had planned a shorter visit, two weeks of a whirlwind tour with my nine-year-old. We found cheap tickets and the poor guy has been trapped in the house watching the entire run of Full House and Modern Family for three months. I bought the tickets on an impulse back in the early days of Covid, when I quaintly thought the plague would be a finite historical event that would one day end. I thought for sure people would be over it by June. Then I slowly came to realize that Alaska was only ending a quarantine order at the beginning of June. We needed a backup plan, and that plan was not going to be staying in New Mexico watching more Full House.

                My amazing wife came up with the idea of renting a cabin for the additional two weeks that we might need to quarantine, so that’s what we did. We had to get tested for Covid before we left; negative of course. There was a whole complicated procedure for clearing the airport in Anchorage, on paper that is. In practice, I showed up and talked to a teenager who was doing the screening. He glanced at our documentation and said, “You good.” For a beat, I was about to argue, then I smartened up and we left the airport, hustling like twelve-year-olds who had just stolen a pack of baseball cards from 7-11.

                And I was in my 49th state. I’ll be doing these last two in the same order they were admitted to the Union. I guess I would have had to be born in Delaware to do the whole thing that way. There’s a part of me that regrets that.

Backing up a bit, I have to describe flying into Anchorage. It’s hard to capture the immensity of the Alaskan landscape. The clouds broke somewhere around Juneau and we got to see the approach across Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Prince William Sound. It is one thing to know in an academic way that Alaska is big, that it is mostly composed of mile upon mile of trackless wilds. It is entirely another to see that landscape, covered in glaciers and mountains that have almost never seen a human presence. New Mexico seems big and empty to me, but it is dwarfed by Alaska. I’ve gotten used to needing four-wheel-drive to navigate the seldom used back roads of the Land of Enchantment, but here in the Last Frontier, they don’t exist. The desert seems welcoming in comparison to this landscape. Flying over a thirty-mile-wide glacier, calving thousands of ice bergs into the ocean, you know that to end up there would mean death. Alaska is big, beautiful, and terrifying to contemplate.

                But we were in Anchorage, which feels like a completely normal city. That is except for the fact that it was nine when we landed, and the sun was still high up in the western sky. We got an Uber with an Albanian driver (I’d like an insight into his state selection process) and the sun was still up. We checked into our hotel, still up. We dropped off our things and walked to find something to eat, still up. Ate teriyaki by the side of a small lake filled with float planes, still up. It really wasn’t going down. So, I very carefully tried to pin the curtains as widely as possible to block out the light, and we slept.

                And amazingly, we slept through until nine o’clock the next morning. The night before leaving I had lain awake in bed like a kid on Christmas Eve. Jet lag and the midnight sun hadn’t stood a chance against my exhaustion I suppose. One of the joys of being a grownup is the ability to just spring for a nice place to stay on the first day in a new place. I have many memories of attempting to survive on zero sleep, or sleeping in a car after first arriving in Europe. No more.

                The extra sleep fortified us for the drive to Nikiski, a speck on the map of the Kenai Peninsula that I chose for no other reason than that it was the last reasonably priced Air B and B property in the entire state. I wasn’t choosy, we just needed a backup plan. Now we didn’t, and I was worried about what we were getting into. Thirty miles out of Anchorage, we saw our first bald eagles. By the time we were fifty miles away, we were saying, “Oh look, another bald eagle,” and driving on. They’re as common as rock pigeons in New York. Still beautiful and majestic mind you, but not worth pulling over to the side of the road. We stopped at a short scrambling trail called Beluga Point at the urging of my son. He was absolutely sure we would see the whales there, but I grew up near Wolf Trap and I know better. The views of Turnagain Arm were breathtaking though. Even after days I still haven’t gotten inured to the 360 surrounding views of ice-capped mountains and glaciers.

                We drove on through Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which has had a serious series of fires in the last decade. All along the Sterling Highway, from Cooper Landing to Sterling, the hills are brown and burnt. We saw no wildlife and wondered at the dozens of cars parked along the road, their drivers wandering into the blackened forest. Were they collecting something? It was late afternoon by the time we found our house and it was a pretty big disappointment. One big surprise, we’re sharing it with a family. We have our own little side unit, but there are family noises, and dogs barking all through the day. Also, while we met the owner, all three of us were coated in mosquitoes after a two-minute conversation. The mosquitoes did not agree to stay outside during the night.

                And I use the term night loosely. There was no way to stop the sunlight coming in through the glass-paned front door, so even at two in the morning, there was daylight coming in. I still haven’t figured out what to do about that. There is also only one room and we have no proper range, just a hot plate on top of a strange oven hybrid whose instructions were crafted in some inscrutable country like Finland. It was only by day two that I figured out how to make eggs.

                But I don’t want to end on a down note. We’re thrilled to be in Alaska. We dropped off our things at our hellhole… I mean cabin, and took a walk around the neighborhood looking for a view of the sea. There wasn’t one, so we drove up the coast a short way to Captain Cook State Recreation Area. Yes, that’s the same Captain Cook from Australia. He also “discovered” this part of Alaska for the British. Right as we crossed into the park, I slowed down so we could see the startlingly immersive greens of the temperate rainforest. As I did, a weasel ran across the road. I can’t remember if I’ve seen a weasel before, but I was a fun sighting. We parked and walked carefully, bear spray at the ready, down a verdant trail to the beach and could finally see Cook Inlet up close. We said hello to a squirrelly guy who was wandering the beach alone and spooked him away. I wasn’t sure why he acted so weird until I realized it was already past ten at night. God knows what he was up to out there.

                We poked around in the mud and stones looking for strange tracks. Lake Clark National Park was on the other side of the inlet, with Mount Redoubt’s cone just poking through the clouds. These are places I’ve wanted to see my whole life. Our month-long adventure begins!