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Bus ride to Denali Back-country Lodges – Day 10 (Monday)

“rangers still use dog sleds to patrol in the winter”

Our first day in Denali was focused on traveling as far as vehicles could go in the national park. We took a six hour bus ride half-way into the park until we reached mile marker 186, which said “this is the end of the road”. Before departing on the bus, we had some extra time. We spent our free time at a show that the Denali park rangers offer about huskies and the importance of dog sleds in Denali. With this extra time in our schedule, we opted to view the show and see the dogs. They were beautiful. The Alaskan husky differs from Siberian Huskies in three main ways: they are not “pure-bred”, they have longer legs for traveling through thick snow, and their paws are bred to be wider with less space between toes (this is so the dogs do not get snow and ice crammed in-between toes as easily because that can cut the dogs feet). All of these traits together make the Alaska Husky a perfect dog for any sledding team.

Before the show began, we were able to walk around and interact with the dogs who wanted as much attention as we could give. There was a chain between us and kennels that we could not cross, but if a dog desired attention it would walk from the kennel up to the chain in order to let us pet them.

The dogs were beautiful. Every coat was unique and
varying from black to brown to white. Each also had the beautiful eyes that huskies have become famous for. One kennel even had three husky pups nursing. They were cute and playful but didn’t leave their mothers side. The show began with us watching the huskies get hooked to the sled and proceeding to pull it around the track. It was very apparent that the dogs were pleased when they were allowed to run and pull the sled. The ranger who was riding stopped the sled in front of us to explain the history of dog sleds in Denali Park. My favorite was that snowmobiles do not run in the cold temperatures experienced in the park, so rangers still use dog sleds to patrol in the winter. I imagine it is quite a cool sight to be passed by a ranger on a dog sled during this day-and-age.

After the dog sled presentation, we hopped onto the bus to get to our backcountry cabin. The six-hour ride was full of excitement. The landscape had rolling hills speckled with kettle ponds carved by the Alaskan glaciers. There were mountains in the distance, and eventually Mt. McKinley (or Denali as the natives called it) came into view. The huge mountain was lost in the clouds, but it had a 30-mile long glacier extending from its peak all the way down to our roadside, a stunning sight.

In addition to the beautiful scenery, wildlife abounded in the park. There was a fox, caribou, and several moose, but the coolest animals were the two grizzly bears. The second grizzly we saw was blonde with a dark undercoat. It was young and paid no attention to us as it munched away on clumps of grass just outside my window. As the bear slowly meandered down the shoulder of the road, our driver slowly pulled the bus ahead so we could watch the beautiful animal. It was thick and looked very powerful. I was glad to have the protection of the bus around me in spite of my lifelong desire to pet a wild bear. In time, our driver sped up and began taking us once again to our destination.  When we arrived at our backcountry lodgings, we found a beautiful community of cabins along a stream. We were greeted with a superb three-course dinner that included both fish and meat options.

As soon as dinner was over, my brother and I shot out of the dining room to do our first hike of the week. We planned to take an off-trail hike to the top of the nearest peak. An elevation gain of about 800-1200 feet. After rock-hopping across the stream, we began our ascent. The brush was high and thick, but we had a blast working our way through. It was the first time my brother and I have done something like this together and we were very excited. However, the further we went up, the thicker the enfemerae of mosquitoes became. When we had completed approximately half of our ascent, the mosquitoes were so thick I would kill 3-5 per swat. I have never been in such a thick cloud of mosquitoes – even our 99% deet bug spray didn’t keep them off of us. A summit would have been possible, but the mosquitoes truly took all the fun out of the climb. We decided to turn around. Back at camp we learned that the world record of 17 mosquitoes killed in one swat was set at a lake three miles from where we were. Neither of us were surprised. We were also told that a young, weakened caribou could be killed in one night from loss of blood due to mosquito bites. Having experienced the onslaught of mosquitoes on our hike, I again was not all too surprised

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Whittier Alaska – Day 7 (Friday)

An early morning drive led us through a long tunnel to the town of Whittier. This small town, with its military bunker that has sat dormant since the Cold War ended was one ferris wheel short of looking like Cherynoble. The marina across the street, however, told a very different story. It was hopping with activity and cast a beautiful view of the green-blue waters and snowcapped mountains.

Once our boat was loaded and in the water, we began seeing one amazing sight after another. Our purpose for the trip was to explore Prince William Sound and hopefully find a bear for dinner. My friend had packed his 30-06 and gave me the .44 magnum in case I needed it at any point. Bear are extremely dangerous and we were not taking any chances.

As we glided across the frigid waters in our boat, we came across a series of cascading waterfalls that split apart and regrouped as they ran down the mountainside. There were hundreds of seagulls flying around white-speckled rocks that the waterfalls ran around. It wasn’t until we got closer that I could see everything that was really going on. Each of those hundreds of white dots on the rocks was also a seagull. It was the largest flock of birds I have ever seen it real life and it was amazing.

Later in the day, we came upon beautiful glaciers. As we navigated our boat between ice-floats to get a better view, we noticed the rocks on the ice-floats in the distance were moving. Upon closer inspection, we found that those “moving rocks” were actually dozens of sea otters playing around on the ice and surrounding water. Soon enough, they began popping up closer to our boat and inspecting us with curious eyes. They were quite a sight to see.

The glaciers, which looked like a massive rush of water frozen in time between the mountains, glowed with a bright blue hue. They were massive and seemed timeless. We were weary of getting too close to them for they were dangerous and were were already needing to navigate rather large ice floats. We couldn’t believe the beauty of this secluded place. It is amazing how beauty exists that is so rarely viewed by man.

Once we left the ice floats for safer waters, we beached the boat for lunch. After we ate, we explored and found a sea otter den whose entrance was littered with broken shells. It was a beautiful view from where we stood, and we enjoyed it before working our way back down towards the beach.

As we continued our search for a bear, we motored in-and-out of various coves until we found an old ferry which had washed up on shore years ago. It was rusting out and little more than a skeleton remained in some places. Sensing adventure, we began to explore the damaged hull, being careful where we placed each step. The carcass of the old fairy was filled with mystery, but knowing we needed to get the boat back off the beach before the tide would leave it high-and–dry, we discontinued out investigations and headed back home.

We didn’t get the bear so we went home and cooked moose-hotdogs from last season’s kill. They were very tasty and reminded the others of their successful moose-hunt a little while previous.

 
 

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Bald Eagles Everywhere – Alaska Day 2 (Sunday)

When we awoke, we ate a delicious breakfast of crepes before jumping into the pickup to take our kayaks to Cooper Lake. The road was gravel and eventually proved impossible to pass. The snow was very deep in places and without cell phone coverage we did not want to try to plow through. Instead, we hiked down a stream until we reached the lake. The view was superb. We stayed on that shore for some time, enjoying the view while skipping stones into the lake.

A while later, we drove to the Russian River Trail and walked about two miles down a gravel path to see a large Class V rapid. The rapid was quite impressive and made up for the uninteresting trail. We didn’t want to return the same way we had come, so we opted to take the alternative trail back. The trail was noted as un-kept and “not passable in areas.” We quickly found out just what that meant.

The trail followed the river, which had unseasonably high waters. The river was so high, in fact, that much of the trail was submerged and therefore nonexistent. We were going to have to bush-whack our way back to a road. We fought our way through branches and thorn bushes, traversed rock faces over the river, and kept a keen eye out for bear. We had seen scat and plenty of prints along the few usable sections of trail. One print was estimated to be six or seven inches wide! Though there were bear in the area, we were not too concerned because we were in a group of three and had a .44 magnum revolver at the ready.

After getting many scratches and scrapes, and with quite tired bodies, we finally found the road. We were glad to be finished, but had also enjoyed every step we had taken. It was a wonderful day, spent mostly off-trail in the Alaskan mountains. We drove the 100-mile stretch of road back to my friend’s home and enjoyed the beauty of the ride. There were two moose grazing in a marsh on the inland side of the road and on the bay-side were more bald eagles than I had ever imagined could be seen in one place. The tide was low and the eagles landed on the newly uncovered sediment and rocks along the bay. I stopped after counting 15 Bald Eagles  in five minutes of driving. Alaska is so natural and wild. It is a place unlike any other I have ever visited.

 
 

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Where The Sun Never Set – Alaska Day 1 (Saturday)

A carving I made for my then soon-to-be Fiance

26 May 2012

Alaska had a long winter this year. Many of the mountains are still covered in snow, with avalanche shoots running down to the large lakes of snow run-off. Some roads are still unusable due to the depths of the snow covering them, but the main roads are clear and the weather is moderately warm. The mountainsides are covered with splashes of dark green from the evergreens and lighter greens from the new growth.

My first morning began with a trip to REI where I found a camping stove on the discount rack. It was a returned item but functioned very well and had a price that couldn’t be turned down. After REI, we went to do yard-work (I was staying with a friend from school, and I was helping him with his summer day-job while I was up there) for the remainder of the morning. At the last house, a moose crossed the street behind us as we parked the car. I was excited, but quickly found out they are common in Alaska, like deer in Michigan.

After the yard-work, we left town to spend the night in a cabin. The 100-mile drive to the cabin was described as one of the most beautiful drives in America. To our left were train-tracks and a mountain side that was truncated by the clouds; to our right was a bay with snow-covered mountains beyond them. I couldn’t believe the beauty before me. I saw a second moose on the way to this drive and watched as locals used dip-nets to fish for the hooligan that were running.

When we finally reached the cabin, I was introduced to a whole group of people that were already there enjoying their weekend away. We conversed with them for the evening and enjoyed the beautiful view while sitting around a fire. I carved a picture of the view into a piece of wood and enjoyed conversation with my new friends. The night grew late, but the sun never set. At midnight it was still just as light outside as it was at noon. I enjoyed the persistent daylight, but my body was certainly confused by it.

 

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Death is always near – Alaska Day 3 (Monday)

The day began with another trip to REI to check what new items may have found their way onto the returned-items discount rack on the last day of the big sale. Just as we arrived, a cart came out to restock the shelves. A 2-person Eno hammock for $20 was the most appealing of the bunch, but I already owned a 2-person hammock and had no need. We sifted through the surprise items but found nothing we couldn’t pass-up. We then moved on to mowing the one lawn we needed to mow before we could hike.

Me with Anchorage in the background

Our hike was an ascent of not more than 2,000 feet to the top of Flat-Top, Anchorage’s most-summited peak. It was a beautiful view but there were far too many people on the trail. Clouds were coming in quickly and the wind was only getting stronger as we went higher, so we kept a brisk pace to ensure sufficient time to summit in nice weather. The summit boasted a beautiful view of Anchorage and the bay on one side, and the mountain-range on the other. I nearly snapped a picture of a bald eagle with the mountains as a backdrop, but he flew too fast and I could not get to my camera quickly enough.

As we enjoyed the view, the cold wind began to get the better of us and we decided to head back down. The first 100 feet were a sketchy mix of ice and rock. I knew we would be fine, but there were many others around, which made me a bit nervous. Just like driving on the road, it is typically the other drivers one needs to be most worried about. After carefully picking my way down the very icy first few moves, I was perched on a small rock with my friend only inches from a 15-foot drop onto a large rock, and then down a very, very steep and long icy avalanche chute that led directly into a pile of sharp rocks a few hundred feet below. I was firmly planted in my position and am quite accustomed to situations like this where I must be very careful about my movements because a mistake can have deadly consequences. I soon realized, however, that this time was different. I was surrounded by people, rather than doing this on a remote trail where I am the only one who could make a mistake.

I crouched to lower my center of gravity, and grabbed tight to a rock in case of being bumped by one of the people coming up who we were letting pass. The very moment my hand tightened on the rock, I heard a rushing sound and felt a woman plow into me, nearly knocking me off the edge. She hadn’t waited above where she should have, but instead began climbing down towards us – where there was no room to spare. She lost her footing and slid down about ten feet before hitting me with all her force. I thanked God for the urge to take extra precaution in a situation I never had before, and I made her go down the mountain ahead of us. One close-call was enough. I sat down for a moment and pondered how close I had come to death once again. It always seems to happen when the situation is just safe enough for one to think they can let their guard down. Its a good thing I don’t let that happen.

When we reached a less sketchy section of the mountain-side, we watched as others jumped onto the icy snow and rode it down about a hundred feet before digging in their heels to stop before the snow ended and the rocks began. After multiple inexperienced people had gone down the same chute without hitting rocks or losing control, we opted to take this fun short-cut down the mountain. The ride was quite a rush, due in part to the element of danger, but we ended up just fine. Our hands and faces were numb from the snow which was so icy it reminded me of a giant snowcone, but we were having a blast.

When we finally returned to the jeep, we ate peanut M&M’s (an essential for any hike) on our way back to the house. Once there, we enjoyed a barbecue with the neighbors and heard about the mother moose and two baby moose that had come to the house while we were out. It is so cool how many animals we come in contact with here. I wonder what it used to be like in the continental 48 before the human population got out-of-check.

 

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Drinking Goodbye to Friends – Costa Rica day 22

We awoke for a day on the beaches of Costa Rica. The group spent the morning helping the government-employed workers tend the ground where we stayed. We picked up the debris that had fallen from trees and tore down the turtle sanctuary for the season. The last nest has hatched that morning and the sand needed to drift around and re-organize the nutrients before the next season’s horde of turtles would come to lay their eggs.

Everyone enjoyed releasing baby turtles one last time at Playa Hermosa. It was the third nest to have hatched while we were there. While the turtles struggled through the sand, everyone picked the turtle they thought would be fastest. We cheered and bantered over whose was best. Mine did well, but it didn’t pick the quickest path to the water.

A sudden bit of excitement beckoned me over to a group that was forming around a student. I rushed over to see what the commotion was all about and found a very large starfish in one of the guy’s hands. It had bright orange legs that were feeling around in all directions. It was beautiful. After everyone had a look, it was returned safely to the water.

The day was spent hanging out, playing soccer and football on the beach and trying to catch waves in the bad surfing conditions. After playing some football, I waxed my board and paddled out between sets. I waited a long time before finally finding a wave worth riding, but when it came, I hit it and got everything I could from it. I did this several times before the sun had crossed the sky and began to set.I had been surfing for hours and only found a few waves, but I didn’t care. I was moving with the warm ocean waters rather than shivering in a jacket as I would be 24 hours later. I didn’t let myself take any of this for granted.

When the sun was low in the sky, the other surfers and I caught our last waves back to shore and rejoined our respective sub-groups who we had been with for the last weeks. In the groups, we discussed the experiences we had and shared what we appreciated about each person. It was very nice to hear the uplifting talk and each person was affirmed for his or her contributions to the group.

When the meeting was over, we were taken to a restaurant to eat wonderfully prepared meal and taste the only alcohol we were allowed on the trip. Those of us who indulged were faced with a choice between Pilsen or Imperial Beer. I chose Imperial after a suggestion from one of the guides, but after trying a sip of each, I determined Pilsen to be the better brew. After weeks of sweating and being grungy much of the time, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to sit in a restaurant with clean clothes and enjoy my Cajun mahi-mahi and beer.

I found myself enjoying the company of friends in a paradise I knew would not last and I was in the best mood I have been in for as long as I can remember. It was a magnificent feeling. I knew I would not see the guides again unless there was a very fortunate turn of events. As I drank my beer, I felt like I was drinking goodbye to friends.

After dinner, the group went back to the beach at Playa Hermosa. We gathered in the sand and were given a show of Fire Poi by one of our members. It was beautiful to watch the fiery orbs dance around our member’s head while hearing the whoosh of the fast-moving flame. It put me in a trance.

When the show concluded, Felipe’s daughter of 6 years wanted some attention of her own. With a headlamp in each hand, she danced around and twirled the lights while performing her own dance. Everyone applauded for the adorable girl and watched as her face lit up from the attention.

Once the show was over, everyone began to prepare for bed. My group members and I walked down to the water to dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean one last time. We would be leaving early in the morning and would not get to touch the ocean again before we left. The water was warm and everyone was happy enjoying their last bit of paradise before heading home in the morning. I went back to camp and crawled into my hammock to sleep in the warm Costa Rican air.

 

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Releasing Baby Sea Turtles and Surfing – Costa Rica day 21

Shortly after lying down in my hammock, a hard rain began to fall. I quickly rolled out of my hammock and threw my belongings sloppily into one of the tents that had room for an additional guy. Everyone scrambled to put the rain flies on the tents because we had chosen to sleep without them during the trip due to in the Costa Rican heat.

Around 5:00 AM came the almost daily interruption of our morning. This time, however, it was not a rooster, goose, or other fowl, but rather a new bird with a far more annoying call than any had previously made. It literally made the Dolby Surround Sound warm-up noise repeatedly for the entire morning. We were not amused.

Upon leaving our tents in the morning, we were greeted with a wonderful surprise. In the night, one of the turtle nests had hatched in the sanctuary and we were going to release them before breakfast.

A full bucket of baby sea turtles (they were carefully places in their by a man with a glove on) was brought to the beach and the turtles were poured out in a line on the sand. Some had not yet woken up from their slumber and were put back in the bucket so they could be released later that day when they become conscious. The rest began their long journey down the beach with us protecting them from the birds.

We had to release the turtles high on the beach because their journey across the beach is crucial for them to be able to return to this specific beach in order to lay eggs in successive years (The turtles have glands that learn the exact sand composition of the beach and the turtle will return to the same beach for the entirety of their life).

When all of the baby turtles had made their struggle into the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean, I took a walk down the beach. I was amazed at the variety of shells and lack of trash on the beach. It was so clean and natural looking.

Eventually, I wandered back to our camp for breakfast. The waves were not yet sufficient for surfing, so everyone helped do community service around the grounds where we stayed. Some helped with the turtle hatchery while others removed debris from the ground. Coconuts were thrown into the jungle and fallen branches stacked at the edge of the jungle.

When the waves had built enough for surfing, everyone went to the storage room and grabbed boards. Since I had previous experience surfing and have done nearly every board-sport imaginable, I was permitted to forego the padded noob boards and take a hard board. The instructor was really cool about this and took time to teach me how to properly wax a surf board and what to look for should I ever be in the market to purchase one.

After waxing my board, I joined the others in the surf and began catching waves.  I found the board to be a lot of fun and began practicing my turns. It was challenging, but I was successful in making a few turns and was happy with the speed at which I was picking up the sport. I don’t know what it is with myself and water sports, but we just work well together.

Consumed by hunger, we took a break from the waves and went in for lunch. We had fresh pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, coconut, and sandwiches. It was healthy, filling, and delectable. Everyone left the meal with full stomachs and bodies tired from surfing (which is a lot more work that it appears to be!).

I went and laid in my hammock while the rest of the group grabbed their sleeping mats and lay in the shade around me. It was siesta time as the afternoon sun turned the sand too hot to stand. Several members of the group talked and laughed quite loudly, so none slept, but it sure was nice to rest in such a warm beautiful place. It was 88 degrees in the shade with a light breeze. Life could not be better.

Eventually, the group grabbed their boards, I grabbed mine, and together we headed down to the water. We surfed non-stop for hours. As the gigantic sun began to drown into the aquatic horizon, it painted the canvas of the sky a luminescent watercolor of every pink and purple hue imaginable.

Having paddled myself beyond the breakers, I laid half-submerged with my back atop my surfboard in order to watch as the glowing bauble in the sky sank below the horizon. I had never seen the sun so large. Viewing it from a surfboard that was gently bobbing in the warm, Pacific Ocean water made it an unbeatable experience. I found myself having one of the few moments of my life that stand above the rest. Life was pure – Pura Vida.

Upon returning to the beach, we were informed that the other group from our college would be arriving soon. We were all a little nervous as our group had formed a very tranquil atmosphere and the other group was much louder and outspoken. Their arrival, with shouts and song that could be heard from far down the road only made us more nervous. Fortunately their energy did not stay too high for very long and the two groups quickly blended together as they had in the first day of the trip.

Later that evening, everyone was asked to sign up for a one-hour shift watching and protecting the turtle nests during the night. I signed up with a girl whom I had been friends with for a long time but rarely spoke to outside the trip. We got along very well and had many things in common. It was fun to sit and catch up on the last few years where we had been near to one another, but so few words were exchanged.

While everyone got ready to go to bed, our surf instructor broke out his guitar and began to serenade the camp in his Costa Rican accent. He was a well built man with dark complexion and gnarly dreads. The girls all melted when he played “Banana Pancakes” by Jack Johnson, but I rather preferred his renditions of “Jammin” by Bob Marley and “The General” by Dispatch.

I quickly fell asleep because I had essentially been up since 5:00 AM thanks to the Dolby-Surround-Sound-bird and had signed up for a turtle-watch shift in the middle of the night. My hammock was comfortable and I was happy to be in it again (if only for a while).

 

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