Saturday, September 29, 2007

Caribou on the hoof

Driving back from our state B&B association convention in Homer, I got to see my first herd of caribou in the wild! I’ve gone up the Haul Road before in September, wanting to see the caribou migrating, whole hillsides covered with hundreds of the animals. On those trips, I’ve missed them, but now at the end of Sept. 2007 I got to see them just about a hundred miles from home.

I was just south of Soldotna last week and noticed something in a marshy field. I thought, bee hives? old wood pallets or junk? And just then I saw the flash of a butt jumping across the road in front of the car in front of me. Our two vehicles and the oncoming car were able to stop easily, and we all sat on the highway and watched as the last one leapt off to join the others. I’m not sure if what I saw qualifies as a herd. It was probably 14-16 animals total, about 3-4 bulls that I could make out. I see why I thought they looked like wood boxes—not only is their color grey-dun right now, but with their heads down grazing, they’re much more “square” from the side view than a moose is. A moose looks a lot more like a dark colored wine barrel on tall stilts from the side.

Something spooked the caribou, and they all sprang forward about 20 yards, then turned and looked. The moose in my yard don’t startle like that—they slowly raise their head from grazing and stare at whatever has entered their space, usually my husky Little Girl. The moose’s look says, “What? You think you’re gonna scare me? You’re just a little 50 pound dog!” It seemed the caribou bulls were on guard and gave the all clear to go back to browsing.

A car crested the hill behind us, coming our way, so it was time to get moving. The Sterling Highway to Homer is kind of busy, so we were only able to sit parked in the middle of the road for a few minutes. On my recent trip to Whitehorse (in the YT, Canada), the longest I went without seeing a car was 40 minutes as I drove there. That length of time is closing up. When I first drove the Alcan in 1996, it was still common to have one or two hours between seeing a next car.

Friday, September 21, 2007

More on the Road Trip to Whitehorse

• Does YOUR state have milemarkers that are 4 digits? What a rare and wonderful thing, to have a highway spread out before me, more than a thousand miles in length. Yeah, some of the interstates in the Lower 48 add up to more than a thousand miles, but you have to start over at each state border with the mile markers.

• On my 13 hour drive to Whitehorse, there were about 6 hours of driving when I had no radio stations. It was a delight to get far enough into the Yukon to pick up a CBC station and hear Barbara Budd say “This is ‘As It Happens.’” The areas without radio have shrunk since I first drove the Alcan, but I still got to see the sign that says Now Leaving the Emergency Services Corridor. After that point, if something happens to you, you’re on your own. Limited local budgets can’t afford to send ambulances hundreds of miles out. That’s why it’s still a law in Alaska that travelers must stop on the highway and render aid if needed. If a car breaks down or there’s any sort of emergency, no matter what time of year it is, it could become life-threatening if any passing vehicle wasn’t expected to stop and help.

• I’m too cheap to get a decent cell phone plan. It makes me drool to watch all those mean ads on TV where Jamie Lee Curtis is showing off the latest phone with a $29,99 plan on Verizon or whoever. Those carriers don’t offer plans to us who live in Alaska. Sometimes your phone will work up here, but if we say we live here, we can’t sign up for that company. Alaska plans are so much more expensive than the national plans available in the Lower 48 since we have so few people to spread the cost to. I had a great $19,99 AT&T 1,000 free long distance minutes plan when I lived in Minnesota. Now I’m lucky to have a $39.99 plan with 500 free long distance minutes through Alaska Digitel. I discovered shortly after signing the two-year contract with them that I couldn’t actually get reception at my house, squarely between Palmer and Wasilla on a high hill. For two years I heard that they were building new towers as we spoke. A month after I was able to leave that company, I suddenly could talk inside my house, without having to walk down the driveway 200 yards to not lose a call, so I decided to stay with them because they are the least miserable choice. I’m supposed to have an “All Alaska” plan. I couldn’t figure out why no one was calling me on that trip to Whitehorse as I drove across Alaska on the way there and back. On my return, I was only four miles outside of Palmer when my phone “came to life again” and alerted me that I had voice mails—42 of them, from the past four days.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

International Weekend Road Trip

I had the honor of being invited to address the B&B Association of the Yukon’s first ever convention, held in Whitehorse. They were hoping the president of the B&B Association of Alaska could attend. He couldn’t go, so I (a BBAA board member) went to answer questions about B&Bs in Alaska and how our situations might differ. I had been wanting to get away and have an old-fashioned road trip at the end of my busy-busy summer season, to celebrate what had been a very good year at my B&B, to touch base again with my proud history of long road trips, that part of myself that earned my title of Road Trip Goddess in my friend Jim’s blog as Road Guy on http://www.startribune.com.

The last time I drove the Alcan was December, 2002, when I was moving to Alaska. I knew that it was possible to drive from Palmer to Whitehorse in one day—was it eight hours or ten hours? That’d work for me. My husky Little Girl would need to go with, too, because my usual dog-sitters weren’t available. The two of us set off with a bag of road food (stuff I don’t allow myself to keep at home: Cheetos, Ruffles, chocolate bars, and then ham, cheese, baby carrots and apples also), emergency cold weather clothing and sleeping bag, and extra water. I had had the studded tires put on, not knowing if we would encounter snow this third week of September.

The day we drove to Whitehorse was gorgeous, gorgeous. It was peak leaf season; the birches were gold-yellow, the spruce green, and the ground cover turned to scarlet and cranberry red. We’d recently started to get fresh snow up top on the mountains, so the scenery couldn’t have been any prettier.

“Traffic” was thicker than I remembered. There was usually a car or two within sight. In several places, massive road construction projects were cutting through mountains and bridging gaps where to this point we’ve had to drive down a mountain, around sharp curves, over a narrow bridge, then zig zagging back up the next mountain. I’ve thought so often before about how vulnerable we are up here, with just one road out of the state, be it terrorism or more likely, a natural disaster that could easily take out a bridge or tear up a length of road…You see a simple little bridge at the end of a windy 30 mph switchback, and think, really? This is the only way in or out by road? (There is also a road and border crossing by Dawson City, but it’s much more rugged than the Alcan).

I crossed paths with not just a few U-Hauls driving north. The influx of new people moving into Alaska is palpable. In our Valley, we know that every week 10 new families move in. The Alaskan economy, and specifically in our area, is on fire, and continues to be while economic indicators in the Lower 48 sputter and slow. There’s so much opportunity available. And this is even before we get going on the next natural gas line. So much is being built, formed, started, and developed. We’re still working on infrastructure, basic businesses, and laws citizens in the Lower 48 take for granted. While most Americans scoff at “Bridges to Nowhere,” ninety-nine percent have no idea what this place is, how vast it is, and how little infrastructure exists. It’s easy to forget, but large numbers of white folks living in Alaska is still a very new phenomena. Even in the Pipeline days of the mid-1970s, Anchorage was just reaching 100,000 people and the rest of the state was very sparsely populated. It’s basically just in the past 25 years that relatively large numbers of people finally showed up here and started to build the state.

Looking up at the mountains around me, driving through the gap north of Palmer, and along the stunning mountains to the south of the road on the way towards Glenallen, you can see how much Alaska is still in the middle of “becoming” a place. Dr. David, the geologist who stays at my place each summer, points to the Talkeetna and Chugach mountain ranges around my B&B and explains which ones are lifting, shifting, sinking or otherwise scooting around. On the long descent into Glenallen, travelers are treated with magnificent views of Mt. Sanford in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Wrangell St. Elias is home to 13 of the 20 highest peaks in North America, most of them teeners, well over 12,000 and 13,000 feet each. I spent the next several hours driving along-side then around Wrangell St. Elias N.P. It is fully larger than six of our U.S. States.

David takes a grad student and hikes out into the Talkeetna mountains, following notes in a gold miner’s journal from one hundred years ago, to find outcroppings of fossils that the miner mentioned as a landmark on the way to his gold find. David has brought back to sort out on my patio furniture rocks showing trees and bugs which point to Alaska having been a much warmer climate.

It’s funny, the misconceptions even we Alaskans have about living in the north, largely because most of us grew up in the Lower 48, taking elementary school science classes that told us the arctic was cold and inhospitable to humans. David says the area where I live used to be covered in maple trees, palm trees, ferns, orchids, and other plants that love warm or wet climates.

At this BBAY conference, I sat next to a couple who run an organic farm and inn outside of Whitehorse. We talked about what they grow, and they were surprised to hear that I grow apples, and my town of Palmer was started as a farm colony. To them, Alaska is far to the north and surely must be very cold, impossible to grow crops. They had a hard time believing that my Matanuska Valley could be so temperate and warm, since it feels the ocean influence south of us by Anchorage and is sheltered by mountains on the north and east. I’m sure it sounds funny to most of you reading this. When you think of the Yukon, you probably conjure up visions of Jack London characters mushing dogs through the snow to the gold fields, and here my new friends in Whitehorse assumed that they were temperate and that Alaska must be so much colder, based largely on latitude.

When I first drove the Alcan in 1996, there was a sign by the highway near Whitehorse that said that property would one day be home to a new Beringia Interpretive Centre, showcasing fossil finds of mammoths and dinosaurs. When I came through Whitehorse the next time as I was moving to Whitehorse, the museum was there but not open in December. This was the trip—I’d finally get to visit this place http://www.beringia.com/01/01maina.html.

If you’re driving through, you have to stop here. It completely blows out of the water our notions of what the history of these frozen places has been. Did you ever hear the one about how there was a frozen land bridge of ice between Siberia and Alaska, and that’s how North America (and maybe South America) was populated, with people and critters coming over that “bridge” of ice? Turns out we were way off on that! That theory posits the notion that this corner of the arctic was at that point, or always was, covered in ice. Everything now points to different periods of very warm warms and very cold colds, huge swings in climate over the centuries or millennia, perhaps as cycles or perhaps due to cataclysmic events.

It all started to make sense as I wandered among their displays. Part of the newer thoughts about the land bridge is that so much of the earth’s moisture was locked up in ice at the poles that the oceans were much more shallow. The oceans are already quite shallow through the Bering Straits. When you drop the ocean a couple hundred feet through there, indeed there would be exposed a nice dry several-hundred-mile swath of dry, grassy land over which you could migrate to North America.

The critter fossils all point to very different ecosystems in these areas over the years. Wild horses, beavers the size of large hogs, bears, and lions roamed vast and lush grasslands. I recalled that on several places during my drive, I saw hillsides that had been cut through for the road where the hillsides and rocks were white like a calcium or chalk. Over the years, that’s been the place on the Alcan to leave messages by taking darker rocks and shaping letters, most of them the name of the passerby and a lot of declarations of “I heart ____.” Could it be that these white rocks are the remnants of former inland sea beds?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Short Hop Over the Pond

I’m hoping someday to make friends with a private pilot here in Alaska. I would love to fly to Nome, then off the coast towards Siberia. I’ve heard that in Alaska, private pilots can fly to Siberia without any visas or major international issues, because so many native families have long-standing ties on each side. It’s only since Alaska was purchased by the U.S. that it was added to the Western Hemisphere. The divider between Eastern and Western Hemisphere is the International Dateline, and until recently history, Alaska used to be in “yesterday,” with the date line going along the Western edge of Canada. Indeed, the land of Alaska used to be part of Russia, and thus the far Eastern side of the world. We used to be the first point on earth to see the light of day, and now we are nearly the last. Now that the dateline has been moved, we are followed in sunset only by Hawaii (+1) and the Samoans and Pacific Islanders (+2 and +3), before you hit the “zero” mark.