4x4s and Freedom to Leave

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When I moved to Alaska, I let myself believe this move was temporary.  In all honesty, it still remains so in my head.  Think about it like a car — you buy it and love it but you also know that it will wear down and better cars will be out there for you — the question is when will getting a new car make sense, and what would it be like.  Truth of the matter is that I didn’t really have the option to think about moving from Alaska, but a date is coming soon that will open up that possibility.

The only way I was able to move to Alaska was to do so on the back of a significant relocation package I got from BP Exploration – Alaska (BPXA).  By significant, I mean SIIIIIGGG-NIIIFFFFF-IIIIII-CAAANNNTTT.  Part of the deal that comes with such a package is that if I was to leave the company on my own accord, I would immediately be required to repay that package in full.  And by in full, I mean INNN FFUUUULLLLLLLLLLLL.  Let’s just say, that ain’t going to happen.  That being said, once I reached my 2 year anniversary of working at BPXA I am no longer obligated to repay anything in that package.  So quite literally I go from being chained down to the position, to free to do what I want from there.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been looking and considering.  Some pretty special opportunities would grab me away in a second, and some location would be great to go to, but at this point I am not targeting anything.  I am far from happy with my job & job climate, but life in Alaska & Anchorage (at least over the last few months) is all I could hope for … maybe if it was easier to judge marching bands it would be better, but that would be the caramel sauce on the ice cream.

In the meantime, however, I am challenged with a number of in between decision making.  The more things I get myself into up here, the more I wonder if I could translate them to other locations if I were to move.  I find myself searching locations of curling clubs around the country, or dog friendly beaches, or places where hot women have really low expectations out of guys (ok, I search for that up here too, but not the point).

This week, though, I realized I was walking a line that could quite literally be the moment when I say — I am sticking with the 49th State for a while.

I was looking at 4×4 vehicles.

Here’s the thing.  You don’t need 4×4 trucks, cars, SUVs to live up in Alaska, but it’s like saying you don’t have to go swimming to enjoy the beach — sure you can do it, but you cut out some options, and they could be the coolest options.  I COULD move to somewhere that a 4×4 is just as in-need, but I will bet you none of those places are as great as Alaska.  Anyplace where I would want to go needs a 4×4 as much as they need a parka for cold weather.

When I first moved up here, I had a list of things in my head that said: “If ____ happens, I will stay here for a long long time.”  As I was looking for those 4x4s I started to realize that it was going to be on that list – even though my list had a lot of other things (that you would never mistake for a car) — and the fact that I was getting a little serious about it made me wonder how serious I was about staying.

So, mark your calenders and watch your roads.  Come my 2 year anniversary (August 6th for those keeping score at home), I will be free.  Question then will be – does opening the cage mean the bear will run off.

Valdez & the Paradise Tax

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One thing I won’t let get passed me from this past weekend is a little info about a town I have been Bear Feeding about for a while.  Valdez.  This jewel on Prince William Sound is in some ways the iconic Alaska Seaside town, some ways the extreme Alaskan Seaside town, and someways the most tragic Alaskan Seaside town.  It is a piece of Alaskan Paradise whose tax is sometimes felt more grimly than financially.

Valdez’s ice-free port – the furthest north ice-free port in North America – pours into the Pacific Ocean on the American side of the Kenai.  This makes it a perfect hub for cargo, and is a big reason the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline terminates there where tankers refill North Slope Crude Oil for refining in the Lower 48.  During the summer, it is a fisherman’s wonderland.  Commercial fishermen can pull massive amount of halibut, salmon, and cod from the waters only a day’s ride out from port; while sports fisherman can bag their limits while not even leaving the bay for open waters.

It’s surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, the same mountain range that butts up to East Anchorage.  Much of the topography was carved during the last ice age as massive glaciers cut valleys to the peaks that still tower thousands of feet high above the city on either side.  You are literally surrounded by these green and snow covered peaks that funnel cool ocean winds through the bay.  Any gap in the mountains is filled by a glacial fed stream, a waterfall, or even if you go in deep enough large snow covered glaciers.

Valdez is also quite isolated, connected only by a single roadway through a narrow waterfall filled canyon and up over Thompson Pass at 3,000 feet in a route that can be many times blocked either by snow, fog, avalanche, or wandering moose.That being said, the drive up to, over, and down Thompson Pass is up there with the great drives in the world.  You never get long enough to enjoy a glacier, a waterfall, a high mountain field, a cold water lake, or a sharp edged valley long enough until the next one comes into view to amaze you even further.

Yet with all the beauty and amazement that this town can offer, every bit of its history is filled with tragedy or hardship.

If you remember the Damalanche (see this link) from January, it blocked that section of road with over 50 feet of snow and dammed up a river so almost a half mile of road was under water.  We could still see road damage, and what’s left of the damalanch from our drive through.  As difficult it made the winter in Valdez, this is closer to the norm that the exception.  Valdez is snowiest city in North America.  The average snowfall is 500-600 inches a year.  To put that in perspective, that is the annual snowfall for Vail, Jackson Hole, and Tahoe – combined.  It is in first place in North America, and has 2nd Place beat half a season.  We were there on May 24th and there was a two story snow pile in a parking lot — and this wasn’t new snow, this is what was still left from melting.  This is what “Average” hardship is in Valdez.

What isn’t average is what happened on March 24, 1989.  Leaving the pipeline terminal, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground just 25 miles from town.  It left most of the Sound saturated with over 11 million barrels of crude and killing countless marine life.  The city was the epicenter of the clean-up that lasted years and cost billions.  The area is mostly recovered, but throughout the city you can see remnants of anger. hostility, and dissatisfaction over the disaster.  While that was devastating, it wasn’t the worst that Valdez had to face.

The 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake not only shook Anchorage and tore up a large swath of the city, it nearly wiped out all of Valdez.  In fact, it did to some extent.  Valdez was first built as the main jumping off point to an “all-American route to the Yukon”.  At the time, the best way to get to gold fields was to cross over the Valdez glacier, and the closest place to put a dock & a city was where the glacier’s Valdez River empties out.  These areas, however, are very unstable as the bedrock is covered by gravel and silt.  Just before the Earthquake, the SS Chena supply ship docked and began unloading goods.  Since the ship’s cook was known for throwing candy out to the kids who came dockside, it was filled with knowledgeable little ones as well as parents and young adults more than happy to get some free candy themselves.   When the earthquake happened, the land under the docks slid out into the bay like a mudslide down a hill.  The dock simply washed away and was chewed up in the sinking gravel.  While there were over a thousand residents in town at the time of the earthquake, no one in town was killed – however, all 32 people who were on the dock was killed, most of which were never found.  The devastation by the land liquification was so great the city was all but condemned.  Rather than give up, Valdez moved.  An area on hard bedrock six miles away, but still on the bay, became the new town site.  The town lives on, but is in every way possible, not the same.

If there really is a paradise tax, then Valdez has payed it, many times over.  Though the real beauty of this town is one that suggests hardship will come again.  Though it’s pretty clear that a city like can almost be worth the hardship.  Few places in Alaska can be as beautiful, as peaceful, or as stunning as Valdez is.  That’s what makes being here worth it.

Jamming it all into a weekend

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A sad realization of this blogging life and one of the more frustrating things to keep it going is the way life doesn’t smooth out experiences like a nice pat of butter on a hot slice of toast.  It’s more like a frozen pat of butter on cold toast as it clumps, tears, and breaks in pieces.  Most the time, when I realize I need to update all you Bear Feeders of life in Alaska, I basically have nothing more to talk about than the weather or a dog.  Then blammo, a weekend like this past one happens, when there is so much about Alaska to share but — for one, I am too busy experiencing it to stop, pull out a lap top, and make jokes about my dog — and for two, its a long way between places up here, and its not safe to blog & drive.

So let me at least try to summarize the weekend here, and leave the door open to retelling portions of the story where it really needs to be expanded upon.

For starters – if you haven’t it’s good to take a look at a couple posts from last week – because this is basically a continuation of “Into the Great Undecided” and will tie back to “Where There’s Smoke (or Not Funny Ha Ha)”.  Also, the first installment for the weekend came out yesterday with “McCarthy, AK – Something Special”.  It’s also important to know that a week ago I came down with a cold – and as much as I hoped, I still carried a rough cough and sore throat through the weekend.  My co-camper, Laura Sherman, would be heading off for a weekend of camping with our dogs – namely me and Auggie, and her with Farley & Puck.

The plan, as it was FINALLY decided the Thursday night, and they re-re-decided Friday morning, was that we would head out to Valdez, find a campsite, then spend the weekend there doing … well … we’d figure that out when we get there.  Both of us had to be back Monday night, had our tents, had packed enough for cold & wet weather, and had what we needed for campouts and cook outs.

Our arrival in Valdez was fairly late.  It’s 300 miles and 6 hours to Valdez from Anchorage, and that makes a late night when you work all day like I did.  The campsite we found (actually it was an RV lot that we ‘accidentally put tents up in’) was on the small boat harbor near downtown Valdez.  Coming in late, meant we basically put the dogs in the car and went downtown for dinner.  Which became drinks.  Which became – falling upon the bar laws of Valdez which only required bars to be closed from 5AM to 8AM — and strangely enough, allowed smoking.  As it turned out, we did a similar plan on Saturday night – though cut the night early due to some run-ins that if I detailed here, you all wouldn’t believe me when I say how angelic and peaceful of a person I really am (did you hear that, kids?  that was sarcasm)

As pretty as Valdez is, as fun the night life is, it took us only a day to exhaust the activities in the seaside town that didn’t include a fishing boat (which was considered, just not something we we did).  The city is quite peaceful.  As much as I enjoyed the museums and people we met – probably the nicest times was when we just sat out on a gravel stream delta or a grassy knoll by the sound and watched the mountains fight the clouds.  Peace was easy to find in this place, and was easy to appreciate.

That being said … we got itch.

Saturday we made a run for McCarthy.  It wasn’t a short run either.  The road to McCarthy began 80 miles outside of Valdez, then we had another 80 miles to go.  We had to get gas at one of those gas stations right out of time.  The pump was one of those that had spinning dials that you had to guess the number when you told the attendant (yes, you had to tell them).  Thirty miles off the main road at Chitna, AK started “the road to McCarthy”, a 50 mile dirt road, mostly one lane, and included wood floored bridges – including one that was nearly 300feet above the valley below.  We camped next to a glacier feed river right across a foot bridge to McCarthy, and it took all of 10 minutes for me to realize … with only an overnight here, we were doing this wrong, and I needed to come back and do it right.  This place deserved a long camp-out and a long time to explore all that there was.  We were deep into the Wrangle Mountains, and if I wanted to experience Alaska, this is how I could do it.

Time wasn’t our only enemy in McCarthy, so was smoke.  By Saturday, the Funny River Fire down near Soldotna, AK had grown to 120,000 acres and the smoke was creating a hazing making it near impossible to see any of the mountains around McCarthy.  Okay … before you think that is bad, try this on for size … that smoke had traveled somewhere between 300 and 400 miles to be there with us.  We literally came this way to ensure a smoke free vacation, and this was, well, not.  Still the McCarthy people were saying this was the biggest weekend they ever had – simply because so many people were up from Anchorage dodging the smoke, and it seems we brought it with us.

The long drive home was hampered when little Puck grew gravely ill, and our co-campers stopped for immediate vet attention in Copper Central.  Word is the little guy is on the mend, but the last stretch home seemed a little less climactic when we were down half the crew.

So, now the recovery begins.  Auggie & I rolled home at about 9PM.  Tonight’s plan is to clean out the car of all the hastily loaded tents, sleeping bags, smelly clothing, and spilled dog food.  It’s raining today in Anchorage, and is expected to rain through the week – giving us all hope the fires in the Kenai will be put out and the summer can continue.

What I did learn this weekend was:

1) I need to go back to McCarthy

2) Valdez is beautiful, but a bit boring for a 3 day weekend if you don’t go on a boat

3) I can pull off this camping thing, I had a cough and didn’t die in my tent

4) Always come to a complete stop at a stop sign

5) Auggie’s too soft around the edges.  The dude did just fine, if he shut up a little.

6) PBR is now a hip, sophisticated beer

 

McCarthy, AK – Something Special

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The world needs more places like McCarthey, Alaska.

Once upon a time, two mining engineers looking for a claim spotted what looked like a patch of green grass on a hill, and after exploring it they found the largest single copper ore deposit ever discovers above ground. In 1901 they built what was to become Kennicott and created the need for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. During the thirty years the Kennicott mine was in buisness, they kept nearly 600 employed mostly living in bunkhouses in Kennicott where they lived cleanly with no alcohol, nearly no women, and … well, there was a basketball court.  Just 5 miles away the town of McCarthy sprung up in part to take care of small claims miners and area trappers — as it happens, they also offered those Kinnicott miners a place for … well … not basketball. At its peak McCarthy had 500 residents but was a place anyone in the Wrangle Mountains could get the food, mercantile, and supplies they need to make a living in copper country.

Again, that was the early 1900s.

As part of my long weekend, I headed up to McCarthy on a suggestion from my co-camper and some Valdez recommendations.  When we headed out to the old ghost town of McCarthy I was expecting to see another of the loads of old boom towns that were no more. Fake store fronts, unnecessary hype, or the complete loss of the feel of a place that was once something and now it’s not.

What I found was so incredibly satisfying. Sure the old boom town store fronts were still there – but they weren’t faked. The hotel, the store, the saloon all had the original look and feel – and functionality. The hotel is a hotel. The mercantile sells mercantile. The saloon is the saloon. Sure it’s advanced in time. Electricity is here, i hear there is cell service (not my cell service but there is service) and wi-fi.  The people aren’t lost in time, but are there to be a part of what McCarthy still has to offer – specifically:  Tour Guides, Whitewater, Hotels, Lodges, Camping, Fishing, and Taking Care of tourists.  But the people who live there (whether year round or just for the season) is a special breed of close-nit people.  Quite literally, this town feels like the TV show Northern Exposure … or more accurately as my co-camper said:

Northern  Exposure with 3G.

Sadly, all I had was an overnight, a quick tour of Kennicott, and the 7 hour drive home before the end of the weekend.  But I have already put McCarthy high on my list for return trips – with a goal of getting there for at least one really long weekend … and maybe two trips there.

Where There’s Smoke (or Not Funny Ha Ha)

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Anchorage woke up to a smokey haze that is covering the city, and may end up covering it for most of the day or even the weekend; but compared to much of the Kenai Peninsula we shouldn’t be complaining.  Due to the dry weather the last month, wildfires have been a problem with some popping up in different areas around south central Alaska.  On Monday, a fire started outside of Soldotna – a town approximately 50 miles as the crow flies from Anchorage.  Now, the fire called the “Funny River Fire” has consumed 44,000 acres and while not currently threatening any homes, it is putting up a lot of smoke.  The area lies on a swampy flats between the Kenai Mountains and the Cook Inlet — meaning smoke from that fire is either going to head south down the Peninsula towards Homer & Kodiak, or North to Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley.

Additionally, a smaller fire called the “Tyonek Fire” which is across the Cook Inlet to the west and closer (about 30 miles as the crow flies).  It is smaller, but still has already consumed 1500 acres and threatens the small village of Beluga.

This morning, the winds are blowing north – so the whole of the city is covered in smoke.  Not to mention smells like a campfire, and the air quality is pretty horrid.  I taste the ash constantly.  I am still coming off a cold, and my sinuses are plugged and am still coughing some — this is NOT helping.  My eyes burn somewhat, and I feel like my lips are gritty.  What I keep telling myself is that this is only mildly uncomfortable and must be absolutely hellish for anyone who suffers from asthma or more sensitive to the smoke.  Also, I keep thinking that if it is this bad here, it must be unbearable down in Soldotna.

Rumor is the winds will turn to the south later today, which should blow the smoke away.  It’s not known when the fire will be contained as fire fighters are struggling to get to the Funny River fire both because the bulk of the fire is well off the road system and they are having a hard time mapping it.  There’s some chance of rain this weekend, which would be a huge help, but no one is really sure of that now.  So in the meantime, we wait, smell the smoke, and make campfire jokes.

 

Into the Great Undecided

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Memorial Day Weekend is coming, so that means a 3 day weekend and a city full of people eager to “do something” and “go somewhere”.  I mean really GO SOMEWHERE!  Sure, we all have gotten out of town at some point since the snow stopped, and there are a few people that are already doing summer activities like hiking, camping, getting chased by a bear.  But just like the Lower-48ers, Alaskans want to make the most out of the first real holiday weekend of the year.

Now, here’s where you say “Mitch is the exception”.  That’s where you are wrong my friend.  My whole plan was to “go somewhere” for Memorial day.  The problem was:
A) Where
B) How

The How was the real problem.  Bear Feeders may remember I bought an RV last fall, known as the Strugglebus.  The Strugglebus has lived up to it’s name and has yet to turn over to begin the new year.  I just need to take it into the shop to get it started but that requires … well … motivation, work, effort … something.  Now that I am out of time to do that, plan B comes up. Throwing the dog in the car with a tent and driving somewhere.  Which is great, if you aren’t old, out-of-shape, cranky, and has a dog that is a bigger wuss than you.  Which means a hotel, but that’s just being a pansy.  Or I could just take a ferry somewhere, like Valdez, but that means putting the pup in the car for 6 hours to do nothing but wait for daddy to come back and/or poop.

In the mean time, I started to focus on the ‘where’.  Going north out of Anchorage is out, as pretty as that all is, it’s still early season and still cold up around Denali.  Going south out of Anchorage would be interesting, but I can go south whenever I want.  Besides, you Bear Feeders may remember my push to ‘Walk to Valdez’ last year (walking the number of miles consistent with driving there) that turned into walking there only and not actually driving there.  So Valdez was in my head.  Well it turned out my friend Laura was going to Valdez too … so we said “yippie, we are going to Valdez!”

Then the first extended weather report came out.  Well two actually.  One said that it would rain all weekend in Valdez and the highs would be in the mid-40s,  The other, said it won’t rain … because it would be too busy snowing!  So on Monday, we decided … Screw Valdez, we’re Going to Homer!!  Sure it’s a place we can go to on any weekend (Homer is a 4 hour drive, Valdez a 6+ hour drive), but at least they were predicting no rain and warm weather.  Then the weather report came out today for Valdez  — no rain, high in the low 50s, while the road to Homer may get blocked by a wildfire near Soldotna.  Today we decided … Screw Homer, We’re Going to Valdez!!

So here we are … the plan as of right now is that I am making a run for it Friday night to head to Valdez.  Hopefully by the time I get there my friend Laura & her two dogs will have a site she’s stayed at for a day already and hasn’t gotten so sick of it that she decided to make a run for Canada or something.  Auggie and I will show up.  We’ll all piss each other off.  Get drunk.  Then watch the snow fall on our tents.  Sounds like fun!

 

Not Your Parent’s Outfitters

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Last night, I stopped by the newest big attraction in Anchorage — Cabela’s.  Chances are you fall under one of two categories: a) You have heard of Cabela’s or b) Going to Cabela’s is like visiting the holy land as marked by the numerous items throughout your house/garage/deer camp/duck blind/boat with their logo on it.  This retail store chain is most known for being a premier hunting and fishing outfitter, loved by many in the upper Midwest for just that reason.  It has it’s roots in Nebraska, but a major warehouse was built in my home town of Prairie du Chien, WI (I still remember when I told someone where I was from, and they gaped at me like I lived next door to Elvis).  Their stores are well loved because they seem like a mega fun land for the outdoorsman.  Not just because what they sell, but because of all the things to see – like huge fish tanks or mounted animals and various things you never think you would need but now all of a sudden can’t camp without.

The Anchorage Cabela’s is brand new, opening just last month. Since the warehouse was back home, and since (contrary to what some of my ex-girlfriends suggest) I am male, I have been to a few Cabela’s before this one opened in Anchorage.   It is just a mile south of where I live, and has had the reputation of being packed to the gills with customers in the first few weeks. Since I had little to do last night, and I am planning a camping trip this weekend, I went in to check it out.

Now granted, every chain store of every chain is different from place to place, but visiting this one jumped out as a reminder of what makes things different.  When I was at the Cabela’s in Wisconsin, there was a lot of items for deer hunting and duck hunting and the like.  Visit the one near Kansas City and it’s about the same, maybe not so much ducks but pheasants.  Both had fishing stuff.  Both had camping stuff.  Heck, both had mountaineering stuff, and you wouldn’t find Mountains anywhere near either place.

What made the Anchorage Cabela’s different was that it was clearly geared towards outfitting people for Alaska.  Sleeping bags started at a 15° rating, and they were NOT made for light weight priorities.  Boots were thick enough that you could let a bear bite your foot and leave your sock unblemished.  All that rain gear you see on those Deadliest Catch shows, they sold that too. They sold three different sizes of crab pots, some you could get in colors to match your clam digging shovels.  There was a section for trapping.  A Section … For Trapping.  Not a little cubby wedged next to the duck calls and the beef jerky where you could find a few small game traps – a whole portion of the floor for all your trapping needs, big or small, bears, beavers, heck even bigfoots.

Cabela’s didn’t come here to make life for the Anchorage Townies feel like you can rub off a little bit of the wilderness on your jeans you bought at Nordstroms.  They came here to outfit those people who lived in the wild, lived off the wild, and loved what was wild.

And I only got to see half the store.

I walked out with my pocket $300 lighter thanks to a discount pair of waders, mud boots, polarized glasses, and a new camelback water bottle.  Sure, I am never going to be mistaken for a rugged backwoodsman, but when you walk into a place that caters to all the possibilities this state can offer you can’t help but to be inspired.