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Postcards from the North
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

"How delightful it is, and how it makes one's pulses bound to get back into this reviving northland wilderness! How truly wild it is, and how joyously one's heart responds to the welcome it gives, its waters and mountains shining and glowing like enthusiastic human faces!"
-- John Muir, Travels in Alaska

It takes a place like Alaska to know life as a nobody. No ego can rise above the humility felt inside one of its melting ice caves, crawling in the womb of a sparkling blue glacier that gave birth to valleys and rivers, a living piece of ice that scratches a secret language on stones and feeds waterfalls the leftovers.

It takes a place like Alaska, which claims 17 out of the nation's 20 largest peaks, 6,640 miles of coastline, more than 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes, a three-month summer day and two-month winter night, and one square mile per every resident, to give grandiose dreams room to grow big and strong.

And to understand the contradictions Alaska's space inspires, it takes a 2,000-mile drive through Canada's British Columbia and Yukon Territory on the one and only road into the state: the Alaska Highway.

The Alaska Highway is a bumpy-skinned cement monster with an oil pipeline spine and kitschy fingers of "The World's Greatest" hat and signpost collections, soulless gift shops and eye-straining R.V. parks. Its man-made monstrosities only reaffirm the fact that you are nowhere. Leave the road and try traversing the endless forested miles that swallow it whole.

Survival skills come into play long before reaching bear country and alpine tundra. Survival is about shaking bad luck, like getting three flat tires in two rainy days, crossing the haunting paths of fatal car wrecks and locking your keys in the ignition while miles away from the nearest town (ever try to mime "coat hanger" to a busload of drunk Germans?).

Our on-the-road mottoes became "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger" and "insha'allah," an Arabic phrase which translates "with God's permission." These phrases are part of the Alaska Highway survival kit, which also includes: an excellent spare tire; a tolerance for road-hogging RVers who worship the almighty speed limit; a CB for listening to truckers talk about construction slow-downs and chicks in green bikinis; mushroom and berry identification books to supplement pancakes and pasta; and ample film to capture the moose, caribou and Dall sheep that cross the highway, presumably to get to the other side.

It took well over a week to reach Alaska from San Francisco, driving long and fast to come to our first major stop: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. A magical meeting place of four mountain ranges and some 20 glaciers, the park's vastly underexplored 13 million acres are anchored by the twin towns of McCarthy and Kennicott, founded in 1900 when prospectors discovered deposits of copper ore in the mountains worth $200 million. The towns now boast a collective year-round population of 35 odd but extremely friendly people.

The sole road leading to McCarthy is a tire purgatory, 58 miles of gravel unevenly laid on top of the old spiked railroad tracks. If you don't want to pay in auto wear and tear, you can spring for a flight with a kamikaze bush pilot or a $100 shuttle ride. At the road's end, the only way into town is a footbridge across the Kennicott River.

The national park service has a free camping area just before the river and the towns offer a couple costly lodges, but the choicest housing option is to slap on a backpack and take the five-mile, flat-terrain hike to Root Glacier, virtually the only marked trail in the park. Most of the land in and immediately surrounding the towns is privately owned, so ask before exploring or setting up camp. There are food lockers near the glacier to help campers bear-proof their tents; the glacier trail is almost as heavily used by bears as by people.
Bears are fast becoming a problem at Wrangell-St. Elias, as more trekkers discover the area. While we were in town, one bear broke into and ravaged a cabin. It was shot on the spot. Its stomach revealed a Snickers bar and package of Ramen noodles, both still in their wrappers. The ill-fated bearskin was on display in town during McCarthy's annual Labor Day party, which gave rise to my fears about camping near bears who might need to settle a score.

The party was held at McCarthy Lodge, the town's lone bar and a good place to go when the sun finally sets (five minutes earlier every day after the Summer Solstice; in September it was still light past 9:00). Locals will disclose their favorite hiking routes there for the bribe of a beer.

Our last evening, a shuttle driver hosted a raging all-night campfire, where we first witnessed the Aurora Borealis. They often come out late-night, when all present are either tired or intoxicated to ascertain if the grainy, contorting beams are hallucinations or truly the Northern Lights. Moments later, the sky is utterly dark save for starlight, and it's clear that The Lights have come and gone.

Next leg of the trip took us west on the Glenn Highway to Anchorage and south on the Seward Highway, down the Kenai Peninsula. Camping sites and foot trails are plentiful along this route. A particularly nice stop south of Anchorage is Bird Creek, which has a campground next to Turnagain Arm's lacy waters and a gorgeous trail along mountain ridges where bald eagles, peregrine falcons and magpies play and prey.

The Seward Highway forks; Seward is east and Homer west. Go east. Homer is a great spot for fishing, clamming and beach-combing, but what's a beach to a Californian? Seward is the gateway to fjords and glaciers galore.
Just before Seward is Kenai Fjords National Park, which offers a free, tent-only campsite within a stone's throw of Exit Glacier. From the glacier there is a 3.5-mile trail where mountain goats, screeching marmots and black bears greet hikers en route to the Harding Icefield. Bring crampons and an ice axe to explore the blue ice peaks and crevasses spanning the field's 300 square miles.
Seward is also Alaska's cruise capital. An all-day outing costs about $100, with the all-you-can-puke-from-seasickness buffet. Major Marine Tours, narrated by highly entertaining and informative park rangers, are recommended.

Orcas, a.k.a. "killer" whales; sea lions and otters; bald eagles and puffins are virtually guaranteed to cross your nautical path. Most full-day cruises also swing by Holgate Glacier to hark the "berg thunder" — the sound of massive icebergs breaking off into the water.

If you want your hand held across icefields, up mountains or down rivers, plenty will do it for a price. But to travel in Alaska's spirit, that of self-sufficiency and exploration, find your own way. The feeling of fulfillment is all the greater when you discover a copper mine via an unmarked path or bush-whack through back country to "The Great One," 20,320-foot Mount Denali, so called by Indians long before President McKinley was a gleam in his mother's eye.

As Muir put it in Travels in Alaska, "Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook-maker, however ignorant." In this country, a good map, compass and instincts are your best guides.

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