Lake Clark

I had the pleasure of joining Alaska Bear Adventures on a flight to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve a few weeks ago… and what a trip! I was extra fortunate in that I was allowed to fly on standby and at a bargain because I currently work at the tour desk at Land’s End Resort (and you can bet your ass I send folks to ABA).

The guides were outstanding people. Having guided as long as I have, I have a hard time being the guest, but these guys made it easy. It was super laid back, with still proper attention to safety given the proximity to brown bears (props to Dillon for plunging head first into the guide world, you make a fine guide! And props to Derrick for keeping it going). Shooting the shit with Dillon was a blast, swapping carnage stories with a new guide is always a heartwarming moment (to be fair, I’ve never been a pilot but you know how it goes… “what’s the difference between a raft guide and God? God doesn’t think he’s a raft guide”).

For me, the real highlight was the view. I see bears all the time, and I’ve been closer to bears on my own than on the flight (though we were still damn close), but it’s rare for me to see my beloved home from such a vantage point. Particularly, the distant allure of Iliamna was finally closed as we flew through wisps of steam pouring through her vents… it was totally worth the minor motion sickness.

When we arrived, we were forced to circle as we could not land. There was no mechanical crisis… but there was a bear on the landing strip. Minor detail. This inconsiderate bear gave us the chance to circle a second time over the grassy meadows where the bears feed early in spring, their foot prints leaving intricate trails with no real reason.

If you can swing the price, it’s worth every penny. Most admirable perhaps is every guide’s dedication to keeping this place wild… they won’t hesitate to keep you in line for the bears’ sake!

IMG_5137

IMG_5108

IMG_5051

IMG_5008

IMG_4909

IMG_4835

IMG_4812

IMG_4783

See the full album by clicking this sentence!

Advertisements

You gotta yell at birds.

In the ever-growing list of thankless jobs, there resides the title of ski resort chair lift attendant, or more simply put: a liftie. He is more thankless, perhaps, than even the city garbage man – whom at least walks away with an oftentimes livable wage. There is no glory to the liftie, despite the fact that without the backbone position few others would navigate the mountain for work or pleasure purposes. The liftie is akin to a rejected super villain solely by default. The irony in his banishment is that I have met many lifties who formerly served as brilliant arborists, health practitioners, scientists, etc etc, whom are truly inspirational souls. Nonetheless, he is still a pariah.

So as I sat in a drone at the top of the bunny slope magic carpet, not a single guest came to use it. Policy dictated that a liftie must always be present for a spinning lift, so I was stuck there. I plodded slowly against the moving floor to burn time. Then I heard it: a juvenile raven croaking to any nearby kin, perhaps in search of a mate for the coming spring or for a comrade to raid dumpsters. My head spun up and around, and I peered up the hill where the call resonated. I stood tall and called back to the raven. As I did so, I was unaware of the lone preteen boy dangling above me on the chair lift. He stared down in utter confusion.

“You gotta yell at birds.” I told him, as if this was some sort of common knowledge he was foolishly questioning. He immediately looked away.

“You do.” I muttered.

Fast forward a month, and one would find me aimlessly wandering a busy Walmart parking lot in Anchorage fully lacking even the slightest inclination of where I had parked my car. To be fair, I had borrowed the car and was not familiar with it, and to be extra fair I hadn’t paid much attention to anything when I parked.

It was a spectacle. It was a live comedic performance. People commented, and people laughed out loud at my struggle. And I don’t blame them, I laughed at myself too. I owned my shame, but I was truly tired of carrying the box of Mango LaCroix bubbly I purchased and wanted to eat my garlic Ritz.

Twenty minutes later, and I was making laps down isles I had already traveled, desperately trying to avoid anyone who had already commented on the situation. I passed a soggy sandwich some unfortunate soul must have clumsily dropped, and I thought to myself that “there’s going to be a very happy bird soon.” At that moment, a raven alighted several cars away. He arched his neck and frilled his throat, cackling in his wicked tongue.

“That’s going to be the happy bird,” I whispered. “Yo, raven!” I did my best recreation of his gurgling laughter. He perked his head and looked at me. I pointed at the sandwich, and marched towards him.

“Quowoah,” I called as I had heard ravens do to find each other in dense woods. He was taken aback by my vocalization, and I spooked him towards the sandwich. Suddenly, I realized how many eyes were watching me. I surveyed their confusion. Lacking the comfort of liftie banishment, I could not explain to each of these folks individually why that raven needed that sandwich and why I opted to yell at him, so I congratulated the bird and hastily walked to the opposite end of the parking lot.

Parked in plain sight on that far end was the dark blue Jeep Cherokee with the “friends don’t let friend eat farmed fish – ALASKA SALMON” sticker on the rear bumper. I jumped inside after triggering the alarm and laughed.

“You just gotta yell at birds,” I thought.

IMG_2483

Falls Creek, a skyward crease

Chugach State Park and National Forest offer seemingly limitless paths to their lofty ridge lines countered by even greater unfathomable acreage of unmarked and trail-free routes. Situated in a somewhat treacherous and inaccessible glacial valley, these natural barriers have protected the forest, leaving roughly 85% of old growth forest untouched by the timber industry with little plans to change that (and what has been harvested has been carefully monitored and cared for to ensure the greatest pristine new growth). Thick with black spruce, paper birch, cottonwood, and other beautiful trees, the short canopy offers an incredible glimpse to a wild world (for a refreshing outlook on the delicate balance between logging and conservation and how the two thrive off each other, check out Alaska Forest Facts) for those willing to venture in it.

The easiest access lies in the Portage Valley (and you can read my write ups here and here). But should one desire to ascend, they must find a vein up to the pinnacles where goats dance and eagles soar.

IMG_2797

At the trailhead, the creek succumbs to gravity and spills over a smooth bed of rocks before funneling into a metal pipe under the road and out to the Turnagain Arm. Here, one is greeted accosted almost immediately by an extremely vocal American Dipper bird whose laid claim to the creek’s bounty (on a side note, the Portage Valley Dipper population is of special interest to birders in that, despite unforgivable and frozen winters, they do not migrate to fairer territories). The trail rises up and to the right, when facing the creek.

And then it continues up: the entire way.

I cannot stress enough that this trail is not beginner friendly, nor is it friendly to those not in fittest shape. As a chubby kid with asthma and a history of respiratory infections, and as an adult with knee and ankle injuries left unchecked, elevation gain has never been my strong point. This bloody trail tests what my body is willing to tolerate and my lungs verbally protested. Frequent pauses were needed, water was consumed, and my ego was bruised. But I love this trail.

Falls Creek alpineb

The lower portion is filled with stands of young growth forests, and in the summer the under growth is bombarded with bane berry and devil’s club, two important plants to know and avoid (one will kill you, the other will hurt you). In the fall, plump, broad mushrooms spill over every moist surface, and bear’s bread shelf mushrooms stoutly observe their forest. Fly agarics are a striking contrast of vibrant red to the litter of decaying leaves. Keep in mind, many locals warn of their dogs eating all the plants above, often with fatal outcomes, so keep your eyes on your furry friends should they accompany you.

Quickly, this fades to water loving alders, willows, and cottonwoods, and if he’s still standing you may notice an impressive cottonwood along the early trail whose heartwood has rotted out. He’s an absolute beast of a tree, but sadly, as do all cottonwoods, he has begun his final stages before collapse. Around this point, the canopy lowers as the tree line approaches and you have ascended only a mediocre distance that seems much greater than it actually is solely due to its constant upward nature. The strong aroma of high bush cranberry fills the air, and if you’re lucky you may even snack along the way. Play your cards right and venture after the first frost for these delicious berries to sweeten up.

You also join back up with the creek, closely following it. Sometimes you’re in it. Mind your steps as the path may erode with little advanced notice. And you are going to get wet. Sorry, that’s just the facts of life. This creek does what it wants, and that often means that it changes course randomly, flooding parts of the trail.

IMG_2076

The trail opens to the highest biome. In the fall, nearly ever square inch of soil off trail is covered in crowberry and one can feast on the simple black fruit. While they’re certainly not the most flavorful or sought, they are a refreshing taste and consistency. My dog refused dinner that night as he was full of berries (and it made for some interesting potty moments later as well). A massive rock face looms in the distance, and mountain goats frequently roam this open tundra-like height, enjoying crowberries and willows before the icy grip of winter removes all delectable morsels. Should one peer down the valley, they may find themselves at eye level with an eagle in search of food below.

IMG_3774

At this point, we were forced to turn back solely due to the setting sun. But the trail continues onward and eventually connects to Bird Ridge and beyond. It offers access to pristine backcountry. One can make the trail as long or as short as they prefer. And yes, it’s a one way trail but the views up and down contrast so differently that it doesn’t quite feel like you’re tracing your steps.

IMG_2104b

China Poot

Following the curvature of the Gulf of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula rests roughly centered in the arch. There, Captain Cook explored the waters, founding the Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm, Anchor Point, Kachemak Bay, and many other iconic, Alaskan locations. At the entrance, Kachemak splits from the Cook Inlet and remains separated from the Gulf by a narrow mountain range, the tail of the Kenai Range, carved by incredible forces during the last great ice age. And in those mountains on their northern slopes rest a few remaining glaciers further influencing the shape of the bay and health of the water. Those icy titans are connected to their southern Gulf brothers via the Harding Ice Fields which is most commonly accessed all the way north and east in Seward. The northern glaciers bleed into Kachemak, where the Homer Spit desperately reaches across towards the silt-bearing glaciers that helped create it. And at those glaciers’ terminal points, there are numerous, small bays full of life and wonder.

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-1-26-23-pm

Which brings us to China Poot.

fog

It has a silly name with a not so silly history, earning the name in honor Henry Poot of early Homer history. Henry had a herring factory – or dealings in one – where Chinese immigrants worked. The rest is history. Either way, Henry Poot and his unfortunate surname were apparently a big enough deal in Homer that he earned a bay, a mountain, a lake, a creek, AND a street named after him, torturing me day in and day out at work to annunciate my t’s because “it’s China PooT not China PooP, not that that sounds any better, and can we just move on already?”

(But really, China Poop makes more sense because the bay smells like shit at low tide, credit to the abundance of intertidal life).

IMG_0803

Every six hours the tides shift, sucking and pushing millions of gallons of water in and out of the bay, bringing fresh nutrients in and pushing old filth out. Thus, it would behoove a traveler to respect the water. It acts like a river. When the winds and tides argue on direction, a horrifying feature that kayakers call a “pyramid wave” form in the current. These waves have multiple faces, making them aggressive and flippy to small crafts. Not to mention, the current alone is one of the strongest I’ve seen.  I consider myself an experienced paddler, yet I’ve been nearly humbled once or twice or more than I’d like to admit in China Poot.

But the bay rewards the adventure.

IMG_1129

With Doroshin, Nameless, and Woz Glaciers all feeding into Neptune Bay (Poot’s immediate neighbor), the area is full of rich glacial silt, filling the seas with sticky mud teeming with invertebrates and opportunistic aquatic plants. All those small critters are the base of the food chain. The small fish follow, bringing the bigger fish and they bring the bigger predators from land, sea, and sky. It’s a feeding frenzy in the bay.

IMG_0776

Lion’s Mane jellies the size of my torso drift aimlessly in the shallow waters of the bay, snaring small bait fish that hide from whales in the outer bay. Shy horned puffins feast along the coast where they need not compete with their goofy and rude nestmates the kittiwake. Red salmon stage along the rocky beaches in preparation for their final journeys, feeding hordes of eagles that have waited patiently for the fish. Bears peruse the cliffs, gorging themselves on countless berries in spring and fish carcasses in fall. Mussels coat the sticky floor in numbers to rival the greatest armies. Peregrine falcons patrol the steepest slopes, whirling like torpedoes at any juvenile eagle that gets too close. Harbor seals in colonies of hundreds flop onto shore to molt their old coats where they argue and growl.

IMG_1406

IMG_1440

I work in that bay. I play in that bay. I’ve bled in that bay. I’ve struggled in that bay. And I damn love that bay.

The Disgruntled Guide and the Downfall of Wild

Nearly four years ago when I first saw the entrance to one of America’s most iconic parks, I was immediately awestruck. The entrance was guarded by narrow posts set to mark the depth of snow. Past these gangly sentinels, the park road wound around to a few educational buildings set in a thick spruce forest, and further past the road meandered up a forested hill before opening up into the vast expanse of wild tundra and sloping glacial valleys. It was love at first sight, and despite my then-crippling injury I hobbled my way. I promised myself I’d return. But when the opportunity reared its head to see the pristine tundra once again my heart sank. While the sights were the same, the wild had been pre-packaged.

IMG_2141b

There’s this horrible trend growing in the world nowadays that revolves around nature and wild places, and it’s the same thing that made me sick of commercial guiding. It’s this belief that nature is cool, and it is! But something as innately magnificent as wilderness cannot be marketed. Inspiration cannot be served; humility cannot be purchased. In other words, while I poured my heart and soul into my career as a guide it made me sick to see people act as if they cared but truly only wanted the “experience” at best, or the f*cking Instagram photo at worst. Imagine how sickening it is to wake up every morning and literally bleed to protect and educate the very thing that makes your heart sing only to see people take away a shitty cell phone photo to turn into likes online. It’s insulting, and I have enough sense around people to know when that’s all you’re after.

IMG_2130b

Wild places are not simply experiences or bragging rights. They are a creature unto themselves, an entity to meet and coexist with. People are beginning to treat nature like a chance encounter with a celebrity: intrusively, arrogantly, entitled, disrespectfully…

Denali nowadays caters to the likes. It does not cater to the people who wish to know it, love it, and bleed for it (and on a side note, I called ahead of time to confirm if I was still able to drive to mile 30 only to be told otherwise upon arrival, thanks for getting your act together, guys). My heart ached to see that ancient High One stuck in the middle of a marketing scheme.

IMG_2151

Now, now… I’m sure you’re reading this scoffing just a bit, “Courtney, you have an Instagram and takes heaps of photos.” And you’re right. I do. But the difference is that I started doing that for my own sake because my memory isn’t the best, and it turned out that I’m not too bad with a camera so I made a bit of a hobby out of it. My camera joins my escapades as a personal historian and nothing more, and only a fraction of my photos are viewable by the public. And frankly, my favorite photos are the nondescript occurrences along the way (like all my American dipper photos, I know each of those birds personally).

So please, take all your photos, selfies, panoramas, snapchats, etc… but make sure your heart is in the right place. If it even remotely crosses your mind how good a photo will look online, you’re doing it wrong. Your life is not a marketable product, nor is nature’s existence. Your moments are your own: experience them for you. Not the likes. And for fox sake, if you try get a selfie with a damn bear, I will personally beat your ass.

Tenana Valleyb

St. Augustine: the Patron Saint of Fun

Dudes, Ima take a minute to sound egotistical as all hell. This post will be biased. But, more importantly, this post will be truthful. If my flaw is arrogance, rest assured, that at least I’m honest.

IMG_0781

Highway 1 in Alaska ends abruptly in the bright light of Kachemak Bay, surrounded with the blues of glaciers and thick spruce forests formerly spruce covered mountains. The road centers in a narrow finger along an enforced sand and mud ocean spit before it eventually abuts against a soot colored pebble beach and the Pacific Ocean. Highway 1 drives itself directly into the sea. (Should I ever own a car that needs to die, you can bet your ass that I will drive it full speed down that beach to rest in the strong currents of the bay where it will eventually be engulfed in sand and stone, or, more likely, fined by the city and traced back to me after some turmoil and chaos with the local authorities.) Should you succumb to that same chaotic urge than you’ve found an adventure for yourself. Good on ya. Should you not: turn left into the harbor down Ramp 3 to a 30′ aluminum ex-gillnetter painted black and teal with “kayak/tours” blazed on the side.

This is St. Augustine’s Kayak Tours.

IMG_1666

Scott and Susan have owned the company for roughly 30 years, where they boast the phrase, “romancing the sea since 1983” (which I remember solely because it rhymes). And the bias comes to play here because… this is where I work. Now, I’ll point out as well why I feel so justified to brag: in my years of guiding, I have never returned to work for the same company. That’s true up until 2015 when I took work with Scott and Susan.

fog

The two met in Homer in some sort of bizarrely unique romance whilst digging clams for a living back in the days when a single clam was large enough to be referred to as a steak. They are the ying and yangs to each other, and I think society would be hard pressed to ever find another couple that could better suit the old saying that opposites attract. Yet, they run like a well oiled machine that genuinely believes in producing a quality product and simultaneously have some sort of brilliant witchcraft at skewing the lines between work and play. With such leaders, it makes it easy as an employee to strive to be the best. Though the competition is fierce; under their name, I’ve felt my coworkers were more like family than workplace acquaintances. And that is why I can brag.

IMG_1544a

They offer an amazing tour with really special wildlife. On those days where the wildlife just won’t cooperate, the scenery is gorgeous. I’ve guided in quite a many location and paddled even more, but there is something spectacular about Kachemak Bay. Perhaps, in the wake of the changing seas and world, Kachemak remains an oasis. Fertile is an understatement. All that being said, I can’t really justify talking up the place I work unless I’m ultimately talking about how great it is to work for them. And that’s the truest part: working for Scott and Susan has been an honor. But, maybe a mere guide’s stoked attitude is enough of a selling point.

I get paid to play. It doesn’t feel like work. And isn’t that just awesome?

IMG_0911b

IMG_1360b

IMG_0866b

IMG_0983

IMG_1032b

 

Oh hey Bears

We’ll keep this one short, as I’m really just writing it in appreciation for the amazing staff at AWCC.

If you’re looking for something to do in Anchorage, let’s face the facts: Anchorage sucks. It’s an ugly city with an ugly crime rate and miserable people (though there’s some cool museums and great food). Take the opportunity to get out. And upon your escape further south, lies the small town of Girdwood (unfortunately tainted by the stain of a corrupt resort, Alyeska… and don’t get me started on how much I hate that place) and just outside is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

AWCC does rescue right. It’s a small place, but it gives you the chance to see the animals in their natural habitat: not locked in small cages with no privacy. It’s far from a zoo. But with that in mind, don’t go expecting to see everything up close. At AWCC, the animals have the opportunity to get away from you, to play, to rest in privacy, and to explore their enclosures. They ALLOW you to see them when they want.

The pastures for the animals are beautifully organized and your entry fee can be seen directly at work. Each animal has a story and it’s told on the walls. And the staff? SO FRIENDLY! So rightfully proud of their efforts.

IMG_0513b

IMG_0469

IMG_0526b

IMG_0537b