Alaska has more than 570,000 square miles. I had five hours. I had arrived in Anchorage for a seminar, but my real aim was to get as close as I could in my limited nonwork time...
ANCHORAGE, Alaska Alaska has more than 570,000 square miles. I had five hours.
I had arrived in Anchorage for a seminar, but my real aim was to get as close as I could in my limited nonwork time to the wild part of Alaska.
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Put it down to too much time as a boy reading Robert W. Service, the bard of the Yukon:
“The lonely sunsets flare forlorn
“Down valleys dreadly desolate;
“The lordly mountains soar in scorn
“As still as death, as stern as fate.”
That’s what he wrote. That’s what I wanted. And this was the day before I was to leave.
Fortunately, I had a copy of The Milepost tourist guide.
It was around 4 p.m. when I zeroed my trip odometer downtown, with the Chugach Mountains out the driver’s side window. My first goal: Flattop Mountain on the Anchorage side of 495,000-acre Chugach State Park. At six miles, I turned off the state highway.
The roads shrank from four lanes to two, then to dirt. That offered hope, as did the plunge in temperature. On the highway at sea level, I had thrown my gloves and down-lined jacket onto the back seat; I was warm in a fleece sweater. As I gained elevation, seasons ran backward.
Flattop was only 3,550 feet, a nub compared with Alaska summits above 14,000 feet, but the Arctic breathed hard on it. In a parking lot at 2,220 feet, departing visitors were putting away skis. I trudged upward alone in the late afternoon toward a line of receding crags with pearly snowcaps. Then I looked back and the spell was broken. To the northwest, stretching toward Cook Inlet, the street grid of Anchorage was laid out below me.
East: crags, snow, rock and silence. West: hotels, homes, highways and 270,000 people.
Was this the city or the wild? Disjointedly, it felt like both. I returned to the highway. Afternoon was drawing toward evening; the sun was my clock, and the clock was ticking.
At 12 miles, Rabbit Creek flowed into Turnagain Arm in an area called Potter Marsh. The state had built a 1,550-foot boardwalk that snaked across the marsh. The guidebook said that on good days, bald eagles, gull-like Arctic terns and even salmon could be seen. If I waited, the broad marsh might come alive with a yellow-orange sunset. But Service’s sunsets were not seascapes. I moved on.
Beyond Potter Marsh, Seward highway’s four lanes lane narrowed to two, and Turnagain Arm was compressed between narrowing ranges of peaks. The arm was starting to show its true nature, a fjord carved by glaciers.
As I continued south, mountains crowded closer to the road. Wild Dall sheep grazed on slopes that plunged at steep angles. How did the sheep stay there? Velcro hoofs? I looked up through the windshield, caught myself drifting into the opposite lane, swerved back and left the sheep to themselves.
Before the light failed, I had one last goal Portage Glacier Recreation Area in Chugach National Forest. I wanted to see a river of ice.
At 48 miles, I turned onto the access road, driving about five miles to a closed visitors center and an almost deserted lot. It was around 9 p.m., and the few remaining tourists were preparing to depart. But there was still some daylight left; my trip took place in April, and Alaska’s spring days are long.
From the visitors center, Burns Glacier dipped from a rock hillside into Portage Lake. Snow-covered pinnacles rose from the valley floor. At 3,000 to 4,000 feet, they were cousins in height to nubby Flattop, but they looked like sheared-off peaks of Alps.
Over 100 years ago in the Alaska Gold Rush, men had crossed ice fields like this in ant-like round trips to portage the ton of supplies each would need to survive a year in the wild. Some fell into crevasses, never to be seen again.
I had seen photographs of men on the trails, most of them greenhorns, ignorant of the vast, unforgiving desolation that lay ahead. For some, their climbs could have led over this ice, this hill and into the distance beyond my view toward Portage Glacier itself. I walked the roads and paths along the lake, the only sound the crunch of gravel beneath my boots.
But sunset played on the pinnacles, and the snow reflected the incandescent pink of alpenglow. Somewhere in the mountains, above the whisper of distant traffic, three coyotes picked up a harmony of soprano wails.
“It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
“It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
Robert W. Service went north to work in a bank, and he reached the Yukon in 1904, after the gold stampede had passed. But when Service walked alone on the prospectors’ trails of ’98, what he found was just as precious. And it remains.