We completed the long and beautiful trek from Tok to Valdez. Our operating estimate of all distances is roughly 8 hours of driving (whether or not we are able to drive 90,000 mph or not), so this must be roughly what it took us to get here. We first enjoyed a lovely breakfast with Shauna’s family in Tok and then continued along another seemingly endless stretch of arid river beds (masquerading as lake beds) and arboreal forest, with a jaunt down the Nebesna Road, which strikes 42 miles into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It’s gobstoppingly attractive, and so difficult to describe. The route took us back and forth across Alaska, Yukon, and BC as we continued our northwesterly arc along the continent’s rim. WsENP is actually connected to the Kluane NP (on the Canadian side) and the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge (and perhaps others) to be the largest continuous plot of protected park land anywhere. Blazing through at ‘Back to the Future’ speeds, we can only imagine what lies beyond the hills and around the corners we can see from the road.
As we got closer to Valdez, elements of the plot started to come back together. Erik and Robin sent us text images of the beer (thankfully German), sandwiches, and provisions they acquired before departing Anchorage to join us. (They flew in the night before). Tank (who arrived earlier this week) sent updates and directions on how to find our ‘base camp.’ As we got closer, the landscape radically changed to more moonlike, glaciated mountains, adding water (which the car, newly-dubbed ‘Moshi Moshi’ by my co-pilot, seemed to deeply appreciate), a blanket-cloud cover, and a forecast for snow. Once we passed through Thompson pass, we entered into an umbrella of rain (the consequence of ‘weather’ being blown in from the Pacific and be caught up against the steep Chugach mountains.
It’s essentially a rain forest here, just a chilly one.
The leg through Valdez has been planned around a kayaking trip out to Columbia glacier. Valdez boasts a handful of glaciers pretty much in every direction (at least once the clouds part). We’ve been watching the weather forecast intently as we knew we’d have a full day on the water and, as Tank has reminded us, ‘There’s no such thing as poor weather in Alaska, just poor preparation.’ So, as a natural result, when we woke in the morning to the 12th-straight hour of rain, partnered by an 80% forecast of rain the balance of the day, we were mostly gaggling like pre-teens discussing what we were going to wear to school that next day.
Did I mention it’s essentially a chilly rain forest here?
We walked downtown to the kayak office (after grabbing a last day breakfast burrito…at least half the town has already shut down for the season) and set out onto a water taxi into the sound (might be a bay…bear with me folks…), which was pretty glassy. It if hadn’t been raining and 45F, might have been ideal for water skiing. We set into the kayaks and sort of never stopped, heedless of the showers, paddling towards Shoup Glacier (and there were gale-force winds farther out into the sound near Columbia). Paddling can be a bit meditative, even in the rain, and if you can’t competently steer and paddle in a lazy-s shape. In fairness, if you kayak for over an hour, it’s also probably easiest if you find it to be a bit meditative, whether or not you are on good terms with your rudder.
I’ve seen glaciers before and been up and sort of near them, but I don’t think I’ve ever paddled miles to get to them and climbed around and through the scree field before the front. As with most things here, it seems like the pictures only tell part of the story. The effort of kayaking out and the scrambling and the weather…that the mind’s eye retains the innumerable details of accompanying sights and sounds and sheer scale in a sort of super-G definition that a mere iphone or even SLR can only suggest. Come and do this. You’ll be amazed at the vastly deep, pure blues lingering within pockets and recesses of the ice. As we understand it, the ice crystals form and melt and reform again and again over thousands of years, resulting in a sort of rounded crystal structure. As a result of this shape, light is not reflected that way ice normally would, reds are absorbed and captured in the crystal, and the deepest of blue are visible. It is so beautiful.
The rain waxed and waned and by lunch we were pretty exercised and very ready for the epic gluttony of sandwiches that awaited us. After looking through all of the dry bags a couple times, we came to the conclusion that we had toted about 78 lbs of power bars with us, and zero sandwiches. Our guide was apologetic and concerned…’Would you like some yogurt-covered raisins?’ Tank still had half his breakfast burrito in foil and Robin had arrived with a bespoke veggie sandwich, while the rest of us settled for sampler platters of power bars heavily-favoring almonds with salted toppings. Our respite came in the form of hummus. Because, after all, why wouldn’t one bring hummus to a glacier expedition? Hummus was suggested and immediately shot down as not being legit expedition food. As we silently realized we could probably only get about 450 calories out of power bars before we began repeating flavors, a ginormous bag of chips was produced. ‘We have chips.’ ‘They’re multi-grain.’ At this precise moment, Robin strode up from the glacier and corrected with a proper Welsh/Scottish-inflected, ‘They’re quinoa.’ Our guide was now less apologetic, but still seemed concerned…it’s not clear if in the glacier expedition by-laws it’s permissible or not to eat a small vat of hummus on an Alaskan glacier…whether or not there are pine nuts on top. (It would be apropros to suggest that Robin again corrected us to clarify they were actually ‘pignolia,’ but that may or may not have happened.)
And so it came to be that we devoured a tub of hummus with quinoa chips at the foot of Shoup Glacier, forever thawing the history of glaciological gastronomy. The cadre of young folk camped out in the quarters above the kayak shop ended up eating the sandwiches, which nudged us into a nostalgic mid-life reverie about whether or not we should have done something like that when we were younger.
You go through each day in part to experience what is going to happen. Just because you make plans… Over dinner we met back up with our guide and our 6th companion, who had paddled with Richard during the day. (Erik and Robin were partnered, as were Tank and I). We got to talking and she shared with us that she was on her own Journey, for her own son, who died in a car accident a few months ago. She had spent time near his home and now was visiting places they had talked about going to and sort of dreamed of seeing. One might think a fellow bereaved parent would have the ‘right words to say’ or can somehow do a great job of empathizing, but things don’t really work that way. I suspect that the limits of human empathy and understanding are probably good defensive characteristics, as it would just hurt too much to be able to share sorrow that deeply, and certainly for that long. Better to have friends who can lift you up and carry you when you lose your footing. I hope that it is understandable that I have great difficulty (at least now) with the idea—the situational architecture—of things ‘happening for a reason.’ I just can’t get past the first and biggest exception…Juliet. For whatever reason we crossed paths, I’m happy that it happened and I hope that something—anything—I said made sense and helps somehow, someday. (I mean, I sort of kept talking and talking, so it’s not like any normal person could actually remember everything I said…) Safe travels on your Journey…
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Tallying up donations on the website, it looks like we are getting close to $35K, which is really fantastic! There is yet a long way to go (mileage, donations, calendar days, etc.), but we have some additional heads to shave over the next several days. We’d love your support to get us over $40K so we can give Erik a free haircut before he returns to the lower 48 on Sunday morning. Obviously part of our purpose is to raise awareness about the need to support pediatric cancer research, but this is not merely a literal drive but a fundraising drive and we’d be so honored and happy if you would ‘Ride Along’ with us. So many thanks to everyone who has donated already and those who have favored us with likes and shares. We make such a greater impact when we share this across many, many people and make a difference together.
But tomorrow we’d like to also make a difference by giving Erik a haircut…
Barometer is plummeting, time to get out of Valdez. Next Stop: Denali.