We spent the previous couple of days exploring the nearby attractions. We spent a day at Kailua Beach Park, a gorgeous sandy beach with warm waters and a gentle surf. Here, we could bodyboard without fear of running up against sharp rocks. We brought our snorkeling gear, but there wasn’t much to be seen at the particular part of the beach that we were camped at. We all were in the water for hours: trying to bodyboard, snorkeling, swimming, and just floating around in the warm, buoyant water. The beach is a popular vacation haunt for President Obama and the First Family, and it’s no wonder why. (In fact, he’s slated to be in town for his Christmas vacation starting tomorrow.)
The next day, we toured a few spots on the North Shore on our way to Dole Plantation. We first stopped at a seemingly-unnamed beach near Kawela Bay. The beach here features rocky reefs right near the shore. The surf pulses through here, filling depressions into large pools before pulling the water back out to the sea. Alexis was taken a bit off guard as a big surge of water rolled in and rose up to her waist. We explored the small tidepools and admired the large waves that crashed just off shore.
We continued on the Kamehameha Highway around the North Shore. The Billabong Pipe Masters surfing event is in full swing, apparent via the endless line of vehicles parked along the highway and people in beach attire walking along the road. We found a parking spot and headed down to Pupukea beach. Massive waves pummeled the beach. We were all mesmerized by the size of the waves, rising higher than our heads before crashing down in front of us. A rocky outcropping that separated our beach from Sharks Cove was full of small pools that the kids loved to explore. Huge walls of foamy sea crashed over the wall of rock, refilling the pools.
We then headed over to Dole Plantation, the place where many of the pineapples you eat come from. The main attractions at the plantation are a guided train tour of the pineapple fields, and the proclaimed world’s largest maze. We ate lunch in the cafe: the usual fish sandwich, chicken strips, cheeseburger type fare. A few cats were on the patio dining area, adorably begging for food. The kids marveled at the size of huge snails browsing the foliage surrounding the dining area.
After lunch, we rode the Pineapple Express train tour. The little train chugged us through a sample of various plants and trees, some I had heard of and others I’ve already forgotten the names of. We passed by various machinery used to harvest pineapples while overheard speakers fed us bits of trivia. Did you know it takes 20 months for the first pineapple to grow on a plant? Then, a second one follows 15 months later before the field has to be replanted.
We then entered the Pineapple Maze, which apparently holds a Guinness World Record for being the largest maze. You get a small map and are challenged to find seven stations within the maze. Each station has a slot you put your map card into to trace that station’s icon onto. The idea is once you find all seven stations you can exit the maze and consider it completed. We split into groups. Terry and Drew were the only group to find all seven stations. The rest of us settled for five or six. We spent about 45 minutes in the maze. By this time, the place was shutting down but we had just enough time to go back into the cafe for cups of Dole Whip, which I believe is just pineapple-flavored ice cream with pineapple chunks on top. Whatever it was, it was good.
We headed back past the North Shore towards our house. We made a final stop at Waimea Bay Beach Park, where we watched surfers and bodyboarders attempt the waves. Jett chased some of the wild chicken, one of which took flight to evade him. This effectively ended an argument we had a couple of days ago, where he insisted chickens can’t fly.
“Hey Jett… What’s that chicken doing right now? Huh?!”
My rambunctious nephew Corvin was doing his best “JOOOOHHHNNNNN CEEENNNA!” impression and wrestling with his siblings and cousins. Apparently, Alexis managed to get the best of him when she introduced him to ‘The Peoples’ Elbow’.
We ended the day with margaritas and play on the beach in our back yard.
One should never take for granted, the technology that allows one to go from somewhere near the top of the planet, where the air burns one’s face with cold, to somewhere closer to the middle, where the air envelopes you in a warm embrace, by climbing into a winged cylinder with engines that suck, squeeze, bang, and blow you there in a mere six hours. It’s a fantastic time to be alive.
My family and I landed in Honolulu just before 7pm last night. My wife’s bag didn’t make the flight (the flight apparently was overweight and her bag was one of the lucky few that were held for the next day’s flight). This meant that as soon as we grabbed our rental car our first experience with the local shopping scene was a quick trip into Target for some of the essentials that were supposed to arrive with us in her suitcase.
Famished as we were, we ate at the first restaurant we could find: a joint I had never had been to before called Ruby Tuesday. Their smokehouse cheeseburger is a seriously good eat, but we all agreed that my wife’s Chicken and Broccoli Pasta was the best dish on the table.
We were excited to get to our house, so we hit the road. From Honolulu to Laie–the town we’re staying at–the highway cut us through the middle of the island towards the eastern coast, which we then followed north to Laie. It’s a one-hour drive, but that’s only because most of the drive has a speed limit of 35-45 miles per hour. Much of it was two-lanes winding along the coast. It was dark, so our views were limited. Occasionally, the road skirted close enough to the beach that streetlights illuminated the water. I think I even saw some turtles, but I’m the only one that believes me. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our home for the next week plus.
We rented a large, five-bedroom house right on the beach. We’re sharing it with my brother-in-law and his family who are arriving a day after us. After a most brief tour of the house, we went out back to check out the beach. Apparently, some of the beaches on Oahu are seasonal and we were expecting ours to be one of them. To our good fortune, a most quintessential sandy beach is just outside our back door and ready for our enjoyment. It was too dark to see much, but from what we could make out by the light of my LED headlamp (which I never leave home without!) we had quite a space to enjoy as soon as the daylight showed itself.
The stars were magnificent. Fortunately, the light pollution here is very minimal and I had a limitless view into the heavens. Stars and planets glistened brilliantly above the crashing surf below. The Geminids meteor shower peaking, it was almost too much to believe.
After a long day of traveling and the extra fatigue that always accompanies 3,000 miles worth of flying, we were all exhausted. The wife and kids went to sleep, but I was too excited to follow suit. I was up until nearly 2am sitting in the back yard, photographing the stars and watching meteors streak across the sky. Some of them brilliantly shot below the eastern horizon, appearing as if they were landing in the ocean. I sat out there on the wet grass and breathed humid air until Jupiter had climbed well above the horizon. I finally came inside and let the ocean lull me to sleep.
The next morning our plan was to get the rest of the things we needed for our stay: a trip to Costco, acquiring our snorkel gear, and arranging the delivery for our missing bag. My son and I swam in the ocean while waiting for the other two to get ready to go. The current is remarkably strong on our beach, almost impossible to swim directly against. It was fun letting the current pull me along the coast while I floated.
Everyone ready to go get our shopping out the way, we hopped in the car. We skirted the north shore on the way to the Costco in Waipio, driving past endless roadside shops, fruit stands, food trucks, and surfers. We passed myriad fields, growing coffee, sugar cane and pineapple. We stocked up on groceries and then made the return trip back. We stopped at a few places along the way. We bought fresh fruit and a few trinkets (I got a wooden beaded bracelet for $3.50 from a store that had the most docile cats lounging around. I thought being a cat in Hawaii might not be a bad reincarnation.)
Back at the house, the kids and I went to play in the water. I had warned my daughter about the current and had her experience it for herself as I swam nearby. Eventually, my son wanted to try out the bodyboards that came with the house. The waves, at that time, weren’t the best for bodyboarding but it was fun floating around on the things. I paddled out near a reef that’s just off shore and tried to ride the current back onto the beach. As I neared the beach, I came upon a shallower spot with jagged rocks below me. I scraped the top of my foot against one of the rocks. I tried to stand and wade away from the potential danger but it was too late. A larger wave crashed over my head and pushed my body down onto the razor-sharp rocks. I received a couple cuts on my wrist, one of my fingers, and my foot. Nothing serious, but enough to reinforce the potential danger to my kids. Unfortunately, they seemed less concerned with my wounds and more excited by the fact that my blood might attract sharks. “Stay in the water, dad! I want to see the sharks!”
We cooked tacos for dinner and sat around watching movies. I cracked my bottle of Laphroaig, which paired nicely with the sea breeze flowing through the beach house.
The Barber Cabin is a public-use cabin located in Chugach National Forest, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Nestled in the forest just off-shore of Lower Russian Lake, this rustic cabin is a well-built retreat and a wonderful place to go for a time-out. The cabin rental features a floating dock and a canoe to enjoy the lake with (life-vests are provided). Just off shore you can look south to an awe-inspiring view of Skilak Glacier and the icefield above it. If you explore the southern edge of the lake, you might even catch a glimpse of the crashed remains of an amphibious aircraft from a bygone era.
The cabin features a traditional wood stove, two bunk beds that will comfortably sleep 4 people (or more, if you’re friendly), a table and benches, and plenty of counter-space for meal preparation. Outside is a woodshed (with tools for gathering firewood but I highly recommend dragging in your own) and a surprisingly-well-maintained outhouse. Access is by an ADA-accessible trail approximately 3 miles from the trailhead in the Russian River campground.
The rental fee is currently $45 per night. The Forest is proposing raising that to $75 over the next three years, so you might save some money by going sooner rather than later. Still, at $75 it will still be quite a value.
After a long day and a 3.5-mile hike in the Alaskan wilderness, the youngest member of our family, Gretzky, takes a load off. We stayed at the Barber Cabin, at Lower Russian Lake near Cooper Landing, Alaska, for a few days in mid-August 2015. I snapped this photo as everyone was resting and unwinding after toting all of our gear in on the mountain trail. Gretzky didn’t carry anything, but he’s still a puppy and was just as tired as everyone else.
I took this photo in July, 2015. It was my first time visiting Independence Mine, up Hatcher Pass in Alaska. We explored the abandoned mine and followed various footpaths in the surrounding mountain scene. I really wasn’t sure where the trails would take me. Every once in awhile, a flash of orange could be seen scrambling up the rocky landscape. The color contrasted so beautifully with the gray of the mountains. Despite the contrast, the orange robes of the Buddhist monk seemed to belong in this setting.
As we were leaving, I looked back to see this scene. I managed to snap this photo from the back seat of a moving pick-up truck. I was surprised I was able to get the scene in focus and without motion blur. During post-processing, I desaturated everything but the orange to make the image stand out the way it always will in my memory.
Alaska’s Independence Mine is located in what is now the Independence Mine State Historical Park, located in Hatcher Pass. The mine was built in 1934. The mine was closed in 1943, as US involvement in World War II deemed gold mining non-essential to the war effort. Following the war, the mine was re-opened. According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources:
“The wartime ban was lifted in 1946, but gold mining was slow to recover. After the war, gold could be sold only to the U.S. government at a fixed rate of $35 per ounce. Postwar inflation raged, and gold mining became an unprofitable venture. Finally, in January of 1951, after mining nearly 6 million dollars’ worth of gold, Independence Mine was closed by APC, and a chapter of Alaska’s gold mining history came to an end.”
In this photo, you can see Bunkhouse #1 and other support structures. In the distance is Bodenburg Butte, near the city of Palmer, Alaska. Beyond that is the towering Talkeetna Mountain range, with Pioneer Peak visible on the right edge.
Following some rumors and vague leads on the internet, we set out to search a couple of potential candidate areas for what once was known as Kern Creek Station. From what I’ve learned thus far, at one point in the early 1900s Kern Creek Station was the northern terminus of the central Alaska railroad system. Pictures found in online archives show an established community at this place, with a bridge crossing Kern Creek and surrounded on both sides by various structures. We were sure remnants of this place must still exist, so we set out in search of them.
Along the way, we pulled into the rest area near the Hope turn-off. Parked there was the most awesome camper trailer I had ever seen.
The camper was hand-built by a man named Bill Guernsey, who resides in Anchorage. He was kind enough to let me take a look inside. I was too struck by the intricate details of his work to think to take a picture. You can read all about his project, and what inspired it in the first place, here.
The camper wasn’t the only beautiful piece of engineering in the parking lot that day. I took a moment to gawk at what I believe is a 70s-era Volkswagen Thing.
The side-stop out of the way, we got back on the road to fulfill our objective. The first, and most seemingly-obvious candidate location, was Kern Creek itself. We parked at a pull-out along the Seward Highway and walked north until we reached the outflow of the creek where it spills into the Cook Inlet at Turnagain Arm. Two large culverts carry the creek underneath the highway and railroad tracks. Because the creek runs completely under the highway, there are no markers to indicate that you’re driving over the creek. In fact, I’d suggest that very few people even know Kern Creek exists. At the culverts, we considered traveling through them but the water was flowing quite swiftly and was undoubtedly very cold. Instead, we climbed back up to the highway and crossed. From there, we climbed a small embankment up to the railroad bed, and crossed it as well. There, we dropped down to the creek. Immediately, we could see a number of metal beams standing up in the mud. I suspect this to be part of the old rail bridge that crossed the creek. We didn’t see any signs of additional structures.
Where the creek enters the culverts, we noticed a number of US flags affixed to a large rocky cliff that’s adjacent to the creek. In the center of the flags was a small cadastral survey marker, bearing the name of Paul Owen Johnson, with the dates “3.10.1945 – 8.12.2010”.
We took in the current view from this location: The rock with the memorial, the forest of metal beams protruding out of the muddy ground, the rushing creek flowing into two large culverts. One side of the creek met steep walls of rock and soil. The other featured dense alders and other impassable flora. Perhaps with tall waterproof boots, we would have waded up the creek. Instead, we opted to cut into the trees on the north side of the creek and head upstream. A few dozen yards in, we met the creek where it bends around a corner. From this point, the creek appears to flow through a gorge, with steep rock walls on both sides. We found a small trail that led up above the northern wall of the gorge. We followed it up into luscious rainforest. The ground was coated in mosses and ferns. Sunlight trickled in and transformed everything into gold. Birds sang all overhead. We followed the path up and down the ridge above the creek until we heard the water below moving very swiftly. Through the trees we could see white water that matched the rushing sounds below. We picked our way down the bank, grasping at roots and rock and trees, until we reached a small rock outcrop that protruded over the creek. Here, the water was a torrent. For millennia, the water beat itself against the rocks, both carving them away and polishing them simultaneously. What was left was the smoothest, shiny gray rock I have ever seen. It could have been confused for metal.
We scrambled back up to the top of the gorge. We pushed forward a hundred or so more yards before writing off the chance of finding a historic civilization. We vowed to return someday to follow the path as far it would take us, up and into the mountains. We headed back to the road taking various detours to check out cool trees or interesting mushrooms. Once we made it back down to the culverts, we climbed back up onto the railbed. Instead of immediately dropping back down and across the highway, we chose to follow the railroad tracks south until we were directly across the highway from the car. We noticed various loose pieces of the railroad: spikes, bolts and nuts, various brackets. All were made of a very heavy and rusted metal. They were scattered everywhere. As we were walking alongside the tracks, a pick-up truck with some sort of rail attachment came down the rails in our direction. I thought to myself, ‘great, now we’re going to learn that walking this close to the tracks is some sort of federal offense and we’re going to be arrested.’ He looked down as he passed us, and nodded. Phew. We dipped back down to the highway and crossed it, and got into the car to head to our next presumed destination.
Just a few miles up the road, we pulled in to park for our next journey. There wasn’t a real parking area; only a few vehicles could fit there, but it worked for us. We got out of the car and started walking towards our destination.
From the parking lot, we almost immediately had to cross the railroad tracks; however, we had to wait for a few minutes. Some behemoth tree-trimming machine revealed itself on the tracks. On either side, it had long articulating arms with what appeared to be rapidly-rotating circular saw blades at the ends. The machine was slowly moving down the tracks, while reaching out and buzzing to oblivion any tree unfortunate to be within its reach.
It slowly made its way passed us. We paralleled the tracks for a few dozen yards before crossing, then continued onto what appeared to be an old road. Aside from a pile of dirt and the railroad tracks, the path we were on could have been driven in my little two-wheel-drive car. We thought for sure this road was going to take us somewhere, especially since this area looked promising in aerial photographs. We were excited to see the long-forgotten village of Kern. We were extremely let down. What we found, after traveling a hundred or so yards down the path, was a clearing filled with junk. This was apparently the place where, I’m assuming, the locals go to shoot their guns. All around were bullet cases and spent shotgun shells. There were fragments of clay pigeons all around, but there was just as much, if not more, discarded household items that had apparently made attractive targets. Destroyed appliances, toys, and other bits of metal and plastic were scattered everywhere. What looked like the home of a forgotten village from space was nothing more than a junkyard from down here.
We bushwhacked around in the surrounding brush and trees, hoping to find a clue leading to Kern but turned up nothing besides a bunch of scratches to the exposed skin on my arms and legs. We were deflated, yet hungry, so we headed into Girdwood for lunch.
Girdwood is a wonderful community. For those that aren’t aware, it’s the quintessential ski-resort town which brings with it a unique set of residents, visitors, businesses, and public displays. The highway into town is bordered by unique shops and businesses, offering everything from handmade clothing to adventure travel packages. It also has a fine selection of dining opportunities. For lunch, we chose the Chair 5 Restaurant. It’s a cozy, wooden building artfully decorated with various Alaskana. You have your typical animal mounts and antiques hanging from the walls, as well as some more unique items like this movie poster:
There are dozens of beers available, from local micro brews, to pub beers from around the country, to foreign imports. They also offer a brag-worthy selection of single-malt scotches. I chose the Pike’s Kilt Lifter ale, which tasted amazing after our day in the sun. For lunch, we each chose the Tundra Burger, which has a locally-produced patty that consists of bison and caribou. I kind of expected it to taste more gamey, but it tasted very similar to a quality beef. It was a wonderful meal that we enjoyed in an atrium section of the restaurant. After lunch, we headed back south–the direction of home–but still had one more stop to make.
Anyone that has lived in Alaska is very aware of the great Good Friday earthquake that occurred in 1964, and anyone that has spent much time in Southcentral Alaska has probably seen evidence of that massive quake that still remains to this day. Travelers passing through Portage, which is a few miles south of Girdwood on the Seward Highway, have surely noticed the dilapidated and half-submerged structures that are visible from the road.
I’ve been intrigued by those buildings for as long as I’ve been tall enough to look out a car window and see them. I have always known that they were the result of the Good Friday Earthquake, but I never really understood what exactly happened. As a kid, I imagined that the reason that they are slightly submerged was because the ground opened up and swallowed them. I believed that there was an entire city buried there, where the gaping maw of Earth consumed it and then closed back up forever. What I know today isn’t that dramatic, but it’s still amazing nonetheless. During the earthquake, the land that Portage (and other areas of the state) was built upon dropped significantly. Water from Cook Inlet rushed in to fill the area that was now below sea level. This flooding was ultimately what drove the town of Portage to extinction. Over the years, I’ve watched the buildings in that area decay away. They’re sagging and fading and becoming a part of the Earth again. Left alone, I can’t imagine it being more than a few more decades that they’ll even be visible. So, I wanted to explore them while I still had the chance. I wanted to satisfy the urge to explore them that I had ever since I was a young child. So why not now? We parked across the highway at the small tourist-trap rail depot. I’m not entirely sure what all goes on at that place, but it advertises various railroad excursions. There’s not a station or anything though, so I’m not really sure how it all works. I did see some portable staircases, so I’m assuming people actually board trains there. I’ve just never seen it happen.
We hopped across the highway and started backtracking to the visible buildings. We noticed a number of signs that indicated the area behind them was a reservation and trespassing was prohibited. Fortunately, those signs ended before we reached the Portage buildings. We walked up to the first building and examined it. The wood was gray and the structure was clearly deteriorating. I don’t know what I expected to see, but I was surprised at how little what was left resembled a building. The earth had eaten the floor and vegetation was wrapping its way around the building’s exterior. We had to duck our heads to get underneath any part of the structure. Where paint remained, it was chipping and faded. Graffiti was ubiquitous, and it wasn’t even anything creative or interesting. The second and subsequent buildings were about the same. One of the buildings was more recognizable as such than the others, I could make out what must have been a hall area and various rooms. The buildings all seemed to be no more bigger than mobile trailer homes. We continued to explore the site, expecting to see more of the extinct town. I had seen pictures of Portage pre-quake, so I knew at one time there was more than what I was seeing today. Unfortunately, there’s surprisingly little left to show for it. We walked in the direction of Cook Inlet. Something shiny caught our eye so we walked towards it. There, growing out of the earth was a gleaming chrome bumper, reflecting the bright summer light. We poked around near it and realized that an entire vehicle was connected to that bumper, mostly buried and with few removable parts remaining. We left it to continue its slow and steady decomposition.
We scrambled back to the car and got back onto the highway for the last time that day. I spent the two-hour drive home reflecting on the events of the day. Were we disappointed that we didn’t find what we were looking for? Sure, at least slightly. We didn’t find our ghosts. But this disappointment was made up for with the satisfaction of finding what we weren’t even looking for. A gorgeous day under the Alaskan sun can never go wrong.
“The earth has music for those who listen.” ― George Santayana
August 30 – September 1, 2012
To follow-up our Johnson Pass adventure, Terry and I set our sights on a multi-day trek from Girdwood to Eagle River, completing another section of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. We decided to spend nights over the course of the 24-mile trail, starting on the evening of August 30. After work, we gathered our supplies and drove to Girdwood. We parked and were on the trail shortly after 6pm. From the trailhead parking lot, we watched a black bear criss-cross a snow chute on an adjacent slope. Starting as late as we did, our plan was to climb the 2,000+ feet up to Crystal Lake and pitch a tent for the night.
The steepest section of the Crow Pass trail exists between Girdwood and Crystal Lake. In fact, after climbing less than three miles from Girdwood, the remaining 20+ miles are almost entirely a gently-sloping downhill heading north.
The trail begins as wide as and flat as a road. One or two gentle switchbacks will take you up the first mile. You quickly reach and pass treeline as you find yourself surrounded by mountains. The trail becomes less-pronounced after about two miles, as you make your way past relics from the historic Monarch mine, which operated from 1909 to 1938.
Crow Creek zips through a steep valley to the west, separating you from the steep slope of the mountains just on the other side. Sheer cliffs loom over you to the east and north, as well. You find yourself feeling dwarfed amongst the formidable stone. Scan the cliffs to the east and you’re likely to view mountain goats, as they expertly maneuver through impossible cliff sections. Below them in the talus fields you find yourself walking through, you may hear some quick chirping sounds and catch a burst of movement through your peripheral vision. Pause and watch closely and the shapes of hoary marmots will begin to expose themselves within the nooks and crannies of the stacked rocks. Members of the genus marmota, these large rodents are visibly similar to groundhogs. Their call is a high-pitched chirp, which has earned them the nickname “whistle-pig”. Also found in abundance in this environment is the arctic ground squirrel.
We continue climbing. Milk Glacier becomes visible in front of us as we cut west, Crow Creek rushing down below us. The elevation gain is steep, but I’m feeling fine. A few minutes later, our climb levels out and we head over to the Crow Pass cabin, and the shores of the small Crystal Lake. Just as we arrived at the cabin, the wind quickened and a snow flurry whipped up. We took advantage of the empty cabin, rather than fighting the wind and snow to pitch a tent outdoors. It was exciting to go to sleep knowing that from here on out, the rest of the trail is virtually all downhill.
The next morning, we got up, filtered water from Crystal Lake, and continued north on the pass. The air was chilly, with alpine winds gusting. Within just a few minutes, and after crossing some pools and small boulders, we arrived at Crow Pass proper at an elevation of 3,883 feet. We stopped briefly for our obligatory handshake photo and gawked at Raven Glacier.
I struggle to describe glaciers with words; they can only be fully articulated by experience. At a glance, they appear as massive and unmoving as the mountains, solid sentinels and icy fortresses. Spend a few minutes analyzing a glacier and you’ll realize these are complex, living structures. Glaciers spawn rivers, creeks, and lakes. House-sized slabs of magnificently blue ice regularly calve and crash on the ground or in the water below. Crevasses creak and crack, new fissures are born. All the while, the glacier slowly flows out of the ice-field above. Underneath, the glacier effortlessly carves its way through mountains, pulverizing bedrock, turning stone into powder. Glaciers have a way of confusing the human sense of scale and perspective. A glacier that appears within a stone’s throw can be a mile away. It’s not until you approach the glacier that you get a complete sense of how large they are, but by then, you’re looking at a wall of blue ice, decorated with labyrinthine passages. with no way of fully realizing its height or depth. I’m consumed with bittersweet emotions: both elated by the opportunity to co-exist with these rivers of ice, yet wracked with grief knowing that mine very well could be one of the last few generations that will enjoy this opportunity.
We pick our way down the trail, carefully finding our way across the top of this moraine. We pass a couple as they take delicate steps down the same moraine. While the clouds are just above our heads up here in the alpine, we have a miles-long view down the valley. Sun shines into the valley, an invitation that beckons. We reach the bottom of the moraine and strategically cross streams; Raven Creek mixes with the runoff barreling down from the mountains on the other side of the valley. The convergence of all of this water requires careful navigation. On drier days, this section is probably much less challenging. From this point, the trail parallels Raven Creek for a number of miles as we slowly descend into the valley. Flanked on each side by steep mountains, I feel strangely comforted. Golden sunshine now dominates the landscape and the colorful vegetation pops out at us. We cross a couple of bridges that take us over the torrential flow of Raven Creek, as it slams through the gorge it has carved out of the valley. Back on the east side of the creek, we take a rest in a field of cranberry and moss. I toast a Pabst Blue Ribbon towards a half-dozen mountain goats that gracefully grip the slimmest of rock ledges and frolic in out-of-place grassy fields high up on the mountains. By this time, I’m halfway through my 10-pack of burritos and chocolate/cherry trail mix.
The trail continues to ramp down the valley. We now have some distance between us and the rushing creek; it’s below us and to the west, as the trail sidehills us on the eastern wall of the valley. Now, the vegetation–pushki (cow parsnip), alders, and grasses–grow high along each side of the trail. Visibility becomes very limited, and I become more alert knowing that this is the type of terrain that’s conducive to bears surprising human, and vice versa. We make plenty of noise as we travel through this living flora tunnel. A couple passes us the other way; they haven’t seen any bears, but are being just as cautious as we are. If the bears don’t get us first, we’ll be to my most anticipated part of the trip in a few hours: fording the glacially fed Eagle River.
The trail drops us below treeline and into forest. We’ve entered a completely different environment, one of many we’ve experienced on this trip. The woody shade offers respite from the beating sun. A branch snaps and we lock eyes with a large cow moose; she nonchalantly continues munching on willow branches. A few breaks in the trees provide a rare glimpse of snow and ice: Eagle Glacier.
The sound of Eagle River escalates with each step. The trail walks us right to the edge of the river, where we get our first taste of what we’ll be soon wading across. A sign affixed to a tree points out the way to the “Ford Site”. We go up and down a few small hills next to the river, gaining a few views of the broad glacier, before bringing us to a dried gravel streambed. I can only assume that what we’re walking on now is a part of Eagle River during times of heavy thaw. The trail has been erased, but we notice a kiosk up ahead towards the glacier. The kiosk provides information on crossing the river: travel as a group, link arms, maintain as many points of contact with the riverbed as possible, loosen backpack straps in case you fall and need to get out them in a hurry, cross between the posts identifying the best ford points, etc.
This is the part of the trip that I have been thinking about the most during the weeks between committing to this trip and now. I had waded through frigid snowmelt on Johnson Pass and found the experience nearly unbearable. It wasn’t so much the stepping into the water that hurt–you go numb quickly–but moreso after stepping back out. The thawing of human bones is an excruciating endeavor. If I found those shin-high, few-step treks through snowmelt a challenge, how was I supposed to cross a broad river, waist-deep, yards away from being a glacier itself? I purposely left that question unanswered when I set out on this trip.
I swapped my boots for some crocs, left my hiking pants on, and stepped in. Jarring at first, but numbness quickly set in. Tunnel vision took over and my only thoughts were making a beeline across this river without getting debilitating cramps, slipping and falling, or deciding it was just too much and that I’d rather turn around and climb my way back up to Girdwood.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it felt nowhere near as bad as the smaller streams I waded through on Johnson Pass, even though it was considerably longer (it wasn’t until I got home and watched the video that I realized that it took over four minutes to cross, most of which was spent in the water [I apologize for the video quality, but I wasn’t setting out to make a great film of the crossing. I merely let my camera dangle from my neck and record while I crossed the river.]) I also wasn’t expecting it to be as deep as it was, nearly waist-high. In spite of this, it was a piece of cake. I’m not sure why, but it may be attributed to a few different things. It might have something to do with me leaving my pant legs on. I’m thinking that it perhaps added a layer of insulation that saved my shins the brunt of the frigid river. If not that, it could be general conditioning. I was in overall better shape for Crow Pass and perhaps my body had better circulation. Finally, this crossing came at the end of a long, hot day of descending down the valley. Maybe my legs were so hot from all of the effort that the chill of the river was mitigated. Whatever it was, I’m glad it happened and I look forward to it on future trips.
After the crossing, we quickly dried off and got back into our boots. We wanted to get moving and get our body heat back up. On the north shore of the river, we entered tree cover. We crossed over another stream, this time with the aid of a tree balanced over both shores. Just above my head was a rope to use to maintain your balance as you cross, but I didn’t notice it until I had already tight-ropedmy way over (it was blocked by the bill of my hat). Once across we ran into a group of women that had just crossed the river not too long before us. We followed them for a few miles as the sun went down. We opted to camp next to each other and share a fire. We cooked some food, hung our food in the trees, and got a restful night of sleep.
The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, broke camp, and headed out for the remaining few (6 – 10) miles of the trip. The rest of the hike is mostly level ground through forest, with the occasional stream crossing (nothing you have to get wet about). At one point, you have the forest and river to your left and piles of shattered rock at the base of the steep peaks to your right. We split up from the women during this section, as they picked their way across the rock field and we took a path in the trees. Throughout the rest of the hike, we leapfrogged each other as each group would stop for breaks. Following the rock field, we crossed through a muddy path surrounded by grass taller than us. My bear-awareness perked back up and we made sure to make plenty of noise. This part of the trail generally has a few negative human/bear incidents each year, even as recently as a couple of days before us passing through the same spot. My “bear-dar” pinged through the roof as we passed a bear’s cache site (a half-buried moose). Getting between a bear and its cache is nearly as bad as getting between a bear and its cubs. Fortunately, we made it through this section relatively quickly. As we made our way closer to the end of the trail, we started running into people out on day-hikes. The more people we passed, the less concerned I became about the bears. The last couple of miles are always the longest, and this was no exception. The trail takes you up and down a few moderate hills, out near the river, and then back into the forest. The last stretch features a man-made gravel trailbed and a boardwalk through some particularly wet sections. A sign was posted on a closed gate on one of the side-trails, saying it was closed due to extreme bear activity.
Finally, structures became visible and we arrived at the Eagle River Nature Center and the end of our trek. Overall, it was a very enjoyable way to experience Alaskan wilderness. If you’ve got time for just one trip like this, and you feel up to the challenge, Crow Pass would be my top recommendation.
With a -5.5-foot tide set for 10am, we left Towers de la Marquis at around 8:30am and set out on the 80-mile drive to Homer. Low tides, revealing hundreds of extra yards of gravel, sand, or mud (depending on the beach) aren’t exactly what most people have in mind when they think of prime beach-going times. When most lower-48 Americans think of a day at the beach, images of surfers, kids splashing in a gentle surf, sunbathing, and sand castles are conjured up. But in Alaska, think less sandals and more Xtratufs. A receding tide at Bishop’s Beach, in Homer, makes a seafloor world accessible to anyone not afraid to get a little bit muddy.
The drive between Kenai and Homer is generally enjoyable, with great views of Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Range visible for most of the drive. You’re all but guaranteed to see moose browsing alongside the highway, and a handful of immense eagle nests. This highway also takes you through Anchor Point, which marks the westernmost point on the US highway system. Another 20 minutes driving South brings you to the hill that descends to the City of Homer, but not before offering one of the most breathtaking Alaskan views.
It’s funny to think of local sign ordinances that prohibit signs that might be considered too distracting to drivers. I dare you to try and keep your eyes off of the road when confronted with the view above.
Once in Homer, we took the turn into “old town” and parked in the close-to-full parking lot for Bishop’s Beach. The especially low tide had brought out dozens of other tide-poolers as well. Almost immediately, we spotted a couple of small crabs, hardly bigger than a thumbnail, as well as various small shells. My 11-year-old, Jett, and I headed straight for the tideline, while my wife, Jan, daughter, Alexis, and niece walked north towards some larger rocks.
Jett and I quickly noticed small mounds in the sand that resembled small volcanoes. Looking towards the water, their frequency increased dramatically. Near the water’s edge, we were surrounded by a veritable minefield of these things. Not only that, but there were sounds accompanying them, a sort of sizzling, bubbling sound. A persistent white noise, clearly audible, yet hardly the focus. We noticed that many of them had small pink appendages poking out of them. At first, I believed they must be clams. Clams are prevalent–though populations appear to be declining–along the southern Kenai Peninsula; however, I’m familiar with razor clams which leave an indentation in the sand, not the opposite that these things created. Jett reached in to see if he could feel a shell surrounding this new specimen. He quickly took on the challenge of trying to get one of them out of the sand. In typical clam-digging fashion, he dug out the ground beside the mound and then cut in horizontally to get underneath it. The water table was so high and saturated that this become a lot more difficult than it sounds. As soon as he started digging, water began to rapidly fill up his holes. A number of times he was able to get his fingers on one of the animals, but it would quickly slip from his grip and disappear into the muddy puddle that remained of his digging efforts. After a number of failed attempts, he finally caught one and we realized we weren’t dealing with clams after all.
After this, Jett ran off to catch up with his mother and the girls. I continued skirting the water’s edge, looking for life, and snapping photos of the scenery.
I found another kind of worm and spent a few minutes watching it undulate in the shallow water.
The tide moved in quickly. While I’m used to big tides living next to Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which boast some of the largest on our planet, what was remarkable about the tides in Bishop’s Beach on this day were how quickly, yet calmly, they moved in. I’m used to the tide rising in waves; literally. Each wave comes in, breaks, and recedes. On the average, the breaking water comes further and further on shore, and recedes less and less, until the tide turns and the water goes back out. However, at this time and location, it acted in a way I hadn’t experienced before. First of all, the water was glass calm, both near the shore and across the whole of Kachemak Bay. Secondly, it appears the beach in this area is very flat. Both the calmness of the water and the vast flat plain for it to come in on, made for an incoming tide that was truly unique.
I picked up my pace to catch up with my family to see what all they had discovered, stopping a few times to snap some more photos.
I came across a large rock that was partially submerged. The water surrounding it and the depression it made in the sand created a well around it that became a prime habitat for tidepool organisms. A small hermit crab swim-crawled its way around the rock, eventually working its way under it and out of my view.
The rocks themselves were teeming with life. Barnacles, mussels, vegetation and other organisms lived in and on the rocks.
Finally, I caught up with the family and heard their stories about the crabs and sea stars they had seen; and no, they hadn’t seen any octopuses yet. As a group, we explored dozens of tidepools. They were more suited to the terrain in their waterboots; I, however, had to choose my steps deliberately, having only equipped myself with my hiking boots (Gore-Tex is great, but it can’t stop the water from coming in from the top). I too saw sea stars and crabs, as well as small shrimps, sea anemones, and urchins. By this time, we were more than a mile from our car. I noticed the tide was starting to come in with purpose (I wasn’t sure just how high it would end up and was cautious about becoming stranded), and we were all fairly famished, so we started back towards Carl (that’s the name of my reliable car). As we picked our route on our trek back, we crossed another tidepool that had a solitary silver fish swimming about in it.
After getting around the large rocks, streams, and pools, a stable rocky path skirted the bluff at the top of the beach and brought us back to the parking lot.
We left Bishop’s Beach and headed for the Homer Spit, a natural 4.5-mile-long strip of land extending into the ocean, for a much-needed lunch at Starvin’ Marvin’s pizza place, which very well might serve the best pizza and breadsticks on the Kenai Peninsula. After lunch, we cruised the Spit to the end of the road, which is the southernmost point in Alaska connected to the contiguous highway system. During the Summer months, the Spit transforms into a tourist mecca, with dozens of shops peddling their wares, foods, and other forms of Alaskana. The Homer Boat Harbor, along the Spit, is host to hundreds of personal and commercial fishing boats–including the Time Bandit, made famous on the Discovery Channel show, Deadliest Catch–and cruise ships.
If you happen to find yourself in Southcentral Alaska, a trip down the Kenai Peninsula should be a part of anyone’s itinerary.
And if you happen to be there on a beautiful day with a low tide, you may never want to go back home.
I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. – Leonard Cohen
July 4-6, 2012, My brother-in-law and I, along with our families, set out to spend a long Independence Day weekend in Caines Head State Recreation Area, south of Seward, Alaska. We reserved the Derby Cove cabin for two nights, planning on that serving as our home base as we explored the surrounding area. Since we were staying two nights, and we were bringing all of our kids, we weren’t exactly packing light. To accommodate this more conveniently, we decided to hire a water taxi to take one of us and all of our gear over to the cabin while the rest took the coastal hike to the cabin. While the trail isn’t particularly arduous (save some challenging spots on the beach if you grow impatient waiting for low tide), lightening the load allowed the kids (and adults) a more comfortable hike over and allowed us to carry more gear. We decided that I would take the water taxi and all of the gear, secure it in the cabin, and then hike back towards Seward after the tide had lowered to meet the rest of the group somewhere in the middle.
The water taxi took me from Millers’ Landing, at Lowell Point, to Derby Cove in about 15 minutes. The captain of the small skiff pulled the boat right up onto the beach, I threw all of our gear onto the beach, and hopped out. The taxi pulled away and headed south to some other patron. It was now just me, a hundred or two pounds of gear, and everything that this Alaskan wilderness rainforest had in store for me.
From the beach, I couldn’t see the cabin and wasn’t quite sure where it was; however, an orange buoy hanging from a tree seemed to be propitious. I walked towards it and noticed a trail heading back into the rainforest. I pulled our gear up to a point that I felt was out of the reach of the tide and waves, strapped on my pack, and headed up the trail. A raven flew overhead just as I entered the trees. It made a call and plopped down on makeshift bench fabricated from driftwood.
Just a few steps into the trees, I became slightly overwhelmed as the rainforest instantly consumed me. To my right, a steep slope was decorated abundantly with ancient spruce trees adorned with large clumps of soft moss on nearly every branch. To my left, a low-lying wetland with small meandering streams drained the mountains into the ocean. The path was narrow, but the footing was fine. I felt small amongst these ancient, behemoth trees. About 50 yards in, the trail widened. I could see a gray outhouse ahead. A few more steps in, the cabin became visible. To the right of the cabin, a small, yet powerful, waterfall came cascading down through the trees. Near the front of the cabin its flow slowed and pooled up, from there becoming a more casual stream that, after a few twists and turns, relinquished itself to Resurrection Bay. This all made for one of the most wondrous camping locales I’ve ever experienced. A small foot bridge took me over this stream and to the steps of the cabin. Inside, two sets of bunk beds, a wood stove, a picnic table, and some shelves. Enough light came through the windows to allow me to observe the cabin’s interior, but the light came filtered through the thick forest which created a surreal and subdued atmosphere. The quality craftsmanship of the cabin softened the sounds of the rushing water just outside. To sit in this cabin and to do nothing else would have been a relaxing retreat all on its own.
But there was some work to do; no time to get comfortable yet. I made a few trips to the water and back, dragging most of the gear up to the cabin. I left a larger, heavy tote to cart up with the help of my party once they arrived.
Excited to be able to show off our new home for the next couple of days, I decided I’d skirt the coast and head north towards everyone else, albeit at a pace dictated by the shrinking tide. A light rain combined with the ocean to create a comfortably humid environment. The coast in this area consists of steep cliffs to the west and Resurrection Bay to the east. Sections of these cliffs jut out further towards the ocean, while in other areas they recede for a few yards, exposing a larger beach area. My trip north had me waiting for the tide at some of the rocky outcroppings. The rock was slicked with slimy green algae, and sloped directly into the water. I, admittedly ill-conceived, risked climbing over some of the segments; one simple slip on this frictionless foundation would immediately crash my bones down on the rock and then summarily deposit me into the frigid ocean.
I got lucky: I only slipped in once.
So I trekked north, crawling into pockets of exposed beach and waiting for a few minutes for the tide to recede so I could make it through another segment. A tour boat slowly motored up the Bay. I could feel the passengers training their binoculars on me.
“Is that guy trapped? Should we call for help?” The vessel’s Park Ranger would assure them, “Nah, he’s just stupid”, and then resume his lecture on how evolution has spent millions of years naturally selecting only the best-adapted wildlife to find this environment habitable.
After making my way just over half a mile, I passed the other public use cabin in the area: Callisto. Unlike the Derby Cove cabin, Callisto is fairly visible from the beach and the water. It’s not immediately on the beach, but the area in front of it is cleared out making it easy to spot. Damp wood was burning in Callisto’s stove, exhaling soft white smoke through its rooftop chimney. A family of four were on the beach in front of me, presumably Callisto’s residents for the day, exploring the rocky beach. I passed them by, continuing towards my approaching family.
I came upon a large rock that rose abruptly out of the water and connected with the cliff bluff. As I examined it for a potential way to get over or around it, I heard voices over the other side. I was able to climb up enough to peer over the top, and there was the rest of the gang. Terry was just on the other side of the rock, facing the direction of the rest of the family that were huddled up a dozen or so yards further north. I made some sort of loud silly remark, activating Terry’s hyper-startle syndrome. The noise he made attracted the rest of the family and we began talking to each other over the rock. For awhile, I was just a few feet away from my family, but I may as well have been separated by miles. Through very careful and deliberate acrobatics, I was able get up and over the rock and reunited with everyone else. Our team was complete, but we were still over a mile away from the cabin. Between Terry, a dog leash, some grippy barnacles, and myself, we got the entire family–and dog–over the rock and safely onto the beach from whence I had just came (honestly, by the time we were all over the rock I do believe the tide had receded enough that we could have just walked around it). No more obstacles to maneuver, we had an enjoyable walk to Derby Cove; whales splashed just off-shore and the kid investigated the nooks and crannies of the cliffs bordering the beach.
We arrived at the cabin and got settled in. Terry popped open a 10-serving can of Chili Mac Mountain House and we had ourselves a splendid little feast. It had been a long day for all of us, getting up and driving to Seward, the hike and water taxi, and hauling the gear to the cabin. The rain picked up and we snoozed under the sound of rain beating down on the cabin’s tin roof.
The next day we got up, had breakfast, and set out for Caines Head proper and on up to Fort McGilvray. The rain continued through the night and showed no signs of stopping any time soon. From our cabin, we had a short hike that climbed us over the hill that dropped down to what’s officially considered Caines Head State Recreation Area. There you’ll find a ranger’s cabin, a rocky beach, and–most likely–tents, kayaks, and fellow adventurers. From the beach, an old military road, though now a trail, was our path to Fort McGilvray. You could tell that the trail was well-cared-for and normally pleasant to travel upon. On this day, however, the trail seemed less footpath and more streambed. The trail had a few moderately steep sections that, when covered in running mud and water, were tricky to get us and the kids through. There was no getting through the trek without getting soaked, and the sooner we realized it the easier the hike became. We were all thoroughly soaked, but we all handled it well. The trail alternates between dense forest and jaw-dropping views of Resurrection Bay. Along the way we found and explored a couple of bunkers or caches of some sort, concrete and steel that a World War would inspire. We continued on and finally arrived at the fort.
Fort McGilvray is a subterranean military fortification built into the rock cliffs 650 above Resurrection Bay. It existed as one of a number of facilities built by the Army during World War II in an effort to thwart any attempted Japanese invasions. Short-lived, construction began on the various facilities in 1941 and by 1944 the installations were ordered to be dismantled. Many of the buildings were simply abandoned and are–though empty–well-preserved to this day.
We all put on our headlamps that we brought specifically for the fort, and began exploring. Numerous pitch-black rooms are connected to the main corridors. Every emitted sound echoed throughout the entire building, making it nearly impossible to gauge where it originated. I had my fun sneaking around and spooking the kids. Around the outside of the fort, we explored other buildings, assumably lookout positions, and massive pads for gun mounts. I located and signed a surprise geocache that contained the most-delicious Coors Light I can remember drinking.
After an hour or so playing around the fort, we headed back down the even wetter trail back to the cabin. When we arrived back to the beach by the ranger’s cabin, the tide had risen and met the swollen drainages from the mountains. A rushing creek now blocked our path. Our kids graciously accepted the challenge and foraged for a number of large pieces of driftwood and created an improvised bridge; it worked perfectly. Once back at the cabin: We ate. We dried out. We slept.
The next morning we got up and packed our things up for the hike back to Seward. This time I took the hike with the kids, while Terry took the gear in the water taxi. I was glad to get to experience this half of the trip that I had missed previously. Our timing was perfect and there was no waiting for the tide or any challenging obstacles to cross, just an enjoyable walk along the beach to Tonsina Point, where the forest trail connects you to Seward, via Lowell Point. Some of the forest we went through near Tonsina Point was even more amazing than the forest outside our cabin. This was straight out of the Star Wars world of Endor. The rain even stopped for a few moments here and there, as sunlight filtered through these ancient behemoth trees. The smells, the sounds, the sights: it created a beautiful piece of zen.
After crossing some creeks, the trail climbs up a few switchbacks and then descends down an old road and into the parking area at Lowell Point.
Even though the rain was unrelenting and prohibited some of the side excursions I had hoped to undertake, our time at Caines Head was an Independence Day I’ll never forget. The area is one of my favorite places and I anxiously look forward to the next time.