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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion
  August 4

As part of my revised strategy for this off-season, I wanted to train more at sea-level. As I have mentioned before, I think sea-level training helps a person increase their speed and recharge their body on the "thick" air. With that in mind, I had been considering a trip to Alaska for quite a while. Not only could I train at sea-level but there was also a possibility of getting on-snow at Eagle Glacier. So when the opportunity presented itself to go to Alaska for two weeks in August, I jumped at the chance.

As the departure date grew closer, many plans started to take shape for an adventurous training camp. One thing that was still up in the air, however, was the possibility of skiing. For one, the people I talked to were not sure that the Eagle Glacier facility would be ready by the time I got there. For another, Eagle Glacier is at 6000', which would defeat the purpose of going to Alaska in the first place. Given these problems and the fact that there were other things I really wanted to do, I decided in advance to write off the possibility of skiing. Instead, I figured that a good plan for the two weeks I was to be in AK, was to go on a couple of adventure trips and squeeze in some hard (fast) training around them. With that plan in mind, I left Utah today, happy to be escaping the 100 degree heat and forest fire smog and entering a land of 18 hour days and cooler temperatures.

August 5

Another minor detail that might have slightly affected my planning for the trip was that a friend of mine, we'll call her Linda, was going with me. Or more appropriately, I was going with her. Linda's sister and brother-in-law live in Anchorage and provided us with a place to call home for a couple of weeks. We planned on spending the first couple of days in and around Anchorage, relaxing and preparing for the busy weeks ahead. On our agenda was a backpacking trip in Denali National Park and a kayaking trip in Prince William Sound, so we needed a couple days to get ready. Today I went running on the Kincaid Park ski trails, which I hadn't explored since I was here for Junior Nationals in 1991. I was surprised by how well I remembered the trails and ran for two hours, recalling vivid memories of races from 1991 and sucking in as much thick air as I could.

August 7

Today Linda and I left for Denali National Park. Our hope was to stay in Denali until Thursday and go for a multiple day backcountry hike. As we had already found out, organizing a trip like this was only slightly easier than organizing a space shuttle launch. With all the permits and reservations you need, some of which you need months in advance and others you can't get until the day before (and the former usually requires the latter), it can be overwhelming. But when we arrived we were able to put together a three day trip that looked, on the map at least, to be scenic, remote, and worthwhile. So after reserving our trip, watching a video on backcountry safety, and picking up our bear-resistant food container, we headed to the Riley Creek campground where we would spend the night before catching the 6:30am camper bus into the park (no cars allowed in the park). Once we were set up, I decided (with a little coaxing from Linda) that I needed to get in a little specific training before heading into the backcountry for three days, so I went for a short rollerski into the park. Linda rode a bike along side me. As we set out, a moose ran across in road in front of us, which reminded me of the scene in Chevy Chase's movie "Funny Farm" where someone yells "Cue the deer!" and a deer runs across the backyard. It was if the moose was paid to welcome us to the park. "Cue the [insert wildlife here]" became a theme for the trip.

As a last good meal before hitting the wilderness, we went to the Pizza restaurant outside the park for dinner. It had been a fairly nice day up until that point, but as we waited for our pizza, the clouds moved in and let loose a torrential downpour. My spirits sank as the rain continued. This wasn't one of the Utah storms I'm used to that last for ten minutes, tops. The rain kept coming even after we finished dinner. And as I crawled into my sleeping bag, I just prayed that my tent was waterproof.

August 8

The tent held up nicely under the weather and when we were rudely awoken by a 5:15 alarm, it had stopped raining. It was still cloudy and threatening as we packed our backpacks, but I remained hopeful that the worst was behind us. We boarded the bus at 6:15 and set off into the park. There is only one (dirt) road into Denali National Park, and cars are not allowed past mile 15. All backpackers must take a "Camper Bus" to the area they plan to hike (Camper Buses are in addition to the normal tour buses run by the park). This system cuts down on traffic in the park and contributes to the wilderness feel. The only problem with this system is that the buses take forever to travel the 90 mile (one-way) road. They drive at about 15 miles an hour and stop for all wildlife and at the few facilities along the way. As a result, the trip takes about 11 hours round trip. As our luck would have it, we chose a hiking route that began at the absolute end of the road, meaning that we had a solid six hours on the bus. I slept a lot, but I was awake enough to see many caribou, moose, and bears on the trip. Throughout the day, the rain moved back in and continued off and on. I began to resign myself to hiking in the rain, at least at first. As we got closer to our destination, a Park Ranger who was riding the bus back to his room asked us where we were headed. When we said that we were hiking through sections 42, 41, and 35, his eyes lit up and he asked if we were headed to the sauna. Linda and I looked at each other and then back at the Ranger, trying to figure out if he was pulling our leg. But he appeared to be serious. He told us a story about the squatter who was hiding from the FBI in the wilderness of Denali for 15 years before being discovered in the 70's. Apparently he had built himself a cabin and a sauna. The Ranger also said that in recent years the Park Service has even stocked the wood-burning sauna with logs for fuel. Becoming ever more curious, we pulled out our map and he showed us where the sauna should be, adding that the easiest way to find it was to take an old dirt road which crossed Moose Creek 13 times before reaching the sauna. Now, we still weren't sure this guy was telling the truth, but we thought that pulling such a risky joke on us would not be appropriate behavior for a ranger. But on the other hand, hiking on a dirt road, finding a sauna, and crossing a river 13 times were not exactly what we had in mind for our trip. So after discussing for a long while, we decided that instead of going straight for the sauna, we would hike a nearby ridgeline and descend to the river in the approximate spot of the sauna. If we found it, great! If not, no big deal, we would still be on our planned route.

I guess here would be a good spot to mention that there are no trails in Denali. In an effort to preserve the wilderness, the Park Service restricts the number of people allowed into the backcountry. Only 6 people were allowed into our sections each night. Each section was the size of a small town. They also encourage people to avoid well traveled routes and bushwhack through the tundra to avoid making permanent marks of human travel. But apparently the ridge we started out climbing was a very popular route because there was an obvious trail from the road up to the ridge. This was a bit of a disappointment. First a sauna, now a trail? Maybe Denali wasn't all it's cracked up to be. We followed the trail up to the ridge and then made our own way across the ridge to the high point. Throughout the ascent, the rain would start and stop, and was more of a nuisance than anything. At this point we had been hiking for almost three hours and from our calculations we should start heading down towards the riverbed. We examined a number of routes, and finally decided upon the descending ridgeline that had the least bushwhacking. Bushwhacking is undesirable for two main reasons. First, it is a pain in the butt. But more importantly, your chances of surprising a grizzly bear greatly increase when you head into the taller, thicker growth. We had bear bells on our packs and pepper spray in our hand, but neither gave us all that much confidence that it would actually work, so when we reached the gnarlier sections we did our best to make noise and make our presence known. By this point it was raining pretty steadily and would continue to do so for the rest of our hiking today. We made it down to the flats with a few scrapes and scratches and then started traversing a meadow to get to the river.

From up on the ridge, the hike looked like clear sailing once we reached the meadow. Short grass, no tall growth, piece of cake. Umm... no. What looked like astroturf from two miles away was actually more like quicksand. The soft, spongy ground sapped our energy while the knee-high brush clipped our feet on every step. We were soon wishing that we had opted for the dirt road route. We decided that our best bet was to cut across the meadow to the river and hook up with the road and follow the road until we found a suitable campsite. It took a good hour to traverse less than a mile to the river. When we finally reached the river, it was easy to find the road, as it crossed the river every few hundred yards. Our choice now was to cross through the creek to follow the road, or continue the slow going in the brush. Given that our feet and legs were already soaked from the rain and grass, we decided to cross the river. The river was about 30 feet wide, up to 3 feet deep and very cold. We had to cross it three times before we found what looked to be a nice spot to camp. From the riverbed, it appeared that there was a nice flat plateau just above the riverbank that would be perfect. I climbed up to the bank to have a look. At first glance, the site was great - flat, open, and near water. As I started telling Linda how good it looked, I quickly cut off in mid-sentence. My evaluation changed 180 degrees when I saw the grizzly bear about 200 meters away rumbling through the site. Fortunately, it didn't see me, so I quietly slipped back down to the road and we continued on. It was still raining.

I was very nervous about bears before the trip. Having no experience with grizzlies, I didn't know what to expect. We had the bear safety lectures before we headed out, so we knew all the right things to do. Cook 100 yards from your tent, store food 100 yards away from both the cook site and campsite in a bear canister, camp in an open area, etc. But even with all this knowledge, I wasn't sure how I would react when I finally saw a bear. I'll admit that I was a little scared by the sighting, but I took a bit of comfort in the fact that he was heading away from us. We continued on and after one more river crossing, found a good place to camp, sans bear. By this point, both Linda and I were soaked, cold, hungry, and in very low spirits. We quickly set up camp and crawled into the tent to warm up. As we lay in our sleeping bags, we were both wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. The cold, the rain, the bear, it was feeling pretty overwhelming. Denali was definitely all it was cracked up to be, and maybe too much for us. We talked about just hiking out the next morning. After a very depressing hour or so, we finally had the energy and warmth to cook dinner. We headed back out into the rain and made our pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. After eating a good meal and cleaning and storing our cooking stuff, we felt much better and went to bed, delaying any "abort mission" decision until the morning.

August 9

It was still raining when we woke up this morning. We slept in until about 10:00 because we had no desire to go out into the rain to cook oatmeal for breakfast. Eventually we came up with a game plan. We would pack up, eat some gorp for breakfast and continue on. Sure, things were miserable last night, but we were both feeling a small sense of accomplishment that we made it through the first night and were ready to keep going. So we put our soaked hiking clothes and boots back on and hit the dirt road.

Right away, we came to our first river crossing. Nothing like completely soaking and chilling your feet and legs to start the day. It was also raining. When we came to the second crossing, we decided not to cross and instead hiked up to the river bank to see if the going up there was any easier than it had been the day before. This decision was also influenced by the fresh bear and wolf tracks we saw by the creek. Right along the bank was good because the ground was fairly firm and we could see for a long ways in all directions to spot bears. The view from here was awesome. For miles and miles in all directions we could see nothing but untouched wilderness. No humans, no powerlines, no roads (he had since deviated from the primative dirt road). It was amazing and humbling. We hiked along the river bank for a few hours before stopping to fill our water bottles. We had been unable to filter any water until this point because the area we were in last night was an old mining district and the water was all polluted with heavy metals. But we were now sure that the water was safe, so we stopped for lunch and pulled out the water filter and refilled. It was about this time that the going got very tough. Our route was pretty much determined for us because we had a river on one side and a mountain ridge on the other. Our plan was to follow the valley we were in for about ten miles, over the course of two days, and end up on the road to be picked up tomorrow. So for another three hours we struggled through soft, unstable bunches of grass and brush called tussocks. In the guidebook we read before our hike, hiking on tussocks was described as "walking on basketballs". I think it was worse. It was like walking on spongy, deflated basketballs. I was struggling to stay upright and keep moving and I could only imagine how Linda, with her shorter legs, was feeling. But she kept going, without complaining and we moved slowly along the valley. Sure could have used a trail right about then. . .

At one point, we saw a mother bear and a cub on the other side of the river, a mile or so away. This was kind of cool, except for the fact that they headed down to the river, in our direction. I wish we could have picked up the pace a bit, but in these conditions it just wasn't going to happen. About 6:30pm, I looked at the map and realized that we still had a way to go if we wanted to make it out in time to catch a bus tomorrow. At our current pace, we would have a long evening ahead of us. We decided to try a different route. It looked like the going might be easier up on the ridge to the west, so we hung a right and headed up. That was the best decision we made all week. Going uphill on the relatively firm ground was easier than the flats we had been on. We reached the ridge in no time and looked back down to see a different mother bear and cub in an area we had been only an hour or so before. Even though we were both exhausted and Linda could barely walk due to pain in her legs, the ridge was like a superhighway for us and we quickly made it up near the top of Mount Abba where we decided to camp for the night. Today we had been lucky because we actually had 4-5 hours this afternoon without rain. But because of the tough going, we couldn't enjoy it. As we set up camp, we could see more storms moving in, so we quickly cooked a delicious dinner of mac and cheese and got into bed just as it started raining again. We estimated that we had about three hours of hiking to do tomorrow to get to the road. The bus we wanted to catch would come by at about 1:00pm, which meant a morning departure time of 9:00 (allowing a one hour safety factor). We set the alarm and passed out. We were exhausted and sick of the rain, but we were also slightly happy, knowing that the end was almost in sight.

August 10

Once again it was a miserable morning and we did not want to get up and put on our cold, wet clothes again. By the time we finally bit the bullet and got going it was 10:00. There went our one hour of leeway. All we needed to do today was go over the top of Mt. Abba and head down the other side until we hit the road. But our experience from yesterday told us that this could take a while. About 45 minutes into our hike, Linda speculated that the road was probably hidden, just this side of the McKinley River bed that we could see about two miles away. We figured that we could probably make it before 1:00, no problem. Did I mention that it was raining? Then, no more than 15 minutes later, the road magically appeared - 50 feet in front of us! It was so much closer than we thought it should be, we weren't sure it was the right road (despite the fact that there is no other road). A tour bus soon came by and we were indeed on the road. Our spirits soared. We were so energized that when our bus came by (still on its way out into the park) we declined a ride and decided to walk on the road for three hours until it came by again. Well, it was only another 45 minutes or so until we were regretting that decision. The heavy packs, the rain, and our sore muscles all came rushing back to our consciousness. But we had to keep hiking to stay warm. We flagged down every tour bus that came by, hoping they had room for two hikers. None did. We kept trudging along and ended up covering eight miles on the road. Then, about 10 minutes before our bus was to come by, when we were completely miserable, a tour bus came by that had room. We threw our packs in the back and collapsed into a seat. The bus was full of people whose Denali experience was riding a bus for 11 hours. They looked at us in wonder, like we were more foreign than the bears, moose, wolves, and caribou they had seen along the way. A few dared to ask questions, such as "How long were you out?" and "Did you see any bears?" but most just stared, as if to say, "You did that for fun?" When we reached the next stop, at Eielson Visitor Center about 10 minutes down the road, we jumped out, put on dry clothes, filled up on clean water, and grabbed some of our gorp to eat. We still had to endure a 5 hour bus ride back to our car, but at least we were warm, dry, and happy.

When we arrived at the Park Entrance at 7:00pm, we returned the bear canister, found a restaurant to eat dinner, and then headed back to Anchorage where I was looking forward to taking a hot shower and sleeping in a warm bed.

Now that we were warm and comfortable, Linda and I discussed how we would talk about this trip. Whenever anyone asks you about an adventure like this, your first instinct is to say, "It was great. It was so much fun." But in this case that would definitely be a lie. But on the other hand, you don't want to spend an hour describing the true essence of trip to someone (unless you have a website and a lot more than one hour to write it all down). It could certainly be described as "a great experience" or as "awesome" (in the true sense of the word), but it was not "fun". We dealt with too many survival issues (crossing rivers, the cold, the rain, not having drinkable water for the first day and a half) to call it fun. The only reason it wasn't a complete disaster to our relationship was that this was something we both wanted to do. We were both very glad that we did it and we will treasure the memories, but would we go on the same trip again, in the same kind of weather? No way.

August 11

No rest for the weary. After arriving in Anchorage at 2:00am last night, we spent the entire day today getting ready to leave on a 5 day kayaking trip. We would be leaving on a charter boat from Whittier in Prince William Sound at 8:00 am tomorrow. I have to admit, that after the Denali trip, I would have much rather spent a few more days with the comforts of home than run off on another trip. I was not looking forward to spending five rainy days and nights in a tent with one change of clothes. By the time everything was packed, it was 2 am and I was very cranky. We had to get up at 5:30, which left barely enough time for a nap before leaving. I set the alarm and went to sleep.

August 12

5:30 came way too early and I felt nauseous as I stumbled out of bed. But we loaded up the car with boats, drybags, food, etc. and headed on our way to Whittier, where we would catch a charter boat out to our spot in Prince William Sound. At this point I was not all that excited to be heading off on another trip. After Denali, the last thing I wanted to do was spend five more days in a tent avoiding the rain. The only reason I was semi-excited at this ungodly hour was that one of my best friends, who is from Anchorage, described Prince William SOund to me as her favorite place in the world. I was looking forward to the boat ride for a couple reasons. One, it would be our best chance to see most of the sound that we weren't kayaking in. Two, it was so damn expensive, I wanted to see what made it worth the money. I simply could not fathom that someone could charge over $1000 to drop us off and pick us up. It was only a two hour boat ride! Well, it turns out that nothing makes it worth that much money except that people like us are, reluctantly, willing to pay it. It was a small aluminum fishing boat that had just enough room for the four of us and our gear, plus the driver and his fishing buddy. Linda's sister and brother-in-law, Jill and Lou, were also on this trip with Linda and I. In fact they had initiated this trip and had done most of the organizing. After seeing the logistics involved (the charter, renting kayaks, choosing a route, etc.) I was thankful that they took care of it.

The boat ride was spectacular though. The glaciers, the Chugach Mountains, the blue water, and the wildlife were all spectacular. As we looked out of the boat, we were excited to see otters, salmon, seals and birds all playing in the water. It was all almost enough to keep me awake. I really wanted to take in all the scenery, but after the past few days and especially last night, I struggled to stay awake and eventually I gave in and caught a quick nap as we cruised over the open water.

We were going to be dropped off on the head of a peninsula called Dual Head between Icy bay and Whale Bay. Supposedly this was a good place to camp and easy for the charter to access. As we approached the point, Icy Bay lived up to its name by filling the water with small icebergs, apparently called "Bergie Bits." When we came ashore, we found a very good campsite right by the water (at high tide anyway). We unloaded the boat, checked our VHF radio with the charter to make sure it worked , watched the boat power away, then set up camp. By about noon, we were in our boats and headed into Icy Bay to explore.

For boats, we have two single sea kayaks and one double. Originally we were supposed to have two doubles, which we were renting from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, but apparently one of their two doubles sprung a big leak on its last trip, so we were given two singles instead. For today, Linda and Jill took the double and Lou and I had the singles. This actually ended up working very well because the two woman in the double could motor along slightly faster than Lou and I could. But that was assuming that they were both paddling, which rarely seemed to happen. It ended up that we all went at basically the same pace.

The weather today could not have been better. It was mostly sunny, with very little wind. A few times the wind would pick up, or we'd get a slight shower, but nothing to complain about. We headed up the shoreline into Icy Bay, checking out all the unique ice sculptures on the bergie bits that had been carved by the flowing water. There were swans, whales, mermaids, and plenty of other creations if you used your imagination. After about two hours of paddling, we stopped on some rocks for lunch. As we sat there eating, we began to hear noises that sounded like air bursting out of a huge blown tire. Just as I was beginning to wonder what that sound was, Lou said, "Hey look, whales!" At first we thought he was joking. We were just getting started. We had no right to see whales, the highlight of any kayaking trip, so early on. We had to pay our dues first by paddling around for a day or two in the rain with nothing to look at before we might be rewarded with one tiny glimpse of a humpback. But sure enough, someone had cued the whales for us. On the other side of the bay, there was a pod of anywhere from 2-8 humpback whales (depending on who you ask), coming up for air in between fishing dives. They appeared to be staying relatively put, so we decided that instead ok paddling all the way down to the end of Icy Bay, that we would cut across to the other side, check out the glaciers in Nassau Fjord (an offshoot from Icy Bay) and then return via the other side of Icy, where the whales currently were.

As we paddled across to the other side, I'll admit that I was a little nervous. The Bay was over half a mile wide, and the water, which was a light aqua color and full of ice, could not have been more than 40 degrees. A flip in this water and you would have only a few minutes to be rescued. There would be nowhere near enough time to swim to shore. The only hope at that point would be that the others, also in unsteady boats, could somehow drag you out of the water and get you to shore before hypothermia set in. I tried not to think about this and not make any sudden moves as I paddled through the open water. On the other side, we explored the shoreline as we headed into Nassau Fjord. We saw a black bear fishing on a beach, numerous seals and sea otters, and a Bald Eagle as we slowly made our way towards the glacier. The view of the glaciers from the mouth of the fjord was really cool. The bright blue ice flowed down from the Sargent Icefield right into the water. We could see two glaciers, Chenega and Princeton from our boats, and another, Tigertail, was just hidden from view. As we go closer, the water became more and more crowded with icebergs. You aren't supposed to get to close to the icebergs because their constant melting and breaking means that one could flip over and create huge waves in no time. But we still felt relatively safe as we moved in, keeping clear of the bergs that seemed to be bobbing the most in the water. At this point, it was time to "Cue the Glacier!" As sure enough, when we were less than half a mile away, a large chunk on the front of Chenega Glacier calved off and crashed into the ocean. It was pretty amazing to see from a safe distance. We then debated how close we should get. I think if Lou had his way, he would have paddled right up and touched the thing, and eventually he convinced the rest of us that we should at least go a little closer. But that didn't really matter because as soon as we started paddling again, Lou noticed a colony of seals on a large icejam in the side of the bay. We had been paddling close to them for a while already, but because they were silent and still, watching our every move, we never noticed them. We didn't want to disturb them, but we wanted a closer look. We changed course and very slowly began paddling towards the icejam, rather than towards the glacier. When we got about 100 meters away, the seals got nervous and the most skittish among them dove into the water, while the others sat still and followed our every move. We didn't get much closer, but instead just floated and watched. There were probably 300-400 seals on the ice, with another 50 or so in the water. A few of the more curious seals would swim around us, popping up every once in a while to steal a look. But as soon as we caught their glance, they would dive again. It was amazing. Here we were sitting in kayaks in Alaska with seals on one side, a glaciers on another, icebergs all around, a Bald Eagle in a tree behind us, and we had it all to ourselves. Well, actually there was one sailboat in the bay with us, but it was so far away, that is was more like scenery than other people.

Jill and Lou had selected this area for our kayak trip for a few reasons. First, Linda had done a similar trip, with guides, in another area of the sound so she wanted to go some place new. Second, the area attracts lots of wildlife such as whales, seals, otters, eagles, bears, and salmon because the colder waters are full of food. And thirdly because it is so far from the port of Whittier, it does not get much human traffic. We had only been on the water for a few hours, but already I knew that they could not have picked a better spot. This place was perfect. After half an hour of silent paddling by us and silent hiding by the seals, we left them alone and headed off to find whales.

Sure enough, as we headed back out towards Dual Head, we heard, and then saw, the spouts from the humpbacks blowholes in the middle of Icy Bay. We began crossing back over to the other side, taking a diagonal route that would lead us right though the whales. The whales seemed to be feeding in a fairly localized area and were coming up for air every ten minutes or so. Of course, the whales were also one step ahead of us and when we reached the area where they had been, they came up in the area we had just come through. But this whole time they were never more than half a mile away, which is not very far when the only thing separating you from the water they swim in is a 1/8 of plastic. Once in a while, just before they dove, they would treat us to a wave of their tail flukes, but we never saw any breach (launch completely out of the water). If we had, we probably would not have tried to get so close! At this point we had been paddling for almost seven hours and had an unbelievably good first day, so we made our way back to camp.

I had been looking forward to relaxing around a campfire while we cooked dinner and ate s'mores. And while we did eat dinner and s'mores, I was not relaxing. The mosquitos were almost unbearable. At any given time you could slap any random part of your body and be guaranteed to kill at least three, and this was with DEET on. So after eating and cleaning up, we all headed to our tents to escape the insect feeding frenzy. This was fine with me. I had been looking forward to going to bed early ever since I woke up at 5:30 this morning.

August 13

From the beginning, this trip was intended to be relaxing. Sure we would cover lots of ground (err, water) and explore lots of stuff, but we wanted to do it without feeling rushed or in a hurry. So this morning, when I was still feeling tired from all the running around over the past few days, I stayed in my sleeping bag until after 10:00. I finally had to get up when the sun on the tent became unbearably hot. After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we hit the water again. We were very happy with our campsite, and really had no reason to move on just yet, so we decided to stay another night and left our camp set up when we headed off. Today we headed around the other side of Dual Head to Whale Bay and Humpback Bay.

Compared to yesterday, today was pretty non-eventful. The most significant thing I noticed was how different the area we were in today was from yesterdays area, which was less than a mile away! The water was ice-free and a deeper blue color. It was also much warmer (or less cold, as the case may be). I would guess that today's water temp was at least 50 degrees. The other main difference was the lack of wildlife. Despite the Bay names, we saw no whales, only a few scattered seals and otters. We paddled around the Whale Bay area for five or six hours, with a stop for lunch. I can't think of a whole lot of stuff to report from today's trip. I can't say that today was a disappointment because I really enjoyed the paddling and exploring and I knew that every day would not be like yesterday. But when it started raining on our way back to camp, I was starting to have flashbacks to Denali. We stopped at a waterfall just before camp to refill our water supply. Perhaps the coolest thing today was the bergie bits that high tide had left on our beach. There were lots of them, a couple of which were the size of cars. I wanted to climb up on them and take some pictures, but being cold and wet, I decided that would have to wait until later. For now, we rigged up a tarp to cook dinner under and then changed into warm dry clothes and took a nap, hoping that the rain would subside before we started cooking.

An hour or two later when we finally got up to make dinner, the rain had let up a bit, but it was still coming down lightly. But after spending twenty minutes earlier setting up a tarp, we didn't even use it. Linda had found an excellent cave nearby when she was, uhh, exploring and it made an excellent, dry kitchen. It was dry, sheltered from wind, and because of the surrounding rain, had no mosquitos. We had pasta with sun-dried tomatoes for dinner followed by chocolate cheesecake for dessert. The only problem with our new kitchen area was that it was separated from our campsite by a rocky ledge and as we ate, the tide came in quickly. We finished just in time to get back to camp before being marooned there for the night. As we went to bed, we could see clear sky starting to peek over the mountains to the west. We went to bed hopeful that tomorrow would be more like the first day than today.

August 14

Today we managed to get up a little earlier (8:30). Indeed it was a nice day. Kind of cloudy, but with very little real threat of rain. Today's main objective was to pack up camp and head north towards Dangerous Passage. If we made it to the south end of Dangerous Passage, we would be almost halfway to our eventual pickup at Point Nowell. In order to get there, we would be crossing a few miles of open water, but fortunately it was a calm day and the going would be relatively easy. We started paddling around 11:00 and quickly we were out in the middle of our section of the sound. As we had done the two previous days, Lou and I took single kayaks while Linda and her sister kept us entertained with their bickering in the double. We were leaving the remote area of Icy Bay, as evidenced by the greater number of fishing boats that we saw along the way. We could see a pod of humpbacks near the middle of the open water and headed towards them. Though we never caught them, we were treated to quite a show. When we reached the middle of the open water, the pod was only a few hundred yards ahead of us, and was surfacing and raising their flukes on a regular basis. In addition there were three other groups of whale nearby. We were essentially surrounded by whales and watching them parade by. At any given time, you could most likely see a spout in the distance somewhere. This lasted for half an hour or so, and we tried, futilely, to get a few pictures.

We made it to our destination in about three hours, and not seeing any suitable campsites right away, decided to explore some of the coves in this area before continuing up the passage to camp. As the whales continued to blow in the distance we headed into a remote, secluded bay and had lunch. After eating, Linda and I were enjoying taking a short nap in the sun and we in no hurry to take off again. But Jill and Lou wanted to get going, so they took the double and went off in search of a river that fed into the bay. Twenty minutes later or so, we followed in the singles. Jill and Lou were out of sight, but we knew the general direction they had taken. As we entered a small cove with a stream running into it, I could see thousands of salmon lining up to take their turn at swimming up the falls. They were also jumping all around the boats. There were so many of them that I felt like I would hit them when I put my paddle in the water. I paddled up to the stream, got out and filled up my water bottles, to be filtered later. There was no sign of Jill and Lou here, so we paddled around until they finally reappeared from a tiny inlet half an hour later. Turns out they had also been paddling up a stream, but had decided to do their best salmon imitation by kayaking down some small falls. In the process, they had a minor accident and had to spend some time repairing Lou's hand. But they were fine now and we headed out of our secluded cove to find a camp for the night.

Finding a camp was a bit tougher than we expected. Some spots were good for landing boats but not high enough to camp above high tide. Supposedly Alaska, Turnagain Arm in particular, has the second highest tides in the world behind the Bay of Fundy. Remember that for Trivial Pursuit. Other sites were higher, but very wet and marshy. Finally at the fourth or fifth site we looked at, we found an accessible grassy spot, just above high tide marks. It was also right next to a salmon stream. Which was good because the running salmon made good entertainment, but it was also bad because there were bear tracks and scat everywhere. This was definitely a prime feeding ground. We stayed there anyway, though I was again a bit nervous about bears. After a mac and cheese dinner, we got ready for bed. Three of us were already in our tents when we heard Linda yell, "Uhh, guys, there is a bear out here!" Apparently Linda and the bear, which was on the opposite side of the stream from us, had been in a little stare down for a few seconds, but when she yelled, it darted back into the woods. The rest of us never saw it, but strangely I felt better now that "we" had seen one. The bear knew we were here and he wanted nothing to do with us. This made me rest easier as I fell asleep. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Linda. I'm not sure if it was the bear sighting or the fact that a storm was brewing overhead, or both, but she was very jumpy. Every time the wind would blow at our tent, sometimes violently, she would jump up. This was the first time that she had seemed more nervous than I was, and I took a strange comfort in that though I am not sure why. Eventually the storm relented and we fell asleep.

August 15

Today our goal was to make it to the pickup spot at Point Nowell even though we were not to be picked up until 4m tomorrow. This would mean a full day of paddling without much exploring, but it looked, on the map anyway, like there wasn't much new to see as we headed up Dangerous Passage. (BTW, Dangerous Passage was so named because of its danger to large vessels at low tide, we had nothing to worry about.) It was windier today and threatened to rain at times, so the going was slower. We decided to push on through to Point Nowell so that we could relax tomorrow without worrying about making it on time, and plus we had heard that the camping at Point Nowell was very good.

I felt good paddling today. Each day I have felt better and better. In fact today, I kind of got in a zone and would go for 45 minutes or so, then look up and realize that the other two boats were quite a ways back. I enjoyed being out there by myself battling waves and wind, and pushing through, one stroke after another. Every once in a while I would feel a surge of energy and I would sprint, putting my whole body into each stroke, slicing through the water at breakneck speed. I could only keep it up for a minute at a time, but it felt so cool to do. An added benefit to going fast was that Jill and Linda were even more combative than normal today and I was able to stay out of earshot for most of it. It was all harmless expression - they would exchange verbal jabs for a few minutes, then suddenly they would both be laughing together, realizing how trivial thier differences were. Then, a few minutes later, they'd go through the whole thing again. At one point Jill asked me if my brother and I ever argued and I said, "Not like that!" Teegan and I certainly had fights when we were younger. We our fights were much less frequent, but when we did fight, we would stay mad at each other for a day or two. We weren't as quick to laugh and make up. Our fights usually involved physical contact too. Funny how that all stopped as soon as Teegan got as big as me. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Point Nowell. We arrived at the Point in early evening. By this point the weather had cleared and it was a beautiful day. Upon first inspection it appeared that there was a group of fisherman who had taken our camping spot. Lou and I paddled over and Lou started talking to them. They had been there for over a month, living in a tiny cabin, making the most of the Salmon run. They said that there were some good spots to camp on the other side of the point and also said that there was a green hose nearby that provided water from a small stream. "We've been drinking it and haven't gotten sick yet!" they announced. We didn't really feel the need to point out that giardia can take up to 6 weeks to act up, but we thanked them and paddled to the other side.

Sure enough, it was a great campsite. Fewer bugs, a great view of the Chugach Mtns to the North across the sound, sheltered campsites in the trees and a huge beach covered with thousands of flat, smooth stones for skipping. Oh yeah- skipping stones. Lou and I have been skipping stones ever since we stepped off the boat. Every beach has been at least decent. We've gotten to the point where we are now trying things like bouncing the rocks off logs, the beach, boats or other obstacles before they skip across the water. The women don't seemed to be all that wrapped up in it, and I don't think it is entirely because Lou hit their boat with a skipping rock while they were in it yesterday. But anyway- this beach was perfect for skipping. We had heard from our charter driver, Mike, that Orcas (Killer Whales) like to come up on this beach and use the smooth stones to scrape off barnacles. We had already seen so much wildlife that we felt like we had no right to expect Orcas on our beach, but we remained hopeful. We set up camp, started a campfire, and sat down to relax.

Two younger kids from the fishing party next door came over to our side and were casting their reels into the surf. A short time later, one of the boys yelled to us. "Do you guys see the Orca?" We hadn't, but sure enough, after he alerted us, we saw a lone, tall, dark dorsal fin cutting through the water about a mile off shore and coming towards us. We watched for a few minutes. He was moving much faster and coming up for air much more often than the humpbacks. He was headed south and passed by our point about a quarter-mile off shore. Now we were really psyched. We had seen everything. This trip could not have been any better. Over the next hour, another few Orcas came by, seemingly closer each time. We began to wonder if they were wanting to come up on the beach, but that our presence was keeping them away. Soon, we noticed a lone Orca, fairly close to shore but still a ways off, coming our way. We all ducked down and hid behind a log. We still had our fire smoldering but there wasn't enough time to put it out before the whale arrived. As we remained hidden, he came closer and closer, he even turned slightly and headed straight for our beach. I was so excited. "Oh my god, it's coming right for us," I whispered. When he was no more than 20 feet off shore (and forty feet from us) he made a quick left hand turn and slipped behind the rocky point at the edge of our beach. We jumped up and ran over to the rocks to watch him swim away. We were amazed. That one minute was the icing on an already spectacular trip. At that moment, I was thinking that it could rain the rest of the time and bears could come and take all our food and our charter could be a day late picking us up and it would still have been an excellent trip. This is why the charter can charge an arm and a leg to get out here. Because once you are here, it is all worth it. As we sat by the fire and toasted smores, the sun set over the Chugach, the moon rose over Knight Island, and the salmon continued their jumping frenzy.

I would venture to say that in the hours that we sat on that beach, there was a salmon in the air in our sight more often than not. Usually there were 3 or 4 in the air at once. We discussed various theories of why the salmon jump. To practice for the upstream run, to catch flies, to escape predators, and because its fun were all theories we discussed. We later found out that they jump to loosen their egg sacks. When it was finally dark and the moon had come up, we decided that it was time to go to bed.

August 16

We had planned to arrive at Point Nowell yesterday so that today could be relaxing. But not this relaxing. . .

I think we all had intentions of kayaking today, since Mike wouldn't be here until 4pm. But after sleeping in, hanging out on the beach, and napping some more, we all lost motivation. We decided, without even saying a word, that today we would do nothing but enjoy the sun and the spectacular scenery from our campsite. Linda and I got in the double boat to go around to the green hose to get water (we filtered it), but that was the extent of our efforts for today. We had already seen and done more than we could have possibly hoped for and now was a good time to sit back and take it all in.

Around three o'clock we packed up camp and waited for Mike to show. He arrived and we loaded up the boat. He offered to take pictures for us before we set off, but we all felt so nappy and greasy from 5 days in the wild, that we declined. The trip back to Whittier was beautiful, but again, I couldn't stay awake. But this time I could rest knowing that I had seen more in the past five days than one person could ever hope for.

Despite the fact that we ate like kings for the whole trip (good work by Jill and Linda), I was starved when we reached shore. We originally planned to go out to eat in Anchorage tonight. Well, I don't know if we actually PLANNED anything, but we sure talked about it a lot on the trip. But by the time we had the car loaded, we had missed the window of opportunity to get through the tunnel. (There is a one lane tunnel under the mountain from Portage to Whittier that is the only way to get to Whittier. The tunnel schedule has to accommodate car and train traffic in both directions so you can only come and go at certain times.) So instead of eating in Anchorage, we found a Fish N' Chips place in Whittier. It was good to eat greasy food again, but I was still a little hungry when we finished. We then wandered around a gift shop until it was time to go. (Whittier, by the way, is a tiny tiny town with about 10 buildings. The same lady who helped me in the restaurant was also behind the counter in the gift shop.)

I slept almost the whole way back to Anchorage. When we arrived, Linda and I started to unpack and do laundry, while Jill and Lou repacked for a weekend trip to Juneau the next morning. My hunger was still gnawing at me later that night, so we made a quick run to McDonalds for 5 cheeseburgers. We did eat well on the trip. Really.

August 17

The final four days of my Alaskan Training Camp were to be spent in and around Anchorage. We did some really cool stuff, but it just can't compare to the kayaking so I won't go into as much detail. I decided this morning that I was going to do a 10K road race on Sunday, so today I went to the track to see if I could find some speed in my legs anywhere. My goal is to run the race in 36 minutes, so I did 4 x 800 repeats at a pace slightly faster than that. Then I did 400s and 100s that were harder. That was enough to tire me out. After working out, we had to run errands. Return the kayaks, buy food, return drybags, etc. After finishing all that, I went rollerskiing on the 11 mile (one way) Anchorage Costal Trail while Linda biked with me. Now, I'm sure that if I lived here, I would get sick of that trail pretty quick, but for one week, it was heaven. It was so nice to ski without cars, with such beautiful scenery.

August 18

Today Linda and I went down to Seward. We went to the Sealife Center and hiked up to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield. Everything that we read said that the hike up to the icefield above the glacier was 6-8 hours. Since we didn't get started until 4:00pm, I was skeptical that we would make it to the top. But Linda was determined and she set a flying pace. We did the round trip in four hours, including plenty of pictures at the top (and a 15 minutes run back to the summit by me after we had started down when Linda remembered that she left her sunglasses there). It was a great hike. The glacier was cool (no pun intended, I swear), but the icefield was awesome. That was the first time all trip that I regretted not having my skis. For as far as we could see, there was nothing but beautiful white snow just waiting to be ripped up by someone like me. Except for the fact that we were in shorts, it really felt more like November, or maybe April, than August.

When we returned to the base, we took a short side route to touch the glacier, then headed into town for dinner. We had hoped for a good seafood restaurant, but everything was so expensive that we settled for Fish n Chips again. It was a late night getting back to Anchorage, but well worth it.

August 19

Big workout day. This morning I went for a run and did some bounding, or ask Linda likes to call it, "mountain jumping." This afternoon, Linda and I did a short hike up Flattop Mountain which afforded a great view of Anchorage, Turnagain Arm, and Knik Arm. Then, I did a THIRD workout, rollerskiing on the Costal Trail again. Probably not the best way to prepare for a 10K tomorrow, but this is a training camp and all the workouts were pretty easy. The highlight of the rollerski was that I FINALLY saw Mt. McKinley (Denali). Because of the bad weather we had in the park, I never saw it there. And that was the question that family and friends always asked, Did you see Denali? At least now I could give a "yes" to that question. It was pretty amazing (I seem to be using that word a lot this trip don't I?) to see, even from a distance. It is the only mountain you can see above the nearer horizon line and it still looks huge. After rollerskiing, we went to Humpy's Bar and Restaurant for dinner.

August 20

Today was the Humpy's Classic Marathon. In addition to the marathon, they also had a 5K, 10K and half-marathon. I wanted to do a race that would be a good workout and also let me work on my speed a bit, so I chose the 10K. I hadn't run a 10K since high school, so I had no idea what to expect. I figured that if I could run under 36 min, I would be very happy, if I ran under 37 I would be satisfied, and if I ran over 37 I would go home and cry like a baby. It would be a fun race, I had nothing to lose. Right before the start, Michael Smith, who I know through Nina and Denali Kemppel, came over, shook my hand and said "hi" and lined up next to me. The next thought through my head was, "If he beats me, I'll never hear the end of this from Denali." When the gun went off, I quickly settled into what I thought was a good pace, in second place, behind some guy who was clearly a runner and had no business waiting for the rest of us. He was long gone right away, but I held second fairly comfortably. My goal had been to run 5:50 miles for as long as I could. So when I went through the first mile at 5:37, I was a bit surprised. I backed off slightly and felt comfortable with my pace. One more person went by me, but I was keeping him in sight. I hit the 3.1 mile turnaround in about 17:51, right where I wanted to be. Except that when I started heading back the other way, I saw Michael only seconds behind me. Now not only did I have to fight Michael off for pride, but also for a podium spot! I think seeing him took some wind out of my sails because at the 4 mile mark he caught and passed me. He was running strong, catching the second place guy, so I hopped in behind him and held on. Soon, I started feeling better. By the 5 mile mark we had caught second place and the three of us stuck together, preparing for a sprint for two podium spots. The further we went, the more confident I felt. I was pretty sure that I could outsprint both of them, as long as they didn't get a good jump. So instead of waiting for their move, with 0.4 miles to go, I took off. I sprinted for about 45 seconds to get a gap, then I began to tire but continued to push hard. I held on to finish with a time 35:40, better than I could have hoped for, six seconds ahead of third and 17 ahead of Michael, who was fourth. I was very happy to post such a good time and avoid the ribbing I would have gotten from certain Kemppels.

August 21

I took a 6:30 flight from Anchorage to SLC this morning. So I guess that wraps up an incredible training camp. Despite the bad weather in Denali, I would not change a thing about the whole trip. I had been excited to go beforehand, but I never imagined it would be as great as it was. I think people, including myself, tend to think of training camps as a period of time when you go somewhere to do specific ski training and focus completely on skiing. For the most part, that is the way it should be. That is how you improve. But I also think there is merit in doing a training camp like this one, which is fun and not ski specific. The activities I did were great for leg and arm strength, and allowed me to pile on the hours without getting overly tired. And I did just enough specific stuff (rollerskiing, hill bounding) and hard stuff (race, intervals) to keep me in touch with real training. It was also a great benefit to be at sea level for an extended period. Plus it is a lot of fun, which is the main reason I am a ski racer in the first place. I always hear stories about how Vegard Ulvang and Bjorn Daehlie go hunting for a week or two in the fall, where all they do is walk around in the woods for days. I kind of thought of this trip as my version of that, though I would take kayaking in Prince William Sound over hunting any day.

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.