One of the great appeals of Alaska is the hardiness of its residents. Hikers must stay alert for grizzly bears that prowl on the edges of Anchorage and men and women challenge themselves to sprint up vertical inclines covered with gravel. They even seem to like it.
We had a taste of Alaska grit this past week when a forest fire threatened Janis and Jerome’s homestead.
I saw the smoke rising from the hill behind their house as I drove back from downtown Anchorage. A wildfire that had been simmering for two days was spreading, fed by extremely dry conditions and hundreds of dead spruce trees killed by infestations of aphids and beetles (popular opinion blames climate change)..
By the time I arrived back at their place, everyone was in motion to cut a 40-foot-wide fire line through the woods near their house. Soon, the sound of chainsaws ripped into the quiet day as Jerry, his stepson Josh and Mark began the arduous task of toppling tall spruces an cottonwoods. Janis and I cut down bushes near the house.
Daughter Rachel called her friends who poured in from all over town to offer their help. Friends of Janis and Jerry showed up, too. In no time we had a chain of operation, cutting brush, stacking it and carrying to a large truck to be hauled away. In the woods, the chain saw gang brought down dozens of trees.
All day the fire grew on a steep hillside and ravine inside the Chugach Mountain State Park. Smoke and burning debris virtually closed down the Seward Highway, the only route into the Kenai peninsula. The cars, trucks and recreational vehicles were backed up for miles and made even local traffic difficult.
Just up the hill, hot shot firefighting teams camped out at a local school. Blackhawk helicopters flew multiple missions, filling buckets of water in the ocean then dropping them over the fire. Low-flying aircraft passed repeatedly overhead, spraying fire retardant.
By evening, a fire department official came by to warn residents to be prepared to evacuate, should the call be made. Janis decided to move out the personal items that had the most meaning to the family, along with enough clothing to survive a prolonged absence. Rachel rented a U-Haul van and we began to pack. Our Sprinter van was still parked outside the house but we were ready to leave at a moment’s notice. (A reporter from the Alaska Dispatch News came by the place to report about their plans to evacuate.)
At 10 pm, as we looked forward to getting some rest, the wind shifted and the smoke filled the air. Jerry determined that he would stay up all night to keep an eye on the fire and the property and the rest of us could try to sleep.
The next morning the crew started removing more trees and more brush while the neighbor borrowed an excavator to start pulling stumps and widening access to our houses. Inside, Janis, Rachel and a friend removed art from the walls, packing old photo books full of memories to bring to a safer place.
We kept going into the evening, tired and expectant for rain. When we awoke the next day, the grey clouds promised relief and when it finally rained, firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control..
Drive the great bay that stretches south of Anchorage, passing expansive views of snow-topped mountains plunging into the sea, and you will enter the Kenai Peninsula.
We stopped first at Whittier, a fishing town at the foot of a glacier. Not surprisingly, many people come to the Kenai to fish for halibut and salmon.
We prefer hiking to fishing so we headed up to a pass to a beautiful view of Portage Glacier and Lake.
Seward and Chaina Head State Park
Further west, on the edge of the Kenai Fjords National Park, the town of Seward comes alive in the summer with fishing excursions, kayaking and hiking. We took off on a coastal hike at 4:45 am to catch the low tide and wandered for 12 miles through a rainforest, chest-high salmonberries and the pebble beach in Caines Head State Park.
The trails took us through a rainforest with tropical plants and moss that buried trees in green.
And back to the beach.
The next morning we left again at dawn to ride-along on a water taxi dropping off and picking up kayakers in the fjords. For four hours we saw mountains, seas and glaciers, including the broad Northwestern Glacier.
We hiked a mile and a half up to a meadow overlooking the Exit Glacier. Another mile and a half (straight up!) and we would have made it to the Harding Icefield, a 300-square-mile sheet of thick glacial ice that feeds all of the fjords’ glaciers. It is massive and definitely worth a visit on another day. From the meadow we could see a dozen people who had climbed on top of the Exit Glacier to examine close-up the blue ice in the cracks and crevasses.
Further down through the Kenai Peninsula we landed in Homer, an arts-oriented town with a long beach, good food and a thriving farmers market. We only stayed long enough to be picked up by friends of Jerome and Janis and whisked out to their cabin across Katchemak Bay. We saw bird rooks, otters and whales on the way.
The next day we got dropped at a beach and hiked up to another melting glacier.
A lovely time had by all on the Kenai Peninsula.
Glacial Alaska – Visitors flock to see the glaciers while they are still here.
Gold Rush Alaska – Tour a local history museum in Hope, Alaska
Alaska Wildflowers - With 20 hours of sunlight, the blooms can go crazy overnight.
We entered the huge state of Alaska nearly a month ago, driving in on the Alaska Highway through Tok, a town where we found tasty Thai food prepared in a truck parked near the highway.
We are lucky to have close family members who have lived in Alaska for nearly forty years. Janis and Jerome are generous hosts and welcomed us to park in the driveway outside their house for two months!
We shared their beautiful view of the snow-covered Alaska Range mountains.
And their dogs, Mack and Nels.
We have been in Alaska several times, most recently at my niece’s wedding in February, but never had two months to explore the 49th State.
Starting at ground zero, Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, founded by my sister-in-law, Janis, and her husband, Jerome, we explored the outstanding Anchorage Museum and some of the hundreds of miles of vertical trails that ring the city.
Our days run long in summertime Alaska, and we try to be outside once we finish our professional responsibilities.
We have hiked to the feet of giant glaciers whose melting waters form aquamarine rivers and lakes. Many trails are steep, built straight-up Alaska-style.
We hike most days and have seen whales in the cold Pacific ocean. Our adventures in Alaska are just beginning.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.