Posts Tagged ‘alaska’

Hi there, Hyder

July 23rd, 2011 1 comment

Back when I got Sam’s bulging tire replaced in Whitehorse, the guy doing the work, Art, strongly suggested that I visit Hyder, Alaska on my way down to Washington.  “Why not?” I thought.  And so I found myself in Hyder a few days ago.

Here are all the things you need to know about Hyder:

First, all of the good stuff is in neighboring Stewart, BC.  By “good stuff” I mean hotels, stores, gas stations, paved roads… you know, things other than a US Post Office and a bar.  Which brings us to…

Second, the bar there sells shots of Everclear, which is something that can’t be sold in bars in British Columbia.  If you do the shot and keep it down, then you’ve been “hyderized.”  I did not do this.  Why?  Not because of the foul taste.  Rather, it’s because they were using the milder 151-proof Everclear, not the more manly 190-proof variety (which may or may not be legal in Alaska).  I mean, only 75% a.b.v.?  Pfff.  But speaking of legal matters…

Third, you can enter Hyder, Alaska from Canada without a passport.  In fact, there is no US Customs presence whatsoever, nor is there a reporting phone like you might find at some other unstaffed land crossings.  You’re probably technically supposed to report to the nearest customs office, but there are no clear instructions on how to do that.  Going back into Canada, you do need to stop at the Canadian customs house.  I’ve never had a more low-key, relaxed interaction with a customs officer.   An easy re-entry was fine, because earlier I’d had some excitement while…

Entering Hyder, AK. Hard to see: the transition from nicely paved road to severely potholed gravel road.

Fourth, the US Forest Service runs a great grizzly viewing deck just north of Hyder.  The deck is built along a creek that salmon use for spawning.  When the salmon are running, it’s grizzly bear central.  The salmon are late this year, so there haven’t been many bears near the creek.  Still, a mother and her cub showed up to eat some vegetation while I was there.  They were looking quite thin; for their sake, I hope the salmon run starts soon.  Of course, even without the bears, there was plenty to see because…

Mama Grizzly, looking a bit thin and probably wondering where all the salmon are

Grizzly cub scratches an itch

Fifth, the drive into Stewart (and thus Hyder) is one of the most beautiful I’ve experienced.  Smooth, twisty pavement. Countless waterfalls.  Spectacular mountains.  Trees galore.  And plenty of glaciers.

Part of the Bear Glacier near Stewart, BC

Was it worth the detour to visit Stewart and Hyder?  Absolutely.

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Close encounters of the bruin kind

July 21st, 2011 1 comment

Tyler was working his way along the rock face when he suddenly snapped his head back around the corner. He looked at me, eyes wide and face in a state of shock, and stuttered out a warning.

“B- B- Bears!”

I was a few feet behind on the narrow rock terrace that served as a pass between the sheer face and the raging Toklat River.  We had been backpacking in the Denali National Park backcountry for a few days and were heading down the river towards the park road, still six miles distant.  A strong wind was blowing upriver, making it unlikely that any bears around the bend would be able to smell us in our current positions.

“How close?” I asked as Tyler somehow passed me going the other way.

“Really close.  See that gravel bar in the river?”

I saw a gravel bar, but it was just yards away.  Surely that wasn’t what he meant.

“But that’s only…” was all I could vocalize before I saw an image that will be forever burned into my memory: the head of a golden-brown grizzly bear poking around the corner, a stark contrast to the gray water and the black rock.  It was no more than 20 feet from me.

“Oh crap!” I said, and I quickly followed Tyler away from the bears.

One by one, three grizzlies sauntered around the rock face by wading through the rushing water.  Clearly, they were not concerned about being swept downstream.  It was a mother and two cubs.

Tyler and I continued our retreat while waving our hands above our heads and yelling, “Hey bear!”  The knowledge that most of Denali National Park’s grizzly bears were vegetarian provided little reassurance, as a physical encounter in our situation would have been about a mother protecting her offspring rather than predation.

Since the bears seemed to be set on going up the bank of the river, and we couldn’t cross the river’s narrow, fast channel, our only option was to scramble up a steep talus slope.  We managed to put about 50 feet between us and the river — and thus, between us and the bears.

Grizzlies! Much closer than the ones at Banff.

Fortunately, the bears appeared to be as uninterested in us as they were in moving quickly.  They took their time wallowing up the bank, pausing for long intervals to sniff various interesting rocks and shrubs.  We continued to wave our hands and yell.

Me taking a photo of the bears. See how I'm not using a big telephoto lens? (Credit: Tyler)

Ten minutes after it started, our close encounter with one of North America’s most powerful animals came to an end.  The bears moved out of sight upriver.  Tyler and I breathed sighs of relief and continued our downriver trek.

Alaskan coffee shacks

July 20th, 2011 7 comments

From what I can tell, Alaskans really love coffee.  And ice cream.  Maybe both at the same time.

The Raven Wolf Java Joint, a coffee shack on the Glenn Highway

As evidence of this, one needs look no further than the prevalence of coffee shacks lining the roads.

For the uninitiated, coffee shacks are simple buildings, typically about 10 ft by 20 ft, which have drive-through windows on one or both of the long sides.  They are drive-through only, with no seating space.  As a rule, the shacks sell espresso and ice cream.  Curiously, drip coffee tends to be a rarity at such venues.

Traditional sit-down coffee shops do exist, but they are nowhere near as common as in the Lower 48 or the western provinces.  Not even the Yukon Territory appears to have many coffee shacks.

I stopped at the Raven Wolf Java Joint along the Glenn Highway while driving away from Anchorage.  The Java Joint was slightly atypical in that it appeared to have some seating in the back, but it was still primarily a drive-through coffee outfit.

I asked the owner for her opinion about why coffee shacks were so common in Alaska but nowhere else.  She couldn’t muster any good theories, but she did surprise me by mentioning that she found it difficult to find coffee when in the Lower 48.  It seems that she was so accustomed to getting caffeinated from shacks that she had trouble locating the “more traditional” types of coffee purveyors.  A suggestion of “Starbucks” was met with a chuckle.

Here are my theories about why drive-through coffee is so popular in Alaska.

From the supply side, it seems like it would be easy to set up a coffee shack.  All that is needed is some land near a road and access to utilities.  The building itself would be inexpensive to construct, and the staffing requirements would be minimal.

From the demand side, there is probably significant appeal in getting a hot beverage made for you without your getting out of your warm car in the frigid cold of winter.  I for one enjoy going to coffee shops in winter and sipping coffee by the fireplace, but shacks aren’t conducive to that.  Perhaps Alaskans have plenty of fires in the fireplace, thank-you-very-much, and would rather sip their coffee behind the wheels of their cars?

Maybe it’s just the start of a trend that will eventually expand to the other states.

If anybody has a good explanation for this phenomenon, I’d love to hear it!

Fairbanks hockey

July 9th, 2011 Comments off

I figured I should check Alaska off of my hockey list while in Fairbanks.  The only other option in Alaska with ice would have been Anchorage, and that would have necessitated a mad dash from Denali NP to the city in time for a weekday lunchtime game.  Thus, I found myself at the Patty Ice Arena on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus Thursday evening.

I had learned my lesson in Calgary, so when I called ahead for the Fairbanks pickup game, I made sure to ask about reservations for goalies.

“It’s first come, first served,” said the rink attendant.

“Even for goalies?”

“Even for goalies. The last few sessions, we’ve only had one show up, so it shouldn’t be a problem tonight.”


I showed up about an hour early and took my time getting ready.  Another goalie showed up about 15 minutes later.  Then 5 minutes after that, a third goalie arrived. “No problem,” I thought, “We’ll just rotate, and we’ll each still get about 40 minutes of ice time.” Then the fourth goalie showed up.

Judging by the changing room banter, most of the guys had been accepted to or were trying out for junior hockey teams.  None of them could legally drink, and a few weren’t even of the age of majority, so I was the oldest by nearly a decade.  Awkward.  Not only that, but the other goalies spoke in a way that implied them to be at a similar level of skill to the skaters, so I was apprehensive about being totally shown up.

We took the ice, and after a non-existent warm-up, the game began.  It took me a goal to figure out that the teams were essentially “colors” versus “grays.”  It was confusing as all get out to discern between the guy wearing navy blue and the guy on the other team wearing black.

Among us four goalies, we decided to rotate on every goal.  Specifically, a pair of goalies took each end, and whenever the goalie on the ice at one end let in a goal, that goalie would go to the bench and his partner would come on.  Sounded reasonable.  I just hoped that my shifts wouldn’t be embarrassingly short.

It turned out that I had nothing to worry about.  You know how nobody plays defense at drop-in games?  And you know how 2-on-0s are nearly impossible for a goalie to stop when they are executed correctly?

Yeah.  All four of us goalies got lit up.  We were rotating so often that we started rotating only every other goal, and even then we got only a minute or two on the bench before heading back out.  I felt like a skater going out for shifts.

I did make a number of solid saves.  A couple of aggressive poke checks worked out, too, so it wasn’t a complete embarrassment.   And when I did stop some of those numerous breakaways and 2-0s from the hotshot youngsters? It was a great feeling.

Next hockey: Whitehorse, Yukon in a week and a half.  With luck, one of these times I’ll be able to write about how I got a “shinny shutout” instead of how much of a sieve I was (haha).

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The Notebook

July 8th, 2011 1 comment

I woke up in the morning of my first full day in Fairbanks with a fever, a sore back, and a tight chest.  The symptoms made my foggy mind briefly consider “pulmonary embolism,” but since it was more of a dull pain than a sharp pain, I pushed the fears out of my mind.  I figured I was just sore from a rough night due to the endless sunlight and the somewhat uncomfortable bed.  I made a token attempt to get going for the day but soon decided that more sleep was in order.

When I finally got up a couple hours later, I noticed there was a voice message from an unfamiliar number on my cell phone.  It was from a woman named Marcy who said that she had found something I had lost and was wondering if I wanted it back.  Out of it as I was, I thought she said she had found my “black Sterno,” as in alcohol-gel cooking fuel.  I couldn’t figure out what that meant, so I started digging through my belongings.  I was trying to find something that was both missing and would have enough identifiable information to facilitate a return attempt.

My computer and cameras were all accounted for, so I went to Sam and started looking through my other luggage.  I was sitting in Sam’s passenger seat, digging through the glove box, when it struck me: I was missing my beloved black Moleskine notebook.

It all made sense: the notebook had my name, phone number, and email address on the title page.  I vaguely recalled putting the notebook on Sam’s roof the previous evening, but I didn’t remember taking it down again.  And the voice message?  Marcy wasn’t saying “black Sterno,” she was saying “black steno,” as in notebook.

Was I ever lucky that my notebook had been found and that somebody was trying to return it to me!  Just one problem: Marcy hadn’t left a call-back number, and the number saved on my phone went to some sort of PBX system, so I had no way of getting in touch with her.  I had to hope that she’d call back or email.

She did both, and soon I was on my way to meet her on Fort Wainwright, the US Army base near Fairbanks.

Marcy was a smiling manager working for one of the civilian contractors on base.  She told me that she had noticed my notebook sitting on the road, stopped, and picked it up.  She had flipped through it and decided by its contents that somebody would want it back.  I think she described the doodles within as looking “like something one of my sons would have done.”

She returned the notebook to me and graciously refused to accept a reward.  I thanked her profusely and went back to assess the condition of my notebook.

It was clear that it had been run over by at least one car; the tire tracks professed as much.  Despite that, everything was intact.  The cover was in good shape, no pages were missing or torn, and the mechanical pencil was still inside (albeit broken).   Yes, some of the pages were wrinkled, but that didn’t affect usability.

A nice tread mark on my Moleskine notebook.

I was impressed by the durability of my Moleskine notebook.  For those keeping track, I had complained about the poor quality of my previous soft-cover Moleskine, so the one that eventually got run over was the replacement that the company sent to me.  That newer one certainly seemed to hold up well.

Marcy’s kindness touched me.  To think that she actually stopped, retrieved my notebook, and went through the effort of getting it back to me was very moving.  And the notebook itself? Well, it pulled through well enough that I intend to continue using it until it’s full.

Now if only the stiffness in my muscles would go away…