Road Report: A taste of Alaska!

Visual artist Roberta happy to glimpse some sun at Potter Marsh outside Anchorage

There’s no way to capture Alaska in a few words.

So I’m going to post a photo album below showing the bit of Alaska my travel-companion Roberta Smith and I experienced: the Kenai Peninsula, a mountainous “tongue” that divides Cook Inlet, the deep seaway that makes Anchorage a port, from the Gulf of Alaska, the blue bowl of ocean separating the islands along the Northwest Passage from mainland Alaska.

The Kenai may be small compared to the rest of this vast state, but it boasts tremendous natural diversity: mountains, fjords, glaciers and ice sheets, beaches, marshes, spruce bogs, forests, and views of active volcanoes. We focused on Anchorage (the Native collection at the Anchorage Museum is worth a day in itself), Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park, and Homer and Katchemak Bay.

Here’s one story, not about wild nature so much as connections of the heart: On Richard’s first visit to Anchorage, he stumbled on a Native (Eskimo) shop that sold lacy hats, scarves, and other items knitted out from hand-harvested and hand-spun quviut (kee-vi-ute), musk ox underhair. “You’d love them,” he said. “But I don’t know which to buy you.” So he brought home a brochure.

The pieces were indeed gorgeous, but they were expensive enough to give even a fiber-lover like me pause. “I’ll come with you sometime and try them on,” I said.

Northern Lights beret from the “Tundra & Snow” collection at the Oomingmak Co-op Shop

He returned to Anchorage perhaps half a dozen times, but “sometime” never came: I never got to visit Alaska. Until my invitation to speak at TEDxHomer.

After arriving in Anchorage on a depressingly rainy Saturday night, Roberta and I were relieved to wake the next day to no rain (although low, gray skies). We explored the city, and eventually found our way to the Oomingmak Shop, where we tried on cloud-soft qiviut pieces. Still, I was reluctant to spent so much money. Until I tried on a “tundra beret” that combines qiviut and raw silk in a pattern called Northern Lights.

It felt and looked heavenly (no pun intended!). And I swore I could feel Richard beaming over my shoulder. I debated for about two minutes, and then handed over my charge card. (It only hurt a little.) I haven’t been sorry: the beret is indeed a treat to wear. Thank you, knitter Julia Bunder from the village of Ekwok!

(For more on this rare fiber, and the story of the Natives who collect, spin and knit it, read my friend Donna Druchunas‘ book, Arctic Lace.)

Once I had my glorious Qiviut hat and what felt like Richard’s benediction, I was ready to explore Alaska. After brunch with new friend Janine and her sweetie Scott in their fabulous eyrie with a view of rainy Cook Inlet, off we headed in the bright yellow VW Beetle Janine had rented for us, our “Alaska Bumblebee” car.

Humpback whaless circling and bubble-feeding in the fog off where the Kenai’s largest glacier meets the Gulf of Alaska

Our three days in Seward were moody and cold, the air relentlessly wet. Still, we saw humpback whales bubble-feeding, making a tight circle in the water to “gather” the plankton and small fish they eat–a new behavior for these huge whales; watched parakeet auklets scrabbling up steep sea-cliffs to their crevice nests, singing sweetly, along with puffins diving, orca pods spy-hopping, and glaciers calving. We even tasted glacier ice–fresh and crisp, despite its great age.

And we discovered fellow Colorado writer Craig Childs was in Seward as well–what are the chances?–so we had the treat of lunch with him at Seward’s vintage Showcase Lounge.

The sun came out for our drive down the Peninsula to Homer, where I gave my “Love Every Moment” talk as part of an inspiring TEDx event (I’ll post the link to the talk as soon as I have it). The next day Roberta and I went sea kayaking around Yukon Island, across the bay, in perfect weather. We paddled dappled blue swells, and watched sea otters bask up close and distant volcanoes puff with smoke.

Colorful cabins on Seldovia’s historic boardwalk.

On our last day, we took the ferry to the fishing village of Seldovia, which has an active Native Alaskan community. We saw more humpback whales, poked about in tidepools, and explored the native culture and the wooden wharf and piling architecture.

By the time we hit the road for the drive back to Anchorage yesterday, we felt quite blessed. One more gift awaited us: as we wound our way along the Kenai River in the stream of Sunday-afternoon, Anchorage-bound traffic, I spotted a furry head with rounded ears in the river amidst the anglers fishing the sockeye run: a brown (grizzly) bear! We stopped to watch her catch a fish in that glacier-melt-cold river, our hearts full.

I might never have explored Alaska, if not for the infectious joy Richard took from his trips to the state, plus the invitation from Kat, Adi, and the TEDx team. Thanks to you all–Native knitters, musk ox, whales, sea otters, fireweed, glaciers, parakeet auklets and brown bears too!

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