The last wild frontier...08:45 Sep 10 2008
Times Read: 1,022
I am going to kill my laptop battery on this trip. Fourteen hours on planes or in airports. So much time to kill, and so much I have on my mind that I feel a need to… just… get it out.
Another 6am start to the trip – flying to Chicago but my eventual destination is Kodiak, AK. The island is located south of Alaska in the Bay of Alaska. The forecast for this week: highs in the low 50’s and rain. I still intend to take pictures – the best pictures I can get, at least. I should have time on Tuesday to travel a bit along the island. Judging by the map, there aren’t too many roads there so getting around shouldn’t be a problem.
But even as I sit here waiting for my flight, my mind is still scattered and focused more on the memories of this past week. It was an amazing week at home… so incredible. The timing of this trip has become terrible. Just as so many things are happening, changing… so busy. So much to do at home. Fortunately it will only be a couple days…
In the brief time that I dozed off to start the flight between Chicago and Las Vegas, I dreamt of the last time I made this trip. Returning to somewhere familiar, I could see and feel that familiar place. The images and sensations of the past. What I would be returning to, but… without the companionship that I enjoyed the last time… companionship that makes these trips enjoyable to the end. Not a task, begging time to go by, but begging time to stop. Begging time to allow me to enjoy it each minute and then a minute more.
This trip I must make on my own. Return to the roots of what I had set out for, the original goals of this contract. Travel – see what I had never seen. Meet new people. Find new adventure.
Find out more about who I am.
And hell, make some money in the process.
I have two days in Kodiak, Alaska to do just that.
A brief stop in the Las Vegas airport. It hasn’t changed. Still completely lacking descent places to sit and eat. Fox Sports bar has 20 TV’s and the same football game on 15 of them. Good thing I managed to talk my way into a first-class seat in Buffalo for this leg of the trip, otherwise I’d be killing someone before we land in Anchorage.
What was Obi-Wan’s line when walking into Mos Eisley? “Nowhere will you find a more vile den of scum and villany…” something like that. That pretty well describes the Las Vegas airport.
Except you can add to the list the elderly tourists who think the moving walkways are someplace they can rest.
I think the only redeeming quality of the place is the women strutting around in short skirts and spandex pants.
Not that I look….
Of course not.
The flight out of Vegas, uneventful. The man sitting next to me, headed north in Alaska to do some salmon fishing. A trip that sounds absolutely blissful compared to my reasons for going.
Even though I’m half-way to my destination my heart is still thousands of miles behind me… my mind, still, focused elsewhere. I have a feeling this won’t change at all this week.
Oh… and the visualizations in Windows Media Player take on a life of their own after your ninth drink. Trust me on this. Which only makes sense. I’m fully convinced Microsoft’s programmers do drugs daily anyway.
The Anchorage airport didn’t help my trip any. My flight over to Kodiak was on ERA Air. My flight into Anchorage got in early so I was on time to make the earlier flight over to Kodiak. Unfortunately it was sold out, so I asked the ticketing agent to put me on standby – she agreed and told me to go wait for them to call standbys at the gate. Which, I did.
They called standbys, but didn’t call my name. So I went to inquire as to why.
Apparently, between the time I asked and the agent said she would do it, she forgot to do it and therefore I wasn’t on the standby list. If she would have put me on it, I could have gotten a seat.
So now with 4 hours to kill in Anchorage, I certainly wasn’t going to do it in the airport. I grabbed a taxi and headed into town. The Moose’s Tooth was calling, as was a pint or two of Bearstooth Ale and some good pizza.
I sat at the bar and killed some time and probably some brain cells. A local sat next to me and told me all about how he’s homeless right now because he blew up his son’s car in his garage giving it a tune-up.
Something tells me, he didn’t read the manual.
Another cab ride back to the Anchorage Airport. Oddly, there is no security check for ERA flights. You just ticket and head to the gate. After a short wait, I was on a twin-prop on my way to Kodiak. I love those prop planes. Most people hate them, but the Dehavilland Dash 8 is one of the few small planes designed where an averaged sized person can fit comfortably. There is leg room and the arms of the seats don’t hug the love-handles. That and the gentle rocking motion caused by the rotation of the propellers puts me to sleep almost instantly.
I also discovered on this trip that my roller bag will fit in the over-head on them – a very important fact since I packed my camera in it. Having to throw that in the belly of the plane wouldn’t have been a good thing.
So the sleep on the flight over was good. I woke up when the plane landed and proceeded into the very tiny, one-gate, Kodiak airport. The Avis at the airport closed at 9:30PM and we landed around 11PM so I had to find alternate transportation to my hotel.
In this case, it was my feet. The hotel was only a short walk across the road from the terminal.
Monday morning greeted me with a thick fog and a gray, gloomy sky. The sun barely able to illuminate the landscape the clouds were so oppressive. I walked back to the airport Avis to get my car and head into work. I finished the work I had to complete in a short amount of time and was out to explore the area by 4PM. By this time, the gloom had turned into a downpour. I waited a bit to see if it would clear, but it didn’t.
I wrapped my camera in plastic with a hole for the lens, rubberbanded tight, and a hole for the viewer. I would have to do everything in manual mode on this one.
Given a tip from some of the locals I heard a good amount of wildlife could be found heading south toward Chiniak. I drove out at least 40 miles, making frequent stops on pull offs. I walked a couple river banks deeper into the hills to get away from the road.
Gulls were not flying. The ranch cows were laying down. Even the horses looked depressed by the weather. I pressed on further, to where the road ended, and kept going.
Yes, I signed the waiver that I shouldn’t take my Toyota Camry off-roading, but… you know the question, what is the difference between a Jeep and a rented car?
You can drive the rented car ANYWHERE.
I fully subscribe to that. So up a rocky trail I did drive, up mountain sides, down to beachfronts… but the heavy rain and fog made getting decent pictures very difficult. I was soaked through my jacket. My shoes squished with every step. I cranked the heat to the floor to dry everything out as I drove.
I retired from the quest a bit early and drove back to the hotel to dry off a bit and get some dinner, with the hopes that Tuesday would be a better day…
Tuesday morning came and I woke to much of the same gloomy weather. No rain, but a thick fog covered the mountaintops. It wasn’t as bad as Monday morning – I had hope.
I finished my work by 11AM and on the advice of on of the gentlemen I was working with, I mapped a route back to the south, and out towards Pasagshak. I left the hospital to bright sunshine and puffy white clouds. I celebrated a little inside and headed down to the main pier to take some pictures in town before grabbing an early lunch.
After lunch I hit the highway and headed out in the direction that was suggested. My end goal was a location called Fossil Beach. According to the man who suggested this destination, at the end of Fossil Beach is a nature preserve for seals and where there are seals, there are whales.
And where there are whales, there are good photo opportunities.
As I got further from town the weather became gloomy again. The sun ducked behind heavy gray clouds and a light mist was falling. The roads frequently turned to mud from construction and I once again made frequent stops to take pictures.
The nice thing about this area was, there was no traffic. As long as no one was coming and I wasn’t in a blind spot I felt safe enough to simply stop on the highway and snap some shots.
The landscape was revealing itself. Without the haze and fog being quite so thick, I could now see mountains that were completely hidden the day before. The sun breaking through the clouds made for some amazing views.
After a couple hours of travel I finally arrived at Fossil Beach. The access road was a turn-off just before the main highway ended and the land became the domain of the US Government. The access road was… barely a road. Full of ruts, some spanning the entire road filled with a foot or more of water. My Camry barely fit between the shrubs over gown on the road sides and the steep inclines and descents causes the ABS and traction control systems to constantly kick on.
I made it to the end of the access road and stood atop a bluff over looking the beach. The beach’s black sand looked soft and warm, but the icy cold wind blowing over crashing waves told a much different story. The climb down the bluff was a steep hike down to a rocky shore strewed with driftwood and these crazy sea plants that had washed ashore.
I walked the beach standing, looking and listening. No seals… no whales. Nothing moving around the beach at all. I was completely alone; nary a stray footprint in the sand.
It felt a bit eerie to be standing here alone. Little could be heard over the crashing surf. Cliffs lined and towered over the beach as the inland water flow carved its path through the rock and sand to the ocean waves. I walked from end to end of the beach, seeking some good photos. The wind cut through me and the mist from the waves blew in my face like tiny pins of ice. I stayed for thirty minutes, maybe more. Waiting, watching, listening. But still, nothing. I stared my climb back up to my car and traversed the access road again.
On the drive back I stopped to take pictures of a few water falls. I walked the stony banks of a couple rivers, climbing down from the roadside precariously over loose rocks. I didn’t want to fall and risk my camera.
I walked as far as I could before running out of river bank. Still, nothing.
I continued to drive back towards Kodiak. The landscape dotted with farms, cows and horses behind barbed fences. They were seemingly all over the place. In a more wilderness area, up on a hill I saw a group of dark brown cows…
I drove by them more slowly. Something caught my eye. I thought to myself… those aren’t cows. They’re too stocky… they’re… buffalo???
Holy crap! I didn’t know they had wild buffalo here!
I pulled over into a construction area. The buffalo were on the crest of a hill about two hundred feet from the road. As I stepped out of my car and stood to take pictures, they heard me and walked to the other side of the hill.
Now I’m going to have to go chase them.
I walked up the hillside. It was steep, covered thick with grasses and flowers and water ran down under the thatch. I cautiously and quietly walked up the hill, keeping an eye ahead in case they decided to return to this side.
I was cautioned… no matter what kind of animal I’m taking pictures off, make sure they can’t out run me back to the car.
I was way far away from the car. This was no-man’s land for me if something got angry at me and were to give chase.
I reached the top of the hill, and there they were! On the crest of the next hill below, standing and grazing. They lifted their heads to keep an eye on me but seemed completely unimpressed by my presence. I crouched and got low in the wet grass. They were magnificent! A couple of them wandered off to the other side of the hill but a few stood and grazed on their meal, letting me creep closer… to maybe 75 feet away, separated by a small but steep gully.
My heart raced a bit. It is one thing to see these behind fences at the zoo… but here they are – enormous, majestic creatures that have roamed this land for centuries, if not millennia. I couldn’t help but be enthralled watching them.
I felt the wetness of the grass land starting to soak through the legs of my pants. I thanked the buffalo for the opportunity to enjoy them, bowed and headed back down the hill. That made my day!
I got back in the car and turned up the heat to the floor to try and start drying out my pants. As I pulled onto the road I looked back up at the buffalo one more time… and drove about 400 feet… and saw… five more buffalo standing right on the road side!
Well, it was a fun trek up that hill. I stopped and took pictures of these too – a couple standing right along side the rain water ditch. I kept my distance and enjoyed them until one came to coral its calf. Little baby buffalo… it was so cute, but the mama buffalo didn’t look to happy with my being there. So I let them be and continued my drive back towards Kodiak.
That was good. If nothing else, it was a good day just to get pictures of those buffalo.
I drove a little quicker now, not quite as urgent to capture more images. I still stopped here and there when some scenery caught my eye. I stopped along side a heavily wooded area to check out the forest canopy. A marshy forest floor covered in moss. Tress covered in moss – it was a scene straight from somewhere on Dagobah.
Amazing foliage and forest. Untouched and wild. Sunlight barely able to penetrate the thick cover of towering conifers. Water dripped from the tree tops; rain saved from their recent soakings. The bed of moss so soft and inviting, I could almost imagine being an animal and taking a rest from the hunt here.
Almost back to Kodiak… maybe eleven miles from town… crossing the Russian River, again something caught my eye. I slowed and there it was.
A Kodiak bear fishing on the river. I quickly pulled over, checking for oncoming traffic I backed down the highway and pulled to the side. I heeded my warnings and snapped a couple of quick pictures from nearby my car. It was gorgeous. It had caught its meal and headed for the cover of brush. A passing fisherman saw me taking pictures and pulled over to see what it was I was watching. We both walked to the rivers edge on the road.
Soon eight more cars had stopped. This really was too close to civilization.
Another Kodiak lumbered out of the woods to the river bank. The river was heavy with salmon. Hundreds in a shallow area no bigger than a swimming pool. The bears wouldn’t be at all interested in us… their meal was ripe for the taking.
After a few minutes a state trooper pulled over to break up the party, and issues some parking tickets... *ahem*. It was worth it. To see these animals in the wild, doing what bears love to do… it was worth it.
Back in town I stopped for dinner and then headed north of town to take a few more shots. My flight was in about 90 minutes… back to Anchorage. We took off under an orangey half moon smiling over the bay. The white capped waves breaking below us as we climbed towards the low hanging clouds. Soon everything was as obscured as Monday morning…
…ahhh… back home tomorrow.
But the memories, and these pictures… will keep me coming back to these two days in Kodiak for a long time.
I was going to add pictures into here as the story went along, but there are too many pictures and it’s already seven pages… pictures will be in my portfolio.