Moose Pass, Alaska

I can’t really explain why, but Moose Pass (population: around 200)–about a half hour north of Seward–was my favorite tiny town in Alaska. It appears out of nowhere, sandwiched between tree-lined strips of wild highway that make you feel as though you are driving deep into a forest, nestled along the southwest shoreline of Upper Trail Lake. The only signs of civilization, initially, are the ridiculously elongated white lines of type painted on the road that demand that you slow down as you drive through the town you don’t even see yet. You could–if you aren’t the one driving–close your eyes for, say, 90 seconds while coasting along this stretch of Highway-9 and completely miss Moose Pass altogether. One Alaskan guidebook I carried with me described Moose Pass in a dozen words: “The road reaches Moose Pass at about Mile 98 (motel, store, restaurant).” That’s it. Well, just so you know, Moose Pass also has a post office, a library and a church or two. (Sidenote: I don’t have many regrets from my trip to Alaska, but one is that I was driving the final leg to Seward so late in the day that the Estes Bros. grocery store/deli in Moose Pass was closed when I drove through. Estes Bros. slogan: “We have everything you need. If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”) I later learned that this town–which is on the historic Iditarod trail–was named Moose Pass, because, supposedly, one time a moose was in the road/trailway, blocking the passage of a mail-carrying dogsled team. This detail seems both made up and wholly plausible at the same time. Which, in Alaska, is how facts often seem. I can recall several times when I’d react to some explanation with a “this-can’t-possibly-be-true” impression followed immediately by a “yeah-I-can-see-that” sense of agreement. Anyway, if you ever get to Moose Pass, do stop. Or, at least, slow down.

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Driving south to the Kenai Peninsula

OK, so let’s be honest: It turns out, I’m very bad at blogging. I did OK keeping up during my first few weeks while traveling in Alaska, but as I started to fall behind with the nightly posts, the whole endeavor snowballed into a big backlog of photos I wanted to share and stories I wanted to tell…. and those 28 days of blissful travel steadily ticked away as I savored each new town and each new experience and each new person in that deliciously wild state. And now here I am, back within the tamed street grids of Cincinnati, watching leaves fall from my backyard trees while my dogs tirelessly hunt chipmunks tunneling along crevasses in rock walls, finding any excuse I can to procrastinate just a bit longer before finally getting everything lined up for my return to the classroom in just a week or so. And meanwhile my unfinished Alaska blog sits neglected in cyberspace, reminding me that I haven’t finished telling the story. So, here’s the rest of that story, my final week in Alaska: I left the wild and wooly Alaskan interior, driving south on Highway-3 for the last time (well, not the last time ever, I hope, but the last time this summer), retracing my tracks from numerous earlier drives up and down the Parks Highway. I’d put so many miles on that sweet little yellow honeybee of a car that it was overdue for an oil change (and, uh, coated in bug guts), so I swapped out rental rides in Anchorage (ooh, the cherry-red replacement had automatic windows! I’d been in manual roll-down mode for 21 days) before racking up the last big push of miles back down the Seward Highway (Hwy-1), headed for the Kenai Peninsula. Seeing those snow-drizzled Chugach Mountains again was like a homecoming–I’d studied them from so many different angles, at so many different times of day, so many times during my trip–but still the lure to stop and photograph them was too strong to resist. I cruised along the Cook Inlet coast, watching the fierce winds ripple into cascades of waves along Turnagain Arm, and then found myself swallowed up by the next thick wilderness along Highway-9. Here, the blue mountains wore thickly greened skirts and jaunty white caps, while fields at their feet erupted with colorful bursts of late-spring flowers. Clouds folded around the humpy shoulders of the range, obscuring entire peaks, except for the occasional peek-hole through the mist. Lillies languidly floated across glass-still ponds, while arctic terns and mew gulls careened and tilted over their nests on the marshy banks. Somehow, improbably, impossibly, it was the prettiest drive yet.

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Nutty things for people I love

While I was cruising along Alaska’s scant-few roads, I kept finding myself photographing dorky things — from the ordinary to the oddball — that reminded me of my family: cool mountain-road bridges for my architecturally inclined sister Mims; yard sale signs and Alaskan thrift stores for my bargain-hunting sister DeDe; Subway restaurants for my nephew Matt, who *loves* Subway sandwiches (sidenote: wow, Subways must be the new McDonald’s…. they’re practically everywhere!); a plane decked out with Disney’s Tinkerbell for my fairy-fanatic niece Vicki; fluffy yard bunnies for my nieces NeNe and GiGi; the Farthest North Girl Scout Council for my sister Julie, who works for the Girl Scouts in Kentucky; funky bird things for my mom and sister Katie, who, like me, are bird nerds; a giant cone-shaped ice cream parlor for my ice-cream-loving dad; roadside signs peddling jerky of various meat origins for my deer-jerky-chompin’ brother-in-law, Jimmy John; a makeshift basketball court in Barrow for my basketball-playing nephew Quentin and his dad, T-Dog; and, of course, Volkswagen buses and campers for my brother Stan, who spends a lot of time under the hoods of VWs. So although I may have been a solitary traveler trekking across the Last Frontier, I never felt lonely, especially when I’d see these things that made me think of the folks back home.

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Saying goodbye to Barrow

Our trip to Barrow lasted only a few days, but it was so jam-packed with adventures that it felt like we were there much longer (or maybe that’s just a side effect of that midnight sun, which kept me buzzing around the clock). I had such a blast with the Russells and the Glums, who were all great travel companions. On our last day, we stopped by the Top of the World Hotel, with its taxidermied polar bears in the lobby, to pick up a few souvenirs (and postcards, of course) and paid a second visit–this time for lunch–to Pepe’s North of the Border, a surprisingly good (given its remote locale, on the fringes of civilization) and, ironically, mostly-Mexican-fare restaurant that makes you forget you’re out on the barren arctic tundra. We headed back to Barrow’s tiny airport, where we saw several people we knew from town and our bird-watching jaunts (look, I’m telling you… it’s a really small world in Barrow, and when a plane comes in, folks just sorta end up at the airport) and said our goodbyes. Then we flew over the ice-locked shore and puddle-punctured tundra, up into the clouds, headed back south of the Arctic Circle to Alaska’s Interior. I can’t remember if I slept or not, but if I did, I’m sure I dreamed of snowy owls in a barren field and lovely little phalaropes, spinning tirelessly in tundra puddles, with a frozen sea holding the horizon still behind them.

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Point Barrow: out on the edge of ice

The highlight of our trip to Barrow–for me, anyway–was visiting Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of land that extends into the frozen sea. The point is only 12 miles north of the village, but access is tricky. If you don’t have a permit and a hardy ATV, you’ll have to pay a guide to take you out to the point, and we luckily found a good one in Nathaniel, who runs Aarigaa Tours. Nathaniel took us to the remnants of a primitive Inupiat village site and helped us spot seals far out on the frozen ice en route to the point. We bounced around in the back of his big-wheeled 4×4 van–for real, we were seriously knocked around, sometimes hitting our heads on the van’s ceiling, usually while laughing hysterically–and marveled at the blinding Arctic Ocean at numerous pitstops along the way. Native hunters leave whale carcasses on the narrow strip of land that leads to the point, which are scavenged by polar bears that come in from the ice to feast on the leftovers. The carcasses looked unreal, like ludicrously giant piles of oversized chicken bones. We scanned the frozen horizons for the formidable white bears, but didn’t spot any. But… evidence of them was everywhere! We saw their mammoth pawprints all around us when we walked along the silty beach, found grisly leftovers from a polar bear meal (just the flipper of what appeared to have been a walrus or seal), and I even discovered a clump of their hollow, tube-like hairs in one of the deeper pawprints. (Bingo. There’s a cheap keepsake! Although it was kinda smelly…) So even though we didn’t encounter a polar bear–which is, honestly, a pretty scary prospect anyway–we felt their presence all around us. (We later found out that a tour group that went out to the point after us, around 11 p.m., did spot a polar bear out on the ice, so …. we just missed.) But let me tell you, it’s terrifying enough to stand out on the brittle edge of a frozen arctic sea and contemplate the possibility of seeing an approaching wild bear that can weigh more than 1,500 pounds and that would not, even for a nanosecond, hesitate to eat you. We heard stories back in town about memorable occasions when polar bears wandered into the village, wreaking havoc, and were poignantly aware of the battle boiling between pro- and anti-polar bear contingents in Barrow. (In fact, while we visiting, the village held a public hearing about a proposed ruling to designate critical habitat for polar bears under the endangered species act. Most folks in Barrow have a very different perspective from that held by tree-hugging, animal-fanatics like me; America’s Disneyfied version of the endangered bears, which are undoubtedly struggling to survive in a climate deeply affected by global warming, is starkly different from the view held by people who might actually encounter them in the wild near their own communities.) I was certainly hoping to see polar bears on our trip to the point–yeah, despite all that feeling-terrified stuff, I wistfully speculated that this might be the only chance in my lifetime to see them in the wild–but I was so in awe of just being there, out on the edge of the continent, that I wasn’t disappointed in the least. We took the requisite pictures on the brilliantly lit edge of the icy world (including striking images of the 9:30 p.m. sun burning like a hologram in the sky over an arch of whale jaw-bones) and I gathered up a small bag rocks to bring home as souvenirs from my trip to the almost top of the world.

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Barrow Arctic Science Consortium

While in Barrow, we had the incredible opportunity to meet with scientists conducting research at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, a non-profit organization collectively run by the North Slope Borough (the regional government of Alaska’s North Slope), the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (a corporation owned by the native people of Barrow) and Ilisagvik College (Barrow’s post-secondary educational institution). BASC executive director Glenn Sheehan introduced us to several scientists focused on arctic bird studies, and we met several others in the BASC dormitory, where we stayed. The impact BASC has made in Barrow is notable: In 2007, for example, the Alaska state legislature proclaimed Barrow “Alaska’s Arctic Science City” because it is home to the BASC facility.

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Barrow: birding adventures

Each day in Barrow, we’d wake up early and head to the outskirts of town to spot birds, with all of our scopes and cameras and binoculars and bird identification books (and warm outerwear!) on hand. There wasn’t enough room in the truck’s cab for all seven of us, so we’d take turns bundling up and riding in the bed of the truck, which–although brutally cold and windy–wasn’t as bad as it seemed, because we enjoyed unblocked views of the open tundra. I’m sure I would have never seen or correctly identified all these birds without Dave’s and Jill’s expertise and guidance (not to mention Dave’s uncanny ability to spot birds where there appeared to be nothing!); they and the Glums were wonderful traveling companions! It was especially fun when Dave and Jill would score a bird on their life lists, which sparked joyous celebrations and high-fiving all around. We saw an amazing array of birds, including the greater white-fronted goose, brant, tundra swan, green-winged teal, northern pintail, long-tailed duck, willow ptarmigan, Pacific loon, semipalmated plover, several types of sandpipers (semipalmated, Baird’s and pectoral), my beloved silly phalaropes (red-necked and red), glaucous gulls, arctic terns, parasitic jaegers, short-eared owl, snowy owls, black-capped chickadee, Townsend’s warbler, savannah sparrow, lapland longspur, hoary redpoll, snow buntings, yellow-billed loons (on Dave and Jill’s life list) and three kinds of eiders: king, spectacled and the endangered Steller’s eider. Hanging out with biologists is a blast; when we weren’t scanning the flat gray skies for birds, we might be on our knees on the ground, looking through the other end of binoculars for a microscope effect to see tiny tundra plants, or dropping our jaws in awe as Dave would, say, catch a tiny lemming with his bare hands and hold him up for all of us to get a closer look.

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