Alaska – The Last Frontier: Our Final Days

The final two days in Alaska were spent at Gayle’s cabin on Horseshoe Lake. I had some initial concerns at the prospect of using an outdoor, unheated shower, when highs were only expected to reach 60 or so, and no sunshine was forecast. Turns out that concern was misplaced – we just didn’t shower! Unlike being in the south however, we also did not sweat, so never got terribly icky. Still, Sunday afternoon’s return to indoor plumbing and hot showers at Gayle’s house in Anchorage was not unwelcome.

Saturday morning we awoke to breathtaking views of the sun peeking through the clouds and covering the mountains in the distance and across the lake. The large windows across the front of the cabin allowed us to literally wake up to this view. I just opened my eyes and there it all was.

The lake was as smooth as glass in the morning, so Ryan and I headed out in the kayaks for a tour of the lake. We were escorted on our paddle by loons, diving for breakfast, and cheered along by the sandhill cranes. As we inched through the lily pads, one of the small fish jumping around us almost landed on the front of my boat.

As we arrived back at the dock, we were greeted by Bill, who was busy fiddling on the boat or the float plane, or both – I’m not sure because he was moving so fast. The drive to Horseshoe Lake from Anchorage takes about 1:45, but Bill can just walk out the front of Lake Hood Inn, hop in his plane, and be at the front door of the cabin in about 15 minutes.

Gayle was already busy fussing over preparations for yet another festive gathering that evening. Though we all stopped for breakfast of poached eggs, bagels and oatmeal, before hopping in the boat to motor over to visit with Karen and Roger Pfeifer.

The Pfeifer’s also have a cabin on Horseshoe Lake, around the horseshoe from Gayle. Karen’s son Sloane Unwin was just married two weeks prior and they held the reception at the cabin. The Pfeifer’s cabin was creeping along in early stages of renovation/addition around March, when they learned of the plans to use the cabin for wedding reception. Because they had a 5 week trip to Africa already scheduled for May/June, they were quickly under the gun to finish MUCH earlier than planned.

By their account, it wouldn’t have been finished without Gayle and Bill pitching in to ensure electrical, insulation and sheetrock were all completed. Gayle and Bill even continued working after the Pfeifer’s had gone on vacation. Such is the way it is here. Family, friends, neighbors – people here just do.

In the week before we arrived, a very good friend of this group, Nancy, was hit by a car while biking to work. Throughout our stay we’ve heard regular updates on her pelvic, hip and back surgeries, from folks who go to the hospital daily to sit with her, and offer some time for her husband, Doug, to get out of the hospital a bit.

People here do not stop to question if they have time or can work something into their schedules, or even if they can afford it. When someone here needs help, others simply stop and help. I don’t know if it’s the remoteness of it all, drawing the community in closer, or if it is the general overriding sense of being one with nature, here in this state where you can hardly think of a thing to do that can’t be done within a couple hours drive, but it’s a beautiful sense of humanity that makes you feel like you’re home.

The Pfeifer’s also have a dog named Tarmac, a dog well trained to retrieve ducks during hunting season. As you can see, he’ll also dive in head first for a simple Frisbee! Tarmac and his brother Tundra joined us that evening for our dinner cookout, when the Pfeifer’s, as well as Sloan and his new bride Rebecca, came over.

Also joining us for the day was Cherie Anderson, Gayle’s sister. Cherie, like Gayle, is an interesting and intriguing lady. Cherie is well educated in essential oils, and was kind enough to bring a special concoction with my name on it. Thanks to the White Verbena, it has all my favorite anti’s: antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-anxiety, and much more!

In time for dinner we also had one more guest, Leo von Scheben. Leo was appointed by Palin as the Commissioner of Department of Transportation. Prior to that he was principle in USKH (Unwin, Scheben, Korynta, Huettl), where Gayle worked for 25 years. Leo has done surveying, industrial engineering, civil engineering, and has an MBA. Leo lives on Horseshoe Lake and has had a very interesting life. I wish I’d had more time to chat with him.

One more very interesting life is that of Roger Pfeifer, by whom I was very intrigued. Roger is married to Karen (Unwin) Pfeifer, whose husband Gordon Unwin was also a principle in USKH, but was lost in a helicopter accident 19 years ago. Roger tells it like it is, something I greatly appreciate, even if the story is less than flattering.

One story that IS flattering however, is Roger’s 1982 climb to the top of the 20,320 ft Mt. McKinley. I couldn’t get enough information from him about this, and he probably grew tired of my incessant questions (how many people, what did you eat, how long did it take you, did everyone make it, how bad was the weather, etc.). It took his team 38 days (34 up, 4 down), and they lost two team members on the way (they both lived, just didn’t make the peak). In spite of consuming 6,500 – 7,000 calories per day, Roger lost 35 pounds in those 38 days.

Roger is some kind of interesting. He made his way to Alaska from Ohio, via the Army, which sent him to Vietnam to fly helicopters. He fell in love with Alaska, like so many have, and never left. You can see the sparkle in Roger’s eye as he starts describing the vast array of activities available at his doorstep. He’s a hop, skip and a jump away from retirement after a couple decades with FedEx, and would love to offer vacation planning for folks traveling to Alaska who aren’t sure how to pack everything Alaska has to offer into their 14 day once-in-a-lifetime visit. He clearly wants everyone to experience the joy he has in this state.

We sat around the campfire until late into the night, drinking Alaskan ales and philosophizing about life and pondering the deeper meaning of it all, thanks to Bill who kept posing thought-provoking questions. I’m pretty sure we sketched out the path to world peace that night… if only we hadn’t accidentally dropped the map in the fire. Shoot, I guess we’ll have to do it again.

Sunday morning we repeated our breakfast from Saturday. Ryan went kayaking and fishing for trout. He said the fishing was great, the catching – not so much. Gayle and I sat on the end of the dock watching Bill and Ryan do touch-and-go’s in Bill’s plane on the lake. Finally it was time to pack up and head back to Anchorage, where we all headed straight to a hot shower, and Ryan and I began packing up for our return to the lower 48.

We left with far more than we brought, including a 42 pound box of Halibut. I left with more than can be measured by a scale – a new understanding and appreciation for The Last Frontier, a lot of sore but happy muscles, almost 1,000 pictures, and the love and joy of more new family members than I could have imagined.

My deepest thanks to all the Roth’s, Anderson’s, Pfeifer’s, and all the other family and friends I made in Alaska over the past 10 days. Thanks for the stories, the history, the experiences, for making sure Ryan and I had a wonderful time, but mostly for allowing me to become part of your wonderful family.

Alaska: Day 8 – Denali and Horseshoe Lake

Day 8 we woke up, packed up and headed north, my first time north of Anchorage. We drove to Talkeetna, Alaska, a quaint little town, which offers flightseers trips around Denali (Mt. McKinley). Some offer glacier landings, where you can fly up, get out and walk around the mountains.

For those who don’t know it Denali, meaning The Great One, is the native name for the mountain, and the official Alaskan name for it. In the lower 48 it is widely known as Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, at just over 20K feet.

We went first to the Talkeetna Lodge, which I hear offers the best views of Denali, hands down. I can’t say for sure because when we were there, just like around 60 – 70% of the time, you couldn’t even see the base for clouds and fog. Denali is so tall, and it shoots up so dramatically, that it generates its own weather patterns.

So far this year 1,161 climbers have attempted to reach the summit. Of that number 682 have actually made it. While the forest service didn’t list the next number – Gayle said there have been a couple of fatalities as well.

The main climbing season begins in mid-May and goes through the end of July, with the best climbing recommended in June. Even then climbers encounter temps as cold as 40 below on the mountain. The world map on the wall of the forest service building had pins designating the areas from which climbers have come this season, including North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, with a larger number being from Europe.

The average climb takes between 17 and 21 days, so climbers need to take 4 weeks worth of provisions, not to mention all the gear needed for the varying terrain and sub-zero temps. With so much gear required, climbers often end up making “double carries,” where they carry part of their gear from one level to the next, then return and carry the rest. It sounds to me like they are climbing the mountain twice!

Because of the 20K+ foot altitude, climbers can generally climb no more than 1,000 ft per day, to allow their bodies to adjust to the decreasing oxygen levels. It really is an awesome thing just to imagine making a climb of that magnitude. It makes my marathon finish very humbling.

After a quick stop at the Denali Brewing Company, to ensure they were running an upstanding, quality business, we headed south again, turning off just north of Wasilla and heading over to Horseshoe Lake, to meet up with Gayle and Bill at the cabin.

While coming up through Wasilla we did drive by the Palin house, but for all my efforts, I could not see Russia. Bummer. Ok, maybe that’s not exactly what she said. So we arrived at the cabin in time for some of Gayle’s vegetable soup which, like everything she touches, was wonderful. The cabin is on a neat piece of lakefront property, that used to be a gravel pit. The gravel was used as the foundation for the nearby VOR navigational aid for aircraft.

Speaking of aircraft, it is as common a mode of personal transportation here in Alaska as motorcycles are in the south. As you can see below, here in Alaska they just park their planes right in their driveways!

Gayle has managed to grow a full lawn of grass and lots of flowers and plants on the land, in spite of the early soil limitations (note: I understand lots of horse manure was involved in that effort). The cabin, which she and Bill built themselves, is a 16 x 16 square building, with tons of windows and light, and has an airy feng shui feel about it.

She very graciously offered the cabin to me and Ryan, while they took “Lucy,” Bill’s 1957 Silver Avion, which looks very much like an Airstream. So we were able to retire to bed for the night, looking out across the lake at the last bit of light illuminating the mountains across the water, watching the wind softly blow the leaves in the surrounding birch trees and listening to the loons call to each other.