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 4

Today’s Alaska update is brought to you as part of a mutual effort with all my new family, who just got off the fishing boat in Whittier. AK with me. Plus, you are getting lots of facts thanks to my new cousin Brett Roth, a science teacher who clearly LOVES Alaska. He’s also pictured below in the orange/black jacket.

We are all sitting in the parking lot in Whittier, because we just missed the tunnel opening by 2 minutes, so have to wait another 45 minutes before we can leave town.

A word about the tunnel. Until about 10 years ago Whittier, a tiny military-turned-fishing village, was not accessible by car. There was a single lane train tunnel running from Portage, south to Whittier. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is the longest in North America. Thanks to Senator Ted Stevens, the tunnel was opened to automobile traffic in both directions. You can now drive into Whittier every hour, on the half hour, and out every hour, on the hour.

While Whittier itself is tiny, the vehicle accessibility to it has done a lot for this area. When we arrived at 6:30 this morning to board the boat for our fishing charter, there was a large cruise ship docked nearby. Charter boats take daily trips out into Prince William Sound, made infamous by Joseph Hazelwood who, after a few drinks managed to captain his boat, the Exxon Valdez, as it collided into Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound and causing economic turmoil to many a local fisherman. It is today considered “one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters ever to occur at sea.”

We drove to Whittier from Anchorage, and along Turnagain Arm, part of Cook Inlet. Turnagain Arm is so named because when Captain Cook first sailed into it, he was looking for the Northwest Passage. He kept commanding his men to “turnagain” as he got caught in the changing tides, and the name stuck.

Speaking of changing tides, Turnagain Arm is home of the 2nd highest tidal fluctuations in the western hemisphere (the first is the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia). In fact, about once a month they have something called a Bore Tide – a phenomenon where the tide empties almost all the water out of the Arm and, as it returns later, it does so as one rolling wall of water that moves up with the tide. It’s a constantly breaking wave that, as it charges up the inlet, offers some recent crazy surfers and kayakers a unique opportunity to ride one, continuous wave for miles on end, as it refills the Arm. Here’s a great video clip of one charging up Turnagain Arm.

According to Brett (who I think was quoting Wikipedia), 182 people live in Whittier. And they all live in the same building here in town. It’s one large condo-style building. The building is called Begich Towers – named after the father of the senator who succeeded Ted Stevens.

So we arrived this morning, with enough folks to have two charter boats. Lots of folks are in town for (also new cousin) Monica’s wedding so family on both sides came out for fishing in Prince William Sound.

We went out on the “Offshore Hunter” with Jay, our captain from Whittier Alaska Fishing Charters. We set out around 7:30 a.m., amidst thick fog, though Brett had promised me: “This sh*t’ll burn off.” I think that’s Alaska speak for “It’s going to clear up.” Turns out he was right!

Brett is no stranger to this area. He lives in Girdwood, just north of Whittier, and spends a lot of time fishing this area. He’s a high school science teacher and has taken this summer off and done a lot of fishing, camping and exploring. He’s one unique character, and a wealth of knowledge about local facts. He educated me throughout the day and is sitting behind me in the car now (because we made it back through the tunnel finally), steadily providing me a barrage of facts to share with you (don’t worry, I’m omitting the boring ones like – Prince William Sound was first explored by the British, blah blah).

I was bundled up for the boat as if to take on the Arctic Circle, because Ryan and Gayle were both afraid of this southern gal freezing on the water. I literally had 6 layers on my upper body to start the day. Fortunately, the sun came out and I ended up peeling layers down to just my tank top for several hours. The day could not have been more perfect. It was just warm and sunny enough to make it completely pleasant. As we headed back to shore and the sun went behind clouds though, we bundled right back up!

We fished today for Halibut and Salmon. We didn’t catch a single Salmon but we caught lots of Halibut (24 of them, in fact). We also caught some Rock Fish and one giant Lingcod – about a 40 pounder. Together Ryan and I walked away with roughly 50 pounds of Halibut – do you KNOW what that would cost us in Knoxville?? Since Halibut is probably my favorite fish, I cannot wait to cook up and eat one that I managed to catch myself!

And ABOUT fishing for Halibut – that is HARD WORK! First, the weights on our lines were 2 or 3 pounds. That may not sound like much but, try dropping it straight down 300 feet. Just reeling a fishless line in was work, so imagine fighting a 20 pound Halibut, that you have to wrangle the length of a football field!

We’re staying in Girdwood tonight, hoping to hike Alyeska tomorrow and all I know is there’s a hot tub in our cabin and my arms are screaming for it. It’s almost 9 p.m. in Alaska and the sun is still shining brightly as we make our way to the cabin. My body is again reminding me it’s almost 1 a.m. my time and the family has mercifully opted for pizza in the cabin in lieu of dinner out.

The day has been absolutely amazing. Boating in between glaciers and mountains, seeing Orcas, porpoises, even a humpback whale, and all the while getting to know these awesome folks who are now my family – an amazing day, indeed.

(Side note: I’m finishing this post, which is being meticulously edited by Gayle and Brett, around 10:30 p.m. We just learned that the other boat lost an engine on the return trip and so, are still out on the Sound. The last tunnel opening is at 11 p.m. so we’ve yet to learn if they get stuck in the Whittier parking lot overnight, or make it through in time for the final ride through the tunnel. All I can say is… thank the powers that be it wasn’t our boat!)

Now – that hot tub is calling my name…