FOURTH DAY OF THE HOLIDAYS – ALASKA

Alaska
Day 4

AlaskaValleyLake

The last frontier, America’s largest state, bought for a trifling 7.2 million. Wickedly cold in the endless dark of winter, a summer that passes in a blink of an eye with endless light, dancing lights in the night sky, and homes made from ice. What would ever possess someone to live in this very rugged and harsh place? Is it the natural beauty, fishing, or oil? There are plenty or reasons to stake a claim here, the first being the gold rush. Who doesn’t think of Jack London, the ultimate writer about Alaska, and all his tails of the Yukon. Tough men who loved their dogs, and were willing to do anything to get their fortune? Certainly everything I knew about Alaska I learned in his books as a kid. I would pour through them endlessly, reading them over and over.

So in 2001 I jumped on the chance to fly out and meet my parents there, who were doing an RV tour. This was their second trip out there, and they could not get enough of it. I was excited to see it for myself. Plus, I knew this would probably be my best chance to see a wild wolf. Little did I know the events out there would change my life forever.

Anchorage
Our cousin Shelly’s family were stationed in Anchorage. So it was a great time to visit them and then go out and see the National Parks. Anchorage is a funny town, more of a suburb than a proper city, really spread out. There were some fun breweries in town back in the day and I was able to get this amazing Wolf Fleece that I wear even today.

AlaskaMeFleece

Denali National Park

Denali National Park, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

Denali National Park, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

We took a rented RV to Denali National park, which has the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley. The first thing you realize in Alaska is how big everything is, and I’m not just talking about travel distances. The sky soars about your head with nothing to block it, you can see for miles and miles of rolling hills and mountains. There is very little development, so you are really immersed in nature. Denali is 6 million acres, and only has one gravel road going through the park. In the middle of summer you get 20 hours of light. It’s very surreal to wake up at 2 in the morning and it feels like 4 in the afternoon. The RV worked out great because we were able to get around, but also camp in some really beautiful locations. If you want adventure than you can raft glacier rivers that are 38 degrees. When you fall in the water the cold is so strong you feel it crushing your body. If my dad can do it in his sixties then I am sure you can handle it.

AlaskaWhite Water

White water rafting. Denali National Park, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

The amount of wildlife here is insane. You have two kinds of bear, wolves, elk, deer, moose, caribou, bald and golden eagles, and marmots to name a few. We were lucky to spot a linx on the side of the road, an animal that a ranger we had met had never seen in 5 years of working there. But I was more interested in wolves. There was a pack near by that had cubs, so the chances of seeing them was pretty high. Everywhere I went people told me they just saw one, but no such luck for me. Even while hiking in the tundra, we just missed one, with paw prints that were fresh in the mud of a stream. But what other things we saw made up for it. A baby owl that was hiding in the tall grass of the tundra was probably the most shocking thing I came across. I almost stepped on him. Then there were grizzly bears that were grazing, already trying to fatten up for winter.

AlaskaWolftrack

Fresh Wolf Track, Denali National Park, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

The most dangerous animal out here is not the bear, but it’s the moose. A ranger told me of a couple that a large moose chased around their car 4 times before they were able to dive in. Then the moose rammed the car. The caribou were not in huge herds yet, but they were all over the place. For anyone who loves wildlife, this park is for you.

Seward City
After Denali I spent some time in Seward City, on the Kenai Peninsula. My parents headed back to Anchorage and I planned on doing some traveling on my own. I ended up liking Seward so much that I never left. The town itself is small, but there are so many things to do around it. There is Exit Glacier that is 13 miles from Seward to the base. It’s not as easy as I thought to climb, but I finished it.

Denali National Park, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

There is a place called Kayaker’s Cove in Seward that is a series of cabins in a very small inlet. A really nice couple runs it and for $20 bucks a day you could take the kayaks out. The rugged beauty of the coast was breathtaking, as was the fear of falling in the water. Without a survival suit on you would be dead in less than five minutes from hypothermia, and with the suit on only a little bit longer. But again the wildlife was great: sea lions, seals, otters, and sharks. http://kayakerscove.com

Mt. Marathon is the second oldest Marathon race after the Boston Marathon in America, and rises up behind Seward. The story goes two drunk miners dared each other to race to the top and back for a dollar bet. Every year after they repeated the race, and the numbers grew. Now there is a race that goes to the top, and people are finishing in well under an hour. I on the other hand nearly died trying to get to the top, it took be three hours. On the way down I was running down and a baby bear cub was in the middle of my path. I took a dive, rolled to the side, and started to look for momma bear. Well she never made an appearance, but there is nothing more dangerous than an angry momma bear.

AlaskaBearcub

Baby Bear, Near Seward, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

Now here’s where my life changed. As I was sitting in the hostel eating Macaroni and Cheese out of the pot, there was a group of girls chilling out on a veranda. A very cute Irish girl was reading her book off to the side. I asked if they wanted to go out for drinks, and what do you know, they did. I ended up at the Yukon bar with four lovely ladies. After many drinks the Irish girl and I went to the river to have some vodka. As we were drinking and chatting, a bear came walking towards us with purpose. The Irish girl, never having met a bear before, walked towards it with her camera to take a picture. I on the other hand, knew exactly what a bear can do to someone after reading the book Grizzly Attacks. I started dancing up and down, waving my arms in the air in different directions, and screaming at the bear at the top of my voice. The bear was not impressed, but I am pretty certain I saved her life that day. I told her to slowly walk back and not to run. The bear followed but did not charge.

One of the stories she told me was of hitchhiking. I figured if this girl could hitchhike across Alaska, then why shouldn’t I. So I hitchhiked from Seward back to Anchorage on the Seward Highway. It took 37 cars for my first ride, and 147 for my second. I took every car that drove past me as a denial. So it really was not great for my self-esteem. The 300 lb muscle bound oilman who ended up driving me scared the crap out of me when he slammed the breaks and pulled down a dirt road. I was thinking this was the end as he jumped out of his car. But then he pulled a cigarette out and lit up. Who the hell does that!

Denali National Park, Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

Copyright 2001 Michael Bencik

Now I saved Yvonne’s life from the bear, but she inspired me to travel a lot further than ever before. She was on her first week of a yearlong trip, which took her overland from Alaska all the way to Bolivia in South America. We were email buddies for over a decade living vicariously through each other’s travels before seeing each other again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Check out my other favorites:

Day 6: Grand Circle

Day 7: Argentina

Day 8: New Orleans

Day 9: Red Sea, Egypt

Day 10: Myanmar

Day 11: Malapascua

Day 12: Yellowstone National Park

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