Wednesday, January 27, 2010


There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;

As I cross the Canadian border at Lyndon, Washington, Robert W. Service's poem, 'The Spell of the Yukon' spins in my mind. I know it by heart, having memorized it and other Service poems as a kid. The North Cascades rise above the river to the south, and I have a hard time keeping my eyes on the freeway. I think of Fred Becky, my old friend, 85 years old or so and still climbing mountains. I met him when I was young, and he's been an inspiration all my life. Fred climbed the first ascent of many peaks here and wrote the 3-volume guidebooks to these mountains.

On Canada Highway 1 I speed past the town of Hope, as the road turns to the left, north into the huge mountains of British Columbia, up the Frazier River valley. It's a 2-lane each direction, with dizzying drop-offs to the side into the river. I see the high water marks on the rock; spring run-off must be gargantuan.

Hope, British Columbia

The temperatures are mild, and the road is dry. Being a mountain climber, I keep looking upwards as the mountains rise, looking at the cliffs, frozen waterfalls, avalanche slopes. My son Thor always looks down into the water, dreaming of fish. The Frazier river looks cold, threatening, and miserable this time of year. It must be a wild ride in the summer; along the road I notice rafting companies advertising trips.

Frazier River canyon, B.C.

As I pass into the interior on the north side of the range, dense fog floods up the mountainsides. I'll be riding in it for the next two days, the product of a warm air mass that has filled Canada behind the massive cold air flooding the "Lower 48". I stop for lunch, comment on the weather, and the waitress asks me whether I'm complaining or bragging.

The warm air coats B.C. in dense fog

About twelve hours and 850 miles later I arrive in Prince George, smelling the pulp mills before I see the city, reminding me of my youth in Finland. It's bigger than I remember: a large casino greets visitors from the south. Rooms are expensive; I thought maybe they would want to lure me into gambling with a cheap one. I mosey into the center of town and find a very nice place next to several restaurants. After the previous week of fine food I order the macaroni and cheese dinner, which turns out to be surprisingly good. Hockey plays on every tv screen 24/7. I'm treated to LA v. Canada? Well, at least it's hockey.

A logging truck barrels down the Alcan above Fort Nelson, B.C.

In the morning I'm up early, hoping to make 1,000 miles. I drive north though the fog to the Hudsons Hope cut-off, and drive Highway 29, saving me 30 miles of the Alaska Highway. I'll miss Dawson Creek, the start, but I'm in a hurry...and I've been here before. The cut-off goes past the W.A.C. Bennett dam, a large hydroelectric dam on the Peace River. Otherwise signs of habitation and commerce taper off rapidly. Riverboats plied the river as the main source of commerce into the mid-20th century. I don't slow down.

After a few hours I gas up at the intersection of th Highway 67, the Alaska Highway. Highway isn't the same as freeway. It's a beautiful, straight, smooth road, beautifully maintained. However there is just one lane in each direction and a regular procession of logging trucks pass at high speed, headed south to Fox Creek and Dawson Creek. I keep up my head of steam, past Fort Nelson.

The next section is the only one I really worry about. From Fort Nelson, the road winds through narrow canyons over high mountains with no guard rails. But it's the 60 miles of "BUFFALO ON ROAD AHEAD" signaled by a large yellow sign and flashing light. They are serious: the largest land mammal in North America weighing 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. My car is no match for one, and they appear in an instant out of the dark night covering the road. Suddenly there they are...I brake violently, swerve right as several stand unperturbed in the center of the road. Except for careful steering, I couldn't stop in time. I sweat it out for an hour as I burn past Liard Hot Springs, a must-visit venue for every traveler of the highway. But I speed along the Liard River, the site of one of my favorite books: R.M. Patterson's "Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni." I dream of paddling the river in my old "Canadienne" wood and canvas canoe I'm renovating in my garage. Patterson lived in the area in the 1920's and plied the river solo.

Thinking I'm past the danger, I speed up, only to have a huge moose suddenly appears in the road. Another slalom maneuver at the wheel; my heart races for the next five minutes...that was close. I press on to Watson Lake, my goal for the day. I arrive near midnight, and every gas station is closed; none have credit card access. I pull over to the side of the road with the truckers, pile gear to the right to make long space in the back of the car, blow up my air mattress, pull out my sleeping bag and pillow, and settle in till morning.

I'm up by 6:00am; it's still black as coal, and the warm fog still blankets British Columbia. At the service station I fill the car, check the oil, and wobble in seeking food. I ask the woman at the counter if the food is good - a foolish question, but I'm more curious if the cook is in action. He is, a wonderful local Canadian in his white T-shirt. I get the regular: bacon, eggs, potatoes, coffee. He asks how I like my eggs; 'sunny-side up!' We talk a few minutes, I'm in a chatty mood. He looks for his glasses, but can't find them. He is asking his wife, looking everywhere. I feel my pocket. I've picked them up by mistake after I signed the receipt, and have two pair in my pocket. I call to him, hand them back and get a big smile. We are the same forgetful age and understand each other on this one!

Light appears in the east over northern B.C.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

I blast forth, the road now rolling up and down, around huge canyons, over passes and hills. Around 9:30am the first light hits the treeless, snow encrusted peaks ahead. I look in the rear-view mirror and see the clouds turning pink as "rosy fingered dawn", as the Odyssey calls it, appears in the east. Unfortunately for you, Dear Reader, my B.A. is in Classical Greek, and phrases from the Classics flood my brain from time to time.

First sun, northern B.C.

Great expanses, few towns. I don't see another car for an hour. I pass another traveler sleeping in a turnout. Now the sun is up, flooding the wooded hills ahead in a warm orange light. I calculate the distance to Whitehorse, estimating that I'll be there for lunch. I love Whitehorse. Twenty-five years ago I arrived the first time by dogteam at the end of the 1000-mile long Yukon Quest dog race along the Yukon River from Fairbanks, across Lake Lebarge. Wonderful folks provided us with a home for a few days as we rested and ate before returning home. Ever since I've had a soft spot in my heart for the Gateway to the North. More Service rings in my brain. This time, "The Cremation of Sam McGee":

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Rolling along towards the sunlit hills

It's 1005 miles from Watson Lake to my house. Like a barn-sour horse I kept the accelerator down, even passing up gas in Haynes Junction. I'll make it to Beaver Creek. Then the U.S. Border. The enormous mountains rise up vertically west of the highway; Kluane lake is immediately on the east. This might be the most stunning landscape of the whole trip, but for the storm brewing ahead. The wind blows the little Subaru hard; I hang on tight. Under the cloud I see blue sky in the arctic. Hope springs eternal; I may avoid the blizzard.

High winds and snow north of Haines Junction
Yukon Territory

The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I've bade 'em good-by — but I can't.

Here the effects of global climate change are stunning. Up till now, the road has been smooth as silk, a virtual freeway. The road from Haines Junction to the U.S. border is caving in everywhere. Red flagging and cones every few hundred yards mark the dips and cracks which can high-center a car. The permafrost is melting, and the bottom is falling out of the road infrastructure. I look west and notice the spruce trees tipping drunkenly in every direction as their base collapses. My car bottoms out, I fly into the air, held down by my seat belt and brake violently to avoid the next divot. Eyes forward...

The "Drunken Forest" near Beaver Creek,
Yukon Territory

At the border, the Customs Agent asks where I've been, where I'm going. "House-sitting for a friend and visiting my kids," I reply. "Welcome Home!" I breeze through, heading for Tok. Last trip it was -47 degrees here, and I broke the hose on the diesel pump trying to fill my truck as the fuel turned to vaseline. Today it's much warmer, with the overcast sky like a blanket on the rime covered trees.

Back in the USA, rime coats the trees

I make the first turn in a thousand miles, left onto Highway 1 and Anchorage. It's only 350 miles to go, a mere sprint. But it's dark, and caribou or moose can appear on the road. Still, I've driven these roads forever and press on at high speed, through the Alaska Range, to Glenallen, and the hub. I'm as good as home; this is familiar territory. I stop at the Hub, a gas station I've visited hundreds of times. The last turn, onto the Glen Highway and 189 miles to Anchorage. It is only 6:30pm; I'll be home at 10. I'm road weary, as I pull into the freeway to town, turn on my road, and coast up the driveway. My odometer tells me it's been 2,600 miles since Portland. I settle into my chair, open a beer and let the road buzz subside:

It’s the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Martin Luther King day. My son Thor and his wife Sarah head out to go mountain biking, so Sarah's mother, Cathy, invites me to take a hike in Capitol State Forest, a Washington State Park near Olympia. The persistent rain of what Washingtonians call winter has abated, and blue skies have emerged for a day. We stop at a coffee stand where the barrista, a lovely local woman, tells us her favorite trail in the park and gives us a map. Cathy's Australian shepherd, Annie, is our third companion. The Wadlington loop starts at a campground where construction tape across the trail warns us it is closed for bridge rebuilding. Alaskans, we ignore the sign.

Cathy and Annie ready to roll

Having climbed mountains all my life, I'm sure of foot. So I immediately roll my ankle on a piece of bark and fall down on the flat pavement, holding my coffee which shoots everywhere. Embarrassment rules; I'm red and mocha.

The trail is beautiful, wet, muddy, and a little gem near the heart of the city; hardly a sign of another person. The creek is liquid crystal, even after a week of rain; I think fish. After a short distance, trail signs point the way. We meet small country roads and more trail signs. It's impossible to get lost in this dense coastal rain forest. Cathy and I talk constantly, of food, always a favorite subject; our kids, whether they are planning a family, again a favorite subject; hiking and biking, our mutual passions.

Yours Truly at the summit...480 feet high

The trail moves gradually up a hill. A sign indicates we are at the summit; I can't resist a photo. I've been several times to the top of Mount McKinley, so we need a record of this one, too! The trees reach skyward, blocking most of the sunlight, and the cool, damp air keeps my jacket on. These temperate rain forests are among the rarest ecosystems in the world; almost half of them have been cut down. In North America, these forests originally spread from California to Alaska; all but 5 per cent have been cut in California, Oregon and Washington. I think of my beloved Tongass National Forest in the Alaska panhandle. These temperate rain forests produce the highest biomass in any terrestrial ecosystem, growing the massive coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, coast redwood or sequoia, the coast Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. I stand under a huge hemlock and marvel.

We drop down a hill into a swamp where the emerald green beauty of the scene compels me to stop and look for a while. I think of W.H. Hudson's "Green Mansions", one of the great books in my father's library; all his children read it, and one of us still has his copy. The epiphytes, like moss and other parasitic plants hang from the branches of the giant limbs like lace on a bride's gown.

The moss covered limbs

I see droplets of water glistening in the filtered sunlight from a drooping fern leaf. A photo cannot do it justice and bring in the height of the trees, the delicacy of the water drop all at once as our eyes do.

Sunlight pours into the forest

The conversation continues: Cathy is currently living with her mother, acting as her caregiver. She spent over 30 years in Alaska, but now that Thor and Sarah live in Portland, and her daughter Anna might move to the West Coast, she is considering a new home in Oregon. Bend? We discuss the pros and cons. It's a very active outdoor community, and Cathy is a biking-hiking animal. Portland? The kids live there; dinner on the weekends...grandkids? Hmmm?? I've been 30 years in Alaska and now spend nearly half my time traveling through the West visiting family. For me? Colorado? It's tempting. My daughter, Daphne, lives in Boulder, the mountains are huge, scads of friends there... But, Alaska has been home for so long, twice as long as anywhere else. I've moved 58 time in my life; I love having a stable home. It's so hard to decide to leave.

Cathy smiles

Life feels good right now; we can't hear another sound but our own voices. Then a hawk screeches and we look up through the tangle to find it soaring above us. It circles once and alights again on the tallest Douglas fir. The water looks still, like a slough, but as I kneel and gaze beyond the surface, it is moving right along. Too cool for the nasty bugs of summertime; we hit it perfectly!

The brook and moss

I grew up in the arid desert of Salt Lake, but I spent my free time in the mountains above the city. Later I moved to the Tetons where for 16 years I was a park ranger. The pine forests with their unique odor and dryness are the scents of my youth. I could smell the rain hours before it came. Here my nose is full of green, life, rotting vegetation, moisture, and decay; it's a different world. I'm afraid to touch for fear of disturbing a whole ecosystem, like the layers of algae in a Yellowstone hot spring.

Sunlight and stream

We stand awhile and look into the water at the brilliant weeds swimming with the current. I wonder what animals swim in the water: mink, otter, beaver, muskrat? Do bears frequent these woods like they do in my Alaska back yard? We're so near the city, and it is the "Lower 48" where so much has been altered.

Even the water is alive

The four-mile hike is over too quickly. Civilization appears instantly as we drive out of the forest. Olympia, home to my great friend Pete Sinclair is just minutes away. We stop to see if he and Connie are at home, but learn they are in Hawaii. So we decide on a late lunch at the harbor. I suggest Anthony's, mostly because it is so close to where Cathy parks. We have muddy feet, and I'm the mocha man, still. Anthony's sports white linen tablecloths; but I'm undeterred, focusing on clam chowder and beer.

The harbor at Olympia

The great conversation continues... I am sad thinking of leaving in the morning, but like Odysseus after his 10-year absence from Ithaca, am also eager to see my home again.


Monday, January 25, 2010


Each winter I migrate south from Anchorage, Alaska, to Ouray, Colorado, in the heart of the San Juan mountains. It is the "Switzerland" of America, where the skiing, ice climbing, friends, and beer hold me in their thrall. Now, after five weeks of the good life, I'm on the road again, headed north in my trusty Subaru. I had wanted to stop at Indian Creek and do some winter rock climbing with friends, but the car was vibrating badly, and I was nervous to get it to the dealer in Salt Lake City for needed repairs.

On the way into the valley, public radio regularly warned a Red Alert on air quality, but, like free beer, promising to improve...tomorrow. As I rounded the 'Point of the Mountain' south of town, the opaque brown cloud blocked the road; I could smell the pollution and wondered how I was still alive after growing up there. When I was a kid, my father was on the air-control board and helped reduce the sulphur dioxide emissions from the Garfield smelter from 600 tons to 400 tons annually. It's still bad.

I enter the 'Red Alert' air day in Salt Lake

I spent a day with my brother Tony, breakfasted at the Blue Plate Diner, and waited for the Subaru repairs to be completed. We talked about reading Jim Harrison, his new book "The Farmer's Daughter", and the one Tony was reading, "The English Major", his road trip novel. Tony has two Brittany Spaniels, so we talked dogs, hunting, how he tried to breed one with Jim Fergus' dogs, another connection to Jim Harrison. But Tony is still in the workforce, not an itinerant like his brother, so he headed to bed, and I read.

Thursday morning I headed north on I-15 in the miasmic fog, past Ogden, Brigham City, Tremonton, onto I-84, across the Idaho border. Almost like magic I drove out of the dense pollution into brilliant sunshine, reached for the Maui Jims on the dashboard, and hit the accelerator into freedom.

The blue skies and windswept plains of Idaho

The entire Snake River Plain of southern Idaho, the route of I-84, and the Columbia River floodplain are covered in basaltic lava flows, a product of the huge magama “hotspot” that feeds Yellowstone volcanism. The Columbia River “flood basalts” buried parts of Oregon, Washington state and Idaho with lava starting 17 million years ago. As I crossed over the Snake River at Twin Falls, I held the camera to the window and snapped a photo of the basalt walls lining the river corridor.

Crossing the Snake River at Twin Falls

I rubberneck as I drive, soaking up the landscape consisting mostly of J.R. Simplot potato fields. The snows of Utah transition into wind-swept plains of brown stubble. Lava fields and rolling hills draw me on. Boise flashes by, with the schlock storefronts of neon malls catching my attention; I look past the mall for the downtown area and think back on the old main street of town, far off the freeway. Today, Boise is a thriving center of industry and technology, home to such companies as Micron Technology, URS Corp, J.R. Simplot, and Washington Group International. It proudly boasts that it's in the top 5 cities for entrepreneurs, environment, and safe living in the country! But I speed can't touch Anchorage for beauty.

The Subaru hums up the Columbia River gorge in the dark of night, speeding towards Portland. Water glistens on my right, the road is dark, and a few trucks approach in the opposite lane. Otherwise it's a quiet drive. Thor and Sarah are waiting as I arrive and I get a tour of the house to see the changes they have made over the past year. They have planned to take me to dinner at El Toro Bravo for fine Spanish cuisine. It's crowded like all the fine food spots in Portland, but the tapas are exquisite. I order blue-corn crusted fish balls. Thor and Sarah know the menu and do most of the ordering; I am forced to eat brussel sprouts, fortunately slathered in mushroom sauce.

Thor and Sarah's home, Portland

Friday I'm left to my own devices, so I hit Powell's Book Store, its huge expanse covering an entire block. I could spend thousands, but limit my purchases to some rare used volumes of poetry. I wander through Sur La Table and some other cooking stores. Everything seems to be on sale. Thor and Sarah meet me for lunch. I feel like I'm part of the working energy of the young Portland crowd as I enjoy my cheese blintzes.

In the eveningThor and I hit River City Bicycles, then stand in line outside in the rain for what he describes as the best Mexican tacos I'll ever have. At least he has an umbrella, but being Portland, no one else does, rain dripping off their hair and noses. Inside the funky furniture belies the incredible taste of the tacos. Thor is right.

My visit has turned into a gourmand's marathon. In the morning we drive to Hensleys for a light breakfast. I have a bacon hash with poached eggs; Thor orders potato pancakes with poached eggs. My iPhone captures the food and the moment. By now I'm bloated.

Thor and Orchid at Hensleys

Thor's potato pancakes, poached eggs and creme freche

Sarah has driven north to Lakewood, Washington, to visit her mother, Cathy, aunt Julie and grandmother, Margo. Thor and I follow late in the afternoon. Uncle Bob and cousin Steve arrive, and we have a yummy family dinner. I get in deep conversation with the gang in the living room, vowing not to talk politics, but getting drug in beyond my ability to resist.

Thor, Cathy, and Julie show Margo the iPhone

Sunday, we all drive north to Seattle and surprise Sarah's cousin, Catherine, and fiance Bryan on her birthday at 'The Palace'. As they walk in the door, she screams, seeing a long table full of family. I sit next to her mother, Susanna, a professor of nursing at the University of Washington. She spent the morning in Singapore, having just left Cambodia where she is setting up a nursing school. I am humbled and awed by her stories and dedication, working without text books, money, or big support, she is bringing the school and people of the area the gift of health.
I grab a menu; it seems like I have wallowed from one food venue to the next for the past three days. The waitress says the charbroiled hamburger is a must...a great choice! Back to Lakewood for the night, I've finally had enough of the food-a-thon; I need exercise!