Alaska Part 11: Down the Latitudes

I didn’t listen to any music for the entire 9 hours it took to drive from Anchorage to Beaver Creek on the opposite side of the Alaskan border. I thought hard about the people I was leaving, people who had just become new friends. I thought about the cultural activities I had not yet participated in, the hikes that were left un-walked, the mountains and snow left unridden; it was all hitting me pretty hard.

Luckily a few bobcat sightings put me back in the traveling spirit. I put my amateur electrical engineer skills to the test the next morning and fixed my water pump, then only drove 15 miles down the frost-heaved road to where I thought an abandoned air strip was. Snag, as the area is called, is known to have the coldest recorded temperature in continental North America. I parked a couple of miles in and decided to have a walk, 2 hours later I still hadn’t run into the damned airstrip. I turned a corner and 100 yards ahead saw a bobcat, given that the day before was my first sighting ever of this animal, I was still very excited and with one hand on my bear spray, tried to follow the funny looking cat. I’m still a little hurt I never saw the end of the road.

The next morning I found a couple of hitchhikers coming out of the campsite and obviously had to give them a ride. They were two Russian girls my sister’s age that had just spent the last month going around Alaska and now shooting down the Yukon. “I never imagined Canada to be like this! There are so many mountains, where are all the lakes?” It was fun to be part of someone else’s adventure for once and the grandiosity of their plans of making their way down to Patagonia only made me more excited, even if I recognized a bit of the naivety of the trip. Having passengers made me stop more times along the route and enjoy a bit of the sights I hadn’t spent the time to know on my way up. I dropped them off in Whitehorse and finally made a divergence from my initial route by turning in toward Skagway, camping out for the night along some downhill mountain bike area in Carcross.

Cruised into Skagway before noon/ 11am AKST/Yukon time, passing by a small wildfire before hitting the border. Like many an Alaskan coastal town, I was met with the cool damp clouds and wind coming off of the ocean. A tourist town with a rich mining history, this one of the oldest gringo cities of Alaska and many prospectors in the 1898 Klondike gold rush came to try their luck amongst massive glacier cut mountains. I spent the day combing the museum’s exhibits and wearing flip-flops amongst the parka-laden cruise ship tourists. I must give the brewery a shout with an excellent spruce tip golden ale.

Skagway is basically still a mining town, it just mines tourists. It brought me to wonder about AK in general and how all it has to offer is raw material and not much else. After a good run/hike up to Upper Dewey lake, I spent hours reading some old articles from the original Skagway News on microfilm, it was entertaining to be getting back into my historical element. There had been a great emphasis to make it seem like Skag was a nice place, playing up the routes to the gold in the Yukon, and downplaying the original Chilkoot trail from Dyea, the rival neighboring town.

I checked out the other brewery, Klondike brewing. It was more of a straight shot only beer establishment and did some solid brews too. Certainly at Skagway prices. Driving out of town was a gorgeous 3000ft climb up White’s pass, this time with clear views all around.

I happened to glance down at the temperature gauge as I rolled out of Carcross and noticed it was almost hitting the red, so I quickly pulled over and steam came out from under my hood. I had an inkling that it might be the thermostat not opening up and after calling AAA of Canada and learning the tow would be over $200, I got out my tool kit and decided to get my hands dirty. Luckily a passing motorist had a bit more intuition on car mechanics than I did, and pointed out where the thermostat would be. It was in such a place that the small ratchet I was using would not budge the bolt that needed to break free. Another passerby came and looked at my situation before we were able to devise a bit more leverage and loosened up the bolts. Sure enough, the thermostat was clogged with a brown sludge and after cleaning it off and reinstalling it, we got the cooling system working again. I knew he really wanted a bit of payment for his work, and while I was a bit annoyed that someone would act in such a way to a stranded motorist, I passed him some cash as I really had saved a lot of money and time thanks to his help. My 5 hour dilemma set me back so that I was only a third way through the Cassiar before setting up camp, but it ended up being the best spot of my entire trip upon a smokey lake.

The Cassiar has to be one of my favorite highways I’ve ever driven, rolling along for hours at a time without seeing another vehicle. Perfection. A highway where horses have the right of way.

Picked up hitchhiker the next morning and was every bit jealous of his huckleberry exploits as I retraced the route I had taken a year ago back to Smithers. I spent that night hopping from brewery to brewery chatting with locals about their ski hill and mocking US politics.

The day after I plunged deep Into the smoke of lower British Colombia; everything burning. I pulled into Marble Canyon Provincial Park, getting off the main Canadian highways for some spectacular rock formations towering above. The next morning I tried going further down the scenic 99 byway but saw the temperature gauge hitting red again and had to repeat the thermostat repair shuffle. It was time that I just stayed on the road and didn’t try anything fancy.

The border hop took forever but I was back in the lower 48 a mere year after I had left them. Met with a few friends in Seattle and had some good brews. The night was warm stationed across the park.

As I crawled in gridlock over the bridges into Portland, I felt the familiar sensation of starting a new chapter in a new place.

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Alaska Part 10: Summertime?

Yea, yea. I’m a year overdue still…


Once again, life was in a less than agreeable position, time to motivate. I revamped my studies by creating an application for Challenge Alaska. It would be a simple app that signed up volunteers to students, and I’d use a few new technologies to accomplish it, all the while I would blog about my steps taken explaining my thought process as simply as possible, the Feynman technique for those that know it.

Alyeska closed in late April, an inevitable event that necessitated habit change. I’d been keeping up on my running throughout the winter, but without much of a goal. The big 30 years loomed months away and I needed to have a personal challenge fitting of an aging body. The tram that shuttles skiers from the hotel to the mountain rises 2200 feet and operates during the summer months as a tourist attraction to offer views of the valley in its summer greenery and glaciers nestled in their mountainous crannies. It costs to ride up, but not down. With this knowledge, the plan to achieve 30k feet of vertical gain in a single day was hatched.

After a morning full of code, I would run the bike path to the hill and begin climbing. May was mostly battling through existing snow and sleet storms, coming home drenched, soaked, and very cold. When the ski runs began to shed their winter coat and I could truly start gaining some elevation on the mountain, I became accustomed to clapping and yelling every hundred feet to alert the bears of my presence. Bear spray always strapped around my waist. It was not until June that I could manage laps up to the tram. Training elevation gains measured about 10k a week with total mileage only in the thirtys. I wanted my up.

Concurrently, a trip home made me reflect upon my situation and I decided that if my career goals were not being met it would be time to go. With this soft pressure, I became more receptive to getting out and exploring, even though I was digging more and more into my savings by doing so. The first day of June brought a first legitimately labeled “summer day” with temperatures blasting into the 60s. The roommates and I went kayaking in Whittier and it proved without a doubt that south east Alaska was meant to be explored in this manner. Glacier after glacier we passed with views that make writing about them exceptionally frustrating… almost as frustrating as fighting the currents within the fjord itself.

The salmon runs were abundant and I quickly became familiar with the lingo of salmon color to species type. Undoubtedly the freshest resource, I began spending a few hours most days down at the nearby Bird creek bettering my cast and strip, flossing technique.

In late May I took a trip up to Fairbanks to float upon the high waters of the Chena river. Vastly different than the southern part of the state that I had been used to, the dramatic mountains were replaced by rolling hills of taiga forest. The soil was strange and water logged with the permafrost preventing it from seeping into the ground below; bubbling up like an improperly measured carpet.

Katchemak state park sits on the opposite end of the Homer spit and reminds one of Jurassic Park right down to the lettering of the welcome sign. To get there, we had to plan a skiff for dropoff and pickup across the bay. The high annual rainfall is optimal for lush rainforest plants, all of which choke the trail systems and overpower the bare-bones crew of parks volunteers attempting to hold the ferns, brambles, and devil’s club back with measly weed whackers. 

Bear scat littered the trails and kept us on high alert, but apparently not high enough. As the three of us hiked around a curve, a rustle significantly larger than a squirrel manifested in a shaking of dense foliage to our right. Immediately our bear spray was drawn and “hey bear” was repeated about a hundred times as we hurried it out of there. In hindsight this probably confused the bear. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt the need for a gun. Once we were about 50 yards away, we looked back and saw two black bear cubs high in a tree, and heard their angry mother huffing at us.

A confusedly marked trail sign placed us at a cabin we were not intending to stay in. Luckily it was unoccupied for the night and we enjoyed the cozy embrace of the old hewn logs. The following day we found our intended structure and enjoyed the impossibly long days hiking through the densest of foliage, another bear encounter, and a half completed hike up China Poot peak. I even rounded out my birthday weekend with a bit of dip netting on the Kenai river and snagged a few silvers.

The day of my challenge came and I was awake before the sun had crested the mountains. My first 4 laps I had to run up and down the mountain as the tram didn’t start running until 9. Once it did, I was averaging about 50 minutes a lap, snacking on peanuts, chocolate chips, and gummy bears in between. It was lap 6 where I started feeling the possibility of a cramp coming on. As I jumped over a rock it seized up mid air and I came crashing to the ground in agony just as the tram passed over. With 8 laps to go it was incredibly frustrating to have all the cardio I needed and most of my body in working order except my right calf. The laps slowed down, the sun meandered across the sky, the other hikers on the trail looked at me in slight horror as I would lap them limping up the muddy path. The tram operators were my biggest cheerleaders. A banana probably would have been a good idea. The sun was setting at the end of 17.5 hours as I exhaustedly and slightly deliriously entered the bar at the top of the lift, I ordered a beer, salt encrusted my face, legs were caked with mud, and the tally marks on my arm had the impression of tiger claw marks; 14 of them. I was amused when the bartender asked how my hike up the mountain was, “which lap?” I replied. She was new to the area and didn’t quite understand what I meant, for all I know she probably thought I was drunkenly slurring my words.

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Coming down the tram for the last time and with dusk almost into its next phase of twilight, I got a good smirk overhearing a conversation. A hotel guest asked the operator, “what’s the most number of times you’ve ever heard anyone hiking up?”

“Well, I can’t give you a number for certain, but why don’t you ask this guy over here” smiling and gesturing to me.

“14” I said. “14 goddamn laps”. I can’t say my ego wasn’t stoked just a little bit by the applause that came after.

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Alaska Part 9: Snowcaine on the brain

My damn knee was busted and I was slowly going insane. The snow had finally decided to show up at Alyeska while I was forced to stay inside. Although I’ve only seen the first half of The Shining, I can assure you I was descending to the same level as Jack Nicholson’s character.

Seeing snow like this and not being able to play in it is torture.

Once it did heal, that is to say, once my $500 x-ray analysis said that nothing was wrong and I should have listened to my physical therapist friend the entire time, I hit the February slopes like a toddler wears out its first pair of Converse. That month alone I notched off 22 days, and it wasn’t a leap year.

Working the 9 to 5 on east coast time was the equivalent of a 5 to 1 Alaskan standard. This worked in my favor, as I spent the first 5 hours of the day in darkness and finished with about an hour and a half left of a half-assed twilight to play with. Alyeska has a strange relationship with weather, lighting, and snowpack that gives it a wide range of difficulty in navigation. Some days the bottom of the mountain might hang around freezing and give a wet and heavy snow, 2600 ft up top will be 15 degrees cooler with considerably drier flakes. The elevation will also play tricks with the clouds: the lower mountain will sit underneath a flat grey mid-mountain layer of fog; fog so thick and coupled with a contrast-less illumination that vertigo is not uncommon. Taking the highest lift to the top will all at once blast you out of this purgatory into an unbelievable azure arena of treeless mountains that the sun’s light particles barely have time to kiss before pulling back behind a glacier-forged skyline. It is in a class of its own for ski-resort views.

Getting to the top of the hill to catch the last rays.

Once I was back on my board, I was able to start volunteering with Challenge Alaska. An adaptive sports program that deals with disabilities ranging from paralysis to PTSD, Challenge is a genuine example of a non-profit making incredible strides within its community and beyond. I spent many days honing teaching practices to multitudes, and would like to think I became rather proficient at it. Whether it was a snowboard student that was able to graduate to taking their first ride on the lift, or a ride-along with a sit-skiier that was having the time of their life, I was certainly no less a beneficiary of the moment’s happiness. It was a greatly needed community link that I had been lacking and made the town of 3000 feel so much more familiar.

Around the same time was the Fur Rendezvous festivities that takes place in Anchorage every year. I started the day with a fun 5k on slippery, snowy streets. The hashers and I then proceeded to down 23 bottles of Cooks before heading downtown again for the outhouse races. Appropriately named “We’re Number 2” we came in second place. I’ll let the videos speak for themselves.

A friend of the roommates was also racing the famed Iditarod. These dogs were born to run.

February had led steady gains in positive mental attitude and everything was trending in that same direction. One afternoon in early March, I was enjoying the fruits of a heavy snowfall, charging down an intermediate sloped run. It had been a warmer temperature storm and as such, the snow was relatively dense with water. After being skiied upon for an entire morning, a soft yet bumpy surface with sizable divots created some tiresome and challenging fun. That is, until I caught a heel edge that launched me as if I were free diving – backwards. I remember the first impact to the back of my cranium and thinking “I should probably try and straighten out so this doesn’t happen again” before going for a second reverse somersault and a second landing perfectly on the medulla oblongata. I lay face-down in the snow for a second, pissed at my goggles for coming off, and proceeded to take another lap from top to bottom before calling it quits.

I dressed out of my gear in the lodge and took the bus home before realizing I had left my snowboard outside the building. Again, pissed, I drove back to the ski hill and placed my board back on the rack indoors, then looked inside the dressing room. Some idiot had left all of their clothing and gear strewn about… funny, that looks like my jacket… and my helmet… and my gloves. Realizing I had completely lost all memory of changing clothes an hour earlier, I knew it was time to call my aunt, the ICU doctor, and not my mother.

It slowly became apparent that my brain was not working. Simple tasks weren’t so simple, my ability to focus was nil, and without a full night’s sleep I became incredibly grumpy. My former roommates from Boulder came up to visit we had a grand plan to cruise up north to see Denali and Talkeetna, making our way south with a ski day in Girdwood and another hanging out in Seward. The phrase of the trip was “driving through a forest of mountains” as we headed through the Alaska range in the mid-north, and the Chugach and Kenai to the south. We hiked across frozen Byers lake to capture a bluebird backdrop of the tallest mountain in North America, re-lived our old jokes in my new town of residence, and explored a few corners of the 49th state. To see old friends was incredibly heartwarming, and I only wished I had been in a better mental state to receive them.

Gia and I on the Susitna river with Denali in the background at about 40 miles away.

On a walk out to Portage glacier, I told them to go ahead of me as I ambled on the ice alone with my cranky thoughts. About 2 miles in, and just about to ‘round the corner to actually see the glacier I remember thinking these exact words: “you’re in too bad of a mood to see this, you don’t deserve it”, so I stopped, turned heel, and began walking back. I have yet to lay eyes upon that mass of ice.

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Alaska Part 8: Fahrenheit 32

Yea this post might be a year in the making, I’m sorry. Playing catch-up isn’t always easy.

Upon rolling into Anchorage, I made quick moves to establish a residence and housemates in Girdwood. It was the first of September and things were looking rather rainy, at least rainier than expected as I lived out of my van and visited the post office bulletin board every day to find open houses for rent. As rainy day by rainy day went by I learned that Girdwood was actually within the northernmost rainforest on Earth. Luckily it was only a week before I found a house.

October hit and so did the first real dip into winter. While dogsitting in Eagle River, I saw the digital mercury dip to the single digits and began to get excited for a real winter that I hadn’t experienced for the last few years, possibly ever. But the climate stayed within an annoying freeze/thaw cycle that brought rain just warm enough not to be snow, and cold air when there wasn’t any precipitation. The humidity hung on to 85 percent and higher, creating hoar frost I had never witnessed in the dry mountain air of the rockies.

I was blindsided with the loss of work that I had predicted would be with me for a long time. Nevertheless, my stresses were left inside my laptop on my daily afternoon hikes; afternoons that continued to get shorter and shorter, as daylight was slashed 5 1/2 minutes a day, more than a half hour each week. Darkness accompanied the cold and the winter became a very formidable test.

Running soon became nearly impossible as the bike path was covered in a measurable layer of ice. I was completely immersed in my coding studies and days consisted of a lot of retina burnout from screen staring. I stayed within Girdwood and motivation to explore and drive the icy highway wasn’t too great. Madame depression certainly let me know she was around.

By the time I came down south for the month during holidays, Alyeska was still not open for skiing and the persistent December rain/ice wasn’t exactly making me pine for a hasty return.

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Alaska Part 7: Whitehorsing Around

“Oh maaan howya doin’ eh? Gettin’ hot out derr eh?”, I overheard from my table at Tim Hortons; the temperatures had just crested 50ºF. Timmy Ho’s, the undoubtable center of the morning universe of Whitehorse. I had been in town for a few days and was still trying to figure out the vibe of the city; somewhere between affluent/upbeat and alcoholic/decrepit.

My buddy, Nick had managed to intercept me in my haul and it was great to see a familiar face in the Yukon territory. Getting to Whitehorse felt like an accomplishment within itself and was the single biggest push in degrees latitude since driving from Los Angeles to Oregon. The notable difference was the sun angle.

We spent the week trying to feel-out the place, complete with checking out the river and many watering holes around town. The Yukon river passes right through town and there was a path that lead past the hydroelectric dam and fish ladder. Unfortunately the last day of the season had been the day before to view the fish, but the salmon run had pretty much expired anyway.

A short drive to the top of the dam and a bit further on was the gorge; a narrow stretch of the Yukon that drove a deep gash into the rock. This straight had historically taken many lives and when looking at the dark waters churning below, it was easy to see we were not on the kiddie end of the pool.

A dive bar reminiscent of our favorite (The White Front of Philipsburg, Montana), welcomed us to their club when we answered a few questions about the taxidermy on the walls. Never mind the fact that we simply overheard the responses of patrons who went before us, we became genuine members of the 98 Hotel bar.

It was Thursday afternoon when the van and I rolled out of the last city I’d see for 700 miles until Anchorage. Fall was in its most colorful phase of metamorphosis and fresh snow dusted the surrounding peaks that passed by for hours. The trip was starting to feel big; big in the way that only one-directional travel can feel. I had driven thousands of miles, hauling thousands of pounds of human produced materiel almost 30 degrees north. There is some sort of purpose inherent within such a long voyage, the ability to call it a simple “vacation” discarded long ago.


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Alaska Part 6: The Gnar Cassiar

The Cassiar Highway is one of those roads that feels more alive than a few hundred miles of asphalt; the southern half being rain forest and fjord-ful while traveling north brings grandiosity and desolation. Glaciers sitting between some of the most prominent mountains and wildlife concentrated in every valley’s stream made it seem as though I had entered another world.

My Saturday started by backtracking 40 miles to the Cranberry river where my fishing license allowed for me to try and snag a salmon, I sighted a fox and later a bear right from the highway (by the end of the day bear sightings were boring).  Using some of my limited fly-fishing knowledge and newly purchased flies, I gave it the old college try. It took me about 20 minutes before the barb on the hook smashed off on some rocks and another 40 after that before the fly came completely off in the heavy underbrush that lined the river. Not even a nibble was returned to the other end of my line. All the same, it was a very enjoyable morning excursion and the start of a spectacular day.

In my conversation with Pepe the day before, he mentioned a road that cut to the coast going to the Canadian town of Stewart and Hyder, the southernmost town in Alaska. From the moment I took a left at the Meziadin junction my jaw didn’t come off the floor. Turquoise rivers filled with minerals flowing directly from the last ice age’s glaciers cutting through granite canyons; some terminating in waterfalls hundreds of feet tall into emerald forest. And at the bottom of these streams were the salmon on their last (legs?)…fins swimming against the current to spawn and expire while bears and seagulls picked them apart.

I drove 19 miles of dirt and pothole to reach the overlook of the Salmon glacier. Probably not worth the wear and tear the van endured, especially considering that about 2000 miles still lay ahead, but it became a much more complete sensory experience, wincing every time a tire plunged into a deceptively deep puddle. I had begrudgingly forked over $5 to view the bears and salmon earlier in the day from the viewing scaffold set up by the forest service, and unsurprisingly, no bears were around. By the time I had finished my drive up to the glacier, I re-entered the viewing area and a big male was sloshing around the river lazily looking for an easy catch. There it was, a mighty grizzly bear, and nothing but fascination filled the hordes of people crowded along the railings to get a better glimpse. I had to admit it was very cool, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d feel if I met one of these face-to-face.

Finding an unoccupied forest service road of the thousands along the roadway wasn’t difficult, and after finishing dinner I went for my evening beer and hike. I had seen 5 bears that day but couldn’t help but stand amazed at the views every time I turned around; and it just kept on getting better as the sun set. It was a fantastic to finally sense being truly alone, getting northy, getting cut-off from the rest.

The next day was full of mileage as I had to get to Whitehorse, the only real city in the area with reliable internet, for work on Monday (it wasn’t until Monday morning that I learned it was labor day). But a drive can still be just as inspirational as a hike, if not to become grounded, but to become inspired to return.

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Alaska Part 5: The work/ mileage balance

“Why the [expletive] [expletive] isn’t the server running!” I yelled internally in the Prince George library. During the workweek it’s very difficult to tell that I’m on a road trip. The days from McBride to Smithers were a prime example of how work has been coming first even as I put in miles (errr kilometers) across Canada.

You get up around 5:20am at the fishing launch on the Holmes river just 7 miles outside of McBride. Florida time, aka work time, it’s 8:20. You pierce the fog into McBride and find the cafe run by a hilarious couple that love their classic rock radio station. Think Ozzy Osborne over the speakers as you hack away setting up a new web app environment over an orange ginger tea – you love it of course. 6 hours later and you’re just about at your limit for sitting in one place capacity, so you close up shop and blast 2 hours down the highway (seeing another bear) to Prince George and find another coffee shop, put in some more solid coding time, and get to a good stopping point.

Some might find the above scenario stressful, but I’ve really come to enjoy it. First, it forces me to make the most of my internet time and it’s done wonders to creating a hyper-efficient mentality, because as much as I value my current job, I also want to make the most of where I’m at. So on that day in Prince George I had arranged to crash on a couchsurfing host’s couch, something I hadn’t done for a few year now. And boy how I missed it. To a certain extent, working during this trip has made me a recluse. Keeping to a time schedule has kept me out of the late night back-slapping dive bars and when I am in a social space, say a coffee house or whatnot, I very much keep to myself to get my work done. Monday was a great break in that pattern, while my couchsurf host attended a yoga session, I went to one of the microbreweries (surprise surprise) downtown and had a chat with the bartender about all the great ski hills in the area. I then talked hours with my host about topics ranging from learning Spanish to, of course, US politics. I may be an introvert but only part time, and it was refreshing to communicate with people outside of my text message and work chats.

After the work grind the following day, I left Prince George in the evening for Burns Lake and stumbled upon a recreation area. In Canada, these are usually free or very cheap campgrounds similar to BLM land in the US. Amazingly, I still had great cell coverage, which meant I was able to spend the next day with my wifi hotspot working out of the back of my van. There was a tadpole hatching that covered the entire shoreline with thousands of hope-to-be frogs. I considered how they would complement a meal for a bit but after a quick Google search decided my stomach just wasn’t ready for amphibian meat yet.

I followed the Yellowhead highway to the town of Smithers and set up shop for the day. There is a public forest on the nearby mountain and I decided to take a quick, post-work stroll through the woods. It’s amazing how many public recreational facilities exist in Canada and the level to which they are maintained is excellent. This trail came complete with a self guided pamphlet and even had a wildlife blind to use for birdwatching. I had a little bit of extra time that day so I decided to make the most of it by setting up my drum kit to be sure it hadn’t been damaged in the previous 3500 miles. Link to video.

A father and son came by later that evening to drop off supplies for the public, non-profit nordic ski program and we got to talking about the fires along with other things British Colombian. I mentioned I was headed up the Cassiar Highway and without blinking an eye, their tackle box was conjured up and they began gifting me lures for the revers I would encounter and the best spots I should go to try my luck. Canadians really are some of the most outwardly kind people on the planet.

Finishing up work on Friday I headed west on Hwy 16 and turned North on the Cassiar (Hwy 37). At one of the rest stops I began a conversation with a bike touring Spaniard, brushed off my rusted Spanish, and got a few laughs talking about his adventure coming from Alaska. Hearing about the ride made me want to unlock Brucey (my own touring bike that I took to pick up the van) and ride the rest of the highway without being dependent upon demon 87 unleaded.

I was treated to a spectacular sunset show that evening as the grey, overcast clouds turned to a burning orange and for the first time on this trip I began to feel like I was finally entering the northern reaches of the continent.

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Alaska Part 4: Cruising Jasper

Still looking at the map and saying “damn…”

But then I also look at the scenery and can only say the same thing.

I made the most of my weekend and spent my time in Jasper National Park. I would have loved to spend time in Banff as well but I prefer to stick to one park and know it better than be completely out of sorts and know nothing about both.

As with most things I do, I didn’t look into camping and reservations until the night before when I was stealthily parked in a college parking lot. Of course all of the spots were taken and I would have to wager with the first-come, first-serve. I was admittedly nervous and cruised straight through the entirety of Banff Park in order to get to the Wilcox campground, and found it half-unoccupied. I was also very happy to have my first truly cool weather of the trip as the temperature gauge dipped below 40 that night. It didn’t hurt that I was downwind from the katabatics of the Athabasca glacier.

I wanted to take full advantage of my time and wagered that running the hiking trails would be my best bet. That morning I went up to Wilcox pass overlooking the glacier, it was as clear as a bluebird day could be without a wisp of burning pine in the sky. The bighorn sheep were hanging around and I forced myself to stop and take a few pictures with the old, outcast alpha, that had lost a horn. When I reached the van, I noticed a RV had perfectly (purposefully?) parked in the sunshine of my solar shower, so my rinse off was more of a brain freeze.

I powered through Jasper to get to Snaring campground (another first come, first serve) and was glad I arrived early as it had already filled up. After checking in I hit a sizable fatigue wall and it took a lot of self-convincing to get out on another trail. The trail I found however had not been marked on any map and it was clearly a mix of human + game created. It followed the gorgeous turquoise waters of the Snaring upriver towards the northern boundary of the park. I was uneasy the entire walk, even with my can of bear spray it didn’t feel secure. Perhaps it was the riverside berm that had turned into a 60ft cliff which was pinging my fear of heights but I just wasn’t in the game that day. All the same, I was able to take some great pictures of the mountains from afar.

The following morning I awoke early and hit the road to find some hot springs. Upon arrival I discovered there was another 8km round trip trail climbing a mountain; a perfect post-run use for a soak I thought. I hit the trail at a slow tempo-ed trot and the first group of hikers on their decent greeted me with “oh so you think you’re going to jog to the top eh? It only gets steeper from here”. Challenge accepted. The 4-5 hour hike as posted was completed in 1 hour 10 minutes, 42 up, 18 down (including all the talks and waits I had with passerby). I sat down on the pool step allowing my joint to indulge in the hot water and I hear to my right “are you the guy who ran up? Holy shit, you are.” And if I didn’t say I was a little proud of myself then, I’d be lying. There were also cold pools at the facility and as I came up for air after jumping in one a couple to my left asked “Hey, aren’t you that guy who ran up that hike yesterday?”, apparently I was making a name for myself at the park. What I find most entertaining, is that if a quarter of any runners from Boulder had found themselves in Jasper that weekend, I would have been no better than middle of the pack.

I drove out of the park and back into the Pacific time zone, constantly looking back into the rear view mirror and pulling over every time one of the ginormous peaks from Robeson Provincal Park loomed in the reflection. I’ve gotten in a groove selecting where I go to camp for the night: preferably be off the road by 7 to let the engine cool down and thus not overheat the cabin when I crawl into bed, look for Canadian Parks and Trails recreation areas as they are free to camp at and meticulously maintained, always park in the shade, and finally always have a place available for the morning constitutional. I saw my first bear that Sunday, a small blackie scampering across the highway, and camped at a fishing launch. I sipped on a spruce tip ale and saddled up for the 5 days of work ahead, there was no way to deny my first week in Canada had been absolutely spectacular.

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Alaska Part 3: Eh?

“Well there’s no wall yet!”

“Yea and let’s keep it that way!”

And so ended my first Canadian conversation with a couple passing through the rest stop that would be my campsite for the night. The friendly stereotype had already become apparent.

The day before I had been fly fishing the Yellowstone river in Billings with my aunt and uncle before they loaded me down with everything I would need for my first week in Canada including bison sausage, home grown zucchini/ tomatoes, eggs from the chickens, and a complete fly rod setup. When I passed through the border crossing that connects Glacier Part to Waterton, I was expecting the gruff border agent, tattooed and grapefruit biceped, to give me a rough time. He was more perplexed as to how I didn’t have a gun and was going to Alaska more than anything else I was bringing into his country. “So you’re telling me you don’t have a gun? Has there ever been a gun in this vehicle? Do any of your family members own a gun?” I can’t say I’ll answer those questions with the same responses 10 months from now once backpacking season starts again.

My first full day in the maple leaf country was a Monday, meaning I needed to find a good place to start work. It just so happened that I rolled into a small, hip, ski town named Fernie and I didn’t leave it until Thursday evening. It suited my needs much too well: many coffee shops with solid internet connectivity, plentiful forest roads to camp on, streams nearby where I could go for a run up the forest trails in the afternoon and then rinse off, and to top it all off there was a brewery. If I wasn’t on a time schedule of sorts I would have stayed for a month.

When you hang around town for a while, especially one as small as Fernie, people tend to recognize you. The barista, Gary, at Freshies cafe was a former software developer and enjoyed greeting me in the morning with gems of how things used to be in the tech industry. An old gnarled dude who simply said “people call me ‘G Money’ “ told me stories about his snowboarding travel back in the heyday of the sport. And the lady who tipped me off to the campsite location I would stay at for the week would wave at me as I sat by my van eating dinner after she had fed and taken care of the communal “therapeutic” ponies for the night (who knew there was such a thing).

My initial attempt at getting my bike onto the road as a sort of “scout” vehicle quickly came to an end about 2 miles into the ride as the decade-plus aged tires came apart. I somehow managed to find a pair of treads for $20 CAD and when all was said and done, the repairs were no more than $40 US. It’s kind of nice when everything you buy has a built in 20% discount.

I left Fernie that Thursday making a personal promise to come back some day. Even though it wasn’t exactly as gritty as I would have liked (I didn’t see a single homeless person, not one dive bar, and the wifi networks were all suspiciously password-less) as I write this from the back of the van camped out in Jasper National Park I’m smirking at how I turned out to be such a sucker for small mountain towns.

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Alaska Part 2: Montana

There’s only 2 turns to make from the I 90 East to get to Philipsburg; a small town in the Montana foothills that will always hold a part of me.

As I rolled down the main road, one of the few paved, I was acutely aware that this visit would be a bit different than all of the rest. It’s been 3 years since I lived in the area, a year and a half from my last visit, and 6 months after Project Vote Smart (PVS) moved away.

Throughout the week I saw many of the townies that had embodied my Pburg years. The bartender who had served me my 21st birthday shots before, during, and for years after that memorably unrememberable birthday is still there and still just as inspiringly kind to anyone who walks through the doors of the White Front. The town caretaker, a perfect manifestation of The Dude from the Big Lebowski and Los Angeles expatiriate like myself who purchased his first ET surfboard back in the heyday of a more pure Hermosa Beach. Even the rock-climbing, mountain-ascending, impossible-to-reach  father-figure of many PVS intern had come back from the depths of Connecticut to once again grace the area.

Of the very few PVS friends that remained in town, it was very clear that the days we remembered were very much over. Pburg didn’t seem to care but there was a coming to terms moment that passed within me.

My last night, and the hungover morning that followed, was as good of an old fashioned Philipsburg sendoff if there ever was one. We started the night with a few beers at the brewery before sauntering across the street to the bar. The bartender gave us a few free shots that we hadn’t even asked for and soon a few of the more close-minded locals struck up a conversation as they didn’t think too highly of my curly hair and the fact I was born in L.A. I tend to enjoy these types of encounters, as they’re some of the few that ever connect both sides of our horribly dichotomized political system. It is an obligation to use my white male “diplomatic immunity” and engage some of these people from the other spectrum of my political position.

I’m not entirely sure that anything was accomplished that night other than the searing headache the morning after, but as I made a left onto the highway and drove towards Bozeman I knew that the dialogue was for the most part civil, and we saw one another as countrymen; something that cannot be claimed for many of those that represent us in office.

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