Monthly Archives: August 2015

In love in Homer, Alaska

Fields of wildfowers at Eveline State recreation Site with Grewingk Glacier in the background

Fields of wildfowers at Eveline State Recreation Site with Grewingk Glacier in the background

I fell in love with Homer as we drove down the uninspiring last slope of Route 1 into the town, but I have no idea why it happened then. I’d been driving along the Cook Inlet for the last hour, with one magnificent snow capped volcano after another looming up across the water, so Kachemak Bay, though incredibly beautiful, wasn’t a surprise. At that point I hadn’t yet seen our small, slightly wacky RV park, attached to an old inn, with its extremely friendly staff and beautiful view. I didn’t know that we’d find more charm, and art, along the main street than we had in the other towns we’d visited. Nor did I know that there was a pretty cafe in a quaint, old building across the street from the RV park, with enormous salads and delicious breakfasts.

Coast indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

Coast indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

I didn’t foresee the moose browsing in the twilit marsh just down the block, or walking on the beach as two bald eagles flew by, just above eye level, fifteen feet in front of me, heading to a cluster of trees to roost for the night. I knew nothing about the Homer Spit, a 4.5 mile long, flat extrusion into the bay — home of beaches, marinas, RV parks, restaurants, tee shirt shops, adventure guides, commercial fishing — that shares a lot of the rackety charms of Montauk, New York, a place I’ve loved most of my life, on the far side of the continent.

Enormous devil's club in the lush rainforest of Peterson Bay

Enormous devil’s club in the lush rainforest of Peterson Bay

I hadn’t eaten the halibut tacos at the farmers market, or the Thai curry down on the Spit, with chunks of just-caught salmon and halibut. I knew little about the temperate rainforest in the blue mountains, with their snowy crowns and icy glaciers, across the glistening water of the bay, with devil’s club so enormous it towered over us as we walked, starfish the size of my head, seals basking on the beach, fungus so large and strong we could have used it as a stepping stone to climb the tree hosting it, and puffins on the way home. I had no idea Homer would have the most wildflowers of any place I’d go in Alaska.

Grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

Grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

Or what great flowers they would be. Lots of the luminous yellow paintbrush native to Alaska. Sharp-beaked, dark-veined, strangely beautiful monkshood, hiding a neurotoxin so poisonous the indigenous Alaskans tipped their spears with it to kill whales. Sunlit, lavender wild geranium. Windswept cotton grass. Sweeps of fireweed. Tiny, delicate grass of parnassus, with its glass bead interior. Fierce, blue-black star gentian. The small bells of pink pyrola, nestled in knee-high forests of horsetail and fern, and the wide bells of the minute single delight.

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum)

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum)

Like a lot of love, there was no explaining its arrival. Even though none of the things that were to prove so endearing about Homer were evident on the ride in, I loved it on sight. We were planning to stay two nights. The next day, after lifting the shade on the back window to horizontal stripes of vivid magenta fireweed, pale blue bay, deep blue mountains, ice blue glaciers, luminous blue sky, I promptly went to the office and said we’d stay a week. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I wanted to see a lot more of Alaska before winter, and the fact that the RV park cost exactly twice our hoped-for budget, I’d still be there.

From left: star gentian (Swertia perennis), cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium), monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), pink pyrola (Pyrola asarifolia)

From left: star gentian (Swertia perennis), cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium), monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), pink pyrola (Pyrola asarifolia)

It took me no time at all to find the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and their Carl E. Wynn Nature Center, with five miles of trails flanked by an abundance of wildflowers. They were also the group I went across Kachemak Bay with, for a day of hiking and tide-pooling in Peterson Bay. It took a little longer to find out about the Eveline State Recreation site, eighty acres donated by a man in memory of his wife. There the trails wound through 5’ high wildflowers and grasses, like walking through a prairie. One trail went through muskeg, a word that has always seemed to echo out of the wilds of Alaska, with its scraggly spruces and vast beds of moss that you can sink into to your shins. It has calm enough origins, however: it comes from the Cree word for low lying marsh, maskak.

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Single delight (Moneses uniflora)

Single delight (Moneses uniflora)

In Homer I found another facet of the deep mystery of place. I’ve never, ever thought about living in Alaska. It’s expensive, too far away, and the last thing I’m looking for is a place with long, dark, cold winters. So it’s close to impossible that I will find myself here. But Homer is the second place, in all my travels, that I could see myself settling in. (The other was Port Townsend, in Washington.) Yet this isn’t the same as the heart recognizing that it already knows a place as Home, a place mysteriously full of ancient echoes, the way I described South Dakota and Utah in the Moving Hearts post. There are no calls from Spirit in Homer, no deep recognition that this is a place already held in my heart. But it’s a place full of things that matter to me — plants, wildlife, water, beauty, art, fresh food, easy to find adventures — and I tore myself away with deep reluctance, already wondering how and when I’ll get back.

Crossing Kachemak Bay from Peterson Bay toward Homer

Crossing Kachemak Bay from Peterson Bay toward Homer

 

 

 

 

Timeless in Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

The first thing that happened in Alaska was that we lost our sense of time. There were three of us at that point. George and I had picked up our friend, Guy, in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where he’d flown up from Vancouver. We drove to Destruction Bay the same day, staying the night on a large, windswept gravel field owned by a character named Loren, who informed us, apropos of various plumbing challenges he runs into, that we were standing two feet above permafrost, which then went down another 65 feet. The next day, after driving through the sublime Yukon landscape, we entered the sublime Alaskan landscape, and drove toward Valdez, on the southern coast, staying a night in Gakana on the way.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Lakes and bogs in the Mat-Su Valley

By the time we’d spent one of our two nights in Valdez, we all realized that we not only couldn’t figure out what day it was, but it seemed we’d been traveling for weeks. Occasionally, when I’ve driven long distances over a relatively short time, I need to get reoriented to time. And, over the course of our adventures, my relationship to time has changed. After a life governed by calendars, clocks, appointments, I stopped wearing a watch at some point. It often takes me a second to figure out what day of the week it is. But this was different, and has lasted the whole time we’ve been here, as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border. If I really think about it, and check my phone for the day and date, I realize we’ve been here three weeks, but without that effort, it feels like we’ve been in Alaska for ages.

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

In stories, it’s usually the witch or the evil magus, not the good fairy, that casts the spell that makes you lose your sense of time, your memory of the past, an interesting way to look at the importance we place on both. And not just in our busy, technological present. Ageless oral traditions speak to the fear that peoples who forget their history and their stories lose their sense of who they are. But for individuals, it’s often a relief to leave the deafening clatter of the past behind, and it’s the good fairy that places us in the expansive present.

I haven’t figured out what accounts for this sense of timelessness, but it may be part of what makes people unwilling to leave Alaska once they get here. There are lots of stories that start with “I came for …. and never left.” There’s a ‘here-ness’ to Alaska, a sense of its remoteness from so much else, of its being its own place, apart from all other places, apart from other times. I can see how appealing this would be, how you would want to live with this sense of not only being far away from everything, but out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness.

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska, across the Cook Inlet

And surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty, literally everywhere. The towns and cities aren’t beautiful, but they are all set in great beauty, and driving along the roads is awe inspiring, in sunshine or rain, which is good, because there’s a lot of rain. There are not, however, a lot of roads. There’s a loop of two lane highways linking Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Tok, and Anchorage. From that loop roads split off south to Valdez, Seward and Homer at different points on the coast. Two roads lead in and out of the state. There’s a rough road up to the Arctic Ocean because of the pipeline. Communities have local roads. That’s it. A total of 32,000 ‘lane miles’ in a state of 663,300 square miles. In contrast, New York has 242,400 lane miles in a state of 54,500 square miles.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Fireweed, beautiful and ubiquitous, lights up Alaska all summer

So, everywhere you look you know that the beauty you see goes on and on beyond your vision, mountain after mountain, waterfalls cascading down their sides, enormous ice shields spilling glaciers over their tops, valleys of meadows and bogs, vast stretches of green forest reaching to the next mountain, the next glacier. The constant presence of shimmering water, in bodies large and small. Vivid magenta fireweed lighting up the landscape. Yesterday is already rapidly receding. Last month is gone. Your whole history is somewhere way off in the distance.

Alaska-highway-to-Tok-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Alaskan Highway between the border and Tok, Alaska