Friday, October 09, 2009

A Trove At the End Of the Road in Alaska

The Sterling Highway in Alaska ends at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula in a town called Homer. Homer’s main claim to fame though is, its famous spit – a narrow, hooked finger of land, nearly seven and a half kilometers long, jutting out into the waters of the Kachemak Bay. We were on a 12 day road trip in Alaska in an RV (Recreational Vehicle or motor home) and this really was turning out to be a vacation of good clichés. The journey was as important as the destination and we went where the road took us. That is partly how we ended up in Homer.

We rolled into town in the evening and headed straight for its spit. There aren’t too many of these in the world so we were keen to see it and find an RV park on the spit itself. The Homer spit is a lively place with shops, cafes, seafood restaurants and tour operators for fishing expeditions and chartered flights. But as we continued on down the single narrow road that runs to the end of the spit, the landscape became distinctly more scarred. There was junk lying around from what appeared to be abandoned boats and broken down cars and all the RV parks were over priced and crowded with everyone who had reached the end of the Sterling Highway, deciding to stay on.

After just a few days in Alaska’s lonely wilderness, crowds were beginning to annoy us. So we quickly turned around, and found an RV park inside town, away from the spit. It turned out to be a wise decision since it was empty and offered what we really wanted - a breath-taking, uninterrupted view of the Kachemak Bay state park across the water.

But when we woke up the next morning, we didn’t know what to do in Homer. We didn’t want to wander aimlessly through the shops and we certainly didn’t want to sit around in a café all morning. With such beauty outdoors we didn’t want to dive into a museum and while Homer is a great destination for those interested in fishing, the thought of sitting in a boat with a string out, waiting for something to bite, didn’t exactly thrill us to the bone. We were a fussy bunch that morning. So what now?

In the next half hour we worked the phones and came up with a plan that we will congratulate ourselves for, for the rest of our lives. We got out of Homer. Just across the water from Homer lies the Kachemak Bay state park, a vast 400,000 acre playground of mountains, valleys, glaciers and wildlife and therefore a haven for hiking. The only way to get there is to hire a plane or a boat. We found a guy from upstate New York who shows up in Alaska every summer to make some money running a water taxi service between Homer and the Kachemak Bay state park. So in about two hours of waking up and twiddling our toes wondering what to do, we found ourselves huddled in warm clothing, racing in Todd Scanlon’s boat across the cold water to the other side for a five hour hike.

Todd dropped us on a lonely gravel beach that marks the start of the “Glacier Lake Trail” and headed back for Homer. To our deep satisfaction there was absolutely no human being in sight and we entered the trail through the woods with little idea of what lay ahead. Just as we were growing comfortable with the forest of cottonwood and spruce, it ended abruptly opening into a treeless zone of gravel. We marched on, following the trail, curious about where this sudden change in the landscape was leading us, when the trail suddenly started sloping downhill. We could see a huge mountain in the background and as we advanced we felt the excitement similar to an audience waiting for the curtains to go up.

In a few minutes a dramatic sight emerged. We found ourselves standing at the edge of a lake, which had a rim of ice cubes and icebergs in the middle. And coming down into this lake at the opposite end was a majestic river of ice – the Grewingk Glacier.

The glacier, the lake, the rocks, the raven overhead, all seemed to have a personality and it felt as though they were looking at us than we at them. We felt, we were interrupting something very private in this natural kingdom, as though we weren’t supposed to know that this place existed. We just stood there in dumb-founded silence unable to express any admiration for the sight before us. After taking in as much sensory pleasure from the place as possible, we decided to address our hunger pangs. On a fine flat rock we laid our out makeshift lunch of strawberries, granola bars, grapes, bananas, Oreo cookies and a packet of trail mix and found that never had a meal of such odds and ends been so satisfying.

Having seen off our hunger pangs, we bid farewell to our private glacier (we now feel proprietorial to the Grewingk glacier) and started out again to complete the rest of our hike downhill. During the summer, Alaska has nearly 20 hours of daylight so there was no fear of the sun going down on us in the middle of the forest. But it was starting to get grey and cloudy and we really didn’t want to get stuck in a cold rain. Secretly everyone prayed that Todd had not forgotten us.

As we started on our descent the Kachemak Bay came into view again. In the far distance we could see a little speck of a boat heading our way. Again, secretly everyone hoped it was Todd and not a fishing expedition. The boat kept coming closer and closer as we kept getting nearer and nearer the shore – the scene building up nicely for a Hindi cinemaesque slow-mo reunion. We were about 100 feet away when the bushes finally cleared and we got a good view of the boat. To our immense relief, it was Todd who had shown up at the stroke of five!

All sides were proud of their clockwork precision without the exchange of even a single phone call. We jumped into the boat, happy and exercised, and with the warm glow of those to whom nature has revealed a little secret – beyond Homer where the road ends.

This piece was published in the Indian Express on September 27th 2009.

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