Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

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Richardson Highway, Alaska

I sent a message to a guy today, something like:

  I’m going to be through [your town] tomorrow.  I’d like to stop and say hi.  If that’s OK here’s my phone number so you can call me so I know how to reach you.

  Now I am tortured by remorse.  I feel like this was a totally inappropriate thing for me to do.  He and I have had a couple of exchanges.  Friendly enough, but he has put out only road directions and travel advice.  He has shown not one spark of interest in meeting me.

I keep telling myself, I left him an easy out.  All he has to do is not answer.  But this violates one of my strong working principles, of letting myself know what I know.  I knew he was not interested, and I was trying to pretend otherwise.

On the other hand, if I had not sent that message, I would be tortured by remorse.  I would be calling myself a coward for not even having the guts to send a simple message asking a guy if he wants to meet me.

I would be reminding myself I am trying to break out of the middle-child paradigm.  The middle child grows up with no expectations.  Unlike the oldest, the middle child never got the attention of being the only one. Unlike the youngest, the middle child never got to be the baby.  He just got lost in the shuffle.  He lived on hand-me-downs, and learned to make his own fun.  And now he doesn’t know how to ask for anything, at least not in any way that’s going to get it for him.

Ain’t no way to win!

Rainbow, among high trees

A splash of rainbow. View from the highway. A rainstorm, as autumn comes on.

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Turnagain Arm, Alaska

Six times, from the air, I have studied the lay of the waters around Anchorage.  Once on landing and once on take off, each of the three times I’ve been through Anchorage International Airport.  Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm are the two waterways that bracket the city.  From above, they looked like forbidding masses of swirling grey water.

Finally, I am exploring Anchorage and environs from the ground.  The Chugach Mountains provide a spectacularly beautiful setting, and I have a sparkling day of warm September weather.  I am gratified to report that, from sea level, Turnagain Arm is a swirling mass of forbidding grey water.

At a glance, it doesn’t look all that different from one of the friendly channels of Puget Sound.  Comparable width, comparable length.  Of course there would be things to know, in Puget Sound, about currents and tides.  The thing to know about currents and tides in Turnagain Arm is — fuggedaboudit.

What on earth is going on out there?  I see rollers cresting and breaking, way out in the middle of the channel.  The tidal current seems to be always rushing in, or rushing out.  Or perhaps both at the same time.

In Puget Sound, the water would be alive with work boats and pleasure boats.  Here there are none.  No docks or harbors either.  The tidal bore, which can roar in at a height of up to six feet, is a tourist attraction.

In Puget Sound, there might be clam diggers out at low tide, or at least people strolling, enjoying the beach.  Not here.  There are signs all over saying do not go out onto the mud flats.  Quicksand.  Thirty foot tides.  Die.

Perhaps recklessly, I brave the shore.  I do stay on the solid sediments, in easy reach of the breakwater boulders.  I perceive this beach is nothing to mess with.  I go back and sit on the boulders. By and by, the rising tide comes chuckling in over the rippled mud, at the pace of a brisk walk.

From Western Washington, I am used to the waters being something you do things with.  You have a relationship with it.  You go on it, and sometimes in it, and over it, and you put things in it and get other things out of it.

I guess, here, all you do is look at it.

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Chulitna River

The understory of birch and berries says this place has hard winters, like New England.  But the big cottonwoods, the cow parsnip stalks higher then my head, and the rosettes of ferns like ostrich plumes hint at kinship to the Pacific Northwest.  That and the wet.  It is not raining, but every frond and grass stalk wicks water onto my pants legs as I pass.

I munch my morning muesli as I take the short trail to the Chulitna River.  I got to this campground after dark.  Alaska distances still deceive me.  The drive here was longer than it looked.  And the spacing of the campsites from the highway, shorter.

Rigs would be rocketing by all night, I could see.  And just as each wheel rush was fading in the distance, it would hit a stretch of “singing bridge”, like the yokels who whoop as they strafe you on your bike.  Annoying.  Ear plugs helped some, but it was a short night.

A sign along the trail says no fishing for King Salmon.  Another sign, under its little shingled roof on a post, is entirely faded to white.  There is Devils Club, something every woods walker in the Pacific Northwest learns to respect, a thug of a plant with dinner-plate-size spiny leaves.  The funk of highbush cranberries hangs in the still autumn air, sweet note to the perfume of rich woodsy decay.

Along the river trail, there are campsites further in.  I could not see that in the dark.  I pass a biker, softly snoring in a mummy bag on a picnic table.  His black and silver steed is right there with him.  I didn’t even hear him come in.  I guess the earplugs did better than I thought.

I come to a tiny creek, scarcely six feet wide.  And there they are.  I first notice the splashing slap, like someone halfheartedly doing laundry.  A series of lazy, flopping agitations in the water, and a pause.  More from further downstream, and up.

I first got my feet wet in aquatic biology from humble beginnings.  As a kid, most of the natural waters I found in Alabama were muddy and intermittent, such as the wheel ruts in gravel pit ponds.  It was a big deal to discover any vertebrates.  Tadpoles were about it.

Based on that, fish have always been special.  It became instinctive to expect their size to match the water.  Creeks some tens of feet wide would support bluegills, maybe the size of your hand.  Bigger waters would have larger fish.  By rights, this small creek should host shoals of minnows, nothing more.

So what are these two-foot long behemoths doing here?  They can scarcely cover their depth.  If fact, their dorsal fins stick quite out of the water.

They are, of course, salmon, come here to spawn.  For the kid in me, it’s like somebody off TV, maybe Flipper the dolphin, suddenly nosing aside the tadpoles and laughing from under the pond scum.

Pictures do not do it justice.  Vague grey shapes, in grey water, among grey stones.  But in presence, they are compelling.  Humans naturally notice animals, especially big animals close.  Animals big enough to do with, like eat.

I stand and watch the spawning salmon a long time.  The poor fish are worn out and tattered.  Many are already beached on the bank or floating in the shallows, dead.  The stink is not putrid like sewage, but a definite presence, like dirty socks.

I finally make it down to the river bank.  There, across the channel, is Denali, another thing it was too dark to see last night.

Pictures do not do it justice.  In front is a range of pinnacles, peer of the Tetons.  Alone, they would be the view.  But they are just the foothills.  Behind, is the actual mountain, almost an afterthought.  It is so immense its head sticks up out of sight, into clouds.

Denali with his head lost in the clouds

Denali, his head lost in the clouds

More dead salmon are scattered along the gravel bars.  Live ones occasionally flip in the silty stream.  When I wade across small channels, I wonder, am I stepping on salmon eggs?

Finally I turn back into the somber blessing of this chilly dawn.  My feet are cold, but I know it could be colder.  This calm, damp, red and gold autumn day is the moment of stillness of the indrawn breath, before winter slams down.

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Chena Valley, Alaska

This trip is about blueberries.  That’s merely a formality.  Plans are just to get you out the door.  Then, things happen.  But it’s good to have a plan.  So the plan is, I’m searching for blueberries.

For all the publicity about the famous Alaska blueberries, they prove remarkably elusive.  Few people at Toolik could tell me any particular places, one exception being “Tangle Lakes”.

Locals did not agree on when the berries would be ripe.  Some said August, so if I could make time for berrying ahead of my trip back to Toolik on 8/24, that would be best.  Others maintained the berries needed a bit of frost, thus after my work ended 9/8.  Well, necessity set the schedule, so it is September.

There were blueberries on the tundra, spangled among red leaves on ankle-high plants.  The berries looked tempting, but in taste — well maybe they’d been left out in the weather too long.  One of the helicopter pilots mentioned, yes, they’re done here.  They’re still around in Central.  And they’re just coming on in Southeast.  She nodded encouragement.

So here I am in central Alaska, looking for blueberries.

I can see why the Milepost book is so valued.  A lot of Alaska looks, well, a lot alike.  Maybe an ant crawling across a bowl of fruit would see a lot of sameness.  When on the apple, everything’s red.  When on the banana, everything’s yellow.  So, to me, here in Central, when not in one of the vast swamps, or an alpine area, it all looks like endless spirelike dark green spruces, interspersed with birch.

The birches are golden.  I am here at exactly the right time for peak color, and they are spectacular.  I am also lucky on the weather.  Everyone says it could be much colder by now, but there is a heat wave holding the thermometer to the 50’s and 60’s Fahrenheit.  The golden leaves whisper down into a scene of perfect autumnal bliss.

But back to the blueberries.  Where are they, amongst all these birches and spruce?

I am up the Chena River.  When I looked on Google Maps, it was hard to make out details for the smoke.  Evidently the aerial photos happened to be taken exactly when a forest fire was going on.  There was the burn, frozen on screen, in all its horrid splendor of red flame front and streaking gray haze. The smoke plume spanched right across the area I wanted to examine.

So now I am here.  The old burn is quite evident on the hillsides.  Five, six years?  I can’t read how fast trees grow in Alaska.  But the terrain reminds me of northern Rockies.  North Idaho or western Montana.  Similar in the birch.  Similar in the spruce.  I guess too cold for lodgepole.

And, in the Rockies, you find blueberries in several-year-old burns.

I see on the map the “Granite Tors Trails”.  It looks like it will get me up from this oxbowed valley floor, onto the hills, into part of that burn.  I can see the Tors, strange rock spikes on the far bald of the dome.  I have no intention of going the whole route, fifteen miles round trip.  It is late in the day.

I have learned by now that the low Alaska sun makes it always feel like late in the day.  By my watch, there are some four more hours before sunset, and then considerable twilight.  I give it a try.

I find blueberries, though not in the burn.  I come upon then in an area right by the Chena.  The spot looks remarkably like the North Slope tundra did.  Swampy, humpy, with wet moss and puddles, bespeaking close-to-the-surface permafrost.  Here are the same tundra species; tussock cottongrass, dwarf birch, Labrador tea, and the little glossy-leaved sub-shrub Alaskans call “cranberry”.

These plants, however, are some ten times as robust as in the high arctic.  This means the biggest reach almost to my knee.  Are the blueberries the tundra species too, V. uligunosim?  The bushes are gigantic, over a foot tall.

I have with me a berry rake.  It was in one of the bales of things I gave away when I sold my Fort Collins house.  Then I realized I was coming back to Alaska in autumn.  Blueberries.  I asked for the berry rake back, out of the yard sale pile.  The new owner graciously complied.

The blueberries are past their peak, both in quantity and quality.  When I got berries with Ronniger in Idaho years ago, we could rake off half a cupful at a swipe.  Here, I may get only one or two.  The rake takes equal biomass in red blueberry leaves, not to mention mixed in dead horsetails, twigs, and big, dry, papery cloudberry leaves.

Those Idaho “huckleberries”, as we called them, were so delicious.  We would eat them till our teeth hurt.  Then we would keep on eating them.

These are not so good.  But, I figure, late blueberries are better than no blueberries.  I shake them out of the rake by the small handful.  I pour them back and forth between my cupped palms, blowing out the leaves.  I dump them into my mouth.  They are just sour.  But at least they are blueberries.

I am getting it that if I want to find blueberries, at least this kind, I should look for areas where the spruces look the most miserable.  The way spruces grow over permafrost, scarcely taller than me, starveling to a slow death where they end up looking like giant burnt-out matches.  That’s where to find these blueberries.

However, at least here, now; these blueberries are only sour.  Finally I give up on them.

I get back out to the trailhead just at sunset.  At the campground, I gush water from the hand pump to wash the leaves out of my berry rake.  If this trip is not going to be about blueberries, what then?