As the trip began, so would it end: aboard a rumbling ship cutting through icy seas.
When we finally touched down in Fairbanks the skies were clear and blue. We had a new appreciation for the sun, no matter how stubbornly it sulked at the edge of the horizon. As we left Pam and Tom’s they offered us Alaskan words of endearment: “Watch for moose”.
“Here,” explained Pam, “that means ‘we love you’.”
The weather remained clear as we drove south through Denali National Park. The mountain formerly known as Mt. McKinley towered above its snow capped cousins, dominating them all. Despite the clear day, the highest mountain in North America was slightly obscured by cloud, obstinently generating its own weather to spite the forecasts. Apparently we were lucky to see it at all. The herds of caribou that had eluded us on the Alaska Highway stood grazing by the Park Highway, looking up to stare as we stopped to take their photo.
The wilderness that had enveloped us since leaving the metropolises of Canada started falling aside as we approached Anchorage, the small city looking massive after so much time in the boreal forests and bleak tundra. We stayed with a couchsurfer who worked nights. He left us the key to his house hidden on the porch. By the time we finally met him we had made ourselves at home, uninterested in exploring the city at night, weary from the drive. We talked about far off places very different from Alaska, with spicier food and real humidity.
While we explored the area a snowstorm moved across the Kenai Peninsula and one of our windshield wipers froze to the glass, leaving me blind. I worried the motor was shot, or the bolt was stripped, but fixed it in the end with a socket wrench borrowed from Ken, our host.
It was a three day drive to catch our ferry in Skagway. First we needed to head north again up the Glenn Highway, which skirted the worst of the storm. The winds punished us though, punching the Subaru from the side at unexpected intervals. We spent several hours at the Matanuska Glacier, walking right up to its face and touching the timeless ice. This detour allowed the storm to catch and overtake us after sunset. It stayed with us until the little village of Tok, harassing us with violent winds and swirling snow devils. After a night in the storm the car wore a thick smooth blanket of white.
On our way back toward the Yukon two moose cows crossed the road in front of us, forcing me to slide to a stop. The second one walked gingerly across the road but lost its footing at the edge, her entire bulk crashing down onto the icy surface. It was an embarrassing incident for all involved. Soon after, a lynx dashed across, long legs and big paws far more sure on the slick surface.
My old friend Katie Leonetti, who along with her husband Cris runs summer tours out of Skagway, wrote me on Facebook warning that the storm could potentially close the White Pass on the Klondike Highway. When we arrived in Haines Junction, we looked online and found her advice to be prophetic: Avalanches were plaguing the pass and it was closed until further notice. We’d given ourselves a little room to breathe, around thirty hours worth, so we set up camp at our motel and waited.
As we waited we slowly realized that by moving our departure to Haines we could save ourselves two hours of driving and any more potential trouble on the passes so after two nights at the remote crossroads of the Alaska and Haines Highways, we cut fresh tracks through new fallen snow southwest, back into the States towards the little port village of Haines, Alaska. It was the last piece of wilderness we’d see, a bleak and beautiful stretch though absolute stillness. The only sign of life was a red fox, sitting patiently in the sparse grass, otherwise we were alone.
We passed the day in Haines, watching hundreds of nesting bald eagles soar over the Chilkat River. Magda noted that they looked like Christmas ornaments as they filled the branches of riverfront trees. At night we drove through another heavy snowfall to board the Malaspina. It was startling to realize that while we’d filled the tank with gas back in Haines Junction, Yukon, our next fill-up would be in Washington State. We put the car in the hold of the ferry and found our windowless stateroom. It was a cross between our somewhat luxurious accommodations on the Ocean Diamond headed to Antarctica and the windowless hovel on the Cisna Branca, plying the Amazon River.
The voyage was a hybrid of our earlier trips as well. Alaska’s inside passage is a sheltered waterway that stretches north and south through the largest temperate rainforest on earth. Like the Amazon, the forest stretches for miles, for days, seeming virgin and impassable. Like in Antarctica great snow capped peaks rise dramatically out of the sea, so large that passing clouds tear themselves to pieces on their summits and leave scattered, misty remnants behind. Humpback whales dove for krill while seabirds wheeled above.
The ferry stopped at several ports, giving us a chance to explore a couple last Alaskan towns by foot. We must have become spoiled by the car since we realized twenty minutes before the ferry was departing Ketchikan that the public bus wouldn’t come for another hour. We called a taxi, but with ten minutes until the boat left, it didn’t show up. I stuck my thumb out. After a minute or two, a woman shouted from her parked car, “wait here!” then ran inside a chocolate shop.
We sat in this stranger’s car and sweated while she chatted inside the shop with the clerk. When she finally jumped in she said, “you can have a ride, but you both have to eat a chocolate.” and tossed us each a truffle.
So passed our last five minutes on Alaskan soil.