City girl survives Alaska, easily

  • Juliet Eilperin / The Washington Post
  • Friday, October 10, 2003 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I’d been in Alaska less than 24 hours, and nature’s wrath had come upon me in full force. Tucked into a single-person kayak, I was trying — in vain — to make headway against 15-knot winds as waves crashed against my boat, about a mile off the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

"Are you OK?" my instructor, Heather, called out.

"I’ll survive," I yelled back gamely.

In reality, I had no idea how I was going to make it back to shore. I was paddling furiously, but kept edging toward the rocks. I pressed on pedals that shifted my rudder, but it appeared to have little impact.

My eyes scanned the bay as I tried to fix on the tiny dot that represented our goal, the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying. Then Heather came up with an inspired plan.

"Pull up your rudder," she ordered.

I took a breath, pulled up the rudder and resumed paddling. It worked. Now that I was no longer manipulating my rudder back and forth, the kayak glided more easily through the water, leading me back home. While it took another half-hour to return to shore, I had made it through what can best be described as a sort of nature-hazing for an inexperienced city girl who decided to venture into the great outdoors this summer.

Camping and outdoor sports are not exactly my forte. But I’ve always wanted to see Alaska, so when my two best friends from college announced they were planning a hiking and driving trip in the 49th state last month, I couldn’t resist.

Our nature- and food-filled (but somewhat animal-deprived) expedition took us to some of Alaska’s most scenic spots. We focused our efforts on the Kenai Peninsula, which encompasses about 16,000 square miles in south-central Alaska. I spent nine days in Alaska, all of it along a route that spanned roughly 220 miles. Roaming Highway 1, we stopped where we liked and gawked shamelessly at the scenery. With roughly 18 hours of daylight every 24 hours, we quickly caught on to one of the best things about Alaska in August: You never pay a penalty for sleeping late.

Roughing it does take some effort. After flying into Anchorage, I rented a car and drove about four hours south on Highway 1 to Homer, a pretty port town, where I hopped a 30-minute water taxi across Kachemak Bay to my first stop, a tent camp on a cove called Kasitsna Bay. Across the Bay features five canvas tents on platforms with screened windows and doors (guests bring sleeping bags to put on perfectly comfy beds). My tent was beside a creek and across from a wood-heated sauna.

There were outhouses, yes, but also hot showers, sumptuous breakfasts (my first morning, owners Tony and Mary Jane Lastufka served red salmon they’d smoked themselves) and equally tasty dinners. Lunches featured halibut and salmon salads.

But even better than the food and amenities were the nature offerings: kayaking tours, mountain hikes, halibut and salmon fishing trips, and workshops in poetry writing, photography and watercolor painting. Rocky waters aside, Kasitsna Bay offered the nature-gazing I was seeking. Otters romped as eagles swooped overhead, and Heather was quick to point out the sea starfish and other creatures that clung to the rocks we passed on our way to the Herring Islands.

The next morning — after a failed attempt to spot moose in Kincaid Park, a pretty Anchorage recreation area — we set out on Highway 1 for Bird Ridge, a half-hour south of Anchorage in Chugach State Park. We had simple goals: a strenuous hike amid good scenery, preferably with a few animals thrown in.

It was an easy drive. The highway curved gently for miles, past bright blue or green bodies of water ringed by mountains, and later, grassy expanses dotted with purple fireweed, the flowers that dominate the state’s summer landscape.

Bird Ridge is a steep uphill climb above Turnagain Arm, a shimmering body of water with mud flats that are actually deadly: If you step into them, you risk drowning, as if you were swallowed up in quicksand.

With an elevation of 4,650 feet, Bird Ridge is a serious hike. One of its saving graces is that there are a few false summits, so you can quit early. After about three hours, we got three-quarters of the way up, while still having the satisfaction of surveying the expanse below. Everywhere we turned we could see mountains — grassy up close, blue and icy from a distance.

This hike was surpassed, however, by the next day’s trek on Crow Pass Trail, also in Chugach State Park. The eight-mile hike to Raven Glacier along the Chugach Mountain Range is said to be among the most stunning Alaska has to offer. Starting out amid vegetation that resembles overgrown hedges, we wound around the mountain for more than an hour, taking in distant glaciers and mountain views. At three miles, we hit Crystal Lake, surrounded by a grassy field that’s perfect for camping as well as just lounging, which is what we did. A mile later, after crossing a snowbank, we reached Raven Glacier, a beautiful, craggy site.

As we stood near a stream, cool air rushed off the glacier and enveloped us, wiping out the heat that had baked us all day. We could see the many colors of the glacier: pale blue at some points, sooty black in others. The walk back was even better. The shorter, steeper route immersed us in a lush green valley, with multiple cascading falls behind us.

The Russian River, which intersects with the Kenai River and is roughly an hour south of Girdwood, is a magnet for spawning salmon. It’s an easy four-mile round-trip hike to the Russian River Falls, with a huge payoff: a massive falls filled with jumping salmon trying furiously to make it upstream. You can’t help but exclaim at the sight.

From the falls, we headed two hours farther on to Homer, the port town where I’d started my trip. Homer is a hip fishing village, with about half a dozen cafes. It’s worth noting that you can get lattes in the most obscure Alaskan towns, a convenience that provided us with more pep than trail mix.

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