Day 75: Hiking on a Glacier

I woke up to the sound of rain against the roof of my tiny, rustic cabin. I cringed at the thought of getting out of my warm sleeping bag to the bitter cold air and rain, so I decided to play on my phone with the small amount of battery I had left. I reached for my glasses on the floor beside the box spring I was laying on and realized they were almost frozen. It was painful to put them on my face. I had tried to charge my phone with my solar charger, but it was too cold and the phone wouldn’t charge.

I played on my phone for about an hour and heard the rain stop. I threw my coat over my thermals and braved the cold so I could go to the bathroom. Looking across the small river, I noticed the clouds and mist had rolled in, creating an eerie feel.

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My quick venture outside left me feeling very cold, so I jumped back into my mummy sleeping bag and walked around the cabin with it wrapped around me as I dug through my backpack for breakfast options.

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I was elated when I discovered I had a powdered Starbucks vanilla latte packet. I used my Jetboil to make the latte and sat on the porch enjoying the view.

I ate a poptart for breakfast and packed up my gear. With my paid admission, I could stay there all day and hike Matanuska glacier. Once packed up, I drove about a mile to the parking lot. The natives own the rights to the glacier, but Bill (whom I had met the day before) owns the access rights. There is some sort of guidance on the first mile of the glacier.

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People are able to hike the glacier by themselves or they can book a tour where a guide will walk them to other areas, like the ice caves. They’ll also provide crampons for your shoes. I decided not to do a tour because it was expensive. I’ve also hiked on a glacier in Norway and didn’t feel it would be all that different. Plus, I could still hike it on my own to the main areas.

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The first section of the hike was sandy and muddy. Certain sections had metal grates or wooden pieces of boards to help stabilize the ground so people don’t sink. There was a “path” for people to follow, which was basically just scattered orange cones here and there.

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I started the hike and was trying not to sink. About ten minutes into the hike, I ran into Keenan, the guy who I had talked with the night before about camping. He was leading a handful of people on a tour. He stopped to talk to me and asked how my night was. I told him it was super cold, but the views made it all worth it. He replied, “Right on!”

I continued hiking, mesmerized by the still pools of water, gray sand, and ice slowly popping through. I started to head towards the ice caves, but a tour guide warned me not to go that direction without crampons. I found the trail again and continued.

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I came across an area with a crevasse that I needed to cross in order to continue. It was a pretty large gap and not having crampons made me nervous. I watched as a girl struggled to cross, squatting down because she was too scared to make the leap. Her friends on the other side were trying to convince her to jump. I walked further down and found an area that I thought was safer and crossed there.

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The ground was deceptive. It was gray from the dirt, but was actually ice. I got closer to the main body of the glacier and got worried that I would slip. After about 30 minutes of hiking, I made it to the top and the stopping point. To go further, you needed to be on the other side with crampons. It was incredible to see such a majestic glacier. The blue and white colors intertwined with streaks of brown dirt. It looked fake and it was hard to fully comprehend the size and scope of it.

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After taking in the views, I hiked back to my car. As I got closer, I ran into Keenan again. This time he was leading a new group to go out to the glacier. I asked him, “Don’t you get tired of doing these?” He replied, “No man, it’s something different every time! Are you sticking around for the day?” I told him I needed to keep driving north so I could catch a ferry back to Canada.

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When I got back to the parking lot, Bill had just pulled up with a bus full of people who were getting ready to take tours. I stopped outside of the driver’s side window to talk with him. He said, “It’s a good thing you had the cabin last night with all the rain. Kept you and your stuff dry.” I was indeed happy to have that cabin.

When I got to my car, I plugged my phone in so I could book a hostel in Tok. I had stayed there on my way to Alaska and I would go right through there again. I enjoyed my stay the first time so I booked a room to ensure it would be available.

The drive was beautiful as the fall colors were making their way into the forest. It was only September 6th, but yellow, red, and orange were starting to sweep the trees and bushes. I pulled over to take some pictures of the lakes that made perfect mirrors of the mountains.

I pulled into the hostel’s gravel parking lot around dinner time. I had booked one of the rooms that had two twin beds because it was cheaper than the private room with one twin bed and a bathroom (the one I stayed in previously). However, while I was booking it online, two guys were booking it in person. Because of the double booking, I got my old room again for the same price!

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I put my bags inside my room and two German guys who were staying in the room with two twin beds were about to make dinner. They told me they had salmon, vegetables, and rice, and I was welcome to join them. I hadn’t eaten dinner so I joined them in the kitchen while they cooked.

The guys were from a small town two and half hours from Munich. Flo was 29 years old and studied civil engineering (which is different than how the US describes it). He worked as a mechanic for a bit and wanted to stay with the company since they had good benefits, so he had recently accepted a role as a Safety Engineer/Manager and said, “Nobody likes you in this role.” Flo’s uncle moved to Prince George, Canada 40 years ago and raised his family there on a farm. Flo has visited them a couple of times, but this time he wanted to explore Alaska.

Julian was 30 years old and was a tax accountant. He worked at his dad’s company, which had about nine employees. He works with private citizens and small businesses and explained, “Taxes are complicated.”

The guys get six weeks of paid vacation a year. If people in the US received as much vacation as Europe or Australia, maybe we wouldn’t have to quit our jobs to travel.

Flo and Julian were taking two and half weeks to explore Alaska and started in Whitehorse, Canada. They looked into renting an RV, but it would cost them $4,500 euros, plus additional fees for going into the US and driving on gravel roads. That’s part of the reason I didn’t do an RV. It’s incredibly expensive to rent them, you still have to pay for hookups, can’t park it anywhere you’d like, and I didn’t want to attempt to drive it by myself.

Instead, the guys were staying in a tent they bought at Canadian Tire and said they didn’t realize it would be so cold already. Staying at the hostel was a treat for them. They were following a guide book and were heading to Valdez the next day.

The salmon that they pulled out of the cooler was caught by a guy at a campground they stayed at. They bought it off of him and did a great job cooking it. The three of us sat down to eat dinner like we were a family.

Shelley, the owner of the hostel stopped by to say hello and told me that her brother (who she had wanted me to go on a date with) couldn’t get his plane ready in time to take me on a ride. She said she’d stop by and pick me up in the morning because she wanted me to meet a friend of hers who lived in a log cabin that her husband had built. I agreed to go with her the following day.

Flo and Julian told me about life in Germany. They learn another language at ten years old. A lot of people choose to learn French and their president said learning French was a great way for them to mend their relationship with France after being at war with them for many years. Flo said, “In 100 years, I don’t think there will be any wars or issues between Germany and France. We know each other’s languages and we’re close now.”

Hearing Flo and Julian talk about their view of Alaska was hilarious! They rented a Malibu and thought it was too full of plastic. They joked, “Good thing it’s not hot here or else the plastic would all melt.” They were shocked at how many Alaskans drove trucks. They described Alaskan men as having “beards, stains on their shirts, hunting, fishing, shooting, and have a crack in their windshield.” They thought it took a special person to live in Alaska.

As we were eating dinner, two woman came in to stay in the private room with a double bed. They were about 50 and 70 years old and one was dragging in an oxygen tank. The women were worried about the noise, but we couldn’t hear it once they closed the door.

We finished dinner and I washed the dishes while they dried and put them away. They asked that I help them with some English words. “What is the word for a female cousin?” they asked. I laughed and told them, “female cousin.” One of them said “snorkeling” instead of “snoring” and we all laughed.

I took a much needed shower after spending the night in a cabin with no water. I was happy to have a bed again in a heated room. It was so great to meet Flo and Julian. They were generous with their food and were very hospitable. Each day brought new people into my life and it’s much richer because of it.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 74: Alaskan Adventure!

Before checking out of my Airbnb, I took advantage of the washer and dryer. After finishing my laundry,  I drove to Costco to get new tires. While I waited, I shopped around and ate at their food court. I noticed they had chili on the menu. It made me laugh. Portland had kale and quinoa salads.

I searched for a place to stay that night somewhere between Anchorage and Tok, but couldn’t find one that seemed right. By the time I left Anchorage, it was around 4:00 pm and I didn’t know how far I’d make it that day.

It was 65℉, clear, and sunny. I drove northeast through the mountains and the views were incredible! I felt the drive was prettier than the drive directly south from Fairbanks.

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Around 6:00 pm, I saw a sign on the side of the road that read “Glacier” with an arrow pointing down a gravel road. Intrigued, I drove down the windy road for a couple of miles until I arrived at a gate and a small shop. I went inside and was told it cost $30 to drive to Matanuska glacier, the world’s largest drive-up glacier, which was just about two miles away. 

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Two cars paid the admission and drove through the gate. I talked with a guy in his early 20s. Keenan told me that people park their car in the dirt lot and walk on the glacier. They offer tours to go further into the glacier, which includes ice caves. They closed in a couple of hours so I would have to hike it fairly quickly and still find a place to sleep.

Keenan told me that they offer camping spots, which “are basically just a flat part of the dirt and you can use the porta potty nearby.” It would cost $55 to camp and hike the glacier. I debated my options out loud, explaining I wasn’t prepared to camp that night, but I did have all of my gear in my car. My tent is only three season, however, and they told me it would drop to freezing that night. My sleeping bag is rated for 10℉ and Keenan said, “You can survive with that, but you’ll basically just be surviving.”

The owner, Bill, sat at the next register, looking serious and occasionally chiming in. He said he had a basic cabin that he’d let me use. He asked , “Do you have your sleeping pad?” I told him that I did. He said, “I can let you stay in my cabin. It’s just four walls and a box spring, but it’ll keep you warmer than your tent.”

There was nobody else camping there that night. They had been very busy during Labor Day weekend, but now the people who were there were just there for the day. I wasn’t sure about the cabin because it was about a mile from the glacier, while the tent spaces were right at the glacier. I asked Keenan which I should choose and he said, “Definitely the cabin.” The owner offered to show me the cabin and the tent spots so I could decide.

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I paid the $55 and followed the owner in my car to the cabin. Sure enough, it was just four walls and a box spring. The front porch didn’t have stairs, so I had to take a giant step to climb up it. There was no electricity, no water, and no heat. There was a sliding glass door on the porch with a view to die for.

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We drove to the tent spaces and they were basically in the gravely dirt parking lot and looked very unappealing, so I elected to stay in the cabin. The owner said, “We close up at 8:30 pm and aren’t back until 9:00 am so you’re on your own.” Them he drove away. I’ve survived worse. I backpacked three weeks in the Sierra mountains on my own.

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I unloaded my car with my backpacking equipment and put on pants and a coat as the sun set and the temperature started to drop. I was so thrilled to be staying there! It was completely secluded and I had a million dollar view all to myself.

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I was very happy to find a freeze-dried dinner that I had left over from a backpacking trip in Washington. I ate my food on the porch overlooking the small river of glacier water, and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. The clouds started to roll in, so I probably wouldn’t be able to see any Northern Lights.

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I went to the bathroom behind a tree and got ready for bed at 9:30 pm. I put on my thermals because it was already very cold. At 10:30 pm, I had to get up and go the bathroom again. I grabbed my headlight and went towards the trees. I could see my breath.

The sliding glass door on the cabin didn’t close all the way and there was a small gap letting freezing air inside. I got snug inside my sleeping bag and then heard some noises. It sounded like a large animal scratching something. I tried to convince myself that the cabin would keep me protected, even though the sliding glass door wouldn’t close all the way. Keenan told me it was unlikely I’d see a bear so tried to ignore the sounds. Eventually, all became quiet.

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I started to warm up a little inside my sleeping bag and was very pleased with my decision not to book a place and to just drive. If I would have booked a place, I wouldn’t have turned down the road to the see glacier. Or maybe I would have, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay the night there and there wasn’t really anywhere to stay that was very close. This felt like an adventure. This is why I came to Alaska.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 73: Misophonia, Glaciers, and a Familiar Face

I flew into Anchorage just after midnight and grabbed an Uber to my Airbnb. My driver was born and raised in Anchorage and said the “winters aren’t that bad.” He loves it there.

My Airbnb was in the basement level of a house and had its own entrance on the side. It was very dark as I carried my luggage down the wide steps that wrapped around the house. It was a little studio with a lot of space. It was much bigger than what I had experienced the previous few weeks. I was bummed I had only booked two days there.

Early the next morning, I took an Uber to Amanda’s house where my car was being kept. I briefly talked to Amanda, but had to leave to make my car appointment at the Subaru dealership to repair my window.

After waiting for two hours, the dealership told me they wouldn’t have the car finished by the time I needed to leave for the glacier tour I signed up for. I took their shuttle to the visitor center to meet the group.

The tour time was changed to an earlier time, which threw off my day, but they assured me I’d be back to the dealership by 6:00 pm to pick up my car. The tour guide, Bill, was originally from Minnesota. He was in his 60s, had a short white beard, and was wearing a beret and driving gloves. He talked in a tight, raspy voice that almost seemed fake.

Bill was on the phone with his boss about filling up the tour, so he accepted a walk-on guest for cash. It was clear that it was the end of the season because they combined the tours and only offered one that day. In our group, there was a guy in his early 30s from Rhode Island, a girl in her early 30s from San Francisco, two girls from Australia in their 20s, a woman in her 60s, and a girl in her late 20s that we picked up 40 minutes outside of Anchorage. I was really surprised to see so many single travelers.

We all got into the van to head towards the first stop: a glacier about an hour south of Anchorage. I sat in the front seat next to Bill. While I was happy to see the beautiful views on the clear day, Bill kept pointing his finger at things right in front of my face. He was also smacking gum, which was driving me insane. The woman in her 60s sitting behind me was also making some sort of strange noise, like she was sucking her spit through her teeth. I absolutely can’t stand noises like this. It invokes a rage inside of me and I’m unable to focus on anything else. It’s a thing, it’s called Misophonia.

Maybe it was the disgusting sounds, or the fact that the woman kept asking stupid questions while talking over Bill, but I was feeling annoyed by the tour. Bill was clearly not a tour guide, he was basically just a driver. I felt that I could have just driven myself to the glacier and the animal park where we were going. However, it was a beautiful day and I had the opportunity to see Turnagain Arm in clear skies and without having to focus on the road. We stopped a couple of times to see some amazing views.

Bill told us that when it’s low tide, the water sinks back so far that muddy quicksand appears, making the area look unfamiliar everyday. When I drove this road from Homer, it was indeed a completely different experience because it was cloudy and high tide.

We were running ahead of schedule so we stopped at a river where people can view salmon. There’s no fishing allowed so the salmon population can grow. I couldn’t believe how big the salmon were!

On the drive, Bill told us that Alaskans eat more ice cream per capita than anywhere else. Alaskans are proud of this – I had heard it from a few people. Bill told us that Alaskans also have more ATVs, planes, boats, and motorcycles than anywhere else.

We made a quick stop to eat lunch on our own at a cafe near the glacier. Shortly after, we were dropped off to board a boat to see the Portage Glacier.

The guide did a good job telling us about the glacier and the geography of the area. The boat crossed the lake full of melted glacier water and there were giant pieces floating around.

As we got closer to the glacier, it started to look bigger and bigger. It was white and blue with a streak of brown down it from all of the eroding debris that gets trapped.

The boat stopped a few times while we waited to see if a piece would break off into the water. While glaciers are melting globally, they are melting the fastest in Alaska.

We didn’t see any pieces break off, but it was a sight to see. It’s crazy to think that the water in the glacier has been frozen for so many years.

Once the boat returned to the dock, we boarded the van and were taken to a wildlife refuge, where we could explore on our own for an hour. It was a large property and I watched the bears feeding, wolves jumping on a roof, and other animals roaming around.

On the way back to Anchorage, the woman behind me opened a bag of Fritos for all of us to smell and of course chomped on them. We saw several police officers that had pulled over fellow travelers. Bill told us the police will pull people over if they’re holding up five or more vehicles because they’re going too slow. I had seen signs telling people to pull over if they’re holding up five cars – it’s the law. That road is a big tourist road and Bill was happy to see them pulling over tourists who were going too slow. Just then, we watched a police car turn on his lights to pull over another car. Bill told us Alaska was short on police, but 100 new recruits just finished training and they were hiring another 100.

Bill dropped me off at the Subaru dealership at 5:45 pm, just in time to pick up my car before they closed. I drove to downtown Anchorage to meet a friend, Amy, who lives there. She was at a storytelling networking event and welcomed me there. This was a group of people who shared their stories as a form of art.

I enjoyed some appetizers while meeting people who had previously shared their stories. One guy worked at Enron and told a story about espionage. Another guy, Eric, worked at AIG during the collapse and moved to Los Angeles to change careers. He was working as an unpaid intern for a movie studio when he decided to sue them because of their unfair practices. They were basically working people full time for free and calling it an internship. Eric won the case against them, but it lost on appeal. However, movie studios now pay for internships out of fear of lawsuits.

Eric went on to law school and became a lawyer. He was supposed to be in Anchorage for a one-year contract, but now he works for the ACLU and has been in Anchorage for three years. They all joke that Anchorage has a way of pulling people into staying longer.

I also met a woman who had told a story about her divorce and sexual discoveries after it. I wished I had been there when they had originally told their stories, but I was happy I got to hear the summaries.

Once the networking event was over, Amy and I went to another restaurant for dinner on the rooftop. It had been 60℉ that day, but as the sun set it started to feel much colder. The sunset was incredible and I was happy that this was how I was spending my last night in Anchorage.

Amy and I used to work together many years ago. She sat across from me in another department and we had some mutual friends. She left the company long before I did, but through Facebook I was able to get to know her better. It was awesome to catch up in person.

After being married for 13 years, Amy got a divorce. It had been three years since the divorce and we bonded over our similarities. Amy is really smart, thoughtful, and friendly. She moved to Anchorage because that is where her ex-husband is from. She’s stayed because it’s grown on her.

It was late and getting cold, so I took Amy home and then went back to my Airbnb to rest. I am so thankful to know people who live all over the world. It’s really encouraging to see a friendly, familiar face in an unfamiliar land.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider