Liesel and I both had a long lie-in. Neither of us wanted to be the first to get up. Our goal was to be in Anchorage at midday. But a few more minutes reading in bed wouldn’t hurt. We managed to time our visit perfectly.
We met up with Monica for a lunchtime walk. Or, we met Monica for a lunchtime walk. It was another pleasant day and we were limited only by the fact that Monica had to get back to work, at the museum. We’re still planning to visit the museum of course, but we’re waiting for a cold or wet or otherwise unpleasant day outside. But today, we had a nice wander around the park. On the way back to the car, Liesel and I walked through the Federal Court. A little intimidating, to me. A little bit scary, even. Yes, we were security-checked but the officers were very friendly. This art work inside was intiguing: trompe-l’œil, it really is flat. In the evening, we went round to Monica’s house for a home-made pizza. Liesel pointed out the peacock outside the front door. Neha was doing some homework, Gregg arrived home from work and a work-out. The pizza was great and the broccoli salad that Liesel made was terrific too!
In the evening, I received a message from Jyoti. She’d captured a picture of a dragonfly that landed on the book she was reading. I’m still hoping to see such a thing myself, but meanwhile, I’ll enjoy other people’s photos of dragonflies. On Friday, while Liesel was back at the physio for another dry needling session, I packed for our trip. I left a shoe-box full of stuff behind, to be sorted more thoroughly later, but we both took our backpacks with us, with approximately a week’s worth of clothing.
So far, neither of us have bought enough new stuff to warrant taking an extra bag with us on our travels. Liesel has started a collection of things to take back to Manchester, but whether this is posted, couriered, or we come back to Alaska to take it back in person, we’ll have to see. The items include new clothes, old clothes that have been replaced by new ones coming with us and some of Liesel’s old stuff from her parents’ house. Things such as the big brown donut we’re still thinking about!
Klaus took us all to the airport, me, Liesel and her sore derrière. She didn’t fancy sitting for too long so of course, we boarded the plane on time, sat, waited, and finally took off more than half an hour late.
The third seat in our little row was occupied by a sportsman. I didn’t recognise him, of course. He texted his wife, though. I know that becaue the name that came up on his phone was ‘Wife’. He asked the attendant for a scotch and water and she asked to see his id. She obviously recognised his name and asked if he’d played this weekend. He had. He didn’t look big enough to be an American football player, nor tall enough to be a basketball player so I wonder if his game is baseball? I didn’t ask. I guess I’ll never know.
Seattle was a little cooler than Anchorage and a little damper. We had checked no bags, so nothing to pick up and no customs to go through. To me, it felt weird being allowed to walk out of an airport withough having somebody give us permission.
It was a bus ride to the car hire place. While Liesel sorted that out, I tried to get my phone to work. None of the providers wanted to give me service. In fact, two of them said that my phone wasn’t suitable for their service. So again I recalled the definition of ‘technology’: stuff that doesn’t work properly yet.
Because neither of our phones were working, we couldn’t use Google Maps. So, we needed a GPS in the car. We could hire a stand-alone GPS at an extortionate rate, or, we could hire a car with a built-in GPS. One that is much larger than we’d planned for and more expensive, of course.
We’d started out with a notional daily budget when we left home, and I think we’re a few weeks ahead already. Oh well!
It’s a comfortable car though, and easy to drive. While Liesel drove, I tried to get the GPS to work, the radio and connect my phone by bluetooth. Two out of three ain’t bad. We knew where we were going, and we listened to jazz on NPR. But the music on my phone stayed there.
It was very noticeable how much earlier and quicker the Sun set here, fourteen degrees south of Anchorage.
Oh, here’s a good idea from Anchorage: if the bin’s full, tell someone. Not like Kingston: if the bin’s full, just leave your rubbish on the ground nearby.
Jyoti picked me up at 8am. It was an early start to what would be a long day.
We were planning to start at the southerm trailhead, walk to the peak, and back again. Doing the whole traverse would involve having two cars and a bit more organisation. We were taking the slightly less steep route upwards.
We were joined by friends of Jyoti’s, Gretchen, who we picked up, Lisa, who we’d met yesterday and her friend Angus, a young man from England who’s been in Alaska for a month.
The drive south towards Seward was the first drive Liesel took me on, all those years ago. Then, it was December, everything looked white and forbidding to this Englishman so used to seeing less than half an inch of snow once in a while. Today, the sky was blue, the Sun was out and we were going to have a good time.
We saw banks of mist on the inlet, smoke on the water and we saw some beluga whales in the water. Up on the mountains there were dall sheep, but I missed them.
We stopped at a ‘donut’ place for coffee and hot doughnuts, though I could only manage to eat one. This is where we met up with Lisa and Angus.
The views from the road were spectacular. Even the locals were gushing in praise of the local landscapes.
We stopped just a couple times more on the long drive. I was in the front passenger seat the whole way and no-one took me up on my (half-hearted) offers of swapping places.
On arrival at the trailhead, we prepared for the hike itself. Bear spray, water, walking poles, back packs all sorted. I was carrying my ‘manbag’ full of water, snacks, spare clothes, phone, money and notebook. It was heavy, man.
I’m not a big talker at the best of times, and when exercising, getting slightly out of breath, I’m even less inclined to talk at the same time. But this is bear country, you’re supposed to make a lot of noise just to let the bears know you’re there. Luckily, Jyoti can talk and talk. The two of us often found ourselves dropping behind the rest. The trail was mostly uphill, unrelenting at times. On my own, I would have stopped more frequently to catch my breath, but not here.
I learned about someone whose job seemed to be waxing the skis of an Olympic ski champion. What a very specialised job, I thought. But there are several kinds of wax, each used for a different temperature, different kinds of snow, different slopes, different skis.
As we walked higher and higher, the view changed. Lower down, we were looking through the trees, but suddenly I realised, we were above the tree line. That meant one thing: put on the hat to protect my head from the Sun! Actually, it also meant unobstructed views of the slopes, the mountains, the glaciers, the valleys. All larger-than-life postcard images.
I was glad that the path wasn’t maintained perfectly. It is cleared of overgrown vegetation each year for the race along the whole Traverse. But because of all the tree roots, rocks and other obstacles, I was very conscious of picking my feet up more while walking than I would usually do on a residential pavement, for instance.
On the other hand, some parts of the trail had a precipitous drop to one side that I was wary of. I probably wouldn’t fall far if I slipped off because of all the trees and plants growing there, but I did tend to keep to the other side of the track, while my sweaty palms dried out.
As time went on, I had to stop more and more frequently. I started to feel angry. Angry about my inability to catch my breath, about my inability to keep up with the others, about having to watch every footstep to avoid tripping over rather than looking at the view, about the walk being too long and steep, about the medical profession for giving me drugs that seem to have messed up everything in my body (Note 1). Ah, angry, cross, irritated. That usually means I need food. I’m glad I brought so many snacks. I needed sugar. And carbs.
The cotton grass was pretty as were the Michaelmas daisies. And Resurrection Bay way over there!
As we neared the summit, I had to stop more and more often. We caught up with Lisa, Gretchen and Angus but I needed to eat again. The three of them went ahead, while Jyoti stayed with me, deciding not to go all the way down to the lake itself. I’d decided I needed to minimise my exersions so if I could miss out the 3 extra miles to the lake and, worse, back up again, I’d be happy.
We picked and ate blueberries as we’ll as salmonberries, which look like yellow raspberries but they’re not as sweet.
Despite my mood, I loved the views. Jyoti pointed out the hill in the distance that was to be the end of our hike. It looked miles away, the small objects on top were, apparently, people. So much more uphill to go. I need bigger and faster acting lungs.
Jyoti has the patience of a saint, though. She let me walk in front, so I was going at my own pace. I realised it was slightly slower than Jyoti’s, and that one of the reasons I kept getting out of puff was because I was going too fast, trying to keep up with someone else.
We passed and were passed by many other people on mountain bikes and on foot and they all looked like they were having a wonderful time, and here I was, feeling that I was struggling to make it to the top of the longest hike in the world, ever.
In fact, I think I heard myself tell St Jyoti at one point that I never wanted to do another walk like this, ever again, ever.
But I conquered Mount Everest eventually and one of the first things I did was to lie down and have a stretch!
The 360° view was stunning, beautiful: mountains, valleys, glaciers, waterfalls, the sea, Seward and of course, why we were here: Lost Lake, at the bottom of the hill. Next time, I will go down to the lake, but now, today, I didn’t want to push things too far. On the summit, Jyoti and I ate a mix of cheese, breadsticks with cheese, nuts, craisins, pop tarts, bread, chocolate. All the while, looking around and gaping at the view, enjoying the blue skies. Having a nice rest while I reset my brain to get rid of the negativity.
Looking to the south, we could see 11 or 12 glaciers up in the mountains. There were small patches of snow still on the higher slopes. There were signs of many landslides too on the upper slopes. We could see and hear water running down the ravines, but it must have been disappearing into the ground because there was no sign of water where you’d expect to see it at the bottom.
I crouched down to take a picture of the ground cover, where the leaves are changing colour from green to red. When I stood up, the world went black, I heard water rushing, and all I could think was, you’re having a dizzy spell, don’t drop the phone and oh no, there’s nothing to lean against. That was my first dizzy spell for many months (Note 1).
The others walked down to the lake which, I must admit, did look inviting. Angus had a dip in the water while Lisa and Gretchen went in up to their ankles.
They re-joined us at the top of the hill and, feeling revived, I braced myself for the long walk back. I expected it to be mostly downhill but I remember from long bike rides that you don’t always notice the easy parts on the way out but they sure bite you on the way back. Today, however, it really was downhill pretty much all the way. In places, I was able to keep up with Angus and we left the girls a long way back.
We again went past the crew who are repairing a part of the trail. On the way up, they’d been having a nice rest, but they were now working as we passed them again on the way down. It would be a terrific commute, walking several miles before doing a day’s work, but they were in fact camping nearby.
We stopped and ate more blueberries on the way down and despite being already weighed down, I picked some to take back for Liesel.
The hardest part for me was crossing a couple of streams using haphazard stepping stones that I just hoped wouldn’t give way or move.
I survived. Yes, I got all the way down without falling over, without getting my feet wet and apart from a couple of skeeter stings, no injuries. Plus, bonus, I only had to pee once in the bushes all day. I commend my bladder.
It was nearly dinner time, and we decided to drive the few miles into Seward for a meal and a drink. I didn’t recognise the town itself, I’d not seen it without snow and ice everywhere. We went to the Seward Brewing Company where I had cauliflower tempura with a spicy shoyu sauce plus a glass of stout, which was served not ice cold, unusual in America. Whoever wrote the menu has a great sense of humour:
It was a long drive back to Anchorage and I’m so grateful to Jyoti for driving. We had to stop at the doughnut shop again where Lisa had left her car.
What a fantastic day, a wonderful hike, great company, superlative views and an enormous sense of well-being.
If you’re not a Fitbit nerd, look away now: go straight to the next paragraph, do not collect £200! I think today’s hike was the longest I’ve done since the day I walked from home in Chessington into London. It was certainly much harder due to the terrain. When I got back home today, I was pleased to see that I’d walked over 30,000 steps, about 14 miles. And I still had to walk upstairs to bed! During the day, I took my 16,000,000th step since I started using the Fitbit soon after my 60th birthday. I fully expect to receive a useless pretend badge from Fitbit soon, it makes all this walking worthwhile.
I felt pretty good when Jyoti dropped me off at home, a bit tired, but no real aches and pains. I stretched all the leg muscles, took a preventative anti-inflammatory, had a shower, a long, hot shower and climbed into bed and chatted with Liesel for a bit. I expected to fall asleep more or less straightaway, but my mind was all over the place, mainly punching the air mentally, thinking what a great day it had been, and, despite what I may have said earlier, I’m really looking forward to the next challenging hike.
Note 1: A recap on my medical condition. I had a ‘free healthcheck’ when I turned 59 and was diagnosed with high blood pressure. This is a bad thing as it can lead to strokes and heart attacks. I was given medication. Very quickly, I realised that I had no energy, no stamina. From completing a 100-mile bike ride, I could barely ride 10 miles without becoming breathless. The GP prescribed a different drug but I was still unable to do as much exercise. I was feeling ridiculously tired after a day at work (I was a postman). I was told that because I was so active, I was aware of these changes to my body. Most patients with high blood pressure are sedentary and can’t tell the difference.
I followed the advice to cut down on salt and caffeine intake and little by little, my BP came down.
But something else was happening too. Now, if I stood up suddenly, or if I ran up the stairs after sitting down for a while, I would feel dizzy. My head would go all mushy and I would have to fight myself very hard not to fall over. I held on to whatever was close at hand, a wall, a tree, a person, until I came back to normal.
This is the sign of low blood pressure, which the GP confirmed is as bad as, if not worse than, high BP. I said, well, can I come off the drugs, then? Not straightaway, she said, but the dosage was halved.
A few months later, after a number of ‘normal’ BP readings, I came off the drugs completely. I thought that I would soon be as fit as I was before. I thought my strength and stamina would return.
And to be fair, it has improved a lot since I came off the medication. But I can’t say I am back to normal. The fact that today, I couldn’t catch my breath for long periods at a time while walking up a long hill and that I had couple of dizzy episodes tells me that my body chemistry is still messed up from the blood pressure medication.
I don’t mind getting out of breath and I don’t mind having limited stamina, but I know what my body used to be capable of, and it’s just not as good as it used to be. And I certainly never used to have dizzy spells. I had two today, the first in many months.
I said as soon as things started going wrong that I was much better off when I had ‘high blood pressure’ but just didn’t know about it. And I still feel that way.
I have a theory that my BP might be ‘high’ by some standard or other, but it’s ‘normal’ for me. And that what is considered ‘normal’ is too low for me. Plus, now, something’s been messed up by the medication, maybe permanently.
Still, it was a good, long, hard day today and I’m glad I did it. I think I learned a lot, and one thing is, I have to tell people if I can’t keep up. They’ll just have to slow down a bit, or at least allow me more frequent stops so I can catch my breath.
This is the background to why I got a bit cross a few times on this hike. And why, despite everything, I’m not going to let this experience put me off doing things.
Mick: What time does AT&T open?
Liesel: Eight o’clock.
Mick: Oh, perfect timing. It’s quarter to eight so I think I’ll go and get myself a new SIM card as using my UK one to access the internet is proving to be ridiculously expensive.
Liesel: OK, dear, have a nice walk, be careful.
So I walked over to AT&T, the closest telecoms shop to the campsite, only to discover that it didn’t open until 10. Oh well, the girl at Verizon was very helpful the other day, even if she couldn’t provide Liesel with what she needed. The walk to Verizon was a bit longer, across two main roads. But walking can’t be that unusual here, there are pedestrian crossings in all the right places.
The sign in the window said “Closed for lunch, back at 4.30” and I thought, I could work there with lunch breaks like that! The bad news was, this shop didn’t open until 10.30. The only other one I knew of was GCI, just along the road a bit. It opened at 8.30 so by now, I only had to loiter for ten minutes or so. Then I saw the sign: No Loitering.
While waiting for the shop to open, I used somebody’s wifi to do internetty things. By the time I went into GCI, two people were being served and there were two more in the queue. They must have opened early.
The guy with the orange shirt was still at the counter when I left, nearly an hour later. I guess his problems were more convoluted than mine. I was dealt with within ten minutes once Melissa called me up. So, I now get a month’s 4G for what I nearly spent in just two days. Marvellous!
How ironic then that later in the day, when we were on the road, there was often no signal at all, of any sort. Even the campsite had nothing. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Before leaving the site at Fairbanks, we emptied the tanks, refilled with fresh water and I got bitten by a mosquito. I felt a tickle, brushed it off and it must have been full of my very best because it sprayed blood all over my hand. Ideal when you’re emptying that sort of stuff into a hole in the ground. The rain had stopped during the night, thank goodness, but the grey clouds were still hanging around.
Klaus drove us to the Richardson Highway which we then followed for the rest of the day. First stop: North Pole, AK, where of course we had to visit Santa Claus House. Here, it is Christmas all year round. We resisted the temptation to buy any ornaments or other tat.
A well-known philosopher once said that Richardson Highway is just miles and miles of nothing. No, actually, it was Klaus who said that: nothing but trees and tarmac. On clear days, the views of mountains must be stunning, but we weren’t that lucky. The rain was back, often torrential. But at least the bug remains were being wiped from the windscreen during the day.
We drove by Eielson Air Force Base which has the second longest runway in north America, running parallel to the road.
We saw many mountains in the mist, and I realised that actually, they look brighter when you avoid looking through the van’s tinted windows.
Alaska is known as The Last Frontier, and it’s easy to see why. Apart from miles and miles of highway, there was nothing else manmade.
Apart from one of the wonders of the modern world. The Alaska Pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudhoe in the far north to Valdez. In places, it runs alongside the Richardson Highway and we stopped couple of times to get up close and personal.
The suspension bridge over the Tanana is the second longest of thirteen major bridges built for the pipeline.
We decided to camp about halfway between Fairbanks and Valdez, in the hope that it might stop raining long enough for us to go for a nice walk. Plus, Klaus was doing all the driving while Liesel and I were looking through the windows imagining the views that might have been.
The campsite at Paxson was right by the lake and we were sure the rain would deter the mozzies. Mainly because none of us were keen to go out much in that rain. But other than the rain, it was very quiet.
Sleep was interrupted by rain and by the motorhome’s furnace turning on every couple of hours to provide some heat. We weren’t even disturbed by bears trying to break into the nearby bear-proof, metal food containers used by folks camping in tents. Braver souls than we are, camping in a tent in bear country.
Did I mention the rain?
Liesel heard a chipmunk outside and we saw a pretty green bird in the trees, which we later identified as a yellow warbler.
Day two on the road to Valdez was just as disappointing as far as the weather goes. From one viewpoint, you’re supposed to be able to see three different mountain ranges.
We stopped for a break and I, the bird whisperer, according to Liesel, had a grey jay eating out of the palm of my hand. Although, not necessarily eating: they store lots of food in secret places, a bit like squirrels do.
Some of the great sights we did see include the Worthington Glacier, Thompson Pass with patches of snow still on the ground in places, and Bridal Veil Falls. It turns out Thompson Pass is the snowiest place in the state.
We’re staying in a site near the harbour here in Valdez for two nights. It’s a commercial site, with all the facilities, but it’s just a glorified car-park, really.
We went for a quick walk to the supermarket, after which I went for a longer jaunt around the harbour. The water was milky, probably the grey-green of glacial silt.
So far, we’ve not seen any interesting large animals, no bears, no moose, no wolves, no wolverines, no zombies, nothing except small rodents and a handful of birds. We have to be careful out in the wild because we look quite tasty to bears.
And if the bears don’t get you, the tsunamis might:
If the tsunamis don’t get you, the feral bunnies definitely will:
One thing I never expected to see in Valdez was rabbits. I thought there were just a few cute little bunnies on the campsite, but no, they are all over town and they are having a mixed reception here.
Last week, we bought a light fitting from Ikea. Yesterday, I installed it. We now have something remarkably like a flying saucer floating above the dining table. All we needed now was a lightbulb that would actually fit. None of our existing ones have the same fitting, of course. What we should have done last week was open the box in the shop, read the instructions and then purchase the correct, presumable Swedish screw-fitting lightbulb. Or read the instructions on the shelves telling us we needed custom lighbulbs. (There are no such instructions.)
So today, we returned to Ikea and purchased not one but two bulbs. Both physically fit but one is brighter than the other and we don’t really know how many candellas or lumens of brightness we need, nor power consumption. All we can say is, we would like it as bright as an old-fashioned 60-watt or 100-watt incandescent lightbulb.
On the way back home, my mind replayed the conversation that must have taken place one day in a dark, smoky room somewhere.
There’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere, greenhouse effect, global warming, we should do something about it.
Yes, I agree. But what?
How about these new energy-saving lightbulbs? We can force everyone in the world to use them instead of the old, reliable, bright, incandescent ones.
So each household will use less energy?
Well, sort of, yes, that’s right.
But they’re not very bright, are they.
We’ll get used to that. And brighter ones will come along soon.
They take a couple of seconds to light up when you turn them on, correct?
Yes, that’s to save even more energy.
Oh of course! But some people like to dim their lights at night, and you can’t do that with these new-fangled energy-saving lightbulbs.
Not all of them, no, but there are dimmable ones available. You just need to buy a special dimming device with each such bulb.
Won’t that use more resources when we’re meant to be saving on energy and materials?
A bit, maybe. The idea is to give people the impression that they’re doing something for the environment: they won’t necessarily be saving any actual energy, overall.
Oh, is that why they’re manufactured in China?
Yes: all the energy saved by not lighting up people’s houses properly is instead used for transporting lightbulbs half way round the planet.
Seems good to me. And when these bulbs stop working, they’re just thrown away?
No, they contain some very dangerous and rare elements and they should be disposed of in a controlled manner, not just thrown out with the rest of the rubbish.
Old lightbulbs came in a cardboard box, is that still the case?
No, of course not. These lightbulbs are much more expensive. They’ll be sold in non-reusable blister packs made from non-recycleable plastic. And there’ll definitely be no way to check that they work while you’re in the shop.
Hardly a giant leap forward, is it?
No, I think it’s fair to say, they’re not to everybody’s taste.