Friday, December 30, 2011
This is a picture of a cute dog lazing about the stage area at the Fairview Inn bar, a historic (for Alaska) locale and a traditional hang-out for those returning from a grueling trip up Denali - or a grueling drive back from the parking lot at the Matanuska Glacier, as it was in our case.
One other note on the Alaska Mountaineering School - we were disappointed with the trip but the weather obviously wasn't their fault. We didn't really get what we paid for, but it wasn't for lack of effort by the instructors, one of which instructors set out shortly after our trip to compete in a crazy Alaskan race where teams of two get dropped off in the wilderness somewhere, and have to make their way to another point in the wilderness, 150 miles away, with only what they can carry on their backs. Their plan involved basically running up some mountains, then coming down the glaciers on the other side, then inflating a raft they were carrying on their backs the whole way, and floating downto the vague area of the finish line. Turns out, they won. 60 hours of wilderness travel with about one hour of sleep. Bad ass crazy dudes.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Some cool stuff we got to do while on the glacier. Above, The Lovely Katherine demonstrates flawless ice climbing technique. Below, she ties gorgeously dressed Munter Mule Overhand knots in setting up an anchor and pulley system to pull a fallen climber out of a crevasse. (Or rather in this case, Rocky, a boulder playing the part of a crevasse victim.)
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Monday, December 26, 2011
The intent of our stop in Talkeetna was to learn some mountaineering skills. The class we signed up for was supposed to fly us up to a glacier on the shoulders of Mt. McKinley, where we would learn techniques for safe travel on the glacier, camping in the snow, and rescuing someone who has fallen in a crevasse.
The weather was not our ally. Due to cloud cover, we were unable to fly to the glacier for several consecutive days. So we did a lot of training exercises, which we would have done on the glacier, in and around the Alaska Mountaineering School's facility in Talkeetna - one detail of which is above.
It kind of sucked. We still learned a lot, but not as much as we would have up on the glacier, and with a severely lower fun/cool factor. The teachers were still good, but in the end we drove to a glacier between Talkeetna and Anchorage that was covered in scree and didn't really offer the high-altitude environment we were hoping to train for. We'd had great success in our endeavors on each of a ridiculous number of vacations over the last year, so I guess we were due for something to not work out just right.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Ok, that's enough of Denali. We have made an editorial decision that you don't need to see a not-exactly-spectacular picture of a bear or a moose taken from the park bus window. So we're moving on.
But speaking of photos taken from the bus window, this was on the bus ride from Denali down to Talkeetna. Apparently someone thought a big igloo-shaped hotel would draw all sorts of tourists or convention business to the middle of nowhere in Alaska. They're probably right - I wish we could have stayed there!
Friday, December 23, 2011
We did not only see dead caribou antlers - we also saw quite a few living caribou, sometimes at unexpectedly close range. To go out in the wilderness in Denali you have to watch a video that tells you a lot about what to do if you run into a grizzly. They tell you a bit about what to do with an aggressive moose. They don't tell you what to do about caribou acting weird and territorial near your tent.
Don't worry; it turned out fine. We have much closer up pictures of caribou, but they're not as nice as this further away one.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Found near our first campsite in the Toklat valley. Or perhaps placed there by previous campers. But certainly killed in the first place by something awesome like a bear. Or wolves. We saw lots of tracks of both. We saw actual grizzlies from the safe confines of the bus. On our way out of the park, when we flagged down a park bus with our big packs and our smelly clothes, one of the other passengers said we must have been very disappointed not to see any grizzlies while out camping. I guess it's for the best that that person just stayed on the bus.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
After the tale of woe in the Mosquito Bog of Death, just as we were getting off the bus at our next backpacking location, the sun began to peak out. We arrived at a lovely, flat, grassy spot in zone 9 with the sun shining, and finally got to dry out those items of clothing that were a bit wet - i.e. darn near every last stitch of everything we had.
So we've fallen behind again. We were in New York and we valiantly didn't even bring the computer, which wouldn't have mattered even if we did because we were too busy eating and drinking to post anything anyway. So... where were we again?
Oh, yes, the tale of woe! The Mosquito Bog of Death. Now I remember.
Our kayaking guides were two young, energetic, outdoorsy types. They had wisely gone to Alaska after college and were now running around guiding kayak trips in the summer and pursuing other outdoorsy vocations (skiing, teaching kids about nature) in the winter. Smart kids. And so when one of those smart kids told us that when we went to Denali after the kayaking trip, we should grab a permit for Zone 15 if we could. The attraction there is awesome views of Mt. McKinley/Denali from along the McKinley River.
Most National Parks in the West have a system of trails, and most have along those trails a series of designated camp locations for backpackers. In Denali, by contrast, the whole park is split into Zones. You get a permit for a zone, you walk into the zone wherever you will (no trails) and you figure out somewhere to camp. It's true wilderness. It's wonderful. Except when it sucks. So we got to the permit desk, read the descriptions of the various zones, grabbed Zone 15 for two nights, and then another night at higher elevation for the next couple nights.
We took the long bus ride all the way to the end of the road where Zone 15 starts. We hiked down to the McKinley River, and planned to start hiking along the river, which has a wide riverbed with braided channels crisscrossing it. Unfortunately, a swift deep channel ran up right against the forested riverbank. So we hiked overland through the forest. Which forest was filled with felled trees and low willows, soft squishy uneven footing and 1,000,000 mosquitoes.
The going was arduous. We often had to stop to figure out a path around a fallen tree, but every time one stopped the mosquitoes swarmed even more intensely. Even just hiking along they were so thick that one wound up breathing them in as they swarmed around your face. We thought back to reading the description of Zone 15, and the prophetic, understated line: "During summer you can expect lots of mosquitoes." We have hiked through the jungle of Guatemala. We have camped by ponds and lakes in wilderness across America. We thought we knew what "lots of mosquitoes" meant.
We had absolutely no idea what "lots of mosquitoes" meant.
Finally we decided we had no choice but to get away from the boggy forest and its mosquito infestation, so we waded across the icy river to the open riverbed. The mosquitoes followed. We could look at one another and see a personal mosquito cloud, which The Lovely Katherine likened to Pig-Pen from Peanuts cartoons. Except with mosquitoes instead of dirt, I guess.
We left the river in our dripping-wet boots and socks, and aimed for high ground to find somewhere dry and flat to camp. No such spot existed. We reached the top of the only ridge we could find on our topo map, and found it consistently covered in willow bushes. We were exhausted, we were peeved with the mosquitoes, and it was fixing to rain. So we set up our tent on top of a sea of low willows, and pulled out our sleeping bags to climb in.
It was then that your correspondent discovered that the high-quality Chinese import water bottle that he acquired in Nepal had sprung a leak inside his pack, dripping two liters of water onto his sleeping bag and extra clothes. As it continued to rain outside, we attempted to string up the down bag so it would dry (above), and then huddled under The Lovely Katherine's bag, spread out like a blanket. We left the tent as little as possible, because even a quick trip out to pee attracted a swarm of mosquitoes - pouring rain or no. We slept, and woke to find it was still pouring. So we waited.
It rained all day. We contemplated whether we could break camp and get to anywhere drier or flatter than our current location. Nowhere on the map was apparent. So we stayed in the tent all day, and a second night. The second day, the rain was lighter. We packed up the tent, and hiked the five or so miles directly back to the road, which involved wading across the icy river several times, backtracking a bit when this led to uncrossably deep channels, and spending some time back in the boggy forest.
We got to the road at Wonder Lake, and were happy to catch a bus heading back toward our next night's camping area without too much of a wait. The bus was almost full of park visitors whose entire trip would involve riding the bus to the end of the line and back. One wag who got out to see the view at the lake, and got back on saying "It's called Wonder Lake because you Wonder if you got malaria from all the mosquitoes." If only he knew.
Friday, December 16, 2011
And now, a few days in which we will tell some tales and show some pictures from backpacking in Denali National Park, which was our next major stop after kayaking, via a night in Seward and a night at the Bear Country Jamboree Campsite or some stupid thing like that, conveniently on the highway pretty close to the Park headquarters.
There are some tales of woe, and some tales of triumph. All in all, Denali is fantastic and we're totally glad we did it. We'll let the reader take some clues regarding the tales of woe from the picture above, and tell the full story tomorrow. Stay tuned!
(Oh, and sorry the photography has been more illustrative than actually interesting or impressive for a few days now. We hope it will turn around soon.)
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Guatemala Holla is proud to present our new recurring feature on the best bars in the world. Entry number one: The Showcase Lounge in Seward, Alaska. The Yukon Bar across the street was nice in its own way: They had a live DJ, and a back door that was wide open with a cardboard sign taped on it that told people to go around to the front where they would check ID's, which sign at least one group of youngsters ignored while we were there, to the great displeasure of some bouncer/bartender type. But this isn't about the Yukon, which also had a tacky thing where you write on a dollar bill and pin it to their ceiling which gave it a couple demerits but it was otherwise fine. It would be fine, were it not in a fight to the death with its across-the-street rival, the Showcase Lounge.
First of all, the Showcase Lounge has the sign you see above, which: Awesome. Second, the Showcase Lounge has the interior you see below: Leather seats from a bygone era, and all the walls lined with these weird display cases full of a surely priceless collection of elaborate decorative bottles. And, the drinks were fine and the bartender was nice enough, and I think he was wearing a crazy Hawaiian shirt, but maybe my memory is failing me. And of course maybe I just have to rationalize that it was worth it because I probably got lung cancer just by walking in.
In any case, congratulations to Showcase Lounge, our inaugural Best Bar in the World!
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
A last, disappointing picture from our kayaking trip. This is a section of a bay we stopped into on the boat ride back to Seward. It was a huge, nearly vertical wall of rock, covered with waterfalls ranging from trickles to pretty serious currents. It extends probably about one full frame further both to the left and the right, and was maybe 200 feet tall. It was the epitome of an amazing sight that was tough to capture with a camera - especially from a moving boat. Maybe someday I'll have time to put all the slightly off-balance pictures together into a panorama - but that day is not today.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
A weird sight from the lagoon. We saw many, many bald eagles. It got to the point where we would notice something moving and everyone would look to see what it was, and be disappointed when it was just another bald eagle. However, it was still noteworthy to see a bald eagle hanging out not in a tree, but on an ice floe that had drifted some distance away from the glacier. It doesn't seem like a very good spot for fishing in the bald eagle manner. Perhaps he was just cooling off his talons after a hard day. Wish we had a better picture of it.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
When packing for a trip to the great outdoors, your correspondents generally endeavor to travel light. This is both because we're generally on foot and therefore carrying everything we choose to bring for miles and miles. More philosophically, we generally take the "getting away from it all" aspect of wilderness to include a variety of our favorite intoxicants and stimulants. I.e., we don't pack coffee, and we don't pack booze.
Lucky for us, our fellow travelers on our kayaking trip (a guided group with eight paying clients) operated with a different philosophy. First of all, the trip was not cheap (that danger pay from Afghanistan continuing to burn holes in our pockets), and part of the service we paid for was having our guides cook gourmet meals for us. "Gourmet" in this sense entirely graded on a curve, but taking into account that we were literally several hours by boat from the nearest grocery or kitchen, they did pretty well. They also provided coffee every morning, which was a nice treat. If you've followed Google here in search for information on kayaking the Northwestern Lagoon or elsewhere near Seward, we heartily recommend Sunny Cove Kayak.
More importantly, some of the other clients were smart enough to realize that adding a couple pounds of weight to your kayak is much less burdensome than carrying the equivalent in a backpack. Taking the philosophy "any fool can suffer in the wilderness," some of our fellow kayakers brought some bourbon and some gin, with the goal of mixing drinks with glacial ice. I gather that there exist some theories that glacial ice is better for drinks because it(choose one) is more pure/is more dense/has ancient air particles in it/just sounds cool. Pictured above, paddling back to camp with chunks of glacial ice gathered from the lagoon.
Whatever motivation was necessary to inspire these kind people to bring and share martinis and bourbon as we sat on the beach, watching avalanches of ice fall from the glacier across the inlet from us, it was much appreciated.
Once again the day job has interrupted our publishing schedule. Apologies. We know our loyal readers would be distraught if this deprived you of all the pictures of Alaska you deserve. So, we now retro-actively present this picture of some cute otters! We saw a lot of otters.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
On the third day of kayaking, we started paddling in more gloomy grayness. During lunch, the sun broke through the clouds, and by the time we launched again after eating, the sky was blue in all directions. After a couple days of steady drizzle, it seemed like a rare treat, especially with no guarantees it would last.
We paddled around the big island in the lagoon, through increasing traffic of ice floes ranging from a couple inches to a couple yards across. Rounding the island was perhaps the highlight of the trip - the entire lagoon past the island was clogged with icebergs, and dozens (maybe hundreds?) of harbor seals were hauled out sunning themselves on the ice. They're a bit small to see in the 360-degree panorama above - but they're right in the center. Click on the picture to see it much bigger, but probably not big enough to spot the seals. As a substitute, we present the picture below of one of the many seals who swam over for a closer look at the kayaks -- your correspondents would swear they were following us for quite a while, although it is a bit tough to tell one seal from another to be sure.
Monday, December 05, 2011
For a good portion of the trip, we paddled in rain, drizzle, mist, and various other forms of wetness. The clouds were usually high enough to still enjoy scenery, but not always. The rain was sometimes light enough to allow for some modest attempts at photography, but not always. We set up tents in the rain (always fun) and stayed in them when we weren't paddling. Gray was the predominant color, most of the time. Not much you can do; it just rains a lot up there.
Sunday, December 04, 2011
Our first major undertaking of the trip to Alaska was the Northwestern Lagoon in Kenai Fjords National Park. We did five days of kayaking on what I would have called a bay, or maybe even a fjord (see name of national park, e.g.). Upon looking up the actual definition of lagoon, I see that it was perhaps properly named.
The Northwestern lagoon is home to several tidewater glaciers - i.e., glaciers that end in the sea, calving big icy chunks into the water. The crazier part is that according to reports from our guides (which we have been unable to corroborate from the interwebs), as recently as 100 years ago, the entire lagoon -- at least five miles long -- was covered by the glaciers that are now rapidly retreating. The landscape featured a lot of very steep rock faces, scoured by the retreating ice and relatively free of vegetation. 100 years seems like a pretty quick retreat for a glacier, but I can't prove they were wrong.
Taking satisfying pictures of glaciers turns out to be pretty tough, as is the case with many immense things. The picture above gives some sense of scale, but in fact the kayaks in this picture are probably still a quarter mile away from what the glacier. (The park service recommends staying a half mile away from the glaciers to avoid being capsized by the waves from falling sheets of ice - I would guess we pushed that boundary a fair bit.)
Stay tuned - there will be more pictures from the Northwestern Lagoon for the rest of the week.
Saturday, December 03, 2011
Two cool animal sightings from a boat tour we took on our day before heading out into the wildernesses of Alaska. Above, humpback whales. Best whale sighting was seeing one glide by our fjord-side campsite the next day, ridiculously close to the shore. But this one was the most photogenic, with the perfect fluke and the Bear Glacier in the background.
However, we had been even closer to whales while kayaking in Hawaii (some observers and state law would apparently argue we were too close). So the much smaller but more exciting sighting was below: Wild Puffins! They never got very close to the boat, and they're not that big to begin with, so we didn't capture any photographic masterpieces. But whatevs. Wild Puffins!
Friday, December 02, 2011
We're holding off on the scenery and the wildlife for the moment. In a return to chronology, we present these pictures from the Alaska Sea Life Center, an excellent aquarium in Seward, on the South Central coast of the state. We had most of a day to kill in Seward before setting off into the wilderness, and the Sea Life Center was rightly recommended. Apologies to any scientific types who would like to know exactly what these animals are. There's a hermit crab, and the standard I-was-at-an-aquarium picture of jellyfish, and some other stuff. They also had puffins (not pictured).
Thursday, December 01, 2011
We went to Alaska!
The plastic cups and bar napkins of Alaska declare it the "#1 MGD State in USA." Your intrepid correspondents' investigations, which involved a small but we think sufficient amount of research time in Alaskan bars, led to the conclusion that the official MGD State Rankings must be subject to some sort of per-capita and/or cost-of-living adjustments, because there seemed to be a pretty normal amount of MGD there.
Anyway, we took a million pictures of amazing natural landscapes and animals and stuff in Alaska (which we will display here this month)... But only one picture of beer in a plastic cup, we promise!