All this and wolveri too: A 2,000-mile r trip ahead of summ tourist in­flux.

More than 2,000 miles of glaciers, wolver­ines and mas­sive blue­berry pan­cakes

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ABI­GAIL TRAF­FORD

It starts when I look out the plane win­dow: Jagged white peaks loom up, prac­ti­cally touch­ing the wing — glacial pyra­mids, for­bid­ding, ma­jes­tic, tak­ing the ra­di­ant blue of the sky for granted, per­haps a lit­tle an­noyed by the hum of Alaska Air­lines Flight 91 to An­chor­age, as though a fly had bro­ken through the screen door to in­ter­rupt a nap.

My eyes are glued to the win­dow. One amaz­ing snow-capped peak af­ter an­other. Awe­some, I think, and I smile to my­self. Grandchild speak: Awe­some. Get­ting close to ex­is­ten­tial won­der here, just like the brochures say. Then an­other Far North ref­er­ence comes to mind, and a fris­son goes through me: Aw­ful! Re­mem­ber “Call of the Wild?” First the scream and then wolf-dog Buck saw “a whole sec­tion of ice give way and dogs and hu­mans dis­ap­pear . . . . The bot­tom had dropped out of the trail.”

Lo­cal time when we land in An­chor­age is four hours be­hind East­ern time. The sun is star­tling. Crocker, my trav­el­ing com­pan­ion, rents a bright red, “small but mighty” Toy­ota Yaris. We’ve been awake for 16 hours when we go to have din­ner with friends. The sun is (still) up and we are now on High North So­lar Over­drive.

Crocker has been to Alaska many times, and his son is the prin­ci­pal of a Na­tive Alaskan school in Fair­banks. Crocker wants to show me some of the high points in this vast, wild land. By the end of 10 days, we will have driven nearly 2,000 miles and ex­plored the land­marks of ge­o­logic time the way tourists visit cas­tles in Europe. Our route is a kind of cir­cle, tak­ing us from An­chor­age to Whit­tier for the six-hour car ferry east to Valdez. Then north to the Cop­per River Val­ley; con­tin­u­ing on the Richard­son Road to Fair­banks to visit the family. Down to De­nali; off onto the Glenn High­way for a bit and then back south to the Parks High­way to An­chor­age.

It is May — be­fore the sum­mer rush but in time for mostly mild weather. We can play it by ear be­cause it’s not high sea­son. We stop when and where we feel like it. We make reser­va­tions in ad­vance only at the Cop­per Whale Inn in An­chor­age; ev­ery­where else we just drop by and are able to get a room or a meal. We’ve done our re­search and know to re­serve a space on the ferry to Valdez a day in ad­vance. Oth­er­wise we just . . . drive free.

We re­lax on the ferry as it glides past blue-shrouded is­lands in the dis­tance. Af­ter a night in Valdez, we head up the Richard­son High­way to­ward Fair­banks and take a de­tour on a dirt road to the cop­per min­ing ghost town of McCarthy. Sud­denly, a mama black bear am­bles out on the road with her cub. Four peo­ple have re­cently been mauled by bears, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports. Brown griz­zly bears are the most danger­ous. Mama Bear pauses; she seems happy. I take a pic­ture . . . from in­side the car. We hang out for a while. Then the bears wad­dle back into the scrubby trees and dis­ap­pear.

We start up again. Then we see it: At first, the flash of a tail, like a fluffy white and black pea­cock tail — a skunk cousin? We get closer. The crea­ture flips around: squin-

teyed, scis­sor-nosed, wolftoothed. “A wolverine!” Crocker shouts. “It’s a wolverine!” Crocker is ec­static. He has never seen one be­fore. It slips away be­fore I can take a pic­ture.

Crocker loves all crea­tures — fish, fowl and an­i­mals — tame and wild. He calls out the names of all the birds: “See the mal­lards. The males have green heads.” (The fe­males are pretty col­or­less.) “Look at the wigeon . . . the teal.” Birds are do­ing ac­ro­batic mat­ing flight dances, swoop­ing up and down. This is hon­ey­moon sea­son. “See . . . Arc­tic terns, reg­u­lar terns.” And Canada geese, of course. Blue­bills. Ravens. Crocker points out two ea­gles. (I spot only one.)

I am a dis­ap­point­ment to him. A duck? I can barely make out a blob at the edge of a pond. “You might see an­other ea­gle,” he says. “You know ea­gles can swoop down and pluck out the eye­balls of a fish!” I shiver. Aw­ful. Crocker is thrilled. Na­ture is awe­some. As we drive up the high­way bor­dered by cliffs, he shouts: “Look up there and see if you can spot a sheep!” The fa­mous Dall sheep with curly horns. I see noth­ing.

Fish­ing and evolution

We come to a big river where the coura­geous and hun­gry go dip-net­ting. They say you can catch fish like pick­ing a bunch of grapes. We’re also told that some­one dies dip-net­ting ev­ery few years — they fall off the cliff or out of their boat or get swept away by the cur­rent.

This site is a per­sonal-use fish­ery: None of the fish caught in the area can be sold com­mer­cially. Crocker’s son, who has lived in Alaska for al­most 25 years, says he usu­ally catches sock­eye salmon (called reds be­cause of their bright-red flesh). Cop­per River Reds are shipped to the Lower 48 and served in high-end restau­rants. On a good day, he catches his daily limit of 40 fish in a cou­ple of hours.

You can come in on a char­ter and get dropped off by boat. Or you can trek from the camp­ground to the river via an old rail­road bed along a cliff that plunges 200 feet to the rag­ing wa­ter be­low.

At its most fun­da­men­tal, this kind of fish­ing is “pro­duc­ing the family pro­tein source,” as Crocker’s son puts it. “I think this taps an in­stinc­tual vein deep in my evo­lu­tion­ary be­ing that we have mostly lost in mod­ern so­ci­ety. It is very sim­i­lar to the way I feel about moose hunt­ing. I can en­ter a ‘zone,’ ” he says, where he is alone with his thoughts as he tries to “find new ways to ap­pease the gods and bring home the bounty.”

How to ap­pease the gods? On the Richard­son High­way, Crocker and I stop at the Bridal Veil Wa­ter­fall, an 800-foot drop of thun­der­ing lacy white. Just the two of us, stand­ing in awe of this ver­ti­cal river of fluid ar­dor, watch­ing it crash down and spread over the land­scape.

I am pulled back bil­lions of years: tec­tonic plates in the Earth’s crust push­ing and heav­ing, spark­ing vol­ca­noes and earth­quakes and con­ti­nen­tal mud slides, cre­at­ing the cir­cle of moun­tain ranges with the steppe basin in the mid­dle that is now Alaska. Or maybe a giant me­te­orite smashed into the nascent Earth and the state is sim­ply the giant cen­tral up­lift peak of an an­cient cat­a­strophic strike from space?

For Crocker, Alaska is about wildlife in the mo­ment; for me, it’s about ge­ol­ogy and bil­lion-year time frames. I stare at the Bridal Veil falls and pon­der its name. Per­haps the power of love is a way to ap­pease the gods.

Road­house cul­ture

We make it to Chitina, pop­u­la­tion 126, on the banks of the Cop­per and Chitina rivers. I race into the only ho­tel in town, which doesn’t of­fi­cially open for a week, but am told: “Okay, you can stay in a front room for the night.” The gro­cery truck doesn’t get in very of­ten off­sea­son.

Once, Chitina was a me­trop­o­lis with stores, room­ing houses, bars, restau­rants, a pool hall, a movie the­ater and five ho­tels. That was dur­ing the cop­per boom that be­gan in the early 1900s when the Cop­per River & North­west­ern Rail­way turned Chitina — and McCarthy — into overnight “cities.” When the mines closed in 1938, the town was aban­doned. “Peo­ple left with plates still on the ta­ble,” ex­plains the friendly blond woman who man­ages the ho­tel. Now, Chitina is a tourist des­ti­na­tion and mecca for dip-net fish­er­men.

Ev­ery­body speaks slowly. Like a transat­lantic tele­phone call in the 1960s: Ques­tion. Pause threeto-five sec­onds. An­swer. At a road­side store, we ask: Do you

have sand­wiches? Si­lence for a few sec­onds. In the freezer. The at­ten­dant is Athabaskan — Alaska Na­tives who have lived in this area for maybe 7,000 years, pre­dat­ing by a few mil­len­nia the bar­baric Greeks who sacked Troy in “The Iliad.’ But for these once semi­no­madic peo­ple, “the bot­tom had dropped out of the trail.” At the ho­tel, we ask if we could get a beer with din­ner. Si­lence for a few sec­onds. Across the street . . . .

Un­cle Tom’s Tav­ern Inc. is a long, low-slung green build­ing with salmon trim around the win­dows and big signs: Ice Fish­ing Derby and Free Com­mu­nity Pig Roast. Man­ning the bar is a very pretty woman wear­ing jeans, a se­quined black T-shirt and base­ball cap turned back­ward. The crowd this evening is mel­low. On one stool sits an EMT; he came here on va­ca­tion, fell in love with Alaska and never left. We hear that a lot. The mother of the ho­tel man­ager came up for a blue­grass fes­ti­val in the ’70s and never left.

Through­out our snap­shot road trip, we stop at the lo­cal bar for food and friend­ship. The dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture ev­ery­where is the stuffed moose head. The big­gest one we saw is in the Sheep Moun­tain Lodge on the Glenn High­way over­see­ing the glacial val­leys of Chugach and Ta­keetna. We eat a gourmet lunch un­der the antlers stick­ing out like an­ten­nae on a space ship.

In Valdez, the bar with a mas­sive pic­ture win­dow looks out on the boat-stacked har­bor with snow-peaked moun­tains in the back­ground. Main Street is like a movie set for an old Western. In­stead of horses, boats. Pre­sea­son is for the non­com­mer­cial fish­er­men. On the board­walk, seaboys hang up their fish to be weighed. Hal­ibut: $14 a pound.

There are no ob­vi­ous signs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, when nearly 11 mil­lion gal­lons of crude oil were dumped into Prince Wil­liam Sound. But the catas­tro­phe hov­ers in the back­ground. Oil is king in Alaska. The pipeline is the coun­try’s life line: 800 miles from Prud­hoe Bay in the north down to Valdez, the north­ern­most ice-free port in the United States. But the price of oil is down. The pipeline is run­ning way be­low ca­pac­ity. We meet two guys at the bar; they’ve just been laid off from the North Slope . . . . There’s al­ways fish. And moose. Craft beer and ir­rev­er­ent jokes.

De­nali, out of sight

Af­ter sev­eral won­der­ful days in Fair­banks with Crocker’s son and his family, we set off to De­nali — and it is snow­ing! The light gray can­vas turns the sharp, an­gu­lar vis­tas into a fuzzy Monet paint­ing. A week ago, it was shirt sleeves in Valdez. Mount De­nali, the for­mer Mount McKin­ley, is the high­est peak in North Amer­ica, soar­ing 20,310 feet above sea level. (Mount Rainer, to the south in Wash­ing­ton state, hits 14,409.) But we can’t see De­nali in the con­tin­u­ing driz­zle. I’m not dis­ap­pointed; I al­ready get the big­ness of Alaska’s moun­tain ranges.

The tourist sea­son is about to start. I see a few RVs in the vast park­ing lots around De­nali. It’s like spot­ting a robin to her­ald the end of winter. What draws tourists and trekkers is De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve — about 14 mil­lion acres of wilder­ness to ex­plore. Call of the wild. Crocker smiles. We eat break­fast in a diner that boasts the big­gest blue­berry pan­cake in the world.

As Alaska gears up for the sum­mer rush, foreign ac­cents are the norm among the staff. The host­ess at the bar is tall and sparkly, with black eyes and blacker hair. “I am from Ser­bia. Peo­ple al­ways say Siberia,” she says and laughs. “No, Suhrrbeea!” In an­other bar, the waitress comes from Al­ba­nia. This pop­u­la­tion of “sea­son­als,” mostly young men and women look­ing for job ad­ven­tures, is about to re­cast the face of Alaska for the sum­mer.

Be­fore head­ing back to An­chor­age and our flight home, we spend this driz­zly day in the De­nali mu­seum with its mas­sive tableaus of stuffed wildlife. I get up close to a bull moose — 1500 pounds of power with white-sock legs and a long, ugly, sweet face. Crocker likes to go moose hunt­ing with his son. But I pre­fer wildlife in a mu­seum. And nearby in an­other dis­play, I fi­nally see it: On top of a cliff, the fa­mous chubby white Dall sheep with curly horns!

Awe­some.

PHO­TOS BY JES­SICA MATTHEWS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A trip along Alaska’s Richard­son High­way re­wards trav­el­ers with the view at the Wor­thing­ton Glacier State Recreation Site. Vis­i­tors can get even closer by tak­ing a man­age­able hike into the val­ley.

Black bears, which are far more abun­dant in Alaska than their brown-bear cousins, oc­ca­sion­ally can be ob­served close to the road.

PHO­TOS BY JES­SICA MATTHEWS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

FROM TOP: Two ju­ve­nile moose cross the De­nali Park Road; a sign wel­comes vis­i­tors to the more-than6-mil­lion acres of wild land in De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve; at the junc­tion of the Alaska and Richard­son high­ways, a mon­u­ment points out di­rec­tions and dis­tances to other pop­u­lar U.S. desti­na­tions.

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