Soak­ing up Alaskan ad­ven­ture, unswayed by rain

Woonsocket Call - - TRAVEL - By RACHEL WALKER

ON FOX IS­LAND, Alaska — A tor­ren­tial down­pour lulled me to sleep the night be­fore my all-day kayak­ing ex­pe­di­tion in the wa­ters around Fox Is­land off Alaska’s Ke­nai Penin­sula. Through the cracked win­dows of my log cabin, I watched the waves slap the slate beach as rain pounded the roof.

When I awoke, the storm had stopped. In its place, low fog clung mood­ily to the peaks on sur­round­ing is­lands. All around, I saw dif­fer­ent shades of green and gray, and though the fore­cast was du­bi­ous, I still packed my sun­glasses. Af­ter all, it was Au­gust and I am an op­ti­mist, and spend­ing a day kayak­ing un­der crys­tal clear Alaskan skies had been a life­long dream.

I had come to south­west­ern Alaska with three friends to cap off the sum­mer with an ocean ad­ven­ture. We signed up for a mul­ti­day tour with Pur­suit, an ad­ven­ture travel com­pany, and ar­rived in An­chor­age along with the storm clouds. At first (and naively), I was sur­prised. De­spite Alaska’s lo­ca­tion in the ver­dant Pa­cific North­west and the state’s mas­sive tem­per­ate rain for­est, I some­how ex­pected clear vis­i­bil­ity and smooth sail­ing. I blame pic­ture-per­fect mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als and my glass-half-full at­ti­tude. Nev­er­the­less, I learned an im­por­tant les­son: When headed to Alaska, es­pe­cially the coast, pack a durable rain­coat, no mat­ter what time of year you’re go­ing.

As it turned out, the rain didn’t limit our ex­pe­ri­ence. From An­chor­age we boarded the Alaska Rail­road to Se­ward, a 4½-hour, 114-mile jour­ney on the Coastal Clas­sic. Our seats on the dou­ble-decker GoldS­tar Dome car in­cluded a full-ser­vice break­fast. It was the first time I’d ever en­joyed cari­bou sausage while trav­el­ing through old growth forests and past glaciers, and I hope it’s not the last.

In Se­ward, we spent a night at the Wind­song Lodge be­fore board­ing a boat for the 12-mile ride across Res­ur­rec­tion Bay to Fox Is­land, a moun­tain­ous is­land named af­ter the type of farm­ing prac­ticed there around the turn of the 20th cen­tury, when farm­ers bred foxes for their furs. The fox farm­ers let the ca­nines run free dur­ing the day and cor­ralled them at night. I had first learned of Fox Is­land when I came across “Wilder­ness: A Jour­nal of Quiet Ad­ven­ture in Alaska” by Rock­well Kent, an Amer­i­can artist who re­treated to the is­land in 1918 with his 9-year-old son. The book chron­i­cles how artis­tic suc­cess had eluded Kent, who hoped to find in­spi­ra­tion through sur­viv­ing an Alaskan is­land win­ter. The respite, though chal­leng­ing – Kent and his son weath­er­proofed a goat shack and learned to for­age – proved fruit­ful; upon re­turn to New York, Kent’s ca­reer took off and he be­came known as a premier Amer­i­can graphic artist, print­maker and il­lus­tra­tor.

To­day’s Fox Is­land is more hos­pitable. Staff met us at the boat dock with um­brel­las and shep­herded us to the main lodge for a hearty lunch of stew and fresh bread. Af­ter­ward, my friends and I hiked through the thick, wet for­est. A sin­gle hik­ing path leads to one of the is­land’s high points, and af­ter a slip­pery few hours, we emerged breath­less and soaked onto a ridge that, I sus­pect, af­fords stun­ning views when the air is not thick with rain clouds.

For­tu­nately, we each had a cozy wa­ter­front cabin (the wilder­ness lodge has eight overnight ac­com­mo­da­tions) with pip­ing hot water for warm­ing up. Then we con­vened be­fore the wood-burn­ing stove in the in­ti­mate guest­house and sa­vored a glass of wine while scan­ning for sea ot­ters through the floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows.

In case it isn’t ob­vi­ous: The Ke­nai Fjords Wilder­ness Lodge is a refuge where the pace is de­li­ciously slow. There is no WiFi or phone ser­vice avail­able to guests on the is­land, al­though there is a phone in case of emer­gen­cies. All the overnight guests dine to­gether on meals pre­pared by head chef Lan­don Schoenefeld, a for­mer star res­tau­ra­teur in the Twin Cities culi­nary scene who walked away from his hard-charg­ing life af­ter pub­licly ac­knowl­edg­ing de­pres­sion and un­healthy habits.

Min­nesota’s loss is Alaska’s gain. Af­ter our first evening meal of fresh salmon, pureed turnips and a sa­vory cre­ative twist on fid­dle­heads and roasted as­para­gus, the sim­ple el­e­gance of the lodge truly made it­self ev­i­dent.

The next morn­ing, it was time to kayak. As the clouds threat­ened to open up once more, I asked our guide, Danny, my first ques­tion of the day: What would we do in case of rain? He laughed. As it turns out, Alaskans don’t take rain days be­cause if they did, they would spend a lot of time wait­ing out storms. Any­how, he said, it’s prefer­able to kayak when it’s over­cast or rain­ing. Blue skies tend to bring high winds, a po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic com­pli­ca­tion when you are your boat’s mo­tor.

And pad­dle we did, across Res­ur­rec­tion Bay and to­ward an in­let called Humpy Cove. Danny promised us our des­ti­na­tion would be scenic. The jour­ney cer­tainly was. The four of us fol­lowed our guide past puffins and seals, bald ea­gles and rocky beaches, all made more dra­matic by the ever-chang­ing sky. Up the cove we went, with spruce-lined slopes drop­ping into aqua­ma­rine water. We reached a nar­row beach that si­dled up to a weep­ing wall cov­ered in veg­e­ta­tion. He pulled our kayaks ashore and we ex­ca­vated our­selves from the plas­tic hulls to ad­mire the scenery.

But there was more. Around the cor­ner of that wet wall, we en­coun­tered a mas­sive water­fall. At least we “out­siders” found it so. To Alaskans, this pow­er­ful cas­cade didn’t even war­rant a name. Name­less or not, it was sig­nif­i­cant to the dozens of enor­mous salmon that were strug­gling up­stream to spawn. On the banks of the cove, river ot­ters piled on top of one an­other, quick, cu­ri­ous and cute. Then, as if to re­ward us, the clouds parted and a glim­mer of sun­light slipped through. I wore my sun­glasses on the pad­dle back to the lodge.

The weather held, and the fol­low­ing day dawned cloud­less for our boat tour of Ke­nai Fjords Na­tional Park. Noth­ing could have pre­pared me for the sen­sory stim­u­la­tion of this six-hour ad­ven­ture. Al­most 40 glaciers flow from the Hard­ing Ice­field into the Ke­nai Fjord, and the best way to see them is from the sea. Hump­back whales, or­cas, sea lions, seals, ot­ters, puffins, and more thrive here, and as we nav­i­gated the ocean from Fox Is­land to Aia­lik Bay, the wildlife view­ings were abun­dant. I sat on the boat’s bow along with sev­eral other hearty trav­el­ers, the brac­ing wind at our faces, and the crisp air keep­ing sea­sick­ness at bay. As we ap­proached the Aia­lik Glacier, the cap­tain slowed the boat to a crawl. Chunks of ice scat­tered through­out the sea, and we heard thun­der­ous cracks as parts of the glacier broke off and dropped into the water, a nat­u­ral process called calv­ing.

Es­tab­lished in 1980, Ke­nai Fjords Na­tional Park cov­ers an area of nearly 1,050 square miles and is a stun­ning com­bi­na­tion of jagged peaks, dense forests and re­ced­ing and melt­ing glaciers. Sci­en­tific stud­ies have doc­u­mented the im­pact of cli­mate change on the park’s glaciers. The melt­ing rate of the state’s glaciers has in­creased in re­cent decades, con­tribut­ing to a rise in sea level. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the rate of glacial thin­ning in Alaska tripled com­pared with the pe­riod from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.

The boat’s cap­tain shared his en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of glaciol­ogy, cli­mate change, wildlife and more, but so all-en­com­pass­ing was the ex­pe­ri­ence of wit­ness­ing the gi­gan­tic glacier up close and ab­sorb­ing so much in­for­ma­tion that I left de­ter­mined to do more re­search on my own.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, this is typ­i­cal of a trip to Alaska, a land so re­mote and wild, so dif­fer­ent from most peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives, that you leave in­spired by what you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced – and by what you want to learn more about. That’s what hap­pened to Rock­well Kent. Un­like him, I didn’t spend seven harsh months in this re­mote and beau­ti­ful area. My du­ra­tion lasted only five days, but his ex­pe­ri­ence more than res­onated, par­tic­u­larly with this pas­sage from “Wilder­ness.”

“Amer­ica of­fers noth­ing to the tourist but the won­ders of its nat­u­ral scenery.... The night is beau­ti­ful be­yond thought. All the bay is flooded with moon­light and in that pale glow the snowy moun­tains ap­pear whiter than snow it­self.... Fox is­land will soon be­come in our mem­o­ries like a dream or vi­sion, a re­mote ex­pe­ri­ence too won­der­ful ... to be re­mem­bered or be­lieved in as a real ex­pe­ri­ence in life. It was for us life as it should be, serene and whole­some.”

Agreed.

Photo for The Wash­ing­ton Post by Rachel Walker

Kayak­ing near Fox Is­land. Most of the kayaks avail­able for guided tours ac­com­mo­date two peo­ple, which makes the ac­tiv­ity avail­able for those of all abil­i­ties.

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