Friday, June 11, 2010

Cordova

There's a little town in Alaska I had always wanted to visit. I couldn't even tell you why I picked this specific town, for there are lots of little towns in Alaska that would be fun to visit. But Cordova, a fishing village perched on the edge of the Prince William Sound, always stuck out. I think it started when I first learned of an old railroad grade that left this isolated village and followed the Copper River all the way to the main road system, in Chitna. I used to wonder if it was partially passable with a bicycle, until I learned that the railroad fell into disuse in the early 1930s, and I'd be lucky to find a few scattered nails among the thick alder tangles and rushing, unbridged streams. What remains is a 50-mile-long gravel road to nowhere that passes several glaciers. How could that not be a fun overnight ride?

I started the trip by taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Whittier. I always thought that blue-and-yellow double-decker rail car that rumbled next to the Seward Highway was a strictly tourist-only deal. It only recently occurred to me that I could use the train as transportation, and felt a little conspicuous doing so in my bike clothes with a book as camera-toting sightseers migrated like birds from one side of the train to the other, depending on what animals somebody reportedly saw. I sat across from a very nice older couple from Albuquerque who had just arrived in Anchorage late the night before, and had never before visited Alaska. The woman must have taken at least 200 digital photos through the window. I did my best to point out the attractions and smile with satisfaction as they gasped around every scenic turn. There is something so rewarding about seeing a place you love through the eyes of newcomers.

From Whittier, I got on the ferry, and it was my turn to play the role of a gawking tourist, leaning against the outside railing to watch far-away orcas and rolling sea otters as the boat crossed the Prince William Sound. The ferry arrived in Cordova just before 9 p.m. I rode to the city-owned campground, which was a real pit - full of tightly-wedged RVs and trailers all clustered in a circle around a battered old bathroom like a pioneer wagon train. I rode back to town and asked four different people at the grocery store about "tent camping." They all looked at me like I was speaking Dutch, except for a jovial Hispanic woman who just laughed and said, "Don't ask me; Mexicans don't go camping." I headed out the road until I was a ways out of town, and ended up finding a really sweet spot on a gravel bar of a tributary below the Scott Glacier.

The next morning, it rained. I had to wait around in cell phone range to take a scheduled call at 12:30, so I laid on my thin strip of foam and read "The Living" by Annie Dillard. The call came and went, and it kept on raining. I took short glances outside to the completely-soaked-in grayness. My elbows started to ache, so I turned on my back, until my shoulders ached, and still droplets pounded the rain fly. I started to remember why I never used to go camping when I lived in Juneau. It is one thing to ride in the continuous rain, and quite another to try to live in it, with only a single change of clothing, a single change of socks, a down sleeping bag and a small nylon tent, in a climate where once things get wet, they are never going to dry outside. Even if you stay put, the dampness seeps in anyway, smelling of cold earth and accumulating like mildew. I knew if I packed up and headed down the road in the rain, my body and all of my worldly belongings were going to be a dripping mess by the time the cold night rolled around again. But by 3:30 p.m., I was going stir crazy (I'll never understand how mountaineers huddle in tents for days on end and manage to keep their sanity.) I finally relented to going for a short afternoon ride to break the monotony, thereby soaking one set of clothing but keeping my sleeping bag and the inside of my tent mostly dry.

Hitting the road, my demeanor was somewhere between "moderately irritated" and "grumpypants." The rain pelted my back and I stared down at the wet gravel, which cut an eerily straight line across the shrouded expanse of the Copper River Delta. I knew I only had two days in town, and by leaving my camping gear behind, I was ruining my chance to do the overnight tour I had planned. But I didn't care. I just wanted to get in a 20 or 30-mile ride so I could strip off my wet clothes, crawl into my damp sleeping bag, shiver away the chill and hope against hope that the sun came out tomorrow.

But as I pedaled, my core temperature began to heat back up and my outlook improved substantially. It's a little startling to realize how closely connected emotions are to simple physical states such as body temperature, hunger and fatigue. In a matter of an hour, I swung wildly from woe-is-me sourpuss to enthusiastic reveler of all things Cordova. The previously flat and dreary Copper River Delta suddenly became infused with a Great Plains mystique, and as I looked east toward the mountains, the green cliffs shimmered behind wisps of silver mist. At the time, I was still soaked to the bone and pedaling through drizzle; really, the only thing about my situation that had changed was that I was finally moving warm blood through my system. It's a strange revelation, to realize a person actually can't separate their body from their emotions, even though bodies are easily manipulated and emotions are supposedly more substantial connections to one's soul. It makes one inclined to take themselves a little less seriously.

And then, the sun did start to poke through the thick clouds. Actually, it was still raining on the Delta, but I had ridden far enough down the road to curve inland, toward the glacier-studded mountains. I didn't even really notice the miles going by, and then suddenly, 25 had passed, and then 35. And then I thought, well, might as well go all the way.

As I moved inland, the temperature fell and the snowpack grew substantially, from a few patches here and there to a couple feet of solid snow. It was interesting, because I hadn't gained much if any elevation, and it was strange to see so much snow so close to sea level in June. This is a region dominated by glaciers, where cold wind blows off the ice field year-round, driving back summer's surge even as green pops up regardless.

And then, after 44 miles of near-total isolation (I only saw three cars go by), I reached the Million-Dollar Bridge. It really is quite the spectacle, a massive steel structure, flanked by two glaciers, that rises several stories out of a wilderness no one uses anymore. It was constructed at the turn of the century, at a cost of $1.5 million back then, to support rail shipments from a Kennicott Copper Mine that operated until the '30s.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to build this thing, in the 1900s when Alaska was a frontier of a frontier, using 1900s technology, fighting extreme winter weather and the terror of calving glaciers, which I'm guessing used to be even closer to the bridge a century ago than they are now. I love stuff like this: things that stand alone as living museums to a very intriguing era - the era of Alaska's gold rush, the bicycle boom, burgeoning mountain exploration, and Shackleton.

The Childs Glacier remains thrillingly close to the bridge, close enough that every few minutes I heard a thunderous explosion of cracking ice and erupting water (I only heard the glacier calving; I never turned my head fast enough to witness it happening.)

The only sunlight in all of the wide region seemed to be centered over the river, slowly drawing away the dampness that had dogged me all morning.

I negated the sun's drying effects by venturing on the snow-covered route beyond the bridge. As far as I could tell it was still a road, just not maintained in any way, and I was curious to see how far it continued. I only made it another mile or so of postholing before I decided the snow was only becoming thicker, not fading out. Wherever this route goes, it must only be clear a couple months out of the year. The Million-Dollar Bridge partially collapsed in the '64 earthquake and the state actually fixed it up a few years ago. I can't imagine why they went to the trouble, nor do I understand why they bother maintaining the Copper River Highway (as the gravel road is called) and its many bridges across the Delta. I guess it's just one of those things.

As I crossed back over the Million-Dollar Bridge, I passed a U.S. Forest Service employee who was hauling sonar equipment out of the river. I must have really startled him, because he jolted up from his perch and asked, rather loudly, "Are you OK?"

"I'm great," I said. "It's such a beautiful evening."

He looked a little confused. "So you're just biking around here?"

"Pretty much," I said.

"OK," he said. "It's just that we don't see many people out here on bicycles this time of night."

"Oh, yeah; I got a late start today," I smiled. Then sun still lingered above the mountains and I had no idea what time it was. It was actually nearly 9 p.m.

"You're not going all the way to Cordova tonight, are you?" he asked.

"Not all the way ..." I said, trailing off. "My camp spot is a few miles down the road." (I left out the detail that it was more than 40 miles down the road.)

"Ok, well if you need anything, our camp is just over there," he said pointing to a bank across the bridge. "Anything at all - food, water, flashlight. Just stop by."

"Thanks," I said. "I'll be fine."

I did head down past the USFS camp to get a better look at the Childs Glacier. I sat on the bank of the rushing, silty Copper River and made a tuna sandwich for dinner, which I nibbled on slowly as I waited for more exciting glacier eruptions. It was 9 p.m. and I was in no hurry to get back to camp (although I was sincerely wishing I had just hauled my wet camping gear out here into the beautiful sunlight, so I could spend the whole night.) I had a headlight, red blinky, food and a water filter. I could pedal to stay warm. I had everything I needed.

The road back was quiet and reflective, with nothing but the whir of gravel and a light breeze to distract from the slow separation of my body and my emotions. I fall victim to being cranky in the rain, just like everyone else, but I also recognize that down the line it doesn't really matter. Through the peace of the darkless night and the slow buildup of fatigue, 90 miles all too easily slip away, the world rolls sunward, and life goes on.

I woke up late Thursday morning to more continuous rain, to start the grumpypants cycle anew. I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do with the day. I had already pedaled out to the end of the Copper River Highway and back, and while I wished I'd had more time to spend out there, I wasn't about to do the 86-mile round trip again. I decided to spend the day in Cordova. While I travel to visit towns, I always end up spending the majority of my time in places outside of town, and end up having no clue about restaurants and music venues and things to do in town. So I pedaled back to the small strip of buildings and walked down Main Street in my rain gear, visiting the museum, sampling local Chinese cuisine and wandering the harbor. The cold chill began to creep back in, and with it my resentment about my lack of real shelter. It was time to get back "out."

I pedaled to the end of town, parked my bike and started hiking up Mount Eyak. I reflected on my trip to Cordova, which I embarked on a whim in my mania to do as much as exploring as possible before I move away. It was too sporadic and last-minute to find a traveling companion, so I went alone. Traveling alone used to bother me, a lot, but it doesn't any more. In fact, I often prefer it for many of the same reasons I used to fear it - it forces me to be self-reliant, makes me accountable for all of my decisions and urges a quiet reflection that I'd never otherwise experience. Of all of my travels in the past few years, my solo travels still stand out the most in my memory. It began first time I did an overnight backpacking trip by myself outside Idaho Falls and realized that I could set up my own tent, and make tuna sandwiches for dinner without anyone complaining about the lack of a hot meal, swim naked in the lake and hike 24 miles from camp if I wanted to. That was only five years ago; these days, I see that the horizon is limitless.

The solo trip also gave me a lot of time to reflect on how I really feel about leaving Alaska. Years from now, when people ask me if I lived in Anchorage, I'm not sure I'd really be able to say I did. I spent an incredible two months traveling around Southcentral Alaska, but the drifter feeling never really wore off. After a while, drifting starts to wear a person down. In many ways, I've felt aimless and drifting for more than a year, ever since I boarded the ferry boat out of Juneau in April 2009. I traveled and rode my bike all summer. I never really settled back into Juneau when I returned. I never even unpacked my boxes in Anchorage. I am ready to anchor myself to a more solid purpose and a place. For this reason, among many others, I really am excited to make the move to Montana. After all, I was born in the Rocky Mountains. In many ways, I am going "home."

I clawed through crusty snow to the Mount Eyak saddle and halfway up the face, but stopped about 200 feet shy of the peak when I decided that the face was too exposed and the hard, icy condition of the snow too unforgiving to go any farther without an ax and crampons. Behind me, scattered rain showers drenched the inlet and its surrounding islands, cast in soft pink light by the setting sun beyond. I caught my first glimpse of the Gulf of Alaska and breathed out a sad sigh for all of the beautiful and wild places I would never see. There are too many to comprehend, and their inaccessibility reminds me that I am only a subatomic speck perched on the face of a yawning universe. I thought about Cordova, with its green cliffs and glaciers, sweeping mudflats and mountains towering over the sea. It was perhaps the most beautiful place of all; but they all are, in their exhilerating moments of discovery. "I could live here someday," I thought. "When I am done riding my bicycle and climbing mountains, and I am ready to settle in a small cabin on the edge of the sea and wait for the universe to come to me."

I came down from the mountain with only about five hours to kill before I had to pack up and catch the ferry out of town. I've become such a night owl that I was just going to stay up and perhaps explore a few more side roads, but then I stumbled across the most awesome camp spot on the muskeg above town. I set up my tent on the soft tundra, where I read, dozed on and off, and occasionally got up to gaze over the panoramic view. The mountains cut dark shadows behind me and the calm inlet shimmered below, so still in the morning that departing fishing boats left white trails that were miles long. At 1 a.m. the sky had almost completely cleared, ever so briefly, and it occurred to me that if it were dark, I'd be able to see stars.

The dark will come again, soon enough - first to me, as I venture south, and eventually to the rest of Alaska. In five short years this state has trickled into my heart; for as much as I've seen and as little as I've experienced, I love every part of it deeply. I dream of a future that's impossible to establish - one that includes a house on the hill in Fairbanks, a winter camp outside Nikolai, a yurt above Homer, apartments in Juneau and Anchorage, a fishing shack in Cordova and regular trekking trips to the Arctic. I want to live everywhere but I know what I carry in my heart are memories, not physical places. I can bring these memories with me wherever I go. I tell myself they will carry me through my time away from the North. I tell myself it won't be forever.

As the ferry churned west, I bid a silent goodbye to Mount Eyak and the rest of Cordova. I knew there was a good chance I would never return to the beautiful little fishing village perched on the edge of the Prince William Sound, and that was OK. Life ebbs and flows like the tide; what it leaves behind is what I keep.