The Denali Dilemma
With Jerry Ricciotti
From inside the plane we could smell the smoke from the forest fires even at 10,000 feet. The forests around California and the Pacific Northwest were burning an orange haze outside the cabin window. In this apocalyptic scene that’s become all too common these days we felt a tinge of regret for flying to Alaska to indulge ourselves in a place further removed from some of the lower 48’s current disasters.
I’d lucked into a lottery ticket to drive the Denali Road in the fall of 2020. With international options off the table due to the pandemic it was easy to convince my friends to come to Alaska for a sixteen day multi sport vacation.
The pandemic seemed to sharpen our appreciation that at any moment things could change. Just days prior to the trip, a storm hit Salt Lake with winds up to 80 mph, felling hundreds of trees, smashing cars and taking down power lines. For three days we had no power. It was unseasonably cold and I made coffee on a propane stove while I packed in the dark using headlamps, sleeping in my sleeping bag in the frigid house. Good preparation for what was to come.
Also dealing with the Utah windstorm and packing for the trip is Trevor, a born and raised Utahn that won’t think twice about a twelve hour drive to the coast to go surfing. Alaska was written for him. He’d read a quote from John Muir before the trip: “You should never go to Alaska as a young man because you'll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live.” If Trevor had gone to Alaska as a younger man I’m convinced he never would have returned. Luckily for everyone who knows him, he’d yet to visit Alaska and this would be his first trip. Dave joined us at the airport. Dave works in the same profession as me, and loves fishing and surfing. Most of the things you pay someone to do Dave will do himself. He’s a big tall gentle guy that picks up your phone call every time, usually on the first ring. We’d all smelled the smoke upon arrival in Seattle and worried that with the nuclear skies around the airport that our flights could get cancelled. We felt a mixture of guilt and gratitude as we boarded. During the flight to Anchorage the captain announced:
‘On the right side of the window is the best view of the Alaska-Canada range I’ve seen in twenty years.’
It was sobering to arrive in Anchorage and see so many people sleeping on the streets. Alaskan Native residents are disproportionately represented in the city’s homeless population. The rightful owners of this place, who laid the foundations for us to be able to do this, without homes while we begin a two week adventure-vacation. Being able to cherry pick the good experiences doesn’t sit so well with you when you realize the life lottery you’ve won that allows you to drive south out of Anchorage in a rental pickup truck leaving so much ugliness and brutality behind. That afternoon at the Turnagain Arm we took out some foamies and a packraft and got to see the energy of the boretide. We spent an hour looking up at glaciers and the mountains that surrounded us. We laughed about how smart we were to plan a fishing- surfing- biking- rafting trip here because with all those sports you don’t really need good weather. We’d be happy if it rained every day, we declared, silently crossing our fingers and hoping for good conditions regardless.
As we walked down toward where the Russian River meets the Kenai, a fisherman got our attention. ‘Bear,’ he whispered and gestured with his left arm towards Kenai. Two Grizzlies sat in the water and thrashed on salmon.
Everyone you meet in Alaska has a theory about bears. Some people say if you have a good aura and good karma you’ll be fine. “I just put love out to the universe and bears can feel it so they never mess with me” said one patchouli drenched boretide surfer.
Doug, a campground resident was standing in the parking lot smoking his cigar when we saw him, seventy plus years old, with a long white beard, chewing on a cigar, a Glock strapped to his chest and tippet spools hanging from his neck. We were hollering at the bears, nervous boys with hands on our bear spray cans lwhen he came running, took the cigar out of his mouth and ran at Trevor, screaming, ‘Which way is the wind blowing?!’ Shoot pepper spray with the wind blowing towards you and you’ll find out.’ insinuating we’d do a lot more harm to ourselves than a bear with our canned pepperspray, a subtle suggestion that in his mind firearms are the only bear deterrent. ‘I always know which way the wind is blowing ‘cause I smoke cigars,’ he said from behind the butt of his cigar.
We camped the first couple nights on a friend’s land in Girdwood. On our final morning he made us breakfast with the supplies in his van; potato and egg hash and four cups of coffee each. We left the mountain bikes, packrafts and camp gear there and headed to Seward to meet the Milo boat. We sent our final texts to our loved ones as the boat sailed out of Resurrection Bay at sunset for a five day sail across the Gulf of Alaska.
In gold accented coffee shops around America, men with carefully tousled hair in fashionable workwear dream of making a life for themselves that bears some relation to our ancestors. Uneasy with the lives we inhabit, and perhaps feeling our easy privilege, the convenient life we have is unsettling at times. We are privileged beyond measure, something that as a white male middle class documentary filmmaker I find impossible to ignore.
Captain Mike is the guy all of us blue collar posers want to be. He redefines what a rugged man on the last frontier looks like and he’s just about everything we’re not. He built a successful fish processing business in Homer and rebuilt a commercial fishing vessel, the Milo, into a surf boat. The man has only surfing on his mind and when he’s not wearing a wetsuit he’s in patterned flannel pajama pants and slippers nearly the rest of the day. In a time when we seem to want to dress like labourers and look like we actually are rugged individuals, Mike is the real deal, fixing parts of the boat, sailing through the night, exploring waves in Alaska dressed like a college student in the dorms while we don Xtra-tuffs to play dress up frontiersman for a week.
Halfway to Yakutat we sailed to Kayak Island and paddled onto shore by an abandoned lighthouse. A pack of sealions played and showed off fifty feet away from us. A bushplane descended from out of the clouds to circle the lighthouse 100 feet above ground. Some of the keepers of the lighthouse had gone crazy here; one rowed out to sea and was never seen again.
We sailed alongside Mt St Elias into Yakutat Bay. Mt St Elias has a 18,000 foot vertical relief- the highest relief in the world, making that mountain the biggest thing any of us will see in our lives.
Trevor caught his first fish, a halibut off a jig while we idled over a seamount in the middle of the ocean. I watched Dave teach Trevor how to fillet a fish for the first time. As I watched Trevor learning in his wetsuit under the decklights, I thought this is how men make themselves vulnerable to each other. When we lose our egos and admit we don’t know how to do something we become more malleable. Trevor watched and asked questions as Dave cut into the fish.
In the ocean on our first surf I felt zero self consciousness, something I’m usually poisoned by. The water barely tastes salty. It’s surprisingly warm inside my wetsuit; water warms up from my body heat and the occasional flush of cold water is greeted and tempered by the older water my body has been cooking up. The neoprene of my wetsuit hood pushes against my ears, muffling every sound. When I speak I have to raise my voice so I can hear it. I paddled hard for a wave, pointing down the line as I paddled like Dave told me. I caught the wave, rose awkwardly to my board, felt propelled by the open force of the wave and rode it awkwardly for a short time. One of the rare times in my life I didn’t feel the burning eyes of the entire line up on me as I paddled back out - I was with friends in Alaska with nobody else around and there were plenty of waves for me to waste.
I paddled for the second wave of a set in front of Dave, buried the nose and got dragged inside. A dozen waves just as big hammered me and I let my stupid blue foam board drag behind me, giving up on all technique and best practice out of frustration and a pathetic effort to save energy. Water flooded my wetsuit and chilled my spine, I couldn’t grab my leash with my oversize mittens and my hood made me claustrophobic, limiting my vision and blunting the sounds of waves, hoots, and my own semi panicked breathing. For a moment I hated surfing with all my heart.
Raindrops began to bounce off the gray surface and slide like balls of mercury before breaking the surface tension and becoming part of the ocean. The beads of rain are mesmerising, I find myself staring and thinking of all the thousands of unremembered times I’ve seen something like this. We walked across smooth rocks camouflaged by millions of small clams that clung to their homes as the tide receded, back on the boat we cooked Trevor’s halibut as fish and chips for dinner.
We flew back to Anchorage, swapping our surfboards for mountain bikes, packing our warmest clothes and dehydrated food. Dave left after our boat trip, so it was down to Trevor and I trekking forward.
On the first day we met two women, Riesing and Taylor, who were backpacking on the trail and they camped near us the night. Riesing built a fire in the rain out of damp wood. She showed us how she made fires in the snow while working with sled dogs on the Iditarod. Taylor gave us some of the salmon jerky she had caught, filleted and dried herself. She said it had been her currency here in Alaska; how she paid people for picking her up hitchhiking.
I thought about all the times I told the captain I’ve sailed to Antarctica before or to the fisherman that I had fished alongside bears before. Yet with these women, I let go of my ego and it was a refreshing feeling to simply listen and ask questions. My socks which were soaking wet from falling in the river earlier, dried by their fire. We wouldn’t have had the same conversations with two men we’d met on the trail, we would’ve all just flexed on each other. I should have kept an eye on my socks though, one got a hole burnt in.
The landscapes began to change from spruce and birch forest to low shrubs and brush with a few clusters of evergreen. Biking into a denser environment, it felt at any point that a bear could pop out on his way to the river for a snack. Having declined Doug’s suggestion of buying a firearm for the bike trip, our method for biking through bear country was to scream compliments into the forest ahead of us. ‘Get out of here you beautiful fuckin’ bear. I hope you eat lots of salmon today.’ We killed the bears with kindness from a distance and loudly practiced our Spanish numbers for the bears to hear. At the end of the 3 day ride we traded our bikes for packrafts and fly rods.
Two bears swam across the river near where we launched our boats.
We paddled through small streams full of salmon. We filtered water from the creek, fished, and collected driftwood for the fire. Bald headed eagles flew overhead and we’d pull over on the river to make coffee or wait out a rain under our tarp.
On our last day, our third on the river, we ran low on propane. We peeled sap-covered bark off an evergreen and re-fired logs from the night before. We got a good fire going and I was able to dry out the right sleeve of all my clothes, wet from reaching for a snagged fly that morning. My hands were cut up from the fishing line. A few old bug bites had become semi open sores on my neck. We rolled a few soggy joints, dirt swimming in our coffee from using sticks to stir. The entire campsite smelled like rotting salmon, but not in a completely unpleasant way.
You can feel yourself slowly getting comfortable being uncomfortable - thinking back on the first night on the Milo with a warm bed and pillow to truly enjoying the fish stench bear-scat riddled campsite of our last day, we congratulated ourselves on planning this trip perfectly by not really planning it too much at all.
We tore down the tarp for the last time. As we were driving back toward Anchorage we saw the first dust of snow on the mountains covering the gold and orange foliage in white as if to say, “If you think that was cool, wait until you see winter.” If you move to Wyoming, they say you can’t call yourself a local or wear cowboy boots until you've been there for a decade, (I’m not sure if it's ever okay to wear a cowboy hat but that's not for me to say) but in Alaska we heard the only thing they measure you by is whether or not you’ve spent a winter there - a good reminder of how much further we have to go.
Collecting driftwood for shelter and fire.
Biking into a denser, bear infested environment.