A sage backcountry skier advises the novice to look for opportunity over obstacle; turn away from the trees, look instead at the space between. The eyes see the opportunity and the brain instructs the body to follow. Whoosh, down you go, soft powder replacing hesitation.
Last July my wife Cheryl convinced my daughter Roan and I to drive to Alaska – 2275 miles and 34 hours on a ferry one way – directly into smoke filled skies from enormous wildfires. Friends we planned to visit gave dire smoke warnings and it was hot! Notably, record temperatures for the preceding 12 months had shifted the state from an environment with average temperatures below freezing to above freezing for the first time. Alaska is no longer a frozen state!
Still, we headed north, ignoring obstacle and looking instead for the moments between.
In Juneau we loaded rented sea kayaks onboard the Adventure Bound for a 75 mile ride to the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm wilderness – the same tour boat and the same captain I had used 25 years before to access a Half Dome sized, first ascent rock climb on Mount SumDum. I had discovered the beautiful granite prow when alpine legend Fred Beckey showed me an aerial image he had taken years before and quickly rallied a team to go have a look. The boat captain had been telling his passengers about our adventure every year since and we appreciated a moment to reconnect and reminisce.
The fjord is 30 miles long, two miles wide and walled in by black cliffs and waterfalls thousands of feet tall. Roan’s favorite naturalist, John Muir, called the area, “A wild, unfinished Yosemite,” so she was intrigued. A short distance away from the glacier’s terminus we slid our kayaks into the water and paddled through countless icebergs littered with harbor seals. The pups seemed mesmerized by Roan and swam close to her kayak without fear. Completely captivated, we spent the afternoon paddling through narrow openings between the towering shapes of fantastical blue ice.
Infrequent rain showers blended naturally with the smoky skies as we camped on a recently exposed barren rock island and watched the glacier receding before our eyes, cracking, pulverizing and daggering wheelbarrow to apartment sized blocks into the ocean 50 times an hour! Armed with hot drinks heated in the vestibule of our Copper Spur tent we settled into sleeping bags and camp chairs to witness the accelerations of climate change. A moment between.
A week later we ate supper in our camper and shouldered light packs for a three mile hike up the Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park to an excellent viewpoint of the actual summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America. Shrouded in clouds over 70% of the time we lucked into a break in the both the smoky skies and the cloud cover. For a brief 12 hours the amazing views, ample ripe blueberries (HEY BEAR!!!) and a million mosquitoes covering our head nets created another true Alaskan moment between.
Our final adventure was a 4000 foot ascent to the Harding Icefield near Seward on a moderately smoky day. Roan and Cheryl settled gratefully into the Big Agnes camp chairs I had stashed in my pack to finish Roan’s Kenai Fjords Junior Ranger Booklet. Facing a 4000 mile Alaskan Highway drive back to Colorado we paused, perched on a rock outcropping just above the vast expanse of bare, brain-like ice covered by countless fissures of tiny, yet raging, streams of water. Life flourishes almost instantly in that moment between frozen and flowing water. Ice worms and watermelon snow; vibrant moss and fireweed.
Cheryl was right to push this adventure. “You won’t know unless you go,” she repeated as we watched the powerful glacial runoff heading towards the ocean, filled with noisy potential. Alaska may no longer be a frozen state but it still is a wild one!
About the Author: For over 25 years Kennan Harvey has been living and breathing adventure photography! His mastery is providing a graphic interface between outdoor retailers and dramatic wildness. He lives “off-the-grid” with his wife and daughter in a self-built, solar powered home in the foothills of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.