Oh where do I start? We haven’t updated for a few weeks and have lots to share. We went on a family vacation to Southern California recently but that info is coming later. In the middle of that family trip, I flew to Alaska for work and pleasure. I flew out of John Wayne Santa Ana airport Monday, July 19. We had been camping at the San Mateo campground near San Onofre, CA, and the shuttle company picking me up wouldn’t meet me at the campground. So I had Jen drive me into San Clemente (just a few miles away) so a Comfort Inn and Suites where the shuttle driver picked me up.
The driver asked, “Which airline?” I replied, “Alaska Air.” He said, “Where are you heading?” I answered, “Fairbanks, Alaska.” “Whoa,” he said, “someone on Alaska Air who’s actually going to Alaska!” I guess that doesn’t happen that often.
I made it to Seattle and met up with a co-worker. We made it to Fairbanks on a flight full of blue hairs! It must have been the week for everyone’s vacation. I thought about that: some of these folks were going to Alaska as a chance of a lifetime trip. They’ve saved money for the trip and they’re excited to tour interior Alaska. Me? Work paid all my expenses and salary plus any overtime hours I put in while in the field. I do realize how lucky I am.
This was my first time in Alaska and it was fun to see daylight extend into traditional (by lower 48 standards) night hours. There was 19 hours and 45 minutes of sunlight each day while I was in Fairbanks, meaning when we were out at 11pm (you know, partying in downtown Fairbanks outside the Ice Museum), it was still light outside akin to something like 8pm here in Utah. Weird. It looked like we had plenty of time to play, but my body and eyes were super tired.
Anyway, it wasn’t all play in Fairbanks. Our objective was to visit a number of fires that burned in Interior Alaska over the years to see how they burn and respond over time. I saw a fire that burned last year, in 2005, 2004, 2001, 1991, and 1958. It was fascinating to see the varying stages of succession in these forests. Generally, Alaska is Spruce (black and white) dominated. When fire comes through, it kills the Spruce, opening the canopy and allowing the deciduous trees (Birch and Aspen) to flourish. This lasts for 50 years or so until the Aspen or Birch begin to naturally die off, allowing the Spruce trees that seeded immediately after the fire to finally take over and dominate again. We visited a stand of Black Spruce that burned and died last year. Out of curiosity, I cut one of them down and we counted the tree rings. The tree’s diameter was 11 cm (4.3 inches) and was 112 years old. Can you say “short growing seasons”??? Nerd stuff, I know, but fascinating to me.
While around Fairbanks, we saw 4 moose, 2 ducks, and just a few mosquitoes. I was expecting a ton of bugs but lucked out. We also saw the Alaska Pipeline. That was kinda cool to see it, touch it, and learn about its construction. I saw that at 10:16pm one night. We stopped by there the next day on our way toward a fire so others in our group could see it. As we were there, 5 tour buses pulled up, and out came all the blue hairs I saw on the plane! I was glad I already got my photos the night before because it would have been impossible with all those old folks yelling at each other (because they can’t hear), “HEY MARGIE, THIS SIGN SAYS THE PIPELINE IS 800 MILES LONG!” Thanks, old man, for telling everyone in town, too.
After our last day in the field (Thursday), I cleaned up and headed to the airport for a 10pm flight to Anchorage. It’s about as far as SLC to Vegas, so the flight was take off, hit 30,000 feet, start the descent. 40 minutes of pure joy because I flew right over Denali National Park and got a pic of Denali…the only way I would have seen the mountain due to persistent cloud cover for those poor folks on the ground. I went to Anchorage to hang out with a good friend from my college ward — John Follett. He’s been in Anchorage for 7 years now and offered to take me fishing. Cool thing was that the Kenai Reds (salmon) were making their run up river from the ocean. Good timing.
He picked me up at the airport around 11:30pm and we drove from there straight to Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula, about 185 miles away. We rolled up to our “camping spot” — a dark dead-end street — around 2:40am. We slept in the back of the SUV in a general spoon shape. Don’t worry Mom, Jen’s way better at that than John. We got a call from some of John’s friends at 5:19am waking us up saying they were ready to head toward the river. That’s not a lot of sleep, but considering the situation, it was probably for the best.
We drove to the mouth of the Kenai River where all the locals were “dip netting.” This is a program only Alaska residents can participate in. People bring these huge nets — like 5-foot diameter — that are attached to 10-foot poles. They walk into the river up to their chest while holding the pole. The net is another 10 feet into the river. They leave the net in the water until a salmon swims right in, afterwhich the people turn the net over against the bottom of the river to trap the fish and proceed to walk out of the river. Once on dry ground, they club the fish, carry it to their cooler, and repeat the process. Some folks clean the fish right there on the river bank. It was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. I didn’t like it at first because I thought it was cheating. But one guy explained it to me as a sort of entitlement program for Alaska residents. For many people, this is a real form of sustinence. A family of 4 can gather something like 100 salmon during this annual river run — for free! And these salmon are 28 inches long and can weight 8-10 lbs. That’s a lot of fish. To put things in perspective, in one day, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted (via sonar / electronic sensors) 130,000 salmon pass one point in the river. ONE DAY! That’s past the dip netters, too.
After dip netting, we went inland about 10 miles to Sterling, again on the banks of the Kenai River. We stayed at some people’s (the same guy who called at 5:19am) fish camp that had riverfront access. This is where I got my first Alaska fishing experience. I first had to learn how to cast my line in such cramped quarters. It was a slow learning experience. I probably fished for an hour from that spot and hooked two fish but only reeled one in. About half that hour was spent tying on new flies since I lost a few on snags in the river.
The next morning we went to a few other spots but one was too crowded (but I saw a guy wearing a BYU hat in the river…), and the other one yielded no fruits. Or fish. In fact, when we got to the second spot, a guy told us that they’d spotted an injured brown bear in the area and to be careful. Sweet. I’d fight him with my rod and waders!
We drove back to Anchorage Saturday night. I viewed this as my first opportunity to really wash my hands in three days. I handled a lot of fish and guts while on the Kenai Peninsula and there weren’t many good places besides the river to wash them. Yummy. I attended church with John in the Russian Jack Ward, attended Young Men’s with him (he’s the Young Men’s president), and then we headed back to his place where he hosted a fish fry. We cooked up a few salmon he’d dip netted the few days prior. It was great!
My flight home started at 10:45pm from Anchorage to Denver. We landed in Denver at 5:30am (3:30am Alaska time) and I’d slept about 5 minutes total. After an hour layover, we took off for SLC. I got home to the house around 9:30am and was absolutely exhausted. I was very excited to see my family since it had been exactly a week since I’d been gone. Trips like that are hard for me and my family, and it sure is great to come home. I’m very grateful for the opportunities to visit places like Alaska and to see good friends like John, but home is, well, home!
This post is seriously like 1,502 words.