The Lake – for a Moment
Chignik Lake, Alaska, Dawn March 26, 2019
The Lake – for a Moment
Chignik Lake, Alaska, Dawn March 26, 2019
Just south of Sapporo, the beautiful city of Chitose was our entry point into Hokkaido.
Having lived in Japan both as a 7th Fleet sailor stationed in Yokosuka onboard USS Blue Ridge and as an English language teacher after that, I’m familiar with Japan – its ins and outs, the aspects of life here that make it fascinating and wonderful as well as – at times – puzzling and frustrating. In selling Barbra on the idea of doing our first bike tour in Hokkaido, I’d pretty much painted for her a picture of paradise. I described a land of exceptionally low crime, cleanliness, every modern convenience conceivable, incredibly kind people, great camping spots, and a culture different enough from our own to keep things interesting. There might even be some decent fishing, I offered. She already knew about the food – some of the best seafood, beef, pork and noodle dishes in the world. Given that Hokkaido is the least populated and least visited part of Japan, we probably wouldn’t even have to deal with the crowds that often plague other parts of the country. In fact, the only con I conceded was that Japan can be quite expensive; but even that deficit could be offset by the inexpensive (sometimes free) camping I anticipated.
However, as the trip got closer I began to have a tiny, nagging doubt. Maybe I’d oversold Japan. After all, it had been awhile since I’d lived there. In the interim, Japan had experienced a bubble economy collapse, a disastrous nuclear energy plant melt down, and the passing of time along with the challenges an ever changing world presents to all of us. And then there are the tricks our own memories play on us. What if it turned out to not be as good as I remembered it?
Anchorage to Seattle to San Francisco marked the first leg of our flight schedule, and it wasn’t until the final stop on that leg, San Francisco, that we realized we had not allowed enough time between landing at Haneda Airport, Tokyo and our connecting flight to Chitose, Hokkaido. An optimistic Japan Airlines ticketing agent in San Francisco assured us we’d make our connection – but I was fairly certain we’d made a mistake.
Upon arriving in Haneda we scurried to baggage claim where I had my first opportunity to dust off my never-was-very-good Japanese and explain our situation. Incredibly – and impressively – the baggage handler at the luggage carousel already knew about us and our bikes. He smiled and nodded in their direction as a baggage handler approached pushing a handtruck loaded with three boxes – our two bikes and our bike trailer. Almost simultaneously, our two “luggage” boxes with their brilliant orange duck tape emerged onto the carousel. Phew! Next…
A woman in a JAL uniform seemed to materialize out of thin air. While Yamamoto-San (Ms. Yamamoto) explained to us that we needed to get over to the domestic flights air terminal as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, two baggage handlers helped us load our luggage onto two smaller hand carts – which, by the way, are free in Japan. The race was on.
We followed Yamamoto-San to the baggage check-in counter where she consulted with other JAL agents, and then she made what appeared to be a “command decision” to circumvent normal baggage check-in procedures and get us and our luggage directly over to the boarding gate. With the perfectly quaffed, calm Yamamoto-San alternately leading the way and helping to load these huge boxes onto the elevator to the train shuttle platform, we were all perspiring a little. Arriving on the shuttle deck it looked like we just might make it. Yamamoto-San was on a radio, talking urgently and quickly enough that I could understand almost nothing…
…until she mentioned Murray. Murray… Murray… The word sounded so familiar and yet I couldn’t quite recall its meaning. And then, with what sounded like disappointment in her voice, she said the word again. Muri.
Muri! As language sometimes does, the meaning suddenly came back to me. Muri means impossible.
We were not going to make our connecting flight. Despite our assurances that we weren’t really bothered by this turn of events, Yamamoto-San seemed truly disappointed. Back at the baggage check-in counter, she offered to book us into a hotel. I explained that the glitch was really our fault for not allowing sufficient time between flights, but she insisted that, no, it was her airline’s responsibility. In all of my glowing descriptions to Barbra regarding Japan, I had probably not payed sufficient homage to the legendary customer service the Japanese people are known for.
In the end, we declined the hotel, reasoning it would be simpler to spend the night stretched out on the comfortable seats in the waiting area, grab a cup of coffee in the morning and board a flight that would get us into Chitose at a time coinciding with check-in at our hotel. Our hotel in Chitose, by the way, did not charge us for the cancelled reservation.
Udon & Iced Coffee – our first breakfast in Japan!
And so, rather than arriving in Chitose on the night of May 29 as planned, we spent the night in Haneda Airport, sleeping relatively soundly in the seating area. The floors were so clean they gleamed. The restrooms were spotless. The coffee and bowl of udon we had for breakfast were excellent. And when we finally arrived at our modestly-priced hotel in Chitose, our room, though perhaps a bit small by American standards, was utterly immaculate, appointed with an excellent bathroom (including a nice, deep tub and more features on the toilet than either one of us is likely to ever use), a comfortable bed and truly plush bathrobes.
Welcome to Japan.
Perhaps its most iconic landmark, the cemetery at Point Hope, Alaska, is enclosed in Bowhead Whale ribs positioned as one would a picket fence. The above image was made at 2:25 PM, November 7. At that time of year, there are slightly less than six hours between sunrise and sunset. By early December, the sun sinks completely below the horizon and will not show itself again for 32 days.
In 1890, three years after a commercial whaling base called Jabbertown had been established near the village, the first Christian missionary arrived in Point Hope. A doctor by profession, it is reported that John Driggs performed “heroic” medical work, but his attempts at converting the village’s inhabitants to his religious beliefs were unsuccessful. In fact, the Episcopal Church that sponsored him reported that Driggs had become “eccentric and absent” in his duties to proselytize. Nonetheless, by 1910 Christianity had become predominant throughout Arctic Alaska. By this point the new religion had been spread from village to village by converts among the Inupiat themselves.*
*See: The Inupiat and the christianization of Arctic Alaska, Ernest S. Burch, Jr., Etudes/Inuit/Studies,1994
Twilight, that sliver of light between the day’s last direct sunlight and darkness, is often the prettiest light of the day. I was happy that Fred has his lights on. This shot was taken from the beach in front of our house. (Snowing here this morning, May 6.)
This November 19, 2011 sunset looking out over a Chukchi Sea nearly frozen solid reminded us of a Mark Rothko painting. The quality of light in the far north is often breathtaking.
One of the great privileges in our life was to live for three years in the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Lying 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and still deeply connected to a whaling-based subsistence culture, it is said that the Tikigaq Peninsula has been inhabited for some 9,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America. It is a place of aqpik berries and caribou, snowy owls and arctic foxes, fierce winds and frozen seas, a full month of darkness and the most magically soft pink, gold and orange morning and evening light we’ve ever seen. One day in early fall we hiked out to the end of the peninsula, stood on the beach, and watched in wonder as thousands upon thousands of murres, puffins, auklets and other seabirds streamed by on their way to the open ocean to spend the winter, their nesting season complete – surely one of the planet’s greatest migratory events. We endured a mid-winter three-day blow of hurricane force winds that forced most of the village to huddle together in the school which had its own generating system and could offer warm shelter and hot meals. Polar bears sauntered through the village right past our house and there were nights when the Northern lights danced above our heads in electric greens, pinks, purples and reds. And it was a place of friends, some of the toughest, most generous people we’ve ever known. Tikiġaġmiut – the people of this peninsula in the Chukchi sea.
After stripping off our waders, deflating our rafts and securing our gear to the racks on our bikes and in our panniers, we had before us a ride of a few miles up a dirt road and then down an ATV trail to a place on the Tazimina River where we would again launch our rafts. Seeing how late it was, we questioned whether this was the best route. Walter assured us it would be. “The bike ride is just a few miles and that shouldn’t be any problem, and then the float down the river will be pretty easy,” he said.
Following the shoreline of the Newhalen River, we pushed our bikes a short distance over wet, soft sand imprinted with numerous moose tracks probably made by a cow and her babies. We reached the gravel-and-dirt haul road and fairly effortlessly rode the few miles to the ATV trail. The road cut through open country, and as we climbed a gently sloping hill we had a sweeping view of tundra and kettle ponds and the white spruce forest in the river valley below. However, upon reaching the ATV trail we could see that it was going to be too deeply rutted to ride with loaded bikes. So we got off and pushed. No big deal as we were still making good time.
Disconcerting, though, was our observation that Walter was trying to figure out where we would depart the trail in order to bushwhack through the dense tangle of alder, willow and spruce between the trail and the river. Bushwhack? Walter hadn’t previously mentioned anything about dragging, pushing and carrying loaded bikes through overgrown thickets and over fallen timber. As we pushed through this boreal jungle, whippy alders and grabby spruce bows tugged at every buttonhole, shoelace, and bicycle spoke.
The brush was so thick that I lost sight of Walter – a fit, ex-marine several years younger than me – who still was not grasping basic concepts such as staying within visual sight and effectively communicating. On a couple of occasions he charged so far ahead he couldn’t hear me when I called out, leaving us to guess at whether or not he had actually found a trail to the river, whether we should stay put and wait for him to yet again backtrack, or whether to attempt to follow. Twice the bushwhacking ended at what turned out to be the shallow, swampy, mosquito-infested, remnants of old beaver ponds. As Walter consulted his GPS, the sun continued its descent.
By the time we made it to flowing water I was hungry and thirsty. We stopped for a snack on a gravel bank and then inflated our rafts and strapped our bikes back onto the bows. I was wet, cold and nearing exhaustion. We still had to float an indeterminate distance down this river and then paddle nearly a mile back across the lake. I refused to look at my watch. I was worried how late it might be – among other things.
Walter had been ignoring my terse admonitions to keep us in sight. Now we needed to float a river in the near dark, vigilant for boulders, logs and trees fallen across the river known as “sweepers.” There is probably nothing more dangerous on these rivers than a large tree down across swift current, particularly if the nearby banks are steep. Sweepers occasionally trap and drown rafters. As we began our float, the sky beamed the brilliant oranges and pinks of sunset, dramatically silhouetting the spruce forest stretching before us against the colors of the sky. The water was cold and clear and in places beautifully caught the day’s last light.
Bald eagles, silent sentinels, were perched in trees along the river, watching. A cow moose and her twin calves crashed off into the forest as our rafts approached. And everywhere that the water was deep enough, fish began to surface and roll and even jump. These were the largest trout and grayling I’d ever seen, and the numbers were amazing. I had my fly-rod with me, and it would have been fantastic to fish there. It was too bad I couldn’t enjoy it. I was too cold, too tired, and too worried. These are the kinds of conditions where mistakes are made. Bad ones. Sometimes even fatal ones.
From his position in the lead, Walter began calling out directions in the gathering darkness. “Go to the left! Downed log!” Jack would relay the directions back to me, and I’d repeat to confirm that I’d heard. As the sun sunk below the trees, everything turned to a dim monochrome. I could barely make out the shoreline. Wondering how far off the mouth of the river might be, I was trying to find a working rhythm to take my mind off my tiring shoulders and back.
Suddenly, Walter’s urgent shouting pierced my thoughts.
“Sweeper! Get out!”
There was no mistaking the serious tone in Jack’s voice as he repeated the message, which I’d already heard loud and clear. In the dimming light, I could just make out Jack immediately veering to his left toward the bank, and although I tried my damnedest to do the same, my raft felt sluggish and unresponsive. I dug in hard with my paddle. Was it the raft? Had I lost strength? Jack made it to shore just before the sweeper. My heart flew into my throat as I felt my raft picking up speed with the current. “I can’t get to shore!” I cried out.
While Walter, apparently in a state of confusion, stood doing nothing, Jack had already anticipated my call for assistance and was striding up the bank with his paddle in hand. I could see the sweeper, a huge downed spruce, its branches ominously combing the river’s full force of swift, cold water between two steep banks. I fought back a vision of getting pulled under that tree. But Jack was there. He stretched to extend his paddle to me and told me to grab it. I quickly set down my own paddle, grabbed his and hung on as he pulled me safely to shore.
With the river disappearing into thick vegetation beyond the sweeper, we now needed to portage. Rivers in this part of the world are often braided. Back upriver a ways, a channel had forked off to our left. It was possible we’d be able to pick up this fork and float it till it rejoined the main stem. Ever mindful of bears and of equally dangerous moose mamas with their young, we stayed together as we scouted. Fortunately, we found the channel a relatively easy 100-yard hike away. We carried our gear to the new put-in and within a short float rejoined the Tazimina’s main flow. From there, it was a straightforward float to Six Mile Lake.
Meanwhile, although it was late May, ice was still forming on puddles in the early hours of the morning; temperatures had dropped into the low 30’s. I was heartened to see the distant, twinkling glow of lights in Nondalton. The winds were light, but even the very gentle current made paddling a chore as we headed across and slightly up the lake. In the darkness, I couldn’t tell if I was making headway. Jack assured me we that we were gradually reeling in the far shore line. “Find a light and focus on that,” he advised. Having a specific focal point helped. As we reached shore, my arms were throbbing, my body was shivering and my teeth were chattering.
We wearily dragged our bikes and rafts up to the house. Inside Walter’s warm house, I gratefully changed into dry clothes. By the time we had mugs of hot cocoa spiked with bourbon in our hands, it was after three AM.
When I got up later that day, I made a phone call to arrange for a flight to Homer. Two days later, back on “the mainland” with a blank slate and months ahead of us, we had an opportunity to create a new plan for another epic summer in Alaska.
The end. But stay tuned for coming posts about great food, wildlife photography and Alaska travel!