Cold. Mind numbing cold- is the first thing that strikes your mind when you think of The Last frontier- a land so disconnected from the country it belongs to, and so painfully beautiful and untouched. From moving to half the world away from home to pursue my masters, to traveling and hiking and volunteering, taking up my first summer job in Manhattan and finally, moving to Fairbanks, Alaska, for a semester of research- 2016 was one helluva year. Living alone, in a town where nobody knows your name, is an exhilarating feeling, that alternates from “I have all the freedom in the world”, to “Nobody would find my body if I were murdered in bed”. But I had my friends visiting me to travel across the state. And travel we did.
Denali, inevitably, was our first stop. After a night of unbelievably active Auroras, we drove to Denali early in the morning to catch the first bus all the way to Wonder Lake (Mile 85). Dropping our backpacks at the Teklanika River campground along the way, we sat in the bus for over 10 hours, cozy and warm, as we watched the tundra landscape pass by. The beautiful green-gold layout was spruced with the red and orange of fall, the whole setting framed by the snow-peaked Alaska Range, dominated by the massive Mt. Denali. We were kept entertained throughout the trip with frequent sightings of caribou, moose and of course, the grizzlies. The highlight of the trip for me, however, was the 5 minutes I spent sitting on a rock next to the Tolkat River, right next to a small bookstore (mile 53), gazing into the water as it washed over the smooth, slick rocks.
Once back at our campsite, we realized how unprepared we were, in spite of spending over 5 hours shopping and prepping. We did not have enough food, the five-person tent barely had room to hold four people, and worst of all, it started to rain, and our sleeping bags were soon wet from the now leaky tent. However, we had our bear spray with us and we held on to it for dear life, thinking about how the camp host had casually mentioned that the local bear had paid a visit just a couple of days ago, until fatigue finally took the reins. We woke up to a soggy morning, in no mood for a trek, but quickly packed up and caught the first shuttle back to the park entrance. We were soon on our way to Anchorage, our next stop.
The glaciers down south in the Kenai Fjords were our next stop. We first took a peek at the Exit glacier, which entailed a mile’s hike to get to the closest point to the glacier’s mouth. As we walked along the trail, there were markings showing the recession of the glacier over the years. It was shocking to see how quickly the glacier had shrunk, melting away sooner than anticipated with the unprecedented rise in temperatures (but who are we kidding, climate change is just an old wives’ tale). After a quick detour and a glacier walk on the Matanuska glacier, which is the largest glacier in Alaska that can be reached by a motor vehicle, it was time to head back down south for some sea kayaking. This was preceded by a quick summer shower, that later opened up the skies, bringing forth a very calm sea, and a beautiful arc of rainbow to kayak under.
With the grizzlies and the fall colors and the glaciers still flashing kaleidoscopic images in my mind, I headed back home to Fairbanks, ready to ease back into the grind of a graduate researcher. And if you had told me a few months ago that I would watch the auroras, something that has been there on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, play a symphony in the night sky as I threw out the trash, I would never have believed you…