The gang goes North: Part 6- Turnagain Arm- Girdwood, Portage Valley, Hope

July 11-16

Oatmeal, yogurt, coffee. It’s amazing that we haven’t tired of the routine yet.

We left Eagle River campground and made our way back into Anchorage for a few more items we’d decided were necessary. I picked up a new air compressor for the tires, as we’d given ours away to a poor soul on the Old Denali Highway with 2 hissing wheels and a handful of miles to get to a service center. Jamie popped into the grocery for a couple more things, and we wasted no time getting out of Anchorage, heading eastward along the Turnagain Arm.

A long, skinny waterway branching east from the Cook Inlet about 40 miles, Turnagain Arm is a a sight. Massive heaps of rock rise up from the mudflats of the Arm on both sides, and the extreme tidal changes give birth to bore tides- one of only a couple places on the planet where you can see the phenomenon. One long, subtle wave pushes massive amounts of water from Cook Inlet into the Arm. Some folks will surf the wave for miles, as it gently ushers them east beneath the towering mountains.

We found a campsite for the next two nights at Bird Creek Campground, along Turnagain Arm. Quiet, and situated relatively close to Girdwood, it figured to be a good spot to settle into. We checked out the area, crossing the rail tracks that follow the Arm and descended to the mud flats. Sticking my foot in, I could tell I wouldn’t make it more than a few steps into the flat before being mud-suctioned to the earth.

We left camp and drove into Girdwood, a funky ski-town with plenty of recreation available in all seasons. Hiking, mountain biking, fishing, boating. Once named Glacier City for its surrounding ice rivers, Girdwood was then renamed after an Irish immigrant who settled there and, like many other towns, made his living on gold claims up in the hills of the valley along Crow Creek.

We took Crow Creek Road up to the Winner Creek trail for a walkabout, and made our way through thick, silent forests that descended down to the confluence of Glacier and Winner Creeks. Slate grey and steel blue waters converged and splashed down the stony bed. The crashing water of the rapid was deafening. A hand tram takes you across the waterway, but was not in service. We retraced our steps, picking some salmonberries along the way, still a bit tart. 

Back in Girdwood, at the base of Mount Alyeska, and the famed resort of the same name, we stopped at Girdwood Brewing Company for a pint, watching the fog-tipped peaks of the Alyeska Bowl come into view, then quickly disappear.

We grabbed some fixings for a salad for dinner at Joe and Ana’s house, and whipped it up in a nearby park. I was blown away by the spread: Rockfish, mountain goat, blacktailed deer backstrap, shrimp from nearby Prince William Sound. It was a feast. “You expecting another 10 guests??” I joked.

Everything was fantastic, and Jamie, ever the picky eater, gave everything a shot and liked it. Great experiences can arise from stepping outside the comfort zone.

We suppered and chatted like old acquaintances it seemed, and Joe and Ana had endless tips and info on hiking and excursions in the area. It was an immense pleasure to spend time with them, in their home, and we’re so grateful. It was a soul-warming, generous evening.

We got a a late start the following morning, but again, with daylight reaching into the wee hours of the evening, there’s no need to rush.

Up Crow Creek Rd again, but this time farther, to the trailhead for Crow Pass. The pass extends through the mountains and reaches Eagle River, but we’d just be climbing up to the pass and retracing our way back down.

We walked through thick, lush greenery, looking like they’d never seen a harsh day in their lives. Wildflowers grew uncontrollably, dazzling the hillsides of the switchbacks with sharp purple-pink fireweed, fuzzy goat’s beard, gold cloth, forget-me-nots and valerian. We were surrounded by peaks, as well as a thick fog that approached rapidly, silently. Cascading falls dropped snowmelt from far above, finding its way through deep cuts and channels, and if none existed, simply free-falling from a cliff ledge above.

We made it up to Crystal Lake, just short of the pass, and stopped for snacks and photos of the rolling flats about the lake. A public use cabin sat nearby, available by reservation for 60 bucks or so. Rustic but just a stunning setting.

Continuing to 3500 feet, at Crow Pass, the winds ate at us. Bone chilling gusts had us keeping our fists in the pockets of our puffys, save for photographing. Raven Glacier poured out in front of us, on the far side of pass, a thin blue glow coming off of it. It was our first up-close look at a glacier, and it was grand.

We started our way back down the trail, taking the lower loop along Crow Creek for a slight change in scenery. Fog had lifted, and we enjoyed the dense valley below us as we descended.

After a quick lunch back at Arch, we dropped back out of the lower slopes of the mountains, and back to Turnagain Arm, to catch the bore tide. The tidal change was about 30 feet, extreme enough to have a discernible bore tide roll in. In reality, the tide was subtle, as it slowly swallowed and drowned the Arm. Not as aggressive as we thought it’d be but it was still special to see something so unique.

We packed up camp the next morning, unsure of where we’d call home for the next couple nights. There was still plenty to see and do along the Arm, but we wanted to move farther eastward, toward its terminus. 

First, we hiked the north face of Mt Alyeska, along with many others. It was a nice day, chilly with high overcast skies, but dry. The perfect day  to keep Charley from overheating. From the top, the Arm was well in view, with Girdwood in the foreground, and scattered glaciers filled many of the cuts in the mountains.

A tram with about a capacity of 30-35 shuttles people up and down the mountain. We hopped on for the trip back down, saving our knees and more than an hour relative to walking back down. Charley was a bit confused by the cart, but in a few minutes we were down.

We showered and did laundry in town, at another spot that seemed to have all the services needed for those traveling through.

Departing Girdwood and heading east to the end of Turnagain Arm, we entered Portage Valley and picked out a campsite along a river and the Trail of Blue Ice. Aptly named, as we could make out several glaciers above us through breaks in the stream-side knot of pines we situated beneath. 

Morning came, it was wet. Always harder to peel ourselves out of our bags when it’s damp and raining. Moving east on Portage Valley Rd after breakfasting on oatmeal, we approached the tunnel to Whitter. 2.5 miles blasted through the bowels of a mountain, the one-lane road (shared with train tracks) bore through the stone face and into the town. Being hard to reach, the stunningly dramatic port and fishing town has remained small and isolated, with only a few hundred residents living there year round in a single condominium building.

Portage Pass Trailhead sat just on the other side of the tunnel, a couple miles from “downtown” Whittier. It was a gloomy start as we trekked a mile up a steep rocky slope to the Pass and view of Portage Lake and Glacier. The blue-hued ice was cut up with crevasses and met the lake on the far side of the water from us. A relatively steep descent through thick overgrown buses and weeds brought us down to the lake, as a glacier-viewing boat floated into view in front of us. Normally off-put by big boats and lots of people, we were somewhat thankful for this boat- it gave us some size reference as to the enormity of the ice mass. 

Fireweed tore through the lakeside in front of us, lighting up beneath pokes of sunlight. Waterfalls flanked us, on both sides of the hanging valley, white lace strewn about the cliff-faces and steep banks above us. 

We drank our fill of glacial air and solitude by the lake- there were other folks there, but the shore offered plenty of space so as to feel all alone. When we returned along the same path, much of the gloom had dissolved. In front of us, once we reached the crest, was Prince William Sound, jutting out from its proximal end in town. Behind us was the glacier and lake view, equally stunning but a different perspective than down below along its shore. To our left, along the steep summer-green shrub covered hillside, a black dot rolled against gravity. A black bear was climbing up the face, eating as it went.

Into Whitter we went, following the hike. There didn’t seem to be much to do, so we walked the harbor for only a bit before returning to Portage Valley through the long, single-track tunnel.

We left Portage Valley the next day, heading to Hope, along the southern length of Turnagain Arm. Home to  about 80 year-round residents, the crunchy hamlet is a destination in the summer. Three different venues host small concerts on the weekends, and we were ready for some live music.

Taking the Seward Highway out of Portage Valley, we officially entered the Kenai Peninsula and started our time in “Alaska’s Playground.” We arrived in the afternoon and met Karen, the camp host at Porcupine Campground. A visitor herself, she’d been persuaded into taking the host position while on her own roadtrip up from Tucson.

Heavy rains were expected over the next couple days, so we lived in our rainsuits for the weekend. We had dinner at the Dirty Skillet, and it seemed everyone knew each other (which they likely did). The unfinished wood beams and items of nostalgia hung on the walls gave it a warm and inviting feel. The open air hightop we sat at gave us a great view of Solar Gain, the three piece Talkeetna band playing light brisk folk on the covered patio while we ate.

We moseyed down the road to Creekbend Cafe and caught a few hours of Roland Roberts and his crew, with a country rock vibe that had us dancing in the rain. The crowd was light, as the showers were heavy, but the mood was fun, lively, and loud as we pretended we knew the words to his songs.

A great night, to be sure. Though when we arrived back at camp, our awning had disappeared. Searching through the brush for a bit, we found no signs of it. Disheartened at the thought of someone stealing it in the midst of a rainstorm in which we had no cover, save our tent, we turned in for a soggy night’s sleep.

The next morning: two hours drive back to Anchorage, in the direction we were not headed. But we needed an awning- the rain was not easing up, and we had 3+ weeks left on our trip. The closest store to get a new one was REI back in the city. So we spent the 15th driving, about 4-5 hours in all, and picked up a new awning (and did some grocery shopping as well- supplies are MUCH cheaper in Anchorage than the more remote areas. 

We got back to camp in mid afternoon, as the sites were rapidly filling up. Karen flagged us down.

“Hey! I’ve got your Kelty [tent]. I was making my rounds earlier and I spotted a tent in site 16, down in a ditch. I thought the people had left it behind for some reason, but when I pulled it out I knew it was yours from my rounds last night!”

Incredible! Also a bit embarrassing. We were telling Karen that morning, prior to driving to Anchorage, that we thought someone had stolen our awning, and she found it blown away, 3 sites down.

That evening we celebrated our good fortune (saved about $130, lost probably 60-70 in gas though) with music at Seaview Cafe.  Wiley Post, a 4 person crew, put on a great show, and folks were really “feeling themselves” out dancing on the deck.

Then it was back to Creekbend to see Roland again. It was dry, as the rains had subsided earlier in the afternoon. The dancing was prime as we shed our raingear and boogied for a bit before returning to camp.

Turnagain Arm, thank you! Despite the labile weather, we thoroughly enjoyed our time among your peaks, streams and waters. I hope to see you again.

Next up: The Kenai Peninsula

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s