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Where the wild things are: Alaska Part II

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Editor’s note: After a week of intense Northern exposure without the proper funblock, the author has returned from Alaska – the home of growling grizzlies, wandering wolves and glowing glaciers – with a severe case of funburn. Here’s part two of his cautionary tale.


It wasn’t the headline I had envisioned for my demise in the Alaskan wilderness.
My preferred choices included: “Newspaper editor mangled by moose.” “Commonwealth couple canceled by caribou.” “Writer wrangles with wolves; wolves win,” or even the highly improbable “Simmons savaged by surly Sasquatch.”
As the politicians say, though, “let me be clear,” at no time did I entertain the notion of departing this life at the hands – or big, old webbed feet – of a swan.
There we were, however, marooned on a Beyers Lake sandbar as Nate, our outdoor-hardened kayaking guide, nervously barked at us to “paddle, paddle, paddle” away from an approaching family of killer waterfowl.
The tandem boat finally dislodged; we lurched forward, and Nate seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at the promise of heading back to shore with a relatively unscathed clientele in tow.
For Nate, who had once read somewhere about an adult ugly duckling going ugly on an individual and killing and nearly decapitating him, it was these overprotective, 20-pound-plus “cobs” (males) and “pens” that posed a greater threat to the tourists in his charge than the toothier and more terrifying big game likely lurking in the underbrush.
Although I couldn’t find any online newspaper accounts of the Trumpeter Swan Ripper, I did stumble across the recent story of “Hissing Sid,” a crazy English cob who had to be relocated after “terrorising (sic) (river) users on a daily basis, before attempting to drown them with his flapping wings or pecking holes in boats,” according to The Telegraph.
So, Nate, if you ever read this, please pardon my initial skepticism, and thanks for sparing me the shame and stigma of being dead, or, more importantly, the shame or stigma of…“Simmons Swan Song.”
After surviving our bird-watching-gone-bad encounter, we backtracked south to refuel before heading north toward Denali National Park for even more watery recreation.
We gassed up the Dodge Avenger at a rural roadhouse with a highway sign that lured in hungry travelers with the promise of four square meals: “breakfast, lunch, dinner and…liquor.”
Steering clear of the store’s native spirits, we stocked up on outrageously priced snack crackers and candy bars and consumed our lunch on the road.
We’d need the sugar and salt rush later when we tangled with “beaver sharks” and a Georgia peach of a river guide with the gift – and re-gift—of gab.
We’ll call her Queen Mary, and she never shut up.
In fact, from the moment we squeezed our Snicker bar-bulging bodies into our slightly damp wetsuits, Mary and her motley coworkers prattled on like carnies in a power-surging blender. They yelled; they flipped; they joked; they cussed, and, frankly, they scared me, so it was with complete confidence that I climbed aboard a glorified inner tube with Mary the only barrier between me and “pound your skull into big rock” rapids.
Like other seasonal workers we met along the way, Mary stayed in Alaska for the summer before going back to her full-time job in the South as a circus performer – scratch that – school teacher.
When we weren’t fighting off hypothermia in the steady rain and splashing waves, we joked about an Alaskan prom dress (a pair of Carhartts and a ball cap), listened to the history of the Nenana River and learned about the habits of a mythical creature that strikes fear into the hearts of gullible tourists everywhere – the “beaver shark.”
According to our oarsperson, one misinformed raft passenger wouldn’t board when she found out the chilly course was home to the hybrid hoax. Tourists! She probably also believed the safety talk.
Speaking of safety, ours would be sorely compromised the next day on the granddaddy of all school bus rides.
The wife was up at 4:30 a.m. and I rolled out at 5 in preparation for what was one of the longest and probably most exhilarating vehicular journeys of our lives.
Largely undeveloped, Denali National Park’s some six million acres are primarily accessible by foot and shuttle bus. In fact, you can typically only take your private vehicle the first 15 miles or so of the paved park road.
The rest of the 90-plus mile route is gravel – and gorgeous.
“The buses act a bit like mountain goats on the heights of Polychrome Pass and near Eielson Visitor Center as the road climbs without guardrails,” my Frommer’s friend wrote in the guidebook. “If you’re afraid of heights, it might not be to your liking.”
We motored all of its vertigo-inducing glory with Dave at the wheel and God as our co-pilot; I’m convinced my incessant petitions were all that kept the lumbering wheeled giant and its passengers from becoming grizzly grub.
Originally from Iowa and bringing to mind Will Ferrell portraying the “Office’s” Dwight in a 1970s lumberjack documentary, Dave had years of experience navigating the park’s perilous passes and pausing for wildlife sightings with the patience of Job. He also performed his driving duties while offering a running, many minutes-long commentary on the flora and fauna of the unspoiled preserve.
His mastery of the cliff hanger astounded – and confounded—me.
Here’s a typical narrative delivered via the PA system, which – during infrequent pauses – amplified Dave’s Darth Vader-like respiration to frightening levels.
“About three years ago, I was lugging a pack full of blasting caps and baked beans along this brown-bear infested creek to our right in a 100-degree-below-zero blizzard when my foot slipped on a frozen wolf skull and I plunged through the ice head-first into a 20-foot abyss,” Dave said in a Midwestern deadpan that made Ben Stein sound like that dead guy who used to pitch miracle toilet paste on late-night television. “Struggling for air and with my boot wedged between a submerged dog sled full of dynamite and a flailing bull moose whose antlers were ablaze, I ripped out my Swiss Army knife and…Now to your left we have Igloo Gulch.”
Dave, you’re killing me, and so it went for an entire day where – through the incessant mist and 45-degree temperature – we experienced bears, caribou, a lone black wolf, moose, golden eagles, sled dogs in training and some of the most jaw-dropping terrain imaginable.
On the way out, we saw the sun and a rainbow with a promise of more Alaskan gold in our futures.
“Thanks for not killing us,” I told Dave back at the drop-off point and slipped him some green to demonstrate my appreciation.
Our survival meant a Friday full of driving and a Saturday full of Anchorage exploration as we made our way toward the end of our excursion.
Before we left our lodging establishment that Friday morning, I checked the phonebook for newspaper listings just in case I ever decided to pull a Mary, or a Nate, or a Dave and shuck off life down under and stake my career claim in the wild North.
There were numbers for the Anchorage Daily News, the Mukluk News, the Delta Wind and – using my best Dave Barry “I’m not making this up tone” – M-1 Drilling Fluids.
So, as I ponder my future as hydraulics editor at the Fluids, I’d like to compose my first short story about a land that cleared my head, my heart and my soul.
Here’s the headline: “Alaska in three words – vast, gorgeous and unbuttoned.”
Now, if I can just turn in the mileage.

By Jeffrey Simmons
Published: August 31, 2010

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