1992 Alaska at last
In 1992, after seeing a National Geographic special on bears, I was determined to win a permit to visit the McNeil River Bear Sanctuary 300 miles south of Anchorage Alaska on the Alaskan Peninsula northwest of Katmai National Park and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. I won the permit (that's a story by itself) and decided that if I was going to go that far, I might as well see as much as I could of Alaska, so I planned a month long trip.
I flew to Seattle, where I caught the five-day ferry to Juneau, camped out on the stern of the ferry. I toured the Juneau area for several days, hopped on a small plane to Haines, where I caught a three-day bus to Fairbanks, pitching my tent wherever the bus stopped at night right on the ALCAN.
I spent several days in Fairbanks, and then took the train to Denali National Park, where I backpacked for three nights in the Moose Creek section. At one point during this trek, I was 16 miles away from Chris McCandleless, the hapless soul from the Into The Wild story, who was in his last week of life.
From Denali, I hopped back on the train to Anchorage, where I met a young student named Michele Goldman, who gave me her copy of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, a book I kept unread on the top of my refrigerator until I read it in November 2000, when it changed my life.
After several days in Anchorage, I flew to King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula, and then to Brooks Camp in Katmai, where I camped among the bears for three nights.
On one of my days in Brooks, I took a bus to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes and was so taken in by the sheer beauty of the place, I vowed to return, and I did (see 1993-1995 trips, below). The Valley to this day is still covered with ash hundreds of feet deep, resulting from the eruption of Mount Katmai on June 6-8, 1912, the largest volcanic blast in the 20th Century and the sixth largest ever. The landscape looks so much like a moonscape that the Apollo astronauts trained there for the moon landings.
From Brooks, I chartered a small float plane operated by a maverick pilot named Bo to take me to McNeil River and after a rather harrowing 90 minute flight, Bo dropped me off at McNeil River. During my six days there, I was able to get to the 10-person bear-watching platform, and got as close to the world of the bears as anyone could get. One day, up and down the river in front of me, I counted 65 brown bears (grizzlies, only bigger), some as close as five-feet away too busy munching away on freshly-caught salmon to be interested in trading it for some human flesh. (Several years later, just a few miles south in Katmai National Park, "Grizzly Man" Timothy Treadwell was not so lucky.) One day, after sacking out in my tent, I hung out in the cook shed for the small base camp. While the, a young bear intruded into the camp and took out my tent.
After McNeil River, I took a float plane to Homer, where I spent a few nights, and then rented a car to tour the Kenai Peninsula, all the way to Seward, where I took a boat whale-watching for a day.
After Seward, I drove back to Anchorage, took a plane to Valdez to see what that was all about, and then drove the 400 miles back to Anchorage, where, exhausted as I was exhilarated, I hopped on a plane back to DC.
What a trip! Before that trip, I can never recall that I had any interest in going to Alaska, until I saw that National Geographic special in bears. So far, as of 2018, I have been there nine times.