Sunday, June 30, 2013

Troublesome Glacier Dogsledding

If you want to go dogsledding in Alaska in May, and you are below the Arctic Circle, chances are you’ll be pulled along a dirt track by a team of dogs hitched to a training cart. But if you want the full experience, with snow and sled, you’ll have to go to higher elevations or better still, to a glacier.

We began the scenic drive from Anchorage to Palmer, Alaska, and saw a lot of signs like this.


When we were about 20 minutes from our destination, we became hopelessly lost. Becoming hopelessly lost in Alaska is a pretty good trick, because there aren’t many roads. We pulled into a parking lot where two young lumberjack-looking guys with full beards were sipping coffee.

“Excuse me,” I asked. “We’re trying to find the Knik River Lodge.”

“Oh, you’re WAY off,” one of them said. “It’s about 65 miles in the other direction.”

Immediately, the other guy snorted coffee out of his nose, and I knew I was being played. They both had a good laugh, and then gave me clear directions to our destination. Winters are really long in Alaska, and everybody looks forward to Screw with Tourists season.

We arrived at the lodge, and took a helicopter flight up the Knik River valley.

Mountain Palmer 5

Knik Valley

Glacial Valley Palmer

You may notice that the river meanders along a barren gravel plain. I asked if the river flooded that plain, depositing the gravel. The guide told us that on rare occasions, the glacial lake at the face of the glacier becomes dammed by ice floes, and when those break free, the river rushes through the valley in a raging torrent. But the gravel was left there during the last ice age, when the glacier extended through the entire valley, grinding the surrounding mountains into dust.

The glacier has since receded, and now consists of three separate glaciers that meet at the head of the valley. We flew over the majestic landscape and approached the dog camp, set up on the surface of Troublesome Glacier.

Dog Camp

The dog camp is set up in early spring and stays there until the snow gets slushy or the tourists stop coming.

dogs and copter

There is a doghouse for every dog. This is the only one with a name printed on it.


The dogs yelped and whined at our presence, because it meant that 10 of them would get to do precisely what they had been bred to do: pull a sled. The dogs were approachable, but seemed skittish and distracted. They really, really want to pull.

A grizzled old guy lives in a tent alongside all of the dog houses. He claims to have a doctorate in Organic Chemistry from the University of Washington, but now he lives with the dogs for a few months every year. He has competed in the grueling Iditarod dogsled race, but stopped after a few broken bones and a dogsled wreck where his team ran off and left him with a 7-mile walk through blizzard conditions.

The team was hitched to two sleds, one behind the other.

dogsled team

The PhD drove the front sled, and we took turns driving the rear sled. I have a video of the experience, which was fantastic, bordering on mystical.

Troublesome glacier forms a natural bowl, covered in snow. The surrounding mountains are gorgeous, snow cladding them like fondant.

Mountain Palmer 3

Mountain Palmer 4

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Magnificence and Value

Many years ago, I had some friends who worked for the actor Gene Hackman, who owned a house on the coast of Big Sur in California. While visiting one year, they let me into the house so that I could see how the other half lived. The house sat on the top of a cliff, and a big picture window in the master bedroom looked out over a small rocky island just offshore. I stood at that window for about 2 minutes, watching waves roll in from the deep Pacific Ocean, crashing against the picturesque shoreline, sending up plumes of spray. Seagulls wheeled through the skies, while dozens of California sea lions basked on the island, barking in the distance. It was, in a word, magnificent.

But after 2 minutes, it got a bit tiresome. The waves didn’t stop, the seals wouldn’t shut up, the seagulls crapped on everything and there was nothing else to see. I wondered how much that house cost, and it occurred to me that a house without a magnificent view is probably a better value.

While I am on the subject of magnificence and value, earlier this year, my wife proposed a vacation involving an Alaskan cruise. Due to the economy and some rather unfortunate events involving cruise ships recently, the prices have been dropping. I have always been skeptical about cruises, because I don’t see the point in moving the hotel from city to city while the guests are locked inside. But I reluctantly agreed, because it seemed like a good value.

We did our research and booked some excursions (none through the cruise line) and settled on a voyage from Anchorage, Alaska to Vancouver, Canada. We allowed some time at either end of the trip to do some exploring and activities.

When we landed in Anchorage, I took one look out of the terminal window at the snow-capped mountains, and declared it to be magnificent.

Mountain Palmer 2
Wherever we went, the view was just breathtaking and spectacular. It never got tiresome. Maybe it has something to do with context. Living in flat Florida, even the small, rounded hills of Appalachia look magnificent. I suspect Alaskan natives are quite sick of having to drive around the rugged mountainous terrain, and think Miami Beach is magnificent.

The word “magnificent,” like art, is difficult to define – you just know it when you see it. Value, on the other hand, is easy to define. It is a combination of three characteristics: Utility, Desirability and Rarity. Something that is useful, desirable and hard to find has great value. Diamonds, for example, are useful in industry, desirable for jewelry, and the DeBeers cartel ensures that the supply never exceeds the demand.

Alaska is vast, which is the worst word in the English language. Why would you use a one-syllable word to describe something enormous? Alaska is also missing a lot of things that those of us living on the east coast take for granted. Like shopping malls, large cities, crisscrossing networks of expressways, etc. There is more nothing in Alaska than any place I have ever seen. One guy I met said that residents of his town take a 3-hour ferry ride to shop at Wal-Mart. Because Wal-Mart offers low-cost items that are useful, desirable and hard to find in rural Alaska. And there is a buttload of rural Alaska.