Monday, October 10, 2011

The End of the Summer

            We wrapped up another season at the lodge about three weeks ago, and Aialik Bay sent us off with three days of nonstop, pouring rain for our shutdown.   Due to bad weather in the Gulf of Alaska, we had to get everybody out a day early, which meant that not only were we cold and wet – we were cold, wet and in a hurry.   Everybody was just trying to buckle down and get everything done.   For my particular department, that meant a lot of time spent sponging a summer’s worth of glacial silt out of our kayak cockpits.   We never really clean them during the season – we just let it pile up over the season, until we get a boat that’s so embarrassingly dirty that we have to clean the worst spots before give it to a client.    Currently, most of our boats are sitting under the lodge building – and getting them under there can be a huge chore, as the things are approximately the same size and weight as an orca whale.   Or at least, they seem that way when you have to carry fifteen of them across camp.   

            The weather at the end of the season was tough.   June was amazing, July was even better, August was rough, September was worse.   And it wasn’t just the rain, either – we had some unseasonably huge storms moving through the Gulf of Alaska.   One or two big storms would have been bad enough, but towards the end it seemed like we were getting them about once a week.   They say that the ocean is always a lady, but sometimes, she’s a bitch.   That’s the side we were seeing for most of the end of the season.   The Iceberg Lodge usually average six days out of a summer where the boats can’t make it out mostly due to weather.  This year we got seven days where the boats didn’t come.   Not seven days total - seven days in a row.   The total number of boat-free days this summer was around a dozen – most (but not all) of which affected guests, and therefore, income.   It also affected my bottom line personally, because I wasn’t working for most of the week of weather – though considering how astonishingly heavy it was raining, I wasn’t complaining much at the time.   Theoretically, I could have done trail work – but the trail that most needed the attention was so muddy that carrying power tools up there would have been downright dangerous anyway.   This was monsoon-style rain – an inch an hour, at times.   Where I grew up in West Virginia, if it rained that hard, you could pretty much guarantee that it would stop in about five minutes – the cloudburst would run out of steam.   In Alaska, it can keep raining like that for three days.  There was so much freshwater pouring into the lagoon that it was even affecting the currents – the tides flooding into our lagoon weren’t strong enough to push against the massive amount of fresh water that was trying to flood out.

            The first week I was back in civilization (or what passes for civilization in a place where the nearest stoplight is over a hundred miles away) became the Iceberg Lodge reunion tour.   It started out with driving up to Cooper Landing right after getting off of the boat to see one of our boat captains playing music at the Kingfisher.   It seemed like everyone in the Alaska tourism industry who was still in the state two weeks after Labor Day (a smaller number than you might suppose) was at that bar.   It felt very, very strange to be around so many people I didn’t know.   After a summer in the wilderness, I think my brain forgets how to look at people and not know who they are.   At the bar that night, I would see a girl with her hair in a ponytail, and automatically think – that’s one of our hospitality girls.   It wasn’t, of course, and the two people didn’t even look much alike, but that was who my brain insisted that it was.    I think that since for four months I was around such a limited number of people – especially younger people, because our clientele is mostly older folks – that my brain basically rewired itself for the smaller number of people it was seeing.  Anyone who vaguely looked like Amber must be Amber, because out at the Lodge, there were very few other choices.   So my brain was matching up strangers with their most probable Iceberg Lodge counterpart – even if the resemblance was as sketchy as the right gender and approximate hair color.   It was a little like seeing ghosts out of the corner of your eye – you know that you saw someone right there, but as soon as you turn to look at them properly, they vanish.   Thankfully, the effect didn’t last for more than a few days.   Leaving a place like that after a season is always a little bit like losing a family; it felt better when I wasn’t constantly being reminded of people who weren’t around anymore.

            Granted, I was seeing quite a few Lodge people in real life as well.   The rest of the week, it felt like I was travelling all over the Kenai, visiting people and taking part in several end-of-the-tourist-season-and-now-we-get-our-state-back celebratory events.   It felt like it was the first time in close to two years that I’d been able to be a tourist in my own state.   I camped out in Hope, Alaska (population 137)  for the Seaview Bar’s last night of the summer (which really is the last official gasp of the Alaska tourist season).   I listened to the Denali Cooks do some good Beatles covers, and then hung out in the middle of the road, dancing in my Xtra Tuffs to keep warm after my friend was thrown out of the bar for trying to bring in beer she’d bought somewhere else.   I woke up the next morning to beautiful weather and hiked out to Gull Rock.   The trail has great views across Turnagain Arm, and I saw some of the Cook Inlet beluga whales (a bona fide endangered species) as I was walking back.   I actually heard the belugas before I could see them – whales are world-class heavy breathers.  I didn’t see them from very close - the trail was a few hundred feet above the water, but I was looking almost straight down at them.   I could see their Moby Dick silhouette in the water as they came up for air, big tails and tiny front fins.   It was very different from the side view of whales I normally see from the boats.   They passed through in about five minutes, maybe twenty of them in all, just cruising along about fifty yards from the shore.   I’ve heard that it’s more common to see the beluga whales in fall, when they follow salmon runs further into the Cook Inlet.

            This is just one example of why the month of September is possibly one of the best-kept secrets in Alaska tourism.   Not because the weather is necessarily better – and in the interior, it can already be snowing this time of year – but because the nice days (when they show up) can be some of the best in the entire year.   For one thing, anywhere you go on a nice day in September, there is a good chance that you will have the place to yourself, as opposed to sharing the spot with flocks of tour buses and rental RVs. Also, rates for motels are often cheaper, and most gift shops are discounting their remaining inventory in a desperate bid to sell off as much of their stock as possible before the last out-of-state wallets depart for the season.   

            Plus, in September, snow is still doing what snow ought to do – hanging out at the higher elevations and looking beautiful.   In most places I’ve lived, during the winter you either had snow on the ground, or you didn’t.   Where I am in Alaska, the mountains are tall enough that the higher elevations start getting snow literally months before we start to see any here at sea level.   From my window (thirty feet above sea level) I can see Mount Alice (4800 feet) – its summit has been getting pummeled with the white stuff for close to a month now, while here at sea level some of my neighbors are still pulling carrots out of their garden.   The snow on the mountains looks beautiful, especially when the trees lower down are still yellow and orange.   Right now, most of the leaves have already fallen, but the snow is still staying put at around 2000 feet.   And over the next month, we all get to watch the snow on the mountains come closer and closer to town.

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