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First Impressions of Alaska

June 24, 2013

I’ve never been to Alaska before. I’ve heard all kinds of things about it, all good, and having been here four days I see most, if not all, of them lived out.

I’m here on a mission with JPAC and we’re scheduled to leave on the third of July barring any extenuating circumstances. You can read about our mission here: LINK.

We arrived late last week and just missed a record-setting heatwave. The weather goes from mild to warm pretty quickly. And one thing I did not anticipate was a warm welcome from the vibrant mosquito population.

So we got in early Thursday morning and checked into the lodging on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. From there we went to equipment issue and were issued some equipment for our work out on the glacier. Now, there are some folks on our team who came out here last year and/or have mountaineering/glacial experience. There are two of us who don’t. On Friday we went through glacier training.

The training was run by parajumpers from the Alaska Air National Guard. The group specifically working with us has seen some stuff. They’ve supported operations in Afghanistan and all over the world (Afghanistan stands out to me because we watched a video of one of their ops while we waited to begin the training). They’re all really neat guys and it was good training; we had a chance to suit up in all our gear and then go for a little walk, getting used to walking in cramp-ons, some mean-looking spiky things you put on your feet that let you walk more securely on ice.

Following the training we had a little bit of time off and so we went south to the small town of Girdwood in search of some fun and celebration as it was the summer solstice, which is apparently a big deal around here.

Well, four of us got to the Alyeska ski resort, took a tram up part of the mountain and then went for a little hike further on up. There’s still a good bit of snow up there and we walked right through it. The views were all breathtaking (as you’ll see in the pictures). One thing I’ve discovered in recent years: under certain conditions I get some freakin’ vertigo. If I’m in a plane, aircraft, whatever, I’m fine; but if I’m on the ground, or a structure or something that’s not meant to fly, per se, – that is to say, not meant to be up where birds fly – when I look down from a certain angle my brain and inner ear go all wonky. So that happened a couple of times, but it was all good as I managed it well enough by simply looking at the ground beneath my feet as I ascended with the other fellows.

We didn’t get quite all the way to the top, but we got up far enough and turned around. We were up among the ski lift machinery, and some of it was disassembled as the staff appear to be doing maintenance on it all.

On the way back down we took a slightly different route and crossed a bit more snow. At first we were following the leader, but the second guy lost his footing and ended up butt-sledding down. I was right behind him and, well, it looked like fun. So I decided to follow suit. I videoed it but won’t be able to get it up with this post – perhaps later tonight. It was fun, more fun than I thought it’d be because it was a bit faster than I thought it’d be.

We continued the descent without incident, except for when I found a penny(!) deep in the snow, and we went into the classy restaurant at the top for drinks at their classy bar – The Seven Glaciers. There we met a couple of military veterans and our leader struck up a lively conversation with them instantly. They bought us a round of drinks, we had a good ol’ time and were about to head out in search of food and they said they’d take us to a place where we could get a real Alaskan restaurant experience. We followed them down the road, a little deeper into the woods, and then pulled off the side of the road at a building that didn’t look like too much at first – the Double Musky Inn. However, upon entering, you’re immediately taken into a very warm, friendly atmosphere. The staff knew our hosts by name and they were ever so friendly and solicitous to us.

The pepper steak was recommended and so the pepper steak it was for my dinner, preceded by an appetizer of Idaho nachos. Great food and good conversation rounded out the evening and then we headed back up to Anchorage. By this time it was about 11:30 PM and it was just getting darker; not even dark, just darker – think like 5PM darkness. The sun doesn’t really get below the horizon until some time after midnight, and even then it’s not full-on nighttime darkness, at least not what I’ve observed as of yet.

The next day, Saturday – yesterday – everyone slept in and I had a self-day to recharge my introverted batteries. I spent the day catching up on emails, sleeping, and then took a five mile hike to the BX to get some t-shirts. I did indeed get eaten up by mosquitoes, though I fought valiantly and reduced the population considerably. On the way back I had my first encounter with Alaskan wildlife – a porcupine. I turned a corner and saw this big, bushy beast shuffling along and I couldn’t tell what it was at first.

“Mr. Badger?” I called out. It just kept shuffling along.

Mrs. Badger?” I inquired. Still no response.

As I apparently came into its view, it stopped, gave me the furry eyeball, reared up and then I saw its quills spread behind it like a spiky peacock. Then it decided I wasn’t worth the effort, hunkered back down and shambled off. I took some video of it and will link it up.

Well, time is short – I gotta run!

Now it’s Monday and we’re off to the glacier for the first time!

…’til next time…

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