Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, art, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.
On the bike trail out of Valdez, Alaska
On the bike trail out of Valdez, Alaska, I was riding high, alone in the mountains and the clouds. In summertime, the mountains are covered in an effervescent green, and clouds hang in the air, a timeless mist, barely moving at all for what can seem like hours. Working crazy-long shifts at a hotel for the summer, when the opportunity of a bike ride came on a free day, I knew I had to jump at the chance. I had been looking at my map for weeks, tracing the route from Valdez to Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery, about a 25-mile round trip.
It was a pleasant ride for the first few miles, I was the only one on the trail. Outside of the town, I passed an area of mudflats, where water gushes down from the snowy elevations, and pours into the fast rushing Lowe River, that drains out into the bay. No sign of human or animal habitation here. The mud formations, the silver mirror of the water, with the mountains as backdrop. Steam and fog morphing into strange shapes above it all, created an otherworldly impression. For moments I had a sense I had been temporarily relocated to a distant, unknown planet.
I rode on, gulping down the fresh mountain air, making sure to take in deep breaths. The scent of mountain flowers, grasses, weeds was redolent along the path. After a few miles, it started to drizzle – then to pour. Within a few minutes, my shorts and socks were soaked. I rode on through the onslaught of cold droplets. I could see the cars clearly, and if they veered towards me, I’d have time enough to steer off into the ditch.
Then the rain let up, and I found, by accident, or luck, the place where the path forked off, and I had missed it. Being nearly soaked didn’t bother me. The air was cool, but not enough to make me too uncomfortable, and I’d dry off soon enough. I’m becoming more philosophical about this kind of stuff, the weather we generally perceive as a pain in the ass. After all, how many more days will we have on this planet? Getting wet from time to time is really not a big deal at all…
Sometimes it's nice to be outside in the elements, catching the full force of it.
We are usually trying to avoid the rain, to run inside and stay dry, but sometimes, if you take a step back from that habitual reaction, it’s nice to be in the elements, catching the full force of it.
Soon I came upon a place where there was a collection of burnt out tree stumps. Possibly a fire at some point. Standing in swampland, near No Name Creek. I saw an eagle flying in from the swamp to the tall pine trees that bordered one side of the path. At the top of one of the pines was the massive nest. Big enough for a human to crawl into and take a nap. I stopped to take a photo, and possibly spooked the eagle. It immediately flew from the nest, back to the swampy area. This area was filled with sea gulls and blackbirds. The eagle alighted atop one of the tree stumps, about the height of a telephone pole. It perched there calmly observing the scene below.
I would see the same eagle, in the same spot, a few hours later when I returned along the path. A little further along, I began to hear the mournful cries of gulls, from the mud flats that lead into the bay. Gulls – the ubiquitous bird from the Pacific Northwest all the way to Alaska. Wherever there’s an abundance of sea food the gull is there. Also, about a hundred yards away, two eagles perched on a branch sticking up from the mud. The seagulls and blackbirds watched the rivulets flow by, here and there pecking away, investigating, finding something to nibble on.
I saw a few more eagles perched in the pine trees as I rode along. At one point, a blackbird chased a hawk. The hawk, with ruffled brown and white feathers, went through some diving and corkscrew maneuvers to evade the blackbird, before landing on a pine branch, and the blackbird finally gave up, veering out over the open waters. Not looking to fight, perhaps, but to scare off the hawk and draw a line, to stand up to the bully. Or so it seemed.
A beautiful and majestic scene. Several ships anchored near the other side of the bay. Valdez appearing so tiny, dwarfed by the looming silhouette of mountains, draped in the shape-shifting mist. The oil terminals looking a bit bizarre and out-of-place, a little distance away from the town. The constant play of light, fog, and mist over the open waters. A deep silence pierced by the cry of gulls.
Gulls float happily on the current, as if they are along for the thrill of the ride
By late afternoon I reached the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery, and lingered there for a while, taking in the sight of thousands of salmon lining the banks, packed in tightly, squirming, jumping. There is a weir at the mouth of the river, and here the salmon try to jump, and climb up the 29 stages of the ladder, where they will enter the hatchery, spawn and die. Thousands of gulls on the rocks along the river here, where there is an abundance of salmon to eat. Bears and seals also come here during high tide, for the feast. The river moves in a rapid current. Gulls float happily on the current, as if they are along for the thrill of the ride, letting the current carry them out for a while, before flying back to the beginning, and repeating the ride.
From the banks, I watched a few gulls peck away at salmon still living, but caught in the rocks with nowhere to go. The fish fight and twitch, blood trickling out from the unlucky one, its movements coming slower. They have returned here, after their 2-year life span, to die. Dying in the place where they came into the world. Their instincts tell them to get back here for something important. All around the serenity of the sea and mountains.
Later, I would hear pig-like grunts, and bull-like noises. In the distance, seals barking at each other, perched on platforms out in the bay, perhaps having a rest. A strange, otherworldly sound to hear, that carries over the water. I watched a few of them surface as well, surrounded by a ring of shrieking gulls, possibly to pick at the scraps the seal brings to the surface.
Being awestruck by something you see in Alaska is an everyday occurence
Late afternoon turned to early evening. A patch of sunlight, in a narrow corner of the sky, broke through, illuminating the peaks, while the rest of the bay still lay mostly in shadow. Clouds swirled below, evanescent shapes. The mood, the image ever-shifting here, the play of twilight over the mountains and bay, though it is only 6pm, and the sun will not go down until 11. The temp dropped quickly, and it was much cooler as I began the 12-mile trip back to town, on the other side of the bay.
Valdez is a place that gives a strong sense you are steeped in the Earth’s mysteries, and being awestruck by something you see is an everyday occurrence. I had a feeling of luck and gratitude that I was there, breathing deeply the fresh mountain air, getting to take it all in for a while.