First steps from Valdez, in the snow

Chris Carlson walks up a hill on the path of the trans-Alaska Pipeline near Valdez. Photo by Ned Rozell.

by Ned Rozell

PORT VALDEZ: May 4, 2017–We have launched on the pipeline hike version 2.0, 20 years after the first time.

I’m now sitting on the muscled root of a Sitka spruce by the pleasant rush of a creek. A bald eagle shrieks from the top of a tree nearby while a diesel ship engine thrums from the Valdez Marine Terminal a few miles away.

These rainforest woods, so different from my boreal forest home, have already given us shelter from cool, misty rain and a peek at the chestnut-backed chickadees’ few seconds of mating. Stately Steller’s jays have reintroduced themselves. Robins on their way north have practiced their songs a few notes at a time. The air smells salty, familiar and exotic at the same time to someone from middle Alaska.

To begin this trip, we have hiked all of two miles. “We” are my friends Chris Carlson and his son Ian from Fairbanks, along with their Labradoodle Freya. My dog Cora is thrilled to have her best friend along, untethered.

People we talked with in Valdez referred to this time as late winter. We are seeing why, with up to two feet of snow on the ground in places. It’s easy enough to tramp through but makes one wonder about the path through Thompson Pass, looming ahead.

My wife Kristen looked at the Valdez forecast on her phone as we drove to our take-off point.

“It says wintery mix of snow and rain the next few days,” she said. “No one likes a wintery mix.”

That forecast led to one more panic purchase of a light coat at the Prospector in Valdez and some new hiking boots for Ian.

So far, the wintry mix has stayed away. It is cool, and we’ve been walking through snow a lot, but Chris has also hung a speaker off his backpack and broadcast a Yankees game off his phone connection for me as I walked in his footprints. Life is good.

As I’ll be hiking up the ski-jump wall of the pipeline’s path up Thompson Pass soon, I expect no such magical cell tower connection. So, I’ll send a short column before I climb out of the rainforest and into the alpine.

Soon, I’ll say goodbye to Chris and Ian, who will drive back to Fairbanks as my family, Anna and Kristen, did a few days ago. I will walk alone with Cora for a while, maybe on the Richardson Highway to avoid some snow.

I’ll connect again when I can. By then, I will pitch the tent faster, run my mind slower and have more stories to tell. A slow trip across Alaska has begun. Thanks for coming along.

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.