Though I am ready to go, I am not ready to leave Alaska. This summer has been one of the weirdest of my life and full of plans that changed daily. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that God is in control and He keeps letting me know. Of course, with Him in control, those seeming plan changes always turn out to bring on different, unexpected adventures.
The fire that created so much smoke for Cooper Landing began on June 5 with a lightning strike. As it began in the National Wildlife Refuge, they followed their policy of ‘let it burn.’ And burn it did. The lack of rain – only four days all summer in a boreal rain forest – and high winds took the Swan Lake fire to the west toward Sterling and Soldotna along the one-and-only-main road from Anchorage to Homer – the Sterling Highway. All local businesses and campgrounds in Cooper Landing are on this two-lane highway.
Though for the first six weeks the fire remained quite a distance from Cooper Landing and Cooper Creek Campground, the smoke always blew east. The Kenai Peninsula is south of Anchorage and its south and eastern ends are in the ocean so the winds blow inland. There is a smoke index that we checked everyday for the amount of dangerous particles in the air. The scale goes to 500, but some days the smoke levels were 800 to 1200. In the beginning, the river guides said they couldn’t seen the sides of the Kenai when they were in the middle of the river. Tourists, those who had saved their whole lives for a bucket list adventure to Alaska, were deprived the beauty of this area. The mountains became submerged in smoke and those who had asthma or other lung issues were discouraged from fishing for world-famous salmon or rafting to see the bear and moose along the river’s edge. Those who did felt the effects of severe smoke inhalation.
Normally the weather pattern for the Kenai Peninsula is wet and cool. Our first summer we would have ten days of rain followed by a few days of sunshine and repeat. When the temperature reaches 65-70 the locals are unable to breathe as these temps are HOT, and sometimes unbearably HOT. The reason for this is because of Alaska’s latitude and summer tilt of the earth. The sun, rather than shining directly overhead, has a slant and hits the land in a hotter, fuller way. This makes 70 degrees feel like 75-80. Again, that’s not ‘hot’ by some standards, but it actually is. This year temperatures reached 92 degrees and remained in the mid-to-high 80s most of the summer. This would be comparable to 100 degrees anywhere else and for this area, a rainforest without rain, became the catalyst for spreading wildfires.
With the intense heat and smoke, we had an infestation of bugs – mostly biting flies along with mosquitos. The bug issue became so intense at times that campers would pack up and leave after one night of their reservation. Between the smoke that darkened our days with a green haze and filled our lungs and the high temperatures that our ‘tin can’ fifth-wheel absorbed and opening windows was not an option, and the bugs that bit our bodies incessantly leaving welts, we felt like we were living in the apocalypse!
In mid-July we had two days of rain – about 1/2 – 1 inch total. For some reason we will never comprehend, the fire fighters packed up and left town. All we can surmise is that Alaskans have no clue about wildfires and how they burn. Though the State of Alaska issued a fire ban, the USFS continued to allow campfires – adding to the smoke and the possibility of flying embers. Being part of a volunteer fire department in Colorado and losing our home to a raging wildfire, we spent many days in complete confusion as to why the authorities acted as they did. Even our own company had no contingency plan to remove camp hosts who couldn’t leave because none of us are on vacation – we are working. We eventually took matters into our own hands and asked that people NOT have fires. Those from California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado thought we were nuts for asking. It was just a ‘given’ you don’t have a campfire when the state is on fire. Alaskans, however, thought we were nuts because they needed to have their ‘s’mores.’ Of course, we have learned over the few years here that rules do not apply to Alaskans because they are so … Alaskan.
With the first bout of smoke, raining ash and bugs, we decided to leave for a few days. We visited Seldovia, a cute little village accessible only by boat or plane. We enjoyed several days of fresh ocean air and returned to the mainland with the two days of rain.
Near the end of July, my daughter and I were driving back from Soldotna and saw plumes of smoke puffing along the mountain ridge near the Sterling Highway. We wondered why no one was manning those plumes or putting water on the hot spots. My husband and I had attended every community meeting for the fires and every agency said that though the fire was not under control, it was burning in areas that were nearly impossible to get to, but this was obviously not one of those places. Firefighters had cleared three hiking trails as fire lines: Skyline Trail, Fuller Lakes Trail, and Resurrection Pass Trail telling us that they could keep the fire away from Cooper Landing.
Within the week, the winds began to blow, hot, dry winds from west to east. The smoke, raining ash, and bugs returned with Biblical proportions. We put on masks and asked campers once again NOT to have campfires because the USFS refused to ban them. Russian River Campground, only three miles away, was closed and the Russian River Ferry was removed from the river and taken to a safe place. The fire jumped Skyline Trail, Fuller Lakes Trail and chugged its way to Resurrection Pass Trail which was evacuated. The fire jumped the Sterling Highway and began to burn the beautiful Skilak Lake Wildlife Area all the way to Skilak Lake. Beautiful hiking trails have became desolate blackened trees with the the danger of falling with every breeze. Wildlife ran for their lives. Firefighters that had gone home, returned. New incident command was established along with numerous camps for firefighters that grew to over 700.
On August 18, our manager from ARM came by to see how we were doing. We told her that we were fine and at that point had no intention of leaving unless the fire came closer or the smoke became unbearable. She got down on one knee and asked if I would be willing to be the ‘naturalist’ next year as the previous one (for 20 years) was not returning. I was aware of this situation and knew she wanted me to ‘take a more valuable role in the company.’ Though I’m a little ambivalent about what I will do and how I will do it, I accepted the position. So, next year Chugach campgrounds, look out. I have some great ideas about salmon, wasps and 5-Star Campers! If you have any ideas, let me hear them. I am NOT crafty, but I do like to hike and make kiosks.
Soon after she left, the captain of the Cooper Landing Fire Department, a friend of my husband’s, came to the campground. He informed us of what he knew was happening with the out-of-control fire and suggested we pack up and leave. Two hours later, the mayor of the Kenai Peninsula, a very large borough in Alaska, stopped in our campground, invited us into his rig and explained what he had seen from a helicopter and learned from incident command and the national guard. He also suggested we pack up and leave. So, in spite of our earlier conversation with our manager, we began packing our trailer and organizing our campground tools, etc.
At the same time, our daughter and son-in-law began loading their valuables into her car and preparing their truck camper for bugging out. The smoke values were in the 800s and, being pregnant, she didn’t need to breathe what is considered ’emergency air.’ Also, the Kenai River was closed to all boats as the pull-outs down river were either in danger of being on fire or were already burning. Their fishing/rafting business had to close down. The hit that the businesses in Cooper Landing received this summer may never be completely known, but work is seasonal and so many people depend on the summer for their entire livelihood.
They headed to Anchorage and with the help of some friends were sponsored on the Elmendorf/Richardson Air Force Army Base campground. Ironically, the campground is called Black Spruce and that is the main fuel for the Swan Lake Fire. They set up their truck camper and an easy-up and had a new ‘home’ camping.
While we were packing – it took two days because we still had to maintain the campground – we received a text from some friends in Anchorage who we had met through the campground. They offered their driveway in Anchorage for our trailer until we could figure out where and what we were doing. Because he is a retired Colonel in the Army, he was able to sponsor us in the same campground as our daughter.
The Bible teaches that every matter is established by a ‘witness of two.’ After having the fire captain and the mayor tell us to leave, we had our witness of two to leave the area. Receiving our friend’s text and finding ourselves in the same campground as our daughter proved the Hand of Elohim in this crazy journey we called ‘summer in Alaska.’ When we left Cooper Landing, the air quality was at 1200 and there was no view of the lake or river for the green smoke haze.
The base campground was refreshing. It is clean and pretty quiet except for the ‘sound of freedom’ flying around. This is a home base for F22s that monitor the airspace between Russia and Canada. Whatever goes on day and night, the jets are flying overhead and around us. We learned the ‘whistling’ we hear is ‘throttle up’ and we are so close to the airfield that we hear that a lot both on the ground and above. One day the path of two jets was directly over our trailer. As my grandson slept, the sound increased until it was deafening and then the trailer shook as if in an earthquake. Once they passed overhead, I heard his little voice say, “Bubbe, that was a loud jet!” He was awake! So was I!
Also every morning and evening, depending on the wind direction, we can hear a canon ‘boom’ and reveille being played. Two days in a row we heard strange music and a warning sound for a practice lock down for a shooter. Because the warning sound is also kind of a weird sound, I felt like I was on the Truman Show and ‘who was watching us?’ Overall, it has been a blessing to be here and to be with family as we are all displaced.
Our first two days at Black Spruce were filled with de-smoking our belongings. With the price of laundry being very inexpensive, I washed everything imaginable. I borrowed a carpet cleaner from our friends. The black water in the cleaner and black rags from wiping the walls showed how much smoke and ash we endured. Our truck, thankfully, has leather interior, so it cleaned up quickly and the smell of smoke is gone.
As we settled into the campground, we began making plans to see friends in Anchorage. We had dinner with a camper at his home and went to an erev Shabbat with him. We met some other friends from Tennessee for lunch. They had returned for another year of fishing. We met some longtime friends of my husband’s in a coffeeshop and had a wonderful dinner with the friends who have been so helpful. It seems sometimes we have more of a social life in Alaska than we ever had anywhere else.
Everyday we checked the Kenai Borough log for updates on the fire and the website for air quality. One particular day, a flood warning was issued for the Kenai River. Every two years or so a glacier lake releases water into the Kenai and this year happened to be the year. So along with the fire, ash, and smoke, the Kenai River was going to flood!
We visited Kincaid Park, a former missile base. My husband played frisbee golf with our son-in-law while my daughter, grandson and I wandered behind enjoying the views of the Cook Inlet and the fall-like weather. My husband remembered going to Earthquake Park when he lived here in the late 1970s so we did a trek through that park which memorializes the 1964 earthquake and all the homes that fell into the ocean. The land rolls and dips from where the liquified earth undulated so many years ago. I actually have a National Geographic from 1964 that chronicles the events of the earthquake.
Very close to the campground is Otter Lake. We stopped at the Visitor Center to find out if we could go to the lake as we are not military. They told us we were free to do anything except the commissary. We took the little drive to the lake and spent an hour using their paddle boats. Of course with a two-year-old directing the rudder, we spent much of the hour going nowhere. We did see lily pads and watched a loon spread it’s wings and dive into the lake. Because the smoke from the Kenai as well as the smoke from some northern fires seems to coagulate in the Anchorage area, we couldn’t see the mountains from Otter Lake.
Another event we all wanted to attend was the Alaska State Fair. This fair is known for its large vegetables that are grown with 20 hours of daylight. However, I learned that these large vegetables are actually special seeds that are produced for extra large vegetables. We saw the the largest recorded pumpkin in North America at this year’s fair – the largest ever is somewhere else in the world.
We had a family outing to Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine. What a spectacular area to explore! We thought it reminded us a lot of the mine at Telluride, Colorado and through reading signs found that the foreman was originally from Telluride! This was also the first day that we had consistent rain and we managed to drive in the rain and hike in the sun, but we were still grateful for the rain and to hear it was raining in Cooper Landing – though not necessarily on the fire. After a bite to eat in a quaint 1940s A-frame cafe, we headed back to Black Spruce.
On every trip to Alaska, as we reach the Palmer area, there is a Musk Ox farm. We decided since we were close and didn’t have our fifth-wheel, we would visit this farm. Though it didn’t involve petting Musk Ox, to our disappointment, we did learn a lot about these native animals and their fur. It is the second most expensive fur in the world and having natives spin and knit it into just a small neck gator costs $195. It was the first time that I ever wished I could knit and could buy a skein for $45. Musk Ox have bad eyesight and think anything that moves below their eyes is a wolf so we had to stay in a group and keep the lil guy up in the air!
We hiked to Thunder Bird Falls and took a quick gander at Mirror Lake. We ate Oreos instead of S’mores because we couldn’t have a fire. We played on the playground, did loads of laundry, tried to photograph F22s, played catch with the dog, had work done on the truck, retrieved parts for our trailer, spent lots of time with our grandson camping, and waited to hear when our daughter could move back ‘home.’ Nearly three weeks into the Anchorage adventure, it was time to move back to Cooper Landing.
We began a major trip of hauling everything they took in their vehicle and a cargo trailer along with their truck camper and our truck full of stuff back to Cooper. Within five hours the cargo trailer was unloaded and everything put away, five loads of laundry were completed, the house was dusted and vacuumed, the car was unloaded and cleaned from smoke, ash and dog hair, and the truck camper was restored and ready to roll again.
No one knows for sure what will happen with the fire. Their home has hoses and sprinkles around it put there by firefighters. Every home has been labeled. Even while we were unloading the sound of chain saws mitigating properties could be heard. Firefighters were seen along the roads chipping trees and brush. Tent camps dot the roadside wherever there is space. ‘They” say it will take snow to douse the fire completely, but it will burn underground all winter and could spark up again next summer. For those who own homes and businesses in Cooper Landing, the threat of this fire is not over.
Taking a short break from hanging photos and folding laundry, my husband and I left to pay rent on a small apartment for two months – December and January – when we will be returning to Cooper Landing for the birth of our second grandchild. We were quite excited with the place as it has a view of Mount Cecil and the Kenai River though with 20 hours of darkness, I’m not sure how much we’ll see.
After a nice little dinner at the Princess Lodge – the only place open to the public in town as all the other restaurants are feeding firefighters – we said good-bye to our son-in-law, daughter and little man grandson. Hugs and “I love yous” are not enough after nearly 5 months, but we know we’ll be seeing them all again – soon. He has my nearly empty bag of mango treats that he can eat in memory of his Bubbe and Grandpa. He also has his bike.
Today we are back in Black Spruce preparing our truck and trailer to head to the Lower 48. Of course my husband is the one preparing as I write this blog! The smoke in Cooper Landing has cleared. Our original departure date of September 16 has moved up 10 days allowing us to re-plan our trip south. We will be able to visit places that are normally closed, visit a family ranch in Idaho, go to Las Vegas and spend time with our youngest son until we head to Colorado for Sukkot in Denver with family. From there, the adventures will continue hither and yon as we really are modern-nomads enjoying the freedom we have to spend time with our children and grandchildren.