Time is the issue that keeps most outdoor vacations from blooming into full-fledged adventures, especially in Alaska.
How could any vacationer from Spokane do justice to a place that large?
“We lost our jobs,” Debbie Pierce said. “Suddenly, time wasn’t a factor.”
After 26 years working as nurse anesthetists at Valley Hospital, Bill Pierce, 60, and his wife, Debbie, 59, were among the 22 anesthetists terminated at Valley and Deaconess hospitals last year.
When their employer sent the couple packing, that’s what they did – for 15 weeks.
The Pierces had been planning for the possibility their jobs would fall victim to mergers. Their financial situation was in order, and they had a critical asset: A gift from Debbie’s late grandmother had enabled them to purchase a 2005 four-wheel-drive Ford conversion van.
“All of our friends refer to the van as Eulah,” Debbie said. “That was my grandmother’s name. It’s on the license plate. It’s our self-contained camping adventure wagon.
“We decided to go for it – a good diversion from the stress.”
She describes their adventure as “chasing the fireweed,” leaving Spokane on June 9, driving Eulah loaded with their fishing gear, backpacks, mountain bikes, river kayaks and sea kayaks.
“With no real plan or time commitment, we used the fireweed as our summer’s clock,” she said. Traveling through late September, they watched the blossoms climb up the stem of the tall colorful plant, knowing that according to Alaska folklore summer was over when the petals hit the top.
The Pierces aren’t new to adventure. They’d sea-kayaked in Alaska before, and even in Antarctica from a mother ship. They’ve ski-mountaineered the formidable Haute Route in the Alps. They’ve been around.
“But we’ve never gone to a resort for a vacation and just relaxed,” Debbie said.
That much wasn’t going to change, she said.
“We pulled out of the driveway and said how far do we want to drive today and which way to the Al-Can. It was so liberating. We set out to explore the Alaska Highway and as many offshoots as we could.”
A few constraints were unavoidable, she said.
“We had a lot of gear in the van, so when we went kayaking or biking we had to be careful to find a safe place to leave Eulah. We’d park next to a water taxi office or a ferry terminal, but we’d never leave her in a remote spot overnight.”
Another constraint was temporary. “Bill tore the meniscus in his knee and had arthroscopic surgery in Anchorage. So he devoted the next three weeks to fishing for grayling and char while he recovered. He fished often, and caught fish not so often. But he loved it. He caught red salmon in the Kenai River. His knee really wasn’t a setback.”
Eulah escorted the couple over thousands of miles of gravel and dirt roads, including the rough, 25-mph McCarthy Road to the old Kennecott Copper Mine, the old Denali Highway and then the Dalton Highway all the way north to Prudhoe Bay.
“You’re really out there on those roads,” Debbie said. “Every day we would hike, bike or paddle to get the sense of just how remote we were. We’d just pull down a road and park. The glaciers, tundra and other scenery were spectacular, yet we never paid for a campsite in Alaska.”
The Milepost, a regularly updated guidebook for the Alaska Highway, was their bible. “It was invaluable for finding scenic and historical spots, places to camp, where to get fuel, where the blueberries will be ripe – it tells you so much.”
Living with the onslaught of mosquitoes and black flies in July wasn’t a big deal, they said.
“We’d wear head nets if necessary, but while biking and padding you didn’t need them. If we camped in a breeze, it was OK; otherwise, we just retreated into the van.”
Trip highlights include reaching Prudhoe Bay. “It had been pretty much just us and the truckers for 10 days on that road through the Brooks Range and down the North Slope,” Debbie said. “The thing to do once you get there is take the oil fields tour and dip your feet in the Arctic Ocean. Then you leave and head back into the wilderness.”
Wildlife, of course, was a regular attraction, with glimpses of bears, caribou and even musk oxen.
But the Pierces didn’t necessarily go looking for it.
“We work bear bells on our mountain bikes and had bear spray handy all the time when we were out and about,” Debbie said. “A lot of time it was just the two of us out there.”
Their bus tour through Denali National Park provided the most concentrated wildlife action.
“Our favorite encounter was seeing a grizzly take over a caribou that had been killed by wolves,” she said. “We saw the action six times over two days as we took the bus into the park.
“At one point, the grizzly covered the carcass with dirt with only red antlers visible above. Then it went to sleep on the pile. The wolves would come back in and try to reclaim the caribou, but the grizzly would chase them away.”
Sea-kayak camping trips lured them away from the roads at iconic paddling destinations. They’re particularly fond of Harriman Fjord out of Whittier, Kachemak Bay out of Homer and trips out of Seward, Valdez and Cordova, where the wildlife spectacle shifted to breaching humpback whales, sea lions, puffins and sea otters.
They would paddle Class I-II rivers in their river kayaks when they could shuttle back to the van on their mountain bikes.
When the fireweed was going to seed and the fall colors began brightening the slopes, the Pierces finally pointed Eulah toward home
“We had to make four stops for repairs on the return trip,” Debbie said. “Eulah seemed to be rebelling a bit at the end.”
The van logged 12,000 rough miles in 15 weeks.
“We were together 24/7 for 15 weeks and enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.
The lifestyle grew on them.
“It’s enlightening to go away from a job, the stress of a schedule, all the weekends on call and travel to Alaska where we lived by the day,” she said. “We fought it for a while, but the trip convinced us to retire.”