MILES OF PORTRAITS: ALASKA – OTTER DAYS

MILES OF PORTRAITS: ALASKA EPISODE 4

New here? This is the fourth part of a five-part series. Read about and watch all the episodes here.

In Paxson, Erik and I turn right onto the Richardson Highway, heading south past lakes shimmering bright from golden hour rays. We stop at a boat ramp to filter water but are only able to fill half a water bottle due to a buzzing infestation of the world’s most hated animal. As I struggle to squeeze a few drops into a bottle, mosquitos are biting me left and right and through two layers of clothing. We quickly pack up our bikes, cursing the whole time and keep biking down the coast of this magnificent lake – magnificent only if you are able to outpace these pesky bugs.

We bike and bike, thinking we’ll be able to set up camp in a mosquito-free zone, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, we settle on a patch of woods below a power line. I’ve never set up my tent so quickly and so lopsided, leaving it sitting on a mossy slant between branches. But it doesn’t matter because once I’m inside, the satisfaction of being shielded from these clouds of bugs just outside my tent net, clapping away the stray ones that made it in, is like nothing else.

The next few days are filled with triumphs.

Photo of lots of food on a picnic table
Packing food for five days of zero civilization.
Erik pumping up a bike tire with a cloud capped mountain in the background.
The fastest flat Erik has ever changed –– thanks to those pesky mosquitoes.

After watching Erik fearlessly dunk his head into several glacial streams, we set up camp at Sourdough Creek Campground and head to the river where I finally stick more than just my feet in. Using my sports bra and PEARL iZUMi bike shorts as a bathing suit, I slowly but surely lay my whole body on the river bed, its currents floating us above the surface. I don’t do well with cold water, but after a little getting used to, we sit in the water in a sort of meditative state, feeling the forces of nature.

The next day, we stock up on groceries in Glenallen and cycle towards Wrangell – St Elias National Park. We stop at a tiny colorful market, stocked with every item you could imagine.

I’m mid-way through cooking rice outside the store when the owner of the compound barges towards me and yells “You are so rude! Why would you think it would be okay to do that on my property?” I calmly explain that the cashier inside told us we could and that we will move to a nearby picnic table.

“It’s $15 to rent a picnic table.”

Erik and I promptly move our dinner across the street and try to laugh off the situation, nicknaming this woman Cruella de Vil.

The next day is a total 180º. It’s the day we meet Patty.

Photo of Patty outside the entrance to the business. With an alien cutout behind her.
We walk into PJ’s Golden Spruce Cabins to get coffee and find Patty, the soft-talking owner behind the counter. Everyone in a 50-mile radius knows Patty. Her husband, John, a prolific woodworker, passed away this January. Patty’s watery eyes light up when she talks about him. His memory lives on in the intricate wood carvings and cabins he built by hand. As we pack up our bikes to leave, she tells us how much she appreciates seeing young people take advantage of life.
We pedal away and resolve to return to her lodge on our way back towards Valdez. A few days later, she treats us to a cabin on the house. We learn more about her story and interview her for the film. When I tell her about our habit of making GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), a DIY trail mix, she makes sure to gift an addition of apricot seeds. We hug goodbye for a good 30 seconds.
“You can’t leave now, you’re family!”
A band of low lying clouds with mountain peaks above in a lush green valley.
The view from our campground at Blueberry Lake.
Erik riding on the road with deep green blankets covering the walls of the valley.
Our ride towards Valdez is as lush as it gets.

In Valdez, we leave our panniers in our room at the Keystone Hotel. Our bikes unloaded, it feels like we are flying down the bike path towards The Solomon Gulch Hatchery. We roam the facility and learn about the spawning process of pink salmon. We talk to locals along the coast who are easily catching “pinks.” There are so many of them in the water that you can practically reach your hand in and grab one.

The next day, we miss the ferry for the first time in our lives. We get to the terminal 15 minutes before departure but aren’t able to board due to the ferry’s strict hour-early arrival rule. And since we’re in Alaska, the next boat to Whittier doesn’t leave for another two days.

Erik and I sit on a bench watching cars board the ferry, frustrated that we have to spend another two days in this town. Then we see this otter twirling around in the water without a care in the world. It’s meditative to watch him do somersaults in the water and chase his tail. This otter inspires us. His outlook on life, formed from merely being an otter is something to look up to.

Inspired, we head back towards the Keystone Hotel, on a mission to make the most of the day. We ask the lady sitting behind the front desk if we can leave our bags with her while we go on a hike. She does more than stash our bags behind the counter. She ends up giving us two nights on the house.

We go for a hike by a glistening lake surrounded by snowy mountains; it feels like Switzerland. We make lunch on a picnic table in the middle of Valdez, and it seems the whole town is stopping by to chat. We go for a bike ride in a nearby lush green valley reminiscent of Andes Mountains. It’s bright and sunny in a town known for its rain.

This isn’t a terrible place to be stuck, after all.

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Photo of a fireweed with a meadow of others behind.
We missed the ferry but get to go on this magical hike.
Annalisa walking across some rocks with a small snow field behind her.
Hiking up the disappearing Worthington Glacier.
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Annalisa van den Bergh was born and raised in New York City by a Venezuelan mother and a Dutch father. She's a visual storyteller with a BFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She's currently riding her bicycle around the world and taking pictures of the people she meets. The project, called Miles of Portraits celebrates the ways the bicycle brings people together.

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