In Cordova we were surrounded by wilderness and could feel it beckoning, calling to us. We had rain and we had beautiful weather. We walked to glaciers and up the ski hill path. We explored ‘the road’, the one that people are referring to when they talk about the ‘end of the road’. We drove to the end of the road, where it used to lead to the million dollar bridge built in mining days, but is now washed out. Off to our side were the mountains, looming and singing to us, calling our names. They sloped down into the flat forested areas that lined the road, and everywhere autumn colours crept into the trees. Then there were huge glaciers carving down between the peaks and slopes, and snow and ice up high. The sky changed from light grey to black blue and back, letting go of rain and then holding it back again, setting the trees and grasses alight in different tones and hues. The lakes would capture mountain reflections, and then a breeze would pick up and brush the picture away. It was moody, and stunning.
We found the polliwog pond in a drizzling rain. It looked like a fairy tale world to me, one truly of fairies and magic. Deep blue water, still but for the rain drops casting dimples and circles on the surface, deep green spruce dripping, and then dazzling when a ray of light crept through the cloud and caught it, devil’s club turning bright yellow in the understory. In between curtains of rain we snapped a picture that mirrored one from my toddler years.
The glacier walks were short. Our first hike took us through green mossy undergrowth and autumn devil’s club, then along a creek and through brushy forest to the lake. The glacier just peaked around the distant mountains. We could see its line of retreat. But Sheridan, our second glacier hike, was a playground of frozen and melting water. The ice sparkled and the water took in different colours in different locations. It seemed to creep up over the pines, slowly taking each one it covered, the trees turning brown. They reminded me of lemmings following each other into the ice water. We walked with my cousin Will, his wife Alexis, their two children Max and Elise. We learned about willow rose and how to spell P-I-Z-Z-A (spelling words instead of saying them in front of kids doesn’t keep secrets, but it can help them fast track their spelling skills). We skipped stones, examined trails and flattened brush and theorised about the animal that likely made them, and stood in awe of the great lake and icy wonder of the glacier.
We saw the world around Cordova this way, small pieces at a time. On one of our last days of sunshine before a storm washed through and held Cordova until our flight out, we walked up the skihill path and up Mount Eyak, down to Crater Lake, and then out the Crater Lake path, eventually forking back uphill to connect to our original path and complete a loop.
This hike stands out in my memory, testing my endurance, my knees, and my nerves. It started where the ski path would run in winter, a wide sawdust covered road, and then turned to gravel and rock, slipping on the larger pieces, two steps up one step back at times, and then at last to the forest track, narrow, dirt in some places, mud in others. We climbed up and through muskeg, up and around a small pond, still up and then above the trees. We stared up at the top of Mt Eyak, a spire of rock, and continued on up.
When the grass finally gave way to the rock, there were ropes anchored down for us to pull ourselves up on. At sea level, I’d not have thought twice about scrambling up without touching a rope, but here, the rock sloped down to hillside that careened steeply away to ocean on one side and Cordova far below us on the other. The muscles in my legs complained and my ankles begged for a break. And so I clung to that rope, feeling a tingle of apprehension (fear…) rising up my legs from that dizzying and beautiful view.
At the top I crouched and sat. It took my breath away. Suddenly new sides were exposed, and I could see that I could tumble all the way down to Lake Eyak now too (at least in my head). Prince William Sound stretched long all along one side away from Cordova, and ahead of us, all around us, beyond Prince William Sound, everywhere except to the open coast, we were ringed by immense snow capped mountains. It was a full 360˚ world of light, water, and earth. Dazzling and dizzying. I was utterly spell-bound.
Eventually I found my footing again and from the tippy top of Mt Eyak we followed a little path down and along a little ridge towards the direction that Crater Lake must be, though we couldn’t see it yet. Trying to take a picture of my feet and the mountain sloping away from me either side of the ridge I quickly felt unstable and decided to concentrate on walking instead. Crater Lake became visible at the end of the little ridge, and the trail ended. We looked on to the lake, and started to make our own way down.
As we descended trail-less to the lake we tried to make the most direct path we could without toppling off a cliff or slick steep slippery slope. Just down the hill from the ridge we were confronted with low hemlock and spruce, maybe only a metre or two off the ground growing sideways and flat, like perfect little forts. It was late afternoon. We were aware that we didn’t have much time to spare if we wanted to get out before dark, but something stopped us before we ducked into the brushy trees. Simon spotted it: bear poop. Without a doubt, remnants of berries still obvious, and it didn’t look old. Of course! I thought… caught up in the stupor of standing atop Mt Eyak I’d forgotten about bears. We’d been told that they nap during the day in the low shrub and trees, emerging in the late afternoon to get back to the very important task of foraging for berries and hikers.
We looked down at the low shrub and imagined walking into a sleepy bear waking up from a nap, maybe with cubs at her side. We looked back the way we’d come. We looked at the time, and decided we wouldn’t be returning that way. We retraced our steps to try and get around the shrub, but it was hopeless. So eventually, with false bravado and making as many loud noises as we could, we dived straight into it. We were committed.
Lingering ecstasy from our perch on top of the world turned rapidly to a slap-in-the-face reminder that we were in new territory, on unfamiliar ground, with unfamiliar risks, without a path, and surrounded by bear-infested wilderness, night slowly creeping closer. We headed as close to down as we could, skirting the tops of steep sections and looking for manageable ground, down and across, down and across, down and across, talking loudly before entering the shrub, making noises and announcing our presence. At times when we knew we could keep control we just let ourselves slip down hill as far as we could. Here and there I spotted flattened grass, probably trampled by moving water, but I imagined cosy bears curled up.
Our awareness of everything was heightened by this time. Awareness of the time, of noises, of flattened grass and perfect bear dens. Awareness of shapes and movement. We had at least half the hike still ahead of us, back up and through bear country to get out to our vehicle. As the lake grew closer we grew more eager to get to it. We looked up at it frequently, moving further to the right of the lake than we wanted, watching it carefully to get ourselves back on track to it. And one of these times I spotted a moving black dot on the hillside beyond the lake. The binoculars confirmed it was a black bear, but I’d never seen one so big. We’d seen one on the trail in Yosemite, some 30m away from us. We’d seen one feeding on salmon in a glacial stream near Juneau. Black bears were not this big. This bear was huge. Distant, but huge. And we only lingered long enough to determine this before making our way even faster down the slope.
Skin tingling and nerves alert, we slipped down more hill and fought through more brush. I had spotted the trail that led to the lake and that would lead us away from it, and we were attempting a beeline to this trail. It was like this that we suddenly spotted people walking along the trail, quiet and normal, just day hikers. And just like that our emotion switched. Something about seeing hikers on a trail made the wild feel safe again. We grew quieter, less concerned about startling a bear, and made our way finally to the trail.
We followed it to the lake, sat briefly for a second lunch, pointed out the bear on the hillside to the hikers, and they were excited and thankful, but we didn’t linger long and were soon on the trail out. Leaving the lake, the path became narrow and crossed a small waterfall, through trees, and eventually to a junction that would take us back up hill to our ski hill-Mt Eyak path. There were mushrooms of all shapes, colours and sizes, ferns and fallen trunks. A dark cavernous den tucked under tree roots that looked like a perfect bear home, and bear scat everywhere. But we walked without seeing another bear. At the muskeg we connected back to our original trail and back down, arriving finally to the car, unscathed, vibrant, and exhausted. Full of awe, and spectacular memories.
Cordova was like a dream, a déjà vu. A world that was my own and familiar and totally new. An unexplored adventure paradise. With the weather changing we didn’t end up hiking in to spend nights in the wilderness. We moved instead into a basic cabin on Lake Eyak to watch the weather. There were gaps between the floor and the wall, in some places between the floor boards, and also between the logs making up the walls. With a fire roaring in the woodstove, towels pressed into some of the gaps, and a box of Alaskan spruce tip winter ale, we watched the wind and rain move in. We felt and heard it raging in the trees, shaking the trunks, throwing about the branches, racing down the lake and whipping up the water. During the day a mama black bear and her cubs wandered past along our tiny rocky beach. They sat among the berry bushes, pulling off berries with their long tongues.
And at last it was time to leave. Though it felt incomplete. I don’t know what more I wanted, but I wanted more. More living, more time in Cordova, more hikes, more time with the town and the people. It was like I’d returned to an alternate universe, a place where I might have grown up and lived, and I was walking away from myself. But as fate and chance would have it, I wasn’t a Cordova kid. A Cordova toddler, perhaps, but my life had taken me to new lands and adventures, and left me with that wandering urge, and so we boarded that little plane and lifted off from this wonderland, hoping desperately to return some day.