It’s silt, really. Pieces of mountains, ground down by the Cook Inlet glacier during the last ice age, and by the smaller glaciers that surround it now — washed up and down Cook Inlet with every tide. Along the Kenai Peninsula, it flows down from the layered bluffs in grey-brown trickles, fanning out into wet shiny patches that Katmai calls “cold lava.” Rounding the corner at Point Possession, the silt takes over the world.
It took over our gear. I pulled a grape sized chunk of compacted silt out of my shoe, which had gained half again its weight in clay-like paste. Both shoes finally burst out the sides, as the silt squeezed out all the space for my feet. Each time I blew up the sleeping pads, I could feel the grit between my teeth. It formed a fine gray dust that rained out of everything we owned — pouring from every drybag, shaking from every piece of clothing. It mixed with the layers of sunblock to form a dark grey makeup that eventually took fifteen minutes of scrubbing to remove from my face. Even now, after several days in Anchorage, I find little pockets of Turnagain buried deep within our stuff.
In Chikaloon Bay there was no beach, just mud flats extending up into marsh. We landed here, on mud-coated ice.
At high tide in Chickaloon Bay, the silt was so close we could hit it with our paddles — far from any visible shore. At low tide in Chickaloon Bay we wove through an endless maze of dunes and mudflats, first on foot, then in the rafts, as the rising tide turned dips into streams, rapidly erasing square miles of land. The silt followed us into Turnagain, where we leapt on it like a trampoline to demonstrate the liquefaction. Then skirted the cliffs on a thin edge of slippery mud to avoid the worst of the liquefaction.
An initially firm beach acquired a water-bed like consistency when we spent some time jumping up and down on it.
Liquefaction is quicksand. It’s quickly deposited silt, filling up a channel in the course of a tide, so unstable that it will turn to leg-sucking goo with a footstep. Someone died in it once, decades ago. Others have been rescued. It’s more easily avoided than many people realize, by staying on the high and dry edges. It’s more easily escaped than many people realize also, by floating your legs out rather than working them deeper in. We carried packrafts — inflated — which makes getting out of liquefied silt into a task as simple as leaning on the boat.
But, like many aspects of the wilderness, liquifying silt takes thought to deal with safely. So do tidal currents. And the presence of both things is what turns Turnagain Arm into a strange sort of no-man’s land — a trivial distance from hundreds of thousands of Anchorage residents, but almost never visited. It’s surrounded by more widely-accepted risks: A busy and deadly highway, avalanche-prone ski terrain, boat-flipping whitewater, bear-dense trails… Surfers visit Turnagain when the big bores come. But in the whole time we were there, we saw only one boat other than our two packrafts (and our friend Erik’s, when he was visiting us). So we had the tides to ourselves, riding up and down Turnagain on a conveyor belt that could move us up to five miles an hour.
Not the most scenic route, but we stuck to our plan to continue our human-powered route through the city.
That conveyor belt brought us to the Turnagain Arm trail, which brought us to Anchorage. In Kenai we were urban as well, but the experience there was one of beach-based couchsurfing, where each day we’d walk and paddle a few miles of shoreline, then scramble up the bluffs to someone’s house. We knew the highway was out there, but we never saw it. In Anchorage, on the other hand, our path has taken us right through the center of town. Sometimes on bike paths, and sometimes on sidewalks right beside streets roaring with four lanes of traffic, several cars zipping past us every second of our walk. And I guess I’m more countrified than I thought, because I simply cannot imagine where so many many people have to be so very very quickly all the time.
We didn’t have to walk through Anchorage. That was simply our own arbitrary rule. Traveling is often full of rules: The speed limits and traffic signs on a highway. The tickets and lines and security restrictions at an airport. The schedules and fares on a boat…
On an expedition, we get to make our own rules. Sometimes we don’t. We’ve done trips that include hitching rides on trucks, four-wheelers and skiffs. When we walked from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands, we made ourselves a rule so strict that we could not enter any form of motorized transportation for an entire year. This time, we’re keeping our steps together — creating a continuous human-powered line around Cook Inlet. We allow ourselves to jump away from that line, as long as we return to it again leaving no gap. Often we’ve caught a ride to visit someone off the path, then rode back to where we left it.
Why have rules? This is not a race, and there is no one keeping record books. But the rules are the boundaries that shape the experience. Keeping a continuous line stops us from skipping over the things that seem hard (like the mudflats of Chickaloon Bay), and the things that seem worthlessly easy (like the strip malls of Anchorage). If I wanted to go backpacking for a few days, I’d never choose either of those places. But the trip is richer for seeing both of them. Jumping away from the line adds something too — the only way to visit people more than a mile or two out of the way, with a kid for whom a mile or two is still a big part of the day (he can walk up to 7.5 miles per day, if it’s easy terrain and he’s in the mood).
In the very short term, we’ll be in Anchorage until Tuesday, when you can catch us on Talk of Alaska.
Then we paddle across Knik Arm, where we turn a geographical corner that separates two very different halves of the trip. The mudflats will continue. The highways and cities will not. I hope the snow won’t either.
Finally, a few photos taken over the past month…
Travis has read Erin’s book. He was working on his transmission when we walked by, and recognized us – the packraft paraphernalia plus kids were the giveaway I think. He walked with us for a little while in south Anchorage.