Alaskans double as tourists

Heather Lende

HAINES -- On the alpine trail through the spruce and hemlock forest, next to the full river rolling down in foamy waves before dropping over a ledge, it was dry.

There was no mud at all. It was also warm enough to be comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts, which my friend Martha wore, or lightweight hiking pants, which I had on.

Kate sported a flowered mini-skirt and Teresa tied a colorful scarf around her neck, dressing up her T-shirt. She also had a small flask of Crown Royal in her pack to toast with once we arrived at the Laughton Glacier (pronounced law-ton.)

The White Pass and Yukon Route train dropped us off here, 14 miles north of Skagway, at about 10 in the morning and would stop to retrieve us when it returned from Canada at 3 p.m.

We all headed to the bushes to pee before starting up the Forest Service path. We had fueled up after the 6 a.m. boat ride from Haines at the Starbucks across the street from the Skagway train depot.

This was before we came upon the sturdy wooden outhouse a little ways down the trail.

Once we got organized, the four of us hiked for about an hour until we reached the edge of a moraine.

Then we donned wind jackets -- and later fleeces and hats -- as we headed up the scoured rock and ice valley made by the retreating glacier following cairns, more or less, and talking about all kinds of things, but mostly about the other places my companions have been.

Kate and Martha are pioneering river guides. Martha said she'd been down the Grand Canyon 150 times. She and her husband own a Mexican restaurant in Haines now.

They stayed one summer after passing through with a portable burrito wagon. She couldn't believe I'd never roasted a fresh green chili pepper or that I'd never seen the Grand Canyon except in pictures.

Kate said she would like to go back to Turkey again someday. She described scouting class five rapids from a taxi cab, writing arrows on her map, indicating where to paddle the boat left or right and how, once she was actually in the river, following her own directions, it worked great... "Until we had no idea where we were" and she had to wing it and pray they'd make it out alive.

Of course they did; otherwise we wouldn't be sitting here on boulders, high above the river and below the steep gravel walls of the valley, with a blue and white glacier reaching down toward us from jagged peaks that could be in the mountains of Pakistan. Not that I would know for sure, since I've only been to K2 in books.

Like Martha and Kate, Teresa, a retired teacher, has spent time hiking and rafting in the Grand Canyon.

She said I should go to the north rim first, and took a bite of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We shared a jar of last summer's smoked salmon and toasted with Teresa's flask to adventure.

Then three hikers from a cruise ship and their guide caught up with us; they were the only other people we saw on the trail. A well turned-out woman was thrilled to meet "real Alaska women" and asked to take our picture. Looking through her camera at us, she declared she was "all for laugh lines." It was, I think, a compliment.

On the way back down, under the thin high clouds made by the evaporating glacier, we peeled off the layers we'd added up high.

It was hot, nearly 80 I suspect, as we re-entered the woodland trail and followed another side trail down to a smooth flat rock in the river where we took off our boots and dangled our feet in the frigid water.

I laid on my back and looked up at the sky and listened as water and ice shaped the earth above and below me and took a little nap.

We dallied too long and ran down the trail to catch the train, arriving a minute after 3, sure that we'd have to walk all the way to town.

Then Kate laughed and said the pick-up was actually 3:15.

Back in Skagway, we shouldered our day-packs and trekked down Broadway to the Thai place for fiery green curry before walking slowly back through the cruise ship crowds between the brightly painted historic and historic-looking stores to the harbor and caught the fast ferry home.

The boat was almost empty. The crew was cleaning up for the night and we were sleepy.

The tide was out and the aluminum ramp leading up from the float to the Haines dock seemed steeper than a mountain trail.

Martha, her blonde pigtails bobbing under her baseball cap, kept walking up the quiet evening street to her place. The other two shared a ride to their neighborhood.

As for me, I drove over the hill and thought about the Grand Canyon, laugh lines, friendship, this place I live and how perfect it was to be a tourist during the day and a homebody at night.

Heather Lende lives, writes and hikes out of Haines.